Archive for the ‘Morning Read’ Category

Morning Snip:
Battering Ram

Thursday, October 28th, 2010

Guest-posting at Felix Salmon, Justin Fox complains about Times financial columnist Gretchen Morgenson’s slapdash ways (she “gets basic facts wrong, seemingly misunderstands the businesses she covers, offers assertions that she fails to back up with evidence…”), but then he pronounces her indispensable.

How does she accomplish this? I think it’s partly that the same bullheadedness and simplistic approach that drives readers like me and Felix crazy actually enables Morgenson to zero in on targets that those more interested in nuance totally miss. It’s also that Morgenson suffuses her work with a sort of high moral dudgeon—and disgust for the evil ways of Wall Street—that more “sophisticated” journalists won’t allow themselves. The results speak for themselves: Sometimes battering rams work better than X-Acto knives. And I say that as someone who vastly prefers X-Acto knives (stylistically speaking).

Morning Read:
An end to Squillions

Thursday, August 27th, 2009

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Morning Reads have all but fallen away entirely. There are two explanations. First, my mornings are now given over to combing the Internet and harvesting links. On the rare occasion when I’m done before lunch time, I’m far too agitated and muscid-eyed for straightforward reading. Second, I intensely dislike two of the books on this season’s list.

One of these is, of course, Moby-Dick. There the blame is all Melville’s. My objections to The Letters of Noël Coward are more complicated. I have enjoyed reading almost all of the letters of Noël Coward that appear in the book, edited (if that is the word) by Barry Day. Unfortunately, there are a lot of boring businessy letters from Coward’s colleagues. And because what Mr Day’s effort boils down to is a “life in letters,” the correspondence is a poor reflection of some of the important people in Coward’s life, such as Beatrice Lillie and Graham Payn. Ned Rorem has written about his relationship with Coward, but, perhaps because there were no surviving missives among the Englishman’s papers, the American’s name does not appear even in Mr Day’s index. Frustrating at first, this sense of off-stage life builds into a monstrous annoyance.

Also missing from the book is a sense of Coward’s sparkling presence. He writes cleverly but sincerely, but at the back of even the best letters there is a sense of duty discharged. Noël Coward was a very good writer, but his métier was performance. Looking at this clip, taken from his 1955 television special with Mary Martin (and oh, the letters to, fro, and about that collaboration — which began in 1946!), we can imagine what Coward must have been like at the height of his career, performing for a live audience: a magician. He may not have done tricks, but had a way of indicating that he was about to do something interesting — and then doing it, exactly right. In most of his movies, especially the late ones (Our Man in Havana, The Italian Job), Coward comes across as a distinctive character actor, one whom you might look forward to seeing in a movie, in the manner of Eric Blore or Edward Everett Horton. It takes a weird (and fairly unsatisfactory) film such as Bunny Lake Is Missing to elicit his facially acrobatic stagecraft.

¶ Last week, I sat down with the book that I’ve been calling Squillions and read through to the last page. So I’m done with it.

The moment that came closest to undoing him emotionally was the birthday lunch given in his honor by the queen. Would he consider accepting a knighthood, if offered? she asked. For once there was no ready Coward riposte, and his name was duly gazetted in the 1970 New Year’s Honours List. On February 3 came the investiture and, to the accompaniment of a military band appropriately playing “A Life on the Ocean Wave,” Sir Noël rose on painful knee with the recognition from his country he had deserved thirty years earlier.

There was an audible sigh of relief from the ranks of the other theatrical knights, and Sir Alec Guinness spoke for all of them when he said, “We have been like a row of teeth with the front tooth missing. Now we can smile again.”

Three books remain on the list (Rochefoucauld proved to be wholly unsuitable early on, but I never did take another picture of the books). I look forward to reading the rest of Don Quixote, and the collection of Lord Chesterfield’s letters, although perhaps not as “morning reads.” I dread the prospect of tackling Moby-Dick, indisputably the worst famous book that I have ever read, but that’s what’s next.

Morning Read:
Wise Atheist

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009

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¶ Lord Chesterfield writes very pragmatically about religion and honesty.

Depend upon this truth, That every man is the worse looked upon, and the less trusted for being thought to have no religion; in spite of all the pompous and specious epithets he may assume, of esprit fort, freethinker, or moral philosopher; and a wise atheist (if such a thing there is) would, for his own interest and character in this world, pretend to some religion.

As for lying, Chesterfield distinguishes between the naked untruth that a diplomat might proffer and the self-puffing misrepresentations made by vain people. He is opposed to both. In between there is a rather murky, or at least underdeveloped, passage about Bacon’s distinction between simulation and dissimulation. Chesterfield seems to be marking this just for the sake of comprehensiveness, but also to be withholding any conclusions that his son might misuse, for want of a more worldly understanding.

It is most certain, that the reputation of chastity is not so necessary for a woman, as that of veracity is for a man.

¶ In Moby-Dick, a geeky chapter entitled “A Bower in the Arsacides.” At some point in the past (having nothing to do with the present tale), Ishmael took it upon himself to measure the skeleton of a whale that had been mounted, so to speak, as a pagan chapel.

The skeleton dimensions I shall now proceed to set down are copied verbatim from my right arm, where I had them tatooed; as in my wild wanderings at that period, there was no other secure way of preserving such valuable statistic. But as I was crowded for space, and wished the other parts of my body to remain a blank page for a poem I was then composing — at least, what untatooed parts might remain — I did not trouble myself with the odd inches; nor, indeed should inches at all enter into a congenial admeasurement of the whale.

Make that, literary geek.

¶ In Don Quixote, the windmills of the first part give way to watermills — by which our hero and Sancho are almost pulverized, as Don Quixote drifts to the rescue of (imaginary) ladies and knights. There is a small business of lice that is not terribly nice, but Cervantes makes up for that with this droll scene:

And saying this, he put his hand on his sword and began to flourish it in the air against the millers, who, hearing but not understanding this nonsense, began to use their poles to stop the boat, which by now was entering the millrace rapids.

Sancho was on his knees, devoutly praying to heaven to save him from so clear a danger, which it did through the efforts and speed of the millers, who pushed against the boat with their poles and stopped it but could not keep it from capsizing and throwing Don Quixote and Sancho into the water; it was fortunate for Don Quixote that he knew how to swim like a goose, although the weight of his armor made him sink twice, and if it had not been for the millers, who jumped into the water and pulled them out, it would have been the end of them both.

¶ In Squillions, Noël Coward buys a house outside of Montreux, and decides to divide his time between Switzerland and Jamaica. A letter “to an unnamed friend” is quoted. 

When the public is no longer interested in what I have to write, then it will be brought home to me that I am out of touch; not before. Nowadays, though I find that I rather enjoy my downfalls; to me it’s acridly funny when something flops that has taken me months to write and compose.

Not bloody likely, I should think. This sounds like a draft that Coward sent to nobody, because nobody would believe it. 

Morning Read:
Plunder

Thursday, July 9th, 2009

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This morning’s Read bored me quite to sobs. Lord Chesterfield’s letter, which I’ll get to in a moment, was the only good thing — but I’d read it before. Don Quixote and Sancho had a particularly silly and pointless quarrel that might have amused me if I had not been laid low by an excruciating chapter in Moby-Dick (the one about the history of the Enderbys and the Coffins — I can’t be bothered to touch the book twice in one day) and a lot of context-free chitchat in Squillions — than which it is impossible to imagine a worse-edited collection of letters. It might help if I understood — really understood — what Herman Melville and Barry Day set out to accomplish. All that I see is tedious inappropriateness.

Writing about the difficulty of determining the mainspring of a man’s character, Chesterfield seizes on the examples provided by those two eminent cardinals, Richelieu and Mazarin — though he goes at them in reverse order.

I mean ambition and avarice: the latter is often the true cause of the former, and then is the predominant passion. It seems to have been so in Cardinal Mazarin, who did anything, submitted to anything, and forgave anything, for the sake of plunder. He loved and courted power, like an usurer, because it carried profit along with it. Whoever should have formed his opinion or taken his measure singly, from the ambitious part of Cardinal Mazarin’s character, would have found himself often mistaken. Some who had found this out, made their fortunes by letting him cheat them at play. On the contrary, Cardinal Richelieu’s prevailing passion seems to have been ambition, and his immense riches only the natural consequences of that ambition gratified; and yet I make no doubt but that the ambition had now and then its turn with the former, and avarice with the latter. Richelieu (by the way) is so strong a proof of the inconsistency of human nature, that I cannot help observring to you, that while he absolutely governed both his King and his country, and was, in a great degree, the arbiter of the fate of all Europe, he was more jealous of Corneille than of the power of Spain; and more flattered with being thought (what he was not) the best poet, than with being thought (which he certainly was) the greatest statesman in Europe; and affairs stood still while he was concerting his criticism upon the Cid.

For my part, I don’t see Richelieu’s literary ambition as an inconsistency.

The cadence “did anything, submitted to anything, and forgave anything, for the sake of plunder” is magnificently dishy. “Plunder” is exactly the mot juste. It sounds like dirty laundry.

Morning Read:
Braying

Tuesday, July 7th, 2009

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¶ Lord Chesterfield invites his son to regard him as a censor.

I can now undertake this employment only upon hearsay, or at most, written evidence; and therefore shall exercise it with great lenity and some diffidence; but when we meet, and that I can form my judgment upon ocular and auricular evidence, I shall no more let the least impropriety, indecorum, or irregularity, pass uncensured, than my predecessor Cato did. I shall read you with the attention of a critic, not with the partiality of an author; different in this respect, indeed, from most critics, that I shall seek for faults, only to correct, and not to expose them.

Has anyone ever thought of writing another jolly musical on Pygmalian themes: My Fair Bastard?

¶ In Moby-Dick, Ahab colloquiates with a fellow whaling captain who has also lost a limb to the White Whale; unlike Ahab, Captain Boomer has learned his lesson.

No more White Whales for me; I’ve lowered for him once, and that has satisfied me. There would be great glory in killing him, I know that; and there is a ship-load of precious sperm in him, but, hark ye, he’s best let alone; don’t you think so, Captain?” — glancing at the ivory leg.

“He is. But he will still be hunted, for all that. What is best let alone, that accursed thing is not always what least allures. He’s all a magnet! How long since thou saw’st him last? Which way heading?”

¶ In Don Quixote, our hero’s encounter with the villagers who feel insulted by their neighbors’ braying mockery, goes swimmingly, until Sancho decides to say a few words — followed by a few sounds.

I remember, when I was a boy, I used to bray whenever I felt like it, and nobody held me back, and I did it so well and so perfectly that when I brayed all the donkeys in the village brayed, but that didn’t stop me from being my parents’ son, and they were very honorable people and even though this talent of mine was envied by more than a few of the conceited boys in my village, I didn’t care at all. And so that you can see that I’m telling the truth, wait and listen, because if you know this, it’s like knowing how to swim: once you’ve learned you never forget.

“But one of the men who was near him, thinking he was mocking them, raised a long pole…”

¶ In Squillions, Noël Coward writes, to Laurence Olivier, that Marilyn Monroe “is certainly no Madame de Staël, is she?” He’s not asking.

Morning Read:
Temió…acobardose…tuvo pavor

Wednesday, June 24th, 2009

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¶ Choice extracts from Lord Chesterfield’s letter of 24 November 1749:

…and were I either to speak or write to the public, I should prefer moderate matter, adorned with all the beauties and elegancies of style, to the strongest matter in the world, ill-worded and ill-delivered.

***

It is a very true saying, that a man must be born a poet, but that he may make himself an orato; and the very first principle of an orator is, to speak his own language particularly, with the utmost purity and elegancy. A man will be forgiven even great errors in a foreign language; but in his own, even the least slips are justly laid hold of and ridiculed.

¶ In Moby-Dick, a chapter of which I’ve often heard mention: “The Doubloon.” I didn’t understand a word, except for the part that I did understand, and that was astrological drivel.

Indeed, Moby-Dick has become an almost toxically depressing experience. How on earth can this dreadful rubbish be so highly regarded? Or regarded at all? It is pulp pure and simple — pulp dressed up in Joseph’s coat of many colors. .

¶ In Don Quixote, an excellent joke. Our hero becomes so engaged by a puppet show about Charlemagne’s son-in-law that he leaps to the aid of the beleaguered knight, laying waste to (pasteboard) Moors.

But this did not keep Don Quixote from raining down slashes, two-handed blows, thrusts, and backstrokes. In short, in less time than it takes to tell about it, he knocked the puppet theatre to the floor, all its scenery and figures cut and broken to pieces: King Marsilio was badly wounded, and Emperor Charlemagne’s head and crown were split in two. The audience of spectators was in a tumult, the monkey ran out the window and onto the roof, the cousin was fearful, the page was frightened, and even Sancho Panza was terrified, because, as he swore when the storm was over, he had never seen his master in so wild a fury. When the general destruction of the puppet theatre was complete, Don Quixote calmed down somewhat and said…

Although Don Quixote pays liberally for the damages, he insists that he was beset by enchanters. Whereas it was only a case of excellent theatre.

¶ In Squillions, Noël Coward goes to the opera.

Went to hear Albanese as Manon Lescaut and it was a grave grave mistake on account of she didn’t ought to have attempted it for several reasons. Time’s Wingèd Chariot being the principal one. She sang most softly and looked like a neckless shrewmouse. Jussi Bjoerling did a Mary Martin and belted the living fuck out of her. He contrived this very subtly by the simple device of gripping her firmly by her shrinking shoulders, turning her bum to the audience and bellowing into her kisser.

Morning Read:
Harry Pissalatums

Wednesday, June 17th, 2009

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¶ Lord Chesterfield dispenses some advice that is violently at odds with the Sixties ethos in which I came of age.

The most familiar and intimate habitudes, connections, and friendships, require a degree of good-breeding, both to preserve and cement them. If ever a man and his wife, or a man and his mistress, who pass night as well as days together, absolutely lay aside all good-breeding, their intimacy will soon degenerate into a coarse familiarity, infallibly productive of contempt or disgust.

I have had to work my way toward understanding the truth of this the hard way. I’ve gone a little farther than the earl: I believe that there is not a moment in life, no matter how solitary, that does not require the attentiveness and respect that are the pillars of good breeding.

¶ Another homily in Moby-Dick: Melville concludes a brisk chapter on the sprucing-up of a whaler after the rendering of the beast into commercial commodities with another attempt, as it seems to me, to give contemporary life an Old-Testament look, a sort of spiritual Williamsburg-ing.

… when, on the heel of all this, they have finally bestirred themselves to cleanse the ship, and make a spotless dairy room of it; many is the time the poor fellows, just buttoning the necks of their clean frocks, are startled by the cry of “There she blows!” and away they fly to fight another whale, and go through the whole weary thing again. Oh! my friends, this is but man-killing!! Yet his is life. For hardly have we mortals by long toilings extracted from this world’s vast bulk its small but valuable sperm; and then, with weary patience, cleansed ourselves from its defilements, and learned to live here in clean tabernacles of the soul; hardly is this done, when — There she blows! — thee ghost is spouted up, and away we sail to fight some other world, and go through young life’s old routine again.

Oh! the metempsychosis!

My word exactly.

¶ In the middle of the monkey-business in Chapter XXV of Don Quixote, I hit upon another passage that reminded me of the operatic sensibility that infuses so much of this book; not that Don Quixote is like comic opera, but rather the reverse: the book inspired the pace and the tone of comic opera.

What could be more Mozartean — or Verdian — than the reaction scene in which each member of the ensemble has a different response to the wonders just transpired:

Don Quixote was dumbfounded, Sancho astounded, the cousin baffled, the page stunned, the man who told about the braying stupefied, the innkeeper perplexed, and, in short, all who heard the words of the puppet master were amazed…

All these reactions are, in fact, the same, but Cervantes’ determination to come up with a different verb for each member of the company sets each slightly apart from the others, an individuation that lies at the heart of comic opera’s greatness.

Squillions: In a letter from Beverly Hills dated 18 December 1955, Noël Coward retails some tittle-tattle about Clifton Webb (Waldo Lydecker in Laura):

He is leaving Clifton’s today and has taken an apartment in the same place as the boys [Charles Russell and Lance Hamilton] as we considered it unwise for him to stay here. This has caused a great fluttering in the colony and no-one knows where they’re at. He has handled the Clifton situation with consummate skill and every prospect pleases, except that it was getting near the point of no return. Poor Clifton is always on the verge of Umbrage about something or other and this this not helped by Harry Pissalatums which happens very very very often indeed indeedy.

If editor Barry Day had glossed this coy report of gay romance, and explained the meaning of “Harry Pissalatums,” he would only have been doing his job. Why he bothers to identify Russell and Hamilton but not do his job makes me throw up my hands — hardly for the first time in this inexplicably bad book.

Morning Read:
Not Worth Staying At

Monday, June 15th, 2009

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¶ Lord Chesterfield’s letter of 9 October 1749 is magnificently typical. He begins with reference to his son’s route frm Venice to Rome, “which … I advised you to make along the coast of the Adriatic, through Rimini, Loretto, Ancona, etc, places that are all worth seeing, but not worth staying at.” About Rome itself, he writes powerfully about the papacy and even more trenchantly about the Jesuits

whose Society I look upon to be the most able and  best governed society in the world, Get acquainted, if you can, with their General, who always resides at Rome; and who, though he has no seeming power out of his own Society, has (it may be) more real influence over the whole world, than any temporal Prince in it. They have almost engrossed the education of youth, they are, in general, confessors to most of the Princes in Europe; and they are the principal missionaries out of it; which three articles give them a most excessive influence, and solid advantages … Converse with them, frequent them, court them; but know them.

¶ Chapter 96 of Moby-Dick, “The Try-Works,” is as overwritten as any in this monstrous book, but its tone is consistent, almost disciplined. The only false note is the ridiculous mathematical observation about “bodies gliding along the cycloid.” The description of the ship’s cutting through the sea at night, its try-pots blazing and smoking, the “barbaric brilliancy” of the sailors’ teeth against their matted, tawny faces, is remarkably free of Melville’s distracting irrelevancies. Soon enough, however, the prophet steps forth.

Nevertheless the sun hides not Virginia’s Dismal Swamp, nor Rome’s accursed Campagna, nor wide Sahara, nor all the millions of miles of deserts and of griefs beneath the moon. The sun hides not the ocean, which is the dark side of this earth, and which is two thirds of this earth. So, therefore, that mortal man who hath more of joy than sorrow in him, that mortal man cannot be true — not true, or undeveloped. With books the same. The truest of all men was the Man of Sorrows, and the truest of all books is Solomon’s, and Ecclesiastes is the fine hammered steel of woe. “All is vanity.” ALL. This wilful world hath not got hold of unchristian Solomon’s wisdom yet.

¶ Don Quixote admonishes the page whom the party encounters on the road:

… for what does it matter if you are killed in the first battle or skirmish, or are shot by artillery, or blown up by a mine? It is all dying, and the end of the story, and according to Terence, the soldier killed in battle looks better than the one who is safe and sound in flight, and the good soldier achieves as much fame as his obedience to his captains and to those who command him.

Really.

¶ In Squillions, Noël Coward debuts at Las Vegas and triumphs in his first television “special.” A passing phrase in a letter from Blue Harbour triggered a bit of gag reflex, so fiendishly did it capture the meretriciousness of television, a falsity that makes genuine theatre look as true as Euclid:

They seem to have done good preparatory work on the show and brought the plans for the set, which look very exciting. 68 feet in depth and with the series of curtains which will part and roll themselves up into pillars as Mary [Martin] and I advance for our entrance…

From time to time, I look back on the Fifties as a golden age of television. But what it was the golden age of was pretentious junk.

Morning Read:
Knick-Knackically

Wednesday, June 10th, 2009

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¶ Lord Chesterfield can’t be charged with having invented “cool,” but his passionate dispassion and his anxious dislike of enthusiasm have a modern note. To his son, in Italy at the time:

… do not become a Virtuoso of small wares. Form a taste of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture, if you please, by a careful examination of the works of the best ancient and modern artists; those are liberal arts, and a real taste and knowledge of them become a man of fashion very well. But beyond certain bounds, the Man of Taste ends, and the frivolous Virtuoso begins.

Moby-Dick: Chapters 94 and 95. No, we are not there yet, not nearly.

Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affection, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say, — Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come, let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.

What repels me about this passage is the bedecking of frankly carnal pleasure in the high-flying abstractions of Scripture.

¶ In Don Quixote, our hero descends into the Cave of Montesinos, where he encounters the heroes of old legends, enchanted by Merlin. Sancho is distressed by his master’s account.

“Holy God!” shouted Sancho. “Is it possible that there are in the world enchanters and enchantments so strong that they have turned my master’s good sense into foolishness and madness? Oh, Señor, Señor, for God’s sake think about what you are doing, and take back your honor, and don’t believe this nonsense that has reduced and lessened your good sense!”

“Since you love me, Sancho, you speak in this fashion,” said Don Quixote, “and since you have little experience in the things of this world, all things that are in any way difficult seem impossible to you; but in the course of time, as I have already said, I shall recount to you some of what I have seen down there, which will make you believe what I have recounted here, whose truth admits neither argument nor dispute.”

Cognitive dissonance erupts when Cervantes describes the enchanted body of Durandarte stretched out on a marble selpuchre: I start hearing Titurel’s sonorous voice calling from his crypt, in Parsifal.

Squillions takes us to Las Vegas, where Noël Coward was contracted to entertain in 1955. As a man of the theatre, Coward appreciated the place for what it was.

In the classier casinos beams of light shoot down from baroque ceilings on the masses of earnest morons flinging their money down the drain. The sound is fascinating, a steady hum of conversation against a background of rhumba music and the noise of the fruit machines, the clink of silver dollars, quarters and nickels, and the subdued shouts of the croupiers. There are lots of pretty women about but I think, on the whole, sex takes a comparatively back seat. Every instinct and desire is concentrated on money. I expected that this would exasperate me but oddly enough it didn’t. The whole fantasia in on such a colossal scale that it is almost stimulating. … The gangsters who run the place are all urbane and charming. I had a feeling that if I opened a rival casino I would be battered to death with the utmost efficiency, but if I remained on my own ground as a most highly paid entertainer, I could trust them all the way.

How much I would love this book if it only contained nothing but the letters of Noël Coward!

Morning Read:
Las ollas de Egipto

Wednesday, May 27th, 2009

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¶ A copy of Lord Chesterfield’s letter of 22 September 1749 ought to be handed out with every new cell phone, Blackberry, netbook, &c &c.

I know of no one thing more offensive to a company, than that inattention and distraction. It is showing them the utmost contempt, and people never forgive contempt. No man is distrait with the man he fears, or the woman he loves; which is a proof that every man can get the better of that distraction, when he thinks it worth his while to do so; and take my word for it, it is always worth his while.

Later on in the letter, he refers to Bacon’s reference to Queen Isabella: in a man, good appearance is a permanent letter of recommendation.

¶ In Moby-Dick, the story of Pippin, the black boy who couldn’t help jumping from the boat. Melville’s explanation of Pip’s problem is perfectly opaque to me, but I am pathologically unable to follow instructions, particularly when I am reading a novel. (I more and more regard this tome as a glorified Boy Scout Handbook.) The thing to know is that poor Pip is deranged by the experience of finding himself for a spell in the middle of the ocean, far from any vessel.

The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul. Not drowned entirely, though. Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad. So man’s insanity is heaven’s sense; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to that celestial thought, which, to reason, is absurd and frantic; and weal or woe, feels then uncompromised, indifferent as his God

While I can appreciate something of the grandeur of this passage, I cannot feel it. I have parted company, at this reach of my life, with talk of God in everyday affairs, and with references, however poetical, to divine agency. I can read about God in Scripture, but nowhere else. Although I have acquired the patience to wade through this monstrosity of a fiction that I lacked when I was young, I have lost the tolerance for mentions of God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom. It is so much bilge now.

¶ In Don Quixote, our hero is the very voice of good sense, arguing that, as all is fair in love as in war, Basilio and Quiteria ought to be forgiven by the tricked Camacho. This is all very well, but when Basilio and Quiteria decline to remain at the rich wedding feast, and take their champion away with them, Sancho is awfully sorry to leave the “cauldrons of Egypt.”

¶ In Squillions, Noël Coward rather inattentively engages an actress whose singing voice is in decline to play Mrs Erlynne in his operettic adaptation of Lady Windermere’s Fan. To the Lunts:

I have been having a terrible time with After the Ball, mainly on account of Mary Ellis’s singing voice, which, to coin a phrase, sounds like someone fucking the cat.

Morning Read:
Thrown Away

Thursday, May 21st, 2009

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¶ Just in case Stanhope can’t speak for himself, his father composes a little dialogue, with which to fend off high-living compatriots abroad. Then, to finish off this parental gift, Chesterfield underlines the worldly sophistication of his dramaturgy.

You will observe, that I have not put into your mouth those good arguments, which upon such an occasion would, I am sure, occur to you; as piety and affection toward me; regard and friendship for Mr Harte; respect for your own moral character, and for all the relative duties of man, son, pupil, and citizen. Such solid arguments would be thrown away upon such shallow puppies. Leave them to their ignorance, and to their dirty, disgraceful vices.

It goes without saying that Lord Chesterfield would not have comprehended the modern-day etiquette of “boundaries.”

¶ In Moby-Dick, a virtual Wikipedia entry on the subject of ambergris. I had never thought much about ambergris, and I suppose that I always thought it was the same thing as whale oil. But no. It is not.

Of course, the Wikipedia entry is imcomparably clearer.

¶ In Don Quixote, the Cockaigne-like largesse of Camacho’s wedding feast brings out Sancho’s material guy.

You’re worth what you have, and what you have is what you’re worth. There are only two lineages in the world, as my grandmother used to say, and that’s the haves and have-nots, though she was on the side of having; nowadays, Señor Don Quixote, wealth is better than wisdom: an ass covered in gold seems better than saddled horse.

¶ In Squillions, Noël Coward turns down the lead in The King and I.

It would have made a lot of money for him; it would have have burnished his image, and been an undoubed hit with that combination of talents — but it would not have been his.

Morning Read
Porque no cabría

Thursday, May 7th, 2009

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¶ What Lord Chesterfield has to say about courts —

Courts are, unquestionably, the seats of politeness and good-breeding; were they not so, they would be the seats of slaughter and desolation. Those who now smile upon and embrace, would affront and stab each other, if manners did not interpose; but ambition and avarice, the two prevailing passions at courts, found dissimulation more effectual than violence; and dissimulation introduced the habit of politeness, which distinguishes the courtier from the country gentleman. In the former case the strongest body would prevail; in the latter, the strongest mind.

— ought to be said more often about executive suites.

¶ Melville devotes the entirety of a brief chapter to a gloss on Bracton, the Thirteenth-Century legist: De balena vero sufficit, si rex habeat caput, et regina caudam. Whether or not you can understand that sterling principle of English law doesn’t really matter. The mystery is how a book as awful as Moby-Dick attained a reputation for greatness. I can only think that some anxious literary gents, worried about the creeping feminization of culture at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, decided that the canon needed the pong of dirty socks.

Don Quixote translator Edith Grossman tells us that what makes the sword fight between the licentiate and the bachelor (Chapter XIX) so funny is the latter’s adherence to the prescriptions of one of the many elaborate books about fencing that were current in Cervantes’s day. The curious thing is that the book-learner wins the match.

Sancho Panza, who has already wearied of whatever the Second Part has in store for him, upchucks a verbal salad of proverbs.

“God will find the cure,” said Sancho, “for God gives the malady and also the remedy; nobody knows the future: there’s a lot of hours until tomorrow, and in one of them, and even in a moment, the house can fall; I’ve seen it rain at the same time the sun is shining; a man goes to bed healthy and can’t move the next day. And tell me, is there anybody who can boast that he’s driven a nail into Fortune’s wheel? No, of course not, and I wouldn’t dare put the point of a pin between a woman’s yes and no, because it wouldn’t fit.”

¶ A new low is reached in Squillions, as a chapter about the travails of rehearsing and producing Quadrille passes without the slightest description of the plot. Barry Day, who often appears to be addressing his remarks to a tea-shop-ful of Coward queens, is far more interested in documenting the chill that developed between Coward and the Lunts (for whom he wrote Quadrille — I did learn that much). As Coward and the Lunts were far too intelligent and self-controlled to commit indiscretions to paper, the chill must be found between the lines. Since we don’t know anything about the play that they’re squabbling 0ver, the search hardly seems to be worth the effort.

Morning Read:
Indications of Futility

Thursday, April 30th, 2009

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¶ Lord Chesterfield sends his son a miscellany of rules for good conduct, all of which touch, in one way or another, upon the matter of impulse control.

Horse-play, romping, frequent and loud fits of laughter, jokes, waggery, and indiscriminate familiarity, will sink both merit and knowledge into a degree of contempt.

***
A certain degree of exterior seriousness in looks and motions gives dignity, without excluding with and decent cheerfulness, which are always serious themselves. A constant smirk upon the face, and a whiffling activity of the body, are among the indications of futility. Whoever is in a hurry, shows that the thing he is about is too big for him. Haste and hurry are very different things.

¶ In Squillions, Noël Coward endures a string of duds but finds paradise in Jamaica, where neighbors include Ivor Novello. A bit of dish:

Ivor, with typical Welsh cunning, has almost achieved the impossible, which is to find in Jamaica a house with no view at all. It is a suburban villa with several tiled bathrooms (but a scarcity of water) furnished in flowered chintz and mock mahogany. You can see the sea, which is three miles away, by standing on the dining-room table. Any mountain vista is successfully obscured bfy a high hedge beloning to the people next door.

¶ It must come from reading the books out of order, but the following extract from Moby-Dick sounds rather more like Coward than Melville.

In cavalier attendance upon the school of females, you invariably see a male of full grown magnitude, but not old; who, upon any alarm, evinces his gallantry by falling in the rear and covering the flight of his ladies. In truth, this gentleman is a luxurious Ottoman, swimming about over the watery world, surroundingly accompaniesd by all the solace and endearments of the harem. The contrast between this Ottoman and his concubines is striking; because, while he is always of the largest leviathanic proportions, the ladies, even at full growth, are not much more than one third of the bulk of an average-sized male. They are comparatively delicate, indeed; I dare say, not to exceed half a dozen yards round the waist. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied, that upon the whole they are hereditarily entitled to en bon point.

Morning Read:
Miranda

Monday, April 27th, 2009

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¶ In Don Quixote, the three chapters comprising our hero’s gracious encounter with Don Diego de Miranda (whom Quixote regards as The Knight of the Green Coat) seem to be written in a new and different tone; I could not beat down the sensation that Don Diego was my contemporary, not Quixote’s, and that the episode, which culminates in a very agreeable and comfortable visit to Don Diego’s manor, was taking place in modern Texas. Quixote’s encouragement to Don Lorenzo, his host’s son, to persevere in his pursuit of poetry reads something like a blog entry offering career advice. It must be something I ate.

And then there is the adventure of the lazy lion, which reads like a Monty Python skit.

Then the lion keeper, in great detail and with many pauses, recounted the outcome of the contest, exaggerating to the best of his ability and skill the valor of Don Quixote, the sight of whom made a coward of the lion, and refused and did not dare to leave his cage, although he had kept the door open for some time; and only because he had told the knight that it was tempting God to provoke the lion and force him come out, which is what he wanted him to do, and despite the knight’s wishes and against his will, he had allowed the door to be closed again.

“What do you think of that, Sancho?” said Don Quixote. “Are there any enchantments that can prevail against true courage? Enchanters only deprive me of good fortune, but of spirit and courage, never!”

In this second part of the epic, Cervantes certainly treats enchantment as a blank check on which to draw from a vast bank account.

Morning Read:
Dictator

Tuesday, April 21st, 2009

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¶ In Lord Chesterfield’s letter of 20 July 1749, two gems. “Moral virtues are the foundation of society in general, and of friendship in particular; but attentions, manners, and graces both adorn and strengthen them”; and — referring to time lost by his son to a recent illness — “At present you should be a good economist of your moments…”

I don’t think that Chesterfield has anything foppish in mind when he speaks of “attentions, manners, and graces.” I expect that they modulations toward understatement. Graces, for example, may be noted by an attentive observer, but they don’t attract attention from other objects.

¶ In Moby-Dick, “The Great Armada” left me feeling severely dyslexic, as I could not follow the action at all. There was a school of whales ahead of the Pequod, I think, and a fleet of Malacca pirates behind. Looking over the gunwhales of his skiff, Ishmael reports, with clubbing tact, that “When overflowing with mutual esteem, the whales salute more hominum.” I think that this means that the males sport visible erections, but maybe that’s just my dirty mind.

¶ Chapter XIV of Don Quixote, however, is laugh-out-loud funny, at least if you haven’t forgotten that Quixote and Sancho meet the Knight of the Wood and his squire in the dark. I wish that my Spanish were up to assessing whether the original is as wonderfully fruity as Edith Grossman’s translation:

By this time a thousand different kinds of brightly colored birds began to warble in the trees, and with their varied and joyous songs they seemed to welcome and greet the new dawn, who, through the doors and balconies [las puertas y balcones] of the Orient, was revealing the beauty of her face and shaking from her hair an infinite number of liquid pearls whose gentle liquor bathed the plants that seemed, in turn, to send forth buds and rain down tiny white pearls; the willows dripped their sweet-tasting manna, the fountains laughed, the streams murmured, the woods rejoiced, and the meadows flourished with her arrival. But as soon as the light of day made it possible to see and distinguish one thing from another, the first thing that appeared before Sancho Panza’s eyes was the nose of the Squire of the Wood, which was so big it almost cast a shadow over the rest of his body. In fact, it is recounted that his nose was outlandishly large, hooked in the middle, covered with warts, and of a purplish color like an eggplant; it came down the width of two fingers past his mouth, and its size, color, warts, and curvature made his face so hideous that when Sancho saw him his feet and hands started to tremble, like a child having seizures, and he decided in his heart to let himself be slapped two hundred times before he would allow his anger to awaken and then fight with that monster.

The whole episode is gloriously fishy, because the Knight of the Wood — revealed by daylight to be the Knight of the Mirrors — seems to be even dottier than Don Quixote. Long as it is, this sentence ends adorably:

While Don Quixote stopped to help Sancho into the cork tree, the Knight of the Mirrors took as much of the field as he thought necessary, and believing that Don Quixote had done the same, and not waiting for the sound of a trumpet or any other warning, he turned the reins of his horse — who was in fact no faster or better looking than Rocinante — and at his full gallop, which was a medium trot, he rode to encounter his enemy, but seeing him occupied with Sancho’s climb, he checked the reins and stopped in the middle of the charge, for which his horse was extremely grateful, since he could no longer move [de lo que el caballo quedó agradecidísmo, a causa que ya no podía moverse].

¶ Chapter 21 of Squillions, “Sigh Once More…And a Storm in the Pacific,” is relatively brief, and almost wholly devoted to the ill-fated partnership that Noël Coward entered into with Mary Martin, of all people, for the premiere of his new operette, Pacific 1860. What had seemed like a good idea in New York did not cross the Atlantic. Letters were exchanged… including a rather long one from Coward that it seems surprising of Martin to have saved. Just one teeny-tiny paragraph:

Pacific 1860 is, according to these statistics which I think are correct, the fifth theatrical production with which you have been connectedc. It is the forty-seventh theatrical production with which I have been concerned since 1920. For your performance you are paid by the management the biggest star salary payable in this Country ie ten per cent of the gross and have been given full transport for yourself and party. You arrived in this country full of friendliness and enthusiasm with a completely wrong conception of the part of Elena Salvador. This you have frequently admitted to me yourself. You accuse me in your letter of being a dictator. What you are really accusing me of is being a director. I have tried, with the utmost gentleness and patience, to guide and help you into understanding and playing Elena. Not only am I the director but I am also the author and creator of the character, therefore, I am afraid my conception must logically supersede yours. You worked extremely hard, not only up to production but after production, to play the part as I wished it played. You were on the verge of succeeding when, on account of some highly irrational and quite inaccurate opinions of your own about period clothes, you proceeded to throw away all that our joint efforts had so nearly achieved.

The envoi is priceless, both dishy and, I’m sure, sincere.

I am writing to you as a man of the theatre of many years standing who is full of admiration of your personality, charm and talent and who also sees, perhaps more than you realise, how many years of hard work, possible disappointments and the humble acceptance of superior knowledge lie ahead of you before you achieve the true reward that your ambition demands.

Morning Read:
Quos Ultra

Thursday, April 16th, 2009

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¶ Lord Chesterfield sends a lot of sound financial advice to his son. The heartbreaking thing about it is that those capable of taking good advice about money rarely need it. Chesterfield’s underlying budgetary principle, however, is not without interest, because, as he himself says, it’s not easy to discern.

The sure characteristic of a sound and strong mind, is to find in everything, those certain bounds, quos ultra citrave nequit consistere rectum. These boundaries are marked out by a very find line, which only good sense and attention can discover; it is much too fine for vulgar eyes. In manners, this line is good-breeding; beyond it, is troublesome ceremony; short of it, is unbecoming negligence and inattention.

How often, when I was young, did I justify negligence and inattention as the avoidance of troublesome ceremony!

¶ Melville: “The more I consider this mighty tail, the more do I deplore my inability to express it.” Do admit.

¶ In Don Quixote, it appears that the Squire of the Wood has rather more experience at accompanying a knight errant than Sancho does. When he shares a hefty meat pie and a wine skin with the Squire of the Sorrowful Face, the latter laments,

“Your grace is a faithful and true, right and proper, magnificent and great squire, as this feast shows, and if you haven’t come here by the arts of enchantment, at least it seems that way to me, but I’m so poor and unlucky that all I have in my saddlebags is a little cheese, so hard you could break a giant’s skull with it, and to keep it company some four dozen carob beans and the same number of hazelnuts and other kinds of nuts, thanks to the poverty of my master and the idea he has and the rule he keeps that knights errant should not live and survive on anything but dried fruits and the plants of the field.”

“By my faith, brother,” replied the Squire of the Wood, “my stomach isn’t made for thistles or wild pears or forest roots. Let our masters have their knightly opinions and rules and eat what their laws command. I have my baskets of food, and this wineskin hanging from the saddlebow, just in case, and I’m so devoted to it and love it so much that I can’t let too much time pass without giving it a thousand kisses and a thousand embraces.”

¶ In Squillions, the War comes to an end at last, with some very inter-esting correspondence from a man called Ingram Fraser, with whom Coward claimed no more than a “casual acquaintanceship.” Fraser’s letters about the postwar state of Coward’s Paris flat suggest either monumental impertinence or a true meeting of the minds, so to speak.

Now for the immediate future, the next trimestre begins on 15th October, at which time Frs 6,450 are due. On your behalf I promised that would be paid.

A veritable Our Man in Paris, sounds like.

Morning Read:
Researches

Tuesday, April 14th, 2009

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¶ This morning, just a few chapters of Moby-Dick. In my effort to understand the fame of this dog’s-breakfast of a book, I flail about not unlike Melville’s leviathans, sure of only one thing: I can’t wait to put the remaining fifty-odd chapters behind me and be done with the thing. Today, though, I had a more interesting idea than the desperate need to escape. That it took so long to dawn is perhaps itself the best indication of how uncongenial Moby-Dick is.

Moby-Dick is essentially a boy’s own book about hunting, but with this difference: it’s hunting for democrats. No scions of ancient noble houses figure in its narrative, unless of course you count the noble savages who excel at harpooning. The hunt is open to anyone who can talk his way aboard a ship.

That is the only difference. Like any boy’s own book, Moby-Dick is liberally peppered with miscellanies, such as the two chapters that follow the excitement of the chase in which the Pequod’s men outmaneuver some Dutch whalers. “The Honor and Glory of Whaling,” followed by a pendant, “Jonah Historically Regarded,” is the sort of pep talk that “reminds” boys that they’re special:

The more I dive into this matter of whaling, and push my researches up to the very spring-head of it, so much the more am I impressed with its great honorableness and antiquity, and especially when I find so many great demi-gods and heroes, prophets of all sorts, who one way or other have shed distinction upon it, I am transported with the reflection that I msyelf belong, though but subordinately, to so emblazoned a fraternity.

Note the keywords: “honorableness,” “antiquity,” “emblazoned.” “Fraternity” sounds a strong note, too, but all I can think of is: where’s Tinkerbell? Is Melville even halfway serious about the divine (or semi-divine) origins of whaling? It doesn’t really matter, because this “history” is entirely extraneous to the story of Ahab’s obsession with the White Whale — a story, I am beginning to see, almost as dwarfed by Melville’s “researches” as the whale’s brain is by the adjacent spermaceti.

It would be tolerable, and perhaps even amusing, if Melville’s language were not the excruciating mashup of jocular humor and King James poesy that it is. Blackboard screech!

Morning Read:
Consequence

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

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¶ Lord Chesterfield advises his son to stay in touch with one Lord Pulteney, who is not only good-natured and a man of parts but —

but there is also a third reason, which, in the course of the world, is not to be despised; his father cannot live long, and will leave him an immense fortune: which, in all events, will make him of some consequence, and if he has parts into the bargain, of very great consequence; so that his friendship may be extremely well worth your cultivating, especially as it will not cost you above one letter in one month.

This calculating will make many readers bristle — or perhaps it will be the teaching of a younger person to make such calculations that offends. It sounds incompatible with our idea that friendship ought to be disinterested. But friendship is never disinterested, or we should make friends with anyone and everyone. What is the difference between a friend’s charm, intelligence, and great wealth? The last attribute, we feel, doesn’t belong on a par with with the first two, but that, I daresay, is wishful thinking. It’s vanity, too: we flatter ourselves to think that we would be who were are without the advantages of healthy upbringing, material comforts, and so on.

