Sunday, February 26, 2006

out of my depth in economic waters, yet again

We all know that the assets of American homeowners have grown substantially as housing prices have escalated over the past few years. Now a report from the Federal Reserve -- Recent Changes in U.S. Family Finances (pdf) -- shows that their increased assets haven't generated much increase in net worth: put simplistically, these folks haven't held on to their gains.

As this little chart shows, the Fed's survey of consumer finances shows a tiny increase in net worth during the most recent period compared with substantial ones in the prior two.

You can see the impact of homeowners' failure to hold on to their gains in the Fed's comparison of debt held the third quarter of 2001 and the same period in 2004: it shows a 26 percent increase inflation-adjusted aggregate household debt. That's a huge increase.

Unfortunately, as the report points out, there are limits on how much many Americans are able to enjoy the benefits of increasing house prices. This is because wages declined 6.2 percent during the same period and, as the report says, "wages represent the largest share of family income."

It can't be a surprise that, as the first of these tables shows, Americans' mortgage debt has been growing and growing (in this case shown as a proportion of all debt). What seems more significant to me is the increase in debt as a percentage of total assets as shown in the second table.

Nor can it surprise that a larger number of Americans than previously have put themselves dangerously in debt. The report measures this by caclulating the proportion of debtors with payments exceeding 40 percent of their income. (It's now 12.2 percent of American families).

Nor, again, is there a surprise in the finding that the proportion of debtors who were sixty or more days late with their payments increased 1.9 percentage points over the previous period.

These numbers show a huge amount of risk. Does this mean that Americans have a huge amount of confidence that things will work out in the long run? Or does it mean they don't know the meaning of restraint? Or, maybe some of each plus a feeling among many that they don't have much choice but to borrow against the future.

All this brings to mind the situation in which families find themselves within the world's fastest growing economy.

Their situation in that place -- China -- is pretty much the opposite of Americans'. According to a recent IMF report, "by some measures, Chinese households have in recent years saved almost a third of their disposable income." The report says "one would expect a lower saving rate in an economy that still has a relatively low per capita income and, more importantly, good prospects for continued high income growth" and it gives the following reasons for this high figure: (1) Savings for retirement. China lacks an adequate pension system and is experiencing sharply rising costs of health care. (2) An aging population. The Chinese birth rate is low (because of the country's one-child policy, instituted in the 1970s). (3) Savings for education. (4) Lack of investment opportunities. (5) Absence of ready credit (no credit cards) so people have to save in order to purchase big-ticket items like houses and cars.

What does this list of five reasons say about the situation in America? (1) Not worried about retirement, despite unhealthy Social Security and Medicare projections; (2) Aging all the same, and, as in China, as consequence of a low birth rate (though for different reasons); (3) Having publically-funded schooling through 12th-grade and a system of higher education (including tax breaks, low-interest loans, and the like) which does not do much to encourage saving); (4) Enjoying about as many avenues for investing as anyone could want, but, of course, have been investing primarily in their own houses (a tax-advantaged investment since mortgage interest and points are deductable); (5) Blessed (?) with an over-abundance of ready credit.

The IMF, and I think most economists, say that the Chinese need to consume more and Americans to save more. It sounds so easy. But it's not. The Chinese government has an enormous problem restructuring the economy, reforming the banking structure, and disciplining the Party (particularly corrupt local functionaries). The US goverment has no less a challenge. How does an elected (and pretty much representative) government effect policies that restrain rapacious consumption -- bring expectations down to a more realistic level (for retirement for example), and protect people against bad things happening?

And how does the global economy wean itself from its current extreme level of dependence on American consumers to keep it afloat?

If I only knew ...


Here's a citation for the IMF report:
Rebalancing Economic Growth in China
A Commentary
by Steven Dunaway, Deputy Director, Asia and Pacific Department
and Eswar Prasad, Division Chief, Research Department
International Monetary Fund
January 11, 2006


And an addendum: It's interesting that English entrepreneurs did not have access to loans or investment capital during the early stages of the industrial revolution. Instead, they took little out of their business for themselves and used their profits to expand their operations, purchase equipment, and the like; when they obtained money from others, the most likely sources were family and friends. The Chinese are acting in this way at least to some extent.

