There’s no excuse for ugliness by Clive Blazey

I want to end on a good note about this, so let’s start with the bad. There is no excuse for ugliness in book publishing, Clive Blazey. This book has one very poor typesetting decision (repeated several times) and has been abominably proofread. In fact one could safely assume that it can’t have been proofread. May I point out to the author that the same care which he requires us to take of our garden design is no optional matter when it comes to a book.

I won’t talk of editing, as the passionate voice of the author may require a slack hand in that regard.

Few people could be further from being a gardener than am I. In fact, when we took possession of a house with a small amount of land last year, a friend visited whom I bombarded with questions – is this a weed? This? And what about this? He was impressed by my complete ignorance. The ‘garden’ we now owned was a detestable thing with not one concession to beauty. It consisted entirely of yaccas and agaves on account of their being water-cheap. Dirt-cheap in fact.

After a month, I mentioned to our neighbour across the road that I hated them and they were all going. The next morning, whilst still in bed, I heard the sound of chopping out the front. By the time I’d popped some clothes on and gone out to investigate, we had nothing left there but bare, sad looking soil. Step one was finished.

There was nothing for it now but to buy things and plant them, something neither of us had ever done before. I was completely intimidated by the prospect, not least because in my observation of others gardening, it never seemed to be fun. It was a chore involving lots of preparation and grunting. Not to mention barking crossly at the underlings involved. But in fact it couldn’t have been easier. We randomly put in plants all of which were happy with full fierce sun and were drought tolerant but looked nice too. This included several ground covers so that we could stop the weeds and help the soil.

If I had those first days over again, I’d do things differently. We didn’t prepare the soil nearly well enough. Still, the fact is that most things we planted lived and even thrived. In order to get a garden that was flowering in summer, which was our aim, we followed the straight-forward advice of buying the things in nurseries that were flowering. Our first impression is that gardening was too easy.

A year down the track, instead of an arid desert landscape of horrible succulents, we have a pretty, chaotic teensy cottage garden thing happening. But it isn’t enough. Like all slightly interested gardeners, I wanted more, and I wanted to improve what’s there. Mistakes were made which I wanted to fix.

Which brings me to this book. A major hope for me was to create a garden that would be aesthetically pleasing in summer. Serendipitously, for Blazey this is a vital consideration. We have fierce, debilitating summers which are only going to get worse. Blazey not only wants gardens which neutralise, as much as possible, that summer heat, but he is concerned with the psychological aspect as well. One ongoing theme is colours not only that fit together, but which counter the weather. For the dry heat of my part of the world, he wants cool colours. I couldn’t agree more. Some of the garishly extravagant pinks and reds one sees around the place are so wrong. I put in some flowers so blindingly white that you could land an aircraft by tme in the dead of night. It just isn’t right for summer and detracts from the more gentle colours around it.

The book has short guides to what is going on in the garden, basic health of soil, the chain of events keeping plants alive, the general things one should consider in the design. The Diggers Club does something that apparently is novel, though it seems obvious – it gives a guide to the cold zone and hot zone of your area. Each plant’s description includes a code which shows the zones it can be planted in, as well as various attributes such as deciduous, when it flowers, high and width when grown.

Most  notably, Blazey is strongly anti-eucalyptus, whilst happy with suitable imports. Eucalyptus trees do not do a good job of providing shade, which is such a critical requirement in the dry hot heat of Adelaide. So pleased to hear this. I would dearly love to see Adelaide covered in lush greenery that provides the shade which will provide livability to houses, as well as make it far easier to walk. If we don’t have suitable trees, there are at least several months of the year in Adelaide where it is simply impossible to walk. It’s that simple.

That leaves the main part of the book, a reference to many plants which he sees as viable for the various conditions of Australia. I love it, I’ve gained many ideas from it, but nonetheless, to me it makes a basic presumption that he can afford to, since his gardens are huge, but normal householders can’t. A reference like this has to discuss root issues. There are sites online that do this, but I would much preferred it to have been a given in this guide. I think in general I would have loved more guidance for very small gardens.

In summary, a highly informative, slightly eccentric, passionate guide to the potential of suburban gardening in Australia. I thoroughly recommend it.

 

 

 

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The Well and the Shallows by GK Chesterton

I hope it isn’t true, as described on GR, that this is his best collection of articles. It is my first of his. Curiously, although the GR blurb for it calls it a book of essays, one of the pieces in it specifically discusses the notion that he is writing something entirely different from that genre. Indeed, he seems to rather scorn the ‘essay’.

In the main it’s ponderous discussions of Catholicism. Almost however it starts, whether it’s Evolution, Fascism, Birth Control, Liberal politics, it fast becomes what’s good about Catholicism and bad about the other ones. Especially Protestantism, which being Germanic, is linked to the appalling state of affairs in Europe. The one unhesitating thumbs up for the book is that he gets stuck into Hitler, Nazis and Fascism.

But even when he is engaged elsewhere, such as the first essay on alliteration and puns, it all reads like it was hard work to write. He even has the gall to include unaltered as his opening piece, one that has a go at TS Eliot for having a go at him, even though it transpires that it wasn’t TS Eliot he should have been attacking. His preface apologises. But why didn’t he rewrite the piece to fix this? It strikes me as the writer being too fond of his words and not for any good reason.

This is a 1935 collection, which I’m considering interesting primarily for its comments on what’s happening in Germany/Italy etc. I’m not going to give up on him yet as I had a friend stay recently who picked up another from our shelves and stayed up half the night reading it. It must have been a darn sight better than this one.

Have Space Suit – Will Travel by Robert Heinlein

It’s a corker. One of those juvenile books that adults will enjoy too and it would make a splendid movie. Theoretically there is one in the pipelines, but nothing’s been heard of it for some years.

Have Space Suit has no weak points. Entertaining (some great one-liners), the science sounds plausible – not saying it is, I wouldn’t know – but one could imagine a young boy reading this and being inspired. I hope that last sentence is wrong and that girls read this too. The narrator is a teenage boy fresh out of high school. His side-kick is an 11 year old female genius, greatly admired and relied upon by the narrator. There is absolute equality. Important also is ‘The Mother Thing’, seemingly all knowing and all good.

I wouldn’t exactly say this makes the book a model of female emancipation in the science world. The mothers of both children are passive 1950s stay at home Moms. Even worst, Kip’s father married ‘his best student’, as male academics still find a handy thing to do. It doesn’t actually say she’s a good typist but…you can close your eyes and see it. Not that this is the setting time-wise. It’s sort of 1950s America set in an undated future. Loved the description of school education which was presumably a comment pertaining to the late fifties when the book was written and yet is likely pertinent today.

Some of the most interesting parts are those where great detail is made of things that I can’t see making the movie. The very long discussion of how space suits work, for example. But it will be a visual feast with some great action scenes and the trials scene near the end would do well in the cinematic version too. Love to know who is going to play the Roman Centurion. Not to mention the voice of the jury machine.

Bonus: there is no incest or paedophilia. Not that I noticed, anyway.

Human Nature, Human Survival by Brian Medlin

Lately I seem to be reading philosophers who live by their sword. Medlin spent the part of his life that most academics use to collect citations and increase their h-indices, living philosophy. He brought philosophy to his work in restoring bushland.  He was a primary leader in the anti-Vietnam war movement in Australia, going to gaol as a consequence.  He fought university administration. He insisted that philosophy courses should bear direct relevance to life: politics, art, feminism. He appalled his employers and no doubt some students, whilst inspiring many. He has been written out of the history books, but now sufficient time has passed that he will be written back into them. A nice little earner for an academic or two.

Presciently he said:

Even intellectual liberty has failed to be a totally liberating force. Confronting bourgeois ideology, in the face of bourgeois authority, it has failed to deliver a general objectivity, a determination to think and act well and effectively about the whole of life. It has tended towards a purchased and partial objectivity, a servile scientism. A remark made in this city illustrates the failure: “I’m an ecologist, not a breast-biting conservationist”. This tendency can be expected to worsen as the concept of private intellectual property gains ground, as universities get tied tighter and tighter to the tail of market forces and become increasingly enslaved by private funding.

A yet darker prospect opens before us: that the large capitalist enterprise should eventually find itself able to dispense entirely with academic research. From that time on the concept of objectivity will be a mere ideological bauble, beads for the natives. The bourgeois philosopher will have joined the Sioux Nation and the Nez Perces on the shrinking reservation.

Going on for three decades later, it is as Medlin predicts here. But he was most certainly not of this corporate slave academic elite.

Although he could write philosophy, he generally chose not to, preferring instead the intimacy of the letter and the poem. A man unmoved by the h-index, if ever there was one. Nonetheless, he did write this small work towards the end of his life and if nothing else, one can see in it the energy, arrogance, the devilish attractiveness and the passion that dictated his philosophical life – for philosophy was his life, not his career. He was a wonderful talker and speaker, and this shines through Human Nature, Human Survival.

It is engaging from the start.

The following essay, though not meant to be beneath the notice of
philosophers, is aimed first at a general audience rather than a specialist one.
It is offered as a serious piece of philosophy, yet I am sure that it can be
followed by any cultivated reader, even by one without philosophical
· training. This doesn’t mean that every such reader can expect to understand
perfectly every word from now on. Here and there I assume a bit more than
general culti'{ation. Mostly I have indicated these places and invited you to
press bravely on. And even where I have not, you may give yourselves the
same excellent advice. I hope that in the end you will be rewarded with a
pretty good understanding of the work as a whole and with something worth
either your acceptance or rejection.

