Friday, 27 September 2013

Rituals of composition: the Chairman's desk

"He demanded from his underlings the strictest observance of infinitesimal minutiae.  For instance, every object on his desk had to be arranged each morning with meticulous exactitude.  The edges of the in-tray must be flush with those of the out-tray.  The silver calendar, turned for the day, two inches to the left of the clock.  Pencils, newly sharpened, and clean nibs in pen-holders.  The penwiper at right angles to the blotter, freshly filled.  Telephones and inter-communicator slightly staggered at an angle of, say, 22 degrees from the chair.  Envelope rack within easy reach without necessitating undue stretching, yet not so close that the elbow had to be unnaturally crooked.  If the softest of the three India rubbers was not found on the left-hand side of the row on the allotted tray and adjacent to the red (not blue) sealing wax, Sir Roderick's displeasure could be terrible."

Another Self   James Lees-Milne
(on the desk arrangement of Sir Roderick Jones, Chairman of Reuters)

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Under the frangipani

"Domenica was fussy about the circumstances in which she wrote. In Scotland Street, she would sit at her desk with a clean block of ruled foolscap paper in front of her and write on that, with a Conway Stewart fountain pen, in green ink.  There were those who said that writing in green ink was a sign of mental instability, but she had never understood the basis for this.  Green ink was attractive, more restful on the eye than an intense black, and she persisted with it.
Such rituals of composition were impossible in that small village near Malacca.

There, she made do with a simple, rather rickety table, which provided a surface for her French moleskin notebook and for a rather less commodious writing paper.  But there was still the Conway Stewart pen, and supplies of green ink, and it was with this pen that she now wrote a letter to James Holloway in Edinburgh.
'Dear James,' she began, 'I know that you are familiar with the Far East and will be able to picture the scene here --  the scene of me upon my veranda, at my table,  with a frangipani tree directly in front of me.'  "

Love over Scotland Street  A. McCall Smith

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

September shelter

"I sit with all the windows and the door [of the greenhouse] wide open, and am regaled with the scent of every flower in a garden as full of flowers as I have known how to make it.  We keep no bees, but if I lived in a hive I should hardly hear more of their music.  All the bees in the neighbourhood resort to a bed of mignonette, opposite to the window; and pay me for the honey they get out of it by a hum, which though rather monotonous, is as agreeable to my ear as the whistling of my linnets."
September 18, 1784,  Buckinghamshire

Correspondence  William Cowper (quoted Geoffrey Grigson, as before)

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Tangier Harbour

"The Commissioners for Tanger met, and there my Lord Tiviott, together with Capt. Cuttance, Capt. Evans, and Jonas Moore, sent to that purpose, did bring us a brave draught of the Molle to be built there, and report that it is likely to be the most considerable place the King of England hath in the world; and so I am apt to think it will."

Diary ( 28 Sept. 1663)  Samuel Pepys

Monday, 23 September 2013

Kinde and True Love

" 'Tis not how witty, nor how free,
Nor yet how beautiful she be,
But how much kinde and true to me.
Freedome and Wit none can confine,
And Beauty like the Sun doth shine,
But kinde and true are only mine.

Let others with attention sit,
To listen, and admire her wit,
That is a rock where I'le not split.
Let others dote upon her eyes,
And burn their hearts for sacrifice,
Beauty's a calm where danger lyes.

But Kinde and True have been long tried,
A harbour where we may confide,
And safely there at anchor ride.
From change of winds there we are free,
And need not fear Storme's tyranny,
Nor Pirat, though a Prince he be."

attrib. Aurelian Townshend

Sunday, 22 September 2013

On the subject of maps

" 'Dear friends,' [Angus]  began,  'Domenica is back from a distant place.  Would you mind a great deal if I were to deliver a poem on the subject of maps?'

'Not in the slightest,' said David Robinson. 'Maps are exactly what we need to hear about.' ...

