Leta’s acting moment

HANNAH: It’s wanting to know that makes us matter. Otherwise we’re going out the way we came in. That’s why you can’t believe in the afterlife, Valentine. Believe in the after, by all means, but not the life. Believe in God, the soul, the spirit, the infinite, believe in angels if you like, but not in the great celestial get-together for an exchange of views. If the answers are in the back of the book I can wait, but what a drag. Better to struggle on knowing that failure is final.

—Tom Stoppard, Arcadia, sc. 7

Good things

Gloria liked rules, rules were Good Things. Gloria liked rules that said you couldn’t speed or park on double-yellow lines, rules that told you not to drop litter or deface buildings. She was sick and tired of hearing people complain about speed cameras and parking wardens as if there were some reason that they should be exempt from them. When she was younger she used to fantasize about sex and love, about keeping chickens and bees, being taller, running through fields with a black-and-white border collie. Now she daydreamed about being the keeper at the gates, of standing with the ultimate ledger and ticking off the names of the dead as they appeared before her, giving them the nod through or the thumbs-down. All those people who parked in bus bays and ran the red light on pedestrian crossings were going to be very sorry when Gloria peered at them over the top of her spectacles and asked them to account for themselves.

—Kate Atkinson, One Good Turn, p. 22

Believe it or not, Leta was flattered when I told her that I read this passage and thought of her.


John Dean generally puts his biography subject, President Warren Harding, in the best possible light, but he does quote this assessment by H. L. Mencken of Harding’s speechmaking:

It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of a dark abysm… of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and rumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash. (p. 73, quoted from Paul Boller, Jr., Presidential Anecdotes)

A man to be reckoned with

I’m enjoying reading Eric Newby’s A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush. Newby, perhaps the last of the rank amateur explorers, has perhaps seen a small bump in sales of his books as a result of his recent demise. Newby and his friend Hugh Carless set off to explore the remotest bits of north-east Afghanistan in 1956, and the book is the record of the trip.

The whole ill-prepared Newby-Carless expedition reminds me of my friends Chuck and Mike during the Three Mile Island disaster in the 1970s. Chuck and Mike were living in New York, downwind of the crippled reactor in Harrisburg, Pa. (Anne and I were living in Philadelphia then). At the height of the crisis, when we all thought the dang thing might blow, in the middle of the night, Chuck and Mike said, “let’s get outta here,” and jumped in their car. They were on the road for several hours before they realized they were driving west, into Pennsylvania.

Anyway. Having honorably failed in their attempt to get to the top of Mir Samir, a 19,880-foot mountain, Carless and Newby wanted to push on to the province of Nuristan, but met with resistance from their local horse drivers, who feared its Wild West-style reputation. Nuristan was converted to Islam only recently, and by the sword. After arguing with the porters for several hours,

…Hugh lost his temper.

‘Go back then!’ he said. ‘Go back to Jangalak and tell your people that Newby Seb and I have gone to Nuristan alone—and that you let us go alone! They will call you women.’

As soon as he had said this is was abundantly clear that both Abdul Ghiyas and Badar Khan were prepared to let us do this very thing. Hugh was forced to try a more subtle approach….

‘When I return from Nuristan… I shall demand audience of General Ubaidullah Khan and tell him what you said about “idolatrous unbelievers.” General Ubaidullah Khan is a man of importance and …he is also a Nuristani.’

The effect of this was remarkable. At once all opposition ceased. Before we finally fell asleep long after midnight I asked Hugh who General Ubaidullah Khan was.

‘So far as I know,’ he said, ‘he doesn’t exist. I just invented him; but I think he’s going to be a very useful man to know.’