Something for St. Valentine’s Day

I used to read a lot more poetry than I do now. Tastes shift and change, and experience brings the perspective to realise that a lot of sentiments expressed through poems have either (a) already been written, far better, by someone else, (b) are completely unrealistic (poets seldom wax rhapsodic about the mortgage, or the insurance), or (c) have already been co-opted by the evil empire that is the greetings card industry. It was either Douglas Adams or a general sort of cliché which once propounded the notion that a poet is someone who can’t get out of bed without writing a song about it, and over the years, I’ve come to feel that the accusation isn’t entirely unjust. I feel on safe ground in saying this, as I used to write some (incredibly bad) poetry myself. Fortunately, those notebooks are long destroyed (don’t bother looking for them), for the good not only of my reputation, but for the general future of human civilisation. The stuff that I wrote may or may not have been as good as Vogon poetry; I will certainly never tell.

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The Faber Book of Love Poems, Edited by Geoffrey Grigson (Faber & Faber, 1973 – paperback, 1983)

All that being said, a love poem done well is a thing worth celebrating, and this morning before settling down to work, I pulled out my old favourite collection on the subject, The Faber Book of Love Poems, edited Geoffrey Grigson. The Faber books of verse were a staple of my early poetry reading, with their authoritative voices and their whimsical cover design (the distinctive “ff” pattern), these books got anthologies right, in a way I haven’t really seen since. There are 401 poems in this volume, with a percentage in French, and several containing sections in Latin (if you are a fan of poetry in French or Latin, I would also suggest looking into the relevant books published by Oxford University Press).

The selection in The Faber Book of Love Poems is idiosyncratic, but Grigson was clearly a man who knew his poetry, and loved it well. The earliest English and French poems are mediaeval, but the contents span the centuries up to the middle part of the 20th century, with poets like Robert Graves and A.E. Housman represented. Women are not heavily represented, although Emily Dickinson and Christina Rossetti both get a look in. This may make the collection too old-fashioned for some tastes, but I would defend it with the somewhat trite observation that good poetry is good poetry, no matter.

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Books in Groups: Fit the First

So today is another #DarwinDay, an annual event commemorating the birthday of English naturalist Charles Darwin, born this day in 1809.

In honour of that fact… look, I made a pretty picture on the carpet:

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A collection of works by Charles Darwin, in a variety of modern editions.

Since I’ve been in a dark place, lately (to be fair, so have a lot of people, so no, my darkness isn’t especially dark, or greater than yours, if you see what I mean), I thought I’d try for a ray of sunshine on this — yet again unseasonably warm, probably due to climate change — otherwise not unpleasant day.

I’ve read a fair amount of Darwin’s writing over the years, but I haven’t even really scratched the surface of his work. And today, I’ll probably just end up flipping through the facsimile first edition of On the Origin of Species for a few minutes, like I always do. It’s the same copy that I used in a university course some years ago. Simpler times.

But Darwin’s work also serves as an important reminder of that dreadful old cliché that the only real constant in life is change. Time advances. Entropy increases. So while we have our health and our liberty, let’s raise a glass to change, and damn the buggers that would bring us down.

Oh, yes… and this: evolution is a fact. Not a statement of belief, but a statement of fact. It really happened. It’s still happening. And whether you like it or not, whether you believe it or not, it’s going to carry on happening. Evolution doesn’t need your permission.

Happy Darwin Day, 2017.

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Brave New World and Brave New World Revisited, by Aldous Huxley: A Review

Brave New World holds one of those distinctive places in literature, that of a book that people “know,” in some sense, even if they haven’t read it. Like its colleague in dystopian imaginings, 1984, Brave New World is a book much cited and discussed, especially, one suspects, by many more people than have actually read it. For while Brave New World is a fascinating glimpse of a hypothetical alternate future, it is Brave New World Revisited, Huxley’s examination of the themes and realities behind the book written about a quarter century after the initial publication in 1931, that really packs the greatest punch.

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Aldous Huxley, Brave New World and Brave New World Revisited (HarperPerennial, 2004)

The Chambers English Dictionary defines the adjective  “authoritarian” as “setting authority above liberty.” From Brave New World, we learn that there are, in reality, two sorts of authoritarianism. There is what most people probably think of, an obdurate, unyielding dictatorship under which people have little or no freedom from the least humiliation and live in constant fear. Think of Orwell’s 1984, in which the citizens of Airstrip One are little more than fear-driven cogs in a giant, never-ceasing machine of State. That is the first type of authoritarian state. Then there is the other sort of authoritarian régime. It is soft, and pliable, and applies the most liberal of methods to dealing with citizenry which might feel compelled to step beyond the proscribed bounds. And that is the world created by Huxley in Brave New World.

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Titus Livy and Today: Thoughts on Names from Long Ago

Reading a piece on the Huffington Post (I only go there for the articles, honestly) led me to wonder about a figure identified, with typical HuffPo understatedness as “Trump ‘Intellect’ Unmasked,” an individual called Michael Anton. What I found most interesting was not his writings (because I’ve already had enough of that sort of writing for several lifetimes), but the pseudonym under which he chose to write, in 2016, pieces defending various aspects of Administration’s agenda. That pseudonym, as you may by now have read, was Publius Decius Mus.

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Livy, Rome and Italy (Translated by Betty Radice) (Penguin Books, 1982)

The name was only vaguely familiar to me; as most of my studies dealt with the later Roman Empire, I didn’t read a lot of the history of the early Republic. But what struck me immediately was that mus, amusingly, is Latin for “mouse.” As I started thinking about the name, it occurred to me to wonder: why choose that name, in particular? Using famous Latinate names has a pedigree in American political writing; the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers, some of the greatest documents in American history that no bugger has read, were written under names like Brutus, Cato, and Publius. Granted, that was two hundred thirty-odd years ago, when there was more chance that a literate person might have read the classics, at least enough to get the reference in a newspaper. Nevertheless, what is significant about Decius that he was worth name-checking as a pseudonym in the 21st century? Surely there’s more to it than the HuffPo writer’s simple identification as “a self-sacrificing Roman consul?” It turns out that, yes, there is.

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When Last I Died, by Gladys Mitchell: A Review

The thirteenth mystery novel published to feature the crocodilian psychologist Mrs. Bradley, 1941’s When Last I Died marries elements of several of the previous books (particularly the confused identities of The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop with the sustained menace of  The Devil at Saxon Wall) into a satisfying whole. Indeed, this turns out to be one of the best of Gladys Mitchell’s books that I have read thus far (and I’m up to about a third of them, total). There’s always something to like and appreciate in a Mrs. Bradley novel, but When Last I Died goes the longest way yet to building a taut, suspenseful, and gripping narrative, right up to the closing pages.

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When Last I Died, by Gladys Mitchell (Hogarth Press, 1985)

The story opens with Mrs. Bradley being presented with a problem of two young escapees who vanished from borstal some six years previously. It is a case which bothers the Director of the Institute, and he confides in Mrs. Bradley that at the same time as the disappearance, the former cook, Bella Foxley, also left the Institute. She was to receive a legacy after her aunt died — under mysterious circumstances. This legacy was received shortly before Bella Foxley herself was tried for the murder of her cousin Tom Turney, a psychical researcher. Foxley was acquitted of the charge, and eventually committed suicide in a pond, by which she was living with her sister, Tessa. But the local village idiot claimed, confusingly, that Miss Foxley had drowned already, in a water butt outside of the cottage that the sisters shared.

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It Can’t Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis: A Review and Consideration

I’ve struggled with writing a review after my second reading of It Can’t Happen Here. That’s not in any way due to the inherent difficulty of the material or concepts. It is due to the density of the novel’s writing, how much thought and care and the sheer brutal tidal wave of information and ideas that Lewis packed into his 1935 novel. But it is also a compelling work of political fiction, especially in light of the currents of world events of the late 2010s.

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Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here (Doubleday & Company, 1935)

As Lewis wrote, he did so no doubt informed by close experience of fascism and fascistic methods, from someone in his household. Specifically, his second wife, the journalist Dorothy Thompson, had made an implacable enemy of Herr Hitler following the instance when she wrote, calling him among other things a “little man,” in her 1931 book I Saw Hitler. The Nazis were slow to respond, but eventually, she was given 24 hours to leave the country in August, 1934 (and therefore got away with her life, as one of the first journalists expelled from Germany). Lewis’s first biographer, American writer Mark Schorer, states in reference to It Can’t Happen Here that had Lewis not been married to Thompson, the novel would never have been written. Alarmed by similarly populist trends in the United States, Lewis, whose works of the first years of the 1930s had not met with the success and acclaim of his five big problem novels of the previous decade, wrote It Can’t Happen Here swiftly and without any pause, during the summer of 1935. He sent revised proofs off to Doubleday, his publisher, in late August. The novel was published by October, 1935, and was an immediate success.

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Heavy As Lead, by Malcolm Torrie: A Review

The first of the Timothy Herring “architectural mysteries” finds Herring dispatched by PHISBE to the Surrey village of Parsons Purity. There, he is to judge whether or not a 13th century church, from which the lead roof has been stolen under mysterious circumstances, merits the Society for Preservation of Buildings of Historical Interest’s ministrations (the Society’s acrostic acronym requires no “E” except for pronunciation). Herring, an independently-wealthy, well-heeled bon vivant, is Secretary of PHISBE, and a sort of amateur field investigator with a nose for historical buildings. But his trip to Parsons Purity will be full of unexpected twists and turns, and even murder.

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Heavy as Lead, by Malcolm Torrie (Gladys Mitchell) (Michael Joseph, 1967)

Even if you didn’t know that Malcolm Torrie was the 1960s pseudonym of Larkin’s “Great Gladys,” alert readers who know her style would twig the fact fairly quickly. All of the classic Mitchell touches are deployed: a raft of curious and eccentric locals, esoteric subject matter convincingly researched, including mediaeval architecture and the propagation and theft of rock plants and rockeries. At one point, Herring is even made to discuss the works of odd-ball novelist and tangential Inkling Charles Williams: clearly, casual readers and those without a broad world-view could find themselves well out of their depths.

There are mysteries aplenty in the offing, and an array of Mitchell-esque characters to boot. Herring must deal with the local squire, improbably named Sir Ganymede Trogget, the local femme fatale Jane Stretton, the alternately spiky and obsequious vicar Winterbottom, the formidable chatelaine Mrs. Prynne, and the local magistrate Manciple, are just a few of the characters with whom he must deal in order not only to learn the truth of the missing lead from the church roof, but, as the story progresses, who has been responsible for a murder as well.

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