After a brief set of examples of what philosophy is considered to be by others, he sets out his own thoughts. ‘Let me take a rough stab’, he says. ‘Take me seriously enough, but not too seriously.’ Like all good teachers he insists that he should be questioned and doubted. For him, however:

  • Philosophy is the commitment to thinking about the whole of life, the whole universe animate and inanimate, the whole of living nature, human and non-human, about fact and value, about what is and is not, about what might and might not be, about what may and must be, about what ought to be and ought not:
  • All this (and more) together with the commitment to uncompromising rationality:
  • This latter commitment being to rationality in action as well as in thought, the two being not rationally separable:
  • The commitment extending further to the rational ordering of desire and feeling: for
  • The philosophical life is not cold, unemotional, dehumanised; only a passionate, compassionate person could hope to achieve it:
  • Philosophy is not a trade, a craft, a skill, though it involves craft and skill, though people are paid to profess it:
  • Philosophy is a way of life, a passion, an obsession – for those in its grasp, a duty and a right.

In the course of discussing the relationship of science to society, he keeps in mind throughout his keen, but not necessarily philosophically ept audience. After bringing Social Contract theory into the discussion, his aside: ‘(If you haven’t heard of Social Contract theory, don’t worry about it. Allow me to be the first to congratulate you.)’ and on the Invisible Hand ‘(And if you haven’t heard of the Invisible Hand, again don’t worry. Just think of it as the doctrine that if dog eats dog, all dogs grow fat.) ‘

This small monograph must really be imagined as a living thing, being presented to an audience. The point is simply to get human beings to understand that it is necessary to act to save the world in the face of environmental catastrophe. In the end everything always comes down to the earth and what we are going to do about it. The only rational thing we can do is to act, to assume that we can be successful. Nothing has really changed since he wrote, if anything it gets worse. We must, nonetheless, like Medlin, be energetic optimistic activists. To be anything else is irrational.

I have also argued elsewhere (1991) that the Principle of Rational Action requires us to assume as well, what we don’t know for certain, not only that successful social revolution is possible, but also that we can indeed and will indeed find ways of resolving the ecological crisis and of preserving the human species.

First mooted by the bourgeois philosophers, transformed by the disappointment of great hopes, now promulgated as scientific truth and formidably opposed to this enterprise, stands the bourgeois view of human nature. This view would imply that, by our very being, we are too aggressive, say, or too selfish, too greedy, to save ourselves. Even too stupid or too irrational – for it has been the rationalist tradition that has disappointed us.

These claims are not known to be false. But neither are they known to be true. Nonetheless, our agnosticism ought not to paralyse the will. Assuming these claims to be true is the surest way of making them true, the surest path to extinction. Assuming them to be false is the best first step towards making them false. Hence, by the Principle of Rational Action, the rational practical assumption is that these claims are indeed false.

That none of these claims about human nature is known to be true is a large claim itself and not to be established here. I can render it plausible though not here as thoroughly as by S. A. Barnett (1988). I select a couple of positions and examine their support. I shall ask you to consider for yourselves, perhaps after reading Barnett, whether similar positions are not just as lamentably supported.

Apart from the utterances of John Keats, my cases are drawn from popularisations of science – at least in the sense that they come from documents addressed to general audiences. This is because I want to indicate how pervasive are the views I challenge.

We shall only evade extinction by setting about evading it. That we shall never do if we are not bright enough to see through rotten argument claiming to establish our invincible stupidity.

We are not going to evade our peril without careful thought. Not without setting our philosophy in order, without rethinking and refeeling our own nature and our relation to the rest of the world. Nor without strenuous and disinterested scientific enquiry yielding a sensitive technology.

I can’t offer you a philosophy of art. That would be too hard a job for a mere philosopher. I wouldn’t go all the way with R. K. Narayan (1985, vii) for whom all theories of writing are bogus: I do know that the usefulness of literature depends largely on the large fact that intuition is often the better road to truth.

We see now the urgent practical importance of philosophy. Unless enough of us get our philosophy right enough and quickly enough, we are all dead. Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living (Plato, 38A). That’s false and you can ask any dog out for a walk. But for us, now, the unexamined life is no longer an option. (It never really was.) For us, henceforth, the examined life is the only life on offer. Finally, I hope that I haven’t given you the impression that we are likely to achieve a human life without aggression, selfishness, greed, stupidity, irrationality… That would not be human life. We live by standards, moral, aesthetic and intellectual. This is not a casual, incidental matter. Standards are needed because they are needed, because we frequently fall short of them. That is what it is to be moral, rational animals. Show me reason, I’ll show you unreason.  The saint and the sinner are shackled together by their common humanity. Wisdom and folly are Siamese twins. Imagine a human life without praise and commendation, without sense of achievement. That would be the cost of life without ugliness, wickedness, foolishness and stupidity. The Christian heaven is possible only to lobotomised automata, dehumanised social insects. Angels are merely souped-up flying ants. The enterprise before us is not to achieve heaven on earth. Yet it would be daft indeed to let the unattainability of heaven condemn us to our present hell. The question is not whether we can eliminate our vices. The question is whether our virtues will allow us to survive by carrying us into a better world. Not a question to be answered by speculation about human psychology. To be answered, not by canvassing the possibilities, but by setting about what is necessary. It is a question demanding action. If we want to know whether we are equipped to survive, the best way of finding out is to make sure that we do.

