"Do not complain beneath the stars about the lack of bright spots in your life." - Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson
How fitting to read this quote at the moment, while I'm partway through Robert Ferguson's biography of Knut Hamsun. As a young man Hamsun revered Bjørnson, who was one of the titans of 19th Century Norwegian literature. But Hamsun, being the prickly egotist that he was, soon publicly and scathingly tore down his hero (and others, including Henrik Ibsen) for being of the old guard, and an enemy to the modernism he would soon pioneer.
“We were very lucky to have lived down there to bring up the family."
Spitalfields Life shares some charming remembrances of Joan Naylor, the last resident of the Bellevue Cottages in Stepney, London, from the era when the cottages housed the workers of the adjacent Charrington Brewery. Naylor's husband was a clerk at the brewery, and her stories of the boisterous social life there are warm and inviting.
When all the children were safely tucked up asleep (“We had children, we couldn’t go out“), the residents of Bellevue Place enjoyed lively fancy dress parties, in and out of the gardens, and each other’s houses too. “The word would go around from Stan and we would go round the charity shops to see what we could find, but no-one would tell anyone what their outfit was going to be. It was lovely. Everybody had fun and nobody carried on with each other’s wives.” Joan assured me.
I'm obsessive about this sort of thing, so I couldn't help hunting down the locale on Google Maps. You can see the roofs of the cottages in the image below, between two bands of greenery, just behind the commercial buildings at the corner of Mile End Road and Cleveland Way. (The cottages are on an unmarked street, so Google Street View didn't go there to provide a ground-level view.)
The brewery (which was located to the east of the cottages) must have been a huge complex. The building that housed the company offices still stands, at the northwest corner of Mile End and Cephas Avenue, but the rest of the brewery has been demolished, with a shopping center and its parking lot now taking up most of the space. Lost London, sigh.
Madison and Halsted, 1959
This 1959 photo looks east, toward the corner of Madison and Halsted. The buildings in the left foreground are where my office building now stands. (I guarantee you that the goings-on at the Elite Hotel and Little Max's Clothing - the only two signs I can read in full - were a lot more interesting than what happens there now.) The only building in the photo that's still standing is the long one on the right, between the theater and the corner - the old Mid City National Bank, now vacant.
Hoping for a selfish oligarch
Felix Salmon absolutely nails it:
Trump is, however, motivated by self-interest. And in a world where the choice is between appalling and disastrous, this weirdly counts as good news. His voters voted for a chaos monkey who would deport millions of immigrants, start a war with Iran, decimate global trade, and make America unspeakably racist again. A vote for Trump, in other words, was a vote against freedom and prosperity and equality.
Trump is capable of implementing all of those policies, should he want to. But he is also an extremely rich man who is in the process of putting together a cabinet of unprecedented wealth, from Betsy DeVos to Steven Mnuchin to Wilbur Ross and Todd Ricketts. For these people–and for Trump himself–a global descent into protectionist chaos would be, let’s say, suboptimal: They would lose not only vast amounts of money, but also much of the status they so expensively enjoy.
In this sense, Trump’s multitudinous global conflicts are the main thing keeping him from going completely off the rails.
You know, maybe Trump's refusal to divest his business holdings, or put them into a blind trust, is the only thing preventing him from obliterating the world. If he approaches every presidential decision with consideration for how it could damage his financial net worth, we might actually be saved. I just wish he had hotels in Syria and Iran.
"...living a reduced version of their former lives."
George Orwell, from The Road to Wigan Pier:
A working man does not disintegrate under the strain of poverty as a middle-class person does. Take, for instance, the fact that the working class think nothing of getting married on the dole. It annoys the old ladies in Brighton, but it is a proof of their essential good sense; they realize that losing your job does not mean that you cease to be a human being. So that in one way things in the distressed areas are not so bad as they might be. Life is still fairly normal, more normal than one really has the right to expect. Families are impoverished, but the family-system has not broken up. The people are in effect living a reduced version of their former lives. Instead of raging against their destiny they have made things tolerable by lowering their standards.
I'm enjoying the book. It's a bit textbook-y at times, but still very good.
Small manila envelope, with information for two Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer books, including what appears to be a library call number, and possibly the librarian's initials. Found inside The Road to Wigan Pier, by George Orwell (Harcourt Brace, 1958).
At The Millions, Jason Diamond surveys the books of Chicago's North Shore suburbs, from Waukegan (which, Diamond notes, generally isn't considered "North Shore", which is generally a enclave of the ultra-wealthy) to Evanston.
There’s an order to things once you make it out of the city, out to the wider spaces where the houses and people all look alike, an inherent dishonesty in the suburbs that somebody convinced America to look past long ago. The suburbs were supposed to be the reward for working so hard, for making it through. It was supposed to be paradise, the last place you needed to go in life...
Diamond omitted my favorite North Shore novel, Ward Just's An Unfinished Season, which is set in fictionalized versions of Lake Forest and, I think, Half Day (the original name of Lincolnshire). Just's coming-of-age story about a Half Day kid uncomfortably moving through Lake Forest high society is one of those books that has stuck in my mind, years after the fact.
Diamond has just published a memoir, Searching for John Hughes: Or Everything I Thought I Needed to Know About Life I Learned From Watching 80s Movies, which I might check out eventually. I'm a bit too old for Hughes' movies to have much of an impact on my young life (I graduated high school in 1983, the year before Sixteen Candles, his directorial debut, came out) but Hughes was a very big deal to Diamond (the writer grew up around the North Shore, where most of Hughes' classics were set), so the book might still be worth a look.
"The first sound in the mornings was the clumping of the mill-girls' clogs down the cobbled street. Earlier than that, I suppose, there were factory whistles which I was never awake to hear."
- George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier
"Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream."
- John Steinbeck, Cannery Row
"A nurse held the door open for them."
- Eudora Welty, The Optimist's Daughter
"The two grubby small boys with tow-colored hair who were digging among the ragweed in the front yard sat back on their heels and said, 'Hello,' when the tall bony man with straw-colored hair turned in at their gate."
- Katherine Anne Porter, Noon Wine
"Heraldic and unflagging it chugged up the mountain road, the sound, a new sound jarring in on the profoundly pensive landscape. A new sound and a new machine, its squat front the colour of baked brick, the ridges of the big wheels scummed in muck, wet muck and dry muck, leaving their maggoty trails."
- Edna O'Brien, Wild Decembers
"One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away."
- Willa Cather, O Pioneers!
"I am in Aranmor, sitting over a turf fire, listening to a murmur of Gaelic that is rising from a little public-house under my room."
- J.M. Synge, The Aran Islands
"On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide - it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese - the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope."
- Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides
"A wise man once said that next to losing its mother, there is nothing more healthy for a child than to lose its father."
- Halldór Laxness, The Fish Can Sing
"Studs Lonigan, on the verge of fifteen, and wearing his first suit of long trousers, stood in the bathroom with a Sweet Caporal pasted in his mug."
- James T. Farrell, Young Lonigan
"Dennis awoke to the sound of the old man upstairs beating his wife."
- Tim Hall, Half Empty
"Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board."
- Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
"We always fall asleep smoking one more cigarette in bed."
- Joseph G. Peterson, Beautiful Piece
"Tonight, a steady drizzle, streetlights smoldering in fog like funnels of light collecting rain."
- Stuart Dybek, The Coast of Chicago
"Beware thoughts that come in the night."
- William Least Heat Moon, Blue Highways: A Journey Into America
"'There they are again,' the doctor said suddenly, and he stood up. Unexpectedly, like his words, the noise of the approaching airplane motors slipped into the silence of the death chamber."
- Hans Keilson, Comedy in a Minor Key
"Now that I'm dead I know everything."
- Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad
"In the end Jack Burdette came back to Holt after all."
- Kent Haruf, Where You Once Belonged
"It seems increasingly likely that I really will undertake the expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination now for some days."
- Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day
"I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids - and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me."
- Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
"I'd caught a slight cold when I changed trains at Chicago; and three days in New York - three days of babes and booze while I waited to see The Man - hadn't helped it any."
- Jim Thompson, Savage Night
"Since the end of the war, I have been on this line, as they say: a long, twisted line stretching from Naples to the cold north, a line of locals, trams, taxis and carriages."
- Aharon Appelfeld, The Iron Tracks
"The schoolmaster was leaving the village, and everybody seemed sorry."
- Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure
"Early November. It's nine o'clock. The titmice are banging against the window. Sometimes they fly dizzily off after the impact, other times they fall and lie struggling in the new snow until they can take off again. I don't know what they want that I have."
- Per Petterson, Out Stealing Horses
"Picture the room where you will be held captive."
- Stona Fitch, Senseless
"Elmer Gantry was drunk. He was eloquently drunk, lovingly and pugnaciously drunk."
- Sinclair Lewis, Elmer Gantry
"Bright, clear sky over a plain so wide that the rim of the heavens cut down on it around the entire horizon...Bright, clear sky, to-day, to-morrow, and for all time to come."
- O.E. Rölvaag, Giants in the Earth
"Click! ... Here it was again. He was walking along the cliff at Hunstanton and it had come again ... Click! ..."
- Patrick Hamilton, Hangover Square
"It is 1983. In Dorset the great house at Woodcombe Park bustles with life. In Ireland the more modest Kilneagh is as quiet as a grave."
- William Trevor, Fools of Fortune
"The cell door slammed behind Rubashov."
- Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon
(A compendium of memorable opening lines of novels, updated occasionally as I come across new discoveries.)
Seen in passing
Curious sight this morning, at Union Station. As I was leaving the north concourse, headed toward the Great Hall, I walked past an electronic board that features (presumably for Amtrak tourists) information on local attractions. An African-American railroad worker, with a grizzled beard, hardhat and reflective safety vest, was tapping the touch screen, presumably to help an Asian man who looked on with a slightly bewildered look. This wasn't unusual in itself - railroad, security and station workers are helping tourists with directions all the time - but after I left the station and walked a few blocks, I saw the two men again. They were standing on Adams Street, just east of Jefferson Street, and the railroad worker was pointing toward Old St. Patrick's Church, as if showing the other man exactly where he needed to go. I walked past them, and glancing back, I saw them warmly shaking hands as the railroad worker turned back toward the station.
Helping a tourist at the station, when it's not actually part of your job, isn't that big of a deal - a few moments taken from a long workday - but to walk with that tourist for two blocks, on a cold day, to show him where he needs to go, just seems like a really thoughtful, generous gesture. Thinking about it is still giving me a smile.
"...giving a boundary to all of that..."
From Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness:
How does one hate a country, or love one? Tibe talks about it; I lack the trick of it. I know people, I know towns, farms, hills and rivers and rocks, I know how the sun at sunset in autumn falls on the side of a certain plowland in the hills; but what is the sense of giving a boundary to all that, of giving it a name and ceasing to love where the name ceases to apply? What is love of one’s country; is it hate of one’s uncountry? Then it’s not a good thing.
I admire Le Guin's thoughts on the arbitrariness of borders and states (and, in this woeful election season, legislative districts). I also just finished her The Lathe of Heaven. Fascinating premise, and thought-provoking throughout. I've read very little sci-fi or fantasy during my long reading life (much to Julie's disbelief), but Le Guin is one writer I think I could take to.
(Via Austin Kleon.)