October 19, 2016
Tippecanoe and Tyler too?
The Election of 2016
“Mercy!” as voice of the long-time Red Sox announcer Ned Martin used to say when baseball things did or did not go very well for the Sox.
Mercifully, in three weeks I have faith the next Presidential election will end. But one thing puzzles me: The number of Americans distraught over the vulgarity of this campaign as if it is something new. I agree it is vulgar and the most vulgar since World War II, but we elders may have grown up in a civility bubble thinking this was normal because of the impact that war had upon the planet. This 2016 campaign certainly isn’t alone in a long history of American vulgarity during Presidential elections; it is simply a reversion to the mean (or would meanness suit better than a mathematical term?) that goes right back to the Founders. Sometimes sanitized history blinds us to our actual history.
Is anything the Trump or the Clinton campaign has said about the other much different than what James Callender, a Scottish-American political pamphleteer published when he wrote that George Washington “had ‘debauched’ and ‘deceived’ the nation by promoting himself as a popular idol.” Or as Kerwin Swint points out in his article on what James Callendar published later, after falling out with his sometimes mentor Thomas Jefferson, that Jefferson had an “illicit affair with his slave Sally Hemings . . . siring five children.”
A few campaign cycles later, the Campaign of 1828 might cause even Donald Trump–or at least Bill Clinton–to blush. Andrew Jackson’s wife, Rachel, was called a “convicted adulteress” because years earlier she had married Andrew Jackson before her divorce from her first husband finalized. One newspaper editorial asked, ‘Ought a convicted adulteress and her paramour husband to be placed in the highest offices of this free and Christian land?’ ”
It didn’t stop there. another paper reported “General Jackson’s mother was a common prostitute, brought to this country by the British soldiers! She afterward married a mulatto man, with whom she had several children, of which number General Jackson is one!” Not bad for a creative, and fictional political slur, though, a Kenyan-born, Muslim President and a drug-addled, abuser, murderer Secretary of State would hold pretty good currency in that 1828 election.
The election of1884 managed to delve into vulgarity as well—though I’d have to give it third place in the contest between 1828 and 2016–using rhyme undercuts the nastiness. The two Presidential front-runners, James G. Blaine and Grover Cleveland Alexander, had this so to say about the other:
From Grover Cleveland: “Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, The Continental Liar from the State of Maine.”
From James G. Blaine: Ma, Ma, Where’s my Pa? referring to the out of wedlock child Cleveland allegedly had fathered.
The Judge magazine made it visual as well, printing the following cartoon:
When Cleveland won the closely contested election, his campaign had a final parting verse:
Ma, Ma, Where’s my Pa?
Gone to the White House, Ha, Ha, Ha.
In case one might think this is all about the men, Belva Lockwood also ran for President in 1884 and lost. Puck gave her and her followers this post-election cartoon on Nov. 5, 1884.
Even the second national father, Abraham Lincoln did not escape the mudslinging that currently taints the top Presidential front runners. The Atlantic Monthly ran a story by Mark Bowden in 2013 that helps set that record straight by taking the following excerpts from Abraham Lincoln: A Life (2008) by Michael Burlingame. Only two years in someone was already hinting at assassination.
It wasn’t just the cartoonists, Burlingame noted, “George Templeton Strong, a prominent New York lawyer and diarist,” besides producing letters for Ken Burns Civil War series “wrote that Lincoln was ‘a barbarian, Scythian, yahoo, or gorilla.’”
“The 1862 commanding general of his armies, George McClellan, called Lincoln a coward, ‘an idiot,’ and ‘the original gorilla’” and then ran unsuccessfully for President against Lincoln in 1864. Apparently gorilla was the Nineteenth Century substitute for Kenya.
According to Burlingame’s book, the slinging of mud wasn’t confined to only men. “Abolitionist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, called Lincoln ‘Dishonest Abe’ in a letter she wrote to Wendell Phillips in 1864, a year after Lincoln had freed the slaves in rebel states and only months before he would engineer the Thirteenth Amendment. She bemoaned the ‘incapacity and rottenness’ of his administration to Susan B. Anthony . . . and swore to Phillips that if he is reelected I shall immediately leave the country for the Fijee Islands.”
We can pardon Stanton’s lack of civility toward that Canada since Canada did not achieve independence from Great Britain until 1867 and there may have been lingering Yankee animosity toward a Canada which had three times successfully repulsed American invasions.
A good place to wind this down would be Burligame’s find that a Pennsylvania newspaper reported on Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address by writing: “We pass over the silly remarks of the President. For the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them, and they shall be no more repeated or thought of.” A London Times correspondent wrote, “Anything more dull and commonplace it wouldn’t be easy to produce.”
On the eve of the third and final 2016 Presidential Debate it would be wise to recall the elections of the Nineteenth Century as antidote to the slings and arrows surely to be shot this year.
PS: Thanks to the solicitations of John Hodgen and Russell Hay plus commiseration with John Hofmeister, I am nudged out of this election-year torpor.
June 5, 2016
The Isles of Scilly, Part II:
The SS Schiller, Graves, and The Myth of The German High Command
On May 7, 1875, the German steam and wind-powered passenger ship Schiller sank after striking some of those rocks on the western side of the Isles of Scilly. It sank with the loss of 335 of the passengers and crew. 37 survived. The sinking made the front page of major newspapers in Europe and the U.S. including The New York Times. It was the Titanic story before the Titanic.
The people of the Isles of Scilly buried many of the victims in two, long rows of graves dug at Old Town Church cemetery and that incident has spawned another myth. The legend which has now made its way onto web sites such as Wikipedia and The Scilly News is this: “German authorities were so impressed with the way that Scillonians handled the tragedy, orders were sent during the two subsequent world wars, that Scilly and Scillonians should be spared from being bombed or attacked, in recognition of the kindness shown to their countrymen by Islanders, so may years before.”
If something sounds too good to be true—well you know the rest–it likely isn’t. On May 17, 2016, during this trip to the Isles of Scilly to determine how much of another legend, the 335-year war, was myth and how much real, an opportunity presented itself to speak with 89-year-old Alfred Llewelyn Hitchens of Hugh Town, who was a boy during World War II and could attest to what he recalled of those years. When asked of that Schiller legend, he said it was a story that went around but certainly “the modern Germans paid no attention to it.” Hitchens’ World War II recollections about that “non-aggression” story confirm that. He was a boy of twelve or thirteen in 1940 when he remembered “ten consecutive days of bombing” by German aircraft to destroy radio towers on St. Mary’s alone. He particularly recalled one Sunday afternoon in 1940 when “one of them dropped an incendiary by the mill and set it afire. It was after Sunday school. We took off our ties and were up on the hill with a bucket brigade carrying water when this plane came in from over Tresco, and we thought it looks like a Blenheim, one of ours. Then we could see it was Junkers 88 or something spraying bullets.
“So we all dived for shelter. Nobody got hit. I was going to get up and do a runner and an older person said, ‘Lie down you silly bugger.’ So we got down between the walk around the tower and an adjacent field. Then he [The German] went around for a second circuit, and I decided I would be a runner. I sprinted down a field and went into the first house I saw. I think there were twenty-two of us under a stairs.”
Amanda Martin, curator of the Isles of Scilly Museum, has stored in the museum collection notes taken by another Scillionian from a diary which recorded all the air attacks on the Isles of Scilly from 1940-1943. They total 25 separate incidents (including the August 25th, 1940, attack Hitchens referred to).
One of the side notes to that list is an entry indicating a German aircraft bombing of Old Town Church Cemetery—the very place those victims of the Schiller disaster are buried. And lest, as so many who have not experienced war tend to do, one thinks war is a junket, those notes also show an entry for August 26, 1942, “Bombed Bona Vista. . . . Dorothy Paice killed. Sylvia Banfield Jenkins killed. “
A third news entry for June 3, 1941, from a site which provides a daily time line for events during World War II—apparently there were still civilian flights even as the Battle of Britain began to heat up—refers to a civilian flight from the Scillies to Penzance: “The . . . aircraft had just taken off from St. Mary’s on the Isle of Scilly . . . when it was intercepted by a Heinkel III . . . . The forward guns easily dealt with the unarmed aircraft, which crashed into the sea with no survivors.” Its crew and passengers: Capt. William Donald Anderson DFC killed, Passengers: Mrs Sheelagh Leggitt, killed; Mr. John Leggitt, killed; Jeannie Leggitt, 11, killed; Romalita Leggitt, 9, killed; Georgina Griffith, killed. Despite the rhetoric of too many of today’s presidential candidates, war is not a junket.
Should one wish to think perhaps the German High Command of World War I harbored an attachment to this non-aggression story differently during the First World War, here is a scan of a photograph in The Scillonian, (No. 223, Summer, 1986, p. 130) in which a German U-Boat (U-29) surfaces and prepares to sink the SS Headlands “off Scilly during The Great War.”