On the other hand, American entrepreneurs have been and continue to be heavily dependent on investment capital. Since so many Americans are spending rather than investing, much of this new investment now comes from foreigners.

Diary of Lady Shelburne - 5th Post: a ball

This is the fifth set of entries from the diary of Lady Shelburne, written in 1766-69. Here are links to the others: first, second, third, fourth. As before, the entries come from the Fitzmaurice biography of the Earl of Shelburne.

Wycombe, Saturday 28th [of January, 1768]. As we were breakfasting Jack Conyers arrived from Oxford. He was as good humour'd and amiable as usual, and enliven'd us extremely. At four o'clock Lord Shelburne came and brought Lord Clare with him, and at half an hour after six our company of dancers began to assemble. We danced in the parlour to the number of fifteen couple. I began the ball dancing a minuet with Lord Clare. I must not omit that Lord Shelburne danced too, which I had never the pleasure of seeing him do before. Amongst our ladies was a very pretty bride, the wife of the Mayor Mr. Rose. Lord Clare divided his compliments between her and Miss Kitty Shrimpton. We sup'd at eleven in the India paper room, that we might not encroach upon Sunday morning. During this time my Lord Clare sung ridiculous songs, and the whole was over at twelve o'clock, and nobody the worse for this sober recreation.

March 17th (at Bowood). Lord Bottetort breakfasted with us in his way from Hungerford to Stoke. It being Good Friday we had prayers in the morning, after which I attempted taking a little walk, but was driven back by the cold. The work they are now upon is levelling the lawn before the house, to the edge of the water, for which the weather has been very unfavourable. My Lord is very much satisfied with Farmer Manfield, by whose care the park is got into fine order, and the flock of sheep increasing very fast; these circumstances and the number of workpeople employed there, make Bowood have no appearance of the scarcity so alarmingly conspicuous in most parts of this country, and so severely felt by the poor.


By Wycombe, Sophie means Loakes House, a manor which Shelburne owned but which was not their primary country residence. According to the GenUKI site, "The manor house of Loakes, which is situated near the town [of High Wycombe], was formerly the seat of the Archdales: it was considerably enlarged and improved by Lord Shelburne: the Marquis of Lansdown bestowed much cost in laying out the gardens and pleasure grounds." There are some photos of High Wycombe here, but none of Loakes House. Wycombe lies between London and Oxford. In Sophie's day High Wycombe was known as Chipping Wycombe.

Jack Conyers was a cousin of Lady Shelburne.

Lord Clare was John Fitzgibbon, 1st Earl of Clare. At the time Sophie wrote, he was a highly-regarded student at Trinity College, Dublin. The portrait (obviously) shows him in later life when he became an ardent supporter of Irish subordination to the English government and, as reports the Columbia Encyclopedia: "He was [as Irish lord chancellor] a resolute upholder of the Protestant ascendancy in Ireland. He was instrumental in effecting the Act of Union (1800) between England and Ireland [and became] so unpopular in Ireland that his funeral was broken up by a mob." He is still hated in Eire, as reflected somewhat in the Wikipedia article on him, whose factual accuracy is disputed. See also the article on Clare in the 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

This shows a minuet.
{Click to enlarge.}
It's from William Hogarth's series, Analysis of Beauty. Of it, Hogarth wrote: "[T]he beauty of this kind of mystic dancing, as the poets term it, depends upon moving in a composed variety of lines, chiefly serpentine, govern'd by the principles of intricacy..."

I've no specific information about the Mayor, Mr. Rose, but, as Wycombe mayor, he probably would have been subjected to a curious tradition: "A traditional ceremony of the town [of High Wycombe] since the medieval period is the weighing of the mayor, where at the beginning and end of the mayor's serving year, they are weighed in full view of the public to see whether or not they have gained weight at the taxpayers' expense. This custom is still in order, and the same weighing apparatus are used as in the 19th century" (source).

