Gibbon, massacres of Christians, and dying moths

From Virginia Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out, Chapter XV:

Here Rachel came up from the lower garden with a book in her hand.

“What’s that book?” said Ridley, when she had shaken hands.

“It’s Gibbon,” said Rachel as she sat down.

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire?” said Mrs. Thornbury. “A very wonderful book, I know. My dear father was always quoting it at us, with the result that we resolved never to read a line.”

“Gibbon the historian?” enquired Mrs. Flushing. “I connect him with some of the happiest hours of my life. We used to lie in bed and read Gibbon—about the massacres of the Christians, I remember—when we were supposed to be asleep. It’s no joke, I can tell you, readin’ a great big book, in double columns, by a night-light, and the light that comes through a chink in the door. Then there were the moths—tiger moths, yellow moths, and horrid cockchafers. Louisa, my sister, would have the window open. I wanted it shut. We fought every night of our lives over that window. Have you ever seen a moth dyin’ in a night-light?” she enquired.

The passage continues:

Hewet picked up the book that lay on the ground.

“You like this?” he asked in an undertone.

“No, I don’t like it,” she replied. She had indeed been trying all the afternoon to read it, and for some reason the glory which she had perceived at first had faded, and, read as she would, she could not grasp the meaning with her mind.

“It goes round, round, round, like a roll of oil-cloth,” she hazarded. Evidently she meant Hewet alone to hear her words, but Hirst demanded, “What d’you mean?”
She was instantly ashamed of her figure of speech, for she could not explain it in words of sober criticism.

“Surely it’s the most perfect style, so far as style goes, that’s ever been invented,” he continued. “Every sentence is practically perfect, and the wit—”

“Ugly in body, repulsive in mind,” she thought, instead of thinking about Gibbon’s style. “Yes, but strong, searching, unyielding in mind.” She looked at his big head, a disproportionate part of which was occupied by the forehead, and at the direct, severe eyes.

“I give you up in despair,” he said. He meant it lightly, but she took it seriously, and believed that her value as a human being was lessened because she did not happen to admire the style of Gibbon. The others were talking now in a group about the native villages which Mrs. Flushing ought to visit.

“I despair too,” she said impetuously. “How are you going to judge people merely by their minds?”

“You agree with my spinster Aunt, I expect,” said St. John in his jaunty manner, which was always irritating because it made the person he talked to appear unduly clumsy and in earnest. “‘Be good, sweet maid’—I thought Mr. Kingsley and my Aunt were now obsolete.”

“One can be very nice without having read a book,” she asserted. Very silly and simple her words sounded, and laid her open to derision.

“Did I ever deny it?” Hirst enquired, raising his eyebrows.

You couldn’t give me a billion dollars to get on an airplane.

The great Paul Motian, from Motian in Motion, a wonderful 2020 documentary of his life and career. Skip to the 41-minute mark for this:

Oh yeah. No, I won’t get on an airplane. Forget that. You couldn’t give me a billion dollars to get on an airplane. I’m serious. Give me a billion dollars—I will not get on an airplane. I just did so much of that, man, so much touring, wow, year after year after year after year. Planes. Airplanes. Hundreds of airplanes. Terrible! That’s terrible! Touring is a horrible life.

Years of international living and traveling have led me to exactly the same conclusion. Having said that, billion-dollar offers are welcome.

Snarky Jane Austen

When King George III went mad and was unable to carry out his duties, his son became Prince Regent in 1811, ruling in his father’s stead until the old king’s death in 1820, when the Prince Regent became George IV. As Prince Regent, he led a notoriously dissolute life, with massive debts, multiple mistresses, and rumours of multiple illegitimate children—having separated from his wife, Caroline, after the birth of their only child, Princess Charlotte. The public sided with Caroline and despised the Prince Regent.

As Jane Austen was about to publish Emma, a representative of the Prince Regent was sent to her, in an apparent attempt to improve the Prince’s reputation, with a request that she dedicate the novel to the Prince Regent. Austen was unhappy, but finally agreed. Here is the dedication:













. . . Which reminds me of women in an Austen novel, holding their bone china tea cups, backs straight, smiling, and neatly inserting verbal stilettos between the ribs of the  ladies on the opposite sofa. Ouch!

Nothing good came of it

In Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, the narrator is an older woman who lives alone in a small rural community in southwest Poland. Walking in the forest one day, she meets an entomologist and, upon learning that he has been sleeping under the trees, invites him to stay with her and sleep on her sofa. The eccentric capitalization mimics the writings of William Blake, the English Romantic poet, artist, and mystic.