 'Although' he began, ' they are useful sources
Of information we cannot do without,
Regular maps have few surprises: their contour lines
Reveal where the Andes  are, and are reasonably clear
On the location of Australia, and the Outer Hebrides;
Such maps abound; more precious, though,
Are the unpublished maps we make ourselves,
Of our city, our place, our daily world, our life;
Those maps of our private world
We use every day; here I was happy, in that place
I left my coat behind after a party,
That is where I met my love; I cried there once,
Once I saw the hills of Fife across the Forth,
Things of that sort, our personal memories,
That make the private tapestry of our lives.
Old maps had personified winds,
Gusty figures from whose bulging cheeks
Trade winds would blow; now we know
That wind is simply a matter of isobars;
Science has made such things mundane,
But love  -  that, at least, remains a mystery,
Why it is, and how it comes about
That love's transforming breath, that gentle wind,
Should blow its healing way across our lives.' "

Love over Scotland Street   A. McCall Smith

Friday, 20 September 2013

Domenica and the pirates

"When the last of the pirates had entered the warehouse, Henry started his engine again and they began to inch towards the other side of the jetty.  Domenica watched carefully.  This was extremely exciting, and she could already imagine her telling this story to Angus Lordie or James Holloway, or Dilly Emslie -- to any of her Edinburgh friends, in fact.

'There I was,' she would say.  'There I was with my good friend Henry, creeping up the jetty to peek through the windows of the pirate warehouse.  What would I see within?  Chests of booty? Wretched captives tied and gagged by these ruffians?  Things that can hardly be described ...?'

There is a certain self conscious pleasure in describing, before the event, one's more distinguished moments, and that is exactly what Domenica experienced, sitting there in the boat, waiting for the adventure to unfold.  And it did unfold."

[.......much later, at Domenica's home-coming party:]

" 'But you've finished with pirates?' asked James. 'I really think that we've had enough pirates.  Hunter-gatherers are fine, but pirates....'

Domenica nodded.  'My pirates proved to be rather dull at the end of the day.  They were a wicked bunch,  I suppose.  Their attitude to intellectual property rights was pretty cavalier.  But bad behaviour is ultimately rather banal, don't you think?  There's a terrible shallowness to it.'

'I couldn't agree more,' said Antonia.  ' I would have found Captain Hook a very dull companion,  I suppose.  Peter Pan would have been far more fun.' "

Love over Scotland Street  A. McCall Smith

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Temptations - The Tree of Love

"Belle quittez moy ces amants qui ne sont pour vous que de glace dénichez les sur cette arbre cessez de leur faire des present coupez moy larbre par le tronc et moquez vous de leurs audace faite les tombe sur la place sont des laches et des poltrons"  [outer border inscription]

"Mes dames nous allons tous descendre  Appaizez tous vostre fureur nous vous allons donn nos coeurs que voulez vous donc entre pré(n)dre allons descendez chers amants et ne soyez plus rebelle vous serez chéris tendrement de vos maitress fidèle"  [inner border inscription]

Delftware Salad bowl, Nevers 1739  ©  Fitzwilliam Museum

Monday, 16 September 2013


"Pirate s. [Gk, pirate, Fr.]

1. A sea robber.
2. Any robber, particularly a bookseller who seizes the copies of other men."

A Dictionary of the English Language  Samuel Johnson, LL.D.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Treasure Island lost

"It is one thing to draw a map at random, set a scale in one corner of it at a venture and write up a story to the measurements.  It is quite another to have to examine a whole book, make an inventory of all the allusions contained in it and, with a pair of compasses, painfully design a map to suit the data."

My First Book  (Juvenilia)  Robert Louis Stevenson

[Stevenson drew the first detailed 'Treasure Island' map to please his stepson, Lloyd Osbourne.  When he discovered that the map had never reached his publishers, Cassell, it had to be redrawn, but it was never the same as his original. ]

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Cloud atlas

"Thursday, 7th November  --

Beyond the Indian hamlet, upon a forlorn strand, I happened on a trail of recent footprints.  Through rotting kelp, sea cocoa-nuts & bamboo, the tracks led me to their maker, a white man, his trowzers & Pea-jacket rolled up, sporting a kempt beard and an outsized Beaver,  shovelling and sifting the cindery sand  with a tea-spoon so intently that he noticed me only after I had hailed him from ten yards away.
Thus it was, I made the acquaintance of Dr Henry Goose, surgeon to the London nobility.  His nationality was no surprise.  If there be any eyrie so desolate, or isle so remote that one may there resort unchallenged by an Englishman, 'tis not down on any map I ever saw."

Cloud Atlas  David Mitchell

Thursday, 12 September 2013

'Forensic Podiatry'

"For my Mother, (who will insist on calling this book 'Two Small Furry Shoes').
'I can no other answer make but thanks, and thanks, and ever thanks.'   (Twelfth Night, Act III, Sc. iii)"

Dedication to Too Small for his Shoes   Laurence Payne

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Off the coast of Chile

"It happened one day, about noon, going towards my boat, I was exceedingly surprised with the print of a man's naked foot on the shore, which was very plain to be seen in the sand.  I stood like one thunderstruck, or as if I had seen an apparition;  I listened, I looked round me, but I could hear nothing, nor see anything; I went up to a rising ground, to look farther; I went up the shore and down the shore, but it was all one;  I could see no other impression but that one."

The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of Yorks, mariner  Daniel Defoe

[traditionally based on accounts of Andrew Selkirk's stay on Juan Fernandez]

Monday, 9 September 2013

Aboard HMS "Centurion"

" 'I shall try to write it down,'  said Peter, dully.  But somewhere in the wash and bilge his journal rocked to and fro, its pages spread and pale.  Yet he had done his best to keep it up:  for Elliot, only a little while before the end, had begged him to persevere.  Elliott had been light-headed then, and going fast; but there had been something cruelly moving about his care for Peter's book.

It was the scurvy, of course, that had broke him down; but it was Cape Noir that killed him.  It was on the 13th of April.  'I will write it down,' said Peter, again. 

.... After that, what was the main happening? ....' I must write it down in succession,' said Peter again.  

There had once been a time when it was almost impossible to write in the midshipmen's berth, when you had to take your journal into the top, either because there was physically too little space or because someone would inevitably pour the sand into the ink in a spirit of fun.  But now Elliot was gone: and Hope was gone too, vanished at some moment in a furious storm when the ice blew from the sea and drew blood where it touched -- no one knew exactly when and how.   Keppel was lashed into his hammock and nobody thought he would leave it.  There was room enough now: and now when a midshipman came below he ate silently and fast, devouring what meagre rations and green scum was left, and flung himself into his hammock, dead until the next pipe.  There was not much boyishness left in the midshipmens' berth. "

The Golden Ocean  Patrick O'Brian

Sunday, 8 September 2013

It's a Battlefield

"Condor opened one of the sound-proof boxes on the top floor and closed the door.  Immediately all the typewriters in the room became silent, the keys dropped as softly as feathers.  The chief reporter sitting on his desk with his knees pressed under his chin was interrupted in mid-sentence :  'I was waiting at Winston's all the morning and when he came out with his head all bandaged up, he only said --'   On the floor below the leader-writers sat in little studies and smoked cigarettes and chewed toffee, held up for the right word, looking in dictionaries, leading public opinion.  On the floor below, the sub-editors sat at long tables and ran their blue pencils over the copy, scrawled headlines on scraps of paper, screwed the whole bunch into a metal shell, and sent it hurtling with a whine and a rattle to the composing-room.

On the floor below the swing door turned and turned and the porter sat in his box asking: 'Have you an appointment?';  the rolls of paper were wheeled like marble monuments towards the engines which turned and turned, spitting out the Evening Watch pressed and folded:  'Mr. Macdonald Flies Home to Lossiemouth.  Are you Insured?', packing them up in piles of a hundred, spinning them down a steel incline, through a patch of darkness, into the waiting van."

It's a Battlefield   Graham Greene

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

"History has its foreground and its background"

"Contemporary English historians, it seemed, were miserably neglecting the art of narration, yet the popularity of well-written biographies showed that it was possible to combine both truth and colour.  Such books as Boswell's  life of Johnson and Southey's account of Nelson were [according to Macaulay]
 'perused with delight by the most frivolous and indolent.  Whenever any tolerable book of the same description makes its appearance, the circulating libraries are mobbed; the book societies are in commotion; the new novel lies uncut; the magazines and newspapers fill their columns with extracts.  In the meantime histories of great empires, written by men of eminent ability, lie unread on the shelves of ostentatious libraries.' "

1828: Thomas Babington Macaulay on historians, quoted in Peter Rowland's  Introduction to Macaulay's The History of England  from 1485 to 1685

Sunday, 1 September 2013

A warming read

"The Gift is Small,
Good will is All"

Delft Handwarmer,  London 1688   © Fitzwilliam Museum