Regarding Kitty Shrimpton I know nothing, but it's interesting that the famous British model, Jean Shrimpton, was born in Wycombe (in 1942).

Bowood. This was the Shelburne's principal country residence, a huge mansion and estate. The best source of information about it is the Bowood site itself.

Norborne Berkeley, 4th Lord Botetourt had been an MP, a county Lord Lieutenant, and Groom of the Bedchamber. At the time Sophie wrote, he was about to leave for a term as Governor of Virginia. He died there in 1770 and is buried in the College of William and Mary, Williamsburgh.

It was Capability Brown whom Shelburne hired to make re-make the grounds at Bowood.

Capability Brown's lake at Bowood
{click to enlarge}

The scarcity Sophie writes about, "so alarmingly conspicuous in most parts of this country, and so severely felt by the poor" was an agricultural depression of the late 1760s affecting mainly production of wheat and other grains. See, for example, the Review of Economics and Statistics, Vol. 18, No. 3, p. 138. George Rudé wrote: "the quarter of wheat in London rose sharply from 20s.-25s. in June [1767] to 26s.-36s. in July." It would continue to rise in the remainder of 1767, rising to 50s. 6d. in May 1768. (Rudé, "London 'Mob' of the Eighteenth Century," Historical Journal, Vol. 2, No. 1, p. 1).

Saturday, February 25, 2006

a succulent plant

{click to enlarge}

This guy came into my life at the wedding of my sister-in-law in the early '70s. It was altogether a fine occasion. Wedding on Malibu as the sun drifted down into the Pacific at the close of a beautiful day. Pleasant people celebrating the couple, playing guitars, beach-combing, watching out for famous faces.

It was a gift of two generous -- fine, generous, kind -- souls, with whom my wife, my then wife, and I stayed.

I think of it as fat grass. It propagates itself and survives quite a bit of neglect.

Now, more than 30 years later, for the first time, it's sending forth a blossom. What a surprising little guy. I'm grateful to the woman, my now wife, whose watched over it since we ourselves married not much less than 25 years ago.

Here's a close-up of the blossom {again click to enlarge}

it's not even March yet

Click image to enlarge.

a battle, a death, and a football game

The Liverpool football club (British professional soccer team) are playing an important match tomorrow (Sunday, Feb 26). As BBC Sport puts it, "a home victory over mid table Manchester City [will] take them level on points with second placed Manchester United" in their league. "Mid table" means in the middle of league standings. This season Liverpool has won 13 of 18 matches in the Premiership league, including the last two, and are unbeaten in 10 at home (the Anfield stadium). {Update Sunday, 26 February 2006, 14:09 GMT: Says BBC Sport: "Liverpool 1-0 Man City: Harry Kewell fires in Liverpool's winner despite Danny Mills' efforts to block his shot Kewell's goal was only his second of the season Harry Kewell's first-half goal was enough to sink Manchester City and put Liverpool level on points with second-placed Manchester United."}

That's the football game.

The death is Susan Sontag's. When she succombed to cancer at the end of 2004, I read some of the obits and reflective appreciations of her life and work, and did a blog search to see what unrestrained adulation and vituperation there might be. The results were interesting but unsurprising. Here are links to a represenative sampling: Susan Sontag, Remembering an intellectual heroine, by Christopher Hitchens in Slate; US author Susan Sontag dies at 71 from the BBC; Susan Sontag, Social Critic With Verve, Dies at 71 from the New York Times; and I wish I had kicked Susan Sontag, by Kevin Myers in the Telegraph.

What did surprise me was a sequence of messages about Sontag on the usenet newsgroup for Liverpool FC fans. Here's a link to the group on Google Groups: Go there to get a feel for the ambience; the group is raucus, unrestrained, and casually obscene (in the language it uses), but it also has it's own code of behavior and members keep one another in line. So what did they say about Sontag?

