On Doing What One Likes, from On Doing What One Likes, by Alec Waugh

nb173I found a much-banged-up copy of Alec Waugh’s 1926 collection of essays, On Doing What One Likes, a few years ago, stuck it in my shelves, and forgot about it.

Then, the other day, I took it down and started reading. Alec Waugh was, of course, the older brother of the now-better-known Evelyn. In 1926, thanks to his best-selling first novel, The Loom of Youth, and other successful books, it was Alec who was the star and Evelyn some nobody still having to sneak back to his rooms at Oxford when out too late. Now, although Bloomsbury Publishing is releasing a selection of his novels, histories and travel books, Alec will probably forever have to bear his nephew Auberon’s sentence that he “wrote many books, each worse than the last.”

I expected to encounter a rather brash young smarter-than-the-world voice in Waugh’s essays, but instead, I found a remarkable wisdom, particularly in the first one, “On Doing What One Likes.” It reminds me a bit of David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water” commencement address and other “how to live your life” pieces that get passed and linked to and tweeted all over the Internet. So, in hopes this might get the same kind of circulation, I am happy to provide here the full text.


“On Doing What One Likes,” by Alec Waugh (1926)

“It’s deplorable,” a friend said to me the other day, “your ignorance of painting.”

I nodded.

“And music, you know still less of that.”

Again I nodded.

“It’s disgraceful,” he continued. “No one who considers himself educated has the right to be so ignorant. On Friday afternoon I will take you to the National Gallery.”

And for a couple of hours on the following Friday we drifted down the long galleries, while he explained and dissected the particular beauties of each masterpiece. “The grouping there,” he would say, “The architectonics. You can see it, can’t you? And over there, look, the rhythm of that figure. You like it? Of course you like it, I knew you would, one’s only got to see the stuff; the trouble is that most people won’t take the fag to!”

Yes, unquestionably, I had enjoyed it, but I could not, at the same time, help feeling as I said “good-bye” to him, that I should have enjoyed myself more if, as originally intended, I had spent the afternoon reading the new novel by Arnold Bennett.

“I shall now,” I told myself, “be unable to finish it till Sunday, which means that Vere Hutchinson’s book will have to wait until next week and probably by then there will be some new book out that I shall desperately want to read at once. Vere Hutchinson will have to wait, and new things come along nowadays at such a pace that if one doesn’t read a book within a month of its appearance there is a strong likelihood that one will never read it at all.”

I was not at all sure that I had not wasted that two hours in the National Gallery.

It was held once upon a time that an educated person should know something of everything and everything of something. But the world was smaller then and life was slower, and there were no tubes and telephones and taxis: in this period of intense specialisation it would be an impossible task to attempt to know something about everything, and there are times when it is better to surrender than to compromise. There is so little time for the discovery of all that we want to know about the things that really interest us. We cannot afford to waste it on the things that are of only casual concern for us, or in which we are interested only because other people have told us that we ought to be.

I heard a man lamenting the other day the alarming dimensions of his ignorance, the incredibly large number of things that he had either forgotten or had never known. “We are all in the same boat,” he said, “it would be quite possible to set a general knowledge paper consisting entirely of questions to which a preparatory schoolboy of average intelligence might be expected to know the answer, on which any of us might fail to get fifteen per cent.”

But we are not on that account any the less good citizens. We are not any the less qualified to conduct the particular enterprise for which we may consider ourselves best fitted, because we do not know who followed Philip II to the throne, or what the capital of Chile is, or in what continent is Patagonia. It is simple always to find excuses for oneself. We can prove and disprove anything. But there is a case, and a strong case, for that particular form of indolence that allows us to move through life knowing only what immediately concerns us.

Sherlock Holmes certainly would have defended it. He knew intimately what he needed to know, and refused to dissipate his energy acquiring information that would be of no service to him. He could tell from the mud on a man’s boots in what part of London he had been walking. But he had never heard of the solar system. His defence would have been, that though it would have been interesting enough to understand the mechanism of the sun and planets, he had only a limited measure of time at his disposal, and he could not spare to astronomy the time which he required for the perfection of his studies of cigar ash.

Strength exists only as the opposite of weakness, and supreme knowledge of one subject presupposes as supreme an ignorance of others. Sherlock Holmes knew what he needed to know. And knew nothing else. He would have been in fact a less good detective had he understood the principle of the stars. For him that was unnecessary knowledge.

Knowledge is not wisdom. How little after all the ancients knew. And how much of what they thought they knew was wrong. Aristotle held that a body weighing a hundred pounds would fall to the earth a hundred times as fast as a body weighing one pound, and because in other things he was so wise, for twenty centuries it occurred to no one to contradict him. Plato believed that the earth was flat and that the sky was an inverted bowl. Pythagoras may have suspected that the earth was round, and revolved about the sun. And Aristarchus may have propounded a theory of the solar system. But Hipparchus was in a position to discredit both of them, and for two thousand years the earth was believed to be motionless, and the stars were held to be equidistant from the earth. Virgil and Seneca and Horace knew less about astronomy than a child of seven does today. Shakespeare not only did not know where Patagonia was. He did not know that it existed.

And yet it is to these men, who were on so many subjects incurious and misinformed, that we turn now from our surfeiting of knowledge for consolation and advice. They may have known little, but they were wise, and all the information that we have acquired through three centuries of discovery and speculation have not made us wiser than they were. Wisdom has not been increased with knowledge: it has, indeed, very little to do with knowledge. We acquire knowledge, but wisdom we bring with us, in great or little measure, to develop or let die within us.

It is interesting to know how flour is converted into bread; how sardines are rescued from the high seas to become hors d’oeuvres how the decomposition of forests produces paper. It is interesting, but I cannot see that it is of very much importance to the vast majority of us who will never have to hunt sardines, or bake bread, or control paper mills. There are some things we must be content to take on trust. Where there are so many books that we have never read, so many pictures that we have never seen, so much music we have never heard, and when so much of our life is spent in livelihood, I cannot see why we should spend one minute of our spare time discovering matters that are of no direct concern to us.

And we cannot be equally interested in everything.

The Hanoverian monarch who confessed that he did not like poetry and he did not like painting, was far wiser than the courtiers who laughed at him. There were certain things that he liked extremely, and he knew that every hour he devoted to books and pictures subtracted an hour from the sum of his life’s enjoyment. He knew that he had only a few such hours at his disposal.

We spend, I am very certain, the half of our time among people that we do not particularly like and on things that do not particularly amuse us, and consequently have no time for the people and things that do really matter to us. “It’s months since I’ve seen So-and—so,” we say; or, “It’s six weeks since I went to the theatre.” And we excuse ourselves and say that life goes so quickly that we have no time. But it is our own fault. We have had, in Dr. Temple’s phrase, all the time there is, and we have wasted it. Instead of going to theatres, which we really enjoy, we have been to dinner-parties that have bored us, and dances that have only mildly entertained us. We have allowed other people to dictate our tastes to us.

And we owe it not only to ourselves, but to society, to spend our spare time in whatever manner may be most agreeable to us. We are far pleasanter persons when we are happy than when we are bored. Happiness is a social lubricant, and George II, would have been a worse king had he decided that his distaste for literature was unkingly and spent long hours reading Shakespeare in the palace library. Had we three thousand years of life in front of us we might order our days on the assumption that we should know something of everything and everything of something. But we have only some seventy-odd years, and eight hours out of every twenty—four we must spend in sleep, and another eight in the earning of our living.

“The tragedy of life,” I heard someone maintain the other day, “is neither poverty nor age nor sickness, but the fact that if you live in Kensington you must, if you are to dine in Hampstead, leave Chelsea before six. I am not,” he continued, “being perversely paradoxical.” It is, that fact, a symbol of the hack-work, the dull, dreary, unimaginative hack-work of living that is imposed on us. We have so little time. We shall never do all that we should like to do; see all that we should like to see; know all that we should like to know. So little time, with so much to do in it. And yet what hours we spend a year dressing for this and shaving for that other party, getting from one extremity of London to the other.

And who is to deny the truth of his contention?

We imagine sometimes that by the doubling or trebling or quadrupling of our incomes the majority of our troubles would be removed. But in fact they would not. Of the innumerable small annoyances that fret and harass us, a few only would be discharged by any obvious increment of income.

Our friends would still be divided from each other and from ourselves by so many furlongs of tube and omnibus and car. There would be the same number of streets to cross. The same invariable varieties of dress. There would be ties to be arranged and faces shaved. And a millionaire cannot shave nor arrange his tie any more speedily than I can.

The hack-work of life; we cannot, whatever our income, escape our share of it. If only we could have it done for us, we sometimes think. If only we could be possessed of magic properties; if only with the waving of a hand we could find ourselves attired suitably for whatever engagement might lie immediately in front of us; if only the lifting of a finger could transport us from Bayswater to Chiswick; if only, that is to say, we had the vitality to sustain life at such a tension. For we might not have.

Edgar Allan Poe asserted that as it was impossible for a poet to sustain his inspiration over a long period, an epic could never be more than the setting for moments of occasional poetry. And it is certain that an audience can rarely support for more than an hour the intense excitement of big drama, big poetry, and big music. The curtain must be allowed to fall. There must be that ten minutes’ interval of chatter and cigarettes and cocktails. That was where the Victorian novelists were so wise. They loaded their pages with long wadges of description and dissertation. They were dull to an extent that the neo-Georgians have never dared to be.

We cannot deny, if we are honest with ourselves, that we have rarely read a classic without being for quite long intervals considerably bored by it. And yet it is the reading of those books that we recall with the most enjoyment; precisely, I sometimes think, because of those tedious interludes; /chose long accounts of trivial people and uninteresting conversations which provided so admirable a contrast for such sensations as the novelist had subsequently to offer. They were a breathing space. The Victorian novelists gave the reader an interval to recover in. They bored him so that he should be able to relish more keenly the excitement when it came. They quickened his appetite with hunger. “I have earned this,” he thought, as he reached delightedly, after thirty—seven pages of moralities, a brief interlude of dramatic action.

The Victorians had the courage to be dull, and through this dullness they achieved effects that are impossible for our contemporaries. The modern novel, whatever it may not be, is a live and moving thing; so live and moving that it does not satisfy. It is a series of fireworks that dazzle and bewilder and exhaust. In the nursery, where we were made to begin our tea with bread and butter, cream cakes were a delight to us. Now, when we can begin with cake, tea is a meal that as often as not we miss.

