Category Archives: Literary pretensions

Perfect Sense

Perfect SenseI have always liked sandbox stories; tales in which the author could stretch his of her imagination, place ordinary characters into a seemingly normal situation, then see what happened when the conditions were changed.*

Sandbox environments are virtual places were you can test ideas, explore paths, examine consequences to actions without spilling over into the real world. They have all the appearance of the real world, but the parameters can be changed to suit the tinkerer.

Programmers often create sandbox environments to test programs; anyone who does web development does so in a sandbox before putting the pages into use. Games like SimCity and Tropico are sandbox games where players construct virtual societies in a semi-realistic setting.

William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is a great sandbox novel. So was Jose Saramago’s Blindness. Both were made in to movies, as well.I, however, seems to have been written solely for film.

Warning: spoilers below.

Perfect Sense is a story about what happens to the world when one thing, one little thing, goes wrong. How would we deal with the loss of our sense of smell? How would we change, how would we cope; what would it mean to ordinary men and women trying to maintain relationships, jobs and families?

In Lord of the Flies, it was the loss of the social anchor of the urban environment that starts the downhill slide; we watch the children descend inexorably into primitive, tribal behaviour.

In Blindness, the majority of people lose their sight, and the author asks us to imagine what life would be like for not only them, but for the remaining few who prove immune to the blindness. In Saramago’s sandbox world, the “one-eyed man” is not king, but either tyrant or slave.

The former is set on an uninhabited island, the latter in an unnamed city. Despite the differences, both are “jungles.” Perfect Sense has a worldwide backdrop,but is predominantly set in the streets of urban Glasgow.

In both Golding’s and Saramago’s novels, humans show themselves unable to cope effectively with significant change: becoming violent, brutal, authoritarian and cruel. Once the veneer of civilization is rubbed away, the authors tell us, we become little more than animals. By extension, the authors imply that authoritarian states are therefore uncivilized and barbarian.

While the image of the children becoming savages was chilling, Saramago is far more graphic in his description of the madness and brutality.

Also in both these novels, the change from civilized to uncivilized setting is abrupt and overwhelming, crashing down upon people unprepared for the event. In Perfect Sense, it’s a gradual descent, a slow but inevitable slide.

Perfect Sense doesn’t tumble you into some apocalyptic nightmare: it eases you in, lets you see how people cope, come back to their jobs a little less whole, but still carry on. But the stiff upper lip trembles a little more with each step.

The film stars Ewan McGregor as a chef, and Eva Green as an epidemiologist, both competent and believable actors. McGregor is probably best known as playing the young Obi-Wan Kenobi in the last Star Wars films. Green starred as the deliciously evil Morgan in the otherwise forgettable Camelot TV series, as well as in other films. They work well together, playing two somewhat disaffected, disenchanted and slightly flawed, self-centred characters who have so far been unable to connect closely with others. As the world crumbles, they unite with one another, two against the odds.

It’s actually quite poignant at times, and pleasantly steamy. The DVD cover calls it an “apocalyptic romance.” But the romance isn’t quite given the time and space it needs to blossom – it’s a bloom doomed to wilt before it opens fully. They’re not going to be the new Adam and Eve in the reborn world of the future.

What is intriguing in this film is how the author, Kim Fupz Aakeson, stages the collapse, like a slowing falling line of dominoes. First we lose our sense of smell. But we adapt, we work around it, and learn to live in a world with one less sense. But then we lose our sense of taste. That’s more difficult – what would a chef do in a world where no one can taste the food? Again we struggle, but eventually come to grips with the loss.

Each time we come back, each time it hurts more, and takes longer to surface. Each loss is accompanied by something else, an emotional or physical trauma – a brief bout of overwhelming depression, an unstoppable urge to eat, a profound sense of loss, violent anger… But humans are resilient. We manage. The seeming “ordinariness” of it all is what creates the counterpoint to the tension of the descent.

Then comes the loss of hearing. That almost shatters us, but we crawl back one more time, shaken and scarred, but we adapt as best we can. Until the end, of course.

You can see it coming. The disease is pitiless, relentless. It strips us of our senses, and our humanity. When one loss fails to devour us, another follows. How much chaos, tragedy and disruption can humankind stand before crashing into madness and anarchy? Where is our tipping point? After hearing goes sight. And after that…

Unlike Blindness, there is no indication that anyone is immune. The disease strikes everyone. There are no unaffected few to guide the rest – or at least no indication of any – no one to shepherd the afflicted. Unlike typical “survivor” tales – the Walking Dead, the BBC series Survivors, Day of the Triffids, etc. – everyone falls prey to the disease. No enclaves of saved and safe souls to rebuild the world later. As a parable for humanity, it sure has an unhappy, albeit predictable, ending.

The film has had mixed reviews. While not exactly an uplifting flick, it’s got great production value, stylish sets, good acting, and the premise makes you wonder how you yourself would manage the loss while you’re watching others struggle with it. “What if…” will go through your mind many times after the film has ended.

For the $5 price tag** , it’s a good buy.

~~~~~

* Novels that brush up against the borders of science fiction and fantasy may also be sandbox novels, although by far not always – usually only when the scifi or fantasy setting is a metaphor or allegory for the modern world rather than the focus of the tale.
** I found it at the discount store in the former Shopper’s Drug Mart in Collingwood.

Albert and the Lion

Book of Albert poemsA recent comment on Facebook – “You just can’t resist poking the bear…”* made me remember a poem by Marriott Edgar that I enjoyed as a child in the 1950s: Albert and the Lion. I actually first heard it orally – we had a collection of old 78s and a wind-up gramophone in the basement. Among the musical treasures were several monologues by Stanley Holloway who read this and several other poems about Young Albert, accompanied by a piano that accented his words.

There was a book, too, probably brought from England by my father when he came over in the late 1940s. It had this and several other poems by Marriott. It was published in the 1930s and had great illustrations.I found the cover online at another blogger’s site. The poems were funny, but also darkly comic, like this one:

I’ll tell of the Battle of Hastings,
As happened in days long gone by,
When Duke William became King of England,
And ‘Arold got shot in the eye.

Albert and the 'eadsman
Or this one about the headsman and the ghost of Anne Boleyn:

The ‘Eadsman chased Jane round the grass patch
They saw his axe flash in the moon
And seeing as poor lass were ‘eadless
They wondered what what next he would prune.

He suddenly caught sight of Albert
As midnight was on its last chime
As he lifted his axe, father murmered
‘We’ll get the insurance this time.’

Boy's Own AnnualI may still have a copy of Edgar’s wonderful book in my own collection. Not sure what became of it, but it was well-read even when I first found it. I remember it well. remember the feel of it, how the pages smelled, how it folded in my hands as I sat on the couch and read it. It had the English price on the cover, which was a number very odd to a boy raised in Canada. Just added to the magic.

My father had brought an odd assortment of books with him, including several Boys’ Own Annuals, some dating from the early 1900s. I read them, too, in that basement, while 78 rpm records played. I still have a couple of those Boy’s Own books, upstairs. We used to get parcels at Christmas with Beano and other British comics in them. But I always went back to the Albert poems.

I can still hear Holloway’s Lancashire voice intoning the words as I read them in the book. “Sam, Sam, pick oop tha moosket, Sam,” said Holloway, dryly. My father was from the north, outside Manchester, and probably didn’t find the accent funny or his odd grammar mysterious, but I delighted in it and loved to imitate it.

I loved those recordings. I listened to them over and over and I can still remember many verses and lines. And of course many of these are on YouTube today. Wonderful memories… here’s what I used to hear. Imagine an eight-year-old strutting, pretending to be the characters, making faces like the bemused parents, frowning like the dour magistrate, poking his imaginary stick at the lion:

Here’s the poem itself. The verses that came to mind are in bold:

There’s a famous seaside place called Blackpool,
That’s noted for fresh-air and fun,
And Mr and Mrs Ramsbottom
Went there with young Albert, their son.

A grand little lad was their Albert
All dressed in his best; quite a swell
‘E’d a stick with an ‘orse’s ‘ead ‘andle
The finest that Woolworth’s could sell.

They didn’t think much to the ocean
The waves, they was fiddlin’ and small
There was no wrecks… nobody drownded
‘Fact, nothing to laugh at, at all.

So, seeking for further amusement
They paid and went into the zoo
Where they’d lions and tigers and cam-els
And old ale and sandwiches too.

There were one great big lion called Wallace
His nose were all covered with scars
He lay in a som-no-lent posture
With the side of his face to the bars.

Now Albert had heard about lions
How they were ferocious and wild
And to see Wallace lying so peaceful
Well… it didn’t seem right to the child.

So straight ‘way the brave little feller
Not showing a morsel of fear
Took ‘is stick with the’orse’s ‘ead ‘andle
And pushed it in Wallace’s ear!

You could see that the lion didn’t like it
For giving a kind of a roll
He pulled Albert inside the cage with ‘im
And swallowed the little lad… whole!

Then Pa, who had seen the occurrence
And didn’t know what to do next
Said, “Mother! Yon lions ‘et Albert”
And Mother said “Eeh, I am vexed!”

So Mr and Mrs Ramsbottom
Quite rightly, when all’s said and done
Complained to the Animal Keeper
That the lion had eaten their son.

The keeper was quite nice about it
He said, “What a nasty mishap
Are you sure that it’s your lad he’s eaten?”
Pa said, “Am I sure? There’s his cap!”

So the manager had to be sent for
He came and he said, “What’s to do?”
Pa said, “Yon lion’s ‘eaten our Albert
And ‘im in his Sunday clothes, too.”

Then Mother said, “Right’s right, young feller
I think it’s a shame and a sin
For a lion to go and eat Albert
And after we’ve paid to come in!”

The manager wanted no trouble
He took out his purse right away
And said, “How much to settle the matter?”
And Pa said “What do you usually pay?”

But Mother had turned a bit awkward
When she thought where her Albert had gone
She said, “No! someone’s got to be summonsed”
So that were decided upon.

Round they went to the Police Station
In front of a Magistrate chap
They told ‘im what happened to Albert
And proved it by showing his cap.

The Magistrate gave his o-pinion
That no-one was really to blame
He said that he hoped the Ramsbottoms
Would have further sons to their name.

At that Mother got proper blazing
“And thank you, sir, kindly,” said she
“What waste all our lives raising children
To feed ruddy lions? Not me!”

~~~~~

Memory’s like that.  Sometimes the oddest things happen. I spent a pleasant morning finding this stuff.

Albert and the Lion
* The comment was not related to the poem, by the way, but rather ab irato; critical comments by another blogger about what I write here.

Another day on the job in Paradise… chapter one

Mayor QuimbyMayor Ralph “Bosco” Hearne, whistling softly “Everything’s Up to Date in Kansas City” under his breath, gazed at the wood-and-polished-brass, 19th-century front doors of town hall and nodded slightly in approval. He stopped whistling, paused, and breathed out a gentle sigh of satisfaction. The gleam of the brass was unobstructed; his view extended through the big glass window clear into the atrium and to the back with its veined marble wall without a single thing to distract it. A few short minutes and the doors would open; town hall would be bustling with staff; residents would come and go, doing their municipal business, checking tax records, buying dog tags. Yet at almost 8:30, with the sun already peering onto the main street, there was no one waiting to be let in; no one tapping impatiently at the glass trying to attract staff’s attention; no one pacing nervously in front of the doors and muttering darkly at the inability of staff to tell time.

Any morning that began with an empty entranceway promised to be a good day for Mayor Hearne, because any day that began without an early morning encounter with Caroline Rune was a morning to enjoy. Meeting her always involved a tirade led into a slew of accusations about how he and council were trying to destroy not only the town, but the region and even democracy in general. Not seeing her waiting for him gave him hope he would not develop one of those nail-in-the-temple headaches before noon. He could keep the whiskey locked up in his desk drawer until at least mid-afternoon. It could, just maybe, be a normal day in town hall, maybe even in all of Neuville.

He looked up and down the street, a little nervously, expecting any moment to see a harridan in full flight coming towards him, but the sidewalk was empty, except for old Nick Charnley slowly sweeping in front of his bookstore; his daily exercise, after which he would retreat behind a desk and remain there until closing, nose deep in a book.  And down further a young couple were emerging from the doughnut shop with hands full of coffee and sugary delights, laughing. A few pigeons pecked at the curb, undisturbed by the noise and bustle of pedestrians that would soon develop. Another day in paradise. Mayor Hearne smiled and stepped towards the door, fumbling a bit for his keys.

Before he could retrieve them, inside, a dark figure coalesced from the shadows and waved in his direction. He saw only the silhouette, but he knew who it was. Janet Sparling, the mayor’s executive assistant. She opened the door, smiled, and took his briefcase from him, then glanced hurriedly up and down the street before closing the door with a satisfying snick of the lock.

Hearne and his assistant exchanged sly smiles at the empty streetscape. No one said the name; no one wanted to invoke the demons of bad luck and thus draw down on them the fury of Caroline.There was, after all, a hurricane once named Caroline and it caused only a fraction of the havoc the local one had wreaked upon the town staff.

“Morning, Janet,” Hearne said, and headed to his corner office with his assistant tailing behind. His Blackberry buzzed at his waist, but he ignored it. “Anything up today?”

“Nothing much this morning. A meeting with Tony from the developers’ association at 10, something about east end servicing. Andy wants to speak to you about the waste water plant and I’ve got him in at 10:45. I think he wants money for an upgrade. I told him he should wait until for budget before bringing it up, but he insisted. Kelly is coming at 11:30 to discuss a library issue, something about personnel, probably wants more front desk staff because Judy is retiring this year. And then you have a ribbon cutting at noon for the new hair salon on Barricade Street. But nothing booked until 10, so I pulled out the county report for you to go over. They want it reviewed by council before the end of the month.”

Janet’s idea of “nothing much” was usually a day where meetings were scheduled to allow bathroom breaks between them, but little else. For her a busy day meant overlapping appointments, a slate of crucial decisions that had to be made within minutes, and photo-op commitments until at least 8 p.m. All without the breaks. Lunch, if he was lucky enough to grab it, would be a toasted bagel, usually received cold, then shovelled into his mouth between meetings or in his car, rinsed down by enough coffee to keep half the town jittery and awake for a week. Janet lived to fill his schedule. For her an hour without a scheduled event was a personal failure to fulfill her job requirements.

“But this afternoon is a bit busy,” she continued, following him into the office and putting his briefcase on his desk as the mayor looked at the full inbox with a frown. The county report was bulging over the sides. “You’ve got the police services board about the upcoming police contract talks at one, at 1:45 the mall owners are coming in. They want to you to lower their taxes so they can attract more businesses. At 2:30 the downtown merchants have a petition about pigeon control they want to present at the next council meeting. And the animal shelter wants the town to pay for more dog runs. They’ll be here at 2:45. Then at three, you have to present a certificate for 25 years in business to the Smalleys at their clothing store. Not the secondhand one on Wine Street, the one on Carson. And then the paper wants Sean to interview you about the condition of the bridge over the Beau River. I have that scheduled for 3:30. But I’ll bet he wants to sneak in some questions about your brother’s trip to Florida last winter. Betty overheard him saying something at the coffee shop last week and she thinks he plans to phone the condo office to find out who paid for it. After that the planning department wants…”

“Don’t you ever stop to take a breath?” Hearne interrupted, and then laughed when she looked hurt. “Sorry. I sometimes wonder what a day without a crisis, a crucial meeting that couldn’t be postponed, or a ribbon cutting would be like. Have I got time to call the flower shop and order something for my anniversary this week?”

“Already done. A nice arrangement. I asked them for something tropical, maybe some ginger blossoms and a bird of paradise or two. Tasteful but not too expensive. I used your credit card. The personal one, of course, not the town’s. Don’t want to upset you-know-who. I’ve also booked you and the missus at the steak house for dinner at seven, but you’ll have to leave by 8:30 because the Presbyterian church has a service to pray for peace in Somalia and they expect you to be there. So that means just one glass of wine and no liqueur afterwards.”

“You always amaze me, Janet. You’re so efficient that one day the dictionary will have your picture instead of a definition of the word. Thanks. Let me get started on this report before the masses start to line up. Are there any staff comments to go along with it, or am I on my own?”

“The rec department report is attached, and planning sent an e-mail…”

She never got to finish. The words got caught in her throat by a screeching, “A ha!” from the hallway that made the mayor’s teeth hurt and dogs within a quarter mile perk up their ears ready to bark. Caroline Rune had arrived, unseen and late, but certainly not unheard. “There you are! Mayor Hearne, I know what you and council are planning for the old Brown property and if you go ahead, I promise you there will be hellfury and damnation.”

“Morning, Caroline,” said Hearne, trying not to roll his eyes and shake his head. Janet put a hand to her mouth, and debated within herself whether to step between them or flee to her own office. The choice was between ignoble flight and putting her hands, at least metaphorically, into a raging blender. She chose flight, and, nodding apologetically at Hearne, scuttled past the woman in the doorway to the safety of the hallway beyond.

“Won’t you have a seat?” Hearne asked, resignedly, feeling the edge of that headache creeping up and pressing on his temples. He pointed at a chair across from his desk, then rubbed his temples with small circular motions. “Perhaps you could tell me what you think we’ve done so I can set the record straight and get on with my day’s work.”

“I don’t think,” the woman replied as she stepped towards the chair, then sat down heavily. “I know.”

Hearne gave her a tired smile, refusing himself the opportunity to make a wisecrack at her statement. Once upon a time he had had a crush on Caroline Rune, back when she was Caroline Crumby. Back in the school days, those hormone-filled teen years, so long ago. When he still played football, and he didn’t pack the oversize midriff he sported these days. Back then Caroline, to his testosterone-laced jock brain, was a hottie. Back then Caroline didn’t dabble in crystals, astrology, UFOs, or politics. Back then Caroline didn’t build conspiracy theories out of every council motion or bylaw.

She was still a slim, attractive woman, with shoulder-length brown hair and a shapely figure for her age. As long as you didn’t look at her eyes, didn’t look into the slightly wild and whirling pupils, you might still be attracted to her. Until, of course, she opened her mouth. Once that happened, you entered a world that belonged in Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone. Or the X-Files. Something not quite connected with reality. A fantasy of lies, conspiracies and accusations in which Mayor Hearne played a leading role.

For Caroline, everything was a conspiracy. From changing the parking rates to zoning amendments, she saw the dark hand of evil forces at work, saw the local branch of the Illuminati pulling the strings from the shadows. In an age of vampire pop, Hearne was her Nosferatu.

As he lowered himself into his leather chair, Caroline was busy digging into her purse. She pulled out a sheaf of papers and waved them at the mayor, the rustle of the sheets loud in the room.

“I mean to file these today. I will find out what you’re doing. And once I do, I will tell everyone about your plans. I will tell the press. I will post it on Facebook. I don’t care what it costs. People have to know.”

Freedom of Information requests. A dozen, maybe more from the look of it. She filed at least that many almost every week, so many that the clerk’s office kept a supply of them with her name and address pre-printed, just for Caroline’s unceasing demands. But this week she looked like she would outdo herself in filing. She tucked the papers back into her bag and settled back with a satisfied smile, waiting for the mayor to respond.

“Okay, Caroline, I give up,” he said. “What have we done now? Last I recall, we were entertaining a request to re-zone the property so a developer could build a strip mall out on the east end of town. It’s all been done in public meetings. The Brown family sold the land after the old house fell down, and the new owner wants to change it from residential to commercial zoning. What’s wrong with that? Residents in the east end want something nearby so they didn’t have to drive into town just to get a bag of milk.”

“You can’t pawn me off with some lame excuse, Ralph Hearne. I know what’s going on. You and that cabal you call a council have been offered a lot of money to turn the east end into a resort and casino development. Once you get this foothold, you plan to expropriate all the homes along the waterfront and sell the land to developers. Of course you’ll get a kickback. Then you will take your wages of sin and buy properties in Bermuda or Barbados so you can live in luxury while the rest of us have to deal while the effects of crime, social degradation and gambling addiction decimate our community.”

“Come on, Caroline. That’s a bit of a stretch, even for you. We’ve got an application for a convenience store, an oil change shop, and a fishing tackle place. That’s a pretty long way from a casino and resort. You couldn’t fit a motel on that property, let alone a resort.”

“It’s just a smokescreen,” she replied. “I know you’ve been meeting with people from the government about building a secret casino. Lobbyists, too. There are rumours of big commissions being paid. Hush money to local real estate agents. I know what you’re planning. You’re going to make your brother manager, too. Keep the money in the family.”

“Caroline,” Hearne said, trying to smile but feeling it rise to a grimace. “Peter isn’t going to be manager of anything. He already has a job and he’s looking at retirement soon, not changing careers. No one’s proposing a casino or resort for the east end. I wish they would because we could use the taxes and jobs. But this is just a small strip mall, nothing more sinister than that.”

Nothing more? It’s a foot in the door for organized crime. The next thing you’ll be privatizing the road and turning the whole area into a gated community for crime lords and millionaires. Private facilities. Private clinics. I know what happens when they get a foothold. You want to make us into Las Vegas north. I will fight you to the bitter end, Ralph. I will file my Freedom of Information requests today so I can make it public and warn people about you.”

“It’s your money,” Hearne said, resignedly. “But you might want to save it for at least a week. We haven’t even approved the zoning change. Until then, there’s nothing much we can give you.”

“Wait?” Caroline snorted. “So you can direct staff to hide the records and falsify the reports like you always do? Not on your life, Ralph Hearne. You can fool others, but not me. I can file now and later. That way you won’t be able to hide anything.”

“I’m not trying to fool you, Caroline. I’m just trying to save you some money. But it’s yours and you can spend it anyway you wish. Did you get anything from the last requests you filed, the ones about the ice rink?”

Caroline glared at the mayor, then glowered at the doorway where Janet was seen fleetingly peering into the office. “You know I didn’t. You’ve got everything too well hidden.”

“I could have told you we weren’t planning to buy a fleet of helicopters for council’s personal use. It’s not something we could hide in the budget. Besides, where would we put  a dozen choppers?”

“Don’t patronize me, Ralph. I still believe you plan to put them in that tent you’re building over the ice rink. Why else would you want to cover it?”

“It’s not a tent, Caroline. It’s a high-tech architectural membrane structure. A tent is something you go camping in. And we wanted to cover it so kids could skate year-round.”

She sniffed. “Call it what you like. Might as well call it a bubble. We know it’s just another boondoggle. You’re building a hanger for your helicopters and your jets. No child in this town will ever skate inside it.”

Jets? Where’s the runway? Don’t we need a runway for jets?”

“Oh, you’ll build one, I know you. You’ve got plans to bulldoze all those houses on Lane Street so you can fly to your mansion in the Caribbean. You think we don’t know about this? That’s why you prevented Doctor Basildon from opening his clinic there. You need the space for your runway.”

“Caroline, Caroline,” Hearne muttered. “Where do you get these ideas? Basildon started building his clinic without permits, in an area zoned residential. We had to stop him from breaking the law. It was a minor delay for his own sake. We don’t want to have to charge him. We went out of our way to make it easy for him to get his paperwork in order and finish the construction.”

“You have not. You forced him to pay usurious charges for the privilege of creating jobs and paying taxes. You want to bankrupt him before he even opens his doors.”

“No, we don’t. He has to pay the same development charges and permit fees every other developer has to pay for a commercial property as per our bylaws and the county’s rules. They’re not secret. If he had applied for a permit before he started building, he would have known about them.”

“You could have given him an exemption as a medical clinic. It’s a necessary service. After all, you said we need the jobs, and the community desperately needs his medical services.”

“No we couldn’t. The province doesn’t allow us to bonus any private business. Even if we could, half of the charges are the county’s and we have no control over them. Besides, he’s a chiropractor and we already have more of them than we have doughnut shops in this town. A few extra weeks won’t make a lot of difference to our general well-being.”

“You are such an ignorant man, Ralph Hearne,” she snuffed. “It’s a wonder you ever got elected by anyone who can read. But we’ll change that, next election. For your information, Dr. Basildon is bringing the latest in proven alternative health services here. We will be the centre of a health care revolution in this province. The healing energy radiating from his site will cure everyone within miles, even if they’re not his patients. Think of the money everyone will save from not having to go to the doctor or hospital once he opens. We’ll be able to close the hospital in a few months. Of course that means you won’t be able to get your under-the-counter payback from the Ministry of Health any more.”

“Caroline, the ministry doesn’t give me a dime. You already looked into that, what, two months, three months ago? Basildon is planning to put in a hot tub with big magnets and crystals around it. The only thing that will change is the direction compasses point and a few lighter wallets. I don’t think the hospital will be able to close very soon.”

“Not like you’ll ever know. You’ll be flying to Antigua or Tortuga or some island paradise with the money you get from developers and crime lords long before he ever opens.”

“If I do, I’ll be sure to send you a postcard. Now is there anything else you need from me? I have several meetings today and need to read this…” He gestured at the county report in his inbox. “…sometime very soon. I’d like to get it started before I’m too old to lift it.”

“Your phone records. I want to see your phone records.”

“We’ve gone over this before, Caroline. You filed that request already and got them.”

“But the numbers were blanked out. You’re hiding them.”

“Like the clerk told you, the numbers are private and we need the permission of the caller to show them. We have to respect their privacy.”

“You think you can hide those calls you make to Antigua and your bank in the Bahamas? We’ll find the truth. You won’t get away with it forever. I’ll keep filing requests until the truth comes out.” At this she pulled the sheaf of papers out of her purse and brandished them at the mayor again.

Hearne sighed. “You do that. That’s the wonderful thing about living in a democracy. No one can stop you from spending your money on lost causes.”

But Caroline wasn’t listening. She was already on her feet and halfway out the door by the time he finished speaking. She headed in the direction of the clerk’s office. A few seconds later, Janet stuck her head in the doorway, looking sheepish. “Can I get you a coffee? Maybe a cookie or a doughnut?”

“Thanks, I could use the coffee. But I better pass on the dessert.” He patted his bulging midriff. “If it’s not too late, call the clerk’s office and warn them Caroline is on her way.”

“Already done. They have last week’s requests for her ready to go.”

“The ones about why we chose the heritage paint colours for downtown?”

“That and the correspondence on the shape of the new wayfinding signs.”

“That’ll be rivetting reading. I’m always tempted to drop in some hints about being abducted by aliens into my emails to staff and council. Give Caroline and her circle something to gnaw on for a while, the proof they’re always looking for. Council is controlled by aliens. The truth is out there, so they say.”

“Didn’t she already file for that when she got your automobile mileage reports? Something about travelling to Nevada?”

“Yeah, looking for unexplained trips to Area 51. I can’t keep track of all my secret meetings with the aliens and crime lords. I’m glad you manage my schedule for me. I might end up in Bogota when I’m supposed to be in a spaceship.”

Janet smiled, then vanished, heading briskly towards the front door and the coffee shop a few doors away. Ralph watched her go, briefly thought about going home and getting back into bed, then picked up the heavy county report and started reading.

…to be continued…

Not the expected blog post, I’m afraid

FrazzledSorry to disappoint those readers who expected this to be a blog post on ukuleles, tequila or our beautiful Mexican Sister City, Zihuatanejo (“Zee-hwa” for those in the know). I refer, of course, to comments in the recent parody video, in which my blog was commented upon (as if blogging was something conspiratorial, but it seems pretty much everything is, these days for some folks…).

However, my energies have of late been taken up by several other pressing projects, meetings and local political issues, so those topics have become back-burner projects. Sorry.

Speaking of conspiracies, my main research  – online and through books – these last two weeks has been on the Pazzi conspiracy of 1478. This event irrevocably changed the politics of Florence, and of Italy, but how did it play in the development of the young Machiavelli’s political thought? Machiavelli was eight when the assassination attempt took place, and lived through the city’s wars and social unrest that raged for the next decade and a half. But few biographers discuss the event in anything more than passing mention.

The complexity of the Pazzi conspiracy has taken me much more time than I expected, because it involves so many people, states, and families. It has given me new insight into Florentine politics, and the opportunity to reread Machiavelli’s writing on conspiracies (real conspiracies, not the alien-abduction-reptiloid-mushroom-farm kind that saturates the internet). Eventually my research and conclusions will be written up as a post on my Machiavelli site (I’ve already written more than 1,200 words on it – still working on it).

OverworkedI have always believed – and have written in my two recent books – that blogging is important for municipal politicians. In fact, I have encouraged politicians and municipal staff to use all social media. It’s a way to engage with the electorate and to create a political perspective of yourself for residents. It’s a way to let people know the reason behind your vote or stand, to expand on comments made at the council table, and to get comments back from the electorate. But it’s not for the thin-skinned or faint of heart.

However, since blogging is simply a hobby, not a profession, I have to attend to other matters and work on more economically sustainable projects, like my next two books (drafts due at the publisher’s soon…). I am, after all, not retired, but simply a freelance writer who needs to earn an income and I have to prioritize… 😉

I blog mostly because I love to write and it fulfills a need within me to be creative. I usually blog when something strikes me, rather than planning it in advance (some attempts at fiction being the exception). I kick around many ideas for posts but they don’t always get past the draft or idea mode. I will turn them into posts when I have the time. Perhaps then I will be able to live up to my readers’ expectations, and again write posts on ukuleles, tequila, and Mexico in the near future. I am buoyed by the knowledge that I will have a ready-made audience for them, when I do.

The Art of Worldly Wisdom

Balthasar GracianPublished in 1647, The Art of Worldly Wisdom is a collection of 300 aphorisms about life, behaviour, politics, morality, faith, philosophy and society. One comment, on Amazon.ca called it, somewhat unfairly to Machiavelli, “Machiavelli with a soul.” I have been reading it of late as part of my ongoing study of Machiavelli.

It was written by Balthasar Gracian (1601-1658), a Spanish-born Jesuit priest, and titled in its original Spanish, “Oraculo manual y arte de prudencia” which translates to “The Oracle, a Manual of the Art of Discretion.” Today it is known as The Art of Worldly Wisdom. A popular English translation was made in 1892 by Joseph Jacobs, and is available in several formats online as a public domain book. This is available on several sites as a PDF.* A newer translation by Maurer is available through online bookstores.

Gracian also wrote A Pocket Mirror for Heroes (El héroe) around the same time. This was a guide for the behaviour of Christian princes, written as a counterpoint to Machiavelli’s advice. A translation by Maurer is available through online bookstores.

The Art of Worldly Wisdom combines general observations on the human condition with practical tips and prudent advice. Many of the aphorisms still have relevance today: they are common sense, and often witty. It is not, like Heroes, a counter-argument against Machiavelli written for rulers, but rather a general guide, written for people of society; professionals, politicians, socialites. It reads a bit like Chuang Tzu or Mencius, at times. Other times it is sternly moralizing in a very European-Christian manner. Others it seems like Emily Post on manners and civility.

Typical of Gracian’s advice is aphorism 43: Think with the Few and speak with the Many. This can stand alone, but is embellished by his commentary:

“By swimming against the stream it is impossible to remove error, easy to fall into danger; only a Socrates can undertake it. To dissent from others’ views is regarded as an insult, because it is their condemnation. Disgust is doubled on account of the thing blamed and of the person who praised it. Truth is for the few, error is both common and vulgar. The wise man is not known by what he says on the house-tops, for there he speaks not with his own voice but with that of common folly, however much his inmost thoughts may gainsay it. The prudent avoid being contradicted as much as contradicting: though they have their censure ready they are not ready to publish it. Thought is free, force cannot and should not be used to it. The wise man therefore retires into silence, and if he allows himself to come out of it, he does so in the shade and before few and fit persons.”

With 300 such aphorisms in the book, there’s always one you can find that relates to your own situation or a local issue. Some, like the one above, can be quoted by its title, but many require Gracian’s explanation to be made clear. For example, xviii: Application and Ability. This is meaningless without the subsequent paragraph of explanation:

“There is no attaining eminence without both, and where they unite there is the greatest eminence. Mediocrity obtains more with application than superiority without it. Work is the price which is paid for reputation. What costs little is little worth. Even for the highest posts it is only in some cases application that is wanting, rarely the talent. To prefer moderate success in great things than eminence in a humble post has the excuse of a generous mind, but not so to be content with humble mediocrity when you could shine among the highest. Thus nature and art are both needed, and application sets on them the seal.”

Here are a few of his aphorisms that struck me as relevant, while I read the book. I have edited some of the commentary, to reduce the size of this post. I recommend, however, you get a copy of the original and read everything in it:

  • xxiv Keep the Imagination under Control; It can tyrannize, and is not content with looking on, but influences and even often dominates life, causing it to be happy or burdensome according to the folly to which it leads.

    lxxxviii Let your Behaviour be Fine and Noble. A great man ought not to be little in his behaviour. … To keep hovering around the object or your annoyance is a kind of mania.

  • xxv Know how to take a Hint. He cannot make himself understood who does not himself easily understand.
  • xxviii Common in Nothing. …to be ill at ease when your deeds please the mob! The excesses of popular applause never satisfy the sensible. Take no pleasure in the wonder of the mob, for ignorance never gets beyond wonder. While vulgar folly wonders, wisdom watches for the trick.
  • xxx Have naught to do with Occupations of Ill-repute, still less with fads that bring more notoriety than repute.
  • xxxiii Know how to Withdraw. If it is a great lesson in life to know how to deny, it is a still greater to know how to deny oneself as regards both affairs and persons… To be occupied in what does not concern you is worse than doing nothing.
  • xxv Think over Things, most over the most Important. All fools come to grief from want of thought. They never see even the half of things, and as they do not observe their own loss or gain, still less do they apply any diligence to them. Some make much of what imports little and little of much, always weighing in the wrong scale. Many never lose their common sense, because they have none to lose.
  • xli Never Exaggerate. … Exaggeration is a branch of lying, and you lose by it the credit of good taste, which is much, and of good sense, which is more.
  • lxix Do not give way to every common Impulse. He is a great man who never allows himself to be influenced by the impressions of others. Self-reflection is the school of wisdom.
  • lxxvi Do not always be Jesting. Wisdom is shown in serious matters, and is more appreciated than mere wit. He that is always ready for jests is never ready for serious things… Jest has its little hour, seriousness should have all the rest.
  • lxxviii The Art of undertaking Things. Fools rush in through the door; for folly is always bold… prudence enters with more deliberation… Step cautiously where you suspect depth. Sagacity goes cautiously forward while precaution covers the ground. 

    xxiv: Keep the Imagination under Control; It can tyrannize,… influences and even often dominates life, causing it to be happy or burdensome according to the folly to which it leads.

  • lxxx Take care to get Information. We live by information, not by sight…Let reflection assay falsity and exaggeration.
  • lxxxvii Culture and Elegance. Man is born a barbarian, and only raises himself above the beast by culture. Culture therefore makes the man; the more a man, the higher… even knowledge is coarse If without elegance.
  • lxxxviii Let your Behaviour be Fine and Noble. A great man ought not to be little in his behaviour. He ought never to pry too minutely into things, least of all in unpleasant matters… To keep hovering around the object or your annoyance is a kind of mania.
  • xci Never set to work at anything if you have any doubts of its Prudence. A suspicion of failure in the mind of the doer is proof positive of it in that of the onlooker… Action is dangerous where prudence is in doubt… Wisdom does not trust to probabilities; it always marches in the mid-day light of reason.
  • xcii Transcendent Wisdom. …an ounce of wisdom is worth more than tons of cleverness.
  • cvi Do not parade your Position. …The more you seek esteem the less you obtain it, for it depends on the opinion of others. You cannot take it, but must earn and receive it from others…Do not enforce respect, but try and create it.
  • cvii Show no Self-satisfaction. Self-satisfaction arises mostly from ignorance… Because a man cannot achieve the superlative perfections of others, he contents himself with any mediocre talent of his own.
  • cviii The Path to Greatness is along with Others. Intercourse works well: manners and taste are shared: good sense and even talent grow insensibly… It is a great art to agree with others… by joining extremes the more effective middle way is found.
  • cix Be not Censorious. There are men of gloomy character who regard everything as faulty, not from any evil motive but because it is their nature to. They condemn all: these for what they have done, those for what they will do… They accuse with such exaggeration that they make out of motes beams wherewith to force out the eyes. They are always taskmasters who could turn a paradise into a prison…
  • cxii Gain Good-will. …By gaining their good-will you gain men’s good opinion.
  • cxiv Never Compete. …The heat of conflict gives life, or even new life, to dead scandals, and digs up long-buried skeletons. Competition begins with belittling… when the weapons of abuse do not effect their purpose, as often or mostly happens, our opponents use them for revenge, and use them at least for beating away the dust of oblivion from anything to our discredit.
  • cxvi Only act with Honourable Men. Their honour is the best surety of their behaviour even in misunderstandings… ’tis better to have a dispute with honourable people than to have a victory over dishonorable ones.
  • cxvii Never talk of Yourself. You must either praise yourself, which is vain, or blame yourself, which is little-minded… above all, in public speaking, where every appearance of unwisdom really is unwise.
  • cxviii Acquire the Reputation of Courtesy; …Politeness is the main ingredient of culture,–a kind of witchery that wins the regard of all as surely as discourtesy gains their disfavor and opposition…
  • cxix Avoid becoming Disliked. …There are many who hate of their own accord without knowing the why or the how. Their ill-will outruns our readiness to please. Their ill-nature is more prone to do others harm…Some manage to be on bad terms with all, because they always either produce or experience vexation of spirit. Once hate has taken root it is, like bad repute, difficult to eradicate.
  • cxxi Do not make a Business of what is no Business. …Troublesome things must not be taken too seriously if they can be avoided. It is preposterous to take to heart that which you should throw over your shoulders. Much that would be something has become nothing by being left alone, and what was nothing has become of consequence by being made much of.
  • cxxv Do not be a Black List. It is a sign of having a tarnished name to concern oneself with the ill-fame of others. Some wish to hide their own stains with those of others, or at least wash them away: or they seek consolation therein–’tis the consolation of fools.
  • cxxvi Folly consists not in committing Folly, but in not hiding it when committed. …Reputation depends more on what is hidden than on what is done…
  • cxxix Never complain. To complain always brings discredit… By complaining of past offences we give occasion for future ones…
  • cxxxv Do not nourish the Spirit of Contradiction. It only proves you foolish or peevish… To find difficulties in everything may prove you clever, but such wrangling writes you down a fool.
  • cxxxviii The Art of letting Things alone. …There are hurricanes in human affairs, tempests of passion, when it is wise to retire to a harbour and ride at anchor…
  • cxl Find the Good in a Thing at once. …some seek the good, others the ill. There is nothing that has no good in it… But many have such a scent that amid a thousand excellences they fix upon a single defect, and single it out for blame as if they were scavengers of men’s minds and hearts.

    cix Be not Censorious. There are men of gloomy character who regard everything as faulty…They condemn all… with such exaggeration that they make out of motes beams wherewith to force out the eyes.

  • cxli Do not listen to Yourself. It is no use pleasing yourself if you do not please others, and as a rule general contempt is the punishment for self-satisfaction.
  • cxlii Never from Obstinacy take the Wrong Side because your Opponent has anticipated you in taking the Right One. You begin the fight already beaten and must soon take to flight in disgrace. With bad weapons one can never win.
  • cxlv Do not show your wounded Finger, for everything will knock up against it; nor complain about it, for malice always aims where weakness can be injured… Ill-will searches for wounds to irritate, aims darts to try the temper, and tries a thousand ways to sting to the quick. The wise never own to being hit…
  • cxlvi Look into the Interior of Things. Things are generally other than they seem, and ignorance that never looks beneath the rind becomes disabused when you show the kernel. Lies always come first, dragging fools along by their irreparable vulgarity.
  • cli Think beforehand. …The greatest foresight consists in determining beforehand the time of trouble… The pillow is a silent Sibyl, and it is better to sleep on things beforehand than lie awake about them afterwards… Rumination and foresight enable one to determine the line of life.
  • civil Do not make Mistakes about Character. In dealing with men, more than with other things, it is necessary to look within…Men must be studied as deeply as books.
  • clxv Wage War Honorably. You may be obliged to wage war, but not to use poisoned arrows. Everyone must needs act as he is, not as others would make him to be… In men of honour the smallest trace of meanness repels…
  • clxvi Distinguish the Man of Words from the Man of Deeds. …Trees that bear leaves but not fruit have usually no pith. Know them for what they are, of no use except for shade.
  • clxviii Do not indulge in the Eccentricities of Folly. …Where self-control is wanting, there is no room for others’ guidance.
  • clxix Be more careful not to Miss once than to Hit a hundred times. The common talk does not reckon what goes right but what goes wrong. Evil report carries farther than any applause… ill-will notices every error and no success.
  • clxxxviii Be the Bearer of Praise. …since it shows that we have learnt elsewhere to know what is excellent, and hence how to prize it in the present company.
  • cxcix To find a proper Place by Merit, not by Presumption. The true road to respect is through merit… push and insistence is degrading…
  • cci They are all Fools who seem so besides half the rest. …the greatest fool is he who thinks he is not one and all others are….
  • ccix Keep Yourself free from common Follies. …being discontented with his own lot, envies that of others…
  • ccxiv Do not turn one Blunder into two. It is quite usual to commit four others in order to remedy one, or to excuse one piece of impertinence by still another.
  • ccxviii Never act from Obstinacy but from Knowledge. All obstinacy is an excrescence of the mind, a grandchild of passion which never did anything right…
  • ccxxi Do not seize Occasions to embarrass Yourself or Others. There are some men …always on the point of some stupidity…Their humour always strokes the wrong way since they contradict all and every.
  • ccxxviii Do not be a Scandal-monger. …Do not be witty at the cost of others: it is easy but hateful… The backbiter is always hated…
  • cclii Neither belong entirely to Yourself nor entirely to Others. Both are mean forms of tyranny… A shrewd man knows that others when they seek him do not seek him, but their advantage in him and by him.

    cxxv Do not be a Black List.  Some wish to hide their own stains with those of others, or at least wash them away: or they seek consolation therein–’tis the consolation of fools.

  • cclvii Never let Matters come to a Rupture, …Few can do us good, almost any can do us harm… Hidden foes use the paw of the declared enemy to stir up the fire, and meanwhile they lie in ambush for such an occasion. …They cover their own failings with the faults of others.
  • cclxi Do not follow up a Folly. …some continue in their folly and prefer to be constant fools.
  • cclxx Do not condemn alone that which pleases all. There must be something good in a thing that pleases so many; even if it cannot be explained it is certainly enjoyed…You simply destroy respect for your taste rather than do harm to the object of your blame…
  • cclxxii Sell Things by the Tariff of Courtesy. Courtesy does not really make presents, but really lays men under obligation, and generosity is the great obligation.
  • cclxxxiv Do not be Importunate, …Be sooner sparing than lavish with your presence…The importunate is always the butt of blame; and because he thrusts himself in without shame he is thrust out with it.
  • ccxcv Do not affect what you have not effected. Many claim exploits without the slightest claim…content yourself with doing, leave the talking to others.

Some of these just begged to be copied and pasted into Facebook or other sites as comments in ongoing discussions, but I restrained myself and will be content to weave a few of them into my book on Machiavelli. I recommend you read the book to appreciate fully what Gracian wrote in these sayings, and determine yourself their applicability.

~~~~~

* Most of these seem derived from a rough OCR of a scanned book on archive.org. The OCR was poorly edited and contains several typos and contextual mistakes. For example,  aphorism in these version read, “clxxiv Be Attractive.magnet of your pleasant qualities more to obtain goodwill than good deeds…” That is nonsensical. The proper word is not magnet, but “manage” which can be determined by reading the original scan. Other reconstructions suffer from bad grammar and editing. In one, for example, aphorism cclvii reads, “Never let matters come to a braking point.” The correct word is “breaking” (other versions say, “Never let matters come to a rupture.”)
Also, aphorism xci mentions “…if resolutions passed nem. con. by inner court.” Nem. con. is an abbreviation of “nemine contradicente,” a Latin phrase for “without dissent,” “unanimously,”or “of one mind.” It helps to be able to read Roman numerals when identifying aphorisms.

More Machiavellian Misquotes

Face palmMachiavelli today is known to many by sayings that aren’t actually his; pseudo-quotations or mis-attributed sayings that appear on slovenly, un-moderated, un-verified websites that do an enormous disservice to everyone by their very existence.

These sites seem to feed one another, because find one misquote on one of them and you’re sure to find it parroted without even the slightest effort to verify it, on all the rest. Since these sites are predominantly about ad revenue, it’;s little wonder they are so poor.

Most people are unable to discern the wheat from the chaff ion these sites in great part because few can actually lay claim to actually having read him (The Prince, let alone The Discourses or his other works). And from that stems several misconceptions about what he said and didn’t say (and the same goes to every other author and philosopher so frequently misquoted on these sites).

Machiavelli did not write, for example, ‘the end justifies the means.’ It is a modern condensation – and a considerable simplification – of an idea expressed in The Prince. However memorable it is, he had a lot more to say about politics and the behaviour of rulers than that one line.

Machiavelli was just being a realist. He certainly was not a hedonist like Aleister Crowley who wrote,

“Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.”

These so-called quotation databases are rife with errors, mis-attributions, mis-spellings, grammatical and punctuation errors.

Machiavelli wrote that the effect of a ruler’s actions mattered more than the deeds themselves, as long as the end was good for the state. That has been boiled down, in modern times, into “the end justifies the means.” But this shorthand removes it from the all-important context that makes sense of his words (taking things out of context and using them for your own, bizarre ends is quite common on the internet).

Nor did Machiavelli write, ‘Never to attempt to win by force what can be won by deception,’ in The Prince. That may be paraphrased from The Discourses, Book III: 40, or Book II: 13. It is more likely to derive from an entirely different source: The Art of War by Sun-Tzu. This misquote is popular on those faux-quote sites, but it isn’t one of his maxims. I wrote about that mis-quote last year. It still irks me to see it online today.

In the comment following that previous post, I wrote about another popular – and very wrong – internet meme attributed to Machiavelli: “I’m not interested in preserving the status quo; I want to overthrow it.”

That line was actually said by US Republican Newt Gringrich, and is taken from a 1991 interview printed in the LA Times:

Such jabs don’t faze Gingrich. “I’m not interested in preserving the status quo; I want to overthrow it,” he says. “Of course people are going to resent that.”

Other things Machiavelli did NOT say include the following pseudo-quotes taken from various, inaccurate, un-moderated and never verified, quotation sites online. I spent a couple of hours yesterday poring over my texts to search for them, just to be sure. It’s tricky because there are so many translations available, but anyone who has actually read any of them will recognize fairly easily what is and is not his style:

  • “Politics have no relation to morals.”
  • “It is double pleasure to deceive the deceiver.”
  • “Entrepreneurs are simply those who understand that there is little difference between obstacle and opportunity and are able to turn both to their advantage.”
  • “It is not titles that honor men, but men that honor titles.”
  • “The wise man does at once what the fool does finally.”
  • “Before all else, be armed.”
  • “The more sand has escaped from the hourglass of our life, the clearer we should see through it.”
  • “History is written by the victors.”
  • “One should never fall in the belief that you can find someone to pick you up.”
  • “God creates men, but they choose each other.”
  • “Princes and governments are far more dangerous than other elements within society.”
  • “A prince is also esteemed when he is a true friend and a true enemy.”
  • “He who blinded by ambition, raises himself to a position whence he cannot mount higher, must thereafter fall with the greatest loss.”
  • “War is just when it is necessary; arms are permissible when there is no hope except in arms.”
  • “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.”

Got that? Machiavelli NEVER SAID any of those things, yet all appear on many online quotation database pages. They cause me a face-palm moment to even read them (more on my Machiavelli book site and learn what he really said: ianchadwick.com/machiavelli/addenda/appendix-b-machiavellian-misquotes/)

Unfortunately, there are many who will get fooled into thinking these are real quotations from Machiavelli and other authors. But these so-called quotation databases are rife with errors, mis-attributions, mis-spellings, grammatical and punctuation errors; enough that even a casual read should give anyone pause to doubt the veracity. These sites are as reliable to literature as creationism is to science, without being as funny.

These egregious errors exacerbate the bad education people get from the internet; they also speak volumes to the increasing gullibility of web users who will accept clearly mis-attributed lines with the same ease they will believe magnets cure arthritis, crystals are magi, flu vaccinations cause autism and other quackery.

Rereading the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

Wikipedia: Sullivan image for V. 51There are many books weighing down my bookshelves into soft, drooping curves, but not many of them have the privilege of tenure. Only a handful have travelled with me for more than a couple of decades; a small selection of tomes that are read, perhaps infrequently, but more than once, and still manage to speak to me every time.

Most of my books have, over the years, been donated to libraries or sold to bookstores, to make room for the new ones always crowding in and demanding attention. Those that have escaped the culling so long are ones that mean the most to me. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is one of them. You may know it for this memorable verse:

“The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”
1st Translation: 51

Khayyam was a Persian mathematician, philosopher and astronomer. He wrote between 1,200 and 2,000 quatrains (depending on which researcher is counting.). He lived from around 1048 CE to 1122 CE.

I first encountered the Rubaiyat when I was in my pre-teens. I can’t recall today whether it was one of those gems buried on a public library shelf that I found (I waited in the library after school for my father to come home from work and collect me), or if it was among my father’s books I found tucked away on a bookshelf at home. Either way, it stuck with me. Since then, I’ve owned several editions of it. Two sit cheek-to-jowl on my shelves today.

“‘Tis all a Chequer-board of Nights and Days
Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays:
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays.”
1st translation: 49 

Edward FitzGerald, a reclusive and somewhat odd scholar, first translated the collection of stanzas from the ancient Persian in the mid-1850s. Seventy-five of the quatrains were published anonymously in 1859. It took almost ten years for it to become well-known.Today it stands as one of the greatest works of English poetry.

“Come, fill the Cup, and in the Fire of Spring
The Winter Garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To fly—and Lo! the Bird is on the Wing.”
1st Translation: 51

Robert Sherriffs illustrationI wasn’t aware, at the time when I first found it, that there were several translations of the book, and that the number of verses and their order would change in each (starting from 75 in the first to 110 then reduced to 101 in the last three, but because he replaced some, the total unique verses in all editions is 114).

FitzGerald continued to work at his translation, adding and subtracting verses, from his original, re-ordering and tweaking the wording right until his death. Four versions were published in his lifetime, and a fifth was published after his death, based on notes he left behind.

My copies include a 1951 reprint of the first translation, with the stunning B&W illustrations by Edmund Sullivan reproduced. The other is a 1963 reprint of a 1947 edition, with the first, second and fifth translations, colourfully illustrated by cartoonist Robert Sherriffs. Samples of both are in this post.

While later translations may represent an improvement in the translator’s art, for me the first is still the best. It was the one I first discovered, the one I carried with me while hitchhiking around the country in the 1960s, and the one that still moves me most today. However, I find some of the later versions are sometimes slightly better, slightly more powerful or smoother. That’s why it’s good to have several editions.

For example, verse 7, above is rendered thus in the subsequent editions:

“Come, fill the Cup, and in the fire of Spring
Your Winter – garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To flutter – and the Bird is on the Wing.”
2nd-5th translations, verse 7

Which doesn’t strike as quite as lovely, or poetic as the first. I don’t like the change from “the” to “your” in the second line because it personalizes what I see as a more universal sentiment.. And I really don’t think the bird of time should “flutter,” which seems less potent and more random than “fly.” “Fly” scans better, too.

Fitzgerald’s work is overall, however, magnificent, beautiful, and problematic (it even spawned many parodies). It reflects the best of Victorian literary aspirations; flowery and rich without being saccharine, deep without being stodgy or moralizing, readable in whole or in part. It is rich in imagery and symbolism. His chosen rhyming scheme makes it easy to read and memorize  – the AABA scheme has even been called the “Rubaiyat” method.

The poet T.S. Eliot wrote, on reading the Rubaiyat:

‘Like a sudden conversion – the world appeared anew, painted with bright, delicious and painful colours’

However, it is not really very accurate, at least by today’s standards of translation. It’s certainly not literal. In fact, it may be considered more an interpretation than a translation. Wikipedia notes:

“…as a translation of Omar Khayyam’s quatrains, it is not noted for its fidelity. Many of the verses are paraphrased, and some of them cannot be confidently traced to any one of Khayyam’s quatrains at all. Some critics informally refer to the FitzGerald’s English versions as “The Rubaiyat of FitzOmar”, a nickname that both recognizes the liberties FitzGerald inflicted on his purported source and also credits FitzGerald for the considerable portion of the “translation” that is his own creation.”

Fitzgerald himself recognized this, and wrote in a letter to a friend and fellow scholar:

“My translation will interest you from its form, and also in many respects in its detail: very un-literal as it is.”
(letter to E. B. Cowell, 9/3/58) 

Later he would write to the same friend,

“But at all Cost, a Thing must live: with a transfusion of one’s own worse Life if one can’t retain the Original’s better. Better a live Sparrow than a stuffed Eagle”
(letter to E. B. Cowell, 4/27/59).

Scholars have reacted differently to FitzGerald’s work; some with scorn, others with understanding praise:

“…FitzGerald was faithful to the quintessence of the poetic message communicated by Khayyam: that while taking well-deserved liberties with the original text, he recreated the original poet’s message in forms and metaphors more familiar to his Victorian audience -hence his incredible popularity in literary circles of his time. The ‘Wine of Nishapur’ in this sense represents the intoxicating essence of the Quatrains of ‘Umar Khayyam, the fiery way of beauty and wisdom imbibed in Persian by Edward FitzGerald, then outpoured again in Victorian cups of charm and grace.”

from 1921 editionFitzGerald’s Rubaiyat can be read in many different ways: as a long poem with an overarching theme; a series of short poems with loose thematic connections; aphorisms about life and meditations on morality and mortality (like the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius); a religious commentary (in particular a Sufi or Islamic manifesto); a non-religious spiritual guide (like a Persian Bardo Thodol but through life, not the afterlife), an intellectual exercise in translation, or in interpretation (like Witter Bynner’s or Ursula Leguin’s editions of the Tao Teh Ching), or as randomly chosen thoughts for today (like I Ching verses).

No matter how you approach it, it is both beautiful and potent, even more than 150 years later. The Telegraph noted that, by its 150th anniversary in 2009, Fitzgerald’s version had been printed in “650 different editions, with illustrations by 150 artists. It has been translated into 70 languages and set to music by 100 composers.”

Since FitzGerald (yes, he capitalized the G), many other writers have attempted to translate the verses into English and other languages. Whether they have equalled or surpassed FitzGerald’s efforts, is a personal choice. As Wikipedia notes, the tone of the translation depends on one’s own personal philosophy:

The nature of a translation very much depends on what interpretation one places on Khayyam’s philosophy. The fact that the rubaiyat are a collection of quatrains – and may be selected and rearranged subjectively to support one interpretation or another – has led to widely differing versions. Nicolas took the view that Khayyam himself clearly was a Sufi. Others have seen signs of mysticism, even atheism, or conversely devout and orthodox Islam. FitzGerald gave the Rubaiyat a distinct fatalistic spin, although it has been claimed that he softened the impact of Khayyam’s nihilism and his preoccupation with the mortality and transience of all things. Even such a question as to whether Khayyam was pro- or anti-alcohol gives rise to more discussion than might at first glance have seemed plausible.

FitzGerald himself seems to have been somewhat of a fatalist, or nihilist, albeit gently so. He grew increasingly disenchanted with Christianity, and eventually gave up attending church. His own outlook on  mortality and the fleeting nature of life is evident throughout all of his versions, but it’s far from a pessimistic work.

The Rubaiyat.com compares versions by five translators (Fitzgerald – four editions – Brodie, Talbot, Sadie and Whinfield; Brodie is an ‘anagrammatic paraphrase’ of FitzGerald).You can also compare the first, second, fourth and fifth FitzGerald translations, as well as the Whinfield at Arabiannights.org.

It’s fascinating to compare how others have turned the original into their own words.It’s even fascinating to see how Fitzgerald himself struggled to refine the verses. For example, in his first translation, Fitzgerald wrote this:

“Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse – and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness –
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.”
1st translation: 11

In the second edition, this became:

“Here with a little Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse–and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness–
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!”
2nd translation: 12

For the third to fifth editions, this became:

“A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread–and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness–
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!”
3rd-5th translations: 12

As the Rubaiyat.com shows, this is sometimes represented by more than one verse, depending on the translator:

“Some wine, a Houri (Houris if there be),
A green bank by a stream, with minstrelsy;—
Toil not to find a better Paradise
If other Paradise indeed there be!
~~~

In the sweet spring a grassy bank I sought,
And thither wine, and a fair Houri brought;
And, though the people called me graceless dog,
Gave not to Paradise another thought!
~~~

Give me a skin of wine, a crust of bread,
A pittance bare, a book of verse to read;
With thee, O love, to share my lowly roof,
I would not take the Sultan’s realm instead!
~~~

So long as I possess two maunds of wine,
Bread of the flower of wheat, and mutton chine,
And you, O Tulip cheek, to share my hut,
Not every Sultan’s lot can vie with mine.
Whinfield, verses 79, 84, 452, 479

and:

If in the Spring, she whom I love so well
Meet me by some green bank – the truth I tell –
Bringing my thirsty soul a cup of wine,
I want no better Heaven, nor fear a Hell.
~~~

Whether my destin’d fate shall be to dwell
Midst Heaven’s joys or in the fires of Hell
I know not; here with Spring, and bread, and wine,
And thee, my love, my heart says “All is well.”
~~~

Give me a scroll of verse, a little wine,
With half a loaf to fill thy needs and mine,
And with the desert sand our resting place,
For ne’er a Sultan’s kingdom would we pine.
~~~

Let Fortune but provide me bread of wheat,
A gourd of wine a bone of mutton sweet,
Then in the desert if we twain might sit,
Joys such as ours no Sultan could defeat
Talbot, verses 25, 40, 149, 155

Others translate it into a single verse:

A Poem, and Trees a-blowing in a Wind.
A Brew I’ll drink — base Needs of other Stuff
Ignore. Ah see here how we do behave;
Indeed for us a Song is just enough.
Brodie, verse 12

and:

Ah, would there were a loaf of bread as fare,
A joint of lamb, a jug of vintage rare,
And you and I in wilderness encamped –
No Sultan’s pleasure could with ours compare.
Sadie, verse 16

There ar a lot of versions of the Rubaiyat online, as well as a lot of scholarship. Several post-2000 editions are listed at omarkhayyamrubaiyat.com, although they all appear based on FitzGerald.

You can read all of FitzGerald’s various editions, as well as at least half-a-dozen others online. But I recommend instead that you get a print version. It’s the sort of book you will want to read on a Sunday afternoon, over a glass of wine, or just before bedtime, when you can ponder each verse in the quiet of the night. Besides, every home library should have a copy. It’s one of those books, like Shakespeare’s collected works, you should not be without.

I try to read it, if not always in one sitting, at least in its entirety, every few years. It’s always worth the time to do so.

“Whether at Naishápúr or Babylon,
Whether the Cup with sweet or bitter run,
The Wine of Life keeps oozing drop by drop,
The Leaves of Life keep falling one by one.”
2nd translation, verse 8

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year. 2012 is almost over. 2013 looms a few hours away. I wish you all the best of times in the upcoming year.

What a year it’s been. For council, we flailed around in the tar-baby issues of the new rec facilities and then the gambling facility (aka “casino” or “slot barn”). The rec facilities are going to built soon and will be stunning – that issue is, I hope, behind us and I expect everyone in town will enjoy them.

The gambling, well, some folks on council brought it back and I suspect it will be re-opened for debate in the New Year. It’s pretty contentious.

Aside from some minor fumbles and procedural gaffes, council had a good year and collectively accomplished a lot. Our term is half over and we have already achieved a remarkable amount – not the least being reducing our debt considerably while holding down expenses and taxes. No mean feat, that! We still maintain good relations with each other at the table, which matters a lot. We’ll see if the gambling issue fractures that coherency – but I hope not.

For me, personally, it was satisfying. I got two books published by Municipal World, as well as several articles in their prestigious monthly magazine. I also got contracts for two books to be published in 2013 for Municipal World. At the same time, I wrote a book on Machiavelli for Municipal Politicians, which I have recently put online while I hunt for a publisher. I may instead pursue the e-book market.

I started work on a novel, and fumbled my way through about 35,000 words in a few week.s Will go back to it next month. I collected a lot more books than I have bookshelf space, in my research for that and the other titles. I really, really need more speace for the books.

I started this new blog in January, and have learned a lot about coding and programming WordPress sites since.

I descended ascended to the world of Apple by getting an iPad and finding myself delighted by it. It’s the first Apple product I’ve had since I owned an original Macintosh, back in the 1980s. Got Apple TV, too, but hardly ever use it. I’ve even given serious thought to an e-reader as an accessory – for the classics and my archived books (who wouldn’t want to carry around a Shakespeare First Folio, even if only in PDF?).

Susan and I entered a new level of debt by having our kitchen redone after more than 20 years living here. Most expensive thing we’ve ever undertaken, aside from buying the house. You know those warnings the Bank of Canada frequently makes about Canadians living beyond their means? That’s us, now. Oops, too late…

For me, personally, it was satisfying. I got two books published by Municipal World, as well as several articles in their prestigious monthly magazine.

It took eight weeks – or was it ten? – for a project we expected to take two or three. Noise, dust, inconvenience, paint, washing dishes in the bathroom sink, too many microwave dinners… But the result is wonderful. Thanks to Dean of Premier Kitchens for seeing us through it and delivering a stellar product.

I got two new musical instruments to learn: an electric stand-up bass (Ergo five string), and a tenor guitar (Goldtone) as an alternative to my baritone ukuleles. Both used, bought from Kijiji sellers. Haven’t had as much time as I wished to practice, but I enjoy the time I have with them when I do.

Susan and I had our 29th anniversary earlier this month, and we’re now in our 30th year together. Not sure how she still tolerates my messy, unfocused, rambling ways, but she does and I love her all the more for it.

I was blessed with another grandchild – James. Saw him earlier this month and he’s a BIG boy. More about that in some future blog. My first grandchild is Hannah, now four. Saw her earlier this month, too. Really a beautiful kid. Jess and Tom make a great couple, and great parents.

We didn’t get to go on holidays this year, but we have been saving for 2013, although we haven’t decided where. Maybe Mexico (another Blue Agave tour?), maybe England again (my first visit there was in 2011). or maybe somewhere completely different. Depends on the money, the time, work and our pets. Sure would be nice to get away, though.

I’m sure more happened, but my memory has failed me, and it’s time to start dinner, and pour another glass of wine.

Anyway, this is just my personal wrap up for 2012. I hope yours was as good for you as mine was for me. Happy new Year and best wishes for 2013.