Bicycle Ride

A gorgeous day in the middle of January;  who could resist loading up the two-wheeler into the pickup and driving over to the flat city for a bike ride…  I decided to take my belt driven 3-speed, which i don’t usually ride, as it’s a bit heavier than the one speed I put together from my daughter’s 27 speed(see the post about a month ago..).  Not too much traffic and i was pedaling along quite cheerfully, although it seemed like this particular bike was harder to peddle than the last time i rode it.  We(me and the bicycle) trundled along the slough – actually a canal;  the town is a little Venice, almost, with miniature waterways webbing the neighborhoods _ observing the wildlife:  mostly ducks, a few Canadian geese with their characteristic attitude (we are masters of the universe;  you shall obey!).  We passed some walkers enjoying the excellent weather and smiled back and forth…  The blue sky, warm temperature, crunchy gravel and golden grasses combining together for an idyllic series of moments…  After hitting the pavement again, we made it down to the local megastore and locked up mr. bike;  inside, i invested, after some serious consideration, in a bottle of orange juice and a jelly donut which, having paid for, i carried back outside and started to unlock the bike.  At which point, it gradually became clear that the lock was not going to cooperate.  It was one of those combination cable locks that has a shaft that fits into a housing and movable letters on the outside that rotated around, ideally, into the correct configuration to allow the lock too open.  Not this time…  I fiddled with it for a while with no success and gave up.  Went back inside and bought a cheap hacksaw and returned to handle the problem…  As soon as i began sawing, a fellow bicyclist rode up and said:  “Oho, bicycle thief!”…  I showed my new hacksaw and explained the situation and, not being a normal-type citizen(scruffy with a ragged beard, fogged up glasses and old clothes – just like me, actually, except for the beard), he commiserated and said the same thing had happened to him.  He showed me the log chain and heavy duty padlock that he used and recommended I change my ways…   Anyway, he helped hold the offending cable while i sawed away at it.  Meanwhile another bicycle person showed up and he said, you guessed it:  “Oho, bicycle thieves” and before we could say anything he started telling us about where he worked (Macdonald’s on the midnight shift) and how one night when he parked his bike in front by the window so he could see it, some no-account dishonest citizen had sheared through his cable lock with a pair of chain cutters and made off with his ride.  After we conversed for a bit, he grabbed one end of the cable  along with the other guy and pretty soon i finished cutting through the insulation and wire underneath.  They both rode off and we wished each other a good day…  Good Samaritans don’t always come in designer clothing…

So i continued riding, stopping for a snack where i could admire the log truck traffic and the paper mill, then rolled back via a devious route(avoiding rush hour) to the pickup.

When i got home i looked up belt drive bicycles on the net and eventually discovered that they took about thirty per cent more effort to ride than a bike with a chain/sprocket combination.  So this morning I removed the belt system and ordered a new chain and chainring( I already had a sprocket that would fit).  Soon it’ll be a chainged (pun) situation!


Italy: with sketches of Spain and Portugal

William Beckford (1760-1844)

Traveler, author, social critic, adventurer, musician, art exponent, dancer, he was born with a golden spoon in his mouth and lived a life normal persons can only imagine…  His grandfather was governor of Jamaica and his father, twice Lord Mayor of London, once picked a fight with King George III on the floor of parliament…  His only book of fiction, Vathek, is currently read almost as much as The Arabian Nights.  Purportedly, he wrote it in two days and three nights…  His income was about 100,000 lbs. a year;  a couple of million by today’s standards…  He studied the harpsichord with Mozart and was considered a friend by the ruling heads of Portugal…

This two volume production is epistolary, being selections from letters he wrote during several journeys to Italy, Spain, and Portugal, not to mention the Netherlands, Belgium, and various countries of eastern Europe…