We have to be bored, it seems, before we can be amused.

And it may well be that as we find the novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in spite or perhaps because of that facility of theirs to weary us, more satisfying than all save a very little contemporary work—it may well be that it is this very hack-work of life which we so deplore that makes life on the whole so entertaining. Three parts of the air we breathe, that air which is our life and sustenance, does little more than blur our consciousness, dull our appetite, deaden our vitality, and it may be that such an existence as the possession of a magic carpet and a magic casket would impose on us would be a process analogous to the extraction of the nitrogen from the air we breathe. For one rapturous year all things would be the slaves of our delight. But on the twelfth hour of the twelfth month we should be dead.

The hack-work of life, the hours we spend resentfully and unsensationally in buses and cars and taxis, in baths and in front of mirrors, may be, for all we know, the correctives, the price we pay for the animated periods they divide; they may be as necessary to us as nitrogen. Only we must see to it that our few free hours are undiluted oxygen.

We should treat our spare time as we treat our income. A man has a limited sum of money to spend on his amusements, and he has at the beginning of the year to decide which of his tastes he will be able to indulge. “I like cigars,” he may say, “and I like champagne. But I cannot afford both, and as I prefer cigars, I will content myself with Chablis.” In the same way should a man say, “I like books and I like pictures, but I have not the time for both and I prefer books. I like bridge and I like dancing, but I prefer dancing; I like Jones and I like Brown, but I prefer Brown.” And the wise man will concentrate on books, on dancing and on Brown. A philosophy of intelligent selfishness.

But we are beset by tempters. The man who plays bridge is surrounded by friends imploring him to dance; the dancing man is informed that there is nothing in the World like bridge. The musician is warned that his “soul’s welfare” is imperiled by his failure to attend the latest exhibition of pictures; and the painter’s preference for his own craft is received with austere disapprobation. On all sides our friends are importuning us for the sake of our ultimate salvation to do the things that we quite like instead of the things that we really like.

It behooves us to be very firm.


On Doing What One Likes, by Alec Waugh
Kensington: The Cayme Press, 1926

The Passing of Pengelley, from Blow the Man Down! A Yankee Seaman’s Adventures Under Sail, by James H. Williams

blowthemandown“The Passing of Pengelley”, by James H. Williams
from Blow the Man Down!A Yankee Seaman’s Adventures Under Sail, by James H. Williams and edited by Warren F. Kuehl

First published in Seafarer and Marine Pictorial, II (February 1922)


We lay three months in the port of New York discharging and loading cargo and repairing the hull and rigging of the Late Commander before we sailed again for Calcutta in May of 1887. Two months later, on the fifteenth of July—midwinter in the Southern Ocean—we rounded the boisterous Cape of Good Hope and began circling boldly away toward the forty-sixth parallel to begin running our easting down.

A week later, we were in the midst of our great easterly sweep toward the eighty- fifth meridian. The prevailing westerly winds peculiar to the zone had gradually increased in force and the sea had risen, so that now we were scudding through the tumult and smother of a mighty gale at a seventeen-knot gait. We were swinging three whole topgallant sails with preventer backstays set up and preventer braces on the cro’jack yards. Running with squared yards and everything bar taut, there was not much to do except relieve watches and stand by for emergencies.

For three consecutive days during this superb run, the old ship made a glorious record—over a thousand miles with five thousand tons of case oil as cargo in our hold. Here is an authentic sailing item for amateur sailors and deepwater yachtsmen to ponder over.

On the second day of that great run, we passed two British-Australian mail steamers. Both were high-diving until the crests of the seas threatened to flood their boiler rooms through the funnel tops. Their propellers churned wind oftener than water.

We were running with an old-fashioned log at that time—a canvas bag and a wooden plug trailed by a sticky line wound on a wobbly reel and held unsteadily aloft by a lurching seaman and timed by a sleepy apprentice with a worn-out sand glass. An honest taffrail log would have recorded us at least eighteen instead of the miserly fourteen-odd knots we were credited with. But sailors never were noted for doing anything remarkable except drinking rum and chewing tobacco.

On the third day of the big run, the wind had attained almost hurricane force, and the sea had risen to mountainous heights and fearsome aspect. Our grand old ship, however, carried on nobly and showed not the slightest symptoms of weakening or distress.

That night of Good Hope I shall never forget;
Ofttimes I look backward and think of it yet,-
We were plunging bows under, her courses all wet,
At the rate of fourteen, with to’gallan’ s’ils set.
So we’ll roll, roll, bullies,
Roll as we go,
For the kidapore ladies
Have got us in tow!

At four in the afternoon, before changing watches, the Old Man ordered the mate to take in the fore- and mizzen-topgallant sails since, as he declared, the ship was dragging instead of sailing. It had reached the limit of its sailing power, and the surplus canvas was now a hindrance rather than a help. As soon as ‘we had mustered watches, the order was given; clewlines, buntlines, and leechlines were manned fore and aft at the same time. In just twenty minutes, the two big kites were taken in and snugly stowed. The Late Commander carried a noble crew. As soon as we had the ship shortened down to a whole main-topgallant sail, the port watch was sent below and the watch on deck was left to clear up the tangle of loose gear washing about the deck and trailing overboard through the scuppers.

The ship continued her racing gait with no apparent slackening of speed after shortening sail, and she rode much easier and made better weather of howling winds and driving sea. When the starboard watch went below at four bells for the second dogwatch, the ship was high-diving and wallowing through the thundering seas at a terrific pace.

According to the common plan in British ships, the Late Commander’s forecastle was directly beneath the forecastle head, with two doors at one end, the hawsepipes at the other, and a massive patent windlass in the center. After our Act o’ Parliament supper of hardtack, “strike me blind,” and “water bewitched” had been disposed of, we lighted our pipes and gathered around the big windlass for our usual dogwatch smoke session and yarn-spinning contest.

We were a motley bunch of weather-beaten, hardened sailors, every mother’s son a typical man-Jack. Lords of the gale, we reveled in our manhood and our strength and knew no hardship except the misery and degradation of being too long ashore. The British element naturally predominated among us, not because the ship was British, but simply because the voyage had originated in England nearly four years before. All of the original crew had not yet been seduced into desertion by the crimps in the various ports. Still, the inevitable vacancies had had to be filled from time to time until now more than half of our foremast complement of twenty-two A.B.’s was non-British seamen. Only four of us, collectively known as the Yankee Squad, were native Americans.

Seated around the forecastle in various easy and careless attitudes, we were surely an uncouth and unearthly looking group that might have descended from some remote planet and been sent away into these desolate and uninhabitable solitudes where nothing but blowing whales and pinioned sea birds could find contentment or natural sustenance. All of us were fully clad in the height of the prevailing fashion—sea boots and pea jackets, with oilskins and sou’westers ready» on hand in case of an emergency call.

Ever since the mutiny at the Nore, a national superstition has prevailed in British ships, both naval and commercial, against striking seven bells in the second dogwatch and rigging the gangway out on the port side. When four bells terminates the first dogwatch at six P.M., the chimes begin with one bell again at six-thirty, two bells mark seven o’clock, and three bells are struck at seven-thirty. Then the usual intermediate one bell at a quarter to eight warns the watch below to turn out and get ready. The final stroke of eight bells ends the dogwatch and calls all hands on deck to muster at the mainmast.

It happened to be Saturday night, and just before three bells young Pengelley came splashing forward through the deck swash to visit the sailors. Pengelley was as welcome as a Christmas morning, for every man among us adored the big handsome young Cornishman. The entire watch arose as one man to greet him and offer him the place of honor in our midst as he pushed his way in. Of course, it was contrary to both rule and tradition for apprentices to associate in quarters with “common” sailors, but no one, not even old Cap’n Grummitt himself, ever thought of reprimanding Pengelley.

Like many other high-minded but hardheaded men, Pengelley’s father, being an officer in the Royal Navy, had insisted upon a sea career for his son even though the sensitive lad was unfitted by natural impulse and predilection for the hardships and drudgeries peculiar to the maritime service. Pengelley was a born scholar. He was studious, book-minded, and thoughtful rather than practical.

He was as much out of place among a windjammer’s crew as a marble statue in a farmer’s bamyard. Nevertheless, Pengelley was the light, the life, and the pride and ennobling influence of our whole ship’s company. We needed someone better, nobler, nearer the unknown unattainable than our miserable selves. That was why we all adored Pengelley. He never needed to do any sailorizing; we could do all that!

Politely but positively declining any of the vacated seats around the windlass, Pengelley stripped off his dripping oilskin coat and spread it over the horn of the windlass to drain. Then loosing his big woolen lammie at the throat, he stretched himself at full length in precarious comfort along the running board fronting the lower tier of bunks. The strait-laced restrictions of quarter-deck discipline evidently bored him, and he appreciated the homely good will and natural levity of us “common” sailors.

He seemed to be in unusually high spirits that night. His blue eyes twinkled with suppressed mirth and his chestnut hair glistened in the flickering light of the spluttering slush lamp. Although the constant lurching and diving of the ship rendered his recumbent position on the bunkboard somewhat insecure, Pengelley seemed to enjoy the situation. He began describing, with witty embellishments, some of the amusing mishaps to officers and crew which he had witnessed during the day.

The resonant clang of three warning strokes on the big watch bell directly over our heads interrupted his amusing recital and created an uneasy stir among the tired seamen. The short and comfortless dogwatch was nearing its close and we would soon be called on deck to wrestle with the warring elements again until midnight.

“Sing us a song, Pen, before the watch is called,” shouted Spike Riley. “Sumpin’ sad an’ sentimental; sumpin’ with a chorus so’s we kin all jine in an’ blow th’ wind. Ain’t no ladies present, ye know,” the old vagabond reminded us with an artful grin, “so we kin make all th’ noise we’ve min’ ter ‘ithout disturbin’ enybody’s nervous systim.”

“Let ’er go, Pen,” piped half a score of eager voices. “Order for a song! Go ahead, Pen. Sing ’er up.”

Always willing, Pengelley at once responded to our request. He broke into the opening verse of the sailors’ love song, “Anchor’s Weighed,” with all the entrancing vigor and glorious fervor of his marvelous voice. As verse after verse rolled out in perfect rhythm and soulful expression, the whole watch would take up the simple and appealing refrain with boisterous enthusiasm, our combined voices ringing and rising above the roar and thunder of the storm, the thousand deck noises, and the raging sea.

