Monday, 31 December 2012

"The Chimes"

"We have heard THE CHIMES at midnight, Master Swallow!"

Charles Dickens writing to John Forster, 1844, (quoting Henry IV Pt. 2) having found the title for his latest Christmas book.

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Heavenly spheres

"Mortals, that would follow me
Love virtue, she alone is free,
She can teach ye how to climb
Higher than the sphery chime;
Or if virtue feeble were,
Heav'n itself would stoop to her."

Comus  John Milton

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

There was no snow

"The wind was rough
And cold and blough; she kept her hand
Inside her mough.
It chilled her through,
Her nose turned blough,
And still the squall the faster flough.
And yet although
There was no snough,
The weather was a cruel fough.
It made her cough
(please do not scoff)
She coughed until
Her hat blew ough."

Bennett Cerf

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Christmas Day in the Morning

" 'Alack,'  said the tailor, 'I have my twist; but no more strength -- nor time-- than will serve to make me one single button-hole; for this is Christmas Day in the Morning!  The Mayor of Gloucester shall be married by noon -- and where is his cherry-coloured coat?'
He unlocked the door of the little shop in Westgate Street and Simpkin ran in, like a cat that expects something.
But there was no one there!  Not even one little brown mouse!
The boards were swept and clean; the little ends of thread and the little silk snippets were all tidied away, and gone from off the floor,
But upon the table -- oh, joy! the tailor gave a shout -- there, where he had left plain cuttings of silk -- there lay the most beautifullest coat and embroidered satin waistcoat that ever were worn by a Mayor of Gloucester.
There were roses and pansies upon the facings of the coat; and the waistcoat was worked with poppies and corn-flowers.
Everything was finished except just one single cherry-coloured button-hole, and where that button-hole was wanting there was pinned a scrap of paper with these words -- in little teeny weeny writing --

                                                                                ' NO MORE TWIST '  "

The Tailor of Gloucester  Beatrix Potter

Happy Christmas!

Monday, 24 December 2012

The night before Christmas 1666

24th December 1666

"...I did this evening buy me a pair of green spectacles, to see whether they will help my eyes or no.  So to the Change, and went to the Upper Change, which is almost as good as the old one; only shops are but on one side.  Then home to the office and did  business till my eyes begun to be bad; and so home to supper (my people being busy making mince pies) and so to bed....

25. Christmas Day.  Lay pretty long in bed.  And then rise, leaving my wife desirous to sleep, having sat up till 4 this morning seeing her maids make mince pies. ..."

The Diary of Samuel Pepys  ed. Robert Latham

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Sunday, 23rd December, 1945

"I read an interesting article in which it said that only three hundred thousand less turkeys were available this year than in an ordinary pre-war year.  But where, in 1938, only one family in seven had turkey, either from choice or inability to pay for one, today almost everyone wanted bird, and were quite able to pay the price.

People are so afraid of letting anything 'get by them'.  Take fruit, for instance.  I feel sure the average working-class person hardly ever bothered to buy oranges except at Christmas, but now, as soon as it is rumoured there are oranges or apples on the way, everyone spends hours looking for them.  and I know, perfectly well, that before the war thousands and thousands of people never had one salad in the whole course of the year.  Whereas now they all seem to want salads."     B. Charles.

"11a.m. Norah came in to arrange about the feeding of Smut while we are away at Christmas, and I gave her one of my three-year calendars.
11.30 a.m.  Ida came in and brought me a box of chocolates. I gave her a calendar."  Herbert Brush.

Our Hidden Lives  The Remarkable Diaries of Post-war Britain  Simon Garfield

Deo Gracias

"Adam lay i-bowndyn,
bowndyn in a bond,
Fowre thowsand wynter
thowt he not to long;
And al was for an appil,
an appil that he tok,
As clerkis fyndyn wretyn
in here book.
Ne hadde the appil take ben,
the appil taken ben,
Ne hadde never our lady
a ben hevene qwen.
Blyssid be the time
that appil take was,
Therfore we mown syngyn

Sloane ms. 2593

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Christmas cheer

"Then well may we welcome old Christmas to town,
Who brings us good cheer and liquor so brown,
To pass the cold weather away with delight,
We feast it all day and we frolic all night.
Both hunger and cold we keep out with relief --
Plum pudding, goose, capon, minc'd pies and roast beef."

17th century street ballad.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Baskerville, a Lunar man

"Perhaps it was because they were self-taught that such men seemed to think that anything they set their heart on was achievable. Baskerville had worked for years, challenging a notoriously conservative craft, before he printed his ground-breaking Virgil of 1757.  He not only designed new typefaces but cast the type and set it and improved printing-press design, paper-making and ink-making.  Many of his experiments had the lateral-thinking quality that marked the Lunar circle - an ad hoc, quick readiness to seize the potential of things near to hand, to test the properties of everything they stumbled across, whether it be rocks, metals, acids or tools.  Baskerville's lustrous, oily, near-purple ink gained its unique colour from being mixed with 'fine-black', soot collected from the glass-pinchers' and solderers' lamps; his paper's prized glaze came from 'hot-pressing', a mysterious process probably based on a technique from his japanning work."

The Lunar Men   Jenny Uglow

Monday, 17 December 2012

A merchant's letters

"'It befits a merchant,' wrote Leon Battista Alberti, the great architect who belonged to one of the chief trading-companies of Florence, 'always to have ink-stained hands.'  Datini was of the same opinion.  While the heads of some firms left much of their correspondence to their fattori, he insisted, even in his old age, on writing every letter with his own hand--

'I wish to look over each of my papers,' he wrote in 1399, 'and set them in order and mark them, that I may be clear about each man with whom I have to do.'

What did all these letters look like, and how did they reach their destination?  They were written on sheets of paper folded in three, closed by a small cord passing through holes in the edges, and sealing it at each end.  The side containing the address was marked with the same trade-mark  which was also placed on Francesco's bales  of merchandise.  Each bundle of letters was then wrapped in a water-proof canvas and enclosed in a bag or purse called a scarsella, sealed by the merchant and worn at the messenger's belt."

The Merchant of Prato   Iris Origo

Friday, 14 December 2012

Home is where one starts from.

"There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album)."

Four Quartets:  East Coker V   T.S. Eliot

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Venetian inkstands

"In Venice, staying at the Leone Bianco (comfortable,  but by Austrian decree no French wine at dinner)  Lady Blessington began her collection of objects that had once belonged to famous people with the purchase of an inkstand once owned by a Doge.  She recalls she had bought some specimens of the old Venetian glass and some curious cameos.  In the ante-room by her apartments, an Italian Jew pesters her daily in broken English to buy the inkstand of the last Doge, Manin.   'I ventured to insinuate that had it been the inkstand of Paolo Luca Anafesto, the first instead of the last Doge, it would have had more attractions for me.'

In the end, she became the owner of  'Manini's inkstand; the inkstand in which he dipped his pen to sign the capitulation  of Venice after it had counted twelve centuries of sway.' "

Venice  The Most Triumphant City  George Bull

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

At Satis House

"She presently rose from her seat, and looked about the blighted room for means of writing.  There were none there, and she took from her pocket a yellow set of ivory writing tablets, mounted in tarnished gold, and wrote upon them with a pencil in a case of tarnished gold that  hung from her neck.

'You are still on friendly terms with Mr. Jaggers?'
'Quite.  I dined with him yesterday.'
'This is an authority to him to pay  you that money, to lay out at your irresponsible discretion for your friend.  I keep no money here; but, if you would rather Mr. Jaggers knew nothing of the matter, I will send it to you.'
'Thank you, Miss Havisham; I have not the least objection to receiving it from him.'

She read me what she had written, and it was direct and clear, and evidently intended to absolve me from any suspicion of profiting by the receipt of the money.  I took the tablets from her hand,  and it trembled again, and it trembled more as she took off the chain to which the pencil was attached, and put it in mine.  All this she did without looking at me.

'My name is on the first leaf.  If you can ever write under my name 'I forgive her,' though ever so long after my broken heart is dust -- pray do it!'  "

Great Expectations   Charles Dickens

Monday, 10 December 2012

Henry James in Venice

"But even as he gazed at the Barbaro's painted walls and sculpted ceilings, James had in mind a very different sort of palace.

At the time, June of 1887, he was deep in thought about a dilapidated ruin on a lonely canal in a melancholy, rarely visited part of town.  The once-grand interior of this other palace was shabby, dusty, and tarnished.  Its walled garden had become an overgrown tangle of weeds and vines.  Two impoverished spinster ladies lived in the palace, rarely went out, saw no one.

James told nobody about this other derelict palace or its two lonely inhabitants, because they were fictional. They were characters in a short novel he was then composing --The Aspern Papers, the other of his two masterful novels set in Venice.  In the mornings, he would go to the Barbaro's breakfast room, sit down at the Chinese lacquered desk beneath the 'pompous Tiepolo ceiling', and write a few pages.  During his five-week stay at the Barbaro, he put the finishing touches on the manuscript and sent it off to his publisher."

The City of  Falling Angels  John Berendt

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Cottage library

"I asked him how he got his books.  He explained that he bought them of a pedlar who travelled the country and to whom he had given a list of the works which he most desired to posses.  This man was able to get them cheap, at sales or at houses where a removal was expected.  When he came to Gulley's cove he always brought one or two volumes in his pack.  He had got the Human Understanding from a dairy-maid in exchange for a cap ribbon.  She had been using it as a scale-weight for cheeses."

Troy Chimneys  Margaret Kennedy

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Encyclopaedia of Istanbul

"It was only after he realised that his collection might have no bounds that he hit on the idea of an encyclopedia, and from then he remained aware of the 'thingness' of his collection.  When Professor Semavi Eyice, the historian of Byzantine and Ottoman art, who'd known Kocu since 1944, and who'd written entries for the Encyclopedia since its inception, wrote about Kocu after his death, he described his large library piled high with 'material' he kept in envelopes -- newspaper cuttings, collections of pictures and photographs, dossiers and notes (now lost) compiled from his long years of reading the nineteenth-century newspapers.

When Kocu realised that he would not live to finish the Encyclopedia he told Semavi Eyice that he was going to take his entire collection, a lifetime of scavenging, and burn it in his garden.  Only a true collector would consider such a gesture, which calls to mind the novelist Bruce Chatwin, who for part of his life worked at Sotheby's, and whose hero, Utz, destroys his own porcelain collection in a moment of rage.  Kocu did not, in the end, let his anger get the better of him, but if he had, it would have made little difference;  production of the Istanbul Encyclopedia steadily slowed, stopped altogether in 1973."

Istanbul, Memories of a City  Orhan Pamuk   trans. M . Freely

Friday, 7 December 2012

A Discourse on Paper

"To omit many other devices in after ages to signify their conceptions, paper was first made of a broad flag (not unlike our great dock) growing in and nigh Canopus in Egypt, which it seems was the staple commodity of that country,  and substantial enough to bear the solemn curse of the prophet, 'The paper-reeds by the brook shall wither, be driven away, and be no more.'

Our modern paper is made of ground rags, and yet this new artificial doth still thankfully retain the name of the old natural paper.  It may pass for the emblem of men of mean extraction, who by art and industry, with God's blessing thereon come to high preferment.  One may find, if searching into the pedigree of paper, it cometh into the world at the downgate, raked thence in rags, which, refined by art, (especially after precious secrets are written on therein) is found fit to be choicely kept in the cabinets of the greatest potentates.  Pity it is that the first author of so useful an invention cannot with any assurance be assigned.

There are almost as many kinds of paper as conditions of persons betwixt the emperor and the beggar: Imperial, Royal,  Cardinal, and so on downwards to that coarse paper called Emporetica, useful only for chapmen to wrap their wares therein.  Paper participates in some sort  of the characters of the countrymen which make it, the Venetian being neat, subtle, and courtlike, the French light, slight and slender, the Dutch thick, corpulent and gross, not to say sometimes also charta bibula, sucking up the ink with the sponginess thereof.

Paper is entered as a manufacture of this county, because there are mills, nigh Stourbridge fair, where paper was made in the memory of our fathers.  And it seemeth to me a proper conjunction, that seeing Cambridge yieldeth so many good writers, Cambridgeshire should afford paper unto them."

The Worthies of England  Thomas Fuller   ed. R. Barber

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Ice puzzles

"Little Kay was quite blue, nay almost black with cold, but he did not observe it, for the Snow Queen had kissed away the shrinking feeling he used to experience, and his heart was like a lump of ice.  He was busied among the sharp icy fragments, laying and joining them together in every possible way, just as people do with what are called Chinese puzzles.  Kay could form the most curious and complete figures -- this was the ice-puzzle of reason -- and in his eyes these figures were of the utmost importance.  He often formed whole words, but there was one word he could never succeed in forming -  it was Eternity.  The Snow Queen had said to him, 'When thou canst put that figure together, thou shalt become thine own master and I will give thee the whole world, and a new pair of skates besides.'
But he could never do it."

The Snow Queen  Hans Christian Andersen

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

The first snow

"When men were all asleep the snow came flying,
In large white flakes falling on the city brown,
Stealthily and perpetually settling and loosely lying,
Hushing the latest traffic of the drowsy town;
Deadening, muffling, stifling its murmurs failing;
Lazily and incessantly floating down and down.
Silently sifting and veiling road, roof and railing;
Hiding difference, making unevenness even,
Into angles and crevices softly drifting and sailing.

All night it fell, and when full inches seven
It lay in the depth of its uncompacted lightness,
The clouds blew off from a high and frosty heaven;
And all woke earlier for the unaccustomed brightness
Of the winter dawning, the strange unheavenly glare:
The eye marvelled -- marvelled at the dazzling whiteness;
The ear hearkened to the stillness of the solemn air;
No sound of wheel rumbling nor of foot falling,
And the busy morning cries came thin and spare.

Then boys I heard, as they went to school, calling,
They gathered up the crystal manna to freeze
Their tongues with tasting, their hands with snowballing;
Or rioted in a drift, plunging up to the knees,
Or peering up from under the whited massed wonder,
'O look at the trees!' they cried, 'O look at the trees!'
With lessened load a few carts creak and blunder,
Following along the white deserted way,
A country company long dispersed asunder:
When now already the sun, in pale display
Standing by Paul's high dome, spread forth below
His sparkling beams, and awoke the stir of the day.

For now doors open, and war is waged with the snow;
And trains of sombre men, past tale of number,
Tread long brown paths, as toward their toil they go:
But even for them awhile no cares encumber
Their minds diverted; the daily word is unspoken,
The daily thoughts of labour and sorrow slumber
At the sight of the beauty that greets them,
           For the charm they have broken."

London Snow  Robert Bridges


Tuesday, 4 December 2012

"Penny plain, tuppence coloured"

"She reached into the carton on the bed and took out one of the metal rods.  Like you, she said accusingly to the little figure attached to the end of it.   A slide, she explained, handing it to me for closer inspection; the characters and the props were all attached to slides, making it possible to move them in and out between the panels.

The figure of the Don had been lithographed in four colours on heavy-stock paper and then cut out with scissors like a paper doll.  He was part of a complete Don Giovanni set which had originally belonged to the Baroness von Schadenheim, and which the Baroness had given to Helle in token of their friendship -- although that,  Helle said, was another story.  Evidently the tradition of the model theatre came into existence in England around 1800;  Robert Louis Stevenson wrote a charming essay on the subject, in which he described the pleasures of purchasing, for a mere two pennies, a set of lithographed sheets containing all the figures and props and backdrops needed to create a whole new world.

And it was a whole new world, Helle said, which she and Flo were about to create -- specifically, the bog world of The Girl who Trod on a Loaf's second act, the world Inger drops into when she takes that fateful step onto the loaf of bread."

The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf  Kathryn Davis

Monday, 3 December 2012

Serge's writing desk

"It was a writing-table set; a large blotting-book, a double inkwell, a pen-tray, and a sort of casket with a lock and a tiny gilt key.  But it was all made of some warm white stone, white with a glow in it, like pearls or sea-shells, and clasped and set in a heavy carved metal, duller than gold but like gold; and studded in large stones of black and white, round and polished as marbles.  Edward Marshall turned the tiny key and lifted the curved lid of the casket; inside were slots and compartments for notepaper and envelopes....

Mr Penscot stooped (with some difficulty) and brought his glasses to bear on the table.
'Probably Russian,' he pronounced, straightening himself. 'It was a fashion, you know?  The lavish use of semi-precious stones in inkstands and paper-knives and clocks and door-handles and what-not.  Yes, definitely Russian I should say.  Barbaric; but very handsome...'

'I wonder how it got here?'

Mr Penscott shrugged his plump shoulders,
'Your guess is as good as mine!  Either someone belonging to the Manor House made the Grand Tour about a hundred years ago and brought it home with his other curios and mementos and presents.  Or -- more likely -- it was sold by someone who came over here as a refugee in the last war.'

'I wish we had it,' said Vicky.  'Even more than the tea-cups -- yes, I do Dal.'
'Why?' Edward Marshall asked.

'I don't know.  I just think -- it's beautiful.'
'You're quite right.  It is.'  "

The Gentle Shadows  Kathleen Wallace

Sunday, 2 December 2012

The new pupil

"I can still remember this unusual being and all the strange treasures he brought along in the satchel he wore on his back.  At first, there were 'picture' penholders that he brought out to write dictation; if you closed one eye you could see a picture, through a peephole in the handle, blurred and magnified, of the Basilica at Lourdes or some unknown monument.  He chose one, and the others were quickly passed around.  Then there was a Chinese pencil box, fall of compasses and curious instruments, which travelled along the bench to the left, slipping silently and surreptitiously from hand to hand, under the exercise books, so that Monsieur Seurel wouldn't see.

Brand-new books also did the rounds, books the titles of which I had eagerly read on the spines of the few in our library:  La Teppe aux Merles,  La Roche aux Mouettes, Mon ami Benoist...  Some of us were leafing through these volumes on our knees whilst writing our dictation with the other hand.  We didn't know where they had come from: they might have been stolen.  Other pupils were turning the compasses round inside their desks, while still others, hastily, Monsieur Seurel's back being turned as he continued the dictation while walking from the desk to the window,  had one eye shut and the other fixed on the blue-green, speckled view of Notre-Dame de Paris.  Meanwhile, the new arrival, pen in hand, winking, with his fine profile outlined against the grey pillar, was enjoying all this furtive activity going on around him."

Le Grand Meaulnes  Alain-Fournier  (trans. Robin Buss)

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Whose letters?

" 'When we was at the Benedick I had charge of some of the gentlemen's rooms; leastways, I swep' them out on Saturdays.  Some of the gentlemen got the greatest sight of letters: I never saw the like of it. Their waste-paper baskets'd be fairly brimming and papers falling over on the floor.  Maybe havin' so many is how they get so careless.  Some of 'em is worse than others.  Mr Selden, Mr Lawrence Selden, he was always one of the carefullest: burnt his letters in winter, and tore 'em in little bits in summer.  But sometimes he'd have so many he'd just bunch 'em together, the way the others did, and tear the lot through once like this.'

While she spoke she had loosened the string from the parcel in her hand, and now she drew forth a letter which she laid on the table between Miss Bart and herself.  As she had said, the letter was torn in two; but with a rapid gesture she  laid the torn edges together and smoothed out the page.

A wave of indignation swept over Lily.  She felt herself in the presence of something vile, as yet but dimly conjectured -- the kind of vileness of which people whispered, but which she had never thought of as touching her own life.  She drew back with a motion of disgust, but her withdrawal was checked by a sudden discovery: under the glare of Mrs Peniston's chandelier she had recognised the hand-writing of the letter.  It was a large disjointed hand, with a flourish of masculinity which but slightly disguised its rambling weakness, and the words, scrawled in heavy ink on pale-tinted notepaper, smote on Lily's ear as though she had heard them spoken."

The House of Mirth  Edith Wharton