He first started this journey in 1785, traveling to Belgium and continuing through the Netherlands, southern Germany, the Tyrol,  Austria, and on to Italy through the Innsbruck/Bolzano/Trento route.  Of his very first experiences, he described the stay in Belgium as noisy, smelly, and overpopulated with dirty people;  he felt the same way about the Netherlands, with a few exceptions, mostly related to his distaste for crowds.  He had the habit, which he pursued throughout his travels, of walking off without telling anyone and rambling around, studying flowers, rocks, trees and admiring landscapes until he got tired;  sometimes not returning for hours…  the route he followed (he had his own carriage, of course, and maybe more than one:  picture him bouncing around in a four wheeled vehicle made of mostly wood with very minimal suspension if any, trying to catch a nap or leaning out of the window to visually capture yet another glorious vision of the passing landscape) basically went up alongside the Rhine, through heavily wooded country with occasional wide vistas of mountain ranges with rivers and streams…  Sometimes he complains of bugs and dirty inns, but usually he’s too entranced with the surround to bother much about those inglorious features…  He possessed an extraordinary curiosity about nature and frequently would jump out of the carriage as it was bouncing over the deeply rutted dirt roads and take off running up through the forest, gleefully dashing from one intriguing prospect to another…  presumably his fellow travelers would either wait for him or continue on to  the nearest inn, assuming he might show up when he was tired.  His descriptions of the extensive forests in Austria, with the infrequent half-timbered farm houses and Gasthofs are brilliant:  the imagery jumps into the eye seemingly without effort, William’s prose being of that rare type that can bring a scene to life without drowning itself in a sea of verbiage…

Entering Venice, his first major stopover in Italy, he’s in a desperate hurry to tour the cathedrals and convents;  one of the most memorable experiences occurred when he was invited to a concert at the Ospedale de la Pieta, the convent in which Antonio Vivaldi taught for many years;  the all-sister orchestra and chorus had not lost any abilities since the reign of the master.  But Venice at that time had drawbacks:  one of which was the overodorous miasma generally pervading the entire city…  William at one point, trying to get away from the stench (he was preternaturally sensitive to smells), climbed to the top of the Campanile, in St. Marks plaza and stayed there, admiring and dreaming his private dreams, for twelve hours…  He received generally welcome receptions at most of the convents and cathedrals he visited;  rich Englishmen were not usually denied access…  and he writes at some length in admiration of the pictures, architecture, and sculpture he finds, evidencing an accurate and critical knowledge of all three disciplines…

After Venice, he travels west, through Padua, Mantua and Verona, stopping to tour edifices and interesting churches, landscapes and lakes, farms and other agricultural venues…  he was interested in everything, seemingly, and pursued those interests with a disregard of his own safety or the convenience of others in the party.  As mentioned above, he loved the freedom of dashing off to no purpose, climbing cliffs and forging through forests and feeding his spirit with views and vistas.  Reaching Naples, he follows the same sort of program.  One day, on a hike up the slopes of Mt. Vesuvius, he visits an old lady in a hovel who makes a living from weaving cloth from goat hair.  She offers him water and a crust of bread, then relates the story of her history and how she came to  be there:  a Boccaccian tale of love, poison, betrayal and death.  Upon finishing she explains that the nearby cliff is the one her beloved threw himself over, along with his false sweetheart. Walking on, William discovers lovely meadows and grandiose visions of the sea;  he describes one meadow:  “springs, whose frequent meanderings gave the whole prospect the appearance of a vast green carpet shot with silver”…  nice, i thought…

Anyway, after stops in Rome (more paintings and sculpture), he returns to England.  When asked by someone why he went to Italy, he said:  “to see – and drown in my vision!”

Beckford’s expositions of his Portuguese visits were similar to the above, except they had somewhat more to do with his merrymaking and dinners with his highly placed noble acquaintances, than with the excellences of the topography…  He describes many festivals and, possibly not inadvertently, dwells occasionally on the ubiquitous presence of the Inquisition and the abominably low state of the peasantry, who suffer miseries beyond counting from the higher classes and the church…  Eventually he journeys to Madrid where things are about the same.  Madrid is located in the middle of the Extremadura, a high plateau, desert-like, hot in summer and very cold in winter.  Many of the conquistadores came from the Extremadura.  The impression he received from the  peerage there was of a somewhat looser society, but still divided into the same sort of privilege ridden social ambience fostered by the church and the entrenched nobility, to the general detriment of the people.

The last letter of the second volume is written in 1795, eight years later, on a subsequent visit, after the French Revolution, and upon revisiting many of the same entrancing locales he’s seen previously, he finds that neglect and lack of forethought or care has caused deterioration to almost all of them:  statues are crumbling, estates are overgrown, palace walls are peeling off;  and the people are more drunken and fearful than they had been on his first visit…  Beckford doesn’t come right and say it, but the impression i got was that he blamed this deterioration on the revolution and the falling standards and fear induced by the deposing of the French royalty, and the consequential radiation of these social earthquakes throughout Europe.

Beckford lived a long time and was an amazingly gifted person.  He built an estate in England, “Fonthill Abbey” with the aid of about a thousand workmen and one architect, Myer, who kept disappearing while the work was in progress.  William ended up doing most of the designing and supervising himself.  The place was huge.  A ten foot high fence made of stone surrounded it, eight miles long.  The Abbey itself, had a gate thirty feet high, of which the hinges alone weighed about a ton each.  The dining room was about 300 feet long.  Partly from his travels and in part from his obsession with orientalism (i should have mentioned that Beckford was crazy about Orientalism from an early age), he had a great love of towers.  So he had one built that was 300 feet high.  Well, until it fell over.  Then he built another one and THAT fell over.  So…  yes, he built another, and that was more successful, standing until 1822.  By that time William had moved, selling Fonthill Abbey for about 50,000 lbs. more than it had cost him…

Footnotes:  I should mention that i got a lot of the biographical information from Wiki and from the intro to Vathek, the latter published by Ballantine and written by Lin Carter.




I met a traveller from an antique land

Who said:  two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert…Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:

And on the pedestal these words appear:

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

Nothing beside remains.  Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

There’s a golden thread (to paraphrase Horace Rumpole) that permeates the warp of human history, including Aristophanes, Robert Burton, Miguel Cervantes, Moliere, Samuel Butler, Oscar Wilde, Charles Dodgson, Edward Lear, Bennet Cerf, Ogden Nash, and Dave Barry, to mention but a few…  This thread represents perhaps the ultimate attainment of intellectual silliness;  and at the same time, arguably, of course, the height of wisdom…

OGDEN NASH (1902-1971)

I met a traveler from an antique show,

His pockets empty, but his eyes aglow.

Upon his back, and now his very own,

He bore two vast and trunkless legs of stone.

Amid the torrent of collector’s jargon

I gathered he had found himself a bargain,

A permanent conversation piece post-prandial,

Certified genuine early Ozymandial

And when i asked him how he could be sure,

He showed me P. B. Shelley’s signature.



Jacob Faithful

by Frederick Marryat

This was one of Frederick Marryat’s last books and, much like the previous twenty or so, depicted the rise of a young man from a position of poverty into the realm of gentility.  Jacob’s earliest years were spent on a barge, sailing up and down the Thames, delivering miscellaneous cargoes, from bricks to lumber.  His father smoked a pipe and left the responsibilities of sailing and lading cargo on Jacob’s shoulders.  As young as six years of age, Jacob was shooting the bridges crossing the river, dealing with crosscurrents, variable winds, tidal flow, and ill-mannered traffic.  His father’s advice was limited to three adages intended to apply to every conceivable problem life had to offer:  “It’s no use crying;  what’s done cannot be helped”;  “Take it cooly”;  and “Better luck next time”.  Mrs. Faithful’s contribution was a daily consumption of a large amount of gin.

Sailing one day up the lower reaches of the river, Jacob was at the helm and his parents were below when of a sudden a loud explosion was heard.  Jacob saw his father run out of the companion way, all smoke and cinders, and jump overboard, sinking out of sight with only a few bubbles to mark his descent.  After the smoke cleared, Jacob crept down into the cabin where his mother was usually to be found lying in the only bed(Jacob slept on dec 365 days a year).  To his shock and horror, there was nothing there but a large black sooty greasy blot, mother-sized…  His mother had spontaneously combusted!!