Our evening song ended in salvos of wild applause, and at the stroke of eight bells we donned our coats and hurried out on the deck. The night and the sea had assumed truly fearsome aspects. The heavy black wind bags that dominated the sky and shut out the light of heaven had settled over all apparent creation with appalling completeness. The night was as dark as a bottomless pit. Only the phosphorescent gleam of the breaking sea crests and the iridescent and fleeting glow of the splashing side wash afforded an occasional and flitting glimpse of the loom and tension of the bulging sails. The big westerly wind had settled down into a continual, monotonous, bellowing roar. The whitecaps were flecked angrily from the summits of the racing seas and lashed away in great windrows of gleaming spindrift that spread like driven snow flurries in the pathway of the rushing waves.

But everything on the ship held even though the storm seemed to have attained its maximum intensity. So, except for some untoward accident during the night, prospects seemed good that the ship would be able to carry on until morning.

When all hands had assembled at the main fife rail, Tom Splicer communicated the fact with the usual announcement, “Watch is aft, sir.” Then, after a brief interval of uneasy suspense, came the welcome, though slightly amended order and admonition: “Relieve the wheel and lookout. Two A.B.s at the wheel. That’ll do the watch. Stand by for a call.”

That the afterguard was feeling suspicious of the weather and preparing for trouble was quite evident, but it never pays to borrow trouble or spoil your peace of mind either by tragic anticipations or vain regrets. If we could read the inexorable decrees of fate beforehand, the human race would soon become extinct because every individual on earth would break his neck trying to dodge the inevitable.

As soon as the port watch had been relieved and gone below, the starboard watch scrambled for various safety perches above the level of the sea-swept deck. Most of the crowd climbed to the little flying bridge over the quarter-deck and wrapped themselves in the idle clew of the mizzen staysail, which had not been hoisted in over a week. The lookout was kept from the break of the poop, but as

I was the “farmer” that watch, having neither wheel nor lookout coming to me, I climbed to the top of the forward house and stowed myself snugly away beneath one of the big boats lashed keel upward to ringbolts in the beam skids. Lying down with my head pillowed on the oaken skid with only my sou’wester for softening, I soon fell sound asleep, entirely oblivious to all my wild and fear- some surroundings.

I was awakened from my slumber by hearing my name called in ordinary and friendly tone. Had it been a watch call, I should have scrambled out in a hurry and shouted, “Aye, aye, sir.” But as it was, I simply stretched out my hand, more provoked than alarmed, and felt a presence I could not see.

“Is that you, Pen?” I asked, sensing the identity of my unexpected visitor.

“Yes, it’s me, Jim,” answered the young apprentice. “Do you like manavlins? I gave the steward a shilling for the dog basket after supper last evening. The small stores are getting smaller now, and we don’t get much better food in the half deck than you men do in the forecastle.”

“I know it, you young rascal,” I answered as I sat up and eagerly accepted a generous section of sea pie proffered me in the dark.

After I had gobbled the cabin leavings, we sat together in shrouded silence beneath the pitch-black darkness of the upturned boat. Roundabout and overhead and down beneath us thundered the tumult of ship noises and the storm—-the rush and roar and hollow reverberations of driving seas; the monotonous, insistent wailing of the wind; the chaotic crash and tumult of an occasional comber breaching the rail, staggering the ship with its sudden impact and stupendous weight and battering the hatch coamings with the fury of a cataract. Overhead, the screaming tempest held high carnival in the vibrant shrouds. Idle chain gear rattled discordantly against the reechoing spars of hollow steel. The groaning yards and creaking blocks and grinding gins and singing boltropes told the terrific strain imposed upon our flawless gear.

Below the heavy deck, responding to every lurch, the throbbing hull labored incessantly beneath the avalanches of water constantly thundering aboard. The submerged clatter of disgorging sluice ports, the hollow chortling of choking scuppers, the occasional pounding of spare spars and loosened deck fittings kept apt and fitting accompaniment to the surrounding tumult. Above the storm, the wind reigned triumphant over all.

“What time is it, Pen?” I finally inquired.

“Six bells went before I came forward,” he replied. “Jones is keeping scuppers on the poop, and I’m standing by to call the watch. The second mate has been ordered to make one bell at half past and get all hands out. We’re going to take in the topgallant sail before the watch is relieved. It’s blowing harder now and we’re edging to the northward to get out of the zone and into smoother seas. “

“Well, Pen,” I said cheerfully, “I guess I’ll jump down into the forecastle and try a drag at the pipe before we start gehawking again. A feed like that deserves a smoke for consolation.”

“Wait a moment, Jim,” urged Pengelley in a pleading tone as he laid a restraining hand on my oilskins. “I want to ask a favor of you.”

“Sing out, Pen. It’s already granted,” I exclaimed, startled by the sudden tenseness and appealing solemnity of his voice. “What can I do for you?”

“Jim,” asked the young apprentice seriously, “do you remember the evening we first met in Calcutta?”

“Certainly,” I replied. “That was a year ago when all our squad went up to say goodbye to Black Harry and Piringee Katherine.”

“Yes, it was a year ago—just a year ago tonight. Do you remember that I told you it was the third anniversary of my apprenticeship?”

“Why, yes,” I answered. “I do. I suppose you are trying to remind me that tonight is your fourth anniversary in the half deck. Your indenture expires at midnight and tomorrow you will be eligible for promotion to the quarter deck. From Calcutta you will be sent to London to pass examination’ for your new rating. Congratulations, old man!”

I found Pengelley’s hand and gripped it warmly in the dark. For a moment neither of us spoke. Then he broke the tense silence beneath the sheltering boatwith a startling declaration.

“Jim, I am not going to reach Calcutta; I shall never see dear old England again.”

“Say, what ails you, Pen?” I exclaimed, horrified by his suddenly changed demeanor and mysterious talk. “You’ve been worrying about something and your wits are going astray. Tell me about it. You know I’m a safe counsellor and even if I can’t help you perhaps I can share the burden with you and help, you bear the strain.” I was so profoundly shocked by Pengelley’s behavior that I sat still in mystified silence waiting for him to proceed.

“Do you ever become frightened when you’re aloft, Jim?” asked the boy suddenly, gripping my oilskins nervously as he spoke.

“Scared, you mean? No, of course not,” I asserted contemptuously. “The safest place on a ship is aloft, especially on a night like this. You’re out of the deck smother, clear of the wrack, and above your officers for the time being. And the wind don’t blow any harder upstairs than it does down here. But why such foolish questions, Pen? You aren’t afraid of anything, are you?”

“There is only one thing I fear, Jim,” replied Pengelley, “and that is disgrace. I’ve always been timid about climbing; it’s a natural weakness that I cannot overcome no matter how hard I try. For a long time, I thought the feeling would wear away by enforced habit and constant practice, but in that hope I’ve been sadly disappointed. Ever since the night poor old Barney Dent was flung from the main topgallant yard, I’ve been oppressed by an unspeakable horror every time I go aloft, especially on that particular yard. Sometimes the terror makes me sick and causes me to vomit while I’m aloft; and then the reaction causes me to vomit again after I am safely on deck.

“Of course, everybody attributes it to seasickness, which is really chronic in some constitutions. In a sense it is seasickness, Jim. It is not actual fright. It is simply my stomach instead of my heart that gets in my mouth at such times, and it could not happen anywhere else except at sea; but it is a condition I can no more avoid or overcome than I can stop breathing and live.

“I know you will consider me silly and superstitious,” he went on, “but I know I shall never see the end of this passage, and before anything happens I want you to promise that you will do something for me after–after you reach Calcutta.” He faltered at the conclusion of the sentence, and I knew that his feelings were overwrought.

Although I placed no credence in his premonition, I realized that it was useless to try to reason him out of it. If he had been an ordinary, simple-minded old sailor oppressed by silly seasaws and ancient superstitions against capsizing hatch covers, striking the bell backward, or sailing on Friday, there might have been some hope. In that case, if he could not have been reasoned or ridiculed out of his groundless fears, he could have been kicked or cuffed out of them or otherwise left to steep in his own ignorance.

But Pengelley was different. He was a broad-minded, widely read, well-informed young man. I had never known him to harbor spooks or mental hallucinations, nor was he a victim of melancholia. In fact, he had always been regarded as the most cheerful of the four apprentices.

“If it is as serious as all that, Pen,” I said, for I was becoming alarmed for his safety by this time, “you had better lay up for a few days or until we run into fine weather again and your nervousness subsides. I am sure Captain Grummitt won’t insist on ordering you aloft if your life is endangered by it.”

“Jim,” he declared firmly, “I can’t do that. The other apprentices would despise me and my father would disown me. Please keep quiet about it,” he pleaded in genuine alarm. “Simply do as I wish you to.”

“But, Pen,” I insisted, “you are the bravest boy I ever saw to live through a horror like that for four years just to gratify your father’s whim. I am sure he would have withdrawn your indentures long ago and had you sent home if he had been aware, of the facts.”

But Pengelley was obdurate. All I could do under the circumstances was to humor him and appear to acquiesce in his plans, for he was really laboring under a dangerous mental aberration. His designs would have to be humored in order to be circumvented. I therefore pretended to act in accord with his wishes, but mentally resolved to frustrate his quixotic fancies of filial devotion even if it meant incurring his everlasting displeasure. I inwardly resolved to try not only to have Pengelley relieved, but, if possible, prohibited from going aloft during the remainder of the voyage.

“Well, Pen,” I resumed, “don’t be downhearted. We’ll run into fine weather in a day or two and the danger will be over. Meanwhile, whenever we have to go aloft, you stick close to me. That will encourage you and I will always be there to lend a hand.”

“Thank you, Jim,” exclaimed the boy with grateful fervency. “But before we separate I want you to promise that in the event of anything happening to me you will send this box to my sister Eunice, at Saint Ives. She knows of you already,” he added, thrusting a package into my hands as he spoke, “because I mentioned you to her in my last letter home from New York.

“In this package,” he went on, “there is a camphorwood box containing some letters and photographs, some private papers and trinkets, and the gold watch my father gave me when I left home. I know that if I am missing all my effects will have to be accounted for by the captain and owners of this ship. But in that case they would likewise have to be inspected, and the contents of this box are too sacred for that.”