You can find the discussion thread here: Susan Sontag RIP. Here's a brief summation:
Tojo Hoki:
Another kopite passes away.

Are you for fucking real? Gobshite...

actually, I liked her.
I liked her....really.

Well said

Overrated and that grey streak was really annoying.

Yes, overrated, but that doesn't mean she wasn't good. ;)

Blue Dave:
who was susan sontag anyhow?

I thought about this set of messages a little and appreciated it for pretty much covering the Sontag territory in a brief a space as could be done, but I also wondered what the first writer meant by kopite. Was this a slur, some kind of praise, or a joke? Turns out that's not an easy question to answer.

Kopites are Liverpool fans, so probability is on the side of praise (as in she's one of us). It might have been meant ironically, but the writer denied this, so praise it probably is. But search "kopite" on the discussion list and you'll find plenty of unflattering usages. Kopites may be fans, but they seem also to be stooges, dupes, or numskulls, as in the phrase "NONCE KOPITE MONG." (No, actually, I don't know what nonce and mong mean but clearly not flattering.) So the writer may have meant that Sontag was a naive enthusiast or something along those lines; or, as WTH says: overrated, but also good.

So where does this word kopite come from? Kop was the name of terraces at one end of the stadium at Anfield. It was literally a "stand," just a sloping plot of land on which spectators stood, as many as 28-30,000 of them, with no place to sit down.

The terraces were replaced in 1994 and celebrated a decade later in a museum exhibition of photographs: The Kop's Last Stand - Museum of Liverpool Life. The exhibition's web page says:
The original all-standing Kop, which stood from 1906 to 1994, played a key part in the history of the soccer team during its glory years when players captured top trophies. The Kop's Last Stand tells the fascinating story of the stand where thousands of fans jostled and swayed as they sang, chanted, cheered and jeered. It focuses on the highs and lows experienced on its hallowed terraces.

Selected photographs from the exhibition

My favorite photo in this group is the one on the right whose caption reads: "Not only were Kopites the noisiest supporters but they were also the best dressed. Men in collar and tie were a common sight on the Kop long before jeans and replica shirts became the fashion. In this image from the 1950s you can even see tram drivers and conductors who have turned up in their uniforms."

This photo shows The Kop from the outside in the 1920s before it was given a roof. You can see that it was a kind of embankment entered at its back from the top.

Bloomfield Stadium showing The Kop; source: Project Gutenberg

We know that kopite comes from The Kop, but how did that get its name? The museum site says:
The Kop at Anfield dates back to 1905-06. At the end of that season which saw Liverpool lift the second of their league championships the directors at the club decided to reward the loyalty of the fans by building a new brick and cinder banking at the Walton Breck road end of the ground. It was christened as the Spion Kop by Ernest Jones [a reporter for The Echo] in memory of the many scousers who died in battle over a hill in South Africa by the same name during the Boer War. [Scousers are Liverpudlians "because Scouse, a meat and vegetable stew, was once the favoured food of almost everybody who resided there" says this site].
So, then, what is or was this hill in South Africa and its battle?

There are many sources of information on this. See the Wikipedia article for a listing of some. Spion Kop just means Lookout Hill in Dutch. In the battle, which took place in 1900, the Boer commandos, coming up the steep side of the hill, defeated British regular troops, coming up the gentler slope. The fight took place over two days during which both darkness and fog kept both Boers and British from knowing who was winning.

There's a good first-person narrative from the Boer side, Commando by Deneys Reitz. The book, a journal of the Boer War by a young man who served with the Boer forces, is described here. He says "at nightfall [of the first day] we were holding the blood-spattered ledge [at the summit] with a mere handful of rifles." And during the next day: "the battle remained stationary, the heavy close-range rifle-fire continued hours after hour, and the tale of losses mounted while we lay in the blazing heat." Here are extracts from the rest of the narrative:
I saw a strange incident during the morning. Near me was a German named von Brusewitz. He had been an officer in the German army, but the year before he had run a civilian through with his sword during some scuffle in a Berlin cafe. There was a great outcry over the incident, and to allay popular clamour the German Emperor broke him from his regiment. They say that in Germany the word 'Brusewitzerei' is still used to denote the arrogance of the officer caste. However that may be, von Brusewitz was now on top of Spion Kop, where he seemed bent on getting killed, for although we warned him not to expose himself too recklessly, he paid no heed, and repeatedly stood out from among the rocks to fire.