Where does a myth like this gain its legs? As in most good legends, myths, and propaganda, there usually is something real to base the digression upon. Part of this misconception may have started with the discovery of a map taken from a downed German aircraft in 1943 which showed a ninety kilometer zone for the Isles of Scilly excluding daylight flights by German aircraft. A romantic might argue it as proof of that Schiller non-aggression legend, but if the logs in Scilly at War by R. L. Bowley are accurate, it would be far more reasonable to conclude the reason the German High Command made the Scillies off-limits to Luftwaffe daylight flying was more likely because the Hawker Hurricane squadron stationed on St. Mary’s airfield was shooting down too many of the German aircraft which ventured near the isles during the day.
The story of German military commands honoring a non-aggression pact because of the treatment of the Schiller victims is false.
Despite the fallacy of that particular story, the 1875 ship disaster still resonates on the Scillies in other ways. Though the Schiller sinking may have been as well-known as the Titanic later became, Amanda Martin notes that much of the institutional record of where these victims are buried is becoming lost and the human connection, that oral tradition of passing on stories, is also disappearing as the great grandchildren no longer have that contact to great-grandparents who were on the scene in 1875. In a 2013 article in the International Business Times by Hannah Osborne, one sees the upper row of burials at Old Town Church as they looked in 1875. Martin’s concern is that some graves may have been placed on top of the hasty graves of those Schiller victims buried in those rows.
Here is what those rows of graves look like in 2016:
Considering ancient grave sites like Bant’s Cairn or even two-time UK Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s grave in Old Church Cemetery pop up all over these islands, it is not surprising how any burial site to any particular person would be treated with utmost deference.
During one of the walks through the interior lanes of St. Mary’s near Trenoweth, I came across this recent stone placed in an orchard. It was created out of the grief and love of a mother for her 25-year-old son:
Gloucester, Massachusetts, has the sculpture for the ten thousand Gloucester sailors lost to the sea in four hundred years. How many, then, must Scilly have lost to the sea in four thousand years?
(Upper Burial Cairn )
Like a navigator reckons safe passage
for a pilot safely over chartless water,
a granite V points eastward
to Great Arthur and his Isles.
A fleet of Roman, Celtic, Bronze
and Neolithic memories float
above the channel: Scillonia,
Enor, Lyonesse, Camelot.
Perhaps the cleft is nature,
perhaps it’s man knowing the only
place to die is home–even
after four thousand years. Beyond the tomb
a child’s rope swings from a branch,
irresistible desire for flight,
but like a father, a warm, western breeze
urges one return to earth,
enter the tomb quietly, touch the stone
understanding; the spirit
will find its way here and find it
poem edited 6-17-16
May 27, 2016
The Isles of Scilly, Part I:
A cursory, cursive and photographic first impression
(Unless otherwise noted, all photographs not credited are by Rodger Martin.)
No one seems quite sure how many islands, isles, and islets exist in the Isles of Scilly because it changes with tides. This photograph taken from the International Space Station pretty much sums up the entire problem:
The five larger islands are permanently inhabited by about two thousand people, though tourism brings thousands more during the summer, many of those included in the over fifty cruise ship visits to the archipelago listed on a manifest posted on a message board outside the Isles of Scilly Steamship Company building in Hugh Town. Poltically the islands are part of Cornwall in the U.K., but they have an independent governing council on the islands which works as the municipal government. This is also the archipelago where the youth at 16 must leave if they wish to attend further schooling that only exists on the mainland.
This is a place that needs some introduction; a place that becomes, when the clouds roll in, a sort of Brigadoon of the ocean, so before I write my blog post about the Three-Century “War” between the Dutch and the Scillonians, more background would be helpful.
If there is an antithesis to Las Vegas on the planet it is here, over halfway to the North Pole almost astride the 50th parallel in these Isles of Scilly. The five small, inhabited islands and many more smaller uninhabited, closely-nit islands emerge surrounded (or protected, dependent upon one’s point of view) by deadly (for ships) rocks, rocks and more rocks.
This tiny archipelago rises almost 30 miles west of Land’s End, where temperatures, according to the National Atmospheric and Oceanographic Administration (NOAA), remain relatively mild because a branch of the North Atlantic Drift—a current also fed by the Gulf Stream—keeps temperatures mild enough to support the subtropical vegetation of Tresco Garden at the equivalent latitude of Gander Bay, Newfoundland.