The subsequent story line follows Jacob’s education in a local charity school, his experiences dealing with bullies and evil-minded teachers and later pursuing his love of life on the water by accepting a job on a lighter(barge), working for a local businessman. He soon acquires his own wherry(a sort of water taxicab) and blithely occupies his time rowing passengers up and down the river.

But, as often happens, things change.  Jacob, along with his best friend, are pressed into the Royal Navy, and spend several years cruising the Caribbean and adjacent American coast.  They engage in one running battle, pursuing and capturing a troublesome privateer, responsible for depredations and slaughter committed upon ships commuting back and forth to England.  Then Jacob receives a letter;  his philanthropic businessman friend has died, leaving him 30,000 lbs. in his will.  So Jacob buys his way out of the navy, does the same for his friend, and more or less retires as a gentleman.  Events proceed swimmingly until the friend is kidnapped into the army;  he deserts, is captured and sentenced to hang!

The finale is an acceptable one, but doesn’t occur until the last two pages of the book.  Marryat was not a very polished author.  His working life, 25 years or so, was spent in the navy.  He rose to the rank of captain, having experienced every conceivable facet of naval life:  war, discipline, navigation, etc.  A number of his more memorable works(Midshipman Easy, Peter Simple, The Children of The Forest, etc.) were inspired by his background serving with Lord Cochrane, the explosively imaginative and daring captain of the Imperieuse, who C.S. Forrester’s hero, Horatio Hornblower, was styled after.  So Marryat would have participated in cuttings out, ship to shop cannonades and battles, the takings of forts, and all the other dangerous and inventive actions dreamed up by Cochrane.

Footnote:  Cochrane, in spite of being arguably the most famous British naval hero of the time, was convicted of stock fraud(of which there is little doubt he was innocent), and, justifiably discontented with the country he’d so admirably defended, immigrated to Peru, where he founded the Peruvian navy.

George Stephenson

Author:  Hunter Davies

The above is a photo of the first locomotive ever built.  In 1825, it hauled coal on the Darlington/Stockton line.  George Stephenson, the inventor, was born in 1781, the son of a coal miner in NE England.  His personality was the bootstrap sort;  he was never formally educated, but acquired his engineering skills through home study and genius…  He was a tweaker and fiddler, the kind of person who can never let well enough alone;  so he built the first explosion proof lamp to begin with, saving untold numbers of lives from the explosions that resulted from pockets of methane mixing with unshielded paraffin lamps…  he enclosed the flame with a fine mesh screen which diluted the methane concentration down to safe levels.

At that time, James Watts’ invention, the steam engine, was being used to pump water out of the coal mines, thereby allowing access to deeper levels and increasing production.  Horses were used to haul coal carts from the mines to the waiting barges which carried the coal to London and other locations.  George converted Watts’ engines into static push me/pull you devices which were used to replace horses in ascending and descending hills along the haul road.  After a long period of struggle, he conceived the idea of placing an engine on wheels.  During trials and experimentation, he roused the ire of the local population who threw things and blocked the rails with a variety of foreign objects.  People were afraid of the engines, regarding them as devilish contraptions, but were also concerned about losing money.  Horses were a source of income;  the feeding, nurturing, and general management of them providing employment for many.

The early 1800’s was a time of explosive change in many fields:  2600 miles of canals had just been constructed, allowing much greater access to markets and farms;  population centers were burgeoning and the consequent need for coal to heat houses was also increasing.  Other industries were booming:  cotton production, ship building, overseas trade were all expanding and the wars in France demanded increased production of hard goods of all sorts.  The country was in ferment with new ideas and inventions popping up, constantly disturbing agrarian tranquillity.  At the same time, wages and working conditions were getting worse, with child labor, long hours, and dangerous conditions arousing the ire of workers and their families.  The French Revolution only thirty years in the past, the movers and shakers of the country were nervously demanding more control of the people…  So repression and invention were at loggerheads, so to speak:  a social situation was developing that would not be easily resolved;  and in fact hasn’t been, satisfactorily, right up to the present day:  billionaires versus the downtrodden masses is, as we all are aware, a perpetual reality, seemingly…

Anyway, George didn’t care;  he just wanted to build an engine on wheels.  so he did.  the Darlington-Stockton line was the first viable railroad, but not the biggest;  it was only 19 miles long…  The real fight was over the Manchester-Liverpool road.  Cotton was shipped into Liverpool from global sources and conveyed via canal to Manchester where it was turned into cloth and clothing….  this was a very lucrative business, and one the canal owners didn’t want to lose.  So a big fight ensued between the canalists and the railroadites.  Eventually, permission and money was acquired from both parliament and private donors to begin construction;  there were many physical difficulties:  bridges, tunnels, rights of way, all had to be ironed out so construction could begin.  Then there were the local residents who almost universally were initially anti-railroad.  Even while surveying the route, George often had to work at night to avoid the locals who fired at them, threw rocks or tried to mob the surveyors.  The canalists issued pamphlets claiming  that trains would cause miscarriages, stop cows grazing, make hens not lay eggs, destroy farm land, burn down farmer’s houses, country inns to close, kill birds, pollute the air, destroy fox habitat(a big deal for the squires), make horses extinct, and cause oats and hay to become inedible.  And that was just to begin with…

But after a lot of tribulation, the line was finished and, characteristically enough, everyone who could manage it wanted a seat on the first trip.  Over night, the popular opinion changed from nasty opposition to full and generous support.  So it goes(KV)…

And so it began:  the installation of thousands of miles of railroad tracks all over the country.  There many social results.  Navvies, the underpaid, overworked laborers who did the grunt work invaded country villages, undisturbed for centuries, with their drunken, illiterate habits and personalities.  Ladies of the evening were imported to keep them happy, although drunkenness, unsuccessfully frowned upon, was rampant.  (They were called “Navvies” because of the original surveyors who were initially termed “land navigators”).  On the other side of the social scale were the fly by night entrepreneurs and promoters who made millions from short term speculations.  The worst of these was George Hudson, who rose from dire poverty to become one of the wealthiest barons in the country.  His trick was to sponsor a railroad and use the money to pay for another one at the same time as he paid the original donors token profits.  It was a sort of pyramid scheme, of which similar examples have been evident in the immediate past, and will continue to be developed, undoubtedly…

But George didn’t become wealthy.  His son Robert did well, as he had a fine education and was as good an engineer as his father, but George soon retired and led a quiet and well deserved life in the country.  His last years were comfortable and satisfyingly content, with the occasional visitor who stopped by with a difficult engineering problem for him to ponder over.

Hunter Davies is a well known long distance walker in England;  he’s published books on his peregrinations along Hadrian’s wall, around the Lake District, and, unsurprisingly, along many of England’s train tracks.  The book was well researched and written in a legible style.  It was a general survey of the period;  for more detail, such as the specifications of the various steam engines, cylinder size, cylinder ring design, etc. other sources should be examined.

Jade Dragon Mountain/The White Mirror

Elsa Hart

Li Du has been exiled from Beiping (this is in 1710) and is wandering about from place to place, an itinerant scholar with nowhere to hang his hat…  He enters the border city of Dayan, close to Tibet, just a week before a grand celebration is to take place, based on a predicted eclipse of the sun, predicated upon calculations made by a local Jesuit with the use of some early astronomical devices…  Li meets Hamza, another wanderer, a story teller with a talent for mesmerizing audiences…  He plays a kind of Dr. Watson role to Li Du, who, happening upon a dead body who was apparently poisoned, is manipulated into discovering the perpetrator before the arrival of the Emperor, which has been timed to coincide with the imminent eclipse.  The two nominated detectives, somewhat against their inclinations, begin questioning suspects and examining evidence, undergoing various extraordinary and/or banal experiences;  time grows short, as the solution must be found before the arrival of the Emperor, whose life must not be endangered…  soon, there’s only a few hours left, and…  well, you’ll have to wait til the book’s end to enjoy the amazing and explosive denouement…

After the satisfactory resolution of the affair at Dayan, Li and Hamza find themselves stuck over night in a remote manor located in the foothills of the Himalayas on their way to Lhasa…  The body of monk has been discovered sitting in a meditative posture in the middle of a small bridge;  he’s been stabbed and there is a strange diagram painted on his torso, resembling a white mirror.  The party with which the two  are traveling are temporarily snowbound -it’s a caravan, actually, with an assortment of guides, merchants, and government agents – and Li is persuaded to undertake an investigation… the plot involves thangkas(Tibetan religious paintings with demons and devils and tigers), caves, hot springs, monasteries, BIG mountains, and a hornet’s nest of internecine political issues.  And soon…  yes, another murder…  when will this nerve-wracking tension end?  only when chance and the superior deductive skills of Li Du resolve the uncertainties and provide the only possible answer.

I really admire Ms. Hart’s writing skills.  You, the reader, have probably noticed through a lifetime of reading, that the personality of the author almost always can be sensed through his/her prose;  and that these personas can range from brutal/sadistic to dreamily surrealistic.  Hart has an original one, in my experience:  somewhat dreamy and otherworldish, she has a very firm grasp of the fundamentals needed for clear exposition and has in addition a profound knowledge of Tibetan/Chinese history, social, artistic, and political…  as well as, apparently, a sufficient awareness of Tibetan Buddhist practices as to permit rational and meaningful discussions of the same in her writing.  She was born in Rome, has lived in China, and was educated at Swarthmore.  It has been a treat, having the opportunity to read her work, especially when compared to that featured in the general run of modern authors.


Thoreau: a Life

Laura Dassow Walls

Thoreau was a figure of significant interest to me when I was young.  His insights and writings about nature meshed with some sort of gear train inside me.  And he influenced my thoughts about the world and the universe.  So when I saw this very recent biography of him at the library , I picked it up.  I had read most of Thoreau’s work, and studies by Howarth, Richardson, and others, and so I looked forward to a fresh viewpoint.

My understanding of him was of a kind of gearhead, bumbling about in the New England woods, dreaming up visions of acorns and squirrels.  But Walls has introduced me to a different man.  One who participated in town life, fulfilling an important role as a trouble shooter, a general handyman, a teacher, and as a stitch in the side of the public conscience.  In addition, as this book makes clear, he pursued his internal visions with leech-like tenacity, writing and rewriting his letters, journals, and books, searching for an explanation of the natural phenomena he observed unfolding around him in every venue:  rivers, mountains, ponds, fields, coastlines, and the abyssal depths of the Maine woods.  So he led a two-fold life:  as a citizen and as a philosopher/scientist.  He was a deep reader in philosophy, religion, history and science.  He knew and communicated with movers and shakers from every phase of life:  Louis Aggassiz, John Brown, Ralph Emerson, and a who’s who stuffed with cognoscenti.

My remembered association with him had to do, somewhat, with his mechanical propensities.  Ms. Walls was able to discover that Thoreau had invented a better mill for grinding graphite that, when the resulting dust was mixed with a specific sort of clay, made a very high quality filling for Thoreauvian pencils.  At one point, Thoreau’s pencils were considered by draftsmen and artists to be the best available.

Thoreau had his own surveying company.  He surveyed much of the land surrounding Concord, and was hired to map sections as far away as New Jersey.

In addition, as evidenced through his thousands of journal pages,  he studied and struggled to understand the natural world his whole life.  At the end, his grasp of botanical hierarchies and successions, and his documenting of such data, went a long way toward verifying the theories of Charles Darwin.  While Darwin came to his particular revelation studying finches in the Galapagos Islands, Thoreau experienced the same sort of enlightenment on one camping trip while spending the night on top of Mt. Monadnock.  Basically, the realizations of both men had to do with understanding that the natural world, including man, was of a whole, in that every segment from seeds to geology was a part, a participator, and a motivator of the global ecology.  Thoreau’s last studies, having to do with seed movements, were, in some respects, a summation of his life- long thought regarding the true nature of natural progression and the inherent role men play in that progression.

I really like this book.  By the fifty or so pages of footnotes, and by the integrity glowing through the author’s enthusiastic pages, it was evident that the book was the product of many years of investigation and fascination.

Highly recommended to anyone interested in ecology, transcendentalism, or early genius…