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Posts Tagged ‘Scotland’

“A Garish Nightmare of American Annihilation,” and Other News

July 22, 2015 | by

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Geoffrey Biggs’s Hiroshima cover (detail), 1948.

  • Ice cream: delicious summertime treat or agent of moral turpitude? In fin de siècle Scotland, ice cream parlors “with mirrored walls and leather seats” became “the scourge of the prudish bourgeoisie, who saw them as papist dens of vice”: “Among the more egregious crimes committed by the shops’ proprietors was that of allowing young people of both sexes to intermingle and smoke. One inspector had said that he had seen girls of ‘tender years’ smoking cigarettes in the shop. They were also seen dancing to ‘music supplied by a mouth organ’ … It was concluded that ice cream shops embodied ‘perfect iniquities of hell itself and ten times worse than any of the evils of the public house. They were sapping the morals of the youth of Scotland.’ ”
  • Frances Kroll Ring, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s longtime secretary, died last month. She had many critical tasks in his life, one of which was to rid him of his anti-Semitism: “It’s entirely possible that Frances Kroll was the first Jewish person he ever spent any time with … ‘Jews lose clarity,’ he jotted in his Notebooks. ‘They get to look like old melted candles, as if their bodies were preparing to waddle’ … As Kroll tells it, Fitzgerald displayed a great deal of curiosity about Jewishness, pestering her about Jewish characteristics and customs. He was fascinated by ‘the Passover feast’ and the practice of keeping kosher.”
  • Jack London spent his youth shoveling coal in a cannery, so he really, really, really wanted to become a successful writer and leave that hell behind. He had a good year in 1903: The Call of the Wild was serialized in the Saturday Evening Post, bringing the success that allowed him to write full-time. He conveyed his newfound wisdom to aspirant writers in a piece called “Getting Into Print.” Some of it’s still true in this century: “Don’t quit your job to write unless there is none dependent on you.” Other parts are not: “Fiction pays best of all, and when it is of a fair quality is more easily sold.”
  • When John Hersey’s Hiroshima appeared in paperback, it sported a new, terrifically misguided cover, becoming what Paula Rabinowitz called “a garish nightmare of American annihilation”: “In this image, two people, not Japanese, are fleeing an explosion just beyond the frame. They are young, white, and stylish: she epitomizes New Look fashion in her loafers and gathered skirt, he sports pleated cuffs and a fitted trench coat … The cover artist, Geoffrey Biggs, wasn’t trying to be deceptive. As he says, in a note that sits just before the copyright page, he was trying to be universal: ‘I just drew two perfectly ordinary people—like you or me—and had them portray alarm, anxiety, and yet wild hope for survival as they run from man-made disaster in a big city—a city like yours or mine.’ ”
  • In which the Argentine writer Sergio Chejfec dissects names, first and foremost his own: “Some years ago I had the idea of asking several writer friends if they wouldn’t care to reflect on their own surname … This task—to speak about one’s surname and to portray oneself through it—contains, I think, a touch of transcendence that brings us closer to death. We insert a mark—which is our emblem, i.e. the commentary—into an undefined series of fairly indistinct moments which is characterized precisely by the absence of marks … That common coin which is our surname, received at times like a baton, needs us so as to take on substance and, as it were, identity.”

Sherlock Holmes Defends Civil Engineering, and Other News

February 20, 2015 | by

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An illustration of Sherlock Holmes from The Strand, 1920s.