“You can get Miss Primrose, the little missionary in Calcutta, to help you. She knows me well and I believe she knows you also. She can manage to have the package sent for you by special dispatch. Under the canvas wrapper around the box, you will find a letter addressed to my sister. I want you to send it to her together with another letter to be written by yourself.”

“Well, I’ll take your orders, Pen,” I replied, “and all the more willingly because I feel certain I shall never be required to carry them out.”

Pengelley wrung my hand warmly. “God bless you, Jim,” he exclaimed. “And now I want you to accept these trifles as a token of our friendship.” With that, he thrust into my hand a heavy gold; watch guard with a solid gold anchor pendant attached as a charm. I recognized the pieces and appreciated their intrinsic value and artistic merit, for I had seen Pengelley wearing them on special, occasions.

It was nearing seven bells now, and Pengelley and I crawled from beneath the sheltering enclosure of the inverted boat and descended to the slippery surface of the main deck. Pengelley went aft to take the time, and I dove into the forecastle to secrete my precious charge before the watch was called.

Returning to the deck, I proceeded at once to locate some of my; watchmates and arouse them to the fact that another furling match was about due. I could not think of taking in that big main-topgallant sail, however, without feeling concerned over Pengelley’s tragic premonition. There was great danger to anyone working aloft in the Late Commander because of the complete absence of any beckets, grab lines, or saving gear of any kind on her yardarms. The harrowing lessons of three tragic casualties on the previously run had made no perceptible mark on the hearts or minds of those responsible. No effort had been made to guard against future tragedies. She lacked even the most basic lifesaving attachments on the yardarms. This deficiency, because of the great girth of her principal spars and the immense spread and heavy weft of her enormous sails, made the Late Commander an extremely hazardous ship to manipulate aloft.

I tried hard to invent some lubberly trick, no matter how base, to prevent Pengelley from going aloft that night, but I was at my wit’s end and could not think coherently. There was no time to weave a plot or to execute it if found. The stroke of one bell found me still struggling with my inward terrors and with no hope of any design. In a few minutes, both watches were out and Tom Splicer was splashing around the deck roaring orders to everybody below and aloft.

There was no general muster, but within a few minutes all hands were hauling away on the main-topgallant running gear. Clewlines, leechlines, buntlines, and downhauls were all manned at once and the massive topgallant yard came creaking down handsomely to the topmast cap. The voluminous canvas came floundering, fluttering, and thundering with a tremendous straining and baffling uproar against the mighty tension of the gear.

Amid the momentary excitement and general din, I ceased for a time to worry about Pengelley; and when the tautened gear had been belayed and the braces steadied, I was among the first to lay aloft in response to the imperious order, “Tie ’er up.”

Upon reaching the masthead, I assumed one side of the bunt, with Big Mac for a side partner. With a forty-foot hoist on a sixty-foot spar, it was no child’s task to bunt that main-topgallant sail.

Moreover, it was always a desperate job, especially when running square, because the yard was rigged with old-fashioned quarter clewline blocks, there were no spilling lines, and the buntline lizards on the jack-stays were entirely too long. This left large quantities of slack canvas with which to contend. Consequently, there was always an immense wind bag to smother when the sail was brailed up.

When the watch had mustered along the yardarms and the gaskets were cleared, the huge bag bellied and bellowed above our heads as tense and rigid as an inflated balloon. The wet and hardened canvas was as unyielding as chilled boiler plate. Taking advantage of a momentary wind flaw in a lucky backsend of the ship, we all grabbed the slightly slackened canvas and, shouting encouragement to each other, made a united and desperate effort to smother the big wind bag and strangle it up snugly to the jackstay.

But in the next dive, the clews filled away again. In spite of the desperate exertions of ten strong men, the sail burst away with an exultant bang. And then, in the extremity of common danger, I heard a faint, wild, despairing cry and felt an ominous slackening of the footrope beneath my feet. Instantly a fearful dread froze my heart. Where was Pengelley? Had he purposely eluded me in the darkness and brought about the terrible fulfillment of his premonition? Trembling at the harrowing thought, I returned to the hazardous duty before us; and, after a few more daring attempts, we finally succeeded in overpowering the raging sailcloth and bunched it up securely on the swaying yard.

After passing the tail stop of the bunt gasket to Big Mac, I clutched the convenient warp of the topgallant backstay and slid, like a plummet to the topgallant rail. As I leaped to the deck, I met Jones, the junior apprentice, a muffled and impersonal shape in the darkness. I recognized him by his voice, and he probably knew me by my hasty and vigorous actions.

“That you, Williams?” he inquired.

“Yes, it’s me,” I responded. “Who fell?”

“Pengelleyl He wants you,” he replied in a horrified tone. “They carried him into the cabin and the cap’n says he’s dyin’. He’s been callin’ for you.” The young apprentice subsided with a smothered sob, and I made my way with bursting heart to the cabin. I pulled the heavy teakwood door open without any preliminary knock and strode unceremoniously into the forward cabin. It was likewise the officers’ mess room; and there, bolstered up on a berth mattress on the big mess table lay the broken frame and tortured body of the dying boy.

At the head of the table stood Captain Grummitt, a chastened look softening his wooden features. Beside him stood the steward, striving awkwardly to minister to the last earthly needs of the passing spirit. Ranged alongside the mess board were four able seamen standing in reverent silence. They were the rescue squad that had brought Pengelley into the cabin. Above, in the skylight, the telltale compass wobbled unsteadily with the yawing of the ship; the marine clock in the alcove ticked the fateful seconds away with relentless beats; and outside the storm wind howled a mighty greeting to the departing soul.

As I stood near the entrance, sou’wester in hand, Captain Grummitt beckoned me to the side of my shipmate. Stepping quietly to the head of the table, I bent reverently over the dying apprentice and listened attentively to his labored breathing to catch any parting words.

Pengelley lay perfectly still for a while. His hands were cold as ice, his eyes partly closed, and his handsome features, now distorted by mortal anguish, were as white as chiseled marble. Only the painful and irregular breathing and the slight twitching of the pallid lips after each feeble gasp indicated that the spark of life still glowed faintly.

“Do you know me, Pen?” I asked, pressing his cold hand firmly in mine.

The dark eyes opened slowly and a slight flash of glad recognition illumined the pale features. The bloodless lips moved inaudibly and I bent closer to catch the whispered words.

“You’ll remember, won’t you, Jim? The package and the letter?”

“Surely, Pen,” I murmured hoarsely. “I’ll do all I have promised.”

“Thank you, Jim,” he faltered once again. ‘I’m glad—you—came. Now—I am—content.”

Then the weary eyelids drooped again over the fading orbs, the death pallor deepened to an unearthly whiteness, and for fully a minute the labored breathing ceased. Then, just as Captain Grummitt was about to make an inspection to detect any lingering spark of life, Pengelley’s whole body became suddenly convulsed by a raging spasm of supreme agony. His eyes opened wide, staring and sightless. His classical features were fearfully distorted in an excruciating horror of unutterable anguish. His head rocked violently from side to side and raised spasmodically from the pillow in an uncontrollable ecstasy of intense soul-racking pain.

“Lord! Lord! Help me!” he shrieked in the terrifying accents of mortal extremity, and with that great agonizing appeal a surging hemorrhage burst the internal barriers of life. The pent-up flood poured forth from mouth and ears and nostrils in crimson streams, the raised head fell back limply to the waiting pillow, the contracted features relaxed in a smile of ineffable relief, a parting sigh of weary contentment escaped the colorless lips, a settled attitude of eternal repose stole over the stalwart form on the table, and all was still.


Aunt Bébé and the Count, from Aston Kings, by Humphrey Pakington

cap
Aunt Bébé had married as her third husband a Belgian count some twenty-five years her junior, and the faithful count stood gallantly behind her chair, striking what he believed to be an English attitude, and dressed in a Norfolk jacket and knickerbockers of tussore silk, and on his head a check cap with ear-flaps tied under the chin as though to restrain the bushy brown whiskers that luxuriated from his cheeks. The count’s principal duty was to pick up anything Aunt Bébé happened to notice that she had dropped–a full-time job, as the bishop remarked–and the wonder was that with this amount of gymnastic exercise he continued to grow stouter year by year. He had never obtained a mastery over the English language, and, while he was naturally expected to speak English to the rest of the family, he and Aunt Bébé employed a sort of pidgin French as a means of communication between themselves. The signal that the count’s services were required would be a shake of Aunt Bébé’s ringlets and a trembling finger pointing down at the grass, whereupon the count would give a gentle neighing sound, followed by “Ma Bébé” in most feeling accents, would step forward, bend to the ground with surprising alacrity, and, grasping the fan, gaze with a look of loving inquiry into the eyes of Aunt Bébé. It might have been the fan that Aunt Bébé wanted, but if the count happened to guess right the first time she would switch over to something else. “Na, na,” and the trembling finger shifted its position, “ze mouchoir,” and the count would be rewarded by a pat on the hand and a “Mon chéri.” An unwary stranger might sometimes stoop to save the count, but Aunt Bébé would quickly explain that her chéri was of a jealous disposition where she was concerned, and would allow none but himself to serve her.

from Aston Kings, by Humphrey Pakington

New discoveries in this foreign country of illness, from You Still Have Your Head, by Franz Schoenberner

Cover of first US edition of 'You Still Have Your Head'

I am not yet able to write in the literal sense of the word. Writing always meant to me writing in longhand with a pencil which gave the wonderful chance to erase and to change every third word, or even, if you felt like it, to begin again the same sentence on a fresh page without much difficulty. It was almost a year after the accident that I started–not to write, but to dictate–this new story not of my life, but of something which was near death: a rather long voyage pretty near to the border of the unknown country from which nobody returns. It was indeed a very strange and instructive voyage; otherwise, I wouldn’t date to recount it, because nothing is more boring than telling about your illness. I shall try to speak as little as possible of illness–and as much as possible of health: the special sort of health which can exist even when your whole body, with the sole exception of your head, is lifeless and scarcely belongs to you.