Boros’s presence reminded me what it’s like to live with someone. And how very awkward it is. How much it diverts you from your own thoughts and distracts you. How another Person starts to irritate you without actually doing anything annoying, but simply by being there. Each morning when he went off to the forest, I blessed my glorious solitude. How do people manage to spend decades living together in a small space? I wondered. How can they possibly sleep in the same bed together, breathing on and jostling each other accidentally in their sleep? I’m not saying it hasn’t happened to me too. For some time I shared my bed with a Catholic, and nothing good came of it.

*  *  *

As we were off to bed, emboldened by the wine, Boros and I embraced, to say thank you for this evening. A little later I saw him in the kitchen, taking his pills and swallowing them with water from the tap.

It occurred to me that he was a very good Person, this Boros. And it was a good thing he had his Ailments. Being healthy is an insecure state and does not bode well. It’s better to be ill in a quiet way, then at least we know what we’re going to die of.

He came to me in the Night and squatted by my bed. I wasn’t asleep.

“Are you asleep?” he asked.

“Are you religious?” I had to put the question.

“Yes,” he replied proudly. “I’m an atheist.”

I found that curious.

I raised the quilt and invited him to join me, but as I am neither Maudlin nor Sentimental, I shall not dwell on it any further.

—pp. 157, 166-67

Happy Birthday!

Dear Colleagues,

Thank you for the birthday card and your kind messages!

I confess to a moment of shock when I first received it. 

“What?!” I thought, “Is it my birthday?” 

I had to check my driver’s licence and the calendar on my phone. The first confirmed that my birthday is actually in June, and the second confirmed that we are still in the month of May. 

Then I saw Michael’s message: “All the best on your 80th!”

That sent me back to my driver’s licence. 

There seem to be three possible explanations. 

One, Michael is ten years ahead of us. Two, I am ten years behind. Or three, Michael wisely decided to wish me a happy 80th on the odd chance that he might forget to wish me a happy 80th in ten years. 

And then I realized the truth: this is all Dakota’s little joke, just because I’m always saying “Happy Thanksgiving!” and “Happy Birthday!” to her. Today is somebody’s birthday, isn’t it? So, Happy Birthday! 

But now she has taken it another step: actually handing out birthday cards to people, randomly. And I was the obvious first choice.

Good one, Dakota!

And . . . Happy Birthday to you all! 

(Including Queen Victoria!)

Out-of-fashion romantic nonsense

“What objection can you have to the young gentleman?”

“A very solid objection, in my opinion,” says Sophia—“I hate him.”

“Will you never learn a proper use of words?” answered the aunt. “Indeed, child, you should consult Bailey’s Dictionary. It is impossible you should hate a man from whom you have received no injury. By hatred, therefore, you mean no more than dislike, which is no sufficient objection against your marrying of him. I have known many couples, who have entirely disliked each other, lead very comfortable genteel lives. Believe me, child, I know these things better than you. You will allow me, I think, to have seen the world, in which I have not an acquaintance who would not rather be thought to dislike her husband than to like him. The contrary is such out-of-fashion romantic nonsense, that the very imagination of it is shocking.”

—Henry Fielding

The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling. Book VII, Chapter iii.

Country gentlemen, and gentlemen in town

He then bespattered the youth with abundance of that language which passes between country gentlemen who embrace opposite sides of the question; with frequent applications to him to salute that part which is generally introduced into all controversies that arise among the lower orders of the English gentry at horse-races, cock-matches, and other public places. Allusions to this part are likewise often made for the sake of the jest. And here, I believe, the wit is generally misunderstood. In reality, it lies in desiring another to kiss your a[rse] for having just before threatened to kick his; for I have observed very accurately, that no one ever desires you to kick that which belongs to himself, nor offers to kiss this part in another.

It may likewise seem surprizing that in the many thousand kind invitations of this sort, which every one who hath conversed with country gentlemen must have heard, no one, I believe, hath ever seen a single instance where the desire hath been complied with;—a great instance of their want of politeness; for in town nothing can be more common than for the finest gentlemen to perform this ceremony every day to their superiors, without having that favour once requested of them.

—Henry Fielding

The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling. Book VI, Chapter ix.

Cymbal Crash

In Grade Nine, as the youngest member of the high school concert band’s percussion section, I was assigned the cymbal part for a long symphonic piece whose name I have forgotten. 

On the night of the concert, the auditorium was filled with parents and students. I stood in the back row on the highest riser, a tall, skinny kid feeling uncomfortable. Partly my discomfort was due to the tie that was strangling me, but mostly it was because I had had very little rehearsal time for this number. There were, it seemed to me, about 5,000 measures of rest, including several repeated sections and other confusions along the way, before my single cymbal crash. The cymbals were heavy, 16 or 18 inches in diameter, and I stood for a long time, hands gripping the leather straps, a cymbal at each side resting lightly against my thighs. In vain I searched the music with one eye and kept the other on the band director as he conducted, hoping fervently that he would give me a sign when my moment was near.

To crash the cymbals properly, however, required some preparation. I had to raise them up in front of me, about six inches apart, one about twelve inches higher than the other. I worried that the band director, having more important matters at hand, would not alert me long enough before the crash to give me time to prepare. Finally it seemed to me that I had better get ready, so I raised the cymbals up to their proper positions and waited. Just as my arms were starting to quiver under the weight of the cymbals, the director looked at me and discreetly shook his head. 

As inconspicuously as possible, I slowly lowered the cymbals and stood again with my hands at my sides. Only later did I realize that a tall, skinny boy raising a large pair of shiny cymbals in the back row provided, for most of the audience, the only real interest of the performance.

The piece continued, and I waited, hoping desperately for either a section of music that I recognized, or a sign from the conductor. 


Once again, fearing I would miss my cue, I raised the cymbals, and waited. Again my arms began to tremble. Again the conductor shook his head, and again I lowered the cymbals slowly to my sides.

I can’t remember now whether this sequence repeated three times, or four, but finally, my arms now visibly shaking, the conductor nodded. With immense relief I recognized the crucial passage of the music, and I successfully crashed the cymbals, right on time. 

My relief turned to shock, however, when—right in the middle of the piece—the entire audience erupted in applause! They had been waiting through almost the entire, dreary number for that cymbal crash. The tension caused by my repeated false starts must have been excruciating.

A week or so later, my French teacher kicked me out of class and sent me to the vice-principal’s office. She was angry with me because I refused to carry the heavy textbook home each night to complete her five-point homework assignments. “If you did your homework, you could have an A!” she shouted in exasperation. When I told her that I was quite happy with my B+, she kicked me out.

The vice-principal, hardened by constant experience with rather more serious discipline problems, listened to my story, looked at me without expression, blinked once, and invited me to sit down. “I really enjoyed that band concert,” he said. “You did a great job with those cymbals.”

Taken aback momentarily, I recovered my footing and we talked for several minutes about the weight of crash cymbals. We discussed the care one must take not to catch one’s tie in between the cymbals and thus spoil the crash. And so on. We pretty much exhausted the topic. Then he looked at me and asked, “Do you think she’ll let you back into class now?” He wrote a note for me and sent me back.

The teacher’s vocation

In La gloire de mon père, Marcel Pagnol remembers one of his father’s colleagues, who graduated from teacher’s college first in his class. From there he went straight into a job in the worst neighbourhood in Marseille, a part of town where no one dared to walk at night. He stayed there, teaching in the same classroom for forty years. 

Marcel overhears his father ask this man one evening,  

“So, you never had any ambition?”

“Oh yes,” he said, “I did! And I think I have succeeded very well. Just think: in twenty years, my predecessor saw six of his former students guillotined. As for me, in forty years I have only seen two, plus one who was reprieved. That’s made it all worthwhile.”

Faculty Meeting

We’re all aware of the math teacher’s problems.
The PE guy gets exercised over the smallest things.
The history teacher can’t forget his past.
The English teacher has choice words for everyone.
The geography teacher knows his place.
The biology teacher loves life, but hates frogs.
The computer science guy is bug-eyed.
The chemistry teacher overreacts to the slightest change.
The physics teacher is energetic, but no one understands him.
The art teacher claims he’s been framed.
Put the Home Ec teacher together with the Crisis Management Counselor and you have a recipe for disaster.

—ca. 2003

‘Hamlet: The Happy Ending’

Some of my students were devastated to discover that Hamlet dies at the end of the play, so I have obliged their tender sensibilities with this additional scene. —etm


Scene: Wittenberg. A room in an inn.

But how is this possible?!

‘Season your admiration’, good friend. In short, by a hair’s breadth and the grace of God. But sit you down, and I will lay it all out before you. Here, a bit of wine will do you good.

Horatio sits and grips his wine cup as though it were the last real thing in his universe.

I saw right away that to stay in Denmark meant certain death for me and those I most loved. I began with Ophelia, and together we wove a plan. Then came you, and the ghost. I wanted to tell you all, but feared to put you in danger should the king suspect you, and so I must beg your pardon, dear Horatio.

But I saw you die, with my own eyes. I saw Ophelia buried. I saw you kill both Laertes and the king, and I saw the Queen drink the poisoned wine. Have I gone mad?

Fie, fie! you are the sanest person I know. But eyes can deceive, good Horatio. What you saw was mostly theatre. Acting. Stage tricks I learned during my days with the players in the city.

Did no one die?

Only the king and, alas, old Polonius. That was the accident that nearly unraveled all my plans.

But my lord, you killed the king with the same rapier that only moments before you pulled out of Laertes. How can Laertes live, if the king died?

That was nicely done, eh? Laertes and I managed the rapiers very well. Of course, everyone was so alarmed by then, it was easy to beguile their senses with a sleight of hand. [Seeing Horatio’s incomprehension.] The rapier that seemed to kill Laertes was one I had from the players. The one I plunged into the guts of that villain was real.

May he roast in hell! O, my lord, you cannot know, nor I cannot say had I a thousand years, how glad I am to see you here before me, alive and well and smiling. [They embrace, both shedding glad tears.] Tell me, though, how is’t with the Queen your mother?

Still my mother, God be thanked, and no longer queen, I am glad to say. She was yet divided in her heart, though always loyal to me, but when Laertes told her of the king’s plan for the fencing match, all division ended and she became an eager player in our plot. And then, when the king did not stop her from drinking the wine that he thought was poisoned, all remaining sympathy was erased and she rejoiced in his death, though for the sake of our deception she could not show her happiness ‘til later.

And where are they now— your mother, Ophelia, and Laertes?

At home, such as it is, waiting to embrace you when I bring you there to greet them.

With all my heart will I greet them, each and every one. But what of Rosenkrantz, and Guildenstern? Do they live?

[Laughing] Aye, what a pair, those two! The king had no idea what actors they were. At moments they nearly convinced me of their villainy. They are in London, and from their latest letter it appears that they are making a name for themselves in the theatres there. Perhaps we shall go and see them, or better yet persuade them to return here and join us. We might make Wittenberg the centre of the world.

Does Fortinbras know you live?

Aye, aye, he was my back, had the fencing match not gone as I planned it. The great fool, he was just as happy to become king as I was to escape from that madness. Ambition, greed, grasping always for favours and power—what kind of life is that, Horatio?

Not the sort that I should want, my lord.

No, nor I. Shall we go to greet the ladies and Laertes? They await us.


Fake Apple Store, Fake IKEA, Fake Dairy Queen. What’s next? — Fake France!

The news about entire retail shops being copied by clever Chinese entrepreneurs leads to the obvious question: where do we go from here? Clearly, fake stores are an intermediary step in the development toward a much more ambitious project: fake countries.

Think about it: millions of Chinese people would love to visit France, for example, but it’s too far away and too expensive. Solution? Fake France! Berets, baguettes, red wine, accordions, and an entire fake Paris complete with Eiffel Tower, Montmartre, and Jim Morrison’s fake grave (Jim himself, of course, is head of a highly successful import/export joint venture headquartered in Shanghai). Given the trends of the world economy,  it will soon be cost-effective to populate Fake France with real French people, drawn to the opportunity by attractive wages and the possibility of shopping in Fake Apple Stores on their days off. I’m sure there’s a spot somewhere in the south of China with an appropriate climate that’s already been staked out by developers.

But why stop there? How about . . . Fake Egypt! Just what Xinjiang Province’s barren sands need. Other countries, of course, could be more challenging. Fake Norway, for example: we can do snow, we can do fjords, but the crystal blue water in those fjords? Hmmm.

Lest you think all of this is a bad thing, think again. The Chinese genius for making exquisitely accurate copies—an art that goes back for centuries, by the way, prompted by imperial demands for copies of ancient art works that had been lost—may end up saving all of us. We continue raping, pillaging, plundering, and polluting the planet with little thought for the consequences. The Chinese, I’m convinced, are thinking ahead for us. When the planet has finally been rendered completely uninhabitable, where will we go?

Of course: Fake Earth!