  • In Selkirk, Scotland, a man has found a previously unseen Sherlock Holmes story in his attic. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle apparently wrote it around 1904 to help raise funds for a new bridge. “It is believed the story—about Holmes deducing Watson is going on a trip to Selkirk—is the first unseen Holmes story by Doyle since the last was published over eighty years ago.”
  • Why is To Kill a Mockingbird so beloved? Probably just because everyone was forced to read it growing up—in reality, it’s a “white-trash gothic” that infantilizes blacks and demonizes poor whites: “The central struggle in To Kill a Mockingbird involves class, not race. The book’s theme is the class war within the white South between the noble gentry and the depraved poor. In a clever twist, thanks to the community’s racism the white underclass villain wins in court, but the gentry hero enjoys revenge at the end, thanks to a killing that is covered up by the local sheriff.”
  • While we’re at it, we’ve made a mess of Huck Finn, too: “We persistently misread Twain’s messages on race and children for a simple reason: Americans still subscribe to many of the same myths and prejudices as their nineteenth-century ancestors. Twain’s novel is not a hymn to the carefree pleasures of a rustic childhood; it’s a barbed critique of precisely the sort of standardized education that has now led to the book’s adoption in countless classrooms … Common readings of the book are now trapped in the same sanctimonious clichés that Twain both punctured and perpetuated.”
  • How quickly is our spoken language changing, and how many of those changes should be reflected in print? “There is a natural problem, found the world over: how quickly to allow writing to adapt to changes in the spoken language? If spelling were adapted to pronunciation, the result would be a radical and destabilizing break with centuries of tradition … English-speakers are stuck with an archaic and anarchic system. Liberties with grammar—making the written language look like the spoken one—should be few and cautious. Giving the written language a little room to change, but not too much, is the only way to enjoy the best of both stability and vitality.”
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates remembers David Carr, who was his boss at the Washington City Paper: “David—recovering crack addict, recovering alcoholic, ex-cocaine dealer, lymphoma survivor, beautiful writer, gorgeous human—knew something about how a life of fucking up burrows itself into the bones of knuckleheads, and it changes there, transmutes into an abiding shame, a gnawing fear which likely dogs the reformed knucklehead right into the grave. Perhaps that fear could be turned into something beautiful. Perhaps a young journalist could pull power from that fear, could write from it … ”

To S. R. Crockett

December 5, 2014 | by

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Bank House, Penicuik: Crockett lived here from around 1886, and J. M. Barrie often stayed with him.

Today, the Oxford English Dictionary brings us a splendid word of the day: the little-used draffsack. Because we can always use alternatives to glutton

Not that there’s anything wrong with glutton! Glutton is one of the finest of all words. It is evocative, it feels delicious in the mouth, and it’s also an alternate name for a wolverine. (Personally, I’d much sooner see a movie called Glutton. Although, I guess Hugh Jackman would have to put on a few pounds.)

But draffsack refines the concept. A draffsack is not merely a glutton, but a lazy glutton—as opposed to all the industrious, Diamond Jim Brady–style gluttons one encounters. It can also mean “paunch.” From the old Norse word draff (“brewing derivative”) and sack (“sack”), it is, apparently, Scottish. 

Which brings us to Samuel Rutherford Crockett. The OED cites the usage of the term in Crockett’s 1894 novel The Lilac Sunbonnet. S. R. Crockett’s career was a result of his era’s mania for Lowland Scots fiction; his many, many sentimental romances include Flower o’ the CornThe Surprising Adventures of Sir Toady LionMad Sir Uchtred, and, of course, his 1894 breakout, The Sticket Minister. Crockett was an ordained minister, and many of his forty titles had Christian themes, as well as muckle lowland color and Victorian-style syrup. Read More »

Antrim Returns, and Other News

September 18, 2014 | by

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  • John Jeremiah Sullivan on Donald Antrim and his new collection of short stories, The Emerald Light in the Air: “That last story [‘The Emerald Light’] does something special, something very quiet that demands extremely close brushwork, something that exceedingly few writers can do … The technique is one of illusion and happens at the level of the text itself. It’s a way of rendering permeable the surface lens that divides the underworld of fantasy from the ‘painful realism’ hovering above it, so that writer and reader at moments seem joined in not being totally certain whether what’s happening on the page should be taken literally and naturalistically or as mythical, otherworldly.”
  • “It is almost unheard-of for the same writer to have a byline on the lead item in rival newspapers. But it has happened in Britain today—to a man who last picked up his pen in 1796.” (Hint: think New Year’s Eve.)
  • Apple’s iOS 8 includes QuickType, a predictive typing feature that suggests words you might want to type next. Followed to its extremes, it takes one’s sentences to strange and arguably poetic lands: “I have a great way of saying the government has ordered a pizza./ Yes, you do that for the rest of the day before I go to sleep.”
  • Ben Lerner and Ariana Reines in conversation: “For me, the cow is a real modernist figure. I feel like after God died, the cow became the onlooker in great works of modernism. It’s the witness in Joyce, it shows up again and again—for me, it’s like the residue of the divine in the twentieth century.”
  • In the eighties, Michael Chabon had a punk band in Pittsburgh. They were called the Bats. One of his bandmates said, “I just remembered being very impressed with his stage presence, like he’d been waiting all his life to do this.”

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Das Kapital Commodified, and Other News

July 7, 2014 | by

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Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Marx’s portrait appeared on banknotes of the highest value. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

  • On Thursday, just as the Dow Jones closed at an all-time high, a first edition of Marx’s Das Kapital sold for $40,000.
  • Searching for Orwell in Scotland: “I had come to Jura, a remote island on Scotland’s west coast, to find the solitude George Orwell had sought sixty-five years earlier to finish his classic, Nineteen Eighty-Four … [I] wanted to understand why a man so accustomed to city life had come to an inaccessible island of only 190 souls to find inspiration for a novel about totalitarianism in an urbanized state—why a writer at the peak of his celebrity ensconced himself in an austere farmhouse hidden in an inhospitable Scottish landscape.”
  • Paola Antonelli is “one of MoMA’s most prominent, and provocative, curators”: “Petite and energetic, she is prone to fanciful descriptions of the world and its things—a verbal extension, perhaps, of a kind of object-oriented synesthesia. Design, to her, is everywhere … She has said that she believes ‘the age of design is upon us, almost like a rapture.’”
  • In commissioned books of portraits like Matthäus Schwarz’s, from the sixteenth century, we can trace the origins of “self-fashioning”: “Schwarz’s Trachtenbuch (Book of Clothes) was clearly designed for display, and on the whole it paints him in a good light … it announces Schwarz as a person of taste, a supporter of his city and family, a courtly lover, and a well-rounded Renaissance man. It is also, arguably, one of the first fashion books, a distant progenitor of a Vogue lookbook, as it were.”
  • John Wray profiles Nick Cave: “Cave’s public persona has been called ‘theatrical,’ but a more precise term might be cinematic. Like many self-mythologizers, charismatics and plain old eccentrics, he has always appeared to be performing in a movie only he himself could see.”

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Michael Bruce’s “Elegy—Written in Spring”

March 27, 2014 | by

Marianna Saska, Edinburgh Castlehill in Spring

Edinburgh Castlehill in spring. Photo: Marianna Saska, via Flickr

Michael Bruce has a purchase on the springtime. He was born on March 27, 1746, just as spring was coming to Scotland, and his most enduring poem is “Elegy—Written in Spring.” The guy knows greenery.

Bruce—a Scotsman, as you may have guessed—was the son of a weaver; growing up, “his attendance at school was often interrupted because he had to herd cattle on the Lomond Hills in summer, and this early companionship with nature greatly influenced his poetry.”

And so it did: “Elegy” is a plain-and-simple celebration of companionship with nature; it’s unadorned and all the more beautiful for it. Bruce wrote the poem toward the end of his life, and its last stanza, which turns to gaze at death, is quietly devastating, especially since it comes after so many words devoted to the bliss and beauty of pastoral Scotland. The images here are classically, achingly bucolic: flowers, plains, furze. Verdant ground, ample leaves, and dewy lawns. On a day like today, when, in New York, the new season struggles to shuck off the dreariness of the last, “Elegy” is an ideal balm. If only it could bring the balmy weather with it. Read More »

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