¶ In Moby-Dick, Tashtego falls into the “tun” of spermaceti. Truly objectionable comparisons to childbirth are made: “Midwifery should be taught in the same course with fencing and boxing, riding and rowing.” This jocularity is followed by a chapter that blends whale- worhip with phrenology.

Genius in the Sperm Whale? Has the Sperm Whale ever written a book, spoken a speech? No, his great genius is declared by his doing nothing particular to prove it. It is moreover declared in his pyradmidal silence.

The last bit leads Melville into a flight of fancy about how the Egyptians would have deified the whale (had they known whales) for the same reason that they deified the crocodile: no tongue. What self-indulgent twaddle!

¶ In Don Quixote, Quixote and Sancho encounter a troupe of actors, and for a moment it looks as though the knight errant is going to challenge them to some sort of contest. But, no: this is the Second Part, far less bumptious than the First. Quixote is persuaded to rise above a perceived slight. Phew! But a player in motley scares Rocinante, and the poor knight’s bones are bruised in yet another fall.

¶ In Squillions, Alexander Woollcott dies (with his boots on), and Noël writes about the annealing aspect of London life in wartime.

We are aware in our minds all the time that invasion, either by us or by the enemy, is imminent and might occur at any moment. We are aware all the time that only twenty miles separates us from the enemy and that, however many plays we play and however many jokes we make and however many lunches we may have at the “Ivy” or “Apéritif” or Savoy or Claridges, that anything might happen at any minutes and it is the fact that we are all subconsciously prepared for this that makes the difference that I am trying, so unsuccessfully, to explain.

Not unsuccessfully at all.

Morning Read:
Mongers

Thursday, April 2nd, 2009

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¶ Lord Chesterfield doesn’t think much of naturalists.

It is characteristic of a man of parts and good judgment to know, and to give that degree of attention that each object deserves; whereas little minds mistake little objects for great ones, and lavish away upon the former that time and attention which only the latter deserve. To such mistakes we owe the numerous and frivolous tribe of insect-mongers, shell-mongers, and pursuers and driers of butterflies, etc. … Of this little sort of knowledge, which I have just hinted at, you will find at least as much as you need wish to know, in a splendid but pretty French book entitles Spectacle de la Nature, which will amuse you while you read it, and give you a sufficient notion of the various parts of nature….

Astronomy is different, though:

The vast and immense planetary system, the astonishing order and regularity of those innumerable world, will open a scewne to you, which not only deserves your attention as a matter of curiosity, or rather astonishment; but still more, as it will give you greater, and consequently juster ideas of that eternal and omnipotent Being, who contrived, made, and still preserves that universe, than all the contemplation of this, comparatively, very little orb, which we at present inhabit, could possibly give you.

So far as science goes, the foregoing marks Chesterfield as a man of the Seventeenth Century, not the Eighteenth.

¶ In Moby-Dick, more unintelligible cetacean anatomy. THIS IS NOT A NOVEL! I can feel a wave of Aneiosis coming on. Last season, I galloped through the final book of Virgil’s screed in one go, so mad was I to be done with it. I’m considerably farther from the end of Moby-Dick; in fact, I’m not that much past halfway. I no longer mind the reading so much; what bewilders me every time I pick up the book is its lofty reputation. It’s a piece of outsider art, is what it is.

¶ In Don Quixote, Sancho, “the scoundrel” (socarrón) shows that he’s learned a thing or two about his knight errant when he tries to solve the problem of producing a Dulcinea. He has never met this figment of Quixote’s imagination, but he has lied to the contrary, and now he’s in a pickle. Abracadabra: poor Don Quixote has been enchanted again, so that Dulcinea looks like a peasant girl, riding along on a donkey with two friends. Quixote puts up not the slightest resistance to the trick. Worse, Sancho can hardly “hide his laughter.”

¶ In Squillions, a cascade of fan letters from important people, all saying such wonderful things about In Which We Serve that you can’t believe that you’ve never seen it. I repeat: Barry Day ought to have titled his book, Letters Noël Coward Saved.

Morning Read
Luz Resplandeciente

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009

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¶ It cannot be said that Lord Chesterfield lacks a meritocratic bias.

I have known many a woman, with an exact shape, and a symmetrical assemblage of beautiful features, please nobody; while others, with very moderate shapes and features, have charmed everybody. Why? because Venus will not charm so much, without her attendant Graces, as they will without her.

¶ In Moby-Dick, two execrable chapters, stuffed to the “ridge-pole” with dead metaphors. For example, the head of the right whale is compared to a violoncello. How fatuously accidental! It would be impossible to write less musically than this:

But now, forget all about blinds and whisters for a moment, and, standing in the Right Whale’s mouth, look around you afresh. Seeing all those colonnades of bone so methodically ranged about, would you not think you were inside of the great Haarlem organ, and gazing upon its thousand pipes?

This is bad for the same reason that French puns are unfunny. Anything can be seen to resemble almost anything else, which makes the spinning of comparisons a convenient opportunity for name dropping. To be reminded of a pipe organ by the right whale’s baleen is not enough — we must have the famous organ at Haarlem — devoid though it be of marine implication.

¶ When Reverend Eager, in A Room With a View, declares that the Church of Sta Croce in Florence was “built by faith in the full fervour of medievalism,” Mr Emerson demurs. “No! … That simply means the workmen weren’t paid properly.” I thought of this when Don Quixote explained to Sancho why he could not offer him the salary that Teresa Panza urged her husband to fix.

Look, Sancho, I certainly should have specified a salary for you if I had found in any of the histories of the knights errant an example that would have revealed to me and shown me, by means of the smallest sign, what wages were for a month, or a year, but I have read all or most of their histories, and I do not recall reading that any knight errant ever specified a fixed salary for his squire. I only know that all of them served without pay, and when they least expected it, if things had gone well for their masters, they found themselves rewarded with an insula or something comparable…

¶ In Squillions, Churchill writes to George VI,

Since our conversation at luncheon today, I ahve examined, in consultation with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the details of the case brought against Mr Noël Coward. The Chancellor and Sir Richard Hopkins contend that it was one of substance and that the conferment of a Knighthood upon Mr Coward so soon afterwards would give rise to unfavourable comment.

Coward would have to wait until 1970.