Las Vegas sits in a desert and dammed the Colorado River to bring water for casinos. For the Scillys, because of that same North Atlantic Drift, rain is not a problem. Las Vegas is brown, the Scillys are green. Las Vegas thinks ancient history is last year’s profit or loss sheet. In The Scillys one can rest against Bronze Age burial stones and look across to Great and Little Arthur and realize that around here, Camelot is considered a recent, local rumor that may well have once been (before sea level rising began) above the water right at your feet. Las Vegas police routinely show up on the bad–boys themed “Cops” tv program. Isle of Scilly police maintain a Facebook page RunningMan dance-off with New Zealand officers while Sergeant Colin Taylor gives readings from his newly published book, “The Life of A Scilly Sergeant.”
Time is elastic in the Scillies—hence the 335-year war between The Scillies and the Dutch (which I’ll approach in a later post) would not feel out of the ordinary to a people bred on Stone Age flint, Bronze Age burial carns like the Innisidgen Upper Chamber photographed above, Roman trade, shipwreck salvage, and privateering (the euphemism for piracy). The hostess of my B&B indicated my bedroom doors were made of cypress which washed ashore a few years ago after escaping the wrecked hull of a freighter.
And did I mention the rocks? These are a few of the granite rocks nestled about Round Island Light east of Tresco Island. Though it may look otherwise, there is only one boat in the photograph. The rest are places boats travel when they wish to meet Poseidon.
Combined with the afore-mentioned Western Rocks, all these are the rocks that grab a yacht at high tide, the rocks that catch an unwary gig at low tide, and the rocks that destroy ships in a gale. It is no wonder prior to air power, admirals and captains avoided this place where only a local pilot knows when and where the safe passages lay. The local Boatman’s Association skippers find those passages expertly as they spin their wooden craft into and out of quays all over the islands.
The Romans called it Scillonia, the “tin isles,” though the tin must have come from elsewhere. Scillonia, a name so closely rhymed with the Greek sea monster Scylla it’s hard not to imagine any fleet without a knowledgeable pilot would lose at least six ships each time it sailed through. The Porth Hellick monument to drowned Sir Clowdisley Shovell who led a British Naval fleet of 21 ships into a storm-aided disaster that cost the lives of up to 2,000 seamen and at least 4 ships stands as a prime example. On Scilly, the evidence of wrecks isn’t legendary, it’s drudgery. Isles of Scilly Museum curator Amanda Martin notes, “Richard Larn writes of ‘800-odd shipwrecks over eight centuries’ [Shipwreck Index of the British Isles]. She continues, “[It is]Difficult to be more precise because there are sometimes more than one wreck per site and individual ships cannot always be identified.”
On May 15, 2016, the open tour boat Surprise carried 48 sight-seers aboard to view birds and sealife. The passengers received the surprise of their lives when a rock punctured the boat’s cross-hatched wooden hull on a granite tooth near Annet Island in the Western Rocks.
A lifeboat, rescue helicopters, and Scilly boatmen rushed to the rescue. But this day Scylla wasn’t hungry. The seas were calm. Every tourist disembarked safely rode the lifeboat back to Hugh Town quay with a new legend to tell their grandchildren.
But I have digressed which happens far too easily in the Scillies where, as Robert Frost would say, “way leads on to way.”
The Scillies may be the only place in the world where one should sign a low-mileage automobile lease agreement because St. Mary’s, the largest island, is barely two miles across at its widest–in the case of Hugh Town–a few hundred yards. Roads are few and narrow. This is a walking archipelago.
For example, Carn Vean, a tea house on the eastern side of St. Mary’s is accessed by these two lanes (with a tarmack access lane hidden away somewhere in the background). How un-Las Vegian not to have a limited access highway paved right up to one’s doorstep.
Yet it had plenty of clientele as did Juliet’s Garden, a restaurant above Porthmellon, which does have a narrow road nearby but most diners still arrive on foot.
If one decides to move out of the interior and walk the seaside trails which circumscribe all five islands, it is not long before one stumbles across a beach like this one close to Troy Town on St. Agnes (Mind you this is a Sunday afternoon in May.) Troy Town is a bit of a misnomer, it likely has fewer than forty inhabitants.
But St. Agnes does have one thing going for it, it may have the last working phone booth in the entire United Kingdom.
On the other hand, Hugh Town on St. Mary’s is a legitimate town where roughly half of the island’s population reside. It is also where the daily visit of Scillonian III docks at the quay. Additionally one can, on non-foggy days, fly on twin-engined, prop-driven planes into and out of the converted WWII RAF airstrip now known as St. Mary’s Airport.
And what of these 2,000 who make The Scillies their home? Sonia Vickers-Fletcher (Hitchens then), who hosts the bed and breakfast Santamana (The Scillies’ dialect flattens those “a’s” as Las Vegans might.) made history and a feature photograph in the 1986 Scillionan magazine as part of the first all-female crew to row a gig from the Isles of Scilly to the mainland—across almost thirty miles of open ocean.
Angus, a crewman on the Scillonian III, finds his work in the canteen brings him to Scilly every day and revels in adding a patriotic blue top-coat to his red and white beard.
Amanda Martin, Oxford-educated curator of The Isles of Scilly Museum, said, “If you let it, the depth of the place gets inside of you.”
Meanwhile the children who haven’t reached 16, get to jog their St. Mary’s annual marathon on a coastal route that takes them past Standing Stones and one Bronze Age burial carn after another. It takes the breath away.
Much more could be said, but think of this as a brief photographic perspective upon which to place the history which will follow in later posts which could take time awaiting a response about what may or may not be housed in the State Archives of the Netherlands.
edited 5-29-16, 6-3-16, 9-5-17
April 26, 2016
If all the year were playing holidays, to sport would be as tedious as to work.
Spring Cleaning with the Bard
The house is so dirty even I, blasphemous, incharitable dog, can no longer stand it. Therefore, get thee-self to a nunnery! But this morning, the nearest nunnery of which I am aware is in Biddeford, Maine, so to mine own self must be true.
Undaunted and cheered by the potential piece of work that is man, I have (so far) used the baking soda hand-scrubbing technique I learned from a significant other to clean the kitchen sinks, the stove, the counter tops, even the outer case of the microwave. I also scrubbed the outside of my teapot and, eureka, the stainless steel beneath the accumulated cauterized dust actually does shine. Then my WADD (Work Attention Deficit Disorder) kicked in and forced me to break, to climb steep hills requires slow pace. The question is how long can I distract myself typing to avoid returning to work? It is thinking that makes it so. Well, I can spell-check. Zounds! Nine typos found. Now what?
My fingernails need trimming. Check, and there I noticed my left index finger has a slight cut near the tip from all that baking soda scrubbing. I must find me a physic and put on a Band-Aid. Marry, who would have thought doing a little cleaning could be so hazardous to one’s health. Is the fault really not in our stars?
To secure future motivation, I moved the vacuum cleaner in front of the upstairs bathroom door so that I have to move it next time I need to pee. A slow and steady approach to work seems a motto designed well to protect one’s being.
E’en so, I need time to do some prescient pondering, else coming back will be as tedious as going on. Is there an easier way to get at the ceiling cobwebs than by changing the flat thing-a-ma-jig on the vacuum cleaner hose for the pointed thing-a-ma-jig on the end of the vacuum hose?
Forsooth, if I had a dust mop, I could just carry it with me as I walk about the house and sweep the ceiling corners clean of cob and web. Easy and simple, but alas, I don’t have a dust mop.
I could purchase a dust mop but that requires me to rise and walk outside, get into the car and drive to a hardware store and then inquire of a clerk which of the store’s three dust mops is the best. My WADD could be adversely affected by that course of action.
I could order it online but then instead of three I’d have hundreds of veritable Cleopatras to choose from and no knave to help me decide. Likely there are also disguised shipping, packaging, and handling fees that cost more than the mop.
I could hire our 7’1″ basketball team center and just give him a cloth and have him walk about the house, but he’s in Keene, and I’m here in the woods of Hancock.
A dust mop, a dust mop, my kingdom for a dust mop. It’s the best and simplest solution. So why have I none? Why had Richard III no horse, no nail? And why was he buried beneath a parking lot? Answer not these questions. Oh dear, my heart rate has accelerated, my peripheral vision is vanishing, and I have shortness of breathe. Life is but a walking shadow. I must rest. It is clear I’m having a full-blown WADD attack. There is only one solution: A nap.
(Exeunt for nap.)
(Enter with flourish [twenty minutes later].)
I feel much better. I prescribed myself a candy as a sedative and now my vision has returned, my breathing is normal, my heart rate under control, and all the youth of England are on fire. With this extra time to consider the predicament, Fortinbras marches his armies across Denmark. And so I’ve come to the conclusion Falstaff is correct. When a task appears monumental and troubles come in battalions, break them into smaller parts—platoon size.
By the troth, if I only do the upstairs, that halves the project. Then if I only do the cobwebs, not the floor that halves it again so now the corpulence of the project is drawn and quartered. Lastly, if I only do the portion of the upstairs within reach of the vacuum cleaner cord, that cuts it in half again and I only have an eighth of worry and could go out and listen to the chimes at midnight so long as I’m not accompanied by a Henry or another with a lean and hungry look. I can do this—once I have to pee of course.
But, soft, what light from yonder window? What have these spiders ever done to me? For months, nay, years, we have lived together in harmony, peace, and felicity. Certainly, occasionally from out between my books or about my pillow, a base, hairy-looking thing most likely dealing drugs and living off welfare rather than catching flies has crossed my path. But I’ve quickly turned those kinds to wormwood and the rest have gone to Mexico, Syria, Padua, or silence.
Those who remained have assimilated. They dress well, work hard, send their children to learn proper spiderly manners. Once I even helped a daddy-long-legs move from the bathroom to the front porch. Have I not the common touch?
Still, this does raise the spectre of an ethical issue. What gives me the right? Beware Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, or Titus Andronicus who invade any land just because they can.
I need moral guidance, some clergy–priest, minister, rabbi, Iman and a Unitarian–but the heath is but a stage so I should also invite a Buddhist and a shaman so that every man may play his part; for leavening, I shall also invite three weird sisters.
Such effort will require patience. L must wait for all these wand’ring barks to find their ever-fixéd mark. This is not a problem. After all, Ben Franklin said, “Haste makes waste.”
April 13, 2016
History: The Antacid for Political Indigestion
Sometimes a day is so bad, it seems as if academics and politics represent the two extremes of the language spectrum. Academics puff themselves by inflating every word to four syllables and then pummel each other with three-and-four syllable pugil sticks. Politicians take all that air beaten out of academics to puff themselves and deflate whatever is left to pummel each other with one syllable pugil sticks
And this makes it all feel like 1964 again. After decades of rich, white, mostly blowhard men, by 2008 and 2012 the majority of voters signaled pretty decisively they are ready to extinguish that persona even if that extinguished lot is not ready to go without mucking up as much of the country-scape as they can. Growing up in amish country, Pennsylvania, the old expression was a skunk smells its own hole first and boy do this year’s narcissists have their noses embossed by their own wind.
There’s another tired expression that needs re-invigorating: What goes around comes around.
100 years ago Mark Twain railed against Teddy Roosevelt in much the same language that you hear on cable today, but he had the decency and common sense to keep it private for one hundred years. This year, Lewis Lapham in his essay “Democracy 101” (Harper’s) rails against those who rail against Mark Twain.
Therefore, in the spirit of “what goes around . . .,” I’ll shortly take a trip to one of the smallest archipelagoes on the planet: The Isles of Scilly, (The temptation is say that is a synonym for what the U.S. has become but stay the cynicism for a moment.) The Isles of Scilly are a group of tiny islands home to about 2,000 humans that fifteen hundred years ago was called Enor (some say Camelot). Enor was one large island that has slowly sunk beneath the rising sea levels until only rocks and islets remain—a kind of geographical Agatha Christie “And Then There Were None” story.
What does this tiny group of islands smack in the middle of The Gulf Stream off Land’s End in Cornwall have to do with U.S. politics? Absurdities, absurdities. What goes around comes around.
The Isles of Scilly is the site of the longest declared war in human history: 335 years long between the Isles of Scilly and The Netherlands–declared in 1651 by a Dutch admiral and lasting until a peace treaty was signed between the two in 1986. A war in which neither the Dutch nor The British managed to lay a single casualty on the other, though the Brits did get to fighting among themselves and so spilled a modicum of their own blood. There is rumor that the Dutch did manage to net a herd of goats and flock of sheep in a raid a decade or two later.
The Dutch admiral who couldn’t elevate his cannons enough to strike the British fort (which couldn’t lower its cannons enough to strike a Dutch ship) decided if I can’t shoot them I’ll send a letter instead and sent a formal declaration of war. He then sailed off, was killed shortly afterward and apparently everyone forgot about it. But the official declaration of war remained and the Dutch take care with their paperwork. An archivist rediscovered the paperwork in the late Twentieth Century which prompted a fast resolution to declare peace. And who was the swash buckling Dutch admiral? Maarten Harpertszoon Tromp.
Legend has it Tromp also mounted a broom atop his flagship’s mast to show all the world he had “swept” the British navy from the seas. Sweeping water with a broom seems about as effective as convincing Mexicans to pay for building a wall on United State Soil. No wonder the Dutch decided war was not a profitable method of doing business.
This trans-Atlantic excursion allows me to meander back to the current state of publicity islands the 2016 crop of Presidential candidates seem to reside upon: The Isle of Silly (without the C). I’m waiting for one of the candidates to declare war on say an Aleutian Island and its deadly walruses. But if I had to give odds, I’d give them and the broom to Hillary Clinton this time around. My guess is she at least knows for what a broom is useful—though the whining and stomping of her opponents’ feet will be something to behold.
February 6, 2016
I’ll Get To The N.H. Primary–Just Give Me A Minute
Here on the right-hand coast a few New England days ago, a blizzard enveloped the south and here beneath the settling northern sun, courtesy of the world wide web, the sound of bagpipes and The Royal Scots Guard play Dougie MacLean’s “The Gael.” Between the two it is as if the planet has disappeared into a ring of standing stones.
There are three books open in this house, on the coffee table a copy of Mary Beard’s SPQR , on the end table of the bedroom, Volume Three of Mark Twain’s Autobiography, and on this screen, a proof pdf of Katie Towler’s The Penny Poet of Portsmouth. Somehow it soothes to know whether it is the Highland Scot of three centuries ago, the Roman of two millennia gone, Twain of the last century or Robert Dunn a few decades ago, despite our best efforts to “Say it ain’t so,” the human salt and vinegar still make us all one kind.
There is little more than fond hope that somewhere deep into the next eon, when nature has evolved the brain into its next entity on the evolutionary ladder toward the heart of the universe, that whatever future being it is who will have found time to dig into the archeology of this 2016 planet will discover that we, their ancestors, despite the darker angels of our nature had somehow managed through their better art to overcome that darkness and recognize each and every one of us is indeed only a brief candle on this stage.
Meanwhile on the left-hand coast, the gated community of Porter Ranch learns just how little gates mean to methane or profits; and in our center, leaded water for the citizens of Flint, Michigan, with the story only getting worse now that state officials hid the news of legionnaires disease to make the Flint glass of water appear half-full so-to-speak.
And Tuesday, I must vote., “Right Here in River City.” (I promised I’d get to it.) Vote for whom? Let’s forget names and just run down how they appear to these aging eyes.
In one corner The Magnificent Eight (or Seven or Nine):
First image that comes to mind is a newly converted Evangelical who leaves grease stains on every Bible he humps. If I were an evangelical, I’d ask to see him naked just to make certain there is no 666 tattooed somewhere.
Then there’s the surgeon who has discovered too late it’s not wise to insist to the world that you are the smartest man in the room, and then turn your back on the other smartest guy in the room which did not turn out well in Iowa for the surgeon.
Over there by the ropes stands the Boy Wonder who strikes me he believes Cuba would be better off under Batista. (OK, if you are under fifty, that’s a half-century old historical reference. The film “Havanna” provides some Hollywood sort-of initial help.)
And what is left to say about The Hairpiece that hasn’t been said? The salesman who has that uncanny ability to sell a third of all customers that new car he rescued from a Katrina-submerged lot in New Orleans. You know the wiring is rotted; he knows the wiring is rotted, but it’s just too much fun to listen to him spiel about upholstery.
Naturally, there is the token female who might do well if all three hundred million Americans were high-tech robots instead of leaky flesh-and-blood buckets of nerves who have way too many bodily functions.
Also over there on the ropes with Boy Wonder we must not forget the three governors, one a disastrous incumbent who wants even worse to be president, another a decent governor who wants just as badly not to be president. The third governor labels himself the progressive conservative, which makes him, if one nicely euphemizes FDR’s first Vice President, John Nance Garner, about as useful as “a bucket of warm spit.” (Sorry, another historical reference–think urine.)
And in the other corner: The Mighty Deuces:
The progressive-er against the more progressive-er to become the most progressive-est.
Progressive, progressive-er, progressive-est,
Never let it rest
‘til the progressive is progressive-er
and the progressive-er is progressive-est
Which makes my rhyme at least as the election ads I’ve endured.
Perhaps we should look at the Mighty Deuces this way: The Burning Man against The Frozen Maid or The Raging Revolutionary against The Wall Street Shill or THE COMMIE versus THE BUREAUC RAT.
And all this, my friends, is the great wonder of New Hampshire politics. If one is energetic enough, when all is said, endured, and done, one has likely had a personal word with the next President of The United States. So there you have it, on the frozen ground from the state Robert Frost labeled in his “New Hampshire” poem, the upside down version of Vermont: Thick at the bottom and thin at the top.
PS: How appropriate, Doomsday Weather predicts an election day blizzard. I can’t wait to see how it all turns out.
January 1, 2016
A Bully New Year: Teddy Roosevelt, Roman Baths
and The Natchez Trace
One tradition across the globe is to make predictions for the new year, A dangerous thing, particularly on the micro-level—the one-on-one predictions about individual people or events such as the Patriots losing to The Eagles a few weeks ago. Or for example, in 1907 Mark Twain, in Vol. 3 of his autobiography had this prediction about President Teddy Roosevelt over a spat with a naturalist:
“President Roosevelt … If he should die now, he would be mourned as no ruler has been mourned since Nero . . . I wish I could be here in fifty years hence and listen while some sane person should read these notes, and get him to tell me how they impress him. I feel quite sure that in that day the mention of Theodore’s name will excite laughter—laughter at eighty millions as well as himself.”
And how did that prediction turn out? By 1957 Teddy was Old Stone Face on Mount Rushmore along side Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln. By 2007, Ken Burns was making a major documentary about Roosevelt’s National Parks while Doris Kearns Goodwin was collecting all kinds of awards for her biography “The Bully Pulpit.”
But Twain wasn’t alone in the inability to predict accurately. Also in his 2007 Autobiography (August 10) he pulls out a New York World clip about one of my most cherished institutions, the Worcester, Massachusetts, public library which had just banned Horatio Alger’s books as “untruthful” and therefore harmful to young boys. This was common territory since Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer were getting banned all over America and now, over a century later, Huckleberry Finn regularly makes the top the most banned books list. U.S. individualism has its benefits but tolerance does not rank highly on that list.
A few millennia earlier one is reminded how little we have changed emotionally. For example our visits to the gym to keep our bodies trim exercise seems to have the same problems clients of the Roman hot springs in Bath, England, had. Out of the wishing well of the goddess Sulis Minerva in Bath, England, come these two-thousand-year-old Curse Tablets:
“I have given to the goddess Sulis the six silver coins which I have lost. It is for the goddess to exact [them] from the names written below: Senicianus and Saturninus and Anniola.”
“Docimedis has lost two gloves and asks that the thief responsible should lose their minds [sic] and eyes in the goddess’ temple.”
And one of my favorites:
“May he who carried off Vilbia from me become liquid as the water. May she who so obscenely devoured her become dumb”
No one knows who Vilbia is whether human or canine or perhaps feline, or equine since she was devoured. All this scratched on lead sheets, with water from lead pipes, surrounded by lead paint and lead dishes. Small wonder wealthy Romans became increasingly curiouser and curiouser.
And what will be written about us a few millennia hence? Perhaps a smug tssk, tssk, that we couldn’t recognize microwaves were turning our brains into mush. Or the barbarity of the NFL which offers million dollar salaries to young athletes despite the risk they will bang their brains into scar tissue. Maybe lead and microwaves aren’t as far apart as I imagined. Therefore if Samuel Clemens with all his intellectual insight into humanity could be that far off on Teddy Roosevelt, It’s wise to stray far away from predictions.
This week a friend of mine, John Hofmeister, wrote me about a leisurely drive he took up The Natchez Trace and the experience of stopping … well his words say it best:
“On a cloudy but windless day I could pull over . . . turn off the engine and experience absolute natural silence. It reminded me of experiencing absolute darkness in a coal mine five miles under the earth. There simply was no sound: no ambient wind noise, no sound from nature, simply nature’s vacuum of noise. In this day and age what could be more precious?”
There is something profoundly introspective about taking time and effort to remove the clutter of human noise. Hofmeister’s remarks triggered a memory from 1966 when the U.S. Army stationed me at Fort Bliss, Texas, and one weekend I persuaded the mess sergeant to pack me some snacks and sandwiches for a hike I planned into the sands to experience the desert. At some point after walking a good distance into those sands, a sense came across that something had changed. Everything not connected to me had gone silent. And the word “silent” didn’t do this absence of sound justice. It was if the silence itself had weight and could be felt against the skin.
It is then one begins to hear sounds within one’s own body and life is distilled to its quietest elements. There is a reverence to it, even if it took a lot of noise and clatter to get there, as it took the U.S. Army to get me to El Paso followed by an empathetic cook to make the lunch because without the noise there is nothing ot measure silence against. .
A German filmmaker, Philip Groning, created a moving German documentary “Into Great Silence” (Die grosse Stille) about a monastery in the French Alps where monks have taken a partial vow of silence. There is no narration, just a film of voiceless daily activities. What is unexpectedly striking is the one day a week or month the vow is lifted; suddenly the words are subservient to the sheer beauty of the sound of the language.
I have a wish for this New Year, it’s that everyone may find time to discover that great silence and reflect.