As the English soldiers were so close to us this was sheer folly, and after he had tempted providence several times the inevitable happened. I saw him rise once more, and, lighting a cigarette, puff away careless of the flying bullets until we heard a thud, and he fell dead within a few feet of me, shot through the head.

We were hungry, thirsty and tired; around us were the dead men covered with swarms of flies attracted by the smell of blood. We did not know the cruel losses that the English were suffering, and we believed that they were easily holding their own, so discouragement spread as the shadows lengthened.

Batches of men left the line, openly defying Red Daniel, who was impotent in the face of this wholesale defection, and when at last the sun set I do not think there were sixty men left on the ledge.

[Following a retreat down the hill in the dark,] the first thing to do was to quench our raging thirst and that of our horses at a spring near by. We could get no coherent information and stood discussing what to do next, for we did not know that the English had also been fought to a standstill, and that they in turn were at that very moment retreating down their own side of Spion Kop. We fully believed that the morning would see them streaming through the breach... [The commandos were in chaos and beginning to desert, when] Louis Botha, the new Commandant-General, addressed the men from the saddle, telling them of the shame that would be theirs if they deserted their posts in this hour of danger; and so eloquent was his appeal that in a few minutes the men were filing off into the dark to reoccupy their positions on either side of the Spion Kop gap. I believe that he spent the rest of the night riding from commando to commando exhorting and threatening, until he persuaded the men to return to the line, thus averting a great disaster.

We woke with the falling of the dew and, as the sky lightened, gazed eagerly at the dim outline of the hill above, but could make out no sign of life.

Gradually the dawn came and still there was no movement. Then to our utter surprise we saw two men on the top triumphantly waving their hats and holding their rifles aloft. They were Boers, and their presence there was proof that, almost unbelievably, defeat had turned to victory—the English were gone and the hill was still ours.

We were soon hastening up the slope past the dead until we reached yesterday's bloody ledge. From here we hurried across to the English breastworks, to find them abandoned. On our side of the fighting-line there had been many casualties, but a worse sight met our eyes behind the English schanses.

In the shallow trenches where they had fought the soldiers lay dead in swathes, and in places they were piled three deep.

The Boer guns in particular had wrought terrible havoc and some of the bodies were shockingly mutilated. There must have been six hundred dead men on this strip of earth, and there cannot have been many battlefields where there was such an accumulation of horrors within so small a compass.

Here are statements from two British soldiers quoted in The Boer War, by Thomas Parkenham:
[(p. 310) John Atkins wrote:] I shall always have it my memory -- that acre of massacre, that complete shambles, at the top of a rich green gully with cool granite walls (a way fit to lead to heaven) which reached up the western flank of the mountain.
[(p. 301) Private Joe Packer wrote:] We climbed up this 'ere hill - cor, God it was a climb - you climbed up so far and you came to a big flat rock and you had to go all the way round ... cor it was stinkin' 'ot it was ... and we laid out there firing at one another, us and the Boers - the Boers was up above us, see - they'd got us in a trap like ... I couldn't see all round but I could 'ear blokes shoutin' you know, blokes that was getting 'it and all that ...

Some illustrations, photos, and a map of the battle:

Boers at Spion Kop, 1900 - source: Project Gutenberg

Friday, February 24, 2006

what matters is the book the data's in

I do a "Friday Quotation" for the blog I run at work. I'm cross-posting this week's provocation from William Gass:
Michael Dirda's review essay in last Sunday's Washington Post quotes book-lover William Gass on what he sees as the decline of libraries.

Says Gass, quoted by Dirda:
A book can be a significant event in the history of your reading, and your reading (provided you are significant) should be an essential segment of your character and your life. . . . In this country, we are losing, if we have not lost, any appreciation for what we might call 'an intellectual environment.' . . . Libraries have succumbed to the same pressures that have overwhelmed the basic cultural functions of museums and universities . . . so that now they devote far too much of their restricted space, and their limited budget, to public amusement, and to futile competition with the Internet. It is a fact of philistine life that amusement is where the money is. . . . Of course libraries contain books, and books contain information, but information has always been of minor importance, except to minor minds. The information highway has no destination, and the sense of travel it provides is pure illusion. What matters is how the information is arranged, how it is understood, and to what uses it is going to be put. In short, what matters is the book the data's in.

Here's a link to Dirda's piece on Gass:

Michael Dirda
William Gass celebrates high art and decries the crush of mediocrity.
Sunday, February 19, 2006; Page BW15
By William H. Gass
Knopf. 418 pp. $26.95

Thursday, February 23, 2006

who are the ginger men?

G. Peter Browne, J.P. Donleavy, and E.A. Blair

I've been thinking about my major professor in Madison where I did my Master's. He loved good Canadian beer and hated English snobbery, particularly the class snootiness he knew in Oxford (he would say that at meals the well-born sons would say "Please pass the vege... or sorry, please pass the greens." to the working class students.) Very Englishly, he wore the same tweed jacket every day, except that it wasn't always the same one, but an iteration of a bunch of identical ones (how many I don't know). He would fool with a pen knife while speaking to us and once almost cut off the bottom of his tie. We got on well. I learned gobbet-style from him and quickly grew to respect this think-for-yourself style of teaching. On gobbets, see here, here, or for the classic Oxford style, here (a WORD doc from Keble College, Ox).

From him I also learned to love George Orwell's crystal clear writing, the whole antithesis of pedantry, not the best-known novels so much as the essays, short stories, and early writings. And also J. P. Donveavy's Ginger Man.

And today I learn that it's 50 years since that book first appeared and have found (via Arts & Letters Daily) that Joe Keohane has written nicely about it in a Boston Globe article called A man amuck. In the extracts below, note the quote from Orwell and references to Hunter S. Thompson, James Joyce, and Johnny Depp. Note also the conclusion, that the book's hero (anti-hero) is engaged in "resistance for its own sake." Remember this because I'm working on a post about Susan Sontag, the Boer War, and ungentlemanly football (i.e. soccer) fans.


A LITTLE MORE THAN 50 years ago, in a Dublin known for its wild young and its fidgety devout, and a Europe still struggling after years of war, a holy terror by the name of Sebastian Balfe Dangerfield was inflicted upon the world. Rich son and busted husband, wife-beater and maudlin romantic, personal friend to Christ and bitter foe to any Papist worth his weight in holy pendants - few knew what to make of him then, even fewer now, but the fact that he's never left us is a measure of his worth.

The Ginger Man tells the raucous story of an Irish-American ex-pat living in bohemian Dublin after the war. His wife, an upper-class English woman with whom he's sired a child, has begun to realize the magnitude of her error. Her husband - 27 years old and capable of great displays of soul and poetical charm - is flunking law at Trinity. Up to his eyeballs in debt, dogged by landlords, soaked with drink, cadging off of friends and strange women, he's as prone to rhapsodize about the sadness and beauty of Ireland as he is to scatter the teeth of her more savage inhabitants.

It's an intoxicating read, quintessentially Irish in its cobbling of joy and sadness, sentimentality and violence. For more than five decades, young readers have had whole literary vistas opened by it, among them the late Hunter S. Thompson, who obsessed over the book as a struggling young writer in New York.

Alive in a way few books are, its combination of gorgeous writing, brilliant comedy, pathos, and unrelenting amorality has made it a cult classic, a rite of passage, practically a literary religion. Or perhaps a literary anti-religion. Dangerfield, like Donleavy's other protagonists, battles relentlessly against a world - to borrow from Orwell - of "smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls."

Donleavy himself, who recently turned 80, still lives in Ireland, in a moldering 18th-century mansion previously owned by Julie Andrews and featured in James Joyce's Stephen Hero. A long-awaited film adaptation of The Ginger Man, starring Johnny Depp, is reportedly in the works.

A man of wit, intelligence, and, let's say, adaptive ethics, Dangerfield craves wealth but is constitutionally incapable of working for it; he craves peace, but is hard-wired for bedlam. When neither wealth nor peace come of their own accounts, he sees a conspiracy with himself as the victim.

Perhaps, the point is simply this: resistance for its own sake. Resistance as a moral virtue. As Dangerfield says: "Got to fight. Must resist or go down in the pile." It's an adolescent urge. Society requires conditioning, compromise, obedience. It's liberating to see Dangerfield refuse outright. You know it's a losing fight, and you know you shouldn't be rooting for him, but there you are. And there he is, 50 years later. He hasn't won, but he hasn't lost either. "When I die," Dangerfield muses late in the book, "I want to decompose in a barrel of porter and have it served in all the pubs in Dublin. I wonder would they know it was me?"

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

is it time for MFU3 yet?

Things have been happening at work this week, making this relevant:

I hope it's not illegal or improper to reproduce this strip. It comes of course from the strip by Scott Adams. Web pages are here and here. The Wikipedia entry is here.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

awesome cornet

I can't always bike to work. Friday I had to go to the HMO lab for blood work in preparation for my annual health assessment next week. So I drove and listened to Louis Armstrong along the way. Homebound, I got to the Wild Man Blues cut. This has an awesome solo; so arresting that I backed up the tape to hear it four times.

Louis Armstrong is in that (all too big) class of cultural experiences that I dismissed when young because uncool -- appreciated by the wrong people. Armstrong, for example, was a favorite of the father of a close friend. The father also was passionate for Lawrence Welk; how could I like Armstrong? The association with the term "Dixieland" was also unfortunate: too much feel-good, too rigidly metronomical, too predictable.

Listen to the cornet solo on Wild Man Blues for petty much the opposite of all that.

Here are three MP3 files. The first is the shortest, just the part of the solo that caught my attention:

Highlights of cornet solo

The second is the entire cornet solo, about a minute and a half long:

And the third is the entire cut, all of Wild Man Blues.

It's mildly surprising to find that this is not considered Armstrong's best work of the period. The piece is credited to Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton, but Armstrong said Jelly Roll had nothing to do with it.

Here are details of the session.

Louis Armstrong and His Hot Seven
May 7, 1927, Chicago
W.80848-C OKeh 8474
Louis Armstrong, cornet
John Thomas, trombone
Lil Hardin Armstrong, piano
Johnny St. Cyr, guitar
Pete Briggs, tuba
Baby Dodds, drums

Monday, February 20, 2006

life imitates art, yet again

Arts and Letters Daily hardly ever fails to interest. Here are three reasons to check in periodically:

We had a Neflix of the 2004 film, Heights, which has Glenn Close play a woman named Diana who is a (somewhat congenial) sexual predator, and now I read that Dede Harris, "one of the most famous producers in New York," is "sexually obsessive and compulsive and is unable to refrain from sexually harassing cast members of productions with which she is affiliated." That's Dede on the right.

Half the cast of her latest Off-Broadway play walked out and filed a multi-million dollar law suit alleging she "asked one female cast member to 'feel her up', groped another's breast in a bar and made sexual advances on several other men and women. It describes a game of 'truth of dare' played with the cast in which Harris asked some of the male actors to touch her." The production still on the right shows Glenn Close as Diana.

The play is Dog Sees God. Here are links to a production announcement in Variety, an unflattering review in the NYT, and the Dog Sees God home page.

Strangely, the piece in the Guardian to which ALD links, gets the name of the play wrong: Dog Meets God. And this reminds me of a favorite book, Rats Saw God since both make play with God and Dog, but neither is a palindrome.

Here's the ALD squib:
Broadway's Twist On The Casting Couