Slaves to the sun?

While for the most part these twin sisters are nothing short of bonkers, I liked when one of them questioned the tyranny of time, speaking with splendid disregard for the sun of day and moon of night. For other examples of their more eccentric exchanges,...

Beware rash judgement

Dante is cautioned to beware those who pass speedy judgement - 'Anyone and his wife' who think in witnessing a deed they can securely make assumptions about its karmic consequences.   'So we should be strict towards All people when they judge at too...

Yours to win, not lose

These racing monosyllables have the pace and certainty of one who runs, and lives, as if he can only win. I have a certain admiration for such bounding assurance.'But this one ran as if the race were hisTo win, not lose.  As his life was, and is.''... e...

Of sisters dissimilar

Dante meets the two sisters in Purgatory, and Leah describes, with Dantesque pithiness, the difference between them. For other quotations concerning rather more similar sisters, see Jane Eyre, or a few examples of sister-shared insanity in Mervyn Peake's...

A sociable breakfast

Little Lord Fauntleroy is out of fashion these days, but I think that's because most people haven't read the book, and believe him to be nothing but the Pears' Soap poster child of velvet and lace collars. He's actually funny, asking innocently adroit...

How dare you think?

A tale of riches to rags by the author of The Secret Garden, one of my two all time favourite children's books - recommended reading for disenchanted adults. Sara is a stalwart and fearless girl who confronts adult cruelty with the straightforwardness of...

 

I have discovered that, with the passing of the years, my ignorance in countless areas… has become increasingly perfected while, at the same time, a lifelong practice of haphazard readings has left me with a sort of commonplace book in whose pages I find my own thoughts put into the words of others.   

Source: Alberto Manguel, The City of Words, CBC Massey Lecture Series (Toronto: Anansi Press, 2007), p. 3

I got me…

More loving lines from George Herbert's 'Easter' poem. Herbert was a cleric and his poem is religious, but even if you aren't, this has a wholehearted generosity to it; one person bringing what feels like armfuls of gifts to another, only to find that they...

Can there be any day but this?

These lovely lines are from George Herbert's poem 'Easter', and that is the day of which he says there is but one.  Whether or not you celebrate Easter, it struck me as a reminder to treat each day as a unique bundle of time, life and, if we're lucky,...

On finding your way

What do you do when you're lost?  In this magical world, you can try paddling round and round until the fairytale magnet needle points you in the right direction. Listen or look out for those mysterious 'attractions'. Another lovely book by the playful,...

For one awful moment

Timothy and his siblings run away from their strict grandmother and land, unwittingly, at their uncle's place.  Ambrose is a dream uncle and a dream teacher, getting them educated by morning classwork and evening homework. But the afternoons are theirs to...

And this is anger

Dante's description of Anger is gloriously conveyed in Clive James' translation by the delicious echo of 'plots and plans' in 'pots and pans'.  And reduced to but a clattering din in the house, you have to wonder if it's worth it.  As Homer describes it,...

Being certain vs being correct

Know the sort? Enough confidence and you can get yourself obeyed even if you are ordering people in the wrong direction. This quality often passes for 'leadership', regardless of whether the organization ends up being led off a cliff.   From a favourite...

The immorality of short-cuts

This imperious dismissal of short-cuts as immoral and inevitably causing confusion made me laugh. I have mixed feelings about them.Where it's an innovative way to do something faster without any loss of quality, I'm all for them; the immorality lies in...

Chew on it

A satisfying simile for mulling over an idea before implementing it. There is much playful language in the wisdom deftly embedded in Elizabeth Goudge's writing.One of the best English children's authors, and this is among my favourite of her books. See the...

Four good men

Hemingway's protagonist goes recruiting and chooses quality over quantity. Trust is what sorts the good men from the 'undependables'.  ‘I could use twenty more men, to be sure,’ Robert Jordan said.‘Good ones do not exist.  You want undependables?’‘No.  How...

Sing what you cannot say

In January 1942, a score of Verdi's Requiem was smuggled into Theresienstadt concentration camp and performed by prisoners, conducted by Rafael Schäcter.Starting with about 150 singers, the numbers dwindled as they disappeared into this or that hellish...

As it sounded, so it looked

In the preface to his marvelous translation of Dante, Clive James mentions the poet's pithiness.  I can't judge it in the original Italian, but it certainly comes through his English version.So I liked this example, a summary conclusion that things really...

Nervous as horses before a thunderstorm

Steinbeck's alarming simile launches a powerful, gripping overview of societal and economic malaise, which resonates uncomfortably with much current public discourse on jobs (or their loss, precarity or deficiency) and inequality. It articulates in deeply...

Synaesthetic sound

An early evocation of synaesthesia - I like Dante's portrayal of a voice in terms of visibility. This is from Clive James' superb translation. 'And yet He said these wise things visibly -I mean that you could see the sound ...'  (Purgatory, Canto...

Summary impatience

I liked this sharp injunction to Dante to hurry up and spit it out. You can imagine an impatient parent or schoolmaster snapping at a nervous, faltering child, a chronological equivalent to the commonly heard exasperation: 'I'm not made of money, you...

As a conqueror enters a surprised city

For Valentine's Day, a heart-warming account by the first biographer of the poet George Herbert on how he met his wife.Jane Danvers was one of nine daughters of Charles Danvers, who liked George Herbert so much he said repeatedly that he'd be delighted to...

Ill guidance, bad leadership

A strikingly modern sounding comment by Dante, resonating painfully when the evening news seems to be forever picking apart the latest vagaries of bad leadership.  'Ill guidance is the cause of the ill fameThe world has earned, this wicked world of pain...

Too much information

Dante anticipated the age in which we are drowned in facts, fake and otherwise.  Note his observation of our being overwhelmed by it, written in the 14th century.  Wonder what he would make of the endless bombardments of information now.    'Overwhelmed...

Doubt in an age of faith

Dante lived in an age where faith was the norm, at least in public, and doubt could land you in trouble. How modern his assertion therefore sounds, allowing doubt to be not only natural, but rooted in the truth and sprouting from it as a healthy...

The carnivore’s dilemma

I liked the honesty of Hall's admission of hypocrisy and am sorry to report that I know the feeling.  Morally, rationally, I would, should, probably, be a vegetarian, and can happily go without meat for relatively long periods.  But give it up all...

The thoughts of a pig

A wonderfully involved tail of a pig's escape and eventual recapture.Firstly, a protracted endeavour to find him, eventually discovered resting in a barn, engaged in 'thinking unutterable things'. Secondly, the vain boast of an Irishman who was sure he...

A plea for pity – II

Keats' plea for tolerance, given we each have flaws that can be painfully exposed.  See Theodore Dreiser's similar suggestion that pity and compassion be given more room in a stony-hard universe. And George Eliot importunes us to lean towards tenderness...

A plea for pity – I

A pithy plea for pity in a rocky, raging universe.  See Keats' equally eloquent expression of the need for tolerance.  And George Eliot importunes us to err on the side of compassion rather than severity.We all have a weak side easily exposed. Let's go...

Do what a hero must

Naturally, any would-be hero or heroine needs to set sail, or how are they to prove their worth? Clive James, from whose splendid translation this and other nearby quotations come, remarks on Dante's economy of phrasing, and this is one example.  Lapidary...

A fair request

In an age where you are expected to shout, tweet, bluster and generally blather about everything you do, it is heartening to read Virgil's pithy injunction that reasonable requests should be responded to by silent action.  "The answer to a fairRequest...

Joys unsung and untold

At winter's advent, a reminder of its beauty and magic.  May you be safe and warm within the stronghold. For another fine description of its harshness and splendour, see James Rebanks. ‘This is winter,’ he declaimed. ‘Winter’s stronghold.  But winter...

Where gannets swoop and rise

In the countdown to a major gift-giving season, I liked this ancient reference to a human presents. May you give and receive gifts in a spirit of open-hearted affection, bringing real pleasure all round. And if you celebrate it, have a wonderful Christmas,...

Stories as therapy

The story as a means to bear sorrow is an idea I'd like to believe, but can't quite relate to personally.  Karen Blixen was likely speaking from her own experience, and I can only admire the implicit resilience. 'All sorrows can be borne if you put them...

Stories as generosity

An expansive view of stories from Turkestan, as if they embody the sweeping spaces of the steppe, and the freedom of those who tell them. Take me to some tales from Turkestan...'The essence of the stories from Turkestan is generosity, a virtue of the...

Can’t bear the noise

I don't blame them either. A delightful recollection of a sensible ursine response to the outrage of war in their habitat. See another lovely account from the same book, of monster lobsters."Last year, when the hard fighting was going on up there" he...

The lobsters of Skopelos

Hyperbole, nothing like it when suitably blatant, creative and outrageous. You couldn't possibly eat one of these, only engage them in a civilized conversation about world affairs, or in a game of chess.See, from the same book, a similarly improbable yet...

Of art and Ithaca

This poetic summary resonates deeply - the search for green eternity as opposed to 'mere astonishments'.  I've always been baffled by sensationalism or the desire to shock as a motivation in itself, rather than as a possible by-product of creating...

