The Fourth Nabokov Interview

This is the fourth installment in SLP’s ongoing coverage of the public life of Vladimir Nabokov.


Nabokov’s Life Magazine Interview, 1964

On August 18, 1964, Jane Howard of Life magazine sent me eleven questions. I have kept the typescript of my replies. In mid-September she arrived in Montreux with the photographer Henry Grossman. Text and pictures appeared in the November 20 issue of Life.

What writers and persons and places have influenced you most?

Vladimir Nabokov

In my boyhood I was an extraordinarily avid reader. By the age of 14 or 15 I had read or re- read all Tolstoy in Russian, all Shakespeare in English, and all Flaubert in French– besides hundreds of other books. Today I can always tell when a sentence I compose happens to resemble in cut and intonation that of any of the writers I loved or detested half a century ago; but I do not believe that any particular writer has had any definite influence upon me. As to the influence of places and persons, I owe many metaphors and sensuous associations to the North Russian landscape of my boyhood, and I am also aware that my father was responsible for my appreciating very early in life the thrill of a great poem.

Have you ever seriously contemplated a career other than in letters?

Frankly, I never thought of letters as a career. Writing has always been for me a blend of dejection and high spirits, a torture and a pastime– but I never expected it to be a source of income. On the other hand, I have often dreamt of a long and exciting career as an obscure curator of lepidoptera in a great museum.

Which of your writings has pleased you most?

I would say that of all my books Lolita has left me with the most pleasurable afterglow– perhaps because it is the purest of all, the most abstract and carefully contrived. I am probably responsible for the odd fact that people don’t seem to name their daughters Lolita any more. I have heard of young female poodles being given that name since 1956, but of no human beings. Well-wishers have tried to translate Lolita into Russian, but with such execrable results that I’m now doing a translation myself. The word “jeans,” for example, is translated in Russian dictionaries as “wide, short trousers”– a totally unsatisfactory definition.

In the foreword to The Defense you allude to psychiatry. Do you think the dependence of analyzed on analysts is a great danger?

I cannot conceive bow anybody in his right mind should go to a psychoanalyst, but of course if one’s mind is deranged one might try anything; after all, quacks and cranks, shamans and holy men, kings and hypnotists have cured people– especially hysterical people. Our grandsons no doubt will regard today’s psychoanalysts with the same amused contempt as we do astrology and phrenology. One of the greatest pieces of charlatanic, and satanic, nonsense imposed on a gullible public is the Freudian interpretation of dreams. I take gleeful pleasure every morning in refuting the Viennese quack by recalling and explaining the details of my dreams without using one single reference to sexual symbols or mythical complexes. I urge my potential patients to do likewise.

How do your views on politics and religion affect what you write?

I have never belonged to any political party but have always loathed and despised dictatorships and police states, as well as any sort of oppression. This goes for regimentation of thought, governmental censorship, racial or religious persecution, and all the rest of it. Whether or not my simple credo affects my writing does not interest me. I suppose that my indifference to religion is of the same nature as my dislike of group activities in the domain of political or civic commitments. I have allowed some of my creatures in some of my novels to be restless freethinkers but here again I do not care one bit what kind of faith or brand of non-faith my reader may assign to their maker.

Would you have liked to have lived at a time other than this?

My choice of “when” would be influenced by that of “where.” As a matter of fact, I would have to construct a mosaic of time and space to suit my desires and demands. It would be too complicated to tabulate all the elements of this combination. But I know pretty well what it should include. It should include a warm climate, daily baths, an absence of radio music and traffic noise, the honey of ancient Persia, a complete microfilm library, and the unique and indescribable rapture of learning more and more about the moon and the planets. In other words, I think I would like my head to be in the United States of the nineteen-sixties, but would not mind distributing some of my other organs and limbs through various centuries and countries.

With what living writers do you feel a particular sympathy?

When Mr. N. learns from an interview that Mr. X., another writer, has named as his favorites Mr. A., Mr. B. and Mr. N., this inclusion may puzzle Mr. N. who considers, say, Mr. A.’s work to be primitive and trite. I would not like to puzzle Mr. C., Mr. D., or Mr. X., all of whom I like.

Do you anticipate that more of your works will be made into films? On the basis of Lolita, does the prospect please you?

I greatly admired the film Lolita as a film– but was sorry not to have been given an opportunity to collaborate in its actual making. People who liked my novel said the film was too reticent and incomplete. If, however, all the next pictures based on my books are as charming as Kubrick’s, I shall not grumble too much.

Which of the languages you speak do you consider the most beautiful?

My head says English, my heart, Russian, my ear, French.

Why do you prefer Montreux as a headquarters? Do you in any way miss the America you parodied so exquisitely in Lolita^ Do you find that Europe and the US are coming to resemble each other to a discouraging degree?

I think I am trying to develop, in this rosy exile, the same fertile nostalgia in regard to America, my new country, as I evolved for Russia, my old one, in the first post-revolution years of West-European expatriation. Of course, I miss America– even Miss America. If Europe and America are coming to resemble each other more and more– why should I be discouraged? Amusing, perhaps, and, perhaps, not quite true, but certainly not discouraging in any sense I can think of. My wife and I are very fond of Montreux, the scenery of which I needed for Pale Fire, and still need for another book. There are also family reasons for our living in this part of Europe. I have a sister in Geneva and a son in Milan. He is a graduate of Harvard who came to Italy to complete his operatic training, which he combines with racing an Italian car in major events and translating the early works of his father from Russian into English.

What is your prognosis for the health of Russian letters?

There is no plain answer to your question. The trouble is that no government however intelligent or humane is capable of generating great artists, although a bad government certainly can pester, thwart, and suppress them. We must also remember– and this is very important– that the only people who flourish under all types of government are the Philistines. In the aura of mild regimes there is exactly as rare a chance of a great artist’s appearing on the scene as there is in the less happy times of despicable dictatorships. Therefore I cannot predict anything though I certainly hope that under the influence of the West, and especially under that of America, the Soviet police state will gradually wither away. Incidentally, I deplore the attitude of foolish or dishonest people who ridiculously equate Stalin with McCarthy, Auschwitz with the atom bomb, and the ruthless imperialism of the USSR with the earnest and unselfish assistance extended by the USA to nations in distress.


Dear Miss Howard, allow me to add the following three points:

1) My answers must be published accurately and completely: verbatim, if quoted; in a faithful version, if not.

2) I must see the proofs of the interview– semifinal and final.

3) I have the right to correct therein all factual errors and specific slips (“Mr. Nabokov is a small man with long hair,” etc.)


Published in: on March 31, 2010 at 4:18 PM  Leave a Comment  

Yalu Crossing

Chinese troops crossing Yalu

FROM War Trash by Ha Jin

On the night of March 17 we crossed the Yalu. Every infantryman carried a submachine gun, two hundred rounds of ammunition, four grenades, a canteen of water, a pair of rubber sneakers and a short shovel on the back of his bedroll, and a tubed sack of parched wheat flour weighing thirteen pounds. We walked gingerly on the eastern bridge, because the western one was partly damaged. Each man kept ten feet from the one in front of him. The water below was dark, hissing and plunging. Now and then someone would cry out, his foot having fallen through a hole. A tall mule, drawing a cart, got its hind leg stuck in a rift and couldn’t dislodge it no matter how madly the driver thrashed its hindquarters. The moment I passed the tilted cart, it shook, then keeled over and fell into the river together with the helpless animal. There was a great splash, followed by an elongated whirlpool in the shimmering current, and then the entire load of medical supplies vanished.

Having left behind our insignias and IDs, from now on we called ourselves the Chinese Peoples Volunteers. This was to differentiate us from the army back home, so that China, nominally having not sent its regular troops to Korea, might avoid a full-blown war with the United States. We were ordered to reach, within fourteen days, a town called Yichun, very close to the Thirty-eighth Parallel. The distance was about four hundred miles, and we would have to walk all the way. It was early spring, the air still chilly; the roads were muddy, soaked by thawing ice and snow, hard for us to trudge through. The divisional headquarters had two jeeps that transported the leaders and their staff. Sometimes the jeeps would drop off the officers and turn back to collect some limping men and those who could no longer march thanks to blisters on their feet. I walked the whole time except for once, when Commissar Pei wanted me to get on his jeep so that I could figure out the meaning of the English words on a folded handbill someone had picked up on the way. It turned out to be the menu of a restaurant in Seoul, which must have served Americans mainly, because the menu was only in English. I couldn’t understand all the words, but could roughly describe the dishes and soups to Pei Shan. The entrees included broiled flounder filet, beef steak, fried chicken, meat loaf.

Besides the commissars orderly, a clerical officer named Chang Ming, who edited our division’s bulletin, often boarded the jeep. I envied him for that. Whenever we stopped somewhere for the night, Chang Ming would be busy interviewing people and writing articles.

Commissar Pei seemed a born optimist. He often laughed heartily, jutting his chin and showing his buckteeth. He looked more like a warrior than a political officer. By contrast, our division commander, Niu Jinping, was a wisp of a man, who had once been the vice director of the Political Department of the Sixty-second Army. I often saw a cunning light in Niu’s round eyes; in his presence I was always cautious about what I said. When he smiled he seldom opened his lips, chuckling through his nose as if his mouth were stuffed with food. He was a chain-smoker, and his orderly carried a whole bag of brand-name cigarettes for him. Both the commander and the commissar were in their early thirties, and neither was experienced in directing battle operations.

Back in Dandong City, I hadn’t been able to imagine the magnitude of the war’s destruction. Now, to my horror, I saw that most villages east of the Yalu lay in ruins. The land looked empty, with at least four-fifths of the houses leveled to the ground. The standing ones were mostly deserted. Most of the Korean houses were shabby, with thatched hip roofs and walls made of mud plastered to bundles of cornstalks. Many of them were mere huts that had gaping holes as windows. It must have been hard to farm this rugged land, where boulders and rocks stuck out of the ground everywhere; yet it seemed every scrap of tillable soil was used, and even low hills were terraced with small patches of cropland. We came across Korean civilians from time to time. Most of them were in rags, women in white dresses that had faded into yellow, and old men wearing black top hats with chin straps, reminding me of Chinese men of ancient times. Here and there roads had been cratered, and teams of Chinese laborers were busy filling the holes, carrying earth and stones with wicker baskets affixed to A-frames. The farther south we went, the fewer houses remained intact, and as a result most of us had to sleep in the open air.

Generally, during the day it wasn’t safe for us to march, because American planes would come in droves to attack us. So only after nightfall could we move forward. After Shandeng, a rural town, the air raids were constant and sometimes even took place at night. Every infantryman carried at least sixty pounds while each horse was loaded with five times more. Without enough sleep and rest, the troops were soon footsore and exhausted. On the fifth day heavy rain set in and made it impossible for us to lie on the ground to sleep. Some officers in our Political Department clustered together with a piece of tarpaulin over their heads. Many men, too tired to care about the downpour, simply put their bedrolls on the ground, sat on them, and tried to doze that way. Some, staying in a chestnut grove, tied themselves to the trees with ropes so that they could catnap while remaining on their feet. The rain continued in the afternoon, and because we couldn’t sleep and the enemy bombers were unlikely to come in such weather, we ate our lunchowhich was parched flour mixed with water, as sticky as batteroand went on our way.

The following night, as the divisional staff was about to enter a canyon, suddenly three green signal flares whooshed up ahead of us. At first I thought they must have been fired by our vanguard, but then some officers began to whisper that someone on the mountain was signaling our whereabouts to the enemy. I had heard that a good number of Korean agents worked for the Americans on the sly, but I hadn’t expected to encounter something like this in the wilderness. As we were talking about the possible meanings of those signals, four planes appeared in the southeast, roaring toward us.

“Take cover!” a voice ordered.

Some of us rushed into the nearby bushes and some lay down in the roadside ditches. The planes dropped a few flash bombs, a shower of light illuminating the entire area; our troops and vehicles at once became visible. Then bombs rained down and machine guns began raking us. Some horses and mules were startled and vaulted over the prostrate men, dashing away into the darkness. A bomb exploded in front of me and tossed half a pine sapling into the sky. I lay facedown on the slope of a gully, not daring to lift my head to the scorching air, and keeping my mouth open so that the explosions wouldn’t pop my eardrums. Around me, men hollered and moaned, and some were twisting on the ground screaming for help. Some, though dead or unconscious, were still clutching their submachine guns.

The bombardment lasted only five minutes but killed about a hundred men and wounded many more. Along the road, flames and smoke were rising from shattered carts and disabled mountain guns. As I looked for Chang Ming, I saw two orderlies coming my way, supporting an officer. I recognized the officer, Tang Jing, the quartermaster of our divisional staff. He looked all right, though one of the orderlies kept shouting, “Doctor, doctor! We need a doctor here!” But all the medical personnel were busy helping the seriously wounded, assembling them for shipment back to our rear base. Division commander Niu ordered an engineering company to dig a large grave at the edge of a birch wood to bury the dead.


Ha Jin

Most Americans have never heard of Ha Jin, yet he is among the most accomplished of today’s novelists. Jin sets many of his stories and novels in China, in the fictional Muji City. He has won the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award for his novel, Waiting (1999). He has received three Pushcart Prizes for fiction and a Kenyon Review Prize. Many of his short stories have appeared in The Best American Short Stories anthologies. His collection Under The Red Flag (1997) won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, while Ocean of Words (1996) has been awarded the PEN/Hemingway Award. The novel I’ve excerpted here,  War Trash (2004), set during the Korean War, won the PEN/Faulkner Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Published in: on March 27, 2010 at 12:24 PM  Comments (2)  

Caligula, God

Derek Jacobi as Caligula

FROM I, Claudius by Robert Graves

Caligula fell ill and for a whole month his life was despaired of. The doctors called it brain-fever. The popular consternation at Rome was so great that a crowd of not less than ten thousand people stood day and night around the Palace, waiting for a favourable bulletin. They kept up a quiet muttering and whispering together; the noise, as it reached my window, was like that of a distant stream running over pebbles. There were a number of most remarkable manifestations ‘ of anxiety. Some men even pasted up placards on their house-doors, to say that if Death held his hand and spared the Emperor, they vowed to give him their own lives in compensation. By universal consent all traffic noises and street cries and music ceased within half a mile or more of the Palace. That had never happened before, even during Augustus’s illness, the one of which Musa was supposed to have cured him. The bulletins always read: “No change.”

One evening Drusilla knocked at my door and said, “Uncle Claudius! The Emperor wants to see you urgently. Come at once. Don’t stop for anything.”

“What does he want me for?”

“I don’t know. But for Heaven’s sake humour him. He’s got a sword there. He’ll kill you if you don’t say what he wants you to say. He had the point at my throat this morning. He told me that I didn’t love him. I had to swear and swear that I did love him. ‘Kill me, if you like, my darling,’ I said. O Uncle Claudius, why was I ever born? He’s mad. He always was. But he’s worse than mad now.

He’s possessed.“

I went along to Caligula’s bedroom, which was heavily curtained and thickly carpeted. One feeble oil-lamp was burning by the bedside. The air smelt stale. His querulous voice greeted me. “Late again? I told you to hurry,” He didn’t look ill, only unhealthy. Two powerful deaf-mutes with axes stood as guards, one on each side of his bed.

I said, saluting him, “Oh, how I hurried! If I hadn’t had a lame leg I’d have been here almost before I started. What joy to see you alive and to hear your voice again, Caesar! Can I dare to hope that you’re better?”

“I have never really been ill. Only resting. And undergoing a metamorphosis. It’s the most important religious event in history. No wonder the City keeps so quiet.”

I felt that he expected me to be sympathetic, nevertheless. “Has the metamorphosis been painful, Emperor? I trust not.”

“As painful as if I were my own mother. I had a very difficult delivery. Mercifully, I have forgotten all about it. Or nearly all. For I was a very precocious child and distinctly remember the midwives’ faces of admiration as they washed me after my emergence into this world, and the taste of the wine they put between my lips to refresh me after my struggles.”

“An astounding memory. Emperor. But may I humbly enquire precisely what is the character of this glorious change that has come over you?”

“Isn’t it immediately apparent?” he asked angrily.

Drusilla’s word “possessed” and the conversation I had had with my grandmother Livia as she lay dying gave me the clue. I fell on my face and adored him as a God.

After a minute or two I asked from the floor whether I was the first man privileged to worship him. He said that I was and I burst out into gratitude. He was thoughtfully prodding me with the point of his sword in the back of my neck. I thought I was done for.

He said: “I admit I am still in mortal disguise, so it is not remarkable that you did not notice my Divinity at once.”

“I don’t know how I could have been so blind. Your face shines in this dim light like a lamp.”

“Does it?” he asked with interest. “Get up and give me that mirror.” I handed him a polished steel mirror and he agreed that it shone very brightly. In this fit of good humour he began to tell me a good deal about himself.

“I always knew that it would happen,” he said. *T never felt anything but Divine. Think of it. At two years old I put down a mutiny of my father’s army and so saved Rome. That was prodigious, like the stories told about the God Mercury when a child, or about Hercules who strangled the snakes in his cradle.“

“And Mercury only stole a few oxen,” I said, “and twanged a note or two on the lyre. That was nothing by comparison.”

“And what’s more, by the age of eight I had killed, my father. Jove himself never did that. He merely banished the old fellow.”

I took this as raving on the same level, but I asked in a matter-of-fact voice, “Why did you do that?”‘

“He stood in my way. He tried to discipline me-me, a young God, imagine it. So I frightened him to death. I smuggled dead things into our house at Antioch and hid them under loose tiles; and I scrawled charms, on the walls; and I got a cock in my bedroom to give him his marching orders. And I robbed him of his Hecate. Look, here she is! I always keep her under my pillow*” He held up the green jasper charm. My heart went as cold as ice when I recognized it. I said in a horrified voice: “You were the one then? And it was you who climbed into the bolted room by that tiny window and drew your devices there too?”

He nodded proudly and went rattling on: “Not only did I kill my natural father but I killed my father by adoption too-Tiberius, you know. And whereas Jupiter only lay with one sister of his, Juno, I have lain with all three of mine. Martina told me it was the right thing to do if I wanted to be like Jove.”

“You knew Martina well then?”

“Indeed I did. When my parents were in Egypt I used to visit her every night. She was a very wise woman, I’ll tell you another thing, Drusilla’s Divine too. I’m going to announce it at the same time as I make the announcement about myself. How I love Drusilla! Almost as much as she loves me.”

“May I ask what are your sacred intentions? This metamorphosis will surely affect Rome profoundly.”

“Certainly. First, I’m going to put the whole world in awe of me. I won’t allow myself to be governed by a lot of fussy old men any longer. I’m going to show… but you remember your old grandmother, Livia? That was a joke. Somehow she had got the notion that it was she who was to be the everlasting God about whom everyone has been prophesying in the East for the last thousand years. I think it was Thrasyllus who tricked her into believing that she was meant. Thrasyllus never told lies but he loved misleading people. You see, Livia didn’t know the precise terms of the prophecy. The God is to be a man not a woman, and not born in Rome, though he is to reign at Rome (I was born at Antium), and born at a time of profound peace (as I was), but destined to be the cause of innumerable wars after his death. He is to die young and to be at first loved by his people and then hated, and finally to die miserably, forsaken of all. ”His servants shall drink his blood.“ Then after his death he is to rule over all the other Gods of the world, in lands not yet known to us. That can only be myself. Maitina told me that many prodigies had been seen lately in the near East which proved conclusively that the God had been born at last. The Jews were the most excited. They somehow felt themselves peculiarly concerned. I suppose that this was because I once visited their city Jerusalem with my father and gave my first divine manifestation there.” He paused.

“It would greatly interest me to know about that,” I said.

“Oh, it was nothing much. Just for a joke I went into a house where some of their priests and doctors were talking theology together and suddenly shouted out: ‘You’re a lot of ignorant old frauds. You know nothing at all about it.’ That caused a great sensation and one old white-bearded man said: ‘Oh? And who are you. Child? Are you the prophesied one?* *Yes,’ I answered boldly. He said, weeping for rapture: ‘Then teach us,” I answered: ’Certainly not! It’s beneath my dignity,‘ and ran out again. You should have seen their faces! No, Livia was a clever and capable woman in her way-a female Ulysses, as I called her once to her face-and one day perhaps I shall deify her as I promised, but there’s no hurry about that. She will never make an important deity. Perhaps we’ll make her the patron goddess of clerks and accountants, because she had a good head for figures. Yes, and we’ll add poisoners, as Mercury has thieves under his protection as well as merchants and travellers.“

“That’s only justice,” I said. “But what I am anxious to know at once is this: in what name am I to adore you? Is it incorrect, for instance, to call you Jove? Aren’t you someone greater than Jove?”

He said: “Oh” greater than Jove, certainly, but anonymous as yet. For the moment, I think though, I’ll call myself Jove-the Latin Jove to distinguish myself from that Greek fellow. I’ll have to settle with him one of these days. He’s had his own way too long.“

I asked: “How does it happen that your father wasn’t a God too? I never heard of a God without a divine father.”

“That’s simple. The God Augustus was my father.”

“But he never adopted you, did he? He only adopted your elder brothers and left you to carry on your father’s line.”

“I don’t mean that he was my father by adoption, I mean that I am his son by his incest with Julia. I must be. That’s the only possible solution. I’m certainly no son of Agrippina: her father was a nobody. It’s ridiculous.”

I was not such a fool as to point out that in this case Germanicus wasn’t his father and therefore his sisters were only his nieces. I humoured him as Drusilla advised and said: “This is the most glorious hour of my life. Allow me to retire and sacrifice to you at once, with my remaining strength. The divine air you exhale is too strong for my mortal nostrils. I am nearly fainting,” The room was dreadfully stuffy. Caligula hadn’t allowed the windows to be opened ever since he took to his bed.

He said: “Go in peace. I thought of killing you, but I won’t now. Tell the Scouts about my being a God and about my face shining, but don’t tell them any more. I impose holy silence on you for the rest.”

I grovelled on the floor again and retired, backwards. Ganymede stopped me in the corridor and asked for the news. I said: “He’s just become a God and a very important one, he says. His face shines.”

“That’s bad news for us mortals,” said Ganymede. “But I saw it coming. Thanks for the tip, I’ll pass it on to the other fellows. Does Drusilla know? No? Then I’ll tell her.”

“Tell her that she’s a Goddess too,” I said, “in case she hasn’t noticed it.”

Published in: on March 23, 2010 at 10:52 PM  Leave a Comment  
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The Folks on the Hill

FROM The End Of The Line: The Siege of Khe Sanh by Robert L Pisor

The FIRST HOURS of Tet brought a thick, wet fog to Khe Sanh—but no rockets, no dac cong, no screaming waves of North Vietnamese infantrymen. The sun burned away the mists in the afternoon, but the grey veils began to rise again from the creek beds an hour before the dark.

Colonel Lownds tucked an extra M-16 clip into his shirt pocket, and every Marine settled a little deeper in the firing pits and sandbagged trenchlines. Grenades, their pins straightened for quick pulling, were stacked in small piles near at hand. Still, no attack came.

Cries of grief rose from the forward lines held by the 37th ARVN Rangers. Word had arrived that the Rangers’ wives and children were caught in heavy fighting in the town of Phu Loc; until three days ago, the Rangers had been stationed at Phu Loc.

On February 2, an enemy rocket hurtled in from Hill 881 North and plunged through the door of the U.S. Army Signal Corps bunker. The explosion killed four soldiers instantly— and cut the communication link to the outside world. Contact was quickly reestablished, but not before palms went moist in Da Nang and Saigon.

Blinded by the fog, the Marines struggled to make better use of the new sensor devices. The secret sound / tremor detectors had been sown so hurriedly January 18 that their precise location was unknown. Sensor #23, for example, might pick up strange sounds and broadcast them to a circling aircraft for relay to the computers in Thailand, but when the analysis came back—with solid information that the sounds were truck engines, or troop movements, or heavy digging noises—the Air Force intelligence people could not say exactly where to fire for maximum effect.

The Marines resorted to area fire. Fire coordinators at the combat base would arrange for the Marine and Army artillery to fire on a timed schedule so that every shell arrived on target at the same instant. By assigning each gun a slightly different map coordinate, it was possible to rain shrapnel on a wide area. With practice, the artillerymen could produce a “micro-Arc light”—for a target five hundred meters square—in just ten or fifteen minutes; it took closer to an hour to ready the guns for a “mini-Arc Light,” which concentrated explosive airbursts on a target a half mile long by five hundred meters wide.

Even with the sensors, much of the targeting was guesswork. So much time elapsed between the sensor report and the big guns’ readiness that fire control officers had to estimate the speed and direction of enemy marches—or risk shooting shells into the past.

In the early hours of February 4, several sensors northwest of the combat base started broadcasting urgent signals. A large body of men—soldiers, or perhaps porters—was moving toward Hill 881 South.

That night the sensors came alive again. Marine Captain Mirza M. Baig, sitting in the bunker that housed the Fire Support Control Center at the combat base, decided to believe what the sensors appeared to be saying: that hundreds of enemy soldiers were moving into positions to attack India Company. Baig pictured several NVA assault battalions crossing the border from Laos under cover of dark, then moving in a two-stage march to jumpoff points west and south of Hill 881 South. Officers in the Fire Support Control Center figured out how fast a North Vietnamese soldier might be able to move in the dark in this terrain, how the attackers were most likely to line up for the assault, and where the reserves were most likely to wait. Poring over their maps, the FSCC planners picked a five hundred meter by three hundred meter target box and, on signal, fired five hundred high explosive shells into it.

Nothing happened. No terrified shouts were heard on the sidebands of the radio. No secondary explosions marked a hit on ammunition supplies. Still, Baig thought the preemptive artillery strike had disrupted enemy plans.

When the hands on the bunker clock moved past 3 a.m., Baig and other officers in the Fire Support Control Center cheered, then applauded themselves. The prime hour for enemy attack had come and gone; the artillery strike must have scattered the assault forces.

Five minutes later, enemy artillery, rockets, and mortars pounded the combat base and hilltop outposts. More than 6,000 Marines squinted into the thick mists for the first thickenings that would herald the enemy attack.

At five minutes after four, dac cong slipped bangalore torpédos into the barbed wire barricades on Hill 861 Alpha—and blasted pathways into the interior of the Marines’ newest hilltop position. The hill was covered with tall, coarse grass but bald of trees, and the 201 men of E Company had been forced to improvise overhead cover. Seven Marines died in the opening mortar barrage.

North Vietnamese soldiers crept through gaps in the wire. Rocket-propelled grenades—fired in volley at single targets— knocked out the Marines’ machine guns and recoilless rifles. When the platoon that received the brunt of the assault began to fall back, Captain Earle G. Breeding ordered his men to don gas masks. Seconds later, the hilltop was shrouded in choking clouds of CS gas—but still the North Vietnamese pressed the attack. All of the heavy weapons at the combat base were now firing shells in a tight ring around Breeding’s embattled company, but by 5:08 a.m. the enemy had taken one-fourth of the hilltop.

Captain Breeding was now coordinating supporting fires from the 175mm guns at Camp Carroll, the artillery and heavy mortars at the combat base, “radar-guided jet bombers, and mortars and recoilless rifles from Hill 558, Hill 861, and Hill 881 South—which alone fired eleven hundred rounds from just three heavy mortars. When the tubes began to glow in the dark, Dabney’s mortarmen poured precious drinking water on them, then cans of fruit juice; finally, they stood in tight little circles urinating on the metal to keep it cool.

Breeding fed three-man fire teams into the flanks of the enemy penetration, then launched a counterattack. Shouting Marines followed a shower of grenades into the captured trenches—and discovered the North Vietnamese had stopped to look at magazines and paperback books. One Marine nearly tore the head off a slightly built NVA soldier with a roundhouse right, then leaped in to finish him off with a knife. Another Marine saw his buddy grabbed from behind; he jammed his M-I6 rifle between the combatants and fired a whole magazine on full automatic—ripping chunks from his friend’s flak jacket but cutting the enemy soldier in half. Using knives, rifle butts, and fists, and fighting short-range grenade duels in the swirling fog and lingering clouds of tear gas, the Marines threw the North Vietnamese off the hill.