This is a manifesto and we could do worse than read it and take it to heart and mind.

Killing Time by Paul Feyerabend

Much has been written about Feyerabend. My two cents’ worth.

A striking aspect of this book is that philosophers and scientists, even (or perhaps specially?) the greatest of them walked hand in hand. They listened to each other. Am I incorrect to say that now there is a complete schism? It’s all very well to blame the philosophers who generally avoid science because it’s too hard.

But an equally fair generalisation is that scientists now are culturally ignorant. They don’t read, they don’t go to theatre or engage in philosophical argument. They don’t even do science. They have tiny fragmented parts to play in something which might or might not have a big picture. They refuse to be engaged on some other tiny bit even if it sits right next to theirs, or to the small big picture. That, at any rate, is my overall impression and needless to say there are obvious exceptions, at least on the goodreads site. Clearly if they believe that they can do a good job of being a scientist with nothing even remotely approaching a world view, they are scarcely going to see any advantage in an interdisciplinary education or way of engaging with the world.

Feyerabend is enormously well-read and seems to read anything. I suspect if he seems like an odd thinker it is partly because he takes from so many places. Not much, I’d say, from feminism. I note that he mentions many lays in this book, none of them are attributed with a surname. Why? If it were to protect their anonymity, he could at least have given his wives surnames since they are no chance to remain unknown.

Feyerabend was a lost soul, a person with no purpose, who drifted into everything he did in life. His only love appears to have been for opera and theatre, but that is probably only because he didn’t make it in these areas, though he might have fought to do so at various times. It is clear that he only wants what he can’t have, once he gets it, whether it be a woman or a job, very shortly he is planning where else to be. Added to that, he is easily led to ambiguity.

One can readily imagine how this happened, a difficult childhood followed by army service for the Nazis during which he was seriously and permanently wounded. He seems to have disassociated from it as it happened. The journey back, his gift for his last wife, must have been cathartic and painful. With very few words indeed, he once or twice manages to show his shame at his own behaviour. He never feels sorry for himself, though many would in his shoes. It is not easy for any non-Jewish German to write about their attitudes in the Nazi period. I can’t say I am convinced by his arguments.

From all this, however, towards the end of his life, he came to the conclusion that the only thing that mattered was love. It’s really terribly moving to see him trying to explain this. What a pity he could not read Romulus, My Father, which does it so very well.

The account is matter of fact, but eloquent, regrets contained by humour. Anybody who wants an idiosyncratic, thoughtful, renegade view of Austria from the twenties through to after the war, academia around the world up to the early nineties, and the theatre and opera during all of this period is warmly recommended to this book. Bring some tissues for the denouement.

The Affair by CP Snow

Whitaker put up the challenge here recently (comment 7):

Hands up those of you that have allowed a deeply held and cherished viewpoint to be changed by someone whose views are opposed to your own. Hands up those of you who have publicly contradicted someone whose political views closely align to your own on most occasions and did not end up paying a price for that. Ultimately, the majority of us are tribal.

It could scarcely have been more apposite to find myself at the time reading my first CP Snow The Affair which deals in a small closed world with just this situation. A scientist disliked by all in his Cambridge college is accused of and found guilty of fraud by the internal mechanisms of the college. Next, one of the very people who had first investigated the claims comes upon a piece of evidence that indicates there must be serious doubts as to the guilty verdict. To make it worse, not only would the College Seniors have to accept that they had been wrong, but overturning the verdict would by implication incriminate a now deceased scientist of impeccable credentials.

The book describes in minute detail the machinations that ensured, the motivations of the various players, the belief structures, both religious and political that inevitably have some sway, not to mention the notion of tradition and even what one thinks of so and so’s wife.

It is sort of like Twelve Angry Men but whereas that was a jury, and a diverse collection of individuals all strangers to one another, The Affair is a situation where everybody goes way back and the differences between people are much smaller, though they loom large in the story.