Two types of aesthetic

A pithy way to categorize an aesthetic response - the straightforward reflection of a mirror or the more complex refraction of a prism.  I will test this out next time I look at a building, sculpture, painting or poem. 'Two aesthetics exist: the passive...

In praise of the unknown and unseen – I

The great humanist George Eliot sings the praises of those who act well or kindly in countless unmarked ways, without any song or dance about it. See a similar example in her superb Adam Bede, and Vasily Grossman's plea for the value of untraceable...

In praise of the unknown and unseen – II

Highlighting the significance of the insignificant people who constitute most of humanity and its history. See a similar praise of unsung heroes in Eliot's Middlemarch, and an echoing cry by Vasily Grossman. I sense that George Eliot and Vasily Grossman...

Bad but not dull

How about that for a jowl-shaking quaff? Proof that bad wine can be 'interesting' even if dentally dangerous.See another of Hemingway's graphic descriptions, this time in a vast soup tureen. And for a different but equally florid wine review, see Evelyn...

A strong soup

Surely one of the most memorable methods for mass disposal of enemies. Hard to compute the numbers in this recipe.  See also Hemingway's lively description of a bad wine. '‘I would like to swim ten leagues in a strong soup made from the cojones of all of...

Hunger for the universal

Having had such a yearning for as long as I can remember, I was surprised by recognition in seeing it articulated, here presented as a form of hunger. I wasn't born in a ghetto, but did feel constraints in scope which I needed to scramble away from. 'If...

A transcendent mind

A capacious mind which rises above and speeds ahead of the spillth and swirls of world affairs, political, sociological or technological.  To Zorba, but a pile of rusty old rifles. Here's to similar levels of detachment from time to time.'Why, all these –...

A long lane

Keats had a humbling capacity to squeeze out moments of joy even while grappling with the illness which would kill him and which had already killed his mother and brother. But he also gave expression to the toll it took on his spirit, here likening it to a...

A thicket of thorns

A moment of despair for Keats, despite his resilient spirit and his desperate attempts to seize life and wring every drop of joy out of it.  He snatched moments, but didn't survive the tuberculosis which killed his mother and brother. 'I see nothing but...

An Antarctic tsunami

I loved the slowly growing momentum of this vast wave, though one has to hope it would never make landfall, but could gently dissipate its force and dimension in travelling across open ocean. See also the bestellar review of this stupendously lean and...

Mamma turns up

A few signals to keep an eye out for so you don't miss the moment a god may show up: it could be aural, olfactory, visual or just a change in temperature.  In this case it was the perfume of oceanic lavender that first hinted at the arrival of a...

How clever can you get?

I liked these piled up and shamelessly outrageous examples of cleverness, although of their various skills, the first is the most impressive, suggesting an astonishing level of practical competence and dexterity. It deserves to enter the language as...

Bread and coins

This intriguing picnic caught my eye, in particular the honey-water soaked barley bread. "... straight to Pluto's palace. But don't forget to take with you two pieces of barley bread soaked in honey water, one in each hand, and two coins in your mouth..."...

Not yet fully formed

A wonderful comment by Zorba regarding the mental development of his boss.  Not, perhaps, a line to try on your own boss, however true it may seem. See also his equally crushing comment on his boss's behaviour towards the workers.   “I hope you don’t...

Career choices

Here Zorba points out the choices his boss has to make, since you can't prattle about socialism and be a capitalist at the same time, or at least not without some hypocrisy. See him also put his boss in his place as far as mental development is concerned....

Home sweet home

In Patrick Leigh Fermor's telling of it, the Mani region of Greece comprises two harsh elements: searing sunlight and endless stoniness.  Here, a Maniot sums it up with what appears to be characteristic pithiness. "When God had finished making the world,...

A load of old bull

Here Patrick Leigh Fermor tests the veracity of a much touted myth about Maniots in the Peloponnese being bull wrestlers.  I liked the progressive debunking of the myth, starting out with simple denial, then embellished with further evidence, all the way...

Colours as emblems

This is an opening line in Christa Wolf's novel Till Eulenspiegel. Something about it haunted me, two colours flying as emblems of the Middle Ages, and since I took the photo on a brilliant day in October, they are equally pennants of autumn. Hence posting...

News, any news

I loved this eager old man stuck up a mountain, starved of company, starved of news.  And in the age of fake news, his closing clause made me laugh. 'Once near the top of Mt. Kedros in Crete, a white-bearded old shepherd had shouted to my guide and me to...