Published in: on March 16, 2010 at 3:15 PM  Leave a Comment  
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There are only two things we should fight for. One is the defense of our homes and the other is the Bill of Rights.

—Smedley Butler, MajGen, USMC

Published in: on March 15, 2010 at 8:20 PM  Leave a Comment  

A Rigidity, an Arrogance, and an Obstinacy

John Adams

FROM John Adams by David McCullough

A HARD NORTH SEA WINTER set in to match Adams’s mood. Days were bitterly cold and raw, with darkness descending at four in the afternoon and the air of Amsterdam thick with chimney smoke. With the canals frozen, thousands of skaters took to the ice, a spectacle that provided what little cheer Adams found in life.

His health was suffering. He worried about his sons. At the Latin School, because he spoke no Dutch, John Quincy had been placed with elementary students. The boy grew restless and disheartened. The rector of the school thought him impertinent and merited a thrashing, as he informed his father. Adams’s response was exactly what his own father’s would have been. “Send the boys to me this evening,” he answered. He had no wish to see his children subjected to such “littleness of soul,” he explained to Abigail in a letter in which he gave vent not only to his indignation at the schoolmaster, but at what he had come to see as a decidedly unattractive side to the Dutch character that he had no desire to see rub off on his sons. “The masters are mean-spirited wretches, punching, kicking, and boxing the children upon every turn,” he wrote.

No longer did he see the Dutch as “examples to the world,” but perceived now, bitterly, “a general littleness arising from the incessant contemplation of stivers and doits [pennies and nickels], which pervades the whole people.” Frugality and industry were virtues everywhere, but avarice and stinginess were not frugality.

The Dutch say that without a habit of thinking of every doit before you spend it, no man can be a good merchant or conduct trade with success. This I believe is a just maxim in general. But I would never wish to see a son of mine govern himself by it. It is the sure and certain way for an industrious man to be rich. It is the only possible way for a merchant to become the first merchant or the richest man in the place. But this is an object that I hope none of my children will ever aim at.

Through a young American named Benjamin Waterhouse, a student of medicine at the University of Leyden, Adams arranged for tutors for the two boys, and the opportunity for them to attend lectures at the university.

Such was the turmoil of Amsterdam that Adams now found it impossible even to arrange meetings. “Very few dare to see me,” he reported. Searching desperately for a sign that all was not lost, the best he could come up with was the popularity of new songs full of patriotic resentment toward the English. A woman who sang one such song on an Amsterdam street corner sold six hundred copies in an hour, he informed Congress. But the hard truth was that after five months in the Dutch Republic, Adams had yet to meet a single government official of any importance.

In December, the veteran British ambassador to the Netherlands, Sir Joseph Yorke, began openly threatening the Dutch, setting off something very like panic. “War is to a Dutchman the greatest of evils,” Adams wrote. “Yorke is so sensible of this that he keeps alive a continual fear of it.” At year’s end, “the high and mighty” Yorke abruptly departed and Britain commenced an undeclared war on Dutch shipping.

Convinced he must now gain recognition of American independence and arrange a Dutch-American alliance—and thus only, he had concluded, could he obtain a loan—Adams pressed Congress for greater authority. As winter progressed, his new commission arrived; Congress had designated him minister plenipotentiary to the Dutch Republic, which provided all the authority to be wished for.

Through February and March, despite the weather, Adams kept on the move, traveling back and forth between Amsterdam, Leyden, and The Hague, conferring with as many of his Dutch friends and contacts as possible. Again, as at Paris, the question was the timing of a formal announcement of his new powers.

Advised that his Amsterdam lodgings were too “obscure” for his new position, and that his effectiveness was being hurt by talk of this, Adams arranged for an American firm in Amsterdam to “hire” a suitable house—“the best house that is to be had at as cheap a rate as may be,” he wrote—and to have it furnished “decent enough for any character in Europe to dine in with a republican citizen.” In lengthy correspondence on the matter, he specified that the house be “large, roomy, and handsome, fit for the Hôtel des États-Unis d’Amérique.” He would need two manservants and a “good cook” (whether male or female he did not care). A “genteel carriage” would be required, as well as a coachman, and Adams was particular that the livery be in the Paris mode: deep blue coat and breeches, scarlet cape and waistcoats. (He also wanted the clothes returned when the time came for the servants to leave.) This was “new work” for him, he added, having never set up housekeeping before.

At Versailles, meanwhile, the Comte de Vergennes was writing to his ambassador at Philadelphia to say that Adams, in his role in the Netherlands, had become an embarrassment, an observation that La Luzerne was expected to pass along to his numerous friends in Congress. Especially distressing to Vergennes was the thought of Adams ever having any say in a peace settlement. “[He] has a rigidity, an arrogance, and an obstinacy that will cause him to foment a thousand unfortunate incidents…”


Published in: on March 7, 2010 at 10:10 AM  Leave a Comment  
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The Third Nabokov Interview


Nabokov’s Playboy Interview, 1964

This exchange with Alvin Toffler appeared in Playboy for January, 1964. Great trouble was taken on both sides to achieve the illusion of a spontaneous conversation. Actually, my contribution as printed conforms meticulously to the answers, every word of which I had written in longhand before having them typed for submission to Toffler when he came to Montreux in mid-March, 1963. The present text takes into account the order of my interviewer’s questions as well as the fact that a couple of consecutive pages of my typescript were apparently lost in transit. Egreto perambis doribus!

With the American publication of Lolita in 1958, your fame and fortune mushroomed almost overnight from high repute among the literary cognoscenti—which you bad enjoyed for more than 30 years—to both acclaim and abuse as the world-renowned author of a sensational bestseller. In the aftermath of this cause celebre, do you ever regret having written Lolita?

On the contrary, I shudder retrospectively when I recall that there was a moment, in 1950, and again in 1951, when I was on the point of burning Humbert Humbert’s little black diary. No, I shall never regret Lolita. She was like the composition of a beautiful puzzle—its composition and its solution at the same time, since one is a mirror view of the other, depending on the way you look. Of course she completely eclipsed my other works—at least those I wrote in English: The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Bend Sinister, my short stories, my book of recollections; but I cannot grudge her this. There is a queer, tender charm about that mythical nymphet.

Though many readers and reviewers would disagree that her charm is tender, few would deny that it is queer—so much so that when director Stanley Kubrick proposed his plan to make a movie of Lolita, you were quoted as saying, “Of course they’ll have to change the plot. Perhaps they will make Lolita a dwarfess. Or they will make her 16 and Humbert 26. ” Though you finally wrote the screenplay yourself, several reviewers took the film to task for watering down the central relationship. Were you satisfied with the final product?

I thought the movie was absolutely first-rate. The four main actors deserve the very highest praise. Sue Lyon bringing that breakfast tray or childishly pulling on her sweater in the car—these are moments of unforgettable acting and directing. The killing of Quilty is a masterpiece, and so is the death of Mrs. Haze. I must point out, though, that I had nothing to do with the actual production. If I had, I might have insisted on stressing certain things that were not stressed—for example, the different motels at which they stayed. All I did was write the

10screenplay, a preponderating portion of which was used by Kubrick. The “watering down,” if any, did not come from my aspergillum.

Do you feel that Lolita’s twofold success has affected your life for the better or for the worse?

I gave up teaching—that’s about all in the way of change. Mind you, I loved teaching, I loved Cornell, I loved composing and delivering my lectures on Russian writers and European great books. But around 60, and especially in winter, one begins to find hard the physical process of teaching, the getting up at a fixed hour every other morning, the struggle with the snow in the driveway, the march through long corridors to the classroom, the effort of drawing on the blackboard a map of James Joyce’s Dublin or the arrangement of the semi-sleeping car of the St. Petersburg-Moscow express in the early 1870s—without an understanding of which neither Ulysses nor Anna Karenin, respectively, makes sense. For some reason my most vivid memories concern examinations. Big amphitheater in Goldwin Smith. Exam from 8 a.m. to 10:30. About 150 students—unwashed, unshaven young males and reasonably well-groomed young females. A general sense of tedium and disaster. Half-past eight. Little coughs, the clearing of nervous throats, coming in clusters of sound, rustling of pages. Some of the martyrs plunged in meditation, their arms locked behind their heads. I meet a dull gaze directed at me, seeing in me w^ith hope and hate the source of forbidden knowledge. Girl in glasses comes up to my desk to ask: “Professor Kafka, do you want us to say that . . . ? Or do you want us to answer only the first part of the question?” The great fraternity of C-minus, backbone of the nation, steadily scribbling on. A rustle arising simultaneously, the majority turning a page in their bluebooks, good teamwork. The shaking of a cramped wrist, the failing ink, the deodorant that breaks down. When I catch eyes directed at me, they are forthwith raised to the ceiling in pious meditation. Windowpanes getting misty. Boys peeling off sweaters. Girls chewing gum in rapid cadence. Ten minutes, five, three, time’s up.

Citing in Lolita the same kind of acid-etched scene you’ve just described, many critics have called the book a masterful satiric social commentary on America. Are they right?

Well, I can only repeat that I have neither the intent nor the temperament of a moral or social satirist. Whether or not critics think that in Lolita I am ridiculing human folly leaves me supremely indifferent. But I am annoyed when the glad news is spread that I am ridiculing America.

But haven’t you written yourself that there is “nothing more exhilarating than American Philistine vulgarity”?

No, I did not say that. That phrase has been lifted out of context, and, like a round, deep-sea fish, has burst in the process. If you look up my little after-piece, “On a Book Entitled Lolita,” which I appended to the novel, you will see that what I really said was that in regard to Philistine vulgarity—which I do feel is most exhilarating—no difference exists between American and European manners. I go on to say that a proletarian from Chicago can be just as Philistine as an English duke.

Many readers have concluded that the Philistinism you seem to find the most exhilarating is that of America’s sexual mores.

Sex as an institution, sex as a general notion, sex as a problem, sex as a platitude—all this is something I find too tedious for words. Let us skip sex.

Have you ever been psychoanalyzed?

Have I been what? Subjected to psychoanalytical examination. Why, good God?

In order to see how it is done. Some critics have felt that your barbed comments about the fashionability of Freudianism, as practiced by American analysts, suggest a contempt based upon familiarity.

Bookish familiarity only. The ordeal itself is much too silly and disgusting to be contemplated even as a joke. Freudism and all it has tainted with its grotesque implications and methods appears to me to be one of the vilest deceits practiced by people on themselves and on others. I reject it utterly, along with a few other medieval items still adored by the ignorant, the conventional, or the very sick.

Speaking of the very sick, you suggested in Lolita that Humbert Humbert’s appetite for nymphets is the result of an unrequited childhood love affair; in Invitation to a Beheading you wrote about a 12-year-old girl, Emmie, who is erotically interested in a man twice her age; and in Bend Sinister your protagonist dreams that he is “surreptitiously enjoying Mariette (his maid) while she sat, wincing a little, in his lap during the rehearsal of a play in which she was supposed to be his daughter. ” Some critics, in poring over your works for clues to your personality, have pointed to this recurrent theme as evidence of an unwholesome preoccupation on your part with the subject of sexual attraction between pubescent girls and middle-aged men. Do you feel that there may be some truth in this charge?

I think it would be more correct to say that had I not written Lolita, readers would not have started finding nymphets in my other works and in their own households. I find it very amusing when a friendly, polite person says to me—probably just in order to be friendly and polite—”Mr. Naborkov,” or “Mr. Nabahkov,” or “Mr. Nabkov” or “Mr. Nabohkov,” depending on his linguistic abilities, “I have a little daughter who is a regular Lolita.” People tend to underestimate the power of my imagination and my capacity of evolving serial selves in my writings. And then, of course, there is that special type of critic, the ferrety, human-interest fiend, the jolly vulgarian. Someone, for instance, discovered telltale affinities between Humbert’s boyhood romance on the Riviera and my own recollections about little Colette, with whom I built damp sand castles in Biarritz when I was ten. Somber Humbert was, of course, thirteen and in the throes of a pretty extravagant sexual excitement, whereas my own romance with Colette had no trace of erotic desire and indeed was perfectly common-place and normal. And, of course, at nine and ten years of age, in that set, in those times, we knew nothing whatsoever about the false facts of life that are imparted nowadays to infants by progressive parents.

Why false?

Because the imagination of a small child—especially a town child—at once distorts, stylizes, or otherwise alters the bizarre things he is told about the busy bee, which neither he nor his parents can distinguish from a bum-blebee, anyway.

What one critic has termed your “almost obsessive attention to the phrasing, rhythm, cadence and connotation of words” is evident even in the selection of names for your own celebrated bee and bumblebee—Lolita and Humbert Humbert. How did they occur to you?

For my nymphet I needed a diminutive with a lyrical lilt to it. One of the most limpid and luminous letters is “L”. The suffix “-ita” has a lot of Latin tenderness, and this I required too. Hence: Lolita. However, it should not be pronounced as you and most Americans pronounce it: Low-lee-ta, with a heavy, clammy “L” and a long “o”. No, the first syllable should be as in “lollipop”, the “L” liquid and delicate, the “lee” not too sharp. Spaniards and Italians pronounce it, of course, with exactly the necessary note of archness and caress. Another consideration was the welcome murmur of its source name, the fountain name: those roses and tears in “Dolores.” My little girl’s heartrending fate had to be taken into account together with the cuteness and limpidity. Dolores also provided her with another, plainer, more familiar and infantile diminutive: Dolly, which went nicely with the surname “Haze,” where Irish mists blend with a German bunny—1 mean, a small German hare.

You’re making a word-playful reference, of course, to the German term for rabbit—Hase. But what inspired you to dub Lolita’s aging inamorato with such engaging redundancy?

That, too, was easy. The double rumble is, I think, very nasty, very suggestive. It is a hateful name for a hateful person. It is also a kingly name, and I did need a royal vibration for Humbert the Fierce and Humbert the Humble. Lends itself also to a number of puns. And the execrable diminutive “Hum” is on a par, socially and emotionally, with “Lo,” as her mother calls her.

Another critic has written of you that “the task of sifting and selecting just the right succession of words from that multilingual memory, and of arranging their many-mirrored nuances into the proper juxtapositions, must be psychically exhausting work. ” Which of all your books, in this sense, would you say was the most difficult to write?

Oh, Lolita, naturally. I lacked the necessary information—that was the initial difficulty. I did not know any American 12-year-old girls, and I did not know America; I had to invent America and Lolita. It had taken me some forty years to invent Russia and Western Europe, and now I was faced by a similar task, with a lesser amount of time at my disposal. The obtaining of such local ingredients as would allow me to inject average “reality” into the brew of individual fancy proved, at fifty, a much more difficult process than it had been in the Europe of my youth.

Though born in Russia, you have lived and worked for many years in America as well as in Europe. Do you feel any strong sense of national identity?

I am an American writer, born in Russia and educated in England where I studied French literature, before spending fifteen years in Germany. I came to America in 1940 and decided to become an American citizen, and make America my home. It so happened that I was immediately exposed to the very best in America, to its rich intellectual life and to its easygoing, good-natured atmosphere. I immersed myself in its great libraries and its Grand Canyon. I worked in the laboratories of its zoological museums. I acquired more friends than I ever had in Europe, My books—old books and new ones—found some admirable readers. I became as stout as Cortez—mainly because I quit smoking and started to munch molasses candy instead, with the result that my weight went up from my usual 140 to a monumental and cheerful 200. In consequence, I am one-third American—good American flesh keeping me warm and safe.

You spent 20 years in America, and yet you never owned a home or had a really settled establishment there. Your friends report that you camped impermanently in motels, cabins, furnished apartments and the rented homes of professors away on leave. Did you feel so restless or so alien that the idea of settling down anywhere disturbed you?

The main reason, the background reason, is, I suppose, that nothing short of a replica of my childhood surroundings would have satisfied me. I would never manage to match my memories correctly—so why trouble with hopeless approximations? Then there are some special considerations: for instance, the question of impetus, the habit of impetus. I propelled myself out of Russia so vigorously, with such indignant force, that I have been rolling on and on ever since. True, I have rolled and lived to become that appetizing thing, a “full professor,” but at heart I have always remained a lean “visiting lecturer.” The few times I said to myself anywhere: “Now, that’s a nice spot for a permanent home,” I would immediately hear in my mind the thunder of an avalanche carrying away the hundreds of far places which I would destroy by the very act of settling in one particular nook of the earth. And finally, I don’t much care for furniture, for tables and chairs and lamps and rugs and things—perhaps because in my opulent childhood I was taught to regard with amused contempt any too-earnest attachment to material wealth, which is why I felt no regret and no bitterness when the Revolution abolished that wealth.

You lived in Russia for twenty years, in West Europe for 20 years, and in America for twenty years. But in 1960, after the success of Lolita, you moved to France and Switzerland and have not returned to the U. S. since. Does this mean, despite your self-identification as an American writer, that you consider your American period over?

I am living in Switzerland for purely private reasons—family reasons and certain professional ones too, such as some special research for a special book. I hope to return very soon to America—back to its library stacks and mountain passes. An ideal arrangement would be an absolutely soundproofed flat in New York, on a top floor—no feet walking above, no soft music anywhere—and a bungalow in the Southwest. Sometimes I think it might be fun to adorn a university again, residing and writing there, not teaching, or at least not teaching regularly.

Meanwhile you remain secluded—and somewhat sedentary, from all reports—in your hotel suite. How do you spend your time?

I awake around seven in winter: my alarm clock is an Alpine chough—big, glossy, black thing with big yellow beak—which visits the balcony and emits a most melodious chuckle. For a while I lie in bed mentally revising and planning things. Around eight: shave, breakfast, enthroned meditation, and bath—in that order. Then I work till lunch in my study, taking time out for a short stroll with my wife along the lake. Practically all the famous Russian writers of the nineteenth century have rambled here at one time or another. Zhukovski, Gogol, Dostoevski, Tolstoy—who courted the hotel chambermaids to the detriment of his health—and many Russian poets. But then, as much could be said of Nice or Rome. We lunch around one p.m., and I am back at my desk by half-past one and work steadily till half-past six. Then a stroll to a newsstand for the English papers, and dinner at seven. No work after dinner. And bed around nine. I read till half-past eleven, and then tussle with insomnia till one a.m. about twice a week I have a good, long nightmare with unpleasant characters imported from earlier dreams, appearing in more or less iterative surroundings—kaleidoscopic arrangements of broken impressions, fragments of day thoughts, and irresponsible mechanical images, utterly lacking any possible Freudian implication or explication, but singularly akin to the procession of changing figures that one usually sees on the inner palpebral screen when closing one’s weary eyes.

Funny that witch doctors and their patients have never hit on that simple and absolutely satisfying explanation of dreaming. Is it true that you write standing up, and that you write in longhand rather than on a typewriter?

Yes. I never learned to type. I generally start the day at a lovely old-fashioned lectern I have in my study. Later on, when I feel gravity nibbling at my calves, I settle down in a comfortable armchair alongside an ordinary writing desk; and finally, when gravity begins climbing up my spine, I lie down on a couch in a corner of my small study. It is a pleasant solar routine. But when I was young, in my twenties and early thirties, I would often stay all day in bed, smoking and writing. Now things have changed. Horizontal prose, vertical verse, and sedent scholia keep swapping qualifiers and spoiling the alliteration.

Can you tell us something more about the actual creative process involved in the germination of a book—perhaps by reading a few random notes for or excerpts from a work in progress?

Certainly not. No fetus should undergo an exploratory operation. But I can do something else. This box contains index cards with some notes I made at various times more or less recently and discarded when writing Pale Fire. It’s a little batch of rejects. Help yourself. “Selene, the moon. Selenginsk, an old town in Siberia: moon-rocket town” . . . “Berry: the black knob on the bill of the mute swan” . . . “Dropworm: a small caterpillar hanging on a thread” . . . “In The New Bon Ton Magazine, volume five, 1820, page 312, prostitutes are termed ‘girls of the town’ “… “Youth dreams: forgot pants; old man dreams: forgot dentures” , . . “Student explains that when reading a novel he likes to skip passages ‘so as to get his own idea about the book and not be influenced by the author'”. . . “Naprapathy: the ugliest word in the language.”

“And after rain, on beaded wires, one bird, two birds, three birds, and none. Muddy tires, sun” . . . “Time without consciousness—lower animal world; time with consciousness—man; consciousness without time—some still higher state” . . . “We think not in words but in shadows of words. James Joyce’s mistake in those otherwise mar-velous mental soliloquies of his consists in that he gives too much verbal body to thoughts” . . . “Parody of politeness: That inimitable ‘Please’ —’Please send me your beautiful—’ which firms idiotically address to themselves in printed forms meant for people ordering their product.” . . . “Naive, nonstop, peep-peep twitter of chicks in dismal crates late, late at night, on a desolate frost-bedimmed station platform” . . . “The tabloid headline TORSO KILLER MAY BEAT CHAIR might be translated: ‘Celui qui tw an buste peat bien battre une chaise” . . . “Newspaper vendor, handing me a magazine with my story: 1 see you made the slicks.’ ” “Snow falling, young father out with tiny child, nose like a pink cherry. Why does a parent immediately say something to his or her child if a stranger smiles at the latter? ‘Sure,’ said the father to the infant’s interrogatory gurgle, which had been going on for some time, and would have been left to go on in the quiet falling snow, had I not smiled in passing”. . . “Inter-columniation: dark-blue sky between two white columns.” . . . “Place-name in the Orkneys: Papilio” . . . “Not 1, too, lived in Arcadia,’ but ‘I,’ says Death, even am in Arcadia’—legend on a shepherd’s tomb (Notes and Queries, June 13, 1868, p. 561)” . . . “Marat collected butterflies” . . . “From the aesthetic point of view, the tapeworm is certainly an undesirable boarder. The gravid segments frequently crawl out of a person’s anal canal, sometimes in chains, and have been reported a source of social embarrassment.” (Ann. N. Y. Acad. Sci. 48:558).

What inspires you to record and collect such disconnected impressions and quotations?

All I know is that at a very early stage of the novel’s development I get this urge to garner bits of straw and fluff, and eat pebbles. Nobody will ever discover how clearly a bird visualizes, or if it visualizes at all, the future nest and the eggs in it. When I remember afterwards the force that made me jot down the correct names of things, or the inches and tints of things, even before I actually needed the information, I am inclined to assume that what I call, for want of a better term, inspiration, had been already at work, mutely pointing at this or that, having me accumulate the known materials for an unknown structure. After the first shock of recognition—a sudden sense of “this is what I’m going to write”—the novel starts to breed by itself; the process goes on solely in the mind, not on paper; and to be aware of the stage it has reached at any given moment, I do not have to be conscious of every exact phrase. I feel a kind of gentle development, an uncurling inside, and I know that the details are there already, that in fact I would see them plainly if I looked closer, if I stopped the machine and opened its inner compartment; but I prefer to wait until what is loosely called inspiration has completed the task for me. There comes a moment when I am informed from within that the entire structure is finished. All I have to do now is take it down in pencil or pen. Since this entire structure, dimly illumined in one’s mind, can be compared to a painting, and since you do not have to work gradually from left to right for its proper perception, I may direct my flashlight at any part or particle of the picture when setting it down in writing. I do not begin my novel at the beginning. I do not reach chapter three before I reach chapter four, I do not go dutifully from one page to the next, in consecutive order; no, I pick out a bit here and a bit there, till I have filled all the gaps on paper. This is why I like writing my stories and novels on index cards, numbering them later when the whole set is complete. Every card is rewritten many times. About three cards make one typewritten page, and when finally I feel that the conceived picture has been copied by me as faithfully as physically possible—a few vacant lots always remain, alas—then I dictate the novel to my wife who types it out in triplicate.

In what sense do you copy “the conceived picture” of a novel?

A creative writer must study carefully the works of his rivals, including the Almighty. He must possess the inborn capacity not only of recombining but of re-creating the given world. In order to do this adequately, avoiding duplication of labor, the artist should know the given world. Imagination without knowledge leads no farther than the back yard of primitive art, the child’s scrawl on the fence, and the crank’s message in the market place. Art is never simple. To return to my lecturing days: I automatically gave low marks when a student used the dreadful phrase “sincere and simple”—”Flaubert writes with a style which is always simple and sincere”—under the impression that this was the greatest compliment payable to prose or poetry. When I struck the phrase out, which I did with such rage in my pencil that it ripped the paper, the student complained that this was what teachers had always taught him: “Art is simple, art is sincere.” Someday I must trace this vulgar absurdity to its source. A schoolmarm in Ohio? A progressive ass in New York? Because, of course, art at its greatest is fantastically deceitful and complex.

In terms of modern art, critical opinion is divided about the sincerity or deceitfulness, simplicity or complexity, of contemporary abstract painting. What is your own opinion?

I do not see any essential difference between abstract and primitive art. Both are simple and sincere. Naturally, we should not generalize in these matters: it is the individual artist that counts. But if we accept for a moment the general notion of “modern art,” then we must admit that the trouble with it is that it is so commonplace, imitative, and academic. Blurs and blotches have merely replaced the mass prettiness of a hundred years ago, pictures of Italian girls, handsome beggars, romantic ruins, and so forth. But just as among those corny oils there might occur the work of a true artist with a richer play of light and shade, with some original streak of violence or tenderness, so among th” corn of primitive and abstract art one may come across a flash of great talent. Only talent interests me in paintings and books. Not general ideas, but the individual contribution.

A contribution to society?

A work of art has no importance whatever to society. It is only important to the individual, and only the individual reader is important to me. I don’t give a damn for the group, the community, the masses, and so forth. Although I do not care for the slogan “art for art’s sake”—because unfortunately such promoters of it as, for instance, Oscar Wilde and various dainty poets, were in reality rank moralists and didacticists—there can be no question that what makes a work of fiction safe from larvae and rust is not its social importance but its art, only its art.

What do you want to accomplish or leave behind—or should this be of no concern to the writer?

Well, in this matter of accomplishment, of course, I don’t have a 35-year plan or program, but I have a fair inkling of my literary afterlife. I have sensed certain hints, I have felt the breeze of certain promises. No doubt there will be ups and downs, long periods of slump. With the Devil’s connivance, I open a newspaper of 2063 and in some article on the books page I find: “Nobody reads Nabokov or Fulmerford today.” Awful question: Who is this unfortunate Fulmerford?

While we’re on the subject of self-appraisal, what do you regard as your principal failing as a writer—apart from forgetability?

Lack of spontaneity; the nuisance of parallel thoughts, second thoughts, third thoughts; inability to express myself properly in any language unless I compose every damned sentence in my bath, in my mind, at my desk.

You’re doing rather well at the moment, if we may say so.

It’s an illusion.

Your reply might be taken as confirmation of critical comments that you are “an incorrigible leg puller, ” “a mystificator, ” and “a literary agent provocateur. ” How do you view yourself?

I think my favorite fact about myself is that I have never been dismayed by a critic’s bilge or bile, and have never once in my life asked or thanked a reviewer for a review. My second favorite fact—or shall I stop at one?

No, please go on.

The fact that since my youth—1 was 19 when I left Russia—my political creed has remained as bleak and changeless as an old gray rock. It is classical to the point of triteness. Freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of art. The social or economic structure of the ideal state is of little concern to me. My desires are modest. Portraits of the head of the government should not exceed a postage stamp in size. No torture and no executions. No music, except coming through earphones, or played in theaters.

Why no music?

I have no ear for music, a shortcoming I deplore bitterly. When I attend a concert—which happens about once in five years—1 endeavor gamely to follow the sequence and relationship of sounds but cannot keep it up for more than a few minutes. Visual impressions, reflections of hands in lacquered wood, a diligent bald spot over a fiddle, these take over, and soon I am bored beyond measure by the motions of the musicians. My knowledge of music is very slight; and I have a special reason for finding my ignorance and inability so sad, so unjust: There is a wonderful singer in my family—my own son. His great gifts, the rare beauty of his bass, and the promise of a splendid career—all this affects me deeply, and I fee] a fool during a technical conversation among musicians. I am perfectly aware of the many parallels between the art forms of music and those of literature, especially in matters of structure, but what can I do if ear and brain refuse to cooperate? I have found a queer substitute for music in chess—more exactly, in the composing of chess problems.

Another substitute, surely, has been your own euphonious prose and poetry. As one of few authors who have written with. eloquence in more than one language, how would you characterize the textural differences between Russian and English, in which you are regarded as equally facile?

In sheer number of words, English is far richer than Russian. This is especially noticeable in nouns and adjectives. A very bothersome feature that Russian presents is the dearth, vagueness, and clumsiness of technical terms.

For example, the simple phrase “to park a car” comes out—if translated back from the Russian—as “to leave an automobile standing for a long time.” Russian, at least polite Russian, is more formal than polite English. Thus, the Russian word for “sexual”—polovoy—is slightly indecent and not to be bandied around. The same applies to Russian terms rendering various anatomical and biological notions that are frequently and familiarly expressed in English conversation. On the other hand, there are words rendering certain nuances of motion and gesture and emotion in which Russian excels. Thus by changing the head of a verb, for which one may have a dozen different prefixes to choose from, one is able to make Russian express extremely fine shades of duration and intensity. English is, syntactically, an extremely flexible medium, but Russian can be given even more subtle twists and turns. Translating Russian into English is a little easier than translating English into Russian, and 10 times easier than translating English into French.

You have said you will never write another novel in Russian. Why?

During the great, and still unsung, era of Russian intellectual expatriation—roughly between 1920 and 1940—books written in Russian by emigre Russians and published by emigre firms abroad were eagerly bought or borrowed by emigre readers but were absolutely banned in Soviet Russia—as they still are (except in the case of a few dead authors such as Kuprin and Bunin, whose heavily censored works have been recently reprinted there), no matter the theme of the story or poem. An emigre novel, published, say, in Paris and sold over all free Europe, might have, in those years, a total sale of 1,000 or 2,000 copies—that would be a best seller—but every copy would also pass from hand to hand and be read by at least 20 persons, and at least 50 annually if stocked by Russian lending libraries, of which there were hundreds in West Europe alone. The era of expatriation can be said to have ended during World War II. Old writers died, Russian publishers also vanished, and worst of all, the general atmosphere of exile culture, with its splendor, and vigor, and purity, and reverberative force, dwindled to a sprinkle of Russian- language periodicals, anemic in talent and provincial in tone. Now to take my own case: It was not the financial side that really mattered; I don’t think my Russian writings ever brought me more than a few hundred dollars per year, and I am all for the ivory tower, and for writing to please one reader alone—one’s own self. But one also needs some reverberation, if not response, and a moderate multiplication of one’s self throughout a country or countries; and if there be nothing but a void around one’s desk, one would expect it to be at least a sonorous void, and not circumscribed by the walls of a padded cell. With the passing of years I grew less and less interested in Russia and more and more indifferent to the once-harrowing thought that my books would remain banned there as long as my contempt for the police state and political oppression prevented me from entertaining the vaguest thought of return. No, I will not write another novel in Russian, though I do allow myself a very few short poems now and then. I wrote my last Russian novel a quarter of a century ago. But today, in compensation, in a spirit of justice to my little American muse, I am doing something else. But perhaps I should not talk about it at this early stage.

Please do.

Well, it occurred to me one day—while I was glancing at the varicolored spines of Lolita translations into languages I do not read, such as Japanese, Finnish or Arabic—that the list of unavoidable blunders in these fifteen or twenty versions would probably make, if collected, a fatter volume than any of them. I had checked the French translation, which was basically very good yet would have bristled with unavoidable errors had I not corrected them. But what could I do with Portuguese or Hebrew or Danish? Then I imagined something else. I imagined that in some distant future somebody might produce a Russian version of Lolita. I trained my inner telescope upon that particular point in the distant future and I saw that every paragraph, pock- marked as it is with pitfalls, could lend itself to hideous mistranslation. In the hands of a harmful drudge, the Russian version of Lolita would be entirely degraded and botched by vulgar paraphrases or blunders. So I decided to translate it myself. Up to now I have about sixty pages ready.

Are you presently at work on any new project?

Good question, as they say on the lesser screen. I have just finished correcting the last proofs of my work on Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin—four fat little volumes which are to appear this year in the Bollingen Series; the actual translation of the poem occupies a small section of volume one. The rest of the volume and volumes two, three and four contain copious notes on the subject. This opus owes its birth to a casual remark my wife made in 1950—in response to my disgust with rhymed paraphrases of Eugene Onegin, every line of which I had to revise for my students—”Why don’t you translate it yourself?” This is the result. It has taken some ten years of labor. The index alone runs to 5,000 cards in three long shoe boxes; you see them over there on that shelf. My translation is, of course, a literal one, a crib, a pony. And to the fidelity of transposal I have sacrificed everything: elegance, euphony, clarity, good taste, modern usage, and even grammar.

In view of these admitted flaws, are you looking forward to reading the reviews of the book?

I really don’t read reviews about myself with any special eagerness or attention unless they are masterpieces of wit and acumen—which does happen now and then. And I never reread them, though my wife collects the stuff, and though maybe I shall use a spatter of the more hilarious Lolita items to write someday a brief history of the nymphet’s tribulations. I remember, however, quite vividly, certain attacks by Russian emigre critics who wrote about my first novels 30 years ago; not that I was more vulnerable then, but my memory was certainly more retentive and enterprising, and I was a reviewer myself. In the nineteen-twenties I was clawed at by a certain Mochulski who could never stomach my utter indifference to organized mysticism, to religion, to the church—any church. There were other critics who could not forgive me for keeping aloof from literary “movements,” for not airing the “angoisse” that they wanted poets to feel, and for not belonging to any of those groups of poets that held sessions of common inspiration in the back rooms of Parisian cafes. There was also the amusing case of Georgiy lvanov, a good poet but a scurrilous critic. I never met him or his literary wife Irina Odoevtsev; but one day in the late nineteen-twenties or early nineteen-thirties, at a time when I regularly reviewed books for an emigre newspaper in Berlin, she sent me from Paris a copy of a novel of hers with the wily inscription “Spasibo za Korolya, damn, valeta” (thanks for King, Queen, Knave)—which I was free to understand as “Thanks for writing that book,” but which might also provide her with the alibi: “Thanks for sending me your book,” though I never sent her anything. Her book proved to be pitifully trite, and I said so in a brief and nasty review, lvanov retaliated with a grossly personal article about me and my stuff. The possibility of venting or distilling friendly or unfriendly feelings through the medium of literary criticism is what makes that art such a skewy one.

You have been quoted as saying: My pleasures are the most intense known to man: butterfly hunting and writing. Are they in any way comparable?

No, they belong essentially to quite different types of enjoyment. Neither is easy to describe to a person who has not experienced it, and each is so obvious to the one who has that a description would sound crude and redundant. In the case of butterfly hunting I think I can distinguish four main elements. First, the hope of capturing—or the actual capturing—of the first specimen of a species unknown to science: this is the dream at the back of every lepidopterist’s mind, whether he be climbing a mountain in New Guinea or crossing a bog in Maine. Secondly, there is the capture of a very rare or very local butterfly—things you have gloated over in books, in obscure scientific reviews, on the splendid plates of famous works, and that you now see on the wing, in their natural surroundings, among plants and minerals that acquire a mysterious magic through the intimate association with the rarities they produce and support, so that a given landscape lives twice: as a delightful wilderness in its own right and as the haunt of a certain butterfly or moth. Thirdly, there is the naturalist’s interest in disentangling the life histories of little-known insects, in learning about their habits and structure, and in determining their position in the scheme of classification—a scheme which can be sometimes pleasurably exploded in a dazzling display of polemical fireworks when a new discovery upsets the old scheme and confounds its obtuse champions. And fourthly, one should not ignore the element of sport, of luck, of brisk motion and robust achievement, of an ardent and arduous quest ending in the silky triangle of a folded butterfly lying on the palm of one’s hand.

What about the pleasures of writing?

They correspond exactly to the pleasures of reading, the bliss, the felicity of a phrase is shared by writer and reader: by the satisfied writer and the grateful reader, or—which is the same thing—by the artist grateful to the unknown force in his mind that has suggested a combination of images and by the artistic reader whom this combination satisfies.

Every good reader has enjoyed a few good books in his life so why analyze delights that both sides know? I write mainly for artists, fellow-artists and follow-artists. However, I could never explain adequately to certain students in my literature classes, the aspects of good reading—the fact that you read an artist’s book not with your heart (the heart is a remarkably stupid reader), and not with your brain alone, but with your brain and spine. “Ladies and gentlemen, the tingle in the spine really tells you what the author felt and wished you to feel.” I wonder if I shall ever measure again with happy hands the breadth of a lectern and plunge into my notes before the sympathetic abyss of a college audience.

What is your reaction to the mixed feelings vented by one critic in a review which characterized you as having a fine and original mind, but “not much trace of a generalizing intellect, “and as “the typical artist who distrusts ideas”?

In much the same solemn spirit, certain crusty lepidopterists have criticized my works on the classification of butterflies, accusing me of being more interested in the subspecies and the subgenus than in the genus and the family. This kind of attitude is a matter of mental temperament, I suppose. The middlebrow or the upper Philistine cannot get rid of the furtive feeling that a book, to be great, must deal in great ideas. Oh, I know the type, the dreary type! He likes a good yarn spiced with social comment; he likes to recognize his own thoughts and throes in those of the author; he wants at least one of the characters to be the author’s stooge. If

American, he has a dash of Marxist blood, and if British, he is acutely and ridiculously class- conscious; he finds it so much easier to write about ideas than about words; he does not realize that perhaps the reason he does not find general ideas in a particular writer is that the particular ideas of that writer have not yet become general.

Dostoevski, who dealt with themes accepted by most readers as universal in both scope and significance, is considered one of the world’s great authors. Yet you have described him as “a cheap sensationalist, clumsy and vulgar. ” Why?

Non-Russian readers do not realize two things: that not all Russians love Dostoevski as much as Americans do, and that most of those Russians who do, venerate him as a mystic and not as an artist. He was a prophet, a claptrap journalist and a slapdash comedian. I admit that some of his scenes, some of his tremendous, farcical rows are extraordinarily amusing. But his sensitive murderers and soulful prostitutes are not to be endured for one moment—by this reader anyway.

Is it true that you have called Hemingway and Conrad “writers of books for boys”?

That’s exactly what they are. Hemingway is certainly the better of the two; he has at least a voice of his own and is responsible for that delightful, highly artistic short story, “The Killers.” And the description of the iridescent fish and rhythmic urination in his famous fish story is superb. But I cannot abide Conrad’s souvenir-shop style, bottled ships and shell necklaces of romanticist cliches. In neither of those two writers can I find anything that I would care to have written myself. In mentality and emotion, they are hopelessly juvenile, and the same can be said of some other beloved authors, the pets of the common room, the consolation and support of graduate students, such as—but some are still alive, and I hate to hurt living old boys while the dead ones are not yet buried.

What did you read when you were a boy?

Between the ages of ten and fifteen in St. Petersburg, I must have read more fiction and poetry—English, Russian and French—than in any other five-year period of my life. I relished especially the works of Wells, Poe, Browning, Keats, Flaubert, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Chekhov, Tolstoy, and Alexander Blok. On another level, my heroes were the Scarlet Pimpernel, Phileas Fogg, and Sherlock Holmes. In other words, I was a perfectly normal trilingual child in a family with a large library. At a later period, in Western Europe, between the ages of 20 and 40, my favorites were Housman, Rupert Brooke, Norman Douglas, Bergson, Joyce, Proust, and Pushkin. Of these top favorites, several—Poe, Jules Verne, Emmuska Orezy, Conan Doyle, and Rupert Brooke—have lost the glamour and thrill they held for me. The others remain intact and by now are probably beyond change as far as I am concerned. I was never exposed in the twenties and thirties, as so many of my coevals have been, to the poetry of the not quite first-rate Eliot and of definitely second-rate Pound. I read them late in the season, around 1945, in the guest room of an American friend’s house, and not only remained completely indifferent to them, but could not understand why anybody should bother about them. But I suppose that they preserve some sentimental value for such readers as discovered them at an earlier age than I did.

What are your reading habits today?

Usually I read several books at a time—old books, new books, fiction, nonfiction, verse,

anything—and when the bedside heap of a dozen volumes or so has dwindled to two or three, which generally happens by the end of one week, I accumulate another pile. There are some varieties of fiction that I never touch—mystery stories, for instance, which I abhor, and historical novels. I also detest the so-called “powerful” novel—full of commonplace obscenities and torrents of dialogue—in fact, when I receive a new novel from a hopeful publisher—”hoping that I like the hook as much as he does”—1 check first of all how much dialogue there is, and if it looks too abundant or too sustained, I shut the book with a bang and ban it from my bed.

Are there any contemporary authors you do enjoy reading?

I do have a few favorites—for example, Robbe-Grillet and Borges. How freely and gratefully one breathes in their marvelous labyrinths! I love their lucidity of thought, the purity and poetry, the mirage in the mirror.

Many critics feel that this description applies no less aptly to your own prose. To what extent do you feel that prose and poetry intermingle as art forms?

Except that I started earlier—that’s the answer to the first part of your question. As to the second: Well, poetry, of course, includes all creative writing; I have never been able to see any generic difference between poetry and artistic prose. As a matter of fact, I would be inclined to define a good poem of any length as a concentrate of good prose, with or without the addition of recurrent rhythm and rhyme. The magic of prosody may improve upon w^hat we call prose by bringing out the full flavor of meaning, but in plain prose there are also certain rhythmic patterns, the music of precise phrasing, the beat of thought rendered by recurrent peculiarities of idiom and intonation. As in today’s scientific classifications, there is a lot of overlapping in our concept of poetry and prose today. The bamboo bridge between them is the metaphor.

You have also written that poetry represents “the mysteries of the irrational perceived through rational words. ” But many feel that the “irrational” has little place in an age when the exact knowledge of science has begun to plumb the most profound mysteries of existence. Do you agree?

This appearance is very deceptive. It is a journalistic illusion. In point of fact, the greater one’s science, the deeper the sense of mystery. Moreover, I don’t believe that any science today has pierced any mystery. We, as newspaper readers, are inclined to call “science” the cleverness of an electrician or a psychiatrist’s mumbo jumbo. This, at best, is applied science, and one of the characteristics of applied science is that yesterday’s neutron or today’s truth dies tomorrow. But even in a better sense of “science”—as the study of visible and palpable nature, or the poetry of pure mathematics and pure philosophy—the situation remains as hopeless as ever. We shall never know the origin of life, or the meaning of life, or the nature of space and time, or the nature of nature, or the nature of thought.

Man’s understanding of these mysteries is embodied in his concept of a Divine Being. As a final question, do you believe in God?

To be quite candid—and what I am going to say now is something I never said before, and I hope it provokes a salutary little chill—I know more than I can express in words, and the little I can express would not have been expressed, had I not known more.


Published in: on March 6, 2010 at 3:23 PM  Leave a Comment  

War, like any other racket, pays high dividends to the very few. . . . The cost of operations is always transferred to the people who do not profit.

—General Smedley Butler

Published in: on March 2, 2010 at 4:13 PM  Leave a Comment  

Lilies on an Ocean Wave

FROM Iron Coffins by Herbert A Werner


There are no roses on a sailor’s grave,

No lilies on an ocean wave.

The only tribute is the seagulls’ sweeps,

And the teardrops that a sweetheart weeps.

—German song



An Appreciation by an American Contemporary

IT IS UNUSUAL fore someone to have the opportunity, as I have, to write an introduction to a book by a member of a foreign and once enemy service whose personal history is so nearly a carbon copy of his own. Both of us were members of our naval academy classes of 1939; both of us finished submarine training and reported to our first submarines in 1941. Both of us served on board submarines throughout World War II, beginning in subordinate capacities and finally concluding the war in command of our own boats. Each of us has heard depth charges detonate alongside our boats, but not so successfully as others aimed at some of our good friends; and it is evident that depth charges sound surprisingly similar whether they be British, American, or Japanese. We have both participated in attacks on warships and merchantmen, and we have each seen great ships sink, sometimes gracefully and sometimes ignominiously, after the bottom-ripping burst of our warheads. The German submariners employed what I now recognize as nearly identical tactics to our own and both Werner and I have hurled futile imprecations upon our enemy for only doing his duty as well as he was able. So Herbert Werner and I have a close bond in common, even though I had never heard of him until I read his story. But granting all this, there are two traps to be avoided in any objective evaluation. The first is the trap of shared professionalism which may obscure important differences stemming from contrasting environment and objectives. The second is that the inevitable intrusion of feelings and attitudes from the war could, if unrecognized, influence the objective attitude we should seek today. A fine line of demarcation ensues, for we can admire the men who fought for Germany even as we must condemn Hitler and his Nazis. It is important for the proper appreciation of this book that this divergence of feelings be kept in mind and maintained in its proper place on both counts.

In his own preface, Werner tells why he felt impelled to write Iron Coffins. It has been an obligation of long standing, he says, and he wants to honor the thousands of his comrades who lie forever entombed in their steel graves at the bottom of the sea. The political passions of the war have no place in either his narrative or his professed objective; he does not indulge in invective against his enemies, even thought it is clear that he, like all of us, had his moments of vituperation. What he does say, however, merely by the telling of it, carries deep dramatic force, and the brutalization of all life touched by the war stands out in his book. It may sound strange, but ponder on this: the periods at sea—cramped in mold-ridden, diesel-hammering, oxygen-lacking, urine-reeking, excrement-laden, food-rotting, salt encrusted steel cockleshells, firing torpedoes in exultation, searching for convoys in frustration or receiving depth charges in stoic fear—these periods were the wholly admirable ones, regardless of who received the torpedoes or the depth charges, our side or theirs.

On the other hand, the times ashore were the times of degradation, and Werner does not spare us these. The picture of Germany in the spasm of defeat, infected with the moral destruction produced by war, appears ever more starkly as the ruin wrought by Hitler and his crew is played out to an inescapable and bitter end. Indeed, not the least contribution that Werner makes to the history of the second world-wide war is the personal picture of what war—total war—must inevitably mean to the decent men and women caught up in it.

None of this was totally unknown to the Allied side, even though we won the war and they lost it; but it was heightened in Germany. Through Werner we see lovely girls giving freely because men might soon die; we see civilians cowering in bunkers, afraid and hesitant to extend the hand of help to persons in worse condition than they; we see the profiteers—whatever the commodity, be it sex or food—and the hierarchy of superior staff echelons, protected from battles, having the best food and the prettiest girls, and giving desperate, unrealistic orders to an ever-dwindling cadre of fighting men.

But the war on the home front is not wnat this book is about. Its theme is a life of incredible hardships, terrifying warfare, absolutely fantastic determination, and unceasing dedication on the part of the German submariners. At the end of the book one can only survey their losses —fully ninety percent of those actively at sea (as compared to the usual count which included those in shore billets)—and one must lift one’s hat in tribute. One thing stands out clearly; toward the close of the war, when only two out of ten submarines leaving port were expected to return, they still went out in accordance with orders, and with high morale, knowing that most of them would not return.

It is the sad, terribly ironic truth, movingly faced by Werner, that toward the end most of them knew that their cause was lost. The heroism of the warrior, who is generally naïve, young, honorable and incorruptible, can never make up for a bad cause. Yet, in reviewing the post-war decades, it is manifest that this indomitability has been one of the assets upon which Germany has rebuilt her national honor.

Allied records for the submarine war in the Atlantic state that the turning point came about March 1943; the full weight of the escort aircraft carrier, improved radar, and new weapons were then thrown against the U-boats. Nowhere have I read a more dramatic account of how this all-out effort must have seemed to the men who were on the receiving end of it than in Werner’s story. The story is told without heroics. It can be fully appreciated only by another submariner of the war, but anyone can get the message. Take this passage: “Despite the dye marking our submergence, the Captain ordered an attack on the convoy before the escort could attack us. Chirping Asdic pings, bellowing detonations (of depth charges) and the grinding roar of a hundred engines provided grim background music for our assault.”

Tenacity was the strong point of these men, perhaps tenacity beyond logic or reasonable return for the risks taken—not that they individually had much choice in the matter—and the book ends, as it had to, on a note of demoralization and despair. But we have seen Werner grow into a tough-minded, cool, confident skipper. His was the last submarine to leave France during the retreat after the Allied invasion of 1944. Half a dozen predecessors died in the attempt, but he dared the gauntlet and brought his boat out safely with a load of people and equipment saved for a Germany which was too far gone to know or care. With his world cracking all around him, he was no longer the boy who went to sea five years before. He was now a man, although only twenty-five years old, able to see and record the breakdown all about him, note and yet stay above the danse macabre; recognize what had happened when the only reality left to him and his crew at the end was the reality of the leaky, obsolescent, damaged submarine to which they returned in relief from a shore leave too tragic to bear.

“Madness!” cries Werner from every page of the latter part of this book where he begins to question his country’s policies. He still records his amorous affairs between patrols, but it is worthy of remark that as the danse macabre became worse, the amours became less important to him. It was not that there was greater reticence, nor that the demands of a young fighting man were any the less compelling. He was simply drained far more than he is able to tell, drained soul and body, nearing the limit of his life-force. There was no more Germany as he had known it—it had vanished long before, something he had begun to understand when his father was imprisoned for befriending a Jewish girl. There was no more German Navy; that part of it, the sea-going part, which had held value for him was all destroyed. Only a gargoyle remained, a façade around headquarters by day, drinking and womanizing at night.

“Madness!” cries Werner, and it was madness. But there were heroes, too, who deserve admiration even though their cause was wrong and, therefore, their sacrifice was worthless. No one can fault the warrior who believes in his country so strongly that he dies for it.

This ought to permit these brave spirits to lie in peace, secure in the world’s regard for them and their memory. Madness though it was, these were the flower of young German manhood, unfortunately—but not to thek own discredit—early imbued with a warped ideal of how to achieve German destiny. They ought not to bear too harsh criticism, considering that the Treaty of Versailles is now hardly considered an ideal document. Furthermore, they were as a group unsullied by the cancer which afflicted the leading body politic. Because thek leaders told them so, they believed that if they fought desperately, they might save their country from the disaster plainly grinding in from every side. They expected death, and most of them found it; but they fought hard all the same, and they carpeted the ocean floor with thek bodies.

Edward L. Beach

Captain, U. S. Navy (Ret.)

U. S. Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island

15 February, 1969



THIS BOOK, which tells of my personal experiences in the German U-boat Force in World War II, fulfills an obligation of long standing. Since the end of that destructive war, the role of the U-boat Force has at times been distorted and underestimated, even by military historians who should have known better. Because I was one of the few U-boat commanders who fought through most of the war and who managed to survive, I felt it was my duty to my fallen comrades to set the record straight. Very much to the point, duty was the first and last word in the lexicon of the U-boat men; and, remarks to the contrary notwithstanding, we did our duty with a correct gallantry unsurpassed in any branch of service on either side. We were soldiers and patriots, no more and no less, and in our dedication to our lost cause we died in appalling numbers. But the great tragedy of the U-boat Force was not merely that so many good men perished; it was also that so many of our lives were squandered on inadequate equipment and by the unconscionable policies of U-boat Headquarters.

In retrospect, the crucial importance of the U-boat Force is unmistakably clear. Whether or not Germany could have won the war, she was certain to lose it if the gigantic production of American factories reached England in sufficient quantity. On this proposition the lines were drawn for the epic “Battle of the Atlantic,” in which the U-boats served as the vanguards of Germany’s defense. No less an authority than Winston Churchill declared, “The battle of the Atlantic was the dominating factor all through the war. Never for one moment could we forget that everything happening elsewhere, on land, at sea, or in the air, depended ultimately on its outcome, and amid all other cares we viewed its changing fortunes day by day with apprehension.” It is significant that Churchill, who knew all too well the ravages of the Luftwaffe and of Germany’s V-l and V-2 rockets, also wrote: “The only thing that really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril.” As viewed from the other side, Germany’s fortunes in the war closely paralleled the rise and fall of the U-boat Force. The connection grew ever more obvious to me each time I came ashore after a long patrol.

The outbreak of hostilities in September 1939 surprised the German Navy; the U-boat Force in particular was caught fully unprepared. This state of affairs was dictated by a treaty, entered into between Germany and Great Britain in 1935, which limited German naval strength to 35 per cent of Britain’s in order to maintain the tenuous balance of power that existed at the time. Germany in 1939 had just 57 commissioned U-boats, of which 52 were of small displacement and capable of only short coastal missions. The other five U-boats were larger craft designed for long-range patrols lasting eight weeks. Out of the total of 57, however, 18 U-boats were set aside for the training of new crews. Thus only 39 operational U-boats were available to take on the mighty British Navy, the huge British merchant fleet, the navies and merchant fleets of England’s Allies, and an inexhaustible number of neutral ships that sailed under contract to the Allies.

Nonetheless, the first year of the U-boat war was extremely rewarding for Germany. Though the Force lost 28 boats, it destroyed one British aircraft carrier, one battleship, five cruisers, three destroyers, two submarines and 438 merchant vessels totaling 2.3 million gross-weight tons. Moreover, in the summer of 1940, after the surrender of France, our U-boats were gradually relocated southward to French ports on the Bay of Biscay. This move shortened our routes to and from the Atlantic and signaled a new phase of the war at sea—the great battles of the convoys.

Simultaneously Admiral Karl Doenitz, Commander-in-Chief of the U-boat Force as of 1935, launched an ambitious program to construct the largest fleet of submersibles that the world had even seen. The most advanced U-boat of that time, Type VII, became the standard Atlantic U-boat; it had a displacement of 770 tons and a cruising range of 9,000 nautical miles. In the course of the war, 694 boats of this type were built and up-dated periodically with new improvements; they accounted for some 90 per cent of Allied shipping losses. In addition, more than 200 larger U-boats were constructed to lay mines, to transport critical war materials and, most important, to resupply the combat U-boats at sea with fuel oil, torpedoes, and provisions.

Great Britain soon felt the sting of this stepped-up building program. Unrestricted U-boat warfare against the North Atlantic convoy routes resulted in the destruction of 310,000 tons of shipping in one four-week period in the fall of 1940. Allied losses rose to 142 vessels totaling 815,000 tons in a two-month period in the spring of 1941, and a year and a half of U-boat warfare cost the Allies more than 700 ships totaling 3.4 million tons. Churchill wrote of England’s darkest hour: “The pressure grew increasingly, and our shipping losses were fearfully above our construction. . . . Meanwhile the new ‘wolf-pack’ tactics . . . were rigorously applied by the redoubtable Prien and other tip-top U-boat commanders.”

In May 1941, when I saw the first of my U-boat battles, our attacks on the shipping lanes were one-sided triumphs; Allied countermeasures—the use of radar, aircraft surveillance and new-type destroyers and convoy escorts— were still in their infancy and posed no serious threat to our raiders. This situation was not changed by the addition of 50 U.S. destroyers to the British fleet as part of the Anglo-American lend-lease agreement. By the end of 1941, our confident assumption of total victory seemed to lie within easy reach: Allied losses that year alone amounted to 750 merchant vessels totaling almost 3 million tons.

Shortly after the United States entered the war, the U-boats extended their activities to the American east coast and raided shipping there with devastating results. During the first six months of hostilities against the United States, our boats sank 495 vessels totaling 2.5 million tons. Besides patrolling our North Atlantic and Caribbean hunting grounds, U-boats prowled the South Atlantic, the Mediterranean, and the Black Sea, and a few even showed up in the Pacific. In 1942, the most successful year in U-boat history, more than 1,200 Allied ships—nearly 7 million tons—were sent to the bottom.

But March of 1943, which brought the U-boat war to the peak of success, also heralded disaster. That month the U-boat Force sank over 750,000 tons of Allied shipping—and suffered a sharp and puzzling increase in losses. This unexpected turn of events was the opening gun of a carefully prepared Allied counteroffensive. The Allies had developed many new weapons, including fast escort vessels, small aircraft carriers, and a much-improved radar device. They had produced and assembled great numbers of escorts, carrier-based attack aircraft, and long-range land-based bombers. Bringing all of these elements into conjunction in April, the Allies struck back with such overwhelming numerical and technical superiority that fully 40 per cent of our U-boat force was destroyed within a few weeks. The Allied counteroffensive permanently reversed the tide of battle. Almost overnight, the hunters had become the hunted, and through the rest of the war our boats were slaughtered at a fearful rate.

The U-boat Force tried desperately to counter the counteroffensive, but to no avail. In 1943, when I was Executive Officer of U-230, we were losing boats faster than we could replace them. By the summer of 1943, our toll of Allied shipping had fallen to a monthly average of 150,000 tons—this at a tune when the Allies’ shipbuilding capacity reached 1 million tons per month.

The plain fact of the matter was that the U-boat had become obsolete. Too long she had remained essentially a surface vessel that submerged only occasionally to remain unseen while launching an attack or escaping a pursuer. Headquarters did develop the Schnorkel, a device that permitted the U-boat to gape for air and recharge her batteries while staying submerged throughout her patrol. But the Schnorkel did not come into general use until March 1944, 10 fatal months after the Allied counteroffensive; and five more months passed before the life-preserving device was installed in all older U-boats. It was not until August 1944, when I sailed on my fifth U-boat, the second under my command, that a Schnorkel relieved me of the constant life-or-death game of surfacing for air, only to crash-dive minutes later before sophisticated attacks by Allied airplanes and destroyers. Moreover, the Schnorkel alone was far from an adequate answer to the Allied aircraft and hunter-killer groups. The U-boat was still dangerously slow and highly vulnerable in general, and deaf and defenseless in particular while using the Schnorkel.

The only real solution was a radically new U-boat. Several such types had been on German drawing boards for years: they were designed to sail submerged for hours at higher speeds than a destroyer, to shoot from a safe depth, and to carry twice as many torpedoes as the conventional U-boat. These underwater wonders were constantly promised to the Force. But they were not put into production until the collapse of the U-boat war, and very few of them were commissioned in time to see action.

So the U-boat Force fought with what it had and, in the last year of the war, it accomplished little but self-destruction. One by one, our crews sailed out obediently, even optimistically, on ludicrous missions that ended in death. The few veteran commanders still in action were decimated despite their experience in the arts of survival. New captains, even with veteran crews, stood virtually no chance of returning from their first patrols.

When hostilities finally ceased in May 1945, the ocean floor was littered with the wreckage of the U-boat war. Our boats had destroyed 2,882 merchant vessels totaling 14.4 million grossweight tons; in addition, U-boats had sunk 175 Allied warships and damaged 264 merchant ships totaling 1.9 million tons. In return, we had paid an incredible price. Our total of 1,150 commissioned U-boats met the following fate: 779 were sunk, two were captured, and the rest were either scuttled or surrendered as ordered at war’s end. Out of a total enlistment of 39,000 men, the U-boat Force lost 28,000 men killed and 5,000 taken prisoner. This represents 85 per cent casualties.

Yet even these figures do not reveal the full extent of the U-boat disaster. Since only 842 U-boats saw battle duty, and since 781 of these were lost, 93 per cent of the operational U-boat Force was wiped out. In concrete terms, the toll seems even more shocking. Our tremendous U-boat Force on the Atlantic Front was reduced to a mere 68 operational boats by the time that the Allies invaded France in June 1944, and only three of these boats were still afloat at war’s end. One of the three survivors was U-953, which I commanded as her last captain.

My account of the U-boat struggle was written with the aid of notes I took during the war, along with photographs and letters that I managed to save from the holocaust on the Continent and the disaster at sea. Though I relied heavily on memory, my recollections are still uncomfortably vivid and will remain so, I am afraid, until their pressure is lifted by my demise. In addition, I insured the proper sequence of events by referring to a brochure published by Heidenheimer Druckerei und Verlag GMBH, which lists the fate of every U-boat. All boats are referred to here by the actual U-number. The dates and hours of events are very close to correct and sometimes accurate to the minute. The radio messages, including signals sent by Headquarters as well as by U-boats, have been reconstructed with care. The three lengthy transmissions from Admiral Doenitz are exact translations.

No less authentic are certain startling episodes in the book—episodes which are little known or which have been long suppressed. More than a few American naval officers can attest to the fact that U.S. warships, including the destroyers Greer, Reuben James, and Kearney, made attacks on U-boats as early as the summer of 1941, thus waging an undeclared war on Germany. I have yet to see any published reference to a shocking order issued by U-boat Headquarters just before the Allied invasion of Normandy. It ordered the commanders of 15 U-boats to attack the vast invasion fleet and, after their torpedoes were spent, to destroy a ship by ramming—i.e., by committing suicide.

Every individual mentioned in the book was a real person. The two commanders under whom I was privileged to serve are called by their actual names. So are other U-boat captains and distinguished flotilla officers, many of whom I knew as friends. So, too, are my closest comrades in the battles at sea and the escapades in port; sadly, almost all of them are dead. To protect the living, I have changed a few names; it would have been less than gentlemanly to reveal women I knew who have long since become the faithful wives of other men. But this book belongs to my dead comrades, stricken down wholesale in the prime of youth. I hope it pays them the honor they deserve. If I have succeeded in handing down to the reader the ancient lesson that each generation seems to forget—that war is evil, that it murders men—then I consider this my most constructive deed.

January 1969

Herbert A. Werner


Published in: on February 25, 2010 at 12:52 PM  Comments (2)  
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A Second Nabokov Interview

Vladimir Nabokov—Lepidopterist

Nabokov’s interview, BBC Television [1962]

In mid-July, 1962, Peter Duval-Smith and Christopher Burstall came for a BBC television interview to Zermatt where I happened to be collecting that summer. The lepidoptera lived up to the occasion, so did the weather. My visitors and their crew had never paid much attention to those insects and I was touched and flattered by the childish wonderment with which they viewed the crowds of butterflies imbibing moisture on brookside mud at various spots of the mountain trail. Pictures were taken of the swarms that arose at my passage, and other hours of the day were devoted to the reproduction of the interview proper. It eventually appeared on the Bookstand program and was published in The Listener (November 22, 1962). I have mislaid the cards on which I had written my answers. I suspect that the published text was taken straight from the tape for it teems with inaccuracies. These I have tried to weed out ten years later but was forced to strike out a few sentences here and there when memory refused to restore the sense flawed by defective or improperly mended speech.

The poem I quote (with metrical accents added) will be found translated into English in Chapter Two of The Gift, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1963.

Would you ever go back to Russia?

I will never go back, for the simple reason that all the Russia I need is always with me: literature, language, and my own Russian childhood. I will never return. I will never surrender. And anyway, the grotesque shadow of a police state will not be dispelled in my lifetime. I don’t think they know my works there—oh, perhaps a number of readers exist there in my special secret service, but let us not forget that Russia has grown tremendously provincial during these forty years, apart from the fact that people there are told what to read, what to think. In America I’m happier than in any other country. It is in America that I found my best readers, minds that are closest to mine. I feel intellectually at home in America. It is a second home in the true sense of the word.

You’re a professional lepidopterist?

Yes, I’m interested in the classification, variation, evolution, structure, distribution, habits, of lepidoptera: this sounds very grand, but actually I’m an expert in only a very small group of butterflies. I have contributed several works on butterflies to the various scientific journals—but I want to repeat that my interest in butterflies is exclusively scientific.

Is there any connection with your writing?

There is in a general way, because I think that in a work of art there is a kind of merging between the two things, between the precision of poetry and the excitement of pure science.

In your new novel, Pale Fire, one of the characters says that reality is neither the subject nor the object of real art, which creates its own reality. What is that reality?

Reality is a very subjective affair. I can only define it as a kind of gradual accumulation of information; and as specialization. If we take a lily, for instance, or any other kind of natural object, a lily is more real to a naturalist than it is to an ordinary person. But it is still more real to a botanist. And yet another stage of reality is reached with that botanist who is a specialist in lilies. You can get nearer and nearer, so to speak, to reality; but you never get near enough because reality is an infinite succession of steps, levels of perception, false bottoms, and hence unquenchable, unattainable. You can know more and more about one thing but you can never know everything about one thing: it’s hopeless. So that we live surrounded by more or less ghostly objects—that machine, there, for instance. It’s a complete ghost to me—I don’t understand a thing about it and, well, it’s a mystery to me, as much of a mystery as it would be to Lord Byron.

You say that reality is an intensely subjective matter, but in your books it seems to me that y ou seem to take an almost perverse delight in literary deception.

The fake move in a chess problem, the illusion of a solution or the conjuror’s magic: I used to be a little conjuror when I was a boy. I loved doing simple tricks—turning water into wine, that kind of thing; but I think I’m in good company because all art is deception and so is nature; all is deception in that good cheat, from the insect that mimics a leaf to the popular enticements of procreation. Do you know how poetry started? I always think that it started when a cave boy came running back to the cave, through the tall grass, shouting as he ran, “Wolf, wolf,” and there was no wolf. His baboon-like parents, great sticklers for the truth, gave him a hiding, no doubt, but poetry had been born—the tall story had been born in the tall grass.

You talk about games of deception, like chess and conjuring. Are you, in fact, fond of them yourself?

I am fond of chess but deception in chess, as in art, is only part of the game; it’s part of the combination, part of the delightful possibilities, illusions, vistas of thought, which can be false vistas, perhaps. I think a good combination should always contain a certain element of deception.

You spoke about conjuring in Russia, as a child, and one remembers that some of the most intense passages in a number of your books are concerned with the memories of your lost childhood. What is the importance of memory to you?

Memory is, really, in itself, a tool, one of the many tools that an artist uses; and some recollections, perhaps intellectual rather than emotional, are very brittle and sometimes apt to lose the flavor of reality when they are immersed by the novelist in his book, when they are given away to characters.

Do you mean that you lose the sense of a memory once you have written it down?

Sometimes, but that only refers to a certain type of intellectual memory. But, for instance—oh, I don’t know, the freshness of the flowers being arranged by the undergardener in the cool drawing-room of our country house, as I was running downstairs with my butterfly net on a summer day half a century ago: that kind of thing is absolutely permanent, immortal, it can never change, no matter how many times I farm it out to my characters, it is always there with me; there’s the red sand, the white garden bench, the black fir trees, everything, a permanent possession. I think it is all a matter of love: the more you love a memory, the stronger and stranger it is. I think it’s natural that I have a more passionate affection for my old memories, the memories of my childhood, than I have for later ones, so that Cambridge in England or Cambridge in New England is less vivid in my mind and in my self than some kind of nook in the park on our country estate in Russia.

Do you think that such an intense power of memory as yours has inhibited your desire to invent in your books?

No, I don’t think so.

The same sort of incident turns up again and again, sometimes in slightly different forms.

That depends on my characters.

Do you still feel Russian, in spite of so many years in America?

I do feel Russian and I think that my Russian works, the various novels and poems and short stories that I have written during these years, are a kind of tribute to Russia. And I might define them as the waves and ripples of the shock caused by the disappearance of the Russia of my childhood. And recently I have paid tribute to her in an English work on Pushkin.

Why are you so passionately concerned with Pushkin?

It started with a translation, a literal translation. T thought it was very difficult and the more difficult it was, the more exciting it seemed. So it’s not so much caring about Pushkin—I love him dearly of course, he is the greatest Russian poet, there is no doubt about that– but it was again the combination of the excitement of finding the right way of doing things and a certain approach to reality, to the reality of Pushkin, through my own translations. As a matter of fact I am very much concerned with things Russian and I have just finished revising a good translation of my novel, The Gift, which I wrote about thirty years ago. It is the longest, I think the best, and the most nostalgic of my Russian novels. It portrays the adventures, literary and romantic, of a young Russian expatriate in Berlin, in the twenties; but he’s not myself. I am very careful to keep my characters beyond the limits of my own identity. Only the background of the novel can be said to contain some biographical touches. And there is another thing about it that pleases me: probably my favorite Russian poem is one that I happened to give to my main character in that novel.

Written by yourself?

Which I wrote myself, of course; and now I’m wondering whether I might be able to recite it in Russian. Let me explain it: there are two persons involved, a boy and a girl, standing on a bridge above the reflected sunset, and there are swallows skimming by, and the boy turns to the girl and says to her, “Tell me, will you always remember that swallow?– not any kind of swallow, not those swallows, there, but that particular swallow that skimmed by?” And she says, “Of course I will,” and they both burst into tears.

Odnazhdy my pod-vecher oba

Stoyali na starom mostu.

Skazhi mne, sprosil ya, do groba

Zapomnish’ von lastochku tu?

I ty otvechala: eshchyo by!

I kak my zaplakali oba,

Kak vskriknula zhizn’ na letu!

Do zavtra, naveki, do groba,

Odnazhdy na starom mostu . . .

What language do you think in?

I don’t think in any language. I think in images. I don’t believe that people think in languages. They don’t move their lips when they think. It is only a certain type of illiterate person who moves his lips as he reads or ruminates. No, I think in images, and now and then a Russian phrase or an English phrase will form with the foam of the brainwave, but that’s about all.

You started writing in Russian and then you switched to English, didn’t you?

Yes, that was a very difficult kind of switch. My private tragedy, which cannot, indeed should not, be anybody’s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural language, my natural idiom, my rich, infinitely rich and docile Russian tongue, for a second-rate brand of English.

You have written a shelf of books in English as well as your books in Russian. And of them only Lolita is well known. Does it annoy you to be the Lolita man?

No, I wouldn’t say that, because Lolita is a special favorite of mine. It was my most difficult book– the book that treated of a theme which was so distant, so remote, from my own emotional life that it gave me a special pleasure to use my combinational talent to make it real.

Were you surprised at the wild success when it came?

I was surprised that the book was published at all.

Did you, in fact, have any doubts about whether Lolita ought to be printed, considering its subject matter?

No; after all, when you write a book you generally envisage its publication, in some far future. But I was pleased that the book was published.

What was the genesis of Lolita?

She was born a long time ago, it must have been in 1939, in Paris; the first little throb of Lolita went through me in Paris in ’39, or perhaps early in ’40, at a time when I was laid up with a fierce attack of intercostal neuralgia which is a very painful complaint—rather like the fabulous stitch in Adam’s side. As far as I can recall the first shiver of inspiration was somehow prompted in a rather mysterious way by a newspaper story, I think it was in Paris Soir, about an ape in the Paris Zoo, who after months of coaxing by scientists produced finally the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal, and this sketch, reproduced in the paper, showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.

Did Humbert Humbert, the middle-aged seducer, have any original?

No. He’s a man I devised, a man with an obsession, and I think many of my characters have sudden obsessions, different kinds of obsessions; but he never existed. He did exist after I had written the book. While I was writing the book, here and there in a newspaper I would read all sorts of accounts about elderly gentlemen who pursued little girls: a kind of interesting coincidence but that’s about all.

Did Lolita herself have an original?

No, Lolita didn’t have any original. She was born in my own mind. She never existed. As a matter of fact, I don’t know little girls very well. When I consider this subject, I don’t think I know a single little girl. I’ve met them socially now and then, but Lolita is a figment of my imagination.

Why did you write Lolita?

It was an interesting thing to do. Why did I write any of my books, after all? For the sake of the pleasure, for the sake of the difficulty. I have no social purpose, no moral message; I’ve no general ideas to exploit, I just like composing riddles with elegant solutions.

How do you write? What are your methods?

I find now that index cards are really the best kind of paper that I can use for the purpose. I don’t write consecutively from the beginning to the next chapter and so on to the end. I just fill in the gaps of the picture, of this jigsaw puzzle which is quite clear in my mind, picking out a piece here and a piece there and filling out part of the sky and part of the landscape and part of the—I don’t know, the carousing hunters.

Another aspect of your not entirely usual consciousness is the extraordinary importance you attach to color.

Color. I think I was born a painter—really!—and up to my fourteenth year, perhaps, I used to spend most of the day drawing and painting and I was supposed to become a painter in due time. But I don’t think I had any real talent there. However, the sense of color, the love of color, I’ve had all my life: and also I have this rather freakish gift of seeing letters in color. It’s called color hearing. Perhaps one in a thousand has that. But I’m told by psychologists that most children have it, that later they lose that aptitude when they are told by stupid parents that it’s all nonsense, an A isn’t black, a B isn’t brown—now don’t be absurd.

What colors are your own initials, VN?

V is a kind of pale, transparent pink: I think it’s called, technically, quartz pink: this is one of the closest colors that I can connect with the V. And the N, on the other hand, is a greyish- yellowish oatmeal color. But a funny thing happens: my wife has this gift of seeing letters in color, too, but her colors are completely different. There are, perhaps, two or three letters where we coincide, but otherwise the colors are quite different. It turned out, we discovered one day, that my son, who was a little boy at the time—I think he was ten or eleven—sees letters in colors, too. Quite naturally he would say, “Oh, this isn’t that color, this is this color,” and so on. Then we asked him to list his colors and we discovered that in one case, one letter which he sees as purple, or perhaps mauve, is pink to me and blue to my wife. This is the letter M. So the combination of pink and blue makes lilac in his case. Which is as if genes were painting in aquarelle.

Whom do you write for? What audience?

I don’t think that an artist should bother about his audience. His best audience is the person he sees in his shaving mirror every morning. I think that the audience an artist imagines, when he imagines that kind of a thing, is a room filled with people wearing his own mask.

In your books there is an almost extravagant concern with masks and disguises: almost as if you were trying to hide yourself behind something, as if you’d lost yourself.

Oh, no. I think I’m always there; there’s no difficulty about that. Of course there is a certain type of critic who when reviewing a work of fiction keeps dotting all the i’s with the author’s head. Recently one anonymous clown, writing on Pale Fire in a New York book review, mistook all the declarations of my invented commentator in the book for my own. It is also true that some of my more responsible characters are given some of my own ideas. There is John Shade in Pale Fire, the poet. He does borrow some of my own opinions. There is one passage in his poem, which is part of the book, where he says something I think I can endorse. He says—let me quote it, if I can remember; yes, I think I can do it: “I loathe such things as jazz, the white-hosed moron torturing a black bull, rayed with red, abstractist bric-a-brac, primitivist folk masks, progressive schools, music in supermarkets, swimming pools, brutes, bores, class-conscious philistines, Freud, Marx, fake thinkers, puffed-up poets, frauds and sharks.” That’s how it goes.

It is obvious that neither John Shade nor his creator are very clubbable men.

I don’t belong to any club or group. I don’t fish, cook, dance, endorse books, sign books, co- sign declarations, eat oysters, get drunk, go to church, go to analysts, or take part in demonstrations.

It sometimes seems to me that in your novels—in Laughter in the Dark for instance—there is a strain of perversity amounting to cruelty.

I don’t know. Maybe. Some of my characters are, no doubt, pretty beastly, but I really don’t care, they are outside my inner self like the mournful monsters of a cathedral façade—demons placed there merely to show that they have been booted out. Actually, I’m a mild old gentleman who loathes cruelty.


Published in: on February 24, 2010 at 3:31 PM  Leave a Comment  
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While we are postponing, life speeds by.  —Seneca

Published in: on February 23, 2010 at 8:02 PM  Leave a Comment  

The biblical account of Noah’s Ark and the Flood is perhaps the most implausible story for fundamentalists to defend. Where, for example, while loading his ark, did Noah find penguins and polar bears in Palestine?

Published in: on February 21, 2010 at 7:50 PM  Leave a Comment  

EYEWITNESS: The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots, 8 February 1586

Wax Death Mask of Mary Queen of Scots

Robert Wynkfielde

Her prayers being ended, the executioners, kneeling, desired her Grace to forgive them her death: who answered, ‘I forgive you with all my heart, for now, I hope, you shall make an end of all my troubles.’ Then they, with her two women, helping her up, began to disrobe her of her apparel: then she, laying her crucifix upon the stool, one of the executioners took from her neck the Agnus Dei, which she, laying hands off it, gave to one of her women, and told the executioner he should be answered money for it. Then she suffered them, with her two women, to disrobe her of her chain of pomander beads and all other her apparel most willingly, and with joy rather than sorrow, helped to make unready herself, putting on a pair of sleeves with her own hands which they had pulled off, and that with some haste, as if she had longed to be gone.

All this time they were pulling off her apparel, she never changed her countenance, but with smiling cheer she uttered these words, ‘that she never had such grooms to make her unready, and that she never put off her clothes before such a company’.

Then she, being stripped of all her apparel saving her petticoat and kirtle, her two women beholding her made great lamentation, and crying and crossing themselves prayed in Latin. She, turning herself to them, embracing them, said these words in French, ‘Ne crie vous, j’ay prome pour vous’, and so crossing and kissing them, bad them pray for her and rejoice and not weep, for that now they should see an end of all their mistress’s troubles.

Then she, with a smiling countenance, turning to her men servants, as Melvin and the rest, standing upon a bench nigh the scaffold, who sometime weeping, sometime crying out aloud, and continually crossing themselves, prayed in Latin, crossing them with her hand bade them farewell, and wishing them to pray for her even until the last hour.

This done, one of the women having a Corpus Christi cloth lapped up three-comer-ways, kissing it, put it over the Queen of Scots’ face, and pinned it fast to the caule of her head. Then the two women departed from her, and she kneeling down upon the cushion most resolutely, and without any token or fear of death, she spake aloud this Psalm in Latin, In Te Domine confido, non confundar in eternam, etc. Then, groping for the block, she laid down her head, putting her chin over the block with both her hands, which, holding there still, had been cut off had they not been espied. Then lying upon the block most quietly, and stretching out her arms cried, In manus tuas, Domine, etc., three or four times. Then she, lying very still upon the block, one of the executioners holding her slightly with one of his hands, she endured two strokes of the other executioner with an axe, she making very small noise or none at all, and not stirring any part of her from the place where she lay: and so the executioner cut off her head, saving one little gristle, which being cut asunder, he lift up her head to the view of all the assembly and bade God save the Queen. Then, her dress of lawn falling from off her head, it appeared as grey as one of threescore and ten years old, polled very short, her face in a moment being so much altered from the form she had when she was alive, as few could remember her by her dead face. Her lips stirred up and down a quarter of an hour after her head was cut off.

Then Mr Dean [Dr Fletcher, Dean of Peterborough] said with a loud voice, ‘So perish all the Queen’s enemies’, and afterwards the Earl of Kent came to the dead body, and standing over it, with a loud voice said, ‘Such end of all the Queen’s and the Gospel’s enemies. ‘

Then one of the executioners, pulling off her garters, espied her little dog which was crept under her clothes, which could not be gotten forth but by force, yet afterward would not depart from the dead corpse, but came and lay between her head and her shoulders, which being imbrued with her blood was carried away and washed, as all things else were that had any blood was either burned or washed clean, and the executioners sent away with money for their fees, not having anyone thing that belonged unto her. And so, every man being commanded out of the hall, except the sheriff and his men, she was carried by them up into a great chamber lying ready for the surgeons to embalm her.


Published in: on February 15, 2010 at 12:45 PM  Leave a Comment  

Groucho Marx attended one of George Gershwin’s parties, given, it seemed, for the sole purpose of letting the host play and show off his music. Someone asked him, “Do you think that Gershwin’s melodies will be played a hundred years from now?” “Sure,” was Groucho’s answer, “if George is here to play them.”

Published in: on February 10, 2010 at 5:56 PM  Leave a Comment  

EYEWITNESS: The End of Zeppelin L31, I October 1916

Michael MacDonagh

I saw last night what is probably the most appalling spectacle associated with the war which London is likely to provide – the bringing down in flames of a raiding Zeppelin.

I was late at the office, and leaving it just before midnight was crossing to Blackfriars Bridge to get a tramcar home, when my attention was attracted by frenzied cries of ‘Oh! Oh! She’s hit!’ from some wayfarers who were standing in the middle of the road gazing at the sky in a northern direction. Looking up the clear run of New Bridge Street and Farringdon Road I saw high in the sky a concentrated blaze of searchlights, and in its centre a ruddy glow which rapidly spread into the outline of a blazing airship. Then the searchlights were turned off and the Zeppelin drifted perpendicularly in the darkened sky, a gigantic pyramid of flames, red and orange, like a ruined star falling slowly to earth. Its glare lit up the streets and gave a ruddy tint even to the waters of the Thames.

The spectacle lasted two or three minutes. It was so horribly fascinating that I felt spellbound – almost suffocated with emotion, ready hysterically to laugh or cry. When at last the doomed airship vanished from sight there arose a shout the like of which I never heard in London before – a hoarse shout of mingled execration, triumph and joy; a swelling shout that appeared to be rising from all parts of the metropolis, ever increasing in force and intensity. It was London’s Te Deum for another crowning deliverance. Four Zeppelins destroyed in a month! . . .

On getting to the office this morning I was ordered off to Potter’s Bar, Middlesex, where the Zeppelin had been brought down, about thirteen miles from London. These days trains are infrequent and travel slowly as a war economy. The journey from King’s Cross was particularly tedious. The train I caught was packed. My compartment had its twenty seats occupied and ten more passengers found standing room in it. The weather, too, was abominable. Rain fell persistently. We had to walk the two miles to the place where the Zeppelin fell, and over the miry roads and sodden fields hung a thick, clammy mist. . .

I got from a member of the Potter’s Bar anti-aircraft battery an account of the bringing down of the Zeppelin. He said the airship was caught in the beams of three searchlights from stations miles apart, and was being fired at by three batteries also from distances widely separated. She turned and twisted, rose and fell, in vain attempts to escape to the shelter of the outer darkness. None of the shells reached her. Then an aeroplane appeared and dropped three flares – the signal to the ground batteries to cease firing as he was about to attack. The airman, flying about the Zeppelin, let go rounds of machine-gun fire at her without effect, until one round fired into her from beneath set her on fire, and down she came a blazing mass, roaring like a furnace, breaking as she fell into two parts which were held together by internal cables until they reached the ground.

The framework of the Zeppelin lay in the field in two enormous heaps, separated from each other by about a hundred yards. Most of the forepart hung suspended from a tree. . .

The crew numbered nineteen. One body was found in the field some distance from the wreckage. He must have jumped from the doomed airship from a considerable height. So great was the force with which he struck the ground that I saw the imprint of his body clearly defined in the stubbly grass. There was a round hole for the head, then deep impressions of the trunk, with outstretched arms, and finally the widely separated legs. Life was in him when he was picked up, but the spark soon went out. He was, in fact, the Commander, who had been in one of the gondolas hanging from the airship. . .

With another journalist I went to the barn where the bodies lay. As we approached we heard a woman say to the sergeant of the party of soldiers in charge, ‘May I go in? I would like to see a dead German.’ ‘No, madam, we cannot admit ladies,’ was the reply. Introducing myself as a newspaper reporter, I made the same request. The sergeant said to me, ‘If you particularly wish to go in you may. I would, however, advise you not to do so. If you do you will regret your curiosity.’ I persisted in my request. . .

Explaining to the sergeant that I particularly wanted to see the body of the Commander, I was allowed to go in. The sergeant removed the covering from one of the bodies which lay apart from the others. The only disfigurement was a slight distortion of the face. It was that of a young man, clean-shaven. He was heavily clad in a dark uniform and overcoat, with a thick muffler round his neck.

I knew who he was. At the office we had had official information of the identity of the Commander and the airship (though publication of both particulars was prohibited), and it was this knowledge that had determined me to see the body. The dead man was Heinrich Mathy, the most renowned of the German airship commanders, and the perished airship was his redoubtable L31. Yes, there he lay in death at my feet, the bugaboo of the Zeppelin raids, the first and most ruthless of these Pirates of the Air bent on our destruction.


Published in: on February 10, 2010 at 5:51 PM  Comments (1)  

Horace Greeley served in Congress for three months. In the course of conversation one day, another congressman boasted that he was a self-made man. “That, sir,” replied Greeley, “relieves the Almighty of a great responsibility.”


Published in: on February 7, 2010 at 11:12 PM  Leave a Comment  

Bengal the Eternal

FROM Glimpses of Bengal by Rabindranath Tagore


24th June 1894

I have been only four days here, but, having lost count of the hours, it seems such a long while, I feel that if I were to return to Calcutta to-day I should find much of it changed—as if I alone had been standing still outside the current of time, unconscious of the gradually changing position of the rest of the world.

The fact is that here, away from Calcutta, I live in my own inner world, where the clocks do not keep ordinary time; where duration is measured only by the intensity of the feelings; where, as the outside world does not count the minutes, moments change into hours and hours into moments. So it seems to me that the subdivisions of time and space are only mental illusions. Every atom is immeasurable and every moment infinite.

There is a Persian story which I was greatly taken with when I read it as a boy—I think I understood, even then, something of the underlying idea, though I was a mere child. To show the illusory character of time, a faquir put some magic water into a tub and asked the King to take a dip. The King no sooner dipped his head in than he found himself in a strange country by the sea, where he spent a good long time going through a variety of happenings and doings. He married, had children, his wife and children died, he lost all his wealth, and as he writhed under his sufferings he suddenly found himself back in the room, surrounded by his courtiers. On his proceeding to revile the faquir for his misfortunes, they said: “But, Sire, you have only just dipped your head in, and raised it out of the water!”

The whole of our life with its pleasures and pains is in the same way enclosed in one moment of time. However long or intense we may feel it to be while it lasts, as soon as we have finished our dip in the tub of the world, we shall find how like a slight, momentary dream the whole thing has been….


9th August 1894.

I saw a dead bird floating down the current to-day. The history of its death may easily be divined. It had a nest in some mango tree at the edge of a village. It returned home in the evening, nestling there against soft-feathered companions, and resting a wearied little body in sleep. All of a sudden, in the night, the mighty Padma tossed slightly in her bed, and the earth was swept away from the roots of the mango tree. The little creature bereft of its nest awoke just for a moment before it went to sleep again for ever.

When I am in the presence of the awful mystery of all-destructive Nature, the difference between myself and the other living things seems trivial. In town, human society is to the fore and looms large; it is cruelly callous to the happiness and misery of other creatures as compared with its own.

In Europe, also, man is so complex and so dominant, that the animal is too merely an animal to him. To Indians the idea of the transmigration of the soul from animal to man, and man to animal, does not seem strange, and so from our scriptures pity for all sentient creatures has not been banished as a sentimental exaggeration.

When I am in close touch with Nature in the country, the Indian in me asserts itself and I cannot remain coldly indifferent to the abounding joy of life throbbing within the soft down-covered breast of a single tiny bird.


10th August 1894.

Last night a rushing sound in the water awoke me—a sudden boisterous disturbance of the river current—probably the onslaught of a freshet: a thing that often happens at this season. One’s feet on the planking of the boat become aware of a variety of forces at work beneath it. Slight tremors, little rockings, gentle heaves, and sudden jerks, all keep me in touch with the pulse of the flowing stream.

There must have been some sudden excitement in the night, which sent the current racing away. I rose and sat by the window. A hazy kind of light made the turbulent river look madder than ever. The sky was spotted with clouds. The reflection of a great big star quivered on the waters in a long streak, like a burning gash of pain. Both banks were vague with the dimness of slumber, and between them was this wild, sleepless unrest, running and running regardless of consequences.

To watch a scene like this in the middle of the night makes one feel altogether a different person, and the daylight life an illusion. Then again, this morning, that midnight world faded away into some dreamland, and vanished into thin air. The two are so different, yet both are true for man.

The day-world seems to me like European Music—its concords and discords resolving into each other in a great progression of harmony; the night-world like Indian Music—pure, unfettered melody, grave and poignant. What if their contrast be so striking—both move us. This principle of opposites is at the very root of creation, which is divided between the rule of the King and the Queen; Night and Day; the One and the Varied; the Eternal and the Evolving.

We Indians are under the rule of Night. We are immersed in the Eternal, the One. Our melodies are to be sung alone, to oneself; they take us out of the everyday world into a solitude aloof. European Music is for the multitude and takes them along, dancing, through the ups and downs of the joys and sorrows of men.

Image: West Bengal, India


The Shelidah Years of Rabindranath Tagore

The cultural heritage of Bengal goes back thousands of years but it was Tagore who opened the gateway of Bengali literature to the rest of the world. He travelled all over the world, bringing back fame and honour for his country

Out of eighty years of his entire life, Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) spent only ten years in Shelidah, Kushtia. But that period played a significant role in his writings as well as in his life. Tagore wrote about this stage of his life in his wonderful letters to his niece Indira which were later published in 1912 as Chhinnapatra (Torn Leaves) and in English as Glimpses of Bengal. These letters are excellent images of Bengal and the Bengali life. Tagore told WB Yeats in 1918, that those very years were most productive for him, and made a new chapter in his life. He felt that the letters would present to Yeats, pictures and ideas of his surroundings more vividly and accurately than anything he had ever written.

Both the boat and the river became an integral part of his time in Shelidah and played a significant role in the letters. He wrote about the people of his estate and about their life. His time was spent writing copiously and reading avidly.

From the boats, he watched life on the banks. He looked on at ferries endlessly carrying villagers to and from the market; groups of boys raucously rolling logs along the bank; or a young village bride sailing away to another village, leaving behind her tearful family behind; or a feisty gypsy woman rebuking a high-handed police constable.

During his days in Shelidah he visited the Maharaja of Tripura several times and a friendship developed between him and the Maharaja. Tagore was instrumental in getting financial assistance from the Maharaja of Tripura for scientist Satyen Bose for completing his research works in Europe.

He was a restless and could not stay in one place for too long. He was sent to England several times but couldn’t stay there long enough to complete any formal education. He used to be homesick and longed to return to his country.

The family was quite surprised when Tagore agreed at his father’s persuasion to go to Shelidah in 1891 to look after the family estates. He was not known for this kind of a commitment. He however moved and stayed there for ten crucial years of his life. In Shelaidah and Shazadpur on the bank of the Padma he came in close contact with the common village people and learnt about their life and realized their pathos and misery. The revelation had an immense reflection on his work which is particularly evident in the post 1891 writings. Most of his finest short stories were written during this period.

The serene rural surrounding inspired him to write, and it was at this time, ‘The Postmaster’ was written. Written in 1891 ‘The Postmaster’ was among Tagore’s earliest stories; it was made into a film by Satyajit Ray in 1960-61. He published several poetry collections, notably Sonar Tari (The Golden Boat, 1894), and plays, notably Chitrangada (Chitra 1892;) during these years. Tagore wrote in the common language of the people. He achieved this quality during his stay in Sheliadah.

In time the boat became his life. To quote from Tagore: ‘They tied the boat in a stuffy place last night and drew down the curtains. The closeness woke me up and on top of it some people started to sing at about 1 or 2 in the morning. ‘How much longer will you sleep? Awake, awake beloved’ … The boatman stopped their singing but the words went on ringing in my ears ‘awake, awake, beloved!’ till I felt ill. Finally I raised the curtains and fell asleep towards dawn… I may be able to leave here after a fortnight but I am not yet certain.’

Most of his subjects here were Muslims. He introduced his own court. Every village had its own headman from among the villagers. Five heads made a court in Tagore’s estate. Final authority rested with Tagore. Thus he had established a welfare-based society in his estate. But he had no fascination for politics or power. During his time in Shelidah none of his subjects needed to go to the local police or the court. They led a safe and peaceful life under his protection
Most of his time, on the estate, Tagore was alone, except for his subjects. His family came to live with him in Shelidah in 1898 for a few years. Between 1891 and 1901 he wrote fifty nine short stories, set in both villages and towns of Bengal and in Calcutta. These deal with characters at every level of society.

Tagore came to love the Bengali countryside, most of all the Padma river. Tagore’s poems are virtually untranslatable, as are his more than 2,000 songs, which remain extremely popular among all classes of Bengalis.

In conclusion a few lines from one of Tagore’s poems written in Shelidah:

‘Whoever wishes to,
May sit in meditation
 with eyes closed
To know if the world be true or false.
I, meanwhile,
Shall sit with hungry eyes,
To see the world

While the light lasts.


Published in: on February 4, 2010 at 6:17 PM  Leave a Comment  
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One of Calvin Coolidge’s associates objected when the name of a certain industrialist was put forward for inclusion in the cabinet. “But, Mr. President, he’s a son of a bitch!”

Well, don’t you think they ought to be represented, too?” said Coolidge.

Published in: on February 1, 2010 at 3:50 PM  Leave a Comment  

A Reporter with the Vietcong, 1965

The Vietnam War: A Reporter with the Vietcong, near Hanoi, 10 December 1965

James Cameron

Relentless US bombing of North Vietnam was a feature of the Vietnam War.

Through the daylight hours nothing moves on the roads of North Vietnam, not a car nor a truck. It must look from the air as though the country had no wheeled transport at all. That, of course, is the idea, it is the roads and bridges that are being bombed; it is no longer safe after sunrise to be anywhere near either.

In the paddies the farmers are reaping their third harvest of the year, which has been particularly abundant. They move among the rice with their sickles, bowed under a shawl of foliage, the camouflage that gives everyone a faintly carnival air, like so many Jacks-in-the-Green.

At the corners of the paddies stand what look like sheaves of corn and are stacks of rifles. The roads stretch long and empty, leading from nowhere to nowhere.

Then the sun goes down and everything starts to move.

At dust the roads become alive. The engines are started and the convoys grind away through the darkness behind the pinpoints of masked headlamps. There are miles of them, heavy Russian-built trucks, anti-aircraft batteries, all deeply buried under piles of branches and leaves; processions of huge green haystacks. North Vietnam by day is abandoned; by night it thuds and grinds with movement. It is a fatiguing routine: working by day and moving by night.

In this fashion I drove down to what is called the ‘fighting areas’ in the central province of Thanh Hoa. It was a wildly theatrical landscape: a plain studded with strange little precipitous mountains, as though a shower of meteorites had fallen; it was like riding in a Soviet-made Jeep through the middle of a Chinese watercolour. . .

The great showplace of Thanh Hoa is the famous Ham Rong bridge. It has been attacked more than 100 times, by at least 1000 aircraft; it is scarred and pitted and twisted and the area around is a terrible mess, but the bridge still carries the road and the railroad. It lies between two very steep hills, and must be extremely difficult to hit; it would need a very steep and oblique bombing run . . .

At the village of Nanh Ngang, hard by the bridge, I was presented to Miss Nguyen Thi Hang, who is a Labour Hero and a People’s Hero, and is clearly adjusted to a measure of local celebrity as the nation’s Resistance pin-up. She once led a delegation to Moscow.

She is a pert, trim young woman in her late twenties, dressed in the regulation white blouse and broad black trousers; she is pretty, as some 99.9 per cent of all Vietnamese girls are pretty. To have her photograph taken was clearly no great novelty for her.

Miss Hang commands the women’s corps of the Nanh Ngang militia, and she put them through their paces for me—a mock alert, a covey of most nubile little girls popping into foxholes and pointing their rifles at the sky, with Miss Hang gesturing upwards, exactly as in her pictures.

It all seemed so palpably make-believe—this vital bridge defended by a chorus of sweet little girls; I felt awkward and rueful.

And then, in the middle of the performance, as I walked back from the river to the village – the alarm went in all truth, and the war game was real after all, in the sighing howl of jets overhead, the thud of ack-ack, and for all I know, for I could not be sure, a tiny volley from Miss Hang’s young ladies in the foxholes.

The aeroplanes were not after us this time, but streaking homeward south. The village took cover philosophically, but by the time the children were herded into the earth dugouts, the flight was, doubtless, miles away.

There were several such raids while I moved about the country, and it is fair to try to analyse one’s reaction. It is not easy. What supervened, I think, was not the emotion of fear (for I was in no particular danger) nor high-minded horror—there was somehow a sense of outrage against civility: what an impertinence, one felt, what arrogance, what an offence against manners. These people in North Vietnam are agreeable, shy people, and very poor. Will this sort of thing blow Communism out of their heads?


Published in: on January 24, 2010 at 12:57 PM  Leave a Comment  

Lineage for Hire

Gladstone, Britain’s famous PM, visiting an antique dealer’s shop, admired an early seventeenth-century oil painting depicting an aristocrat dressed in old Spanish costume with a ruff, plumed hat, and lace cuffs. He wanted it badly but thought the price too high. Sometime later, at the house of a rich London merchant, he came upon the portrait he had so admired. His host, noticing Gladstone’s absorption, approached him. “You like it? It’s a portrait of one of my ancestors, a minister at the Court of Queen Elizabeth.” Said Gladstone: “Three pounds less and he would have been my ancestor.”

Published in: on January 24, 2010 at 9:50 AM  Leave a Comment  

The Death of Socrates, 399 BC


Socrates had been condemned to death for ‘corruption of the young’ and ‘neglect of the gods’. He remained in prison for a month after sentence until the sacred ship had returned from Delos: during its absence no execution could take place. Xanthippe was Socrates’ wife: he had three sons by her. Plato was not an eye-witness of the death, but was in close touch with those who were.

I will try to tell you everything from the beginning. On the previous days I and the others had always been in the habit of visiting Socrates. We used to meet at daybreak in the court where the trial took place, for it was near the prison; and every day we used to wait about, talking with each other, until the prison was opened, for it was not opened early; and when it was opened, we went in to Socrates and passed most of the day with him. On that day we came together earlier; for the day before, when we left the prison in the evening we heard that the ship had arrived from Delos. So we agreed to come to the usual place as early in the morning as possible. And we came, and the gaoler who usually answered the door came out and told us to wait and not go in until he told us. ‘For’, he said, ‘the eleven are releasing Socrates from his fetters and giving directions how he is to die today.’ So after a little delay he came and told us to go in. We went in then and found Socrates just released from his fetters and Xanthippe – you know her – with his little son in her arms, sitting beside him. Now when Xanthippe saw us, she cried out and said the kind of thing that women always do say: ‘Oh Socrates, this is the last time now that your friends will speak to you or you to them.’ And Socrates glanced at Crito and said, ‘Crito, let somebody take her home.’ And some of Crito’s people took her away wailing and beating her breast. But Socrates sat up on his couch and bent his leg and rubbed it with his hand, and while he was rubbing it, he said, ‘What a strange thing, my friends, that seems to be which men call pleasure! How wonderfully it is related to that which seems to be its opposite, pain, in that they will not both come to a man at the same time, and yet if he pursues the one and captures it, he is generally obliged to take the other also, as if the two were joined together in one head. And I think’, he said, ‘if Aesop had thought of them, he would have made a fable telling how they were at war and god wished to reconcile them, and when he could not do that, he fastened their heads together, and for that reason, when one of them comes to anyone, the other follows after. Just so it seems that in my case, after pain was in my leg on account of the fetter, pleasure appears to have come following after.’

When he had finished speaking, Crito said, ‘Well, Socrates, do you wish to leave any directions with us about your children or anything else—anything we can do to serve you?’

‘What I always say, Crito,’ he replied, ‘nothing new. If you take care of yourselves you will serve me and mine and yourselves, whatever you do, even if you make no promises now; but if you neglect yourselves and are not willing to live following step by step, as it were, in the path marked out by our present and past discussions, you will accomplish nothing, no matter how much or how eagerly you promise at present.’

‘We will certainly try hard to do as you say,’ he replied. ‘But how shall we bury you?’

‘However you please,’ he replied, ‘if you can catch me and I do not get away from you.’ And he laughed gently, and looking towards us, said, ‘I cannot persuade Crito, my friends, that the Socrates who is now conversing and arranging the details of his argument is really I; he thinks I am the one whom he will presently see as a corpse, and he asks how to bury me. And though I have been saying at great length that after I drink the poison I shall no longer be with you, but shall go away to the joys of the blessed you know of, he seems to think that was idle talk uttered to encourage you and myself. ‘So,’ he said, ‘give security for me to Crito, the opposite of that which he gave the judges at my trial; for he gave security that I would remain, but you must give security that I shall not remain when I die, but shall go away, so that Crito may bear it more easily, and may not be troubled when he sees my body being burned or buried, or think I am undergoing terrible treatment, and may not say at the funeral that he is laying out Socrates, or following him to the grave, or burying him. For, dear Crito, you may be sure that such wrong words are not only undesirable in themselves, but they infect the soul with evil. No, you must be of good courage, and say that you bury my body – and bury it as you think best and as seems to you most fitting.’

When he had said this, he got up and went into another room to bathe; Crito followed him, but he told us to wait. So we waited, talking over with each other and discussing the discourse we had heard, and then speaking of the great misfortune that had befallen us, for we felt that he was like a father to us and that when bereft of him we should pass the rest of our lives as orphans. And when he had bathed and his children had been brought to him—for he had two little sons and one big one—and the women of the family had come, he talked with them in Crito’s presence and gave them such directions as he wished; then he told the women to go away, and he came to us. And it was now nearly sunset; for he had spent a long time within. And he came and sat down fresh from the bath. After that not much was said, and the servant of the eleven came and stood beside him and said ‘Socrates, I shall not find fault with you, as I do with others, for being angry and cursing me, when at the behest of the authorities, I tell them to drink the poison. No, I have found you in all this time in every way the noblest and gentlest and best man who has ever come here, and now I know your anger is directed against others, not against me, for you know who are to blame. Now, for you know the message I came to bring you, farewell and try to bear what you must as easily as you can.’ And he burst into tears and turned and went away. And Socrates looked up at him and said, ‘Fare you well, too; I will do as you say.’ And then he said to us, ‘How charming the man is! Ever since I have been here he has been coming to see me and talking with me from time to time, and has been the best of men, and now how nobly he weeps for me! But come, Crito, let us obey him, and let someone bring the poison, if it is ready; and if not, let the man prepare it.’ And Crito said, ‘But I think, Socrates, the sun is still upon the mountains and has not yet set; and I know that others have taken the poison very late, after the order has come to them, and in the meantime have eaten and drunk and some of them enjoyed the society of those whom they loved. Do not hurry; for there is still time.’

And Socrates said, ‘Crito, those whom you mention are right in doing as they do, for they think they gain by it; and I shall be right in not doing as they do; for I think I should gain nothing by taking the poison a little later. I should only make myself ridiculous in my own eyes if I clung to life and spared it, when there is no more profit in it. Come,’ he said, ‘do as I ask and do not refuse.’

Thereupon Crito nodded to the boy who was standing near. The boy went out and stayed a long time, then came back with the man who was to administer the poison, which he brought with him in a cup ready for use. And when Socrates saw him, he said, ‘Well, my good man, you know about these things; what must I do?’ ‘Nothing,’ he replied, ‘except drink the poison and walk about till your legs feel heavy; then lie down, and the poison will take effect of itself.’

At the same time he held out the cup to Socrates. He took it, and very gently, Echecrates, without trembling or changing colour or expression, but looking up at the man with wide open eyes, as was his custom, said, ‘What do you say about pouring a libation to some deity from this cup? May I, or not?’ ‘Socrates,’ said he, ‘we prepare only as much as we think is enough.’ ‘I understand,’ said Socrates; ‘but I may and must pray to the gods that my departure hence be a fortunate one; so I offer this prayer, and may it be granted.’ With these words he raised the cup to his lips and very cheerfully and quietly drained it. Up to that time most of us had been able to restrain our tears fairly well, but when we watched him drinking and saw that he had drunk the poison, we could do so no longer, but in spite of myself my tears rolled down in floods, so that I wrapped my face in my cloak and wept for myself; for it was not for him that I wept, but for my own misfortune in being deprived of such a friend. Crito had got up and gone away even before I did, because he could not restrain his tears. But Apollodorus, who had been weeping all the time before, then wailed aloud in his grief and made us all break down, except Socrates himself. But he said, ‘What conduct is this, you strange men! I sent the women away chiefly for this very reason, that they might not behave in this absurd way; for I have heard that it is best to die in silence. Keep quiet and be brave.’ Then we were ashamed and controlled our tears. He walked about and, when he said his legs were heavy, lay down on his back, for such was the advice of the attendant. The man who had administered the poison laid his hands on him and after a while examined his feet and legs, then pinched his foot hard and asked if he felt it. He said ‘No’; then after that, his thighs; and passing upwards in this way he showed us that he was growing cold and rigid. And again he touched him and said that when it reached his heart, he would be gone. The chill had now reached the region about the groin, and uncovering his face, which had been covered, he said – and these were his last words – ‘Crito, we owe a cock to Aesculapius. Pay it and do not neglect it.’ ‘That’, said Crito, ‘shall be done; but see if you have anything else to say.’ To this question he made no reply, but after a little while he moved; the attendant uncovered him; his eyes were fixed. And Crito when he saw it, closed his mouth and eyes.

Such was the end, Echecrates, of our friend, who was, as we may say, of all those of his time whom we have known, the best and wisest and most righteous man.


Published in: on January 23, 2010 at 2:16 PM  Leave a Comment  

As first consul, Napoleon often worked a sixteen-hour day. He expected that the Council of State would have stamina and zeal to match his own. One night when the councillors began to doze off, he reprimanded them, “Do let’s keep awake, citizens. It’s only two o’clock. We must earn our salaries.” These superhuman efforts were much applauded by Napoleon’s admirers, but not by royalists. One such admirer, singing the first consul’s praises, remarked, “God made Bonaparte and then rested.” An emigre count commented, “God should have rested a little earlier.”

Published in: on January 22, 2010 at 10:10 PM  Leave a Comment  

Eyewitness: Suttee, C. 1650

Suttee, 1826

Jean-Baptiste Tavernier

It is also an ancient custom among the idolaters of India that on a man dying his widow can never remarry; as soon, therefore, as he is dead she retires to weep for her husband, and some days afterwards her hair is shaved off, and she despoils herself of all the ornaments with which her person was adorned; she removes from her arms and legs the bracelets which her husband had given her, when espousing her, as a sign that she was to be submissive and bound to him, and she remains for the rest of her life without any consideration, and worse than a slave, in the place where previously she was mistress. This miserable condition causes her to detest life, and prefer to ascend a funeral pile to be consumed alive with the body of her deceased husband, rather than be regarded by all the world for the remainder of her days with opprobrium and infamy. Besides this the Brahmans induce women to hope that by dying in this way, with their husbands, they will live again with them in some other world with more glory and more comfort than they have previously enjoyed. These are the two reasons which make these unhappy women resolve to bum themselves with the bodies of their husbands; to which it should be added that the priests encourage them with the hope that at the moment they are in the fire, before they yield up their souls, Ram will reveal wonderful things to them, and that after the soul has passed through several bodies it will attain to an exalted degree of glory for all eternity.

But it should be remarked that a woman cannot burn herself with the body of her husband without having received permission from the governor of the place where she dwells, and those governors who are Musalmans, hold this dreadful custom of self-destruction in horror, and do not readily give permission. On the other hand, it is only childless widows who can be reproached for not having loved their husbands if they have not had courage to burn themselves after their death, and to whom this want of courage will be for the remainder of their lives a cause of reproach. For widows who have children are not permitted under any circumstances to bum themselves with the bodies of their husbands; and so far from custom obliging them, it is ordained that they shall live to watch over the education of their children. Those to whom the governors peremptorily refuse to grant permission to burn themselves pass the remainder of their lives in severe penances and in doing charitable deeds. There are some who frequent the great highways either to boil water with vegetables, and give it as a drink to passers-by, or to keep fire always ready to light the pipes of those who desire to smoke tobacco. There are others among them who make a vow to eat nothing but what they find undigested in the droppings of oxen, cows, and buffaloes, and do still more absurd things.

The governor, seeing that all remonstrances with women, who are urged to burn themselves even by their relatives and by the Brahmans, fail to turn them from the damnable resolution which they have taken to die in so cruel a fashion, when his secretary indicates by a sign that he has received a bribe, at length allows them to do what they wish, and in a rage tells all the idolaters who accompany them that they may ‘go to the devil’.

Immediately on permission being obtained, all kinds of music are heard, and with the sound of drums, flutes, and other instruments, all go to the house of the deceased, and thence, as I have said, accompany the body to the margin of a river or tank, where it is to be burned.

All the relatives and friends of the widow who desires to die after her husband congratulate her beforehand on the good fortune which she is about to acquire in the other world, and on the glory which all the members of the caste derive from her noble resolution. She dresses herself as for her wedding day, and is conducted in triumph to the place where she is to be burned. A great noise is made with instruments of music and the voices of the women who follow, singing hymns to the glory of the unhappy one who is about to die. The Brahmans accompanying her exhort her to show resolution and courage, and many Europeans believe that in order to remove the fear of that death which man naturally abhors, she is given some kind of drink that takes away her senses and removes all apprehension which the preparations for her death might occasion. It is for the interest of the Brahmans that these unhappy women maintain the resolution they have taken to burn themselves, for all the bracelets which they wear, both on arms and legs, with their ear-rings and rings, belong of right to the Brahmans, who search for them in the ashes after the women are burned. According to the station and wealth of the women, the bracelets, ear-rings, and rings are either of gold or silver; the poorest wear them of copper and tin; but as for precious stones, they do not wear them at all when going to be burned.

I have seen women burned in three different ways, according to the customs of different countries. In the Kingdom of Gujarat, and as far as Agra and Delhi, this is how it takes place: On the margin of a river or tank, a kind of small hut, about twelve feet square, is built of reeds and all kinds of faggots, with which some pots of oil and other drugs are placed in order to make it burn quickly. The woman is seated in a half-reclining position in the middle of the hut, her head reposes on a kind of pillow of wood, and she rests her back against a post, to which she is tied by her waist by one of the Brahmans, for fear lest she should escape on feeling the flame. In this position she holds the dead body of her husband on her knees, chewing betel all the time; and after having been about half an hour in this condition, the Brahman who has been by her side in the hut goes outside, and she calls out to the priests to apply the fire; this the Brahmans, and the relatives and friends of the woman who are present immediately do, throwing into the fire some pots of oil, so that the woman may suffer less by being quickly consumed. After the bodies have been reduced to ashes, the Brahmans take whatever is found in the way of melted gold, silver, tin, or copper, derived from the bracelets, ear-rings, and rings which the woman had on; this belongs to them by right, as I have said.

In the Kingdom of Bengal women are burned in another manner. A woman in that country must be very poor if she does not come with the body of her husband to the bank of the Ganges to wash it after he is dead, and to bathe herself before being burned. I have seen them come to the Ganges more than twenty days’ journey, the bodies being by that time altogether putrid, and emitting an unbearable odour. There was one of them who came from the north, near the frontiers of the Kingdom of Bhutan, with the body of her husband which she had conveyed in a carriage, and travelled all the way on foot herself, without eating for fifteen or sixteen days, till she arrived at the Ganges, where after washing the body of her husband, which stank horribly, and bathing herself also, she had herself burned with him with a determination which surprised those who saw it. I was there at the time. As throughout the course of the Ganges, and also in all Bengal, there is but little fuel, these poor women send to beg for wood out of charity to burn themselves with the dead bodies of their husbands. A funeral pile is prepared for them, which is like a bed, with its pillow of small wood and reeds, in which pots of oil and other drugs are placed in order to consume the body quickly. The woman who intends to burn herself, preceded by drums, flutes, and hautboys, and adorned with her most beautiful jewels, comes dancing to the funeral pile, and ascending it she places herself, half-lying, half-seated. Then the body of her husband is laid across her, and all the relatives and friends bring her, one a letter, another a piece of cloth, this one flowers, that one pieces of silver or copper, asking her to give this from me to my mother, or to my brother, or to some relative or friend, whoever the dead person may be whom they have most loved while alive. When the woman sees that they bring her nothing more, she asks those present three times whether they have any more commissions for her, and if they do not reply she wraps all they have brought in a taffeta, which she places between her lap and the back of the body of her dead husband, calling upon the priests to apply fire to the funeral pile. This the Brahmans and the relatives do simultaneously. There is, as I have remarked, but little wood in the Kingdom of Bengal; so as soon as these miserable women are dead and half burned, their bodies are thrown into the Ganges with those of their husbands, where they are eaten by the crocodiles.

I should not forget here an evil custom which is practised among the idolaters of the same Kingdom of Bengal. When a woman is delivered, and the infant, as often happens, is unwilling to take its mother’s breast it is carried outside the village and placed in a cloth, which is tied by the four corners to the branches of a tree, and is thus left from morning to evening. In this way the poor infant is exposed to the crows, which torment it, and some have been found whose eyes have been torn out of their heads, which is the reason why many idolaters are seen in Bengal who have but one eye, and others who have both injured or altogether gone. In the evening the infant is taken to try whether it is willing to suckle during the following night, and should it happen that it still refuses the breast, it is taken back on the following day to the same place; this is done for three days in succession, after which, if the infant is unwilling to take the breast, in the belief that it is a demon, they cast it into the Ganges, or some other river or tank which is nearer at hand. In places where there are many monkeys these poor children are not so exposed to the attacks of crows, for this reason, that as soon as a monkey discovers a nest of these birds he climbs the tree, and throws the nest on one side and the eggs on the other. On the other hand, there are among the English, Dutch, and Portuguese charitable persons who, moved to compassion for the misfortune of these infants, remove them when they are thus exposed and hung in a tree and take care to have them brought up as I have once seen an example of at Hugly; this is done in the places near their factories.

Let us see now what is the practice along the coast of Coromandel when women are going to be burned with the bodies of their deceased husbands. A large hole of nine or ten feet deep, and twenty-five or thirty feet square, is dug, into which plenty of wood is thrown, with many drugs to make it burn quickly. When the hole is well heated, the body of the husband is placed on the edge, and then his wife comes dancing, and chewing betel, accompanied by all her relatives and friends, and with the sound of drums and cymbals. The woman then makes three turns round the hole, and at each time she embraces all her relatives and friends. When she completes the third turn the Brahmans throw the body of the deceased into the fire, and the woman, with her back turned towards the hole, is pushed by the Brahmans, and falls in backwards. Then all the relatives throw pots of oil and other drugs of that kind, as I have said is elsewhere done, so that the bodies may be the the sooner consumed. In the greater part of the same Coromandel coast the woman does not burn herself with the body of her deceased husband, but allows herself to be interred, while alive, with him in a hole which the Brahmans dig in the ground, about one foot deeper than the height of the man or woman. They generally select a sandy spot, and when they have placed the man and woman in the hole, each of their friends fills a basket of sand, and throws it on the bodies until the hole is full and heaped over, half a foot higher than the ground, after which they jump and dance upon it till they are certain that the woman is smothered.


[Note: Suttee, properly known as sati, was officially banned by the British in 1829 but has never been completely stamped out. About 40 cases have been reported since Indian independence in 1947, mostly in the northwest state of Rajasthan, home of the traditional Rajput warrior caste. One instance in 1987 became a cause celebre, with some Indian women, believe it or not, demanding the right to immolate themselves. Gives new meaning to that old Hindu chant, I’m a Hunka Hunka Burnin’ Love.]

Published in: on January 21, 2010 at 12:56 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Eyewitness: The Pilgrims Land, November 1620

The Pilgrims Land

Landing in New England, November 1620

William Bradford

New England had been named by Captain John Smith, who explored its shores in 1614. The first permanent settlement was made at Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620 by the ‘Pilgrim Fathers’ aboard the Mayflower, whose arrival is described here.

About ten a clocke we came into a deepe Valley, full of brush, wood-gaile, and long grasse, through which wee found little paths or tracts, and there we saw a Deere, and found Springs of fresh Water, of which we were hartily glad, and sat us downe and drunke our first New England Water, with as much delight as ever we drunke drinke in all our lives.

When we had refreshed ourselves, we directed our course full South, that wee might come to the shoare, which within a short while after we did, and there made a fire, that they in the Ship might see where we were (as wee had direction) and so marched on towards this supposed River: and as we went in another Valley, we found a fine cleere Pond of fresh water, being about a Musket shot broad, and twice as long: there grew also many small Vines, and Fowle and Deere haunted there; there grew much Sasafras: from thence we went on and found much plain ground about fiftie Acres, fit for the Plow, and some signes where the Indians had formerly planted their Corne: after this, some thought it best for nearnesse of the River to goe downe and travaile on the Sea sands, by which meanes some of our men were tired, and lagged behinde, so we stayed and gathered them up, and strucke into the Land againe; where we found a little path to certaine heapes of Sand, one whereof was covered with old Mats, and had a wooden thing like a Morter whelmed on the top of it, and an earthen pot laid in a little hole at the end thereof; we musing what it might be, digged and found a Bowe, and as we thought, Arrowes, but they were rotten; We supposed there were many other things, but because we deemed them graves, we put in the Bow againe and made it up as it was, and left the rest untouched, because we thought it would be odious unto them to ransacke their Sepulchers. We went on further and found new stubble of which they had gotten Corne this yeare, and many Walnut trees full of Nuts, and great store of Strawberries, and some Vines; passing thus a field or two, which were not great, we came to another, which had also bin new gotten, and there wee found where an house had beene, and foure or five old Plankes laied together; also we found a great Kettle, which had beene some Ships kettle and brought out of Europe; there was also an heape of sand, made like the former, but it was newly done, wee might see how they had padled it with their hands, which we digged up, and in it we found a little old Basket full of faire Indian Corne, and digged further, and found a fine great new Basket full of very faire Corne of this yeare, with some sixe and thirty goodly eares of Corne, some yellow, and some red, and others mixt with blew, which was a very goodly sight: the Basket was round, and narrow at the top, it held about three or foure bushels, which was as much as two of us could lift up from the ground, and was very handsomely and cunningly made: But whilst we were busie about these things, we set our men Sentinell in a round ring, all but two or three which digged up the Corne. Wee were in suspense, what to doe with it, and the Kettle, and at length after much consultation, we concluded to take the Kettle, and as much of the Corne as wee could carry away with us: and when our Shallop came if we could finde any of the people, and came to parley with them, wee would give them the Kettle againe, and satisfie them for their Corne. . .

When wee had marched five or six miles into the Woods, and could find no signes of any people, wee returned againe another way, and as we came into the plaine ground, wee found a place like a grave, but it was much bigger and longer than any wee had yet seene. It was also covered with boords, so as wee mused what it should be, and resolved to dig it up; where we found, first a Mat, and under that a faire Bow, and there another Mat, and under that a Boord about three quarters long, finely carved and painted, with three Tynes, or broches on the top, like a Crown; also betweene the Mats we found Bowles, Trayes, Dishes, and such like Trinkets; at length wee came to a faire new Mat, and under that two Bundles, the one bigger, the other lesse, we opened the greater and found in it a great quantitie of fine and perfect Red Powder, and in it the bones and skull of a man. The skull had fine yellow haire still on it, and some of the flesh unconsumed; there was bound up with a Knife, a Packneedle, and two or three old Iron things. It was bound up in a Saylers Canvas Casacke, and a payre of Cloth Breeches; the Red Powder was a kind of Embaulment, and yeelded a strong, but not offensive smell; It was as fine as any Flower. We opened the lesse bundle like wise, and found of the same Powder in it, and the bones and head of a little childe, about the legges, and other parts of it was Bound strings, and Bracelets of fine white Beads; there was also by it a little Bow, about three quarters long, and some other odde knackes: we brought sundry of the pretiest things away with us, and covered the Corps up againe . . .

We went ranging up and downe till the Sunne began to draw low, and then we hasted out of the Woods, that we might come to our Shallop. By that time we had done, and our Shallop come to us it was within night, and we fed upon such victualls as we had, and betooke us to our rest after we had set out our watch. About midnight we heard a great and hideous cry, and our Sentinell called, ‘Arme, Arme.’ So we bestirred our selves and shot off a couple of Muskets and noise ceased: we concluded, that it was a company of Wolves & Foxes, for one told us he had heard such a noise in Newfound-land. About five a clocke in the morning we began to be stirring. . . upon a sudden wee heard a great & strange cry which we knew to be the same voices, though they varied their notes; one of the company being abroad came running in, and cried, ‘They are men, Indians, Indians’; and with all, their Arrowes came flying amongst us, our men ran out with all speed to recover their Armes . . . The cry of our enemies was dreadfull, especially, when our men ran out to recover their Armes, their note was after this manner, ‘Woath woach ha ha hach woach’: our men were no sooner come to their Armes, but the enemy was readie to assault them.

There was a lustie man, and no whit lesse valiant, who was thought to be their Captain, stood behind a Tree within halfe a Musket shot of us, and there let his Arrowes flie at us; hee stood three shots off a Musket, at length one tooke as he said full ayme at him, after which he gave an extraordinarie cry and away they went all, wee followed them about a quarter of a mile, but wee left sixe to keepe our Shallop, for wee were carefull of our businesse . . . We tooke up eighteene of their Arrowes, which wee had sent to England by Master Jones, some whereof were headed with brasse, others with Harts horne, and others with Eagles dawes; many more no doubt were shot, for these wee found were almost covered with leaves: yet by the speciall providence of God, none of them either hit or hurt us . . . On Munday we found a very good Harbour for our shipping, we marched also into the Land, and found divers corne Fields and little running Brookes, a place verie good for scituation, so we returned to our Ship againe with good newes to the rest of our people, which did much comfort their hearts.


Published in: on January 20, 2010 at 12:26 PM  Leave a Comment  

Eyewitness: The View from a Lifeboat

Titanic Sinking

The Titanic: From a Lifeboat, I5 April 1912

Mrs D H Bishop

We did not begin to understand the situation till we were perhaps a mile or more away from the Titanic. Then we could see the rows of lights along the decks begin to slant gradually upward from the bow. Very slowly the lines of light began to point downward at a greater and greater angle. The sinking was so slow that you could not perceive the lights of the deck changing their position. The slant seemed to be greater about every quarter of an hour. That was the only difference.

In a couple of hours, though, she began to go down more rapidly. Then the fearful sight began. The people in the ship were just beginning to realize how great their danger was. When the forward part of the ship dropped suddenly at a faster rate, so that the upward slope became marked, there was a sudden rush of passengers on all the decks towards the stern. It was like a wave. We could see the great black mass of people in the steerage sweeping to the rear part of the boat and breaking through into the upper decks. At the distance of about a mile we could distinguish everything through the night, which was perfectly clear. We could make out the increasing excitement on board the boat as the people, rushing to and fro, caused the deck lights to disappear and reappear as they passed iri front of them.

This panic went on, it seemed, for an hour. Then suddenly the ship seemed to shoot up out of the water and stand there perpendicularly. It seemed to us that it stood upright in the water for four full minutes.

Then it began to slide gently downwards. Its speed increased as it went down head first, so that the stern shot down with a rush.

The lights continued to burn till it sank. We could see the people packed densely in the stern till it was gone. . .

As the ship sank we could hear the screaming a mile away. Gradually it became fainter and fainter and died away. Some of the lifeboats that had room for more might have gone to their rescue, but it would have meant that those who were in the water would have swarmed aboard and sunk her.


Published in: on January 16, 2010 at 2:19 PM  Leave a Comment  

Eyewitness: Finding Robinson Crusoe

Mâs a Tierra Island

Robinson Crusoe Found, 2 February 1709

Woodes Rogers

Selkirk, prototype of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, was a shoemaker’s son who ran away to sea and joined a band of buccaneers. He was put ashore in September 1704 on the uninhabited Mâs a Tierra Island in the Juan Fernandez cluster, 400 miles west of Valparaiso, Chile.

[Spelling and punctuation are faithful to the original.]

Our pinnace return’d from the shore, and brought abundance of craw-fish with a man cloth’d in goat-skins, who look’d wilder than the first owners of them. He had been on the island four years and four months, being left there by Captain Stradling in the Cinque-Ports. His name was Alexander Selkirk, a Scotchman, who had been Master of the Cinque-Ports, a ship that came here last with Captain Dampier, who told me that this was the best man in her; so I immediately agreed with him to be a mate on board our ship.

‘Twas he that made the fire last night when he saw our ships, which he judg’d to be English. During his stay here he saw several ships pass by but only two came in to anchor. As he went to view them he found them to be Spanish and retired from ’em, upon which they shot at him. Had they been French, he would have submitted, but chose to risque dying alone on the Iland, rather than fall into the hands of the Spaniards in these parts, because he apprehended they would murder him, or make a slave of him in the mines; for he fear’d they would spare no stranger that might be capable of discovering the South Sea. The Spaniards had landed before he knew what they were, and they came so near him that he had much ado to escape: for they not only shot at him, but pursue’d him into the woods, where he climb’d to the top of a tree at the foot of which they made water, and kill’d several goats just by, but went off again without discovering him. He told us he was born at Largo in the county of Fife, Scotland, and was bred a sailor from his youth. The reason of his being left here was a difference betwixt him and his captain. . . . He had with him his clothes and bedding, with a firelock, some powder, bullets, and tobacco, a hatchet, a knife, a kettle, a Bible, some practical pieces, and his mathematical instruments and books.

He diverted and provided for himself as well as he could; but for the tirst eight months had much ado to bear up against melancholy, and the terror of being left alone in such a desolate place. He built two huts with piemento trees, cover’d them with long grass, and lin’d them with the skins of goats which he killed with his gun as he wanted, so long as his powder lasted, which was but a pound, and that being near spent, he got fire by rubbing two sticks of piemento wood together upon his knee. In the lesser hut, at some distance from the other, he dressed his victuals, and in the larger he slept, and employed himself in reading, singing Psalms, and praying, so that he said he was a better Christian while in this solitude, than ever he was before, or than he was afraid he should ever be again. At tirst he never eat anything till hunger constrain’d him, partly for grief, and partly for want of bread and salt; nor did he go to bed till he could watch no longer. The piemento wood, which burnt very clear, serv’d him both for firing and candle, and refresh’d him with its fragrant smell. He might have had fish enough, but could not eat ’em for want of salt, because they occasion’d a looseness; except Crawfish, which are there as large as lobsters and very good. These he sometimes boiled, and at other times broiled as he did his goats flesh, of which he made very good broth, for they are not so rank as ours; he kept an account of 500 that he kill’d while there, and caught as many more, which he marked on the ear and let go. When his powder fail’d he took them by speed of foot; for his way of living, and continual exercise of walking and running, clear’d him of all gross humours, so that he ran with wonderful swiftness thro the woods, and up the rocks and hills, as we perceiv’d when we employ’d him to catch goats for us. We had a bull dog which we sent with several of our nimblest runners to help him in catching goats; but he distanc’d and tir’d both the dog and the men, catch’d the goats and brought ’em to us on his back. He told us that his agility in pursuing a goat had once like to have cost him his life; he pursue’d it with so much eagerness that he catch’d hold of it on the brink of a precipice of which he was not aware, the bushes having hid it from him so that he fell with the goat down the said precipice a great height, and was so stun’d and bruised with the fall that he narrowly escap’d with his life, and when he came to his senses found the goat dead under him. He lay there about 24 hours and was scarce able to crawl to his hut which was about a mile distant, or to stir abroad again in ten days. He came at last to relish his meat well enough without salt or bread, and in the season had plenty of good turnips which had been sow’d there by Captain Dampier’s men, and have now overspread some acres of ground. He had enough of good cabbage from the cabbage trees and season’d his meat with the fruit of the piemento trees, which is the same as the Jamaica pepper, and smells deliciously. He found there also a black pepper called Maragita, which was very good to expel wind, and against griping of the guts. He soon wore out all his shoes and clothes by running thro the woods; and at last, being forced to shift without them, his feet became so hard that he ran everywhere without annoyance, and it was some time before he could wear shoes after we found him. For not being used to any so long, his feet swelled when he came first to wear ’em again. After he had conquer’d his melancholy he diverted himself sometimes by cutting his name on the trees, and the time of his being left and continuance there. He was at first much pester’d with cats and rats, that had bred in great numbers from some of each species which had got ashore from ships that put in there to wood and water. The rats gnaw’d his feet and clothes while asleep, which obliged him to cherish the cats with his goats flesh; by which many of them became so tame that they would lie about him in hundreds, and soon deliver’d him from the rats.

He likewise tam’d some kids, and to divert himself would now and then sing and dance with them and his cats; so that by the care of Providence, and vigour of his youth, being now about 30 years old, he came at last to conquer all the inconveniences of his solitude and to be very easy. When his clothes wore out he made himself a coat and cap of goatskins, which he stitch’d together with little thongs of the same that he cut with his knife. He had no other needle but a nail, and when his knife was wore to the back, he made others as well as he could of some iron hoops that were left ashore, which he beat thin and ground upon stones. Having some linen cloth by him, he sow’d himself shirts with a nail and stitch’d ’em with the worsted of his old stockings, which he pull’d out on purpose. He had his last shirt on when we found him in the island.

At his first coming on board us, he had so much forgot his language for want of use, that we could scarce understand him, for he seemed to speak his words by halves. We offer’d him a dram, but he would not touch it, having drank nothing but water since his being there, and ’twas some time before he could relish our victuals. He could give us an account of no other product of the Island than what we have mentioned except small black plums, which are very good, but hard to come at, the trees which bear ’em growing on high mountains and rocks.


Here’s a bit more information on the subject that I trust some will find interesting:

In 1704, a 28-year-old Scottish sailor named Alexander Selkirk found himself in a fix. He had taken up privateering—piracy with an official seal, in other words—and had spent too much time cooped up on a galley with an irascible captain. Selkirk made a potentially catastrophic decision following his demotion after a squabble with the captain about the seaworthiness of their ship. He asked to be put ashore on the island pictured above. Though remote, the 36-square-mile island contained large stores of good water from which passing ships would replenish their supplies, and Selkirk apparently figured that it would not be long before another ship came along.

Selkirk had been in trouble before. He had gone to sea in the first place to escape punishment for “indecent carriage,” and local court records show that Selkirk and his kin were often hauled before the bench for fighting and public drunkenness. He had, as they say, issues with authority, and, once aboard ship, a tendency to scrap with his shipmates. He was moody and irascible, though he was also a devout reader of the Bible and a human jukebox of hymns.

Selkirk would remain on his island for about five years. Then, 300 years ago, in 1709, Selkirk was rescued by a British ship commanded by Woodes Rogers, author of the piece above, who was himself a privateer.

Ten years later, in 1719, the ever-enigmatic writer Daniel Defoe, who must have recognized something of himself in Selkirk, brought forth Robinson Crusoe.

When archaeologist Daisuke Takahashi explored what is now called Robinson Crusoe Island in 1994–95, he found that Selkirk had made a comfortable place for himself in a saddle below tall mountains about a mile from the sea, where he could keep an eye out for passing vessels and threats alike. As Takahashi writes, “the site at Aguas Buenas . . . is adjacent to a good supply of fresh water—a vigorous stream that tumbles down the valley to the sea in Cumberland Bay. The surrounding forest still provides many things to eat and in Selkirk’s day was probably full of goats.”

The Spanish had introduced the goats to the island a century earlier; the people did not remain long on that first attempt to settle, but the goats endured and live on the island still. In the 19th century, Chileans arrived, and about 600 people live on the island today, many employed in fishing and lobstering.

Rogers would become governor of the Bahamas in recognition of his success as a privateer for the English crown, and he suppressed the last of the pirate trade in the Caribbean.

Selkirk died aboard the HMS Weymouth off the coast of Ghana on December 13, 1721, having signed up for another stint at sea.

Defoe died on the run from creditors, having made and lost many fortunes besides the one he earned from Robinson Crusoe. And Selkirk’s island home is part of an extensive Chilean national park, named a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve in 1977 in recognition of its rare evergreen rainforest.


Published in: on January 15, 2010 at 1:07 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Eyewitness: The Bombing of Dresden, February 1945

Dresden before the bombing

The Bombing of Dresden by Margaret Freyer, survivor

Dresden, noted as one of the world’s most beautiful cities—’Florence on the Elbe’—was almost completely destroyed during 13-14 February 1945 by 800 British and US aircraft.

I stood by the entrance and waited until no flames came licking in, then I quickly slipped through and out into the street. I had my suitcase in one hand and was wearing a white fur coat which by now was anything but white. I also wore boots and long trousers. Those boots had been a lucky choice, it turned out.

Because of the flying sparks and the fire-storm I couldn’t see anything at first. A witches’ cauldron was waiting for me out there: no street, only rubble nearly a metre high, glass, girders, stones, craters. I tried to get rid of the sparks by constantly patting them off my coat. It was useless. I stopped doing it, stumbled, and someone behind me called out, ‘Take your coat off, it’s started to burn.’ In the pervading extreme heat I hadn’t even noticed. I took off the coat and dropped it.

Dresden after the bombing

Next to me a woman was screaming continually, ‘My den’s burning down, my den’s burning down,’ and dancing in the street. As I go on, I can still hear her screaming but I don’t see her again. I run, I stumble, anywhere. I don’t even know where I am any more. I’ve lost all sense of direction because all I can see is three steps ahead.

Suddenly I fall into a big hole – a bomb crater, about six metres wide and two metres deep, and I end up down there lying on top of three women. I shake them by their clothes and start to scream at them, telling them they must get out of here – but they don’t move any more. I believe I was severely shocked by this incident; I seemed to have lost all emotional feeling. Quickly, I climbed across the women, pulled my suitcase after me, and crawled on all fours out of the crater.

To my left I suddenly see a woman. I can see her to this day and shall never forget it. She carries a bundle in her arms. It is a baby. She runs, she falls, and the child flies in an arc into the fire. It’s only my eyes which take this in; I myself feel nothing. The woman remains lying on the ground, completely still. Why? What for? I don’t know, I just stumble on. The fire-storm is incredible, there are calls for help and screams from somewhere but all around is one single inferno. I hold another wet handkerchief in front of my mouth, my hands and my face are burning; it feels as if the skin is hanging down in strips.

On my right I see a big, burnt-out shop where lots of people are standing. I join them, but think, ‘No, I can’t stay here either, this place is completely surrounded by fire.’ I leave all these people behind, and stumble on. Where to? But every time towards those places where it is dark, in case there is no fire there. I have no conception of what the street actually looked like. But it is especially from those dark patches that the people come who wring their hands and cry the same thing over and over again: ‘You can’t carry on there, we’ve just come from there, everything is burning there!’ Wherever and to whomsoever I turn, always that same answer.

One of hundreds of such pyres

In front of me is something that might be a street, filled with a hellish rain of sparks which look like enormous rings of fire when they hit the ground. I have no choice. I must go through. I press another wet handkerchief to my mouth and almost get through, but I fall and am convinced that I cannot go on. It’s hot. Hot! My hands are burning like fire. I just drop my suitcase, I am past caring, and too weak. At least, there’s nothing to lug around with me any more.

I stumbled on towards where it was dark. Suddenly, I saw people again, right in front of me. They scream and gesticulate with their hands, and then – to my utter horror and amazement – I see how one after the other they simply seem to let themselves drop to the ground. I had a feeling that they were being shot, but my mind could not understand what was really happening. Today I know that these unfortunate people were the victims of lack of oxygen. They fainted and then burnt to cinders. I fall then, stumbling over a fallen woman and as I lie right next to her I see how her clothes are burning away. Insane fear grips me and from then on I repeat one simple sentence to myself continuously: ‘I don’t want to burn to death – no, no burning – I don’t want to burn!’ Once more I fall down and feel that I am not going to be able to get up again, but the fear of being burnt pulls me to my feet. Crawling, stumbling, my last handkerchief pressed to my mouth. . . I do not know how many people I fell over. I knew only one feeling: that I must not burn.

Then my handkerchiefs are all finished – it’s dreadfully hot – I can’t go on and I remain lying on the ground. Suddenly a soldier appears in front of me. I wave, and wave again. He comes over to me and I whisper into his ear (my voice has almost gone), ‘Please take me with you, I don’t want to bum.’ But that soldier was much too weak himself to lift me to my feet. He laid my two arms crosswise over my breast and stumbled on across me. I followed him with my eyes until he disappears somewhere in the darkness.

I try once more to get up on my feet, but I can only manage to crawl forward on all fours. I can still feel my body, I know I’m still alive. Suddenly, I’m standing up, but there’s something wrong, everything seems so far away and I can’t hear or see properly any more. As I found out later, like all the others, I was suffering from lack of oxygen. I must have stumbled forwards roughly ten paces when I all at once inhaled fresh air. There’s a breeze! I take another breath, inhale deeply, and my senses clear. In front of me is a broken tree. As I rush towards it, I know that I have been saved, but am unaware that the park is the Bürgerwiese.

I walk on a little and discover a car. I’m pleased and decide to spend the night in it. The car is full of suitcases and boxes but I find enough room on the rear seats to squeeze in. Another stroke of
good luck for me is that the car’s windows are all broken and I have to keep awake putting out the sparks which drifted in. I don’t know how long I sat there, when a hand suddenly descended on my shoulder and a man’s voice said, ‘Hello! you must get out of there.’ I got such a fright, because obviously someone was determined to force me away from my safe hiding place. I said, with great fear in my voice, ‘Please, allow me to stay here, I’ll give you all the money I’ve got on me.’ (If I think about this now it almost sounds like a joke.) But the answer I got was ‘No, I don’t want your money. The car is on fire.

‘Good God! I leapt out immediately and could see that indeed all four tyres were burning. I hadn’t noticed because of the tremendous heat.

Now I looked at the man and recognized him as the soldier who had put my arms across my chest. When I asked him, he confirmed it. Then he started to weep. He continued to stroke my back, mumbling words about bravery, Russian campaign. . . but this here, this is hell. I don’t grasp his meaning and offer him a cigarette.

We walk on a little way and discover two crouching figures. They were two men, one a railwayman who was crying because (in the smoke and debris) he could not find the way to his home. The other was a civilian who had escaped from a cellar together with sixty people, but had had to leave his wife and children behind, due to some dreadful circumstances. All three men were crying now but I just stood there, incapable of a single tear. It was as if I was watching a film. We spent half the night together, sitting on the ground too exhausted even to carry on a conversation. The continuous explosions didn’t bother us, but the hollow cries for help which came continuously from all directions were gruesome. Towards six o’clock in the morning, we parted.

I spent all the daylight hours which followed in the town searching for my fiance. I looked for him amongst the dead, because hardly any living beings were to be seen anywhere. What I saw is so horrific that I shall hardly be able to describe it. Dead, dead, dead everywhere. Some completely black like charcoal. Others completely untouched, lying as if they were asleep. Women in aprons, women with children sitting in the trams as if they had just nodded off. Many women, many young girls, many small children, soldiers who were only identifiable as such by the metal buckles on their belts, almost all of them naked. Some clinging to each other in groups as if they were clawing at each other.

From some of the debris poked arms, heads, legs, shattered skulls. The static water tanks were filled up to the top with dead human beings, with large pieces of masonry lying on top of that again. Most people looked as if they had been inflated, with large yellow and brown stains on their bodies. People whose clothes were still glowing. . . I think I was incapable of absorbing the meaning of this cruelty any more, for there were also so many little babies, terribly mutilated; and all the people lying so close together that it looked as if someone had put them down there, street by street, deliberately.

I then went through the Grosser Garten and there is one thing I did realize. I was aware that I had constantly to brush hands away from me, hands which belonged to people who wanted me to take them with me, hands which clung to me. But I was much too weak to lift anyone up. My mind took all this in vaguely, as if seen through a veil. In fact, I was in such a state that I did not realize that there was a third attack on Dresden. Late that afternoon I collapsed in the Ostra-Allee, where two men took me to a friend who lived on the outskirts of the city.

I asked for a mirror and did not recognize myself any more. My face was a mass of blisters and so were my hands. My eyes were narrow slits and puffed up, my whole body was covered in little black, pitted marks. I cannot understand to this day how I contracted these marks, because I was wearing a pair of long trousers and a jacket. Possibly the fire-sparks ate their way through my clothing.


Published in: on January 14, 2010 at 12:39 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Just the DCM

Lance-Corporal Baxter Wins the DCM, Western Front, September 1915

Robert Graves [I, Claudius; Goodbye To All That]

From the morning of September 24th to the night of October 3rd, I had in all eight hours of sleep. I kept myself awake and alive by drinking about a bottle of whisky a day. I had never drunk it before, and have seldom drunk it since; it certainly helped me then. We had no blankets, greatcoats, or waterproof sheets, nor any time or material to build new shelters. The rain poured down. Every night we went out to fetch in the dead of the other battalions. The Germans continued indulgent and we had few casualties. After the first day or two the corpses swelled and stank. I vomited more than once while superintending the carrying. Those we could not get in from the German wire continued to swell until the wall of the stomach collapsed, either naturally or when punctured by a bullet; a disgusting smell would float across. The colour of the dead faces changed from white to yellow-grey, to red, to purple, to green, to black, to slimy.

On the morning of the 27th a cry arose from No Man’s Land. A wounded soldier of the Middlesex had recovered consciousness after two days. He lay close to the German wire. Our men heard it and looked at each other. We had a tender-hearted lance-corporal named Baxter. He was the man to boil up a special dixie for the sentries of his section when they came off duty. As soon as he heard the wounded Middlesex man, he ran along the trench calling for a volunteer to help fetch him in. Of course, no one would go; it was death to put one’s head over the parapet. When he came running to ask me I excused myself as being the only officer in the company. I would come out with him at dusk, I said – not now. So he went alone. He jumped quickly over the parapet, then strolled across No Man’s Land, waving a handkerchief; the Germans fired to frighten him, but since he persisted they let him come up close. Baxter continued towards them and, when he got to the Middlesex man, stopped and pointed to show the Germans what he was at. Then he dressed the man’s wounds, gave him a drink of rum and some biscuit that he had with him, and promised to be back again at nightfall. He did come back, with a stretcher party, and the man eventually recovered. I recommended Baxter for the Victoria Cross, being the only officer who had witnessed the action, but the authorities thought it worth no more than a Distinguished Conduct Medal.


Published in: on January 13, 2010 at 11:31 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Hemingway on German Inflation, 1922


4,200 Billion Marks = $1.00 US


19 September 1922

Ernest Hemingway

During the immediate post-war years the value of the German mark deteriorated, largely as a result of reparation payments. In 1922 the exchange rate fell from 162 marks to the US dollar to 7000. By November 1923 it was down to 4200 billion marks to the dollar.

Kehl, Germany: The boy in a Strasburg motor agency where we went to make some inquiries about crossing the frontier, said, ‘Oh yes. It is easy to get over into Germany. All you have to do is go across the bridge.’

‘Don’t you need a visa?’ I said.

‘No. Just a permit stamp to go from the French.’ He took his passport out of his pocket and showed the back covered with rubber stamps. ‘See? I live there now because it is so much cheaper. It’s the way to make money.’

It is all right.

It is a three-mile streetcar ride from the centre of Strasburg out to the Rhine and when you get to the end of the line the car stops and everyone piles out to herd into a long picket-fenced pen that leads to the bridge. A French soldier with a fixed bayonet loafs back and forth across the road and watches the girls in the passport pen from under his steel-blue helmet. There is an ugly brick custom house at the left of the bridge and a wooden shed at the right where the French official sits behind a counter and stamps passports.

The Rhine is swift, yellow and muddy, runs between low, green banks, and swirls and sucks at the concrete abutments of the long, iron bridge. At the other end of the bridge you see the ugly little town of Kehl looking like some dreary section of Dundas [Toronto].

If you are a French citizen with a French passport the man back of the counter simply stamps your passport ‘sortie Pont de Kehl’ and you go across the bridge into occupied Germany. If you are a citizen of some other of the allied countries the official looks at you suspiciously, asks you where you are from, what you are going to Kehl for, how long you are going to stay, and then stamps your passport with the same sortie. If you should happen to be a citizen of Kehl who has been in Strasburg on business and is returning to dinner—and as Kehl’s interests are bound up in Strasburg’s as all suburbs are to the city they are attached to, you would be bound to have to go to Strasburg on business if you had any kind of business at all—you are held in line for fifteen to twenty minutes, your name is looked up in a card index to see if you have ever spoken against the French regime, your pedigree taken, questions put to you and finally you too are given the same old sortie. Everyone can cross the bridge but the French make it very nasty for the Germans.

Once across the muddy Rhine you are in Germany, and the German end of the bridge is guarded by a couple of the meekest and most discouraged-looking German soldiers you have ever seen. Two French soldiers with fixed bayonets walk up and down and the two German soldiers, unarmed, lean against a wall and look on. The French soldiers are in full equipment and steel helmets, but the Germans wear the old loose tunics and high peaked, peacetime caps.

I asked a Frenchman the functions and duties of the German guard.

‘They stand there,’ he answered.

There were no marks to be had in Strasburg, the mounting exchange had cleaned the bankers out days ago, so we changed some French money in the railway station at Kehl. For 10 francs I received 670 marks. Ten francs amounted to about 90 cents in Canadian money. That 90 cents lasted Mrs Hemingway and me for a day of heavy spending and at the end of the day we had 120 marks left!

Our first purchase was from a fruit stand beside the main street of Kehl where an old woman was selling apples, peaches and plums. We picked out five very good-looking apples and gave the old woman a 50 mark note. She gave us back 38 marks in change. A very nice-looking, white-bearded old gentleman saw us buy the apples and raised his hat.

‘Pardon me, sir,’ he said, rather timidly, in German, ‘how much were the apples?’

I counted the change and told him 12 marks.

He smiled and shook his head. ‘I can’t pay it. It is too much.’

He went up the street walking very much as white-bearded old gentlemen of the old regime walk in all countries, but he had looked very longingly at the apples. I wish I had offered him some. Twelve marks, on that day, amounted to a little under 2 cents. The old man, whose life’s savings were probably, as most of the nonprofiteer classes are, invested in German pre-war and war bonds, could not afford a 12 mark expenditure. He is a type of the people whose incomes do not increase with the falling purchasing value of the mark and the krone.

With marks at 800 to the dollar, or 8 to a cent, we priced articles in the windows of the different Kehl shops. Peas were 18 marks a pound, beans 16 marks; a pound of Kaiser coffee, there are still many ‘Kaiser’ brands in the German republic, could be had for 34 marks. Gersten coffee, which is not coffee at all but roasted grain, sold for 14 marks a pound. Flypaper was 150 marks a package. A scythe blade cost 150 marks, too, or 18 3/4 cents! Beer was 10 marks a stein or 1 3/4 cents.

Kehl’s best hotel, which is a very well turned-out place, served a five-course table d’hôte meal for 120 marks, which amounts to 15 cents in our money. The same meal could not be duplicated in Strasburg, three miles away, for a dollar.

Because of the customs regulations, which are very strict on persons returning from Germany, the French cannot come over to Kehl and buy up all the cheap goods they would like to. But they can come over and eat. It is a sight every afternoon to see the mob that storms the German pastry shops and tea places. The Germans make very good pastries, wonderful pastries, in fact, that, at the present tumbling mark rate, the French of Strasburg can buy for a less amount apiece than the smallest French coin, the one sou piece. This miracle of exchange makes a swinish spectacle where the youth of the town of Strasburg crowd into the German pastry shop to eat themselves sick and gorge on fluffy, cream-filled slices of German cake at 5 marks the slice. The contents of a pastry shop are swept clear in half an hour.

In a pastry shop we visited, a man in an apron, wearing blue glasses, appeared to be the proprietor. He was assisted by a typical ‘boche’-looking German with close-cropped head. The place was jammed with French people of all ages and descriptions, all gorging cakes, while a young girl in a pink dress, silk stockings, with a pretty, weak face and pearl ear-rings in her ears took as many of their orders for fruit and vanilla ices as she could fill.

She didn’t seem to care very much whether she filled the orders or not. There were soldiers in town and she kept going over to look out of the window.

The proprietor and his helper were surly and didn’t seem particularly happy when all the cakes were sold. The mark was falling faster than they could bake.

Meanwhile out in the street a funny little train jolted by, carrying the workmen with their dinner-pails home to the outskirts of the town, profiteers’ motor cars tore by raising a cloud of dust that settled over the trees and the fronts of all the buildings, and inside the pastry shop young French hoodlums swallowed their last cakes and French mothers wiped the sticky mouths of their children. It gave you a new aspect on exchange.

As the last of the afternoon tea-ers and pastry-eaters went Strasburg-wards across the bridge the first of the exchange pirates coming over to raid Kehl for cheap dinners began to arrive. The two streams passed each other on the bridge and the two disconsolate-Iooking German soldiers looked on. As the boy in the motor agency said, ‘It’s the way to make money.’


Published in: on January 12, 2010 at 11:03 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Eyewitness: The Siege of Jerusalem, AD 70

Siege of Jerusalem

FROM Eyewitness To History by John Carey


Jerusalem fell, after siege, to a Roman army under Titus. Josephus was a Jew who had gone over to the Romans.

Throughout the city people were dying of hunger in large numbers, and enduring indescribable sufferings. In every house the merest hint of food sparked violence, and close relatives fell to blows, snatching from one another the pitiful supports of life. No respect was paid even to the dying; the ruffians [anti-Roman zealots] searched them, in case they were concealing food somewhere in their clothes, or just pretending to be near to death. Gaping with hunger, like mad dogs, lawless gangs went staggering and reeling through the streets, battering upon the doors like drunkards, and so bewildered that they broke into the same house two or three times in an hour. Need drove the starving to gnaw at anything. Refuse which even animals would reject was collected and turned into food. In the end they were eating belts and shoes, and the leather stripped off their shields. Tufts of withered grass were devoured, and sold in little bundles for four drachmas.

But why dwell on the commonplace rubbish which the starving were driven to feed upon, given that what I have to recount is an act unparalleled in the history of either the Greeks or the barbarians, and as horrible to relate as it is incredible to hear? For my part I should gladly have omitted this tragedy, lest I should be suspected of a monstrous fabrication. But there were many witnesses of it among my contemporaries; and besides, I should do poor service to my country if I were to suppress the agonies she went through.

Among the residents of the region beyond Jordan was a woman called Mary, daughter of Eleazar, of the village of Bethezuba (the name means ‘House of Hyssop’). She was well off, and of good family, and had fled to Jerusalem with her relatives, where she became involved in the siege. Most of the property she had packed up and brought with her from Peraea had been plundered by the tyrants [Simon and John, leaders of the Jewish war-effort], and the rest of her treasure, together with such food as she had been able to procure, was being carried off by their henchmen in their daily raids. In her bitter resentment the poor woman cursed and abused these extortioners, and this incensed them against her. However, no one put her to death either from exasperation or pity. She grew weary of trying to find food for her kinsfolk. In any case, it was by now impossible to get any, wherever you tried. Famine gnawed at her vitals, and the fire of rage was even fiercer than famine. So, driven by fury and want, she committed a crime against nature. Seizing her child, an infant at the breast, she cried, ‘My poor baby, why should I keep you alive in this world of war and famine? Even if we live till the Romans come, they will make slaves of us; and anyway, hunger will get us before slavery does; and the rebels are crueller than both. Come, be food for me, and an avenging fury to the rebels, and a tale of horror to the world to complete the monstrous agony of the Jews.’ With these words she killed her son, roasted the body, swallowed half of it, and stored the rest in a safe place. But the rebels were on to her at once, smelling roast meat, and threatening to kill her instantly if she did not produce it. She assured them she had saved them a share, and revealed the remains of her child. Seized with horror and stupefaction, they stood paralysed at the sight. But she said, ‘This is my own child, and my own handiwork. Eat, for I have eaten already. Do not show yourselves weaker than a woman, or more pitiful than a mother. But if you have pious scruples, and shrink from human sacrifice, then what I have eaten can count as your share, and I will eat what is left as well.’ At that they slunk away, trembling, not daring to eat, though they were reluctant to yield even this food to the mother. The whole city soon rang with the abomination. When people heard of it, they shuddered, as though they had done it themselves.


Published in: on January 11, 2010 at 1:55 PM  Leave a Comment  

Eyewitness: Viking Funeral, AD 922

FROM An Eyewitness To History by John Carey

A Viking Funeral, AD 922 Performed by Scandinavian Merchants on the Volga; Observed by an Envoy from the Caliph of Baghdad

Ibn Fadlan

I was told that the least of what they do for their chiefs when they die, is to consume them with fire. When I was finally informed of the death of one of their magnates, I sought to witness what befell. First they laid him in his grave—over which a roof was erected for the space of ten days, until they had completed the cutting and sewing of his clothes. In the case of a poor man, however, they merely build for him a boat, in which they place him, and consume it with fire. At the death of a rich man, they bring together his goods, and divide them into three parts. The first of these is for his family; the second is expended for the garments they make; and with the third they purchase strong drink, against the day when the girl resigns herself to death, and is burned with her master. To the use of wine they abandon themselves in mad fashion, drinking it day and night; and not seldom does one die with the cup in his hand.

When one of their chiefs dies, his family asks his girls and pages, ‘Which one of you will die with him?’ Then one of them answers, ‘I.’ From the time that he utters this word, he is no longer free: should he wish to draw back, he is not permitted. For the most part, however, it is the girls that offer themselves. So, when the man of whom I spoke had died, they asked his girls, ‘Who will die with him?’ One of them answered, ‘I.’ She was then committed to two girls, who were to keep watch over her, accompany her wherever she went, and even, on occasion, wash her feet. The people now began to occupy themselves with the dead man—to cut out the clothes for him, and to prepare whatever else was needful. During the whole of this period, the girl gave herself over to drinking and singing, and was cheerful and gay.

When the day was now come that the dead man and the girl were to be committed to the flames, I went to the river in which his ship lay, but found that it had already been drawn ashore. Four corner blocks of birch and other woods had been placed in position for it, while around were stationed large wooden figures in the semblance of human beings. Thereupon the ship was brought up, and placed on the timbers above-mentioned. In the meantime the people began to walk to and fro, uttering words which I did not understand. The dead man, meanwhile, lay at a distance in his grave, from which they had not yet removed him. Next they brought a couch, placed it in the ship, and covered it with Greek cloth of gold, wadded and quilted, with pillows of the same material. There came an old crone, whom they call the angel of death, and spread the articles mentioned on the couch. It was she who attended to the sewing of the garments, and to all the equipment; it was she, also, who was to slay the girl. I saw her; she was dark, thick-set, with a lowering countenance.

When they came to the grave, they removed the earth from the wooden roof, set the latter aside, and drew out the dead man in the loose wrapper in which he had died. Then I saw that he had turned quite black, by reason of the coldness of that country. Near him in the grave they had placed strong drink, fruits, and a lute; and these they now took out. Except for his colour, the dead man had not changed. They now clothed him in drawers, leggings, boots, and a kurtak and chaftan of cloth of gold, with golden buttons, placing on his head a cap made of cloth of gold, trimmed with sable. Then they carried him into a tent placed in the ship, seated him on the wadded and quilted covering, supported him with the pillows, and, bringing strong drink, fruits, and basil, placed them all beside him. Then they brought a dog, which they cut in two, and threw into the ship; laid all his weapons beside him; and led up two horses, which they chased until they were dripping with sweat, whereupon they cut them in pieces with their swords, and threw the flesh into the ship. Two oxen were then brought forward, cut in pieces, and flung into the ship. Finally they brought a cock and a hen, killed them, and threw them in also.

The girl who had devoted herself to death meanwhile walked to and fro, entering one after another of the tents which they had there. The occupant of each tent lay with her, saying, ‘Tell your master, “I [the man] did this only for love of you.”

When it was now Friday afternoon, they led the girl to an object which they had constructed, and which looked like the framework of a door. She then placed her feet on the extended hands of the men, was raised up above the framework, and uttered something in her language, whereupon they let her down. Then again they raised her, and she did as at first. Once more they let her down, and then lifted her a third time, while she did as at the previous times. They then handed her a hen, whose head she cut off and threw away; but the hen itself they cast into the ship. I inquired of the interpreter what it was that she had done. He replied: ‘The first time she said, “Lo, I see here my father and mother”; the second time, “Lo, now I see all my deceased relatives sitting”; the third time, “Lo, there is my master, who is sitting in Paradise. Paradise is so beautiful, so green. With him are his men and boys. He calls me, so bring me to him.” Then they led her away to the ship.

Here she took off her two bracelets, and gave them to the old woman who was called the angel of death, and who was to murder her. She also drew off her two anklets, and passed them to the two serving-maids, who were the daughters of the so-called angel of death. Then they lifted her into the ship, but did not yet admit her to the tent. Now men came up with shields and staves, and handed her a cup of strong drink. This she took, sang over it, and emptied it. ‘With this,’ so the interpreter told me, ‘she is taking leave of those who are dear to her.’ Then another cup was handed her, which she also took, and began a lengthy song. The crone admonished her to drain the cup without lingering, and to enter the tent where her master lay. By this time, as it seemed to me, the girl had become dazed; she made as though she would enter the tent, and had brought her head forward between the tent and the ship, when the hag seized her by the head, and dragged her in. At this moment the men began to beat upon their shields with the staves, in order to drown the noise of her outcries, which might have terrified the other girls, and deterred them from seeking death with their masters in the future. Then six men followed into the tent, and each and every one had carnal companionship with her. Then they laid her down by her master’s side, while two of the men seized her by the feet, and two by the hands. The old woman known as the angel of death now knotted a rope around her neck, and handed the ends to two of the men to pull. Then with a broad-bladed dagger she smote her between the ribs, and drew the blade forth, while the two men strangled her with the rope till she died.

The next of kin to the dead man now drew near, and, taking a piece of wood, lighted it, and walked backwards towards the ship, holding the stick in one hand, with the other placed upon his buttocks (he being naked), until the wood which had been piled under the ship was ignited. Then the others came up with staves and firewood, each one carrying a stick already lighted at the upper end, and threw it all on the pyre. The pile was soon aflame, then the ship, finally the tent, the man, and the girl, and everything else in the ship. A terrible storm began to blow up, and this intensified the flames, and gave wings to the blaze.


Published in: on January 9, 2010 at 4:05 PM  Leave a Comment  
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When the going got tough . . .

After the Russian debacle Napoleon, fearing his position at home was precarious, left the French army in the lurch and hurried back to France almost unaccompanied. Arriving at the banks of the river Neman in his miserable sleigh, he inquired of the ferryman whether many deserters had come through that day. “No,” replied the Russian, “you are the first.”


Published in: on January 9, 2010 at 11:44 AM  Leave a Comment  

A Story in Sand

This young woman deserves our attention. Her “performance” is guaranteed to move the coldest heart.

This video shows the winner of 2009’s “Ukraine’s Got Talent,” Kseniya Simonova, 24, drawing a series of pictures on an illuminated sand table showing how ordinary people were affected by the German invasion during World War II. Her talent, which admittedly is a strange one, is mesmerizing.

The images, projected onto a large screen, moved many in the audience to tears and she won the top prize of about $75,000.

She begins by creating a scene showing a couple sitting holding hands on a bench under a starry sky, but then warplanes appear and the happy scene is obliterated.

It is replaced by a woman’s face crying, but then a baby arrives and the woman smiles again. Once again war returns and Miss Simonova throws the sand into chaos from which a young woman’s face appears.

She quickly becomes an old widow, her face wrinkled and sad, before the image turns into a monument to an Unknown Soldier.

This outdoor scene becomes framed by a window as if the viewer is looking out on the monument from within a house.

In the final scene, a mother and child welcomes a young father home from the war.

The Great Patriotic War, as it is called in Ukraine , resulted in one in four of the population being killed with eight to 11 million deaths out of a population of 42 million.


Published in: on January 8, 2010 at 5:58 PM  Leave a Comment  

The Castrato’s Medal

Paris Opera House

Napoleon bestowed upon Girolamo Crescendi, the Paris Opera Company’s great bel canto star, the Cross of the Legion of Honor. While this pleased the opera lovers, the same was not true of the army. One staunch old warrior complained to the beautiful singer Giuseppina Grassini (with whom Napoleon was wont to console himself for Josephine’s infidelities): “It’s unheard of! To think that this decoration, intended for the bravest of the brave who have suffered wounds on the battlefield, should be given to a castrato!” Replied Grassini: “And how about the wound Crescendi endured for art’s sake? Doesn’t that count?”


Published in: on January 8, 2010 at 4:22 PM  Leave a Comment  

Eyewitness: Rome Burns, AD 64

FROM Eyewitness To History by John Carey


Nero now tried to make it appear that Rome was his favourite abode. He gave feasts in public places as if the whole city were his own home. But the most prodigal and notorious banquet was given by Tigellinus. To avoid repetitious accounts of extravagance, I shall describe it, as a model of its kind. The entertainment took place on a raft constructed on Marcus Agrippa’s lake. It was towed about by other vessels, with gold and ivory fittings. Their rowers were degenerates, assorted according to age and vice. Tigellinus had also collected birds and animals from remote countries, and even the products of the ocean. On the quays were brothels stocked with high-ranking ladies. Opposite them could be seen naked prostitutes, indecently posturing and gesturing.

At nightfall the woods and houses nearby echoed with singing and blazed with lights. Nero was already corrupted by every lust, natural and unnatural. But he now refuted any surmises that no further degradation was possible for him. For a few days later he went through a formal wedding ceremony with one of the perverted gang called Pythagoras. The emperor, in the presence of witnesses, put on the bridal veil. Dowry, marriage bed, wedding torches, all were there. Indeed everything was public which even in a natural union is veiled by night.

Disaster followed. Whether it was accidental or caused by a criminal act on the part of the emperor is uncertain—both versions have supporters. Now started the most terrible and destructive fire which Rome had ever experienced. It began in the Circus, where it adjoins the Palatine and Caelian hills. Breaking out in shops selling inflammable goods, and fanned by the wind, the conflagration instantly grew and swept the whole length of the Circus. There were no walled mansions or temples, or any other obstructions, which could arrest it. First, the fire swept violently over the level spaces. Then it climbed the hills – but returned to ravage the lower ground again. It outstripped every counter-measure. The ancient city’s narrow winding streets and irregular blocks encouraged its progress.

Terrified, shrieking women, helpless old and young, people intent on their own safety, people unselfishly supporting invalids or waiting for them, fugitives and lingerers alike—all heightened the confusion. When people looked back, menacing flames sprang up before them or outflanked them. When they escaped to a neighbouring quarter, the fire followed – even districts believed remote proved to be involved. Finally, with no idea where or what to flee, they crowded on to the country roads, or lay in the fields. Some who had lost everything—even their food for the day—could have escaped, but preferred to die. So did others, who had failed to rescue their loved ones. Nobody dared fight the flames. Attempts to do so were prevented by menacing gangs. Torches, too, were openly thrown in, by men crying that they acted under orders. Perhaps they had received orders. Or they may just have wanted to plunder unhampered.

Nero was at Antium. He returned to the city only when the fire was approaching the mansion he had built to link the Gardens of Maecenas to the Palatine. The flames could not be prevented from overwhelming the whole of the Palatine, including his palace. Nevertheless, for the relief of the homeless, fugitive masses he threw open the Field of Mars, including Agrippa’s public buildings, and even his own Gardens. Nero also constructed emergency accommodation for the destitute multitude. Food was brought from Ostia and neighbouring towns, and the price of corn was cut to less than 1 sesterce a pound. Yet these measures, for all their popular character, earned no gratitude. For a rumour had spread that, while the city was burning, Nero had gone on his private stage and, comparing modern calamities with ancient, had sung of the destruction of Troy.

By the sixth day enormous demolitions had confronted the raging flames with bare ground and open sky, and the fire was finally stamped out at the foot of the Esquiline Hill. But before panic had subsided, or hope revived, flames broke out again in the more open regions of the city. Here there were fewer casualties; but the destruction of temples and pleasure arcades was even worse. This new conflagration caused additional ill-feeling because it started on Tigellinus’ estate in the Aemilian district. For people believed that Nero was ambitious to found a new city to be called after himself.

Of Rome’s fourteen districts only four remained intact. Three were levelled to the ground. The other seven were reduced to a few scorched and mangled ruins.


Published in: on January 8, 2010 at 10:00 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Hallowed Ground, Hollow Heart


On February 17, 1673, the desperately ill French dramatist Molière insisted on going on stage so as not to let the rest of the company down. When the play was over he had to be carried home, where he died shortly afterward. Religious prejudices against the theater were so powerful that it was customary for a dying actor solemnly to abjure his profession so as to obtain burial in consecrated ground. Molière’s sudden death prevented this formality and appeals to the archbishop of Paris were fruitless. Molière’s widow sought the aid of the king. Louis sent to the ecclesiastical authorities to ask how deep consecrated ground may run. Back came the answer: “Fourteen feet.” “Very good,” said Louis. “Let Molière’s grave be dug in the churchyard sixteen feet deep and then it cannot be said that he is buried in consecrated ground, nor need it scandalize the clergy.” (This tradition may be intended to account for the fact that Molière’s grave has never been located. There is the suspicion that the archbishop of Paris, who would permit the funeral to take place only at night and attended by only two priests—and no one else—later had the grave moved out of the churchyard.)


Published in: on January 7, 2010 at 1:25 PM  Leave a Comment  

Dinner with Attila the Hun, c. AD 450

FROM Eyewitness To History edited by John Carey


Attila, the ‘Scourge of God’, became King of the Huns in AD 445. Priscus went on an embassy to him on behalf of the Eastern Empire.

Attila invited both parties of us to dine with him about three o’clock that afternoon. We waited for the time of the invitation, and then all of us, the envoys from the Western Romans as well, presented ourselves in the doorway facing Attila. In accordance with the national custom the cupbearers gave us a cup for us to make our libations before we took our seats. When that had been done and we had sipped the wine, we went to the chairs where we would sit to have dinner. All the seats were ranged down either side of the room, up against the walls. In the middle Attila was sitting on a couch with a second couch behind him. Behind that a few steps led up to his bed, which for decorative purposes was covered in ornate drapes made of fine linen, like those which Greeks and Romans prepare for marriage ceremonies. I think that the more distinguished guests were on Attila’s right, and the second rank on his left, where we were with Berichos, a man of some renown among the Scythians, who was sitting in front of us. Onegesios was to the right of Attila’s couch, and opposite him were two of the king’s sons on chairs. The eldest son was sitting on Attila’s own couch, right on the very edge, with his eyes fixed on the ground in fear of his father.

When all were sitting properly in order, a cupbearer came to offer Attila an ivy-wood bowl of wine, which he took and drank a toast to the man first in order of precedence. The man thus honoured rose to his feet and it was not right for him to sit down again until Attila had drunk some or all of the wine and had handed the goblet back to the attendant. The guests, taking their own cups, then honoured him in the same way, sipping the wine after making the toast. One attendant went round to each man in strict order after Attila’s personal cupbearer had gone out. When the second guest and then all the others in their turn had been honoured, Attila greeted us in like fashion in our order of seating.

After everyone had been toasted, the cupbearers left, and a table was put in front of Attila and other tables for groups of three or four men each. This enabled each guest to help himself to the things put on the table without leaving his proper seat. Attila’s servant entered first with plates full of meat, and those waiting on all the others put bread and cooked food on the tables. A lavish meal, served on silver trenchers, was prepared for us and the other barbarians, but Attila just had some meat on a wooden platter, for this was one aspect of his self-discipline. For instance, gold or silver cups were presented to the other diners, but his own goblet was made of wood. His clothes, too, were simple, and no trouble was taken except to have them clean. The sword that hung by his side, the clasps of his barbarian shoes and the bridle of his horse were all free from gold, precious stones or other valuable decorations affected by the other Scythians. When the food in the first plates was finished we all got up, and no one, once on his feet, returned to his seat until he had, in the same order as before, drunk the full cup of wine that he was handed, with a toast for Attila’s health. After this honour had been paid him, we sat down again and second plates were put on each table with other food on them. This also finished, everyone rose once more, drank another toast and resumed his seat.

As twilight came on torches were lit, and two barbarians entered before Attila to sing some songs they had composed, telling of his victories and his valour in war. The guests paid close attention to them, and some were delighted with the songs, others excited at being reminded of the wars, but others broke down and wept if their bodies were weakened by age and their warrior spirits forced to remain inactive. After the songs a Scythian entered, a crazy fellow who told a lot of strange and completely false stories, not a word of truth in them, which made everyone laugh. Following him came the Moor, Zerkon, totally disorganized in appearance, clothes, voice and words. By mixing up the languages of the ltalians with those of the Huns and Goths, he fascinated everyone and made them break out into uncontrollable laughter, all that is except Attila. He remained impassive, without any change of expression, and neither by word or gesture did he seem to share in the merriment except that when his youngest son, Ernas, came in and stood by him, he drew the boy towards him and looked at him with gentle eyes. I was surprised that he paid no attention to his other sons, and only had time for this one. But the barbarian at my side, who understood Italian and what I had said about the boy, warned me not to speak up, and said that the seers had told Attila that his family would be banished but would be restored by this son. After spending most of the night at the party, we left, having no wish to pursue the drinking any further.


Published in: on January 7, 2010 at 10:31 AM  Leave a Comment  

Useful Falsehood?

Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful.



Published in: on January 6, 2010 at 8:04 AM  Leave a Comment  

Destruction as Entertainment

In the path of Napoleon’s advancing army, the Russians abandoned the city of Smolensk and set fire to it. Napoleon, watching the blaze with his aides, compared it to an eruption of Vesuvius, and asked his master of horse whether it was not a fine sight. “Horrible, sire,” said the man. Napoleon snorted contemptuously. “Remember, gentlemen,” he said, “as one of the Roman emperors remarked, ‘The corpse of an enemy always smells sweet!”’


Published in: on January 6, 2010 at 7:56 AM  Leave a Comment  

Napoleon, The Straitlaced Monster

During Napoleon’s time as first consul it was the fashion for women to wear transparent gauze dresses. Somewhat incensed at this practice, one evening Napoleon ordered the servants to build up the drawing-room fire until the room reached ovenlike temperature. As he sourly explained: “It is extremely cold and these ladies are almost naked.” Josephine understood the situation and inaugurated new fashions in dress of a somewhat more seemly nature.


Published in: on January 4, 2010 at 12:59 PM  Comments (2)  

The Perfect Riposte

Making his way along a crowded railroad platform in Rome, Goering happened to collide with an Italian aristocrat. The nobleman demanded an apology. “I am Hermann Goering,” snapped the marshal. “As an excuse that is not enough,” replied the Italian coldly, “but as an explanation it is ample.”


Published in: on January 3, 2010 at 10:42 PM  Leave a Comment  

And So It Ended


General Robert E. Lee

After four years of arduous service marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources.

I need not tell the brave survivors of so many hard fought battles, who have remained steadfast to the last, that I have consented to this result from no distrust of them; but feeling that valor and devotion could accomplish nothing that could compensate for the loss that must have attended the continuance of the contest, I determined to avoid the useless sacrifice of those whose past services have endeared them to their countrymen.

By the terms of the agreement, officers and men can return to their homes and remain until exchanged. You will take with you the satisfaction that proceeds from the consciousness of duty faithfully performed; and I earnestly pray that a Merciful God will extend to you His blessing and protection.

With an unceasing admiration of your constancy and devotion to your Country, and a grateful remembrance of your kind and generous consideration for myself, I bid you all an affectionate farewell.


Ashoken Farewell

Published in: on December 31, 2009 at 3:30 PM  Leave a Comment  

The Saltcellar

FROM The Autobiography Benvenuto Cellini

While this work was going forward, I set aside certain hours of the day for the saltcellar, and certain others for the Jupiter. There were more men engaged upon the former than I had at my disposal for the latter, so the saltcellar was by this time completely finished. The King had now returned to Paris; and when I paid him my respects, I took the piece with me. As I have already related, it was oval in form, standing about two-thirds of a cubit, wrought of solid gold, and worked entirely with the chisel. While speaking of the model, I said before how I had represented Sea and Earth, seated, with their legs interlaced, as we observe in the case of firths and promontories; this attitude was therefore metaphorically appropriate. The Sea carried a trident in his right hand, and in his left I put a ship of delicate workmanship to hold the salt. Below him were his four sea-horses, fashioned like our horses from the head to the front hoofs; all the rest of their body, from the middle backwards, resembled a fish, and the tails of these creatures were agreeably interwoven. Above this group the Sea sat throned in an attitude of pride and dignity; around him were many kinds of fishes and other creatures of the ocean. The water was represented with its waves, and enamelled in the appropriate colour. I had portrayed Earth under the form of a very handsome woman, holding her horn of plenty, entirely nude like the male figure; in her left hand I placed a little temple of Ionic architecture, most delicately wrought, which was meant to contain the pepper. Beneath her were the handsomest living creatures which the earth produced; and the rocks were partly enamelled, partly left in gold. The whole piece reposed upon a base of ebony, properly proportioned, but with a projecting cornice, upon which I introduced four golden figures in rather more than half-relief. They represented Night, Day, Twilight, and Dawn. I put, moreover, into the same frieze four other figures, similar in size, and intended for the four chief winds; these were executed, and in part enamelled, exquisitely.

When I exhibited this piece to his Majesty, he uttered a loud outcry of astonishment, and could not satiate his eyes with gazing at it. Then he bade me take it back to my house, saying he would tell me at the proper time what I should do with it. So I carried it home, and sent at once to invite several of my best friends; we dined gaily together, placing the saltcellar in the middle of the table, and thus we were the first to use it. After this, I went on working at my Jupiter in silver, and also at the great base, which was richly decorated with a variety of ornaments and figures.

Published in: on December 27, 2009 at 11:02 AM  Leave a Comment  

Pegasus Bridge, 6 June 1944

FROM Pegasus Bridge by Stephen Ambrose

On the bridge. Private Romer had just passed his fellow sentry at the mid-point and was approaching the eastern end as Brotheridge and his platoon came rushing up the embankment. Just then a shot aimed at Howard broke the silence, and Romer saw twenty-two British airborne troops, apparently coming from out of nowhere. With their camouflaged battle smocks, their faces grotesquely blacked, they gave the most eerie sensation of blending savagery and civilisation. The civilisation was represented by the Stens and Brens and Enfields they carried at their hips, ready to fire.

They were coming at Romer at a steady trot, as determined a group as Romer thought he would ever encounter. Romer could see in a flash, by the way the men carried their weapons, by the look in their eyes and by the way their eyes darted around, all white behind the black masks, that they were highly-trained killers who were determined to have their way that night. Who was he to argue with them, a sixteen-year-old schoolboy who scarcely knew how to fire his rifle.

Romer turned and ran back towards the west end, shouting ‘Paratroopers!’ at the other sentry as he passed him. That sentry pulled out his Verey pistol and fired a flare; Brotheridge gave him a full clip from his Sten and cut him down. The first German had just died in defence of Hitler’s Fortress Europe.

Simultaneously, Bailey and his comrades tossed grenades into the apertures of the machine-gun pillbox. There was an explosion, then great clouds of dust. When it settled. Bailey found no one living inside. He ran across the bridge, to take up his position near the cafe.

The sappers, by this time, were beginning to inspect the bridge for explosives, and were already cutting fuses and wires.

Sergeant Hickman was driving into Le Port. He had almost arrived at the T junction, where he would make a left turn to go over the bridge, when he heard Brotheridge’s Sten. Hickman told his driver to stop. He knew immediately that the gun was a Sten by its distinctive, easily recognisable rate of fire. Grabbing his Schmeisser, Hickman motioned to two of his privates to get on one side of the road leading to the bridge, while he and the other two privates moved down the left side.

Romer’s shout, the Verey pistol, and Brotheridge’s Sten gun combined to pull the German troops manning the machine-gun pits and slit trenches into full alert. The privates, all conscripted foreigners, began edging away, but the NCOs, all Germans, opened fire with their MG 34 and their Schmeissers.

Brotheridge, almost across the bridge, pulled a grenade out of his pouch and threw it at the machine-gun to his right. As he did so, he was knocked over by the impact of a bullet in his neck. Running just behind him came Billy Gray, his Bren gun at his hip. Billy also fired at the sentry with the Verey pistol, then began firing towards the machine-guns. Brotheridge’s grenade went off, wiping out one of the gun pits; Gray’s Bren, and shots from others crossing the bridge, knocked out the other.

Gray was standing on the end of the bridge, on the northwest corner. Brotheridge was lying in the middle of the road, at the western end of the bridge. Other men in the section were running over the bridge. Wally Parr was with them, Charlie Gardner beside him. In the middle of the bridge, Parr suddenly stopped. He was trying to yell ‘Able, Able’, as the men around him had started doing as soon as the shooting broke out. But to his horror, ‘my tongue was stuck to the roof of my mouth and I couldn’t spit sixpence. My mouth had dried up and my tongue was stuck.’

Attempts to yell only made the sticking worse, and his frustration was a terrible thing to behold. His face was a fiery red, even through the burnt cork, from the choking and from his anger. With a great effort of will, Parr finally broke his tongue loose and shouted, ‘COME OUT AND FIGHT YOU SQUARE-HEADED BASTARDS’. Pleased with himself, Parr started yelling ‘Ham and Jam, Ham and Jam’, as he ran the rest of the way, then turned left to go after the bunkers that were his task.

The moon emerged from behind the clouds. As it did, Sergeant Hickman crept to within fifty metres of the bridge. He saw no. 1 platoon coming over:

… and they even frightened me, the way they charged, the way
they fired, the way they ran across the bridge. I’m not a
coward, but at that moment I got frightened. If you see a para
platoon in full cry, they frighten the daylights out of you.

And at night-time when you see a para running with a Bren gun,
and the next with a Sten, and no cover round my back, just me
and four youngsters who had never been in action, so I could not
rely on them – in those circumstances, you get scared. It’s my
own poor little life there. So I pull my trigger, I fire.

He fired at Billy Gray, reloading his Bren by the corner of the bridge. Billy finished reloading and fired a clip back. Both men were shooting from the hip, and both were pointing their guns just a bit too high, so each sent a full clip over the other man’s head. While Hickman put another clip into his Schmeisser and started spraying the bridge. Billy popped into the barn on his right. As soon as he got inside. Billy rested his Bren gun on the wall and did his Jimmy Riddle.

Hickman, meanwhile, had run out of ammunition, and besides he was furious with the bridge garrison, which was hardly putting up a fight at all. He was scornful of such troops -‘they had a cushy life, all the war years in France. Never been in danger, only did guard duty.’ The British, Hickman concluded, had caught them napping, and he decided to get out of there. Motioning to his four privates, he got back to the staff car and sped towards Caen, going the long way around to get to his headquarters, which were only a few kilometres straight east. Thus Hickman was the first German to pay the price for the capture of the bridge: what should have been a ten- or fifteen-minute ride took him six hours (because he had to work his way around bombed-out Caen), and by the time he arrived at his headquarters to report the landing, his major had long since been informed.

Published in: on December 26, 2009 at 8:38 AM  Leave a Comment  

Galileo’s Inquisition


June 22, 1633


I, Galileo Galilei, son of the late Vincenzio Galilei of Florence, aged 70 years, tried personally by this court, and kneeling before You, the most Eminent and Reverend Lord Cardinals, Inquisitors-General throughout the Christian Republic against heretical depravity, having before my eyes the Most Holy Gospels, and laying on them my own hands; I swear that I have always believed, I believe now, and with God’s help I will in future believe all which the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church doth hold, preach, and teach. But since I, after having been admonished by this Holy Office entirely to abandon the false opinion that the Sun was the centre of the universe and immoveable, and that the Earth was not the centre of the same and that it moved, and that I was neither to hold, defend, nor teach in any manner whatever, either orally or in writing, the said false doctrine; and after having received a notification that the said doctrine is contrary to Holy Writ, I did write and cause to be printed a book in which I treat of the said already condemned doctrine, and bring forward arguments of much efficacy in its favour, without arriving at any solution: I have been judged guilty of heresy, that is, of having held and believed that the Sun is the centre of the universe and immoveable, and that the Earth is not the centre of the same, and that it does move.

Nevertheless, wishing to remove from the minds of your Eminences and all faithful Christians this vehement suspicion reasonably conceived against me, I abjure with a sincere heart and unfeigned faith, I curse and detest the said errors and heresies, and generally all and every error and sect contrary to the Holy Catholic Church. And I swear that for the future I will neither say nor assert in speaking or writing such things as may bring upon me similar suspicion; and if I know any heretic, or one suspected of heresy, I will denounce  him to this Holy Office, or to the Inquisitor and Ordinary of the place in which I may be. I also swear and promise to adopt and observe entirely all the penances which have been or may be by this Holy Office imposed on me. And if I contravene any of these said promises, protests, or oaths, (which God forbid!) I submit myself to all the pains and penalties which by the Sacred Canons and other Decrees general and particular are against such offenders imposed and promulgated. So help me God and the Holy Gospels, which I touch with my own hands. I, Galileo Galilei, aforesaid have abjured, sworn, and promised, and hold myself bound as above; and in token of the truth, with my own hand have subscribed the present schedule of my abjuration, and have recited it word by word.

Published in: on December 23, 2009 at 3:07 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Maker of the Murdoch Mold

William Randolph Hearst sent the artist Frederic Remington, who made a specialty of depicting soldiers and warfare, to cover events in Cuba after the US battleship Maine had been blown up in Havana harbor in February 1898. The expected conflict between the United States and Spain did not immediately materialize and Remington cabled Hearst, asking whether he should return. Hearst cabled back: “Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.”

Published in: on December 23, 2009 at 8:58 AM  Leave a Comment  

What hides beneath the pillow

FROM The Korean War: An Oral History—Pusan to Chosin

by Donald Knox

Pvt  James Cardinal

I Company/5th Cavalry

Somewhere east of Kumch’on, forward clements of the regiment had run into a roadblock and the column stopped. The North Koreans were chased off and because we were in the middle of the column, it took us a while to reach the scene of the firefight. A little off the road lay several North Koreans who had been wounded in the fighting. It so happened it was at this spot that my platoon stopped and broke out the C rations. Jerry Emer and another guy ate canned hamburger, a meal I detested so much that no matter how hungry I was, I refused to eat it. A platoon of tanks hove into view. When they got closer, I saw the lead tank was led by a lieutenant wearing a Western-style moustache, goggles, and a baseball cap worn backward. He stood up in one of the hatches. When he spotted the wounded North Koreans, he leaned forward to shout into the tank. This tank, followed by the other three, swerved off the road and clanked over the enemy soldiers. Shrill screams were quickly blotted out by the roar of the engines. A cloud of dust, mixed with blood, guts, and pieces of bodies, swirled in the air. The tanks returned to the road and were soon out of sight. Emer was a hardy soul and never missed a bite of his cold hamburger. The other kid vomited all over himself. A day later the company stopped in the road alongside a small village. A couple of guys from 1st Platoon threw lighted matches on the straw roofs of the huts. In no time at all the village was an inferno. I expect these are common occurrences in all wars. Man has an infinite capacity to be bestial to his own kind.

Published in: on December 22, 2009 at 12:51 PM  Leave a Comment  

Crudities of 1611


Thomas Cory

I observed a custom in all those Italian cities and towns through which I passed that is not used in any other country that I saw in my travels, neither do I think that any other nation of Christendom doth use it, but only in Italy. The Italian and also most strangers that are commorant in Italy do always at their meals use a little fork when they cut their meat. For while with their knife which they hold in one hand, they cut the meat out of the dish, they fasten their fork which they hold in their other hand upon the same dish, so that whatsoever he be that sitting in the company of any others at meal, should unadvisedly touch the dish of meat with his fingers from which all at the table do cut, he will give occasion of offence unto the company, as having transgressed the laws of good manners, in so much that for his error he shall be at the least brow-beaten, if not reprehended in words.

This form of feeding, I understand, is generally used in all places of Italy, their forks being for the most part made of iron or steel, and some of silver, but those are used only by gentlemen. The reason of this their curiosity is, because the Italian cannot by any means endure to have his dish touched with fingers, seeing all men’s fingers are not alike clean.

Published in: on December 20, 2009 at 9:20 AM  Leave a Comment  

Weird Coincidences


In 1911 three men were hanged in London for the murder of Sir Edmund Berry at Greenberry Hill. Their names were Green, Berry, and Hill.


Two brothers in Bermuda were killed by the same taxi and driver, carrying the same passenger, while they were riding the same moped on the same street-but exactly a year apart. Erskine Lawrence Ebbin and his brother Neville were both 17 when they died.


Frank Clatworthy was driving home to Washford, Somerset, England, from a party in 1974 when his car overturned. An hour later, his identical twin brother, Jack, crashed on the same road returning from the same party.


On January 28, 1975, Charles Davies died at 3:00 A.M. while on vacation at his sister’s house in Leicester, England. When his sister called his home in Leeds to relate the bad news, she was told that Charles’s wife had also died that day—at 3:00 A.M.


At age four, Roger Lausier was saved from drowning off a beach at Salem, Massachusetts , by a woman named Alice Blaise. Nine years later, in 1974, on the same beach, Roger paddled his raft into the water and pulled a drowning man from the water. The man was Alice Blaise’s husband.


James Lews of Lima, Ohio, and James Springer of Dayton, Ohio, are identical twins who were separated shortly after birth. Their adoptive parents—who had no knowledge of each other-named their sons James. Each James married and divorced a woman named Linda. Each named his first son James Alan (Allan). Each likes to vacation on the same Florida beach. Both are 6 ft. tall, weigh 180 lb., have the same hobbies, and have had police training. They met for the first time in 1979. when they were 39 years old.

Published in: on December 17, 2009 at 10:17 AM  Leave a Comment  

Disraeli Parries Again

Gladstone and Disraeli frequently clashed in parliamentary debates. “Mr. Disraeli cannot possibly be sure of his facts,” roared Gladstone in one debate, “I wish,” responded Disraeli, “that I could be as sure of anything as my opponent is of everything.”

Published in: on December 16, 2009 at 1:22 PM  Leave a Comment  

Gladstone Swings with the Queen

Gladstone once accosted Disraeli on the topic of the latter’s renowned wit, observing that Disraeli had the reputation of being able to make a joke on any subject. Disraeli responded that that was quite possible. “Then I challenge you,” said Gladstone. “Make a joke about Queen Victoria.”

“Sir,” replied Disraeli, “Her Majesty is not a subject.”

Published in: on December 16, 2009 at 1:13 PM  Leave a Comment  

Like Floating Cherry Blossoms

From The Divine Wind

Captain Inoguchi and Commander Tadashi Nakajima


Among those of us who were there, in the Philippines and at Okinawa, I doubt if there is anyone who can depict with complete clarity our mixed emotions as we watched a man about to die—a man determined to die in order that he might destroy us in the process. There was a hypnotic fascination to a sight so alien to our Western philosophy. We watched each plunging kamikaze with the detached horror of one witnessing a terrible spectacle rather than as the intended victim. We forgot self for the moment as we groped hopelessly for the thoughts of that other man up there. And dominating it all was a strange admixture of respect and pity—respect for any person who offers the supreme sacrifice to the things he stands for, and pity for the utter frustration which was epitomized by the suicidal act. For whatever the gesture meant to that central actor out there in space, and however painful might be the consequences to ourselves, no one of us questioned the final outcome of the war now rushing to its conclusion. This “Divine Wind,” this Kamikaze, this Special Attack Corps, was just another form of banzai charge, made by men experiencing the bitterness of defeat and unwilling to accept that reality.

But why this suicidal tactic? How could, not one man, but several thousand men seek certain death? Did these men, in the words of Admiral Ohnishi, think themselves “already gods without earthly desires”?

It is certainly “not that the enemy was more courageous than we. One of the earliest lessons one learns in battle is that courage is a very common human quality. Mute evidence is the story of our own Torpedo Squadron Eight at Midway, and the unforgettable picture I once observed on board the Essex when I watched the 20-millimeter gun crews stand unflinchingly to their guns until enveloped in flames, in an effort to beat off a kamikaze.

But there was a fundamental difference in the heroism of the opposing warriors. The Japanese resolutely closed the last avenue of hope and escape, the American never did. To the Western mind there must be that last slim chance of survival—the feeling that, though a lot of other chaps may die, you yourself somehow are going to make it back.

No one has yet successfully explained to the Western mind this Japanese phenomenon of self-immolation, and perhaps it is not given to the Westerner to understand it. Hence, as we read this dramatic, gripping story of the Kamikaze Corps as it comes from the lips of those who personally acted out the great tragedy, we seek vainly for the key to the enigma.

One of the Japanese authors makes the statement, “. . . No man welcomes death. . . . But it is more understandable if one bears in mind that, considering the heavy odds our fliers faced in 1944, their chance of coming back from any sortie against the enemy carriers was very slim regardless of the attack method employed.” Yet the answer is not there. Neither is it in the letters to home and loved ones from those about to die, though these letters haunt one with their poignancy.

Sometimes these letters are utterly beautiful.

“We are 16 warriors manning the bombers. May our death be as sudden as the shattering of crystal.”

Sometimes they are deeply touching:

“My greatest regret in this life is the failure to call you ‘chichiue’ (revered father). I regret not having given any demonstration of the true respect which I have always had for you. During my final plunge, though you will not hear it, you may be sure I will be saying ‘chichiue’ to you and thinking of all you have done for me.”

And always they are tragic:

“I am a human being and hope to be neither saint nor scoundrel, hero nor fool—just a human being. As one who spent his life in wistful longing and searching, I die resignedly in the hope that my life will serve as a human document.”


“The world in which I lived was too full of discord. As a community of rational human beings it should have been better composed. Lacking a single great conductor, everyone let loose with his own sound, creating dissonance where there should have been melody and harmony.”

Such are the fleeting glimpses of tortured souls that we catch behind the façade of this extraordinary history.

Any way one looks at the Kamikaze Corps, there is stark tragedy. For whatever the private motivations or official explanations for the kamikaze, and however fascinating they may be, the key question for the pragmatic military man must be—was it a successful tactic?

My answer is an unqualified no. True, the Special Attack Force—the Kamikaze—did tremendous damage. It sank a lot of ships and damaged a multitude of others. It killed and wounded thousands of men— inflicted more casualties in the U. S. fleets off Okinawa than the Japanese Army did to the invading troops in the long battle ashore. Typical of the nightmare it made of destroyer picket duty was the destroyer man on picket station who, with grim humor, painted an arrow on his deck pointing off to the side, with the huge letters, “Carriers that way!”

But by that time Japan was already hopelessly worsted, and even in its flaming sacrifice the Kamikaze Corps sank no U. S. warship of cruiser size or larger. That, in a way, is the real tragedy of the kamikaze, as far as its pilots were concerned—that this extraordinary tactic was not conceived until it was already too late for even the most desperate measures to stay the inevitable defeat of Japan.

C. R. Brown
Vice Admiral, U. S. Navy
July 1958

Published in: on December 14, 2009 at 10:26 AM  Leave a Comment  

Boxer Belts Drunk

Jack Dempsey was staying overnight in a California hotel. Just after midnight, he received a call from the reception clerk. “There’s a man down here who says he can lick you,” said the clerk, “and he won’t go away.” Tired of being challenged by drunks wherever he went, Dempsey replied wearily, “Tell you what you do—tell him he can have my title, but I want it back in the morning.”

Published in: on December 13, 2009 at 6:23 PM  Leave a Comment  

Turning Wine Into Water

Rutherford B Hayes, 19th president of the United States, and his wife were fervent advocates of temperance. During Hayes’s presidency liquor and tobacco were banned from the White House. William M Evarts, secretary of state, observed of one official dinner, “It was a brilliant affair; water flowed like champagne.”

Published in: on December 11, 2009 at 8:55 PM  Leave a Comment  

Before Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address

Conclusion Of An Address Preceding President Lincoln’s

At Gettysburg On November 19, 1863

Edward Everett


And now, friends, fellow citizens of Gettysburg and Pennsylvania, and you from remoter states, let me again, as we part, invoke your benediction on these honored graves. You feel, though the occasion is mournful, that it is good to be here. You feel that it was greatly auspicious for the cause of the country that the men of the East, and the men of the West, the men of nineteen sister states, stood side by side on the perilous ridges of the battle. You now feel it a new bond of union that they shall lie side by side till a clarion, louder than that which marshaled them to the combat, shall awake their slumbers. God bless the Union, it is dearer to us for the blood of brave men which has been shed in its defense. The spots on which they stood and fell; these pleasant heights; the thriving village whose streets so lately rang with the strange din of war; the fields beyond the ridge, where the noble Reynolds held the advancing foe at bay, and while he gave up his own life, assured by his forethought and self-sacrifice the triumph of the two succeeding days; the little streams which wind through the hills, on whose banks in aftertimes the wandering plowman will turn up, with the rude weapons of savage warfare, the fearful missiles of modern artillery; Seminary Ridge, the Peach Orchard, Cemetery, Culp, and Wolf Hill, Round Top, humble names, hence forward dear and famous––no lapse of time, no distance of space, shall cause you to be forgotten. “The whole earth,” said pericles, as he stood over the remains of his fellow citizens, who had fallen in the first year of the Peloponnesian War––”the whole earth is the sepulcher of illustrious men.” All time, he might have added, is the millennium of their glory. Surely I would do no injustice to the other noble achievements of the war, which have reflected such honor on both arms of the service, and have entitled the armies and navy of the United States, their officers and men, to the warmest thanks and the richest rewards which a grateful people can pay. But they, I am sure, will join us in saying, as we bid farewell to the dust of these martyr-heroes, that wheresoever throughout the civilized world the accounts of this great warfare are read, and down to the latest period of recorded time, in the glorious annals of our common country there will be no brighter page than that which relates to the battles of Gettysburg.

Published in: on December 11, 2009 at 2:10 PM  Leave a Comment  

Scott’s Last Letter


Robert Scott

My Dear Barrie, We are pegging out in a very comfortless spot. Hoping this letter may be found and sent to you, I write a word of farewell … More practically I want you to help my widow and my boy–your godson. We are showing that Englishmen can still die with a bold spirit fighting it out to the end,. It will be known that we have accomplished our object in reaching the Pole, and that we have done everything possible, even to sacrificing ourselves in order to save sick companions. I think this makes an example for Englishmen of the future, and that the country ought to help those who are left behind to mourn us. I leave my poor girl and your godson, Wilson leaves a widow, and Edgar Evans also a widow in humble circumstances. Do what you can to get their claims recognised. Good-bye. I am not at all afraid of the end, but sad to miss many a humble pleasure which I had planned for the future on our long marches. I may not have proved a great explorer, but we have done the greatest march ever made and come very near to great success. Good-bye, my dear friend,

Yours ever,

R. Scott

We are in a desperate state, feet frozen, &c. No fuel and a long way from food, but it would do your heart good to be in our tent, to hear our songs and the cheery conversation as to what we will do when we get to Hut Point.

Later.–We are very near the end, but have not and will not lose our good cheer. We have had four days of storm in our tent and nowhere’s food or fuel. We did intend to finish ourselves when things proved like this, but we have decided to die naturally in the track.

As a dying man, my dear friend, be good to my wife and child. Give the boy a chance in life if the State won’t do it. He ought to have good stuff in him. I never met a man in my life whom I admired and loved more than you, but I never could show you how much your friendship meant to me, for you had much to give and I nothing.

Published in: on December 11, 2009 at 6:30 AM  Leave a Comment