Derb's April Diary: Lockdown Lit; Great Unpublishables; And Down And Out In New York City, Etc. [12 ITEMS!]
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It's May! Above, Derb dances around a Maypole with actress Lily James.

Lockdown Lit.     I think every educated person keeps somewhere in his head a mental list of Great Books he hasn't read. This lockdown is a good opportunity to tick a box or two on that list. Well, I have now read Middlemarch.

  • Spoiler alert. If you haven't read Middlemarch but are planning to, this segment, and the next, and the next but two ("Great unpublishables") contain references to the plot.

I came late to George Eliot. It was my mid-thirties. I was teaching English at a college in provincial China. The college had a library with a small English-language section. For leisure-time reading I plundered that section. It included Eliot's first three novels: Adam Bede (whose story is set in Derbyshire), The Mill on the Floss, and Silas Marner. No Middlemarch, though.

Having enjoyed those three, and knowing that Middlemarch is the book Eliot is best remembered for, I resolved to read it when I returned to England. It's a dauntingly big book, though—eight hundred pages in my Penguin Classics paperback—and once back in England I had to find a job and restore my finances … then I moved to the States … then I got married … What with one thing and another, the Middlemarch box on my mental list remained unticked for 37 years.

That was far too long. Middlemarch is a lovely book: rich and deep, with a strong narrative thread and sound psychological insight. "One of the few English novels written for grown-up people," said Virginia Woolf, and for once I agree with the crazy old bat.

I had to pause to look things up: "pilulous," "megrim," "Harpagon," "leather and prunella," … Also, enstupidated as I am from too much Twitter browsing, there were sentences I had to read twice to get the sense of them:

No one quicker than Rosamond to see causes and effects which lay within the track of her own tastes and interests: she had seen clearly Lydgate's preeminence in Middlemarch society, and could go on imaginatively tracing still more agreeable social effects when his talent should have advanced him; but for her, his professional and scientific ambition had no other relation to these desirable effects than if they had been the fortunate discovery of an ill-smelling oil.

If you're not willing to apply some mental effort, though, don't read Victorian novels.

The nearest I can get to finding any fault with Middlemarch is, I wish the author could have included a nice lively girl for Mr Farebrother to marry … but perhaps that would have made the plot a bit too symmetrical.


Mr. Brooke's Joe Biden moment.     I defy any present-day American to read Chapter 51 of Middlemarch without Joe Biden coming to mind.

Mr. Brooke is running for election to parliament. He has to give a speech to the electors of Middlemarch from a balcony overlooking the town market-place. Nervous, he fortifies himself with a second glass of sherry: "a surprise to his system which tended to scatter his energies instead of collecting them."

The speech is a disaster:

He began with some confidence.

"Gentlemen—Electors of Middlemarch!"

This was so much the right thing that a little pause after it seemed natural. "I'm uncommonly glad to be here—I was never so proud and happy in my life—never so happy, you know."

This was a bold figure of speech, but not exactly the right thing; for, unhappily, the pat opening had slipped away—even couplets from Pope may be but "fallings from us, vanishings," when fear clutches us, and a glass of sherry is hurrying like smoke among our ideas. Ladislaw, who stood at the window behind the speaker, thought, "it's all up now. The only chance is that, since the best thing won't always do, floundering may answer for once." Mr Brooke, meanwhile, having lost other clews, fell back on himself and his qualifications—always an appropriate graceful subject for a candidate.

"I am a close neighbor of yours, my good friends—you've known me on the bench a good while—I've always gone a good deal into public questions—machinery, now, and machine-breaking—you're many of you concerned with machinery, and I've been going into that lately. It won't do, you know, breaking machines: everything must go on—trade, manufactures, commerce, interchange of staples—that kind of thing—since Adam Smith, that must go on. We must look all over the globe:—'Observation with extensive view,' must look everywhere, 'from China to Peru,' as somebody says—Johnson, I think, 'The Rambler,' you know. That is what I have done up to a certain point—not as far as Peru; but I've not always stayed at home—I saw it wouldn't do. I've been in the Levant, where some of your Middlemarch goods go—and then, again, in the Baltic. The Baltic, now …"


Quantifying the death of the novel.     Speaking of novels, Joseph Epstein has a long grumbly piece in the current Commentary about how no-one takes novels seriously any more.

Joseph Bottum mentions Andrew Ferguson's cocktail-party test for books—would you be embarrassed at a cocktail party for not having read it?—and notes the last such novel Ferguson cites passing this test was Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities in 1987.

Well, duh. Things aren't real until you quantify them, though. I did the quantification leg-work in Chapter 4 of We Are Doomed:

An approximate measure of glory in our culture is getting your picture on the cover of Time magazine. How are authors doing on that? …

As of early 2009, it has been over ten years since Time did a cover story on an author. That was Tom Wolfe (Nov. 2, 1998). Two other authors showed up in the 1990s: Toni Morrison (Jan. 19, 1998) and Michael Crichton (Sept. 25, 1995). So that's three for the 1990s, none to date for the 2000s …

Ignoring the poets and scaling where necessary, I have for the past nine decades (present to past), the following numbers of authors with Time cover stories to their glory:

2000s: 0
1990s: 3
1980s: 3
1970s: 5
1960s: 6
1950s: 7
1940s: 5
1930s: 10
1920s: 12

If you add in the poets:

2000s: 0
1990s: 3
1980s: 3
1970s: 5
1960s: 9
1950s: 9
1940s: 5
1930s: 13
1920s: 16

Allowing the 1940s as a pardonable lapse, the trend is all too plain. If "the chief glory of every people arises from its authors," we have clear run out of glory.

You're welcome, guys.


Great unpublishables.     As mentioned in last month's diary, I was reading the Joseph Mitchell anthology Up in the Old Hotel. Following that with Middlemarch, I was struck by one of those occurrences for which there is no word in English, although there ought to be. The meaning is something like "not quite a coincidence."

One of the mid-20th-century New York City characters in Up in the Old Hotel is bohemian eccentric Joe Gould. He gets a 19-page sketch near the beginning of the book, then a much fuller 93-page description—it was actually published as a book in itself, then made into a movie—at the very end. Joseph Mitchell was plainly fascinated by Gould.

Every day, even when he has a bad hangover or even when he is weak and listless from hunger, he spends at least a couple of hours working on a formless, rather mysterious book that he calls "An Oral History of Our Time." He began this book twenty-six years ago, and it is nowhere near finished.

It was still unfinished when Gould died in 1957 at age 67, and was never published. To say more would spoil the story Joseph Mitchell tells.

Forward to this month and Middlemarch. A major character in the novel is the cold, dry clergyman Edward Casaubon, whose life is dedicated to a massive scholarly work titled Key to All Mythologies. His wife, an earnest soul who married Casaubon with the hope of being able to help him complete the work, eventually perceives that it has, in fact, no scholarly value, and is probably unpublishable. Casaubon dies, the book for ever unfinished and unpublished.

There is the not-quite-coincidence ("coincidencette"? "quasi-coincidence"?) I read two books, one after the other, one nonfiction and the other fiction, both featuring a huge unpublished and probably unpublishable manuscript.


Down and out in New York City    Also featuring in Joseph Mitchell's book is the Occidental Hotel, "at the southwest corner of Broome and the Bowery."

The Occidental was quite a grand place in the 1890s and 1900s, before the Bowery slid out of respectability. Among its patrons was Timothy D. Sullivan, "the Tammany boss of the Bowery district … the most powerful and the most open-handed politician in the city."

He was a member of a syndicate which controlled all the gambling houses in Manhattan, he owned saloons, racehorses, and prizefighters, and he had a partnership in a chain of vaudeville and burlesque theatres. His clubrooms were at 207 Bowery, but he also kept a suite on the second floor of the Occidental, where he and other politicians played poker and he received reports from the managers of his various enterprises.

What got my attention there in Mitchell's book was that phrase "at the southwest corner of Broome and the Bowery." As it happens, I once lived at exactly that location, in a seedy just-not-quite flophouse called the Pioneer Hotel. That was in the fall of 1973, when the Bowery had become a slum. Like Big Tim, I kept a suite on the second floor — Room 93. And yes, checking up, it was the same hotel.

That whole area has undergone major gentrification since 1973. The Pioneer is now the Sohotel. A room the size of mine at the Sohotel today will cost you $159 a night. Back in the day I paid either $4.25 or $4.75, I forget precisely. That's an annual compounding rate of either 8 or 7¾ percent across 47 years—way better than the 3.9 percent for overall inflation.

(The Occidental/Pioneer/Sohotel is not, I should add, the "old hotel" in the title of Mitchell's anthology. That's a different place, the Fulton Ferry Hotel, at 92 South Street, down by the old Fulton Fish Market. Last I heard, the ground floor of the Fulton Ferry Hotel is today a bicycle rental shop. I don't know what's happened to the upper floors.)


Speaking truth to power    April 13th we had a storm. It wasn't anything dramatic: rain, wind … until we heard an almighty BANG! outside and the power failed.

We get our power from overhead wires that are held aloft on wooden utility poles. Where wires meet pole they sometimes pass through a big cylindrical tub fixed to the pole. Transformer? Don't ask me.

The utility pole nearest our house was old and rotten. The weight of the tub, with an assist from the wind, had snapped it. The tub would have dropped to the ground with all its wires if a mess of tree branches hadn't got in the way. If anyone had been passing by the pole, or even sitting in a parked car right there, serious injury might have been done.

In the fullness of time—it took 24 hours—the utility company sent a crew round to plant a handsome new pole, fix the tub on it, and rewire the whole arrangement. You can see the rotten old pole (at right) and the spiffy new one (at left, with tub) here. I have a portable generator, so we didn't suffer any great inconvenience, though the street was closed for those 24 hours with wires all over.

Something similar happens every couple of years, which is why I bought a generator. Each time I find myself wondering why we have overhead power lines. I grew up on a public-housing estate, built from scratch in the late 1940s on the outskirts of a small English town. I subsequently lived all over England, in every kind of neighborhood from leafy upper-middle-class suburbs to Victorian slums. All those places were comprehensively and reliably electrified, but I never saw overhead power lines in any of them. Nor did I ever know anyone who owned a generator, as most of my Long Island neighbors do.

Do other First World countries have overhead power lines in residential neighborhoods? Does Australia? Sweden? Poland? Japan? It seems to me like a really bad idea.


Michigan's strict governess    In my April 17th podcast I had some fun with the power-crazed governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer:

Targets for my hate this week will be the Democratic Party of course, innumerate journalists, reckless globalization, the language police, false religions, Jeff Bezos, and the Governess of Michigan. That is the female of "Governor," isn't it? "Governess"? I think so.

I can't resist a smile when typing the word "Governess." For me it has a slightly salacious color to it. That is a result of my having gone to college where and when I did: in West-Central London, the early 1960s.

Within walking distance of my college was Soho, at that time still a red light district of the old type, with streetwalkers actually walking the streets, or at any rate hanging out on the street corners calling out suggestively to possible customers. Soho also had a lot of good cheap restaurants; Charing Cross Road, which bordered it on the east, was home to many bookshops; the West End—theaters, movie houses—was a few minutes walk further on.

So one way and another I spent a lot of time in and around early-1960s Soho. One of the minor amusements of doing so was reading the business cards on display, advertising specialist services available from the resident ladies. These cards would be Scotch-taped to the wall behind the phone in the old-style public phone booths, or pinned to notice-boards in open entrance-ways with flights of stairs leading up.

Swedish and Karate Lessons from Karla, 2nd Floor.

Relief massage—Call MUSeum-3277, ask for Lulu.

That kind of thing. There was generally a card from a governess in there:

Strict governess will discipline naughty boys—Madame Whippe-Lashe, 3rd Floor

Would it give offense to Governess Whitmer to know that I thought of her in this precise context? I hope so.


Over-lawyered?     Are we—the Anglosphere in general, the U.S.A. in particular—over-lawyered? Leslie Carwell's book April Fools' Day Every Day in the Courts makes the case that we are, simply by listing short (one- or two-page) summaries, in plain language, of 171 cases that have been litigated since 1905, the great majority of them in the past forty years.

Every kind of make-work for our legions of lawyers is covered here: imagined new entitlements, workplace grievances, shakedowns of "deep pocket" defendants, improbable claims of emotional distress, prisoner lawsuits (what else is there to do in the pokey?), litigious compulsives, amateur constitutional scholars, … Hit with a civil paternity suit? Countersue for a stud fee. Accidentally shot yourself with a gun you stole? Sue the manufacturer.

Carwell's stated intent is to entertain. He takes a light approach, denying any lawyer-bashing intentions: "Far from it. It's an admirable feat what the [legal] industry has managed to pull off in full daylight in every country at every level and for so long."

Almost all of Carwell's cases in fact come from court records in the U.S.A., with appellate courts most heavily represented. There are also five cases from Canada, four from the U.K., and one each from Australia and New Zealand. The author helpfully provides an URL for each case so that you can see the original documents on the internet as PDFs.

I'm glad to live in a society under the rule of law. Speaking some years ago with a visitor from mainland China, I grumbled about the over-lawyering of America. He disagreed very forcefully: "You can't have too many lawyers. You can't. Impossible. Never too many."

Given where my visitor was coming from, I saw his point, but … never too many? Leslie Carwell's book left me wondering.


The Fab Four Humors    And yet another coincidencette, this one concerning the Beatles.

Our weekly rental from Netflix for Saturday, April 25th was the 2019 Brit-flick Yesterday. It's an alternate-world story: there's a hiccup in the spacetime continuum causing the lead character, a penniless and unknown guitarist, to find himself in a world identical to his own in almost every way except that on his new world-line the Beatles never existed and no-one knows any of their songs. He does what you'd expect, attaining international fame and fortune.

I've been a sucker for alternate-world stories since reading Damon Knight's "What Rough Beast" at age fourteen in Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine. [February, 1959]

(Concerning which magazine—this is totally unrelated to the main point—did you know that Jared Taylor once had a short story published in F&SF? See the August 1991 issue. [PDF] I am so envious—really. The story is ingenious. On some alternate world-line my fellow Thought Criminal is an internationally-famous writer of short stories.)

Yesterday isn't bad: light and a bit silly, but it makes approximate sense on its premises, and Lily James is easy on the eye. ("Hot? Nah, but cute," is the verdict of my 24-year-old son, whose judgment in these matters I take to be dispositive.) Then there are the songs, which have aged wonderfully well across fifty-odd years.

So I exited the weekend with the Beatles on my mind—the part of my mind, I mean, not still occupied by Lily James. Then on Monday my subscription copy of Literary Review arrived from London. What should I find on page 12 but a full-length review of a new book about the Beatles: Craig Brown's One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time. The review is by Dominic Green. (That's right: Green reviewing a book by Brown. Magazine editors find amusement where they can.)

At 642 pages Brown's book isn't as long as Middlemarch, but it's sufficiently amazing that he could get that much material out of a subject that's been so thoroughly worked over across so many decades. After reading Dominic Green's review, though, I think I'll pass on the book itself.

The Beatles begin in four-part harmony, but after a while they no longer know who they are. Brown notes how each of them personifies a different element: John is fire, Paul is water, Ringo is earth, George is air.

Uh-huh. If I remember my Four Humors theory correctly, that means that John was choleric ("have enormous vitality and get angry quickly"), Paul phlegmatic ("deep thinkers, fair, calm, willing to compromise, and hard workers"), Ringo melancholic ("very sensitive, and enjoy artistic pursuits"), and George sanguine ("confident, joyful, optimistic, expressive, and sociable"). As personality sketches of the Fab Four, those aren't even close.


Left behind    Like the protagonist of Yesterday, I may myself have slipped through a rent in the fabric of the cosmos at some point in the last few years without noticing. He found himself on a world-line where no-one knew the Beatles; I find myself on one where everyone except me knows who Ed Sheeran is. Even my wife, who is by no means a close follower of current pop, recognized Ed when he showed up in the movie.

Who is Ed Sheeran? What is Tik Tok? Who or what is the Tiger King? Don't bother telling me; I'm not even trying to keep up any more.


Central concerns.     On March 27th posted a piece under my name with the title "John Derbyshire, 30 Miles From Coronavirus Epicenter, Is Skeptically Social Distancing."

The piece was an edited extract from my Radio Derb of that date. The deal is, when I send in the audio of a Radio Derb podcast, I attach a full transcript for the editors to use in any way they please. If they need an article for the website, they can cannibalize distill one from parts of the podcast transcript.

Well, that piece drew the following email from a reader:

You may be innocent, and someone else wrote the headline, but "epicenter" doesn't mean what everyone now using it thinks it means, i.e., an even grander, more deadly, more powerful, etc., location than an ordinary center. But as you no doubt know, it means the spot on the earth's surface above (as in epidermis) the center of an earthquake, which may be many miles below. So metaphorically it actually diminishes the effect that the writers and news readers are striving for since earthquake forces far away at the earth's surface are necessarily weaker than those at its center.

I replied:

I am indeed innocent: You can hear me say "center" at 8m05s here. The transcript confirms.

That said, I must confess that if the newspaper I am quoting had said "epicenter" I would likely have repeated it without thinking. It is always good to be reminded of the need for precision in usage. Thank you!

Since then I have of course been seeing "epicenter" all over. I might be using—I mean, mis-using—the word myself if that reader hadn't sensitized me (although I hope I wouldn't be).

Given the massive misuse of "epicenter," there is a lot of corrective work to be done here, many souls to be saved. Get on it, readers! Onward, word-precision soldiers!


Math Corner    John Horton Conway died on April 11th, aged 82. There is a good full obituary in the April 25th Economist. Like the Beatles, Conway was a native Liverpudlian—three years older than John Lennon. He apparently died from COVID-19.

There is a wealth of books by and about Conway. A favorite of mine is The Book of Numbers, which Conway co-wrote with Richard Guy. You can open it at wellnigh any page and find something interesting. (Well, if you think numbers are interesting.) Among Conway's research subjects was the monster group, a/k/a the friendly giant group, a family of symmetries in a space of 196,883 dimensions: he gives it a passing mention on page 62 of The Book of Numbers.

Conway attained lasting fame outside the sphere of professional mathematicians in 1970, when Martin Gardner, in his Scientific American column, described Conway's Game of Life. If you're not acquainted with it, take a look. The rules for the Game of Life (unlike those for the game of life) are absurdly simple, and it only uses two dimensions of space. "In the early 1970s a quarter of the world's computers were playing it," says The Economist.

Mine certainly was in 1970. Those were mainframe days, of course. I was a couple of years into my career as a programmer, helping to develop an interpreter for the then-newish BASIC language on ICL System 4 mainframes. We only had teletype machines for input and output—no monitors—but I got the Game of Life coded up in no time and wasted great stacks of teletype paper printing successive generations of the game for different starting configurations.

R.I.P. John Horton Conway … and thanks!

OK, a brainteaser. This is from the National Museum of Mathematics in New York City. The place is, like everything else, currently closed; but they are running an online subscription feature called Mind-Benders for the Quarantine, with a new brainteaser every Sunday. Here's one from mid-April. It got my attention because I had just posted something about hand-shaking.

Handshakes at a Party

Nicholas and Alexandra went to a reception with ten other couples; each person there shook hands with everyone he or she didn't know. (Obviously, this took place before the COVID-19 epidemic.) Later, Alexandra asked each of the other 21 partygoers with how many people they shook hands, and got a different answer every time.

With how many people did Nicholas shake hands?


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