One for the microbe

A charming variant of 'one for the road' justifications for one more drink.  May you enjoy all the optimism, vigour and dauntlessness of a giant without recourse to the bottle. And beware the 'flask-wielding host'. '"One more," says the flask-wielding...

Pickled inside and out

Here is a novel form of the elixir of youth - no magic potions, just preserved in brine and other substances.  I liked the final conclusion of the boatman.   'A year after the war I told Mirso, a boatman in Poros I hadn't seen since 1938, that he...

My kinda cats – II

Generally speaking, I'm not a big cat fan, preferring dogs all round. However, although I can be dismissive of the pampered creatures slouching around domestic hearths, some cats with strong characters, or a sassy, streetwise streak, can partially win me...

My kinda cat – III

This is one memorable cat.  Patrick Leigh Fermor had chance to observe the same big tom-cat every night in Athens after the war, performing what was clearly a regular feline routine.  I loved this whole story. For other cat-related Greek tails, see also...

Of facts and poetry

Having also tried various neat distinctions which inevitably crumble in the face of precise examples that don't fit, I liked Thoreau's conclusion that a 'beautiful fact' can't easily be excluded from a notebook on poetry. For similar overlaps between fact...

The scientist and the artist

This quotation, copied from an exhibition in Budapest, seems a neat summary of the similar qualities needed to make a (great) scientist or a (great) artist. It also reminded me of a quotation from Thoreau's journal in which his attempts to keep poetry and...

Cobalt polar lapis blue

A dazzlingly variegated Greek sky. It was under such a sky, which for me also includes hyacinth blue and lilac, that I realised the Greek national flag is simply the pairing of the deep inviting blue of its sky and the blinding whiteness of its church...

Of violet eyes

Only the second example I have come across of violet eyes, never yet seen in real life. Here the 76th Earl of Gormenghast learns from his physician, Dr. Prunesquallor, that the newborn 77th Earl-to-be, Titus, has this glorious oddity. The other, also of...

Half a prayer

A perfect example of mercurial Greek god behaviour. No rhyme or reason, I grant this, I grant that, I refuse one thing, and not the other. May your prayers be granted, in whole or in part, but if in part, let it be the right part. 'God heard his prayer and...

Fortune’s favour

This reminds me of an anonymous Elizabethan verse which I cite from memory:   'Lift up thy heart and courage eke, Be bold and of good cheer; For Fortune most doth favour those Who all things least do fear.'   So, go forth and fear not! This is...

Wait your turn!

This observation of a family of swallows over 150 years ago struck me, along with another surprising tale by Thoreau. Apart from the impressive behaviour of the birds on both counts, in reading these immediate, living accounts, I wonder whether Thoreau had...

Airborne support

This touching account in Thoreau's journal has a swallow, injured by a shot from a gun, being given airborne support by another swallow. The duly contrite swallow-sniper thereafter showed reverence towards these lovely small birds. I hope the injured one...

Hospitality protocol 101

Homer is awash with examples of great hospitality and generosity between hosts and guests, even uninvited ones washing up on the beach. Here is a pithy proverb summing up the responsibility of each. Logue's magnificent rendition of several books of the...

To charm, to change …

Odysseus is a tricky hero, part noble, upstanding and brave, part slippery, trickery, too-clever-by-half.  He is a compelling orator, and it is hard to tell if his apparent shuffling shyness is a feint to lull his audience, or win their sympathy.This is...

Singing a stone-song

Water is the principal element in Williamson's assiduously researched, powerfully imagined life of an otter. I loved the idea of its singing a song by flowing over stones on its way to the sea. 'The water sang its stone-song in the dark as it flowed its...

The law of life

We need water for life, and life and water share a fundamental law: change.  They may also share another, apparently contradictory quality, that of being always different and yet somehow the same. 'The law of life was also the law of water - everlasting...

Ferrari on aerodynamics

This is of course an outrageous statement, but I loved it when I saw it spray-painted on the wall of a motor museum in the Netherlands.  Ridiculously macho approach, breezily dismissive of working with the power of physics to add speed.  No, you work with...

The path to alchemy

The route to alchemy?  There is none, there is no set path.  As I understand this enigmatic injunction, we need to find our own path to creating, not seek or follow others' paths. Which isn't to preclude great draughts of inspiration from the alchemy they...

The eyes have it

An imaginative description of an otter's reaction to the firstborn of her first litter.  Williamson spent years studying otters before and while attempting to recreate their lives and feelings in writing.  A masterpiece of human empathy for another...

Treading water

Tarka's mother cleverly entices her cubs into the water, first by putting the food she has caught close to the water, then teaching them to hunt for themselves by various feints and incentives. Water is their element but there is a momentary fear when they...

Long term thinking

A family gathering for the christening of the heir to the Gormenghast title, Titus, appears to be the first time this disfunctional family gets together since the christening of his now 15 year old sister. Here, Lady Groan, Countess of Gormenghast, seeing...

A thinking breakfast

This is one of two delightful quotations from Mervyn Peake's Titus Groan in which the characters mention their need to think.  Here we have 15 year old Fuchsia, daughter of the Earl of Gormenghast, eccentric but saner than many of the adults around her,...

Zeus dispenses with practicalities

Zeus here neatly rebuffs his daughter Athene's requests. I like his suitably arch reaction, which puts all supplicants in their petty place, even gorgeous goddesses, allowing the god of gods to just hang out on Olympus undisturbed. ‘Child, I am God, Please...

Of leaderless leadership

'Leadership' litters newspapers and networks such as LinkedIn, with people claiming to embody it, or vaunting the leadership of others. It's perhaps one of the most over-hyped terms of our time, and rarely less convincingly than when combined with the term...

Otters at play

Henry Williamson's spare writing is single-point focussed on getting inside the mind and life of an otter, as nearly as a human can.  He observed them in their natural context for years and his revisions to the draft were aimed solely at removing anything...

A mouth filled with eat-water

Henry Williamson's slim study of otters is a masterpiece of limpid writing and of human empathy for other species. Through minute observation and honest intent, he has cleaved as closely as he can to conveying an authentic sense of what it might be like to...

A fondness for roofs

Clarice and Cora are two halves of an insane echo-chamber - a pair of identical twins who need to get out more.  They live in the south wing of a vast pile of masonry, drawing life force from the rankling resentment of apparently lost power. They are so...

From happiness to revolt

An intriguing view of happiness which would surely resonate with totalitarian regimes and dictatorial mindsets. In this case and on this occasion, Flay can tolerate the momentary happiness around him as it is triggered by an event - the birth of a male...

A sweetened world

This is a beautiful description of a moment of understanding or enlightenment.  Wherever you are, and whatever you are grappling with, may you have moments when the world about you sweetens, grows circular and fills your grasp.  And death vanishes into the...

Dying for a song

A surprising, refreshing view of God as one who forgives singers as sinners because he just loves their song. "Shrewd devil, you know very well that God pardons singers no matter what they do, because he can simply die for a song... "   Source: Nikos...

When does a world disappear?

When does a world disappear? When inequality goes too far. Inequality seems much in the news these days, an apparently growing bane regardless of how well people are doing at either end of whatever spectrum. This stark and extreme example sums up the...

The cry of justice

Sooner or later, someone, somewhere will cry out against a wrong, no matter how small and despised their voice to begin with, nor how long they have tolerated it previously. This pithy assertion caught my attention just as three former Presidents - who...

Of strength and tenderness

This comes from Kazantzakis's account of Jesus' life and death, and I found the prayer he puts in Christ's mind astonishing as he prepares for the coming crucifixion. What an original and touching test of endurance: the capacity to undergo indescribable...

From mud to spirit

Yes, there is much you can do to transmute mud into brightness if you have enough time. I love the variety of interpretations I find regarding time and our relationship to it, and here it is cast at its most helpful, as the element that can 'ripen all'. Of...

A rotting bog of security

In Kazantzakis' lively version of Christ's life, Jesus' mother wishes only that his spiritual struggles don't get in the way of his marrying a nice girl and giving her grandchildren she can parade in the Biblical equivalent of the park.  She never quite...

Of love and torment

Kazantzakis' bold and imaginative retelling of Christ's life - and death - gives a new take on some of the Biblical characters you may have thought you knew through Sunday schools or other religious (Christian) instruction. In his version, Mary is...

Man in a hurry

Jesus lays out a few ground rules to Judas whom, it seems, could have done with a dose of quinuituq. I loved this lesson in patience, and the idea that men and trees are bound by the same laws of God. "If you love me, be patient.  Look at the trees.  Are...

Steady as she goes

Sometimes the world - at least our human version of it - feels wobbly, so I found this affirmation of its steadiness and solid foundations in some sense reassuring. But of course, it depends which - or  whose - world we are talking about, and then there is...

When God mixes with man

An uplifting depiction of a potentially winning combination? I also liked the intimacy and proximity implied here, not a distant thunderer in the heavens or up some inaccessible mountain lobbing brickbats and lightening bolts, but to his left and to his...

Where hope begins

At first glance this posits the last place you would think to look for the beginnings of hope: where there is none. Yet, once in a while, when despair is caused by temporary sorrows, there can be a point when you know, raw and wrung out as you are, that...

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