But as long as your head, your mind, is still working and is not too much preoccupied with the strange state of your body you can make new discoveries in this foreign country of illness, discoveries which may be worth sharing with others–not only those who have gone or are going through a similar ordeal, but almost anybody who in one way or another suddenly faces the necessity of overcoming some suffering, some handicap, for which he was not prepared. … as everybody knows who has a longer and deeper experience of life, even the most tragic situation often includes a strange element of humor–tragic humor, perhaps, or sardonic humor, and even sometimes simple human humor. As long as you are able to see these elements you are not entirely lost in tragedy–not lost in your suffering. You are already a little bit above and beyond the factual situation when you are able to view it with the detachment of an objective observer. There is a certain sense of the grotesque, and sometimes cruel irony which seems to be an inescapable part and parcel of the process of living.

You Still Have Your Head: Excursions From Immobility is an account of Schoenberner’s experiences and–mostly–his thoughts during his recovery from being attacked and left paralyzed from the neck down. Schoenberner had gone to complain about loud music from a neighboring apartment. One of the young men in the apartment flew into a rage and savagely struck out at Schoenberner, breaking his neck. A German intellectual who had fled Nazi Germany two steps ahead of the Gestapo–a situation he recounted in The Inside Story of an Outsider–Schoenberner responded to his situation the only way he knew how: by considering it in light of history, literature, philosophy and, occasionally, human behavior. Possessed of a remarkable resilience of spirit and sense of humor, if he ever experienced a moment of self-pity, you won’t find it here. Instead, you’ll find one man’s attempt to put a horrific twist of fate into perspective, an example of understanding reached through the disciplined exercise of a lifetime’s worth of learning.


You Still Have Your Head: Excursions From Immobility, by Franz Schoenberner
New York: The Macmillan Company, 1957

Charley’s death, from Charley Smith’s Girl, by Helen Bevington

I think Charley died of despair, as by now I have known others to do. The others chose suicide. But I am eternally grateful to Charley for not making that choice, hard as it is to say so when the only alternative was suffering–that I did not share–and in the end turning his face to the wall. My reason is simple and self-centered: the other way is too terrible an inheritance to be left with, too fearful a legacy for me and my children. It says too flatly and plainly that life is not to be borne. Charley didn’t quite say that. He bore it for as long as he had to, and no help ever came. Terrible as his measure of life actually was, he didn’t quite leave me with that silent, mocking answer.

I choose to say he died, as all people do, as Montaigne said he himself would die, of having been alive. Beyond that, he died because he was Charley. He loved life once and clung to it with a wild passion. He tried in his own violent way to live it. This was the way he lost, he finally lost. There is something even a little consoling to me in that idea …

My mother and my father–one was strong and brave and indomitable, and one withdrew in utter despair. Neither of them ever discovered how to be happy. There must be a third way. I am not sure, but I think there must be a third way.

Suicides, from Living Again: An Autobiography, by Felix Riesenberg

Always there is death. In those early St Mary’s days death was close, for Bellevue had the morgue, and out of morbidness some of us went there to see rows of white-sheeted stillness on the slabs–the lost and forgotten corpses of a city that holds so much of life and happiness and hope. The wharves by the East River attract those drifting near the edge. Always we had the dinghy, a black-painted, four-oared boat, swung out in its davits at the port fore rigging. The call to launch was answered with alacrity. It would splash into the slip and stroke away toward the floundering of the desperate. Many would-be suicides were snatched from the cold river by the boys on the schoolship. I took part in a few of these rescues, the saved sometimes cursing us until hot coffee and a slab of corned beef brought them to their senses. Jumping from piers seems to be one of the reactions of the city. As buildings grew higher, jumping from windows and splattering on the hard cement became a ghastly fact. Not long ago, in the storm center of the depression, I had a man drop close to me on Forty-fifth Street. He landed with a thud and lay still. There was no human boat capable of saving him once he had started down; screams, terrorizing cries clattered about and echoed between the high walls of adjoining office buildings, but these came from women, spectators in opposite cubicles. The falling man was silent. A policeman pulled a tarpaulin from a truck and threw it over the inert body. Two young women who had been closer than I were carried into a near-by drugstore; they had fainted.

James Agate on Emil Ludwig’s Beethoven: The Life of a Conqueror

January 4, Thursday (1945)

Dipping into Emil Ludwig’s Beethoven: the Life of a Conqueror, I find this on the G major Piano Concerto:

At the beginning the piano emerges gently from dreams; this is truly Beethoven improvising. Two romantic themes, renunciation and hope, are gradually developed. When, after an orchestral interlude, the piano is heard again solo, it is as if a butterfly rose ecstatically from its cocoon. There are no fortissimos here, and when the call to new adventures sounds, the butterfly sinks back, dreaming. The whole thing is wrapped in dark-red velvet. . . .

And about the C minor Concerto, that it begins with

stormy scale passages three octaves long, like a roaring lion appearing suddenly with threatening mien in the midst of the orchestra.

I have nothing with all this stuff about cocoons, red velvet, and roaring lions. Presently I read, “Beethoven dedicated his adagios to women.” And I say that the man who can read sex into the slow movements of the Hammerklavier Sonata and the Ninth Symphony would believe that Wagner’s Venusberg music is a Hymn to Chastity! Next I read that in the F major Rasoumowsky Quartet, “the cello continues to exude platonic wisdom.” Feeling that this amateur has exuded enough nonsense, I open the window and neatly drop his book on to a passing lorry’s tarpaulin’d top.

From The Later Ego, by James Agate

The Tragic Fate of Squirrel Flotillas, from Oliver Goldsmith’s A History of the Earth, and Animated Nature


I’m reading E. L. Lucas’ The Search for Good Sense. In his chapter on Oliver Goldsmith, Lucas reprints the following particularly fantastic yet wonderful passage from A History of the Earth, and Animated Nature, one of the many works written by Goldsmith in the interest of keeping a roof over his head.

In Lapland, and the extensive forests to the north, the squirrels are observed to change their habitation, and to remove in vast numbers from one country to another. In these migrations they are generally seen by thousands, travelling directly forward; while neither rocks, forests, nor even the broadest waters, can stop their progress. What I am going to relate appears so extraordinary, that were it not attested by numbers of the most credible historians, among whom are Klein and Linnaeus, it might be rejected with that scorn with which we treat imposture or credulity; however, nothing can be more true than that when these animals, in their progress, meet with broad rivers, or extensive lakes, which abound in Lapland, they take a very extraordinary method of crossing them. Upon approaching the banks, and perceiving the breadth of the water, they return, as if by common consent, into the neighbouring forest, each in quest of a piece of bark, which answers all the purposes of boats for wafting them over. When the whole company are fitted in this manner, they boldly commit their little fleet to the waves; every squirrel sitting on its own piece of bark, and fanning the air with its tail, to drive the vessel to its desired port. In this orderly manner they set forward, and often cross lakes several miles broad. But it too often happens that the poor mariners are not aware of the dangers of their navigation; for although at the edge of the water it is generally calm, in the midst it is always more turbulent. There the slightest additional gust of wind oversets the little sailor and his vessel together. The whole navy, that but a few minutes before rode proudly and securely along, is now overturned, and a shipwreck of two or three thousand sail ensues. This, which is so unfortunate for the little animal, is generally the most lucky accident in the world for the Laplander on the shore; who gathers up the dead bodies as they are thrown in by the waves, eats the flesh, and sells the skins for about a shilling the dozen.

“It may be doubted if this is very sound biology,” Lucas observes. What an understatement. But he does go on to credit that there is something sublime in this bit of ridiculousness: “Yet there is about it a charming sympathy with the little squirrels; far more genuine, I feel, than Coleridge or his Mariner really felt for albatrosses ….”

A bucolic romance, from As I Remember Him, by Hans Zinsser

Hans Zinsser
I’ve been taking great advantage of Hans Zinsser’s unique autobiography, As I Remember Him, to while away long hours of flights from Belgium to California today.

Zinsser wrote the book as he was battling leukemia, incurable when he was affected in the late 1930s. In its way, it’s as much a portrait of a life spanning a great transition as Henry Adams’ autobiography. Unlike Adams, though, Zinsser never retired from life. He was a pioneering medical researcher, one of the best-loved instructors at Harvard, a poet, organizer of professional societies, rider after the hounds. The spirit of As I Remember Him has more in common with Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture. It’s hard to imagine Adams taking a role in the following comic skit, from the chapter “R. S. and Women” (“R. S.” stood for “Romantic Spirit”–Zinsser’s stand-in for himself):

One evening we were sitting on the porch. The old man had talked himself to sleep, and began to snooze right in the middle of the Wilderness [Campaign–the old man was a Civil War veteran.–Ed.]. Invention had tired him. Pansy and I were sitting closer together than the temperature warranted, and her arm was pressed caressingly against my shoulder. There was a crescent moon, and a gentle breeze enfolded us with the fragrance of the honeysuckle vine. If her head had followed her arm at that moment, God knows what might have happened. But Pansy, though–I still truly believe–a good girl, possibly intent on a bolder yet–I insist–entirely innocent (innocent in the conventional sense) attack upon my emotions, asked me suddenly whether I would like to see their new calf. It was so darling, she said, and had such lovely eyes and such a soft, wet nose. It was a temptation, for the calf of course was in the barn; and the barn was isolated and dark and full of hay. I fell, and said I’d love to see the calf. Merely for convention’s sake, I think, Pansy lighted a stable lantern, so that we might at least fulfill the ostensible purpose of really looking at the calf. Oh, how sweet and aphrodisiacally caressing is the odor of a cowbarn at night, with its indescribable blending of clover, cow manure, sour milk, and animal! A gentle tremor ascended my spine as I stepped over the threshold, and I drew Pansy’s soft form closer to my side as we stumbled over the rough boards by the dim and swinging light in her hand. I had lost all interest in the calf, and dear Pansy I believe had completely forgotten it. Yet we dared not not look at it–half craving, half dreading what might happen when we had seen it. But here Pallas Athene–ever my guardian goddess–intervened. Pansy walked into the stall, put her chubby arm about the calf’s neck, and held the stable lantern at arm’s length in front of her. And here they were–both confronting me, the dim rays of the lantern illuminating both their faces. Fascinated, I gazed upon them. They appeared like two sisters–helpless, bucolic, kindly; infinite vacuity looked out at me from these two pairs of large, swimming eyes. The expression of Pansy’s warm and moist lips was not more invitingly tender than the soft, velvety nozzle of the calf. There they stood–poor innocents–two calves together; and I gazed and gazed, hypnotically held in the light of the lamp, until I did not know which was Pansy and which calf. And I bent down and kissed the calf tenderly on the nose. Then I went out quietly, and untied my horse from the hitching post. Pansy followed me out. There were tears in her eyes when she said good-night, as I mounted and rode away–sadly, but not without a sense of relief.

As I Remember Him, by Hans Zinsser
Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1940

The distant past, from The Heart to Artemis: A Writer’s Memoirs, by Bryher

Excerpt: the opening of Chapter I

When I was born in September, 1894, Dorothy Richardson’s Miriam was a secretary. Mallarme had just retired and was no longer teaching English to French schoolboys. The death duties that were to obliterate most of our feudal estates had been introduced in that year’s budget while the Fram was drifting through the polar ice and would-be explorers Cover of the first U. K. edition of 'The Heart to Artemis'dreamed about Bokhara, a fabulous city that was then more difficult to access than Tibet. I opened my eyes upon the end of not only the nineteenth century but of a second Puritan age. An epoch passed away while I was learning to speak and walk. Its influence remains as the start of memory and as a measuring rod for progress that even Edwardian survivors lack.

There were no motor cars, no taxis and no aeroplanes. The garden flowers were different; speech followed a more complex and leisurely patten, the houses were usually cold. The real background to these formative years, however, was the sound of hooves; the metallic thunder of the big animals drawing the carriages called landaus, the lighter trip-trop of the hansom cabs. On land, apart from a few trains, horses comprised the whole of transportation. I only realized how largely they formed a part of my earliest consciousness when I woke up in Lahore over fifty years later to listen to the passing tongas and wonder why the clatter seemed so familiar and comforting in that otherwise strange land? It took me some minutes to discover that it was because I was back in the world of the horse.

I remember reading this passage in the stacks of Suzzallo Library at the University of Washington back in the late 1970s and thinking, “I really must read this book.” It was nearly 25 years later that I got around to it.

I think the second paragraph is one of the best and most succinct descriptions of the differences between a present and a past. Overall, The Heart to Artemis is a lively and interesting memoir. As the New Yorker reviewer put it, “Never afraid to get her hands dirty, she rode donkeys in Egypt, climbed mountains in a skirt, changed the hot and messy carbons in lights on early movie sets, flew airplanes, and helped people escape from Nazi Germany.” She had drinks with Man Ray and Gertrude Stein in Paris, was psychoanalyzed by Freud, travelled to much of the civilized world at some time or other, and enjoyed many of the benefits of being an heir to one of England’s biggest fortunes.

On the other hand, as memoirs go, The Heart to Artemis is remarkably depersonalized. If Bryher were to take a Myers-Briggs test, I’m pretty sure she would prove to be an NT. We learn a great deal about her thoughts and very little about her feelings. For a life so full of experiences, it’s almost creepily dispassionate.

The Heart to Artemis, by Bryher
London: Collins, 1963

A humble introduction, from Freedom in a Rocking Boat, by Geoffrey Vickers

Geoffrey VickersA lovely acknowledgement from the introduction to Geoffrey Vickers’ 1970 book, Freedom in a Rocking Boat:

An introduction is the place for acknowledgments; but my sense of indebtedness leaves me dumb. Socialized and humanized by being claimed from birth onwards as a member of so many communicating human groups; ushered into self-awareness through a language, every word of which resonates with the meanings of ancient usage; heir to several cultural traditions, each far too abundant for my assimilation–how can I name or number or know the living and the dead who have shaped my thoughts and me?

Freedom in a Rocking Boat, by Geoffrey Vickers
London: Allen Lane The Penguin Press, 1970

Uncertainty is the prerequisite to gaining knowledge, from The Prophets of Israel, by Edith Hamilton

Still it is true that much of what the prophets said belongs to their own day, not to ours. The politics they threw themselves into with such vehemence are comprehensible now only to the scholar. When they said an earthquake happened because God had arisen to shake terribly the earth, they were offering their own scientific explanation which long since yielded to others as every explanation does. Old ideas are continually being slain by new facts. There is nothing stable in the conclusions of the mind, and it is impossible that there ever should be unless we hold that the universe is made to the measure of the human mind, an assumption for which nothing in the past gives any warrant.

Keats once said that he saw in Shakespeare “the power of remaining in uncertainty without any irritably reaching after fact and reason.” There is no foe so deadly to the truth as complete intellectual assurance. It substitutes an easy and shallow certainty for the deep loyalties of faith. It puts an end to thought, which can live only if it is free to change. Uncertainty is the prerequisite to gaining knowledge, and frequently the result as well [Emphasis added]. Greater knowledge does not mean greater certainty. Oftenest the very reverse is true. We are certain in proportion as we do not know. We seem, indeed, so made that intellectual certainty is not good for us. We grow arrogant, intolerant, unable to learn and to attain better grounds of certainty precisely because we are certain. The right attitude for the mind would seem to be humility.


This seems to be to be one of the best and truest things I’ve read in many years. This passage may come closer to capturing my own credo than anything else I’ve ever read. Both The Prophets of Israel and Witness to the Truth: Christ and His Interpreters are short, simply-written, and profound studies of selected books from the Old and New Testament that deserve to be as readily available as water from a tap. I shied away from Hamilton’s work for decades, recalling her The Greek Way as one of those dreaded required texts in high school, but I found both her Biblical books to be marvelous examples of the truth of the quote that “The great art of writing is knowing when to stop” (or of Pascal’s line, “If I had more time I would write a shorter letter”).

The Prophets of Israel, by Edith Hamilton
New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1936

The General Is Older Than the Capital, from Reveille in Washington, by Margaret Leech

I. The General Is Older Than the Capital

Cover of 2001 reprint of 'Reveille in Washington'That winter, the old General moved from the rooms he had rented from the free mulatto, Wormley, in I Street to Cruchet’s at Sixth and D Streets. His new quarters, situated on the ground floor–a spacious bedroom, with a private dining-room adjoining–were convenient for a man who walked slowly and with pain; and Cruchet, a French caterer, was one of the best cooks in Washington.

In spite of his nearly seventy-five years and his increasing infirmities, the General was addicted to the pleasures of the table. Before his six o’clock dinner, his black body servant brought out the wines and the liqueurs, setting the bottles of claret to warm before the fire. The old man had refined his palate in the best restaurants in Paris; and woodcock, English snipe, poulard, capon, and tête de veau en tortue were among the dishes he fancied. He liked, too, canvasback duck, and the hams of his native Virginia. Yet nothing, to his taste, equaled the delicacy he called “tarrapin.” He would hold forth on the correct method of preparing it: “No flour, sir–not a grain.” His military secretary could saturninely foresee that moment, when, leaning his left elbow on the table and holding six inches above his plate a fork laden with the succulent tortoise, he would announce, “The best food vouchsafed by Providence to man,” before hurrying the fork to his lips.

From his splendid prime, the General had retained, not only a discriminating palate, but the defects suitable to a proud and ambitious nature. He had always been vain, pompous, exacting, jealous and high-tempered. Now that his sick old body could no longer support the racking of its wounds, his irascibility had dwindled to irritation, and his imperiousness to petulance. His love of flattery had grown, and he often declared that at his age compliments had become a necessity. While taking a footbath, he would call on his military secretary to remark the fairness of his limbs. In company, he spoke of the great commanders of history, and matched with theirs his own exploits at Chippewa and Lundy’s Lane, at Cerro Grande and Chapultepec. Near his desk stood his bust in marble, with shoulders bared; classical, serene, and idealized. The walls were brilliant with his portraits at various ages, from the young General Winfield Scott who had been victorious over the British in 1814 to the already aging General-in-Chief who had defeated the Mexicans in 1848. They were arresting figures, those generals on the walls; handsome, slender, heroic, with haughty eye and small, imperious mouth. Gold gleamed in spurs, in buttons and embroidery and huge epaulettes, in the handle of the sword which had been the gift of Virginia; and one portrait showed the superb cocked hat, profusely plumed, that had earned for Scott the sobriquet of “Fuss and Feathers.” He stood six feet, four and a quarter inches in height, and had been wont to insist on the fraction. But, swollen and dropsical, he spoke no longer of his size. He pointed instead to the bust, to the portraits, to show what he had been.

Such was the commanding general of the Army of the United States in December of 1860, but not so did his compatriots see him. His eye had lost its fire and he could no longer sit a horse, but in huge epaulettes and yellow sash he was still his country’s hero. Europe might celebrate the genius of Napoleon; the New World had its Winfield Scott. For nearly half a century the republic had taken pride in his achievements as soldier and pacificator; and if he now lived in a glorious military past, so did his fellow-countrymen. He was the very figure to satisfy a peaceful people, fond of bragging of its bygone belligerence. The General was as magnificent as a monument, and no one was troubled by the circumstance that he was nearly as useless.


Reveille in Washington is back in print (at $39.95 list — Ouch!), so, for the moment, it can’t be considered completely neglected. But as the above excerpt suggests, it’s a richly detailed and wisely comic narrative that ranks as one of the best pieces of American historical writing around. Used copies can be found for as little as $0.01 plus postage, although I suppose it’s hypocritical to write about neglected books and then encourage you not to buy your own copy from a publisher that’s keeping it in print. Multi-Pulitzer winner David McCullough often cites it as one of the books that inspired him to become a historian, and it’s difficult not to believe that Gore Vidal didn’t have a copy close at hand while he was writing his Lincoln. An excellent book for some winter nights’ reading.

Reveille in Washington, by Margaret Leech
New York: Harper & Brothers, 1941

Sharing the Rice-Mash, from A Dragon Apparent, by Norman Lewis

Excerpt

CoverThere were seven jars attached to the framework in the centre of the room and as soon as the chief’s sons-in-law had arrived and hung up their cross-bows on the beam over the adventures of Dick Tracy, they were sent off with bamboo containers to the nearest ditch for water. In the meanwhile the seals of mud were removed from the necks of the jars and rice-straw and leaves were forced down inside them over the fermented rice-mash to prevent solid particles from rising when the water was added. The thing began to look serious and Ribo asked the chief, through his interpreter, for the very minimum ceremony to be performed as we had other villages to visit that day. The chief said that he had already understood that, and that was why only seven jars had been provided. It was such a poor affair that he hardly liked to have the gongs beaten to invite the household god’s presence. He hoped that by way of compensation he would be given sufficient notce of a visit next time to enable him to arrange a reception on a proper scale. He would guarantee to lay us all out for twenty-four hours.

