Feet on the Table

December 12, 2007

From Diana Preston, A First Rate Tragedy: Robert Falcon Scott and the Race to the South Pole (New York, 1998), pg. 41.

On the afternoon of 2 January 1902 the men of the Discovery gazed on their first icebergs, silent ambassadors of the approaching pack. The next day they crossed the Antarctic Circle, earning them the sailor’s traditional right to drink a toast with both feet on the table.


Stravinsky and Elephants

November 28, 2007

From Daniel J. Boorstin, ‘Composing for the Community’, in The Creators: A History of Heroes of the Imagination (New York, 1992)

He was not averse to bizarre experiments in his own name. When George Balanchine was asked by Ringling Brothers of the Barnum and Bailey Circus to commission a ballet for young elephants in 1942, he passed on the request to Stravinsky. “If they are very young,” Stravinsky agreed, “I’ll do it.” And he produced his Circus Polka in two versions. Stravinsky’s music for The Firebird had made Pavlova so uneasy in 1910 that she refused the title role. Now Stravinsky’s rhythms made the young elephants uneasy. Elephants, their trainer explained, were dignified animals who preferred waltzes and soft, dreamy tunes, but they finally gave in, and, costumed in tutus, performed Stravinsky’s Polka 425 times. The symphonic version was performed by the Boston Symphony in 1944.

Native Trees

October 13, 2007

From  A. G. Stephens, ‘Introduction’, in The Bulletin Book (Sydney, 1901)

Englishmen have been permitted even to denounce the gum-tree, the most picturesque tree that grows, always at ease and unconventional. To see the many-bosomed gum-tree moving in a breeze (that gum-tree shaped like a soaring parachute made of a score of minor parachutes which lift and strain as if eager to be off and up); to watch the shifting interspaces of sky when amber days or purple nights play hide-and-seek among the wayward branches, and to listen to the birdlike murmur of the leaves, almost a twittering; – this is to receive an aesthetic education. Yet Englishmen persist in bringing hither their dense, sombre trees which defy even an Australian sun-ray, which almost disdain to ruffle in an Australian breeze – trees with the heavy magnificence of an English dinner, and often as dull; – and they call upon us to admire these unnatural exotics!

Dropping a Line into the Unknown

September 15, 2007

From Robert Hughes, A Jerk on One End: Reflections of a Mediocre Fisherman (London, 1999), pg. 17.

The fundamental experience of fishing consists of dropping a line into the unknown. You can guess what is down there; you can make your best estimates based on tide, habitat, feeding patterns and so forth; but you do not really know. Whatever takes your hook therefore has a character of revelation, even if it’s only a flounder. It may be edible or not; thorny, spiny or beautifully sleek; equipped with gnashing jaws or relatively passive; but there is always, assuming that you aren’t sight-fishing, the magic moment when the thing struggling on you line down there could be anything. The similarities between the writer’s work and the angler’s need not be laboured, but they exist. The writer lets down his or her hook into the deposit of memory and experience, the semiconscious fluid – not the dark, abyssal unconscious, which is out of reach, but the tidal zone where word, phrase, idea and memory circulate in a kind of half-light, forming their unpredicted patterns. With luck, you bring something up. If it is undersize, you toss it back.

Learning to See

September 15, 2007

From Robert Hughes, A Jerk on One End: Reflections of a Mediocre Fisherman (London, 1999), pg. 11.

To fish at all, even at a humble level, you must notice things: the movement of the water and its patterns, the rocks, the seaweed, the quiver of tiny scattering fish that betrays a bigger predator under them. Time on the pier taught me to concentrate on the visual, for fishing is intensely visual even – perhaps especially – when nothing is happening. It is easy to look, but learning to see is a more gradual business, and it sneaks up on you unconsciously, by stealth. The sign that it is happening is the fact that you are not bored by the absence of the spectacular.

Marcus Clarke’s Hell on Earth

September 14, 2007

From Marcus Clarke, ‘Preface to Gordon’s Poems‘ (1876), in John Barnes (ed.), The Writer in Australia (Oxford, 1969), pg. 35.

The Australian mountain forests are funereal, secret, stern. Their solitude is desolation. They seem to stifle, in their black gorges, a story of sullen despair. No tender sentiment is nourished in their shade. In other lands the dying year is morned, the falling leaves drop lightly on his bier. In the Australian forest no leaves fall. The savage winds shout among the rock clefts. From the melancholy gum strips of white bark hang and rustle. The very animal life of these frowning hills is either grotesque or ghostly. Great grey kangaroos hop noiselessly over the coarse grass. Flights of white cockatoos stream out, shrieking like evil souls. The sun suddenly sinks, and the mopokes burst out into horrible peals of semi-human laughter. The natives aver that, when night comes, from out the bottomless depth of some lagoon the Bunyip rises, and in form like monstrous sea-calf, drags his loathsome length from out the ooze. From a corner of the silent forest rises a dismal chant, and around a fire dance natives painted like skeletons. All is fear-inspiring and gloomy. No bright fancies are linked with the memories of the mountains. Hopeless explorers have named them out of their sufferings – Mount Micery, Mount Dreadful, Mount Despair.

St. Augustine and ibn-al-Salt

September 13, 2007

From Peter Watson, Ideas: A History From Fire to Freud (London, 2005), pg. 314.

Augustine turned into a great writer (113 books, 200 letters) but he is famously known to history as ‘a great sinner who became a great saint’. According to his own confessions, he was a sinner until he was thirty-two, when he turned to Christianity, but even after that he was unable to live up to his hopes because of a ‘weakness in dealing with sexual temptation’. (‘Lord, give me chastity,’ he used to pray, ‘but not yet.’)

From Peter Watson, Ideas: A History From Fire to Freud (London, 2005), pg. 366.

One of the most important poets of the seventh and early eighth centuries was a Christian, Ghiyath ibn-al-Salt, from near to Hirah, on the Euphrates, who was even taken to Mecca by his caliph. Though appointed court poet, he refused to convert [to Islam], or to give up his ‘addiction’ to wine, or to stop wearing his cross. He divorced his wife, married a divorcĂ©e, was often seen with prostitutes and drank ‘to saturation’, claiming that was the only way he got ideas for his poetry.