Both have at their heart data which looks one way to begin with, but which can be interpreted in quite another as the stories transpire. Both look at the efforts by some to change the minds of others. Some of those ‘others’ are good people who do see that they must change their minds, others are not. I went to see Twelve Angry Men last year and as we went into the theatre we were each given a number, that of one of the jurors. The idea was simply that you followed the play from that person’s point of view. Got under his skin. I enthusiastically took on that challenge, only to become increasingly uneasy as I discovered Ed, Juror 10, was a straightforward bigot. It wasn’t an altogether untimely exercise, as he seemed to be the sort of character we at least stereotype as the one who got Trump in.

There was no way Ed was going to change who I am. But – no, not even any buts. He just didn’t. Somebody, however, got under his skin. He hung out til almost the end, but despite his abhorrent, aggressively held opinions, he ungraciously conceded at some point.

The story is pretty much the same in The Affair but instead of a dowdy jurors’ room with no aircon on a sweaty sort of a day, here the scene is the fusty elegance of a Cambridge college, no matter that it is a made-up place, it is entirely to the point. No doubt that makes for some of the attraction of Snow’s novel. You know that every bit of it is true, the way the characters think and act, the importance of ritual and status. In the best scientific tradition, one of those who originally was certain of the culprit’s guilt, discovers new evidence and has no question at any point but that the original decision must be overturned. Not for one moment does his personal distaste for that man affect his conviction, nor the impact it will have on his relationships, already tenuous, with his colleagues. Others are not so high-minded. The consequence is a fascinating refined argy bargy with an ending leaving nobody happy.

It’s my first Snow, acquired by chance, and likely to be followed by more should I happen upon them. I’m curious to know if his use of French expressions reflects upon him as a writer – or his social class of writer, as I imagine he is part of one – or whether it is part of the makeup of his characters. It seemed to me to be old-fashioned, but then again, I picked up a Julian Barnes, as it happened, shortly thereafter and he is similarly afflicted. I would love opinions about this!

The Second Tree from the Corner by EB White

I had no idea that this writer of charming children’s books wrote prolifically for adults too. He was a newspaper man and one of the things that stands out in this collection is his discussion of the way in which newspapers have to fill their pages and the consequent lowering of the standards of what is written. Like now, except that newspapers were not a bottomless internet pit. His credentials to be this critic? Well, he was the rewriter of The Elements of Style, which might be the most famous of its genre.

He writes of war, of sport, of the nuclear threat, of robots, of cheating at chess. He writes of many things in ways that speak now. Amazing!

He is humorous like this, from a section called ‘Answers to Hard Questions’ where he harvests questions to newspapers searching for advice and gives his own take.

L.D. writes: Is there any likelihood that the temporary physical condition a man is in would have an effect on his offspring? In other words, should a man hesitate about becoming a father during the time he is suffering from hay fever? – Health column in the Chicago Tribune.

This is a question many a man has had to face, alone with his God. Sensitivity to pollen, the male element of flowers, is at once an exalted and a pitiable condition and inevitably suggests to a prospective progenitor the disquieting potentialities inherent in all propagation. Like father like son is the familiar saying: big sneeze, little sneeze. There is little doubt that allergy to hay, so deep-seated, so shattering, is inheritable; and it is just as certain that a sensitive man, during the season of his great distress, is as eager for life and love as in the periods when his mucosae are relaxed. We cannot conscientiously advise any man to abstain from fatherhood on a seasonal, or foliage, basis. The time  not to become a father is eighteen years before a world war.

There it is, that fabulous juxtaposition where he kicks you in the gut, no warning, just kapow. Fantastic. Brilliant line. Brilliant timing. I’ve read it two dozen times now and it still makes my insides curl up.

This is what you got when  you read The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly between 1935 and 1955, the time span of the chosen pieces.

Mrs Wienckus

The Newark police arrested a very interesting woman the other day – a Mrs Sophie Wienckus – and she is now on probation after being arraigned as disorderly. Mrs Wienckus interests us because her ‘disorderliness’ was simply her capacity to live a far more self-contained life that most of us can manage. The police complained that she was asleep in two empty cartons in a hallway. This was her preferred method of bedding down. All the clothes she possessed she had on – several layers of coats and sweaters. On her person were bankbooks showing that she was ahead of the game to the amount of $19,799.09. She was a working woman – a domestic – and, on the evidence, a thrifty one. Her fault, the Court held, was that she lacked a habitation.

‘Why didn’t you rent a room?’ asked the magistrate. But he should have added parenthetically ‘(and the coat hangers in the closet and the cord that pulls the light and the dish that holds the soap and the mirror that conceals the cabinet where lives the aspirin that kills the pain).’ Why didn’t you rent a room ‘(with the rug that collects the dirt and the vacuum that sucks the dirt and the man that fixes the vacuum and the fringe that adorns the shade that dims the lamp and the desk that holds the bill for the installment on the television set that tells of the wars)?’ We feel that the magistrate oversimplified his question.

Mrs Wienckus may be disorderly, but one pauses to wonder where the essential disorder really lies. All of us are instructed to seek hallways these days (except school children, who crawl under desks), [The US expectation of nuclear attack against them colours much of White’s writing in this sort of way] and it was in a hallway that they found Mrs Wienckus, all compact. We read recently that the only hope of avoiding inflation is through ever increasing production of goods. This to us always a terrifying conception of the social order – a theory of the good life through accumulation of objects. We lean toward the order of Mrs Wienckus, who has eliminated everything except what she can conveniently carry, whose financial position is solid, and who can smile at Rufus Rastus Johnson Brown. We salute a woman whose affairs are in such excellent order in a world untidy beyond all believe.

If, like me, you don’t know the reference to Rufus Rastus Johnson Brown, pancocojams discusses it here. It’s a song about paying rent.

I challenge the reader not to be moved by this, surely every bit as pertinent now as when it was written.

The Dream of the American Male

Dorothy Lamour is the girl above all others desired by the men in Army camps. This fact was turned up by Life in a routine study of the unlimited national emergency. It is a fact which illuminates the war, the national dream, and our common unfulfillment. If you know what a soldier wants, you know what Man wants, for a soldier is young, sexually vigorous, and is caught in a line of work which leads towards a distant and tragic conclusion. He personifies Man. His dream of a woman can be said to be Everyman’s dream of a woman. In desiring Lamour, obviously his longing is for a female creature encountered under primitive conditions and in a setting of great natural beauty and mystery. He does not want this woman to make any sudden or nervous movement. She should be in a glade, a swale, a grove, or a pool below a waterfall. This is the setting in which every American youth first encountered Miss Lamour. They were in a forest; she had walked slowly out of the pool and stood dripping in the ferns.

The dream of the American male is for a female who has an essential languor which is not laziness, who is unaccompanied except by himself, and who does not let him down. He desires a beautiful, but comprehensible, creature who does not destroy a perfect situation by forming a complete sentence. She is compounded of moonlight and shadows, and has a slightly husky voice, which she uses only in song or in an attempt to pick up a word or two that he teachers her. Her body, if concealed at all, is concealed by a water lily, a frond, a fern, a bit of moss, or by a sarong – which is a simple garment carrying the implicit promise that it will not long stay in place. For millions of years men everywhere have longed for Dorothy Lamour. Now in the final complexity of an age which has reached its highest expression in the instrument panel of a long-range bomber, it is a good idea to remember that Man’s most persistent dream is of a forest pool and a girl coming out of it unashamed, walking toward him with a wary motion, childlike in her wonder, a girl exquisitely untroubled, as quiet and accommodating and beautiful as a young green tree. That’s all he really wants. He sometimes wonders how this other stuff got in – the instrument panel, the night sky, the full load, the moment of exultation over the blackened city below….

Fantastic. He’s a genius hidden away in the ephemeral nature of the daily (or weekly, or monthly) press.

This book came my way because a stranger died. She left behind a lifetime’s reading, a lifetime’s observation of the world as reported by the novelist, the poet, the children’s writer, the essayist. A history you can see and touch – I simply cannot understand how a USB stick can possibly have the meaning of a room of books. This is one of those I kept and I regard it as a complete treasure, falling apart paperback with cheap yellowing paper. A couple of the pieces in it puzzle me as to their presence. But mostly, oh wow. Sheer bliss.

What about this one?

Censorship

We are delighted with the recent censorship ruling in the matter of motion-picture harems. Some scenes in a Paramount picture now in production are set in a harem, and after careful deliberation the censors have decided to allow this type of polyform allure provided the boudoir does not contain the sultan. The girls can mill about among the pillows, back and side having gone bare, but no male eye must gaze upon them – save, of course, yours, lucky reader. This harem-but-no-sultan decision belongs in the truly great body of opinion interpreting the celebrated 1939 ruling on the exposure of female breasts in the Flushing World of Tomorrow, which provided that one breast could be presented publicly but not two, and thereby satisfied the two seemingly irreconcilable groups: the art-lovers, who demanded breasts but were willing to admit that if you’d seen one you’d seen them both, and the decency clique, who held out for concealment but were agreed that the fact of concealing one breast established the essential reticence of the owner and thereby covered the whole situation, or chest. That subtle and far-reaching ruling carried the Fair, as we know, safely through two difficult seasons, and we imagine that the aseptic harem will do as much for Hollywood.

and on the poet:

You read, perhaps, about the man who stole four tyres from a car in Norfolk, Virginia, and left a purse and a diamond ring untouched on the front seat, with this note: ‘Roses are red, violets are blue, we like your jewels but your tyres are new.’ the papers said it was a case of a thief who had a flair for poetry. This is palpable nonsense. It was a case of a poet who was willing to attempt desperate thing, even larceny, in order to place his poem. Clearly, there was a man who had written something and then had gone up and down in the world seeking the precise situation which would activate his poem. It must have meant long nights and days of wandering before he found a car with jewels lying loose in the front seat and four good tyres on the wheels. Poets endure much for the sake of their art.

The Hour of Letdown is a sci-fi chess story.

THE HOUR OF LETDOWN

When the man came in, carrying the machine, most of us looked up from our drinks, because we had never seen anything like it before. The man set the thing down on top of the bar near the beerpulls. It took up an ungodly amount of room and you could see the bartender didn’t like it any too well, having this big, ugly-looking gadget parked right there.
“Two rye-and-water,” the man said.
The bartender went on puddling an Old-Fashioned that he was working on, but he was obviously turning over the request in his mind.
“You want a double?” he asked, after a bit.
“No,” said the man. “Two rye-and-water, please … .” He stared straight at the bartender, not exactly unfriendly but on the other hand not affirmatively friendly.
Many years of catering to the kind of people that come into saloons had provided the bartender with an adjustable mind. Nevertheless, he did not adjust readily to this fellow, and he did not like the machine — that was sure. He picked up a live cigarette that was idling on the edge of the cash register, took a drag out of it, and returned it thoughtfully. Then he poured two shots of rye whiskey, drew two glasses of water, and shoved the drinks in front of the man. People were watching. When something a little out of the ordinary takes place at a bar, the sense of it spreads quickly all along the line and pulls the customers together.
The man gave no sign of being the center of attention. He laid a five-dollar bill down on the bar. Then he drank one of the ryes and chased it with water. He picked up the other rye, opened a small vent in the machine (it was like an oil cup) and poured the whiskey in, and then poured the water in. 72
The bartender watched grimly. “Not funny,” he said in an even voice. And furthermore, your companion takes up too much room.” Why’n you put it over on that bench by the door, make more room here.”
“There’s plenty of room for everyone here,” replied the man.
‘Tain’t amused,” said the bartender. “Put the goddam thing over near the door like I say. Nobody will touch it.”
The man smiled. “You should have seen it this afternoon,” he said. “It was magnificent. Today was the third day of the tournament. Imagine it — three days of continuous brainwork! And against the top players in the country, too. Early in the game it gained an advantage; then for two hours it exploited the advantage brilliantly, ending with the opponent’s king backed in a corner. The sudden capture of a knight, the neutralization of a bishop, and it was all over. You know how much money it won, all told, in three days of playing chess?”
“How much?” asked the bartender.
“Five thousand dollars,” said the man. “Now it wants to let down, wants to get a little drunk.”
The bartender ran his towel vaguely over some wet spots. “Take it somewheres else and get it drunk there!” he said firmly. “I got enough troubles.”
The man shook his head and smiled. “No, we like it here.” He pointed at the empty glasses. “Do this again, will you, please?”
The bartender slowly shook his head. He seemed dazed but dogged. “You stow the thing away,” he ordered. “I’m not ladling out whiskey for jokestersmiths.”
” Jokesmiths,” said the machine. “The word is “jokesmiths.”
A few feet down the bar, a customer who was on his third highball seemed ready to participate in this conversation to which we had all been listening so attentively. He was a middle-aged man. His necktie was pulled down away from his collar, and he had eased the collar by unbuttoning it. He had pretty nearly finished his third drink, and the alcohol tended to make him throw his support in with the underprivileged and the thirsty.
“If the machine wants another drink, give it another drink,” he said to the bartender. “Let’s not have haggling.”
The fellow with the machine turned to his new-found friend and gravely raised his hand to his temple, giving him a salute of gratitude and fellowship. He addressed his next remark to him, as though deliberately snubbing the bartender.
“You know how it is when you’re all fagged out mentally, how you want a drink?”
“Certainly do,” replied the friend. “Most natural thing in the world.”
There was a stir all along the bar, some seeming to side with the bartender, others with the machine group. A tall, gloomy man standing next to me spoke up.
“Another whiskey sour. Bill,” he said. “And go easy on the lemon juice.”
“Picric acid,” said the machine, sullenly. “They don’t use lemon juice in these places.”
“That does it!” said the bartender, smacking his hand on the bar. “Will you put that thing away or else beat it out of here. I ain’t in the mood, I tell you. I got this saloon to run and I don’t want lip from a mechanical brain or “whatever the hell you’ve got there.”
The man ignored this ultimatum. He addressed his friend, whose glass was now empty.
“It’s not just that it’s all tuckered out after three days of chess,” he said amiably. “You know another reason it wants a drink?”
“No,” said the friend. “Why?”
“It cheated,” said the man.
At this remark, the machine chuckled. One of its arms dipped slightly, and a light glowed in a dial.
The friend frowned. He looked as though his dignity had been hurt, as though his trust had been misplaced. “Nobody can cheat at chess,” he said. “Simpossible. In chess, everything is open and above the board. The nature of the game of chess is such that cheating is impossible.”
“That’s what I used to think, too,” said the man. “But there is a way.”
“Well, it doesn’t surprise me any,” put in the bartender. “The first time I laid my eyes on that crummy thing I spotted it for a crook.” 74
“Two rye-and-water,” said the man.
“You can’t have the whiskey,” said the bartender. He glared at the mechanical brain. “How do I know it ain’t drunk already?”
“That’s simple. Ask it something,” said the man.
The customers shifted and stared into the mirror. We were all in this thing now, up to our necks. We waited. It was the bartender’s move.
“Ask it what? Such as?” said the bartender.
“Makes no difference. Pick a couple big figures, ask it to multiply them together. You couldn’t multiply big figures together if you were drunk, could you?”
The machine shook slightly, as though making internal preparations.
“Ten thousand eight hundred and sixty-two, multiply it by ninety-nine,” said the bartender, viciously. We could tell that he was throwing in the two nines to make it hard.
The machine flickered. One of its tubes spat, and a hand changed position, jerkily.
“One million seventy-five thousand three hundred and thirty-eight,” said the machine.
Not a glass was raised all along the bar. People just stared gloomily into the mirror; some of us studied our own faces, others took carom shots at the man and the machine.
Finally, a youngish, mathematically minded customer got out a piece of paper and a pencil and went into retirement. “It works out,” he reported, after some minutes of calculating. “You can’t say the machine is drunk! ”
Everyone now glared at the bartender. Reluctantly he poured two shots of rye, drew two glasses of water. The man drank his drink. Then he fed the machine its drink. The machine’s light grew fainter. One of its cranky little arms wilted.
For a while the saloon simmered along like a ship at sea in calm weather. Every one of us seemed to be trying to digest the situation, with the help of liquor. Quite a few glasses were refilled. Most of us sought help in the mirror — the court of last appeal.
The fellow with the unbuttoned collar settled his score. He walked stiffly over and stood between the man and the machine.
He put one arm around the man, the other arm around the machine. “Let’s get out of here and go to a good place,”he said.
The machine glowed slightly. It seemed to be a little drunk now.
“All right,” said the man. “That suits me fine. I’ve got my car outside.”
He settled for the drinks and put down a tip. Quietly and a trifle uncertainly he tucked the machine under his arm, and he and his companion of the night walked to the door and out into the street.
The bartender stared fixedly, then resumed his light housekeeping. “So he’s got his car outside,” he said, with heavy sarcasm. “Now isn’t that nice!”
A customer at the end of the bar near the door left his drink, stepped to the window, parted the curtains, and looked out. He watched for a moment, then returned to his place and addressed the bartender. “It’s even nicer than you think,” he said. “It’s a Cadillac. And which one of the three of them d’ya think is doing the driving?” Text taken from here.

As for The Morning of the Day They Did It, I see online one comment by  Bill Christensen: “Absolutely first-rate story by White makes me think I completely misunderstood Stuart Little. A man who works on a Stratovideo plane in the nascent television industry writes the story of the end of the world. This story is so up-to-date you’ll whimper with fear by the end. Highly recommended.’ Unfortunately I can’t find the text accessible online and it’s too long to type out, but I see that it is in at least one sci-fi anthology, it is absolutely deservedly mentioned in many contexts, as you’ll see if you google it. To quote White himself, who was beset by requests to reprint it and declined them all ‘Got  my reasons. One reason is that I’m not sure it’s a public service to describe the end of the world, even in a spirit of satire. People are jumpy, right now, and I see no reason to explode paper bags.’

The man’s so damn quotable. These, from a Paris Review interview of the late sixties:

Feuds did not threaten The New Yorker. The only feud I recall was the running battle between the editorial department and the advertising department. This was largely a one-sided affair, with the editorial department lobbing an occasional grenade into the enemy’s lines just on general principles, to help them remember to stay out of sight. Ross was determined not to allow his magazine to be swayed, in the slightest degree, by the boys in advertising. As far as I know, he succeeded.

and

Magazines that refuse unsolicited manuscripts strike me as lazy, incurious, self-assured, and self-important.

and

I picked up Ulysses the other evening, when my eye lit on it, and gave it a go. I stayed with it only for about twenty minutes, then was off and away. It takes more than a genius to keep me reading a book.

and

A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.

and

If sometimes there seems to be a sort of sameness of sound in The New Yorker, it probably can be traced to the magazine’s copy desk, which is a marvelous fortress of grammatical exactitude and stylish convention. Commas in The New Yorker fall with the precision of knives in a circus act, outlining the victim.

and, asked about permissiveness (as it used to be called) in writing:

Shocking writing is like murder: the questions the jury must decide are the questions of motive and intent.

and, of his future:

I am still encouraged to go on. I wouldn’t know where else to go.