This being the first of what I was told would be an endless succession of such encounters in the Moï country I was careful to study the details of the ceremony. Although these varied in detail from village to village, the essentials remained the same. The gong-orchestra starts up a deafening rhythm. You seat yourself on a stool before the principal jar, in the centre, take the bamboo tube in your mouth and do your best to consume the correct measure of three cow-horn’s full of spirit. Your attendant, who squats, facing you, on the other side of the jar, has no difficulty in keeping a check on the amount drunk, since the level is never allowed to drop below the top of the jar, water being constantly added from a small hole in the side of the horn, on which he keeps his thumb until the drinking begins. After you have finished with the principal jar, you more to the right of the line and work your way down. There is no obligatory minimum consumption from the secondary jars. At frequent intervals you suck up the spirit to the mouth of the tube and then, your thumb held over the end, you present it to one of the dignitaries present, who, beaming his thanks, takes a short suck and hands it back to you. In performing these courtesies you are warned to give priority to those whose loin-cloths are the most splendid, but if, in this case, the apparel oft proclaims the man, age is a more certain criterion with the women.

The M’nongs are matriarchal and it is to the relatively aged and powerful mothers-in-law that all property really belongs. Although the women hold back for a while and it is left to the men to initiate the ceremonies, the rice alcohol, the jars, the gongs, the drums and the house itself are all theirs. It is therefore, not only a mark of exquisite courtesy but a tactful recognition of the economic realities to gesture as soon as possible with one’s tube in the direction of the most elderly of the ladies standing on the threshold of the commonroom. Wth surprising alacrity the next stool is vacated by its occupying notable to allow the true power in the house with a gracious and impeccably toothless smile to take her place. This toothlessness, of course, has no relation to the lady’s great age and arises from the fact that the incisors are regarded by the Moïs as unbearably canine in their effect and are, therefore, broken out of the jaws at the age of puberty.

from:

A Dragon Apparent: Travels in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, by Norman Lewis
London: Jonathan Cape, 1951.

Biff Jordan gets into the movies, from The Late Risers, by Bernard Wolfe

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'The Late Risers'

Excerpt

Biff Jordan got into the movies because he was skinny, women made him nervous, and it’s cold in Alaska. All during the war he was stationed in the Arctic Circle way north of the Kotzebue Sound, sending up meteorological balloons and catching them when they came down. He was a rangy boy from the Panhandle, elongated but with no insulating meat on him, and there among the tundras and inching glaciers and machete winds he felt he was doing duty in a mortuary icebox. Dressed in mackinaw and ear muffs, he went around the weather camp with his teeth doing a dice click, saying to everybody, “Boy, here is where the zero gets absolute. My cornflakes taste like dry ice in the morning.” He dreamed of orange groves in California.

California became a sirocco vision to him, some Eldorado of British thermal units. When he got his discharge papers he made tracks for Laguna Beach, where he landed a job as carhop in a drive-in beanery. He tended to be shy, and the brassy klieg sun made him even more self-conscious, especially when there were lady customers around: he was almost thawed out but he felt naked.

One day a cerise Cadillac convertible drove up. The man at the wheel wore smoked glasses and a purple knubby tweed jacket, and the woman with him had jet-black fingernails and green-tinted hair. They both ordered nutburgers on toasted English muffins and lemon frosts, and as they ate they stared at the young lath-lean Texan. He couldn’t leave his station, but he was uncomfortable: he shifted from foot to foot, scratched himself in various places, wondered if his fly was unbuttoned.

“You thinking what I’m thinking?” the man finally asked.

“Six ways from Sunday,” the girl said.

“That,” the man said, “is a shitkicker. Does calisthenics every time you look at him.”

“That’s a shitkicker to end shitkickers,” the girl said.

“Even his eyeballs blush,” the man said. “You look at him, his hands get like windmills. That’s a shitkicker for the connoisseur. That’s a shitkicker’s shitkicker.”

“He introduces an entirely new dimension into shitkicking,” the girl said. “With him it becomes an art form, like ballet.”

“That,” the man said, “is shitkicking like Shakespeare would do it. Odets. De Mille.”

Their conversation puzzled Biff: they sounded like scientists trying to classify a bug.

“Good feature,” the girl said. “Like Ty Powers.”

“More along the Cooper lines,” the man said. “High pockets, pelvis like a Yale lock, and plenty of malnutrition. The cheeks caved in fine.”

“What are we waiting for?” the girl said.

“Boy!” the man called out.

Things happened fast after that. Dark Glasses said his name was Sid — he was a Hollywood agent and how would Biff like a screen test? Biff replied that he wouldn’t care to test any screens because he didn’t have any house to put them in.


Review
 

• Commentary magazine, November 1955

The Late Risers is all about Broadway-show girls, call girls, con men, publicity agents, actors, actresses, marijuana salesmen and consumers, columnists, their ghosts, and other meshuggene…. These characters are linked together in a fantastic plot that operates for seventeen and one-half hours of a single day, at the end of which their masks are lifted, and true natures established.

• Broadway columnist Billy Rose paid Wolfe the ultimate compliment of giving The Late Risers a prominent mention in his column (from 30 June 1954):

The other night … I read a book which does the job for me. It’s a new novel entitled The Late Risers, written by Bernard Wolfe with a tommygun in one hand and a bottle of acid in the other.

In what he calls a “midtown mezzotint,” Wolfe puts the microscope on a two-bit press agent named Mort Robell, whose office is in his pork-pie and who operates out of a drugstore phone booth. He argues, and I agree, that though Mort is a marginal stumblebum, he’s pretty much the spirit of the whole communications-fixing industry. The Broadway woods, Wlfe maintains, are full of professional magpies who figure that, “since reality isn’t newsworthy enough, it has to be stage-managed…. Under their auspices, reportage yields to reverie. . . . Some of those gents operate out of executive Suites, some out of cisterns. But svelte or sleazy, they’re all paid to tamper with the flow of information. . . . A shill is a shill is a shill.”

The springboard for the plot of The Late Risers is a story which I happen to know is true. A few years ago there was a press agent on Broadway who continually phoned the columnists, myself included, offering to trade “exclusives” for a mention of one of his clients. It was only after several months that somebody discovered where this enterprising worm got his “exclusives” from. He occupied a room in a Broadway hotel which commanded a view of the electric news sign on the Times Building!

The Late Risers, I think I ought to point out, isn’t entirely devoted to Mort Robell and his ill-gotten ilk. It dissects just about all the ladies and gentlemen of the late watch — the hipsters who take the sun as a personal affront. These characters are by no means figments of Wolfe’s imagination. They exist, and I have the scars to prove it. If you enjoyed Damon Runyon’s cynical-sweet sagas about Broadway in the ’20s, you’re a cinch to like The Late Risers.

I wouldn’t recommend it as hammock reading, however, unless you re prepared to be knocked out of your hammock.


Find a copy


The late risers, their masquerade, by Bernard Wolfe
New York: Random House, 1954

After the accident, from The Descent, by Fritz Peters

Order, which had ceased to exist until the sudden, unexpected arrival of a State Police car on a routine highway patrol, had come slowly, with monotonous, routine efficiency, out of the chaos of the accident back into the lives of the people involved. Bodies were extricated from the wreckage, wreckers and ambulances arrived, cars were moved, a single lane was cleared through the tangle of the accident and through traffic was pushed relentlessly on its way.

Twenty miles south of the scene of the accident, in the corridor of the hospital outside of the emergency room, the combined smells of blood, sweat, medicine, cigar smoke (from the cigar of one of the policemen), and the sickeningly sweet odor of burnt flesh mingled with the sublter odors of fear and death.

Reality, the fundamental, basic reality of life, had been imposed upon everyone involved in the accident for at least a short time. The dreams, illusions and enchantments, the superficial aims and purposed, desires and wishes, of the victims and the spectators were stripped away by the shock, leaving only the human essentials. The veneer of civilization that passes for human dignity had — for a time — ceased to exist.

For the doctor, supervisor, nurses, orderlies, ambulance drivers, and even the police, the aim and the purpose — as much because of habit as for any other reason — was not only to preserve life, but to restore order and security, to efface the accident by removing all its traces.

With the debris cleared from the road, the night, the land and the hill remained; indifferent to what had taken lace, ready for the next time. Except for the people directly involved, who would continue to reverberate to the consequences of the accident until such time as their wounds were healed and their habitual life reestablished, the accident became in the course of the night just one more even recorded in the reports of the Safety Council, reported in the newspapers, added to the columns of the statisticians.


Review

Manas Journal, 29 December 1954

Fritz Peters’ Descent continues this unusual writer’s exploration of uncommon subjects. His World Next Door, a story of insanity and recovery, received considerable attention in MANAS, since the philosophic overtones of the book were so striking. Later, Peters undertook a story of homosexuality, Finistère, which departed from the norm of the few books dealing with that topic in several respects — principally by neglecting no psychological dimension, and avoiding a thesis or theory. Descent is a novel about an automobile accident, in which each one injured or killed is shown to have created the conditions drawing him toward the tangled wreckage, months — even years — before the crash actually occurred.

Those who have read J. W. Dunne’s Experiment with Time may suspect that Mr. Peters has read it, too, and has for some time been wondering about the psychological meaning of such terms as “fate,” “nemesis,” “karma,” etc. The fatalism implied by the sequence of events in Descent, however, is conditional, since some persons only come close to the tragedy, being warned by strong premonitions in sufficient time to avoid death or serious injury. After the accident happens — the reader somehow knows all through the book that in a sense it is “real” before it takes place, and that each sufferer has contributed to its occurrence — one who escapes muses about the subconscious warning which was his own salvation:

He could understand, somehow, that nature required death of every living organism. It demanded its quota through sickness, disease, old age, manifestations of violence, volcanoes, floods, storms . . . but in all of these things there was a curious logic; creation and destruction were nature’s prerogatives, they could not be questioned.

What made no sense to him, what robbed life of any apparent purpose and design, was man’s own war against man. Not only armies of men fighting each other, but the so-called accidents, the murders, the suicides . . . Why had it had to happen? Why to those people? It could not, in his mind, be resolved — as it would be for the police with their facts and reports — by finding out who had caused it. There was something more than any human action involved. Why had Dorothy Simms tried to pass that truck then? Why had Stephen Williams passed him? What series of coincidences, what acts of fate, had selected this group of people? What was it that had protected him?

The warning — and his feeling of alarm was unmistakably that — had stopped him just in time. He had felt the approach of death — even if he had not known at the moment what it was — reaching out for him, like a huge hand with fingers outspread, for all of them. Had it been just for him, then, or had it come too late for the others? Either it had not been quite big enough to get them all, or else it had not been intended to reach them . . . yet.


Find out more


The Descent, by Fritz Peters
New York : Farrar, Straus and Young, 1952

The hour before execution, from Arrow to the Heart, by Albrecht Goes

Published in the U.S. as Unquiet Night. Recommended by Christopher Fry in Writer’s Choice.

Excerpt

It was a severe task that lay ahead of me–it was as though I had to perform a grave and spiritual saraband. There were words to be spoken, comprehensible human words, but clearly there was more than just this. Klaus, my frater catholicus, could give absolution, the host and the chrism; he had for his people a language of signs which at one and the same time may not be understood and yet which must be and is understood. But I, here, today? Up there, in my own district, I knew the men condemned to die in the prisons as well as, and frequently much better than, the other men condemned to another sort of death in the hospitals. We had a broad basis on which to build our last hour together, and there was never need to try to start at the last moment. Here I must begin from almost nothing. For, strictly speaking, I should not admit that I knew what I had read in the documents. Otherwise he might well say to himself that the pastor had been spying on him, and had come here with the intention of putting something across. I could imagine him saying: “No thanks. No rubbish for me from your piety junk shop.”

“We have one hour left to spend together. It is up to us, my friend, to make the most of it.”

Was that the right way to start? I had said it principally to myself.


Reviews and Comments

Book World, August 1951

We believe this to be one of the most moving novels to have come out of Germany (or indeed Europe) since the war. Its story is simple — a Lutheran padre’s visit to attend a deserter’s execution — but its underlying theme, of the survival among the jungle ethics of war … the fundamental virtues of goodness, courage and Christian charity make it a deeply impressive book.

Frederic Morton, New York Herald Tribune, 26 August 1951

In simple accents, with unadorned fidelity, Unquiet Night [U.S. title of ‘Arrow to the Heart’] records not only the corruption of evil men but also the corruptibility of the good. The very fact that the chaplain, an upright, high-minded believer, is also a little unctuous, a trifle complacent, just a shade selfish, addes to the poignance of the portrait.

Robert Pick, Saturday Review of Literature, 22 September 1951

This is a story of Christian love in a world hardly Christian any longer. It is very moving. It is religious writing of a kind that probably comes to life only where religion in its hope for survival has to go back to its sources in man.

Richard Plant, New York Times, 26 August 1951

The story is remarkable for its warmth, its simplicity and for the classical restraint with which the somber, swift moving events are related. Much of the credit should go to the excellent translation by the English writer Constantine Fitzgibbon, one of the top practitioners in this field.

  • Search for it at Amazon.com: Arrow to the Heart or Unquiet Night

  • Search for it at Addall.com: Arrow to the Heart or Unquiet Night
  • Arrow to the Heart, by Albrecht Goes
    Translated by Constantine Fitzgibbon
    London: Michael Joseph, 1951

    A network of roads, from Jew Süss, by Lion Feuchtwanger

    from the opening:

    A network of roads, like veins, was strung over the land, interlacing, branching, dwindling to nothing. They were neglected, full of stones and holes, torn up, overgrown, bottomless swamp in wet weather, and besides everywhere impeded by toll-gates. In the south, among the mountains, they narrowed into bridle-paths and disappeared. All the blood of the land flowed through these veins. The bumpy roads, gaping with dusty cracks in the sun, heavy with mud in the rain, were the moving life of the land, its breath and pulse.

    Upon them travelled the regular stage-coaches, open carts without cushions or backs to the seats, jolting clumsily, patched and patched again, and the quicker post-chaises with four seats and five horses, which could do as much as eighty miles a day. There travelled the express couriers of courts and embassies, on good horses with frequent relays, carrying sealed despatches, and the more leisurely messengers of the Thurn and Taxis Post. There travelled journeymen with their knapsacks, honest and dangerous, and students as lean and meek as the others were stout and saucy, and monks with discreet eyes, sweating in their cowls. There travelled the tilt-carts of the great merchants, and the hand-barrows of peddling Jews. There travelled in six solid and somewhat shabby coaches the King of Prussia, who had been visiting the South German courts, and his retinue. There travelled in an endless tail of men and cattle and coaches the Protestants whom the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg had driven with insults from his country. There travelled gaily-decked actors and soberly-clad devotees, sunk in themselves; and in a magnificent calèche with outriders and a large escort the lean and arrogant Venetian Ambassadors to the Court of Saxony. There travelled in disorder, on laboriously constructed vehicles, Jews deported from a middle-German city of the Empire, making for Frankfurt. There travelled schoolmasters and noblemen, silken harlots and woolen clerks of the Supreme Court. There travelled comfortably with several coaches the plump, sly, and jolly-looking Prince Bishop of Würzburg, and on foot and out-at-elbows a Professor Lanshut from the University of Bavaria, who had been dismissed for seditious and heretical opinions. There travelled with the agent of an English shipping company a party of Swabian emigrants, wives, dogs, children and all, who wanted to go to Pennsylvania; and pious, violent and bawling pilgrims from lower Bavaria on the way to Rome; there travelled, with a rapacious, sharp, observant eye on everything, the requisitioners of silver, cattle, and grain for the Viennese War Treasury, and discharged Imperial soldiers from the Turkish wars, and charlatans and alchemists and beggars and young gentlemen with their tutors journeying from Flanders to Venice.

    They all swept forwards, backwards, and across, came to a standstill, spurred on, stumbled, trotted easily, cursed the bad roads, laughed bitterly or with good-natured mockery at the slowness of the stage, growled at the worn-out hacks, the ramshackle vehicles. They all poured on, ebbed back, gossiped, prayed, whored, blasphemed, shrank in fear, exulted, and lived.

    Jew Süss, by Lion Feuchtwanger (translated by Willa and Edwin Muir)
    London: Martin Secker, 1926:

    The death of Scarponi, from The Death of the Detective, by Mark Smith

    from Chapter Twenty-Two: The Death of Scarponi

    In Chicago there was half an hour of heavy rain. Underpasses flooded, water roared black and white along the gutters, and the streets and buildings gleamed as though shellacked. Throughout the city the name of Scarponi spelled itself repetitiously on the neon signs that hung before Scarponi’s liquor stores, reflecting in fuzzy, elongated, and glaring grean, red, and white letters on the slick black pavement of the streets. Cars splashed through the colors, took and bent the letters momentarily on their trunks and hoods. Pedestrians who crossed the street stepped into an O, waded through a P, took the colors on their rubbers and domes of their umbrellas. Like spilled gasoline, streaks of color ran in the flooded streets. Inside the Scarponi stores, which were the size of supermarkets and like great technicolor billboards set out against the night, drowsy clerks stood in the aisles between the shelves of bottles and lines of empty grocery carts with their arms folded across their chests, or they leaned upon the counters by the cash registers, pencils tucked behind their ears, staring out through the downpour that rolled down the plate-glass window at the bedraggled, floundering, pedestrians and the creep and glitter of the traffic in the streets.

    It was tonight that the Tanker, who was not a professional killer but only a young car thief and burglar of far less experience than he liked to claimed, was to kill Scarponi. In fact he had been hired to kill him not once but twice and, although he did not know it, by two different men. On the shortest possible notice he had been ordered to follow the skeleton of a plan and to improvise the rest. He had received these orders from Romanski, who had allegedly received his from Fiore but actually from the Doctor, who had received his from his nephew Allegro, and he now in turn entrusted the first step of the plot to kill Scarponi to Ralph Borman, a boyhood friend. They had grown up together in the old North Side neighborhood of narrow, odd-sized frame houses often shingled in asphalt and in various stages of decay and expedient repairs, with no two of them on the same street the same color, looking as though they had been saved from demolition and moved to their present lots from somewhere else. It was a neighborhood that smelled of machine oil and the tannery on the river, that was traversed day and night by big trucks, where someone was always working on the engine of his car in the street and boys were interested in cars and jobs and money and left school at sixteen to apprentice to a trade. Both Tanker and Borman still lived in this neighborhood. Tanker knew that Borman needed the fifty dollars he had promised him if he would steal a late model Oldsmobile and leave it with the keys on the front seat at the designated hour in the parking lot of a restaurant in Edgebrook in the northwest section of the city. Friendship alone determined his selection of an accomplice. If Tanker had a favor to give, he gave it naturally to a friend. That Borman, in his opinion, was weak, unlucky, and incompetent only gave him, the stronger and more competent if not exactly always the luckier of the two, all the more reason for helping him. He felt responsible for his old friend.

    At present Borman was under indictment for armed robbery but was out on the bail Tanker had arranged through Romanski. He had held up a cab driver, who, as his luck would have it, was a moonlighting cop. Upon hearing the childlike and apologetic voice at his back demanding his money and observing that the pistol pointed at him was made of plastic with a seam running down the center of the plugged-up barrel and the color of the plastic a kind of mauve, the policeman had taken his time in removing a thick piece of hose from the glove compartment (“I always carry an extra piece of hose with me,” he was later to tell the press, “because you never know when the hose to your radiator might spring a leak”), had taken his time in locking both rear doors, and taken his time in clubbing Borman unconscious on his seat. Tanker had first heard of it on the news in his car radio and had shouted out loud in surprise at the mention of his old friend’s name. It was typical of Borman’s destiny that the announcer treated robbery and robber with amusement, as did the newspapers in the morning. It was the light side of the news. Tanker had been puzzled by Borman’s resort to robbery. He thought he held a steady job as a bartender in an old-fashioned tavern in the old neighborhood. Located on a residential street corner that even the local residents rarely passed, it had large unwashed windows, steps you had to walk up to enter, and a musky air that smelled like beer thrown on the embers of a wood fire. Borman had stood behind the bar in a white apron and soiled white shirt, with his pale, fat, frightened face and his blond hair slicked down along his sideburns, looking as though he were afraid of being robbed, fired, or ordered to make a drink he had not heard of before. Even his numerous tattoos did not suggest military service, manliness, or evil so much as his having been held down forcibly by sadistic friends and mutilated.

    The Death of the Detective, by Mark Smith
    New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974: