Saturday, December 24, 2022

Season's Greetings

Because nothing says "Christmas" like owls on velocipedes.

Sunday, December 11, 2022

Hearst and the Devil Fish

Phoebe Hearst didn't care for her son's taste in women. Throughout his adult life, the media magnate William Randolph Hearst had a taste for showgirls and lived more or less openly with mistresses even while raising a family of five sons with his legal wife, Millicent (another showgirl). While still in his twenties, he had come close to marrying an aspiring actress named Eleanor Calhoun. Though Phoebe had actually introduced the two, she regarded Calhoun as a golddigger and firmly opposed their union. Young "Will" Hearst, at that point, had ambition but little money of his own. His father was a wealthy mining entrepreneur who eventually became a US senator, but he was absent much of the time, marginally literate, and averse to correspondence; it was Phoebe, originally a Missouri schoolteacher, who kept tabs on things. In 1887 she wrote to a friend:
I am so distressed about Will that I don't really know how I can live if he marries Eleanor Calhoun. She is determined to marry him and it seems as if he must be in the toils of the Devil fish.
The last phrase is odd. What was a Devil fish, and what labors did it undertake? Why would it be an apt metaphor for a woman who, in Phoebe's view, was out to ensnare her son?

It turns out that the term "devil-fish" or "devilfish" has been applied to a bewildering range of creatures, from gray whales to manta rays, but the animal Phoebe had in mind was neither fish nor cetacean but a cephalopod. Had she been inclined, she could have read an 1875 book by Henry Lee, the keeper of the Brighton Aquarium, entitled The Octopus, Or, The "Devil-fish" of Fiction and of Fact. One chapter of Lee's book retells a portion of Victor Hugo's novel Les Travailleurs de la mer, which describes a life-and-death struggle between a Guernsey fisherman and a giant octopus. Phoebe, who was well-travelled and who is known to have studied French as an adult, may well have been familiar with Hugo's account, in translation or in the original, and if not no doubt she had heard similar stories.

Once the "Devil fish" has been identified, the metaphor starts to make sense. Phoebe saw Eleanor Calhoun as a sinister monster threatening to enfold Will in her lethal embrace. But what about the "toils"?

My first thought was that Hearst's biographer, David Nasaw, had mistranscribed Phoebe's letter, and that what she really wrote was "coils of the Devil fish," referring to its tentacles. But Nasaw is a careful researcher and his book is well-edited; surely the error, if it were such, would have been spotted early on. I then supposed that Phoebe meant to write "coils" but had slipped and written "toils," perhaps with Hugo's "toilers" in the back of her mind. As it turns out, however, there's no need for creative speculations. Phoebe wrote "toils" because she meant "toils"; the word "toil" has an archaic meaning of "net, snare," related to the French toile. In a 19th-century translation of Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre-Dame a fly is said to be "caught in the toils of the spider." The octopus idiom seems to have been in the air; in 1897 a writer named Owen Hall, who certainly hadn't read Phoebe's letter, used the identical words in a short story entitled "In a Treasure Ship."

A similar molluscan metaphor would inspire Frank Norris's 1901 novel about the California railway industry, The Octopus.

Illustration: painting by Victor Hugo

Thursday, November 03, 2022

Shuna's Journey (2022)

First Second Books in the US has released the first authorized English-language translation of Hayao Miyazaki's 1983 full-color manga Shuna no tabi (Shuna's Journey). I've written about the original Japanese version at length before (link); I speak no Japanese but was able to follow the story with the help of earlier fan translations. The readable new translation, by Alex Dudok de Wit, clears up a few points in the narrative here and there. The New York Times has a review. I'll confine myself below to a few technical points about the reproduction.

The American edition, printed in Singapore, respects the layout and orientation of the Japanese edition, that is, printing it back-to-front from a US perspective. The trim size has been increased by about 50% with a noticeable but not glaring decrease in sharpness, and unlike the original, which was a paperback, the book has a hardcover binding, which makes it easier to see into the gutter. The paper stock isn't coated, however, and the color palette, particularly the lovely rich blues of Miyazaki's original, is a bit washed out. Whatever image processing magic was required to replace the Japanese text with English seems to have gone smoothly. Devotees may want to seek out the Japanese edition (ISBN 9784196695103), which should be obtainable for under $20, so that they can appreciate the full beauty of the original in tandem with this welcome and overdue translation.

Wednesday, November 02, 2022

Building Stonehenge (George Booth 1926-2022)

My favorite Booth cartoon, this one didn't appear in the New Yorker but in the business section of the New York Times, accompanying an article about corporate downsizing. I scanned it years ago but missed a sliver at the bottom.

Saturday, October 22, 2022


I'm standing on a great plain with no trees or buildings in sight, and I notice a faint hum of engine noise. I look up. Airplanes or airships that must be of enormous size, though they are barely dots because they are so high, are flying in formation across a crystalline, cloudless sky, leaving tiny, precise contrails miles above me. They seem not to have come from any of the cardinal points but simply to have descended from the stratosphere. As I watch I see white parachutes emerging, opening and hanging in the air like dandelion seeds, but the skydivers don't descend; they simply hover in space, dancing and parading together, held aloft no doubt by powerful high-altitude winds.

A crowd has gathered. I hear the cough of a police radio at my back and air-raid sirens somewhere in the distance. Strobe lights flicker. Military vehicles appear, steered by grim-faced men in helmets and dark glasses.

The aircraft are moving over our heads at what must be terrific speed, though from the ground they barely seem to creep. The parachutists, too, are drifting away, still whirling in tight patterns and showing no sign of coming to earth. The crowd thins and the vehicles race off and disappear from sight. The plain darkens as the sun falls behind distant mountains. All is quiet.


This was not a dream, although it seemed a bit like one at the time. On a beautiful fall afternoon I drove a few miles to one of my favorite haunts, a preserve of some 600 or so acres of woodland dotted with rocks and a couple of little ponds and streams. I brought my camera along as I usually do on my hikes, but there wasn't much to see except fallen leaves. I walked a couple of miles without meeting anyone else, then, having climbed a hill to the highest point in the preserve and briefly rested on a bench, I got set to head back.

I came to a place where the trail bends to the left and descends to what on the map is called a lake but is really just a modest pond. Just at the bend, though, I saw something that had never been there on my previous visits: a trail off to the right, clearly marked with red blazes on trees and carefully bordered with lengths of pruned branches. Intrigued, I started down the trail and followed it up to the top of a ridge, figuring that it couldn't take me very far out of my way. I continued along as it wound through the woods, crossed old stone walls, and wove around ancient outcroppings of rock. At one point I passed the remains of some kind of structure, though it would be hard to say just what it had been.
And the trail went on and on. I kept expecting it to loop back to the main trail, or if not, just to come to a dead end. But I started to think: What if it doesn't? What if it never comes back? What if it just keeps going?

I lost the trail once or twice because I was paying attention to the contours of the terrain instead of the blazes, but quickly found the right course again. Eventually I got a bead on where I was in relation to the rest of the preserve, and descended a series of what looked like old stone steps at the top of a long slope that, sure enough, met up with the main trail at an intersection that, like the first, had never been there before. I had detoured about a mile. An improvised sign posted at the intersection noted the opening of the trail, and the recent purchase of a new parcel of land that made it possible, but when I got back to the main kiosk at the parking lot the map there hadn't been updated and there was no notice posted about any extension of the trail system. I almost wonder whether that trail will be there the next time I visit.

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

On the road

About twenty years ago or maybe a little more, my wife and I went to a small music club called the Towne Crier, which at that time was located in Pawling, New York, to hear a Scottish traditional music group called the Tannahill Weavers. According to a rumor I heard later, the Tannies had just come off a gig in a different venue at which some ignorant louts of the kind who think that anything connected with Scotland is fair game for mockery had made it an utterly miserable night for the group, so they may have come onstage with just a wee bit of trepidation. The Towne Crier, however, was a club for people who are knowledgeable about and serious about their music. As soon the Tannies finished the first song (or maybe set of tunes), the audience of some 150 or 200 people went absolutely wild in the best way, cheering and applauding and maybe even leaping to their feet, and I'll never forget the looks the band members exchanged in that moment, looks of mingled delight, relief, and stupefaction at their reception. Needless to say they were energized for the rest of the evening and put on a great show. As of 2022 they're still regular vistors to the Crier, which has since moved a bit west to Beacon.

The Tannahill lineup that night (it has changed often over the years) was presumably Roy Gullane on lead vocals and guitar, Phil Smillie on whistle, flute, and vocals, Leslie Wilson on guitar, bouzouki, and vocals, John Martin on fiddle and vocals, and I think Duncan Nicholson on bagpipes. The inclusion of the pipes was an innovation introduced by the group, and takes a bit of careful arranging, since bagpipes are just naturally louder than the stringed instruments and aren't traditionally played in a combo setting. (The Irish group Planxty, which had an approach somewhat akin to that of the Tannies, made similar creative use of Liam O'Flynn's uilleann pipes.)

The Tannies play a mixture of instrumentals, old ballads, and original songs, driven by Gullane's vocals and energetic rhythm guitar work, which really has to be seen live to be appreciated in full. Gullane has just put out a memoir entitled Goulash Soup and Chips, in which he tells stories from tours past, some painful (miserable road trips, gigs that weren't paid for, baggage handling disasters, etc.) and others absolutely hilarious. It's available from Amazon or at Tannahill Weavers gigs, and is essential for fans of the group and recommended for anyone interested in traditional music. Long may they wave.

Below is a clip of an expanded line-up of the Tannies performing "The Geese in the Bog" a few years back during a 40th-anniversary celebration.

Thursday, October 06, 2022


I enjoyed this seasonally appropriate 1960 Mexican film directed by Roberto Gavaldón, with cinematography by Gabriel Figueroa. Macario is based on a short story by B. Traven, which is in turn based on a folktale called (in one of its many versions) "Godfather Death." It tells of a poor woodcutter (Ignacio López Tarso) who can barely feed his family enough tortillas and beans to fill their stomachs. Since his one wish in life is to have an entire roast turkey for himself, his devoted wife (Pina Pellicer) finally steals one and cooks it for him. As he sits down to eat it he receives in succession three visitors, whom we realize are in turn the Devil, God (or Jesus), and Death. Each asks to share his meal, but on the basis of some quite logical reasoning he agrees to invite only the third, who, in return, gives Macario a magic liquid that will enable him to cure the dying. There is a catch, however; if Macario sees Death standing at the feet of the patient, he may perform his cure; if Death stands at the head of the bed, the patient is his and Macario must not intervene. Macario makes use of the potion and becomes, in time, a rich man, until the Inquisition gets wind of his activities.

One of the things I liked about the film is that it plays down the potentially garish visual aspect of the story. (That aspect is, in part, reserved for the opening credits, which feature a troupe of folkloric skeleton marionettes.) The Devil, for instance, is a bit of a snazzy dresser, but he doesn't have horns and a goatee, nor is Death a skeletal figure with a flail. Macario, in his unassuming way, recognizes them for who they are nevertheless, and he isn't excessively impressed with either, or with the Señor. López Tarso is particularly good at giving Death skeptical looks at the bedside of patients who are obvious goners but whom Death assures him can still be saved. Really, this one? (Shrug.)

Gavaldón made at least two other films based on Traven novels or stories, Rosa Blanca and Días de otoño. I haven't seen either one, although I've read the story the latter is based on and it could be interesting. Ignacio López Tarso, at this writing, is still alive at the age of 97, which suggests that he set aside a bit of that potion for himself. Sadly, Pina Pellicer, who starred in Días de otoño, died at age 30 of an overdose of sleeping pills.

I'm not sure about the current availability of Macario on DVD or from streaming services; I watched an older DVD release that has subtitle options in both English and Spanish. A version of the folktale can be found in the Lore Segal / Maurice Sendak edition of The Juniper Tree and Other Tales from Grimm, one of those perfect books that belong in every household.

Friday, September 30, 2022

In the clearing

The grass may not always be greener, but with mushrooms it seems to be a different story. It's been a dreadful year for fungi-spotting where I live (too dry), but whenever I go away they seem to be abundant everywhere else. These specimens, from a brief field trip to New Hampshire, were found in an area of scrubby woodland along a rarely-used trail.
Amanita is an interesting and often photogenic genus, with the classic "toadstool" appearance. Some species are regarded as choice edibles (by braver souls than I), others are deadly, and one, the "fly agaric," is a notorious hallucinogen with an alleged role in shamanism and religion. They can be hard to tell apart and I'm not quite sure which Amanita these are, but it was a pleasant surprise to come across them.

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Stateless person

The narrator of this novel by the elusive writer who called himself B. Traven is one Gerard Gales, an American seaman who oversleeps while in port and loses his identification papers when his ship sails without him. Unable to prove his identity, his nationality, or even his legal existence, he is deported from one European country to another until he finds a freighter whose captain has reason not to be fussy about documents. As it turns out, the aptly-named Yorikke, on which Gales becomes a stoker's assistant, is a dilapidated ship of fools, doomed to be scuttled for its insurance payoff. If the first part of the book is bureaucratic satire, lighter but also sharper than Kafka's in The Trial, the rest is largely taken up with harrowing descriptions of the working conditions of those who tend the boilers. Unlike the Kafka of Amerika, who never crossed the Atlantic at all, Traven clearly knew from first-hand experience what a stoker's existence was really like. But even at its grimmest the book never loses its dark sense of humor. The Yorikke, Gales assures us, is actually thousands of years old. Its apparent timelessness gives the tale yet another dimension.

Who was B. Traven? He usually claimed that, like Gerard Gales, he was an American whose documents had gotten lost. Sometimes he blamed the destruction of his birth record on the fires caused by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. He may have even believed it, and it may even have been true, although few scholars now give the idea much credence. That he was the same person as one Ret Marut, a German actor and radical writer whose paper trail went cold in the 1920s, is no longer seriously questioned, but then who was Ret Marut? We may never know with absolute certainty.

The Death Ship was originally published in German as Das Totenschiff. The earliest English-language edition, issued in 1934 by Chatto & Windus, was translated by Eric Sutton. It was followed almost immediately by an American edition brought out by Alfred A. Knopf, of which my Collier Books edition above is a reprint. No translator is indicated inside the book. Traven, who reportedly didn't like the Sutton version, chose to translate the novel himself for Knopf, expanding it as he did so. His command of English was faulty, however. The German scholar Karl S. Guthke explains what happened:
The manuscript of The Death Ship that arrived in New York in 1933 was couched in an English that would have raised the eyebrows of most readers. As Knopf editor Bernard Smith reported, the text was so Germanic in vocabulary and syntax that it could never have made it in to print. And for good reason: Traven himself had translated the novel (as he was to translate the other novels Knopf would bring out), at the same time giving free rein to his lifelong passion for rewriting, cutting, and inserting new material. Knopf asked Traven to agree to a revision by Smith. Traven asked for sample pages and was favorably impressed. After instructing Knopf that only grammatical, syntactic, and orthographic changes were to be made, he authorized Smith to rework the entire manuscript. "This entailed treating about 25% of the text," Smith recalled. "In any given paragraph there was sure to be at least one impossibly Germanic sentence, and sometimes an entire paragraph had to be reconstructed." Smith stressed that his contribution in no way involved what could be considered literary or creative work on the three novels he revised. He had merely turned Traven's translations into acceptable English. It was clear to Smith from the beginning that English was not the translator's mother tongue; the syntactic thread was German, and even in Smith's reworked version the German original rears its head from time to time.

B. Traven: The Life Behind the Legends
The treatment of American place-names in the Traven-Smith version is a bit off. Referring to Wisconsin familiarly as "Sconsin" might just slip by unnoticed, but Chicago is casually referred to as "Chic," Cincinnati as "Cincin," and, least likely of all, Los Angeles as "Los." Other than that and a few eccentric colloquialisms the novel doesn't particularly "read like a translation" at all. Weirdly, it winds up being a work of American literature.

Traven, who would stubbornly maintain the fiction that his novels were originally written in English, allowed his German-language publisher, Büchergilde Gutenberg, to issue a new German "translation" in 1937 based on the Knopf version.

Sunday, August 28, 2022

Literary services

I've been assigned to escort a famous poet to a public reading in Princeton, New Jersey. We are to meet in Grand Central Station before transferring across town to catch a southbound train, but I've neglected to arrange an exact rendezvous with Famous Poet, whose number isn't in my phone. I wander about looking for him, but the terminal is an enormous bazaar covering acres and acres, and it's hopeless to try to locate one person in such an intricate and crowded space. Parts of the bulding have been torn down or have fallen into ruins; on the levelled ground earth-moving machines are preparing the foundation for new structures to come. I select a name from my list of contacts, a colleague who would be likely to have Famous Poet's number, but the person who answers is a stranger who knows nothing about it. I call my boss but he can't help; he is alarmed that we aren't already on the way.

Finally I spy Famous Poet near the ticket booth. He is distraught and tears of rage are streaming down his face. There's no question of continuing; the reading will have to be rescheduled.

Monday, August 08, 2022

Report of the Committee on Agriculture (III)

It's been another unpredictable year in the squash patch. The acorn squash that I planted in the wake of last year's profusion of volunteers didn't come up at all, perhaps because the seed I saved just wasn't viable. It looks like I may have some Black Futsus coming (seed from Baker Creek), and I have some vines that are just starting to run but that I suspect may turn out to be butternuts. In general things are late, perhaps because the spring was a bit cool here and the summer has been hot and dry. I did get some nice gray zucchini before the vine borers wiped them out.
The big surprise (literally big) is this 15-lb. pumpkin, which I didn't consciously plant and which I suspect grew out of last fall's Jack O'Lantern. I've named it Rusty Staub, in homage to le grand orange.

Dominoes (Georges Perec)

Before the former child star Olivia Rorschach sets off on one of her frequent trips, she leaves instructions for her au pair, Jane Sutton, one sentence of which reads "Buy cooked Edam for Polonius and don’t forget to take him once a week to Monsieur Lefèvre for his domino lesson." Perec appends an explanatory footnote:
Polonius is the 43rd descendant of a pair of tame hamsters which Rémi Rorschach gave Olivia as a present shortly after he met her: the two of them had seen an animal-trainer at a Stuttgart music hall and were so impressed by the athletic exploits of the hamster Ludovic – disporting himself with equal ease on the rings, the bar, the trapeze, and the parallel bars – that they asked if they could buy him. The trainer, Lefèvre, refused, but sold them instead a pair – Gertrude and Sigismond – which he had trained to play dominoes. The tradition was maintained from generation to generation, with each set of parents spontaneously teaching their offspring to play. Unfortunately, the previous winter an epidemic had almost wiped out the little colony: the sole survivor, Polonius, could not play solo, and, worse, was condemned to waste away if he was prevented from indulging in his favourite pastime. Thus he had to be taken once a week to Meudon to his trainer, who, though now retired, continued to raise little circus animals for his own amusement.

Life A User's Manual (translation by David Bellos)

Monday, August 01, 2022

11 Rue Simon-Crubellier

When I first read this 1978 novel by Georges Perec in David Bellos's translation years ago I recall being entertained but also perhaps a bit underwhelmed. This summer I'm reading it in the original (with the translation on hand as a crib) as a way to keep up my French. In some ways it's ideal for the purpose. It's made up of fairly short, self-contained chapters that I can read at a relaxed pace of one or two a day, and it's not particularly slangy or conversational (street French not being something I'm up on). The grammar I can handle; the hard part is the vocabulary for material objects (clothes, home furnishings, tools) which Perec delights in ennumerating. (In fact the cataloguing of objects was part of his compositional method.) These are, as it turns out, the very things where my English vocabulary is weakest; thus when Perec refers to an aumônière, I am little wiser when I turn to Bellos and find that this is "a Dorothy bag." My eyes begin to glaze over when Perec, at his most maniacal, devotes several pages to the contents of a catalog from a hardware manufacturer. Fortunately, such extreme moments are rare.

For those unfamiliar with the book, La vie mode d'emploi captures a snapshot of the inhabitants and furnishings of a Paris apartment building at one instant in June 1975. In addition to describing them synchronically, he also moves back in time liberally in order to narrate the stories of the present and former denizens of the building. There's also a frame tale involving an expatriate Englishman named Bartlebooth who wanders the world for twenty years painting harbor scenes, which he sends home and has made into jigsaw puzzles. Puzzles and games fascinated Perec, and the writing of the novel was itself structured by the use of various constraints and procedures, such as a "knight's tour" in chess, in which the knight visits every space on the chessboard exactly once. But arguably the parts are more interesting than the whole.

Comparing the two versions raises new puzzles. Why, for instance, in the list of paintings created by a tenant named Franz Hutting, did Bellos translate
14 Maximilien, débarquant à Mexico, s'enfourne élégamment onze tortillas
14 Maximilian lands in Mexico and daintily scoffs four nelumbia and eleven tortillas
and for that matter what on earth are "nelumbia"? Why does
21 Le docteur Lajoie est radié de l'ordre des médecins pour avoir déclaré en public que William Randolph Hearst, sortant d'une projection de Citizen Kane, aurait monnayé l'assasinat d'Orson Welles
21 Dr LaJoie is struck off the medical register for having stated, in front of Ray Monk, Ken O'Leary, and others that, after seeing Citizen Kane, William Randolph Hearst had put a price on Orson Welles's head
with the parts in bold (my emphasis) being apparently gratuitous additions by the translator?

As it turns out, there is method to Bellos's changes. According to a table available here, each painting description in the original conceals the name of one of Perec's friends and associates. Thus "s'enfourne élégamment" hides (Paul) Fournel, which Bellos has reproduced with the mysterious "four nelumbia." Similarly, "Kane, aurait" reveals (Raymond) Queneau, prompting Bellos''s "Ray Monk, Ken O." (Harry Mathews, by the way, is tucked into "Joseph d'Arimathie ou Zarathoustra.")

These diabolical devices, of which there must be many examples throughout the novel, add to the book's fascination, but also provoke some frustration. What else, one wonders, is one overlooking as one reads innocently along?

Thursday, July 21, 2022


Georges Perec:
Sometimes Valène dreamt of cataclysms and tempests, of whirlwinds that would carry the whole house off like a wisp of straw and display the infinite marvels of the solar system to its shipwrecked inhabitants; or that an unseen crack would run through the building from top to bottom, like a shiver, and with a long, deep, snapping sound it would open in two and be slowly swallowed up in an indescribable yawning chasm; then hordes would overrun it, bleary-eyed monsters, giant insects with steel mandibles, blind termites, great white worms with insatiable mouths: the wood would crumble, the stone would turn to sand, the cupboards would collapse under their own weight, all would return to dust.

Life A User's Manual (translation by David Bellos)

Friday, July 08, 2022

Fugitive lyrics

In 1975 I took a course taught by a folklorist who had a parallel career as the producer of a number of commercial recordings of folk music. Though the course was aimed at grad students and I was only a sophomore, I was allowed to enroll, which probably wasn't such a great decision all around as it turned out, but the semester did at least leave a few lasting impressions. In particular, I recall two songs he played us in class that came from recordings he had made in the course of field work in the UK. I still remember parts of them almost verbatim (no doubt because they were off-color), and since I can't find any trace of the exact lyrics (though they must be documented somewhere), I present them here.

The first was a version of the notorious comic song known as "Seven Nights Drunk" or "Our Goodman." The premise of the song is that the singer, a habitual drunkard, is being cuckolded by his wife. When he presents her with the evidence of this, which is increasingly unmistakeable as the song progresses, she blames it on his drunken befuddlement and comes up with one far-fetched explanation after another to account for what he thinks he sees. A typical first verse goes as follows:
As I went home on Monday night as drunk as drunk could be
I saw a horse outside the door, where my old horse should be
So I called me wife, the curse of me life, will you kindly tell to me
Who owns that horse outside the door where my old horse should be.
Ay you're drunk, you're drunk you silly old fool
As drunk as drunk can be
That's a lovely sow that me mother sent to me
Well it's many a day I've travelled, a hundred miles or more
But a saddle on a sow, sure I never saw before.
The lyrics go downhill from there, depending on the version, but the final one below is typical:
As I went home on Sunday night as drunk as drunk could be
I saw a thing in her thing where my old thing should be
Well, I called me wife and I said to her: Will you kindly tell to me
Who owns that thing in your thing where my old thing should be
Ah, you're drunk,
you're drunk you silly old fool,
still you can not see
That's a lovely tin whistle that me mother sent to me
Well, it's many a day I've travelled a hundred miles or more
But hair on a tin whistle sure I never saw before
The last verse I remember was similar, but instead of a tin whistle it's "a rubber tree" or "a rubber tree plant," and the last line (which I've probably Americanized) was "But a rubber tree plant with hair at the roots I never done seen before."

I haven't been able to identify the other song, which was sung by two British sisters who weren't professional performers. With the tape recorder running the song had a refrain of "Just you remember when you're kissing your man / he's trying to get another kiss from you as soon as he can!" Only when the machine was turned off would they agree to sing the saltier version, which ran "Just you remember when you're kissing your man / he's trying to get another rattle out of your tin can!"

Looking back now, I wonder how much my memory has distorted the details. (Did I, perhaps, borrow the "rubber tree plant" from "High Hopes"?) But in a way that distortion is the whole point: that's how oral tradition twists and preserves material from one generation to the next.

Monday, July 04, 2022

Ambition (III)

Georges Perec:
She’d have done better to sell up and go back to the farm where she’d been born. Rabbits and chickens, some tomato plants, and a couple of beds for lettuces and cabbages -- what more did she need? She would have sat by her fireside amongst her placid cats, listening to the clock ticking, to the rain falling on the zinc drainpipes, and the seven-o’clock bus passing by in the far distance; she’d have carried on warming her bed with a warming pan before getting into it, warming her face in the sun on her stone bench, cutting recipes out of La Nouvelle République and sticking them into her big kitchen book.

Life A User's Manual, translated by David Bellos
The woman in question, Madame Moreau, is the sole proprietor of a prosperous hardware manufacturing business employing 2,000 people.

Monday, June 27, 2022

Articles of Faith

Things as I see them.

There is no God.

There is no Heaven, no Hell, no Devil. There are no angels or demons or ghosts. There are no miracles.

There is no afterlife, no reincarnation. Whatever the "soul" can be said to be, it dissipates when the body dies.

There was no Original Sin, no Fall, and thus nothing to redeem. There was no Incarnation. Whatever the truth about his sayings and doings, Jesus was an ordinary human being. His mother was not "conceived without sin" any more or less than everyone else, nor was he the product of "virgin birth." He did not "die for our sins," he was not resurrected, nor will he return.

The universe is not concerned with our existence. In fact, even to say that it is "indifferent" is to engage in indefensible metaphysics. The universe is not capable of having an attitude towards our existence or its own. It simply exists. Why and how there is something instead of nothing is a question that neither theologian nor scientist is capable of illuminating.

Morality and ontology have nothing to do with each other. A godless universe is no more or less moral than a universe with a god in it. I once heard an Episcopalian priest, in the aftermath of one human-produced atrocity or another, say that if he thought for one moment that what had happened was God's punishment for our sins, he would put aside his priestly garments and walk out of the church forever. And so, in his place, would I.

The only true "sin" is cruelty, and the most fundamental virtue is compassion. There are more virtues than sins, because all sins ultimately come down to the same thing.

Religious institutions and religious leaders are susceptible of the same virtues and failings as everyone else. Many do good work, but many are corrupt and hypocritical. Much of the cruelty in the world is the outcome of religious belief, but much is not.

If religion gets you through the night, keeps you off the sauce, and maybe makes you a slightly kinder person, then more power to you, but if it serves as a cover for hatred and oppression, you'll get no respect from me.

Friday, June 17, 2022

Effingers (Coming Attractions)

One to watch out for: a promised English-language translation of Gabriele Tergit's family saga Effingers, which was originally published in Germany in 1951 but only recently "rediscovered" and reissued there to general acclaim. Robert Normen has a description on the website of The German Times:
In the best way, this epic 900-page novel resembles another historic family saga: Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks. Mann’s story of four generations runs from 1835 to 1877. It may be no coincidence that Tergit’s book begins the very next year. Effingers is set against the backdrop of a changing German society steeped in the comforts of Bismarckian Prussia. Modernization and an economic boom bring affluence and changing norms, which are reflected in the contrasts between the city of Berlin and Karl’s and Paul’s small hometown in southern Germany. After World War I, anti-Semitic sentiment slowly but surely takes hold and the Effinger family must reluctantly learn that they are not the German clan they aspired to be.
NYRB Books has previously published a translation by Sophie Duvernoy of Tergit's earlier novel Käsebier Takes Berlin, and they have signed Duvernoy up for Effingers as well, though apparently no date has been announced. In the meantime, a snazzy-looking Spanish-language version has just been issued by Libros del Asteroide in Barcelona.
More information is available at The German Times.

Friday, June 03, 2022

Cardboard Box of Batteries

The death of Kelly Joe Phelps on May 31st got me thinking about my favorite Kelly Joe song, so I've dug out and updated some notes I made back in 2005. First, here are the lyrics, based on the liner notes for Tap the Red Cane Whirlwind, with a few minor changes to punctuation.
make a dent in the shovel
run the mud through a sieve

paste your hopes on a windmill blade
and plant 'em up on the hill.

a pencil sharpened with a putty knife
a pretty girl as a pretty nun
maybe you wake and think this is great
i just want somewhere to run.

oh, the walls blend into ceilings, and the faces they disappear.
never enough time to think it out only time to forget i'm here.
oh, and the bill is on the table but i've got no coins for pay
a beer half circle around her name, and what the hell did she say?

ah, the wise are playing tetherball and the ball's eyes they look like mine
rollin' around all on the end of the cord i can't make up for down
oh, i'm a streamlined engine with a cog chipped out of the wheel
i remember a dirty joke or two but i can't remember the feel.
i remember a dirty joke or two but i can't remember the feel.

too much time alone i spend, a miser with a nickel worn
starving like a mother, well, but i can't let go.
i'll spit the hours across the room and I'll kick 'em out that door
hell, you can have them. another thing i've got no use for.

well and it's funny that this comes out dark, it is not that bad
Oh, there's still a sparkle of silver in my cavity that plays music in the winter
i've a cardboard box of batteries hidden in a tire swing
a miner's hat with a light on top and a handful of wedding rings.
a miner's hat with a light on top and a handful of wedding rings.
a miner's hat with a light on top and a handful of wedding rings.
It doesn't quite "tell a story," but as a mood piece or character sketch it's about as precise as you can get. Memories, regrets, hopes — they're "all in the bag with the coins" (to quote another KJP song). I've highlighted everything that refers to prospecting, money, metal; it's a vein (so to speak) that runs through the whole thing. Some of the imagery is homely and eccentric — has anyone else used the word “tetherball” in a pop song? — other bits (“a pretty girl as a pretty nun”) just raise questions.

It's a melancholy picture, but there's that little "sparkle" at the end. The looseness in the fit between the lyrics and the tune adds something when Kelly Joe sings it, making it seem more spontaneous and conversational. And then there's the acoustic guitar, which after the intro mostly stays in the background but then bursts into extravagant arabesques at the end of some of the lines.

Kelly Joe was clearly a complicated guy, both personally and musically. He had a jazz background that shows in his playing, but his well-received first record, Lead Me On, was a collection of acoustic blues covers featuring slide guitar. He could probably have stuck to that indefinitely and made a career out of it and session work, but instead he repeatedly reinvented himself, abandoning the slide for fingerpicking (and occasionally, banjo) and becoming a gifted if sometimes frustratingly cryptic songwriter. In what turned out to be his final record, Brother Sinner & the Whale, he created a kind of unassuming Old Testament gospel music (if that's not a theological contradiction).

About ten years ago Kelly Joe said he needed a break and stopped touring and recording. At the time there was some mention of ulnar neuropathy, but as the years went on it was clear that something else was going on. His fans waited to see what new iteration of Kelly Joe Phelps might eventually emerge from the ferment, but for whatever reason it never happened. Maybe we'll know more in time, but maybe Kelly Joe just preferred his privacy.

Thursday, June 02, 2022

Kelly Joe Phelps 1959-2022

And it's funny that this comes out dark, it's not that bad
There's still a sparkle of silver in my cavity that plays music in the winter
I've got a cardboard box of batteries hidden in a tire swing
A miners hat with a light on top and a handful of wedding rings.
Word is that Kelly Joe Phelps died on Tuesday. The Guardian has an obit. A fine guitarist and singer — and eventually, songwriter as well — whose career encompassed jazz, blues, original songs, and gospel, he took a break from the music business about a decade ago and sadly never came back. Few details are available at this point.

Maybe I'll have more to say when this has sunk in for a bit. For now, here are two examples of Kelly Joe in happier days.

Saturday, May 28, 2022

Stepping up to the plate

Two forceful and anguished statements in the wake of yet another mass shooting indicate that the stereotypical image of the American professional baseball player is seriously out of date or simply wrong. First, Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle:
It just feels like we’ve reached a point where if not now, when? We should have done something after Sandy Hook; we should have done something after Vegas; we should have done something after Pittsburgh; I mean, you can go down the list. We should have done something after Virginia Tech. How far back do you want to go? And then the conversation inevitably always changes to mental health or bulletproof backpacks. We’re talking about ballistic blankets. We’re talking about renovating schools so there is only one entrance and one exit. We’re talking about arming teachers.

You’re describing a prison, and you’re bargaining and negotiating with people’s lives instead of just addressing the common denominator in every single one of these issues. It’s really frustrating, and I would like to think that in this country we’re capable of some common-sense reforms that a majority of Americans support that don’t infringe on your Second Amendment rights ... Who am I? I’m on the injured list. I’m a middle reliever on a team that unfortunately is in last place right now ... But we’re still members of societies and our communities, and there are people who look up to us as athletes, who listen to what we have to say as athletes.

And I think if you could start some of these conversations, or you can participate in some of these conversations and maybe get people to listen or put pressure on elected officials to do something, the reality is that you have a little bit more sway than the average person. And when it comes to making changes in your community, you can help move the needle on any number of issues that are important to you.

Perhaps even more remarkably, San Francisco Giants manager (and former player) Gabe Kapler, on why he won't be coming out of the dugout during the playing of the national anthem:
I’m often struck before our games by the lack of delivery of the promise of what our national anthem represents ... We stand in honor of a country where we elect representatives to serve us, to thoughtfully consider and enact legislation that protects the interests of all the people in this country and to move this country forward towards the vision of the "shining city on the hill." But instead, we thoughtlessly link our moment of silence and grief with the equally thoughtless display of celebration for a country that refuses to take up the concept of controlling the sale of weapons used nearly exclusively for the mass slaughter of human beings.

We have our moment (over and over), and then we move on without demanding real change from the people we empower to make these changes. We stand, we bow our heads, and the people in power leave on recess, celebrating their own patriotism at every turn.


Saturday, May 14, 2022

Turtle Diary

Two days, two eastern box turtles. This mostly terrestrial chelonian, considered a "species of special concern," is widespread in our area but probably not all that common numerically. I see maybe one a year, often in more or less the same spots. The empty shell above may be the remains of one I saw on two occasions a few years ago. It appears to have succumbed to a predator strong enough to pierce its armor. No such grim fate as yet for the red-eyed male below, which I observed when he was, improbably, in the process of climbing over a stone wall. I kept my distance and he held his ground.

Thursday, May 12, 2022

Nobody's business

That the Supreme Court is poised to overturn settled law and reverse the 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade should surprise no one, given the steady rightward drift of the court, but it should appall anyone who cares about fundamental human rights.

I'll state my bias: human beings don't procreate spiritually, we procreate as bodies. We are no different in this regard from other animals, and anyone who thinks differently has a lot of special pleading to do. There is, therefore, no more basic level of individual rights than that which pertains to the body and to reproduction. The recognition of those rights, in the face of determined opposition, has been one of the most important advances of modern society. It is, paradoxically, the defense of the fundamental dignity of the physical, of our nature as animals, that defines us as modern human beings.

To deny a woman the right to control her reproduction is as outrageous an affront to human dignity as can be imagined. We pride ourselves — rightly — on the declared principles of freedom of speech and the free exercise of religion, but what is more intrusive, forcing others to keep their thoughts and beliefs to themselves, or telling a woman that even her own body is not hers to control? Defenders of abortion rights often point out — rightly — that it would be unthinkable and cruel to force a rape victim to carry her rapist's child to term, but that argument, legitimate as it is, is ultimately superfluous. It is for women to decide under what circumstances they are willing to bear a child. And it's no one else's business.

Roe v. Wade established a reasoned balance, informed by medical science, between the interests of society and a woman's rights. That balance has been steadily undermined by legislation and previous court decisions, but the essential principle underlying it has been preserved — until now. There is little short-term prospect, given the nature and dire condition of or political system, that the overturning of Roe can itself be undone. The damage will be profound, both to women and to American democracy.

It has to be understood that those who would deny a women's right to decide when or whether to have a child, and who more generally reject the whole idea of a right to privacy, don't really believe that human beings have inherent, independent rights at all. They recognize only power and its privilege to compel those who are subject to it. The fact that the right to abortion has long been acknowledged and supported by a majority of Americans will count for little. I have no doubt that reversal will be robustly cheered in the states that will be lining up to enact restricive legislation and competing to see how extreme that legislation can be made.

This country has been morally problematic from its inception, but it's hard to see how it will survive in any real sense. Even before this decision, we have come as close to fascism as we have ever been, and the danger has in no way receded.

Thursday, May 05, 2022

Owl report

A few years ago I had a good run of luck with owl sightings, but last year there were none at all and I hadn't seen any this year until now. Two days ago when I was walking the dog I heard the telltale whistle-hiss of a barred owl in an area where I'd seem them many times in the past. I couldn't get a definite visual on it and didn't have my camera with me, but I made note of the place so I could return. Yesterday it rained but this morning I headed for the same spot, with camera this time but sans dog.

On my way out I thought I heard the same hissing sound but it was too faint for me to be sure; on the way back, though, there was no mistaking it. I walked off the trail a few yards in that direction until I located the owl high up in a very tall tulip poplar. I wasn't close enough to see it well, but since I didn't want to spook it I let my camera zoom in and do the looking. After a few minutes I moved to a slightly different angle, then started to walk away. A single distinct "hoot" from nearby stopped me in my tracks. I looked up: a large adult owl was perched, by itself, in another large tree about fifty yards from the first, keeping a wary eye on me. I took some pictures and headed home.

I thought there might have been a second owl in the first tree, but couldn't tell for sure. It was only when I downloaded the images that I realized that there were no less than four, probably all juveniles. (One is largely concealed behind a limb in the shot below.) Had I known they were there, I would have made a better job of getting them all in the frame.
The Norway maple and tulip poplar leaves are coming out this week; the other trees are a bit behind. I'll give the owls a week's worth of privacy before I check in on them again, but by then I suspect they'll be harder to spot. Still, it's good to know that this family is thriving.

Saturday, April 16, 2022

Non-buyer's remorse

When you really should have bought the book: the Taschen edition of the Augsburg Book of Miracles, published in 2014, is now out of print and available in the second-hand market only at prices starting at $250 (and increasing steeply from there). Oh well.

Earlier post: Signs and Wonders. The Marginalian has a selection of the illustrations.

Thursday, March 31, 2022

Night haul

The tackle creaks as the net is pulled in. On the lantern-lit deck the crew plant their feet and strain at the rope.

Spilled out on the boards, the finned and tentacled creatures blink and gape, but even as the men gather around them their irridescence fades and their jewel-like colors dim. Outlines blur. The seething multitude becomes still, then melts away into brine and breeze.

They cast the net out again and sail on, dragging the dead dark sea towards morning.

Friday, March 25, 2022

Honest Things

Eleanor Clark, on the Oysterman's Cooperative building in Brittany, where "there is just about everything there you could ever need in oystering, from women's dark blue canvas pants and the beautiful fishermen's blouses up to the heaviest cable":
A lovely store, in which nothing has been advertised, nothing is packaged, no patronage is solicited, no brainwashing is done, no profit is to be made and therefore it is most unlikely that anything bought will break or otherwise go to pieces the first time it is used. Oh, the long-lost delight of this decency! For the general American public there is nothing left that begins to approach it but the small-town hardware store, where a nail is still a nail and had better be a good one, and there is apt to be a good deal of junk and vanity even there. Besides, in this place with its crude heavy counters and air of a warehouse, the aura of the single trade, of the beau métier with all its sea-depths and adventure, hangs around every item, for not a bolt or rope or pair of gloves there is meant for any other purpose, and it is remarkable what beauty it casts over everything. Beauty depends after all on what you come from, what you are being cleansed and relieved of, and in the pass we are in nowadays an American lady of the buying type might be tempted to come away from this place with a batch of pulleys, the way her grandmother acquired a little replica of the Venus de Milo.

But no, that wouldn't do, would it? The beauty of all these honest things, aside from their fine conjunction of textures, is in their being together and being there, not somewhere else, in the above-mentioned association, in the simple appropriateness of it all. It is not to be bought; the poor lady will have to go back to the square, with its tasteless souvenirs.
Clark was writing in the early 1960s, and no doubt many things are different now. Except for The Oysters of Locmariaquer and Rome and a Villa, her books seem to have gone out of print. She moved in Trotskyite circles for a time and apparently knew the man himself, if briefly, in his Mexican years; later she married Robert Penn Warren. The Vassar Encyclopedia has what seems to be the best summary of her life and work.

Monday, March 14, 2022

"This is my city"

Sergio Borschevsky, the translator of Borges, Cortázar, Neruda, García Márquez, and other writers into Ukrainian, is staying put in Kiev with his wife. From an interview with the Argentinian news website Infobae:
Why should we have to leave? This is my city. It doesn't belong to Putin or to his general staff or to the Russian Ministry of Defense... This is my city and my apartment. I live here. When I was a boy I saw all this destroyed by German Nazis. I saw it, because I was born in 1946 and I saw Kiev in ruins, I was born a year after the war. And now when I see these images of cities destroyed by the Russian Army, I remember my childhood. And I can tell you that I'm not thinking of leaving. I will die in this city. Now or later? I don't know, but in this city.
The full interview (in Spanish) is available here.

Update: A version in English, though imperfect, can be read here.

Friday, March 11, 2022

Carlos Barbosa-Lima 1944-2022

A good friend let me borrow this LP of Scarlatti transcriptions for the guitar when we were in high school and I've always remembered it, in particular the last track, the Sonata in G major*, K.380, which still strikes me as one of the most perfectly poised pieces of music I know. The record has never been issued on CD, but at least we have this uploaded version.

The Times has an obituary of the guitarist, Carlos Barbosa-Lima, who died in São Paulo on February 23rd.

* Scarlatti's original key seems to have been E major.

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Briefly Noted

Some news items of potential interest to readers of this space.
The translator Edmund Keeley has died. Known for his versions of the work of modern Greek poets like Yannis Ritsos, George Seferis, and C. P. Cavafy, he taught for many years at Princeton University, where he directed the creative writing program. The New York Times has an obituary.

Musician and songwriter Peter Case is the subject of a new documentary by Fred Parnes entitled A Million Miles Away, which is premiering at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival this month. No word yet on wider distribution.

Hayao Miyazaki's 1983 graphic novel Shuna no tabi (Shuna's Journey) will finally have an authorized English translation when it is published this fall by First Second Books. The translator is Alex Dudok de Wit. A news report can be read here.

Saturday, March 05, 2022

Stasys Eidrigevičius: "Ukraina"

A pastel artwork by Stasys Eidrigevičius, donated by the artist to an auction to benefit Ukrainian refugees, of whom there will be many. More information (in Polish) is available here. The auction closes March 9th.

Eidrigevičius, who was born in Lithuania but has lived in Poland for many years, works in many media but is particularly known for posters and (in the US) for illustrations for children's books. In his work, objects, animals, and human figures mingle and morph, caught up in mutual webs of dependence. His website is here.

Thursday, March 03, 2022

From the Archives: A Letter

The post below was posted in a different venue in 2006; I'm dusting it off in honor of Michael Leddy's post at Orange Crate Art.

I've never read Rose Macaulay's novel The Towers of Trebizond and I suspect that I'm never going to get around to it. But I still have the hardcover copy that I bought at a used book sale a number of years ago, and I'm not quite ready to give up on it. That's only partly because everything I've ever heard about the book is positive; when you come down to it, I suspect, the book is probably not really my thing at all. The real reason I'm hanging onto it is the following letter, which I found neatly folded inside the front cover when I bought it.



April 6, 1959

Mr. James H. Sachs
Bedford, New York

Dear Jimmy:

            It was so sweet of you to think of us and to introduce us to the Schaffners. As the result of The Tower of Trebizond we are going to get a wonderful trip to Europe.

            We are sailing with them on the Giulio Cesare on the 9th and will see Ravello, Sicily and trans-Appenine Italy. Mr. Schaffner thinks that he can enjoy me more completely on board. I don't know just what it means but it sounds alarming. Thanks so much. If I survive maybe I will send you a postal card.

Sincerely yours,


Rose Macaulay

At first sight this seems like the kind of witty missive a cosmopolitan, well-educated older British woman like Macaulay might have written to a social acquaintance in the mid-20th century. The hint of naughtiness in the second paragraph, the learned reference to “trans-Appenine Italy,” the British “postal card,” instead of “postcard,” all seem fit to type. But there's a problem: the date. Rose Macaulay died on October 30, 1958, a full five months before the letter was supposedly written. Moreover, as far as I have been able to determine, she was not in New York at any time in the last months of her life, making a simple dating mistake of a year or so (but how likely would that have been anyway?) less than probable.

The closer I examine the letter, the less genuine it seems. The date is in American style, not British. The title of the book is wrong — it's Towers not “Tower,” and in fact what the correspondent originally typed was “Trevizone”; the correct spelling is overwritten in pencil. (It's true that the errors involve contiguous pairs of letters on the keyboard, so it's possible she — whoever she was — was simply a bad typist.) And why would the real Rose Macaulay write gratefully of the prospect of “a wonderful tour of Italy” as if she were not a seasoned, independent traveler herself?

If the letter is not really by Rose Macaulay, and it seems very doubtful that it is, then two possibilities come to mind. The first one, unlikely but consistent with the signature, is that it was written by another woman named Rose Macaulay, who somewhow, as the “result” of the odd coincidence of her name with that of the famous author, was invited to see some of her namesake's old stomping grounds.

The other possibility is that the writer of the letter was not named Rose Macaulay at all. She was simply a woman who, perhaps as the outcome of a conversation about The Towers of Trebizond, was invited to Europe by a wealthy couple she had just been introduced to. The signature, then, would have been just a little joke for the benefit of “Jimmy.”

In either case, I wonder if she survived the trip.

Update: The James H. Sachs to whom the letter was addressed appears to be the individual of that name who was one of the founders of Newsweek and later a publisher of Horizon magazine. He also donated a few acres of land to a preserve where I occasionally hike. If the identification is correct he died in 1971. The New York Times obituary is here.

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

A Buried Book

Archaeologist Alan Hardy describes a find that emerged during the excavation of a long barrow in the Berkshire Downs:
A book was found within deposit 3001, located immediately south of the southern ditch section, and approximately 0.23 m below the present ground. The book was a buckram bound copy of Demonology and Witchcraft by Walter Scott, published in 1831 (Plate 4.5). The inside front cover was daubed with red ink and crudely inscribed with the words 'Demon de Uffing'. Some decay was evident to the cover and the edges of the pages although it was generally in very good condition. Its state of preservation may well have been due to the surrounding matrix of chalk and soil, which maintained a dry environment. The excavator was confident that the ground around the location of the book's burial had not been recently disturbed, and therefore a pre-excavation joke by persons unknown was ruled out. In theory the book could have been deposited during the 19th-century excavations, but it is more likely that its burial is related to one of the more recent revivals in the mystical aspects of the White Horse and its surroundings.

D. Miles et al., Uffington White Horse and Its Landscape: Investigations at White Horse Hill, Uffington, 1989-95, and Tower Hill, Ashbury, 1993-4
Related posts:
Up in the Downs
The Lay of the Hunted Pig

Saturday, February 19, 2022

The Lost Altar

This double-view postcard of scenes from Orkney was issued by J. M. Stevenson, a longtime stationer in Kirkwall and Stromness. It also bears the initials of V. & S. Ltd., that is, Valentine & Sons of Dundee, the actual printer. There's no writing on the back of the card, but I'm guessing that it dates from around 1910. "The Holms" are two small islets just across the water from Stromness.

The central "altar" or "dolmen" shown in the view of the neolithic Standing Stones of Stennis (or Stenness) was a "reconstruction" from 1907, possibly inspired by Sir Walter Scott's interpretation of the site. It was dismantled under murky circumstances in 1972 and only the uprights were put back in place. A century earlier a landowner had vandalized the site extensively, resulting in the loss of much of the surrounding circle of stones.

There's more information on the circle and the supposed "altar" at, and even more on the website of the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute.

Despite its barren northern location, Orkney has some of the most extraordinary neolithic monuments in Britain. I haven't been there (my wife and daughter have), but perhaps someday I will.

Sunday, February 13, 2022

A Stock of Curios

W. Jeffrey Bolster:
Able-bodied seamen versed in “the Mariner’s art” were admittedly a minority among black seamen; but men like Daniel Watson, who made five foreign voyages from Providence between 1803 and 1810, cultivated professional identities as seamen. As sailors, they wove together worldliness, skill, and class. Watson, and men such as the African-born David O’Kee, an ex-slave who made at least eight voyages from Providence during the 1830s, were fully socialized to the world of the ship, and probably more at home there than ashore. A blind sixty-year-old black Philadelphian introduced himself to the census marshall in 1850 as a “Seaman,” though his voyaging days were over. The pride black men felt in being identified as seamen is evident in the possessions left by Henry Robinson, a black laborer who died in Boston in 1849. Robinson owned the clothing, chairs, and stove that one would expect, but he also lived among a stock of curios that seem to have been collected at sea. Cases of “sea shells of several kinds,” “two coral baskets,” “one statue,” “one toy ship,” a series of pictures, and “two african swords and arrows” perpetuated images of a life considerably more exotic than the one that ended in a down-at-the heels Boston tenement house.

Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail

Friday, February 11, 2022

Bookseller's Nightmare

A prim middle-aged woman steps up to the counter and asks if we have any books by the novelist Catherine Cookson. I say I don't think so but I agree to check the shelf and the stockroom. No Catherine Cookson. She would like to order some. I reach for Books in Print, but the volumes we have on our reference shelf are decades old and the authors volume is missing anyway. I switch on the microfiche reader. The information that is displayed on the screen has nothing to do with books. Instead, there are a series of street-level views of a city, and I can't even find the intersection I'm looking for. In the meantime, someone has set down a plateful of very appetizing-looking chocolates next to the microfiche reader, but who knows when I'll have a chance to try one.

Thursday, February 10, 2022

Curiosity Cabinet

This volume of stories, texts, and illustrations was published by Profile Books in 2003. For a while it seemed to have become scarce, but it's relatively easy to find now.

The Wellcome Collection is (or was) a vast assemblage of objects related to the history and anthropology of medicine. As one might expect, many of the objects are gruesome or bizarre. Henry Wellcome, who amassed the objects, died in 1936, and after his death much of the collection was apparently dispersed, though some of its holdings became accessible to the public in 2007. The editors explain the concept:
This book forms a companion volume to the catalogue of an exhibition on Henry Wellcome's collection held at the British Museum in the summer of 2003. The aim of the exhibition was to reunite a fraction of the collection back in one place. The exhibition catalog endeavours to present the facts of the collection, exploring its objects through documents and physical evidence. Here, in The Phantom Museum, the objects are investigated using a different method, that of the sympathetic imagination.
Each of the six pieces in the volume is inspired by one or more of the Wellcome's objects. A. S. Byatt is the most familiar name among the writers. Peter Blegvad contributes an unclassifiable piece, but my favorite is a deft short story entitled "The Venus Time of Year," which follows two women, one modern and one in Roman Britain, who both have recourse to votive offerings in the form of a fertility figurine. Admirably, it doesn't try to do too much or look too far ahead in the women's lives. Of the author, the back flap notes, "Helen Cleary lived in Singapore, Wales and East Anglia before moving to London. She is working on her second novel and writes non-fiction for the BBC History website."

Oddly, I've found no evidence that either of the two Helen Cleary novels mentioned was ever published, nor any indication that she has published any additional fiction. She didn't disappear; she apparently has contributed to several documentaries and reference books.

In conjunction with the British Museum show, the Quay Brothers released an eccentric short documentary about the collection, which is also entitled The Phantom Museum.

Monday, February 07, 2022

Time Capsule

Above, a page of ads from Barney Rosset's Evergreen Review, Vol. 2. No. 7 (Winter 1959). This was a themed issue devoted to Mexico, but it also included a long essay on Thelonious Monk, so these particular advertisements were presumably chosen with that in mind. Bongos are more usually associated with Cuba, but these "pre-tuned Mexican bongos" would have been the perfect accessories for beatniks, or at least for the Hollywood version of them. Other ads in this issue included one for the Living Theatre and for the Circle in the Square production of Brendan Behan's Quare Fellow, directed by José Quintero.

Sadly, the Gotham Book Mart is no more, but as of this writing at least one of the contributors, the Mexican writer Elena Poniatowska, is still with us after sixty-odd years.

Saturday, February 05, 2022

Jason Epstein (1928-2022)

Publishing pioneer Jason Epstein has died. At 93, he managed to outlive his obituarist, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, who died in 2018.

Epstein worked with a long list of authors and founded or co-founded Anchor Books, The New York Review of Books, and the Library of America. I confess to a fetishism for the early Anchor paperbacks, including those published after Epstein left the company in 1958. I have a dozen or so in the house and often re-read some of them. Many have wonderfully dotty covers by Edward Gorey. Today Anchor Books and many of its erstwhile competitors and imitators in the paperback market, including Vintage, Penguin, Signet, Ballantine, Bantam, and Dell, are all subsumed under the same corporate umbrella.

Monday, January 31, 2022

Norma Waterson (1939-2022)

The revered British folksinger Norma Waterson has died. The Guardian has an obituary and a nice appreciation.

Though she recorded contemporary material as a solo artist, she was probably best known as a member of a family ensemble that in its original conformation in the 1960s also included her brother Mike, sister Lal, and a cousin, John Harrison. Norma's husband, the fine guitarist Martin Carthy (who survives her) replaced Harrison beginning in 1975. Later lineups under various names included the couple's daughter, the fiddler Eliza Carthy.

Below are the Watersons (including Martin Carthy) with a rousing a capella hymn demonstrating the group's unique style.

A documentary entitles Travelling for a Living follows the group in their early days.

Saturday, January 22, 2022

Reading Matter

Henry Mayhew:
I may mention that in the course of my inquiry into the condition of the fancy cabinet-makers of the metropolis, one elderly and very intelligent man, a first-rate artisan in skill, told me he had been so reduced in the world by the underselling of slop-masters (called "butchers" or "slaughterers," by the workmen in the trade), that though in his youth he could take in the News and Examiner papers (each he believed 9d. at that time, but was not certain), he could afford, and enjoyed, no reading when I saw him last autumn, beyond the book-leaves in which he received his quarter of cheese, his small piece of bacon or fresh meat, or his saveloys; and his wife schemed to go to the shops who "wrapped up their things from books," in order that he might have something to read after his day's work.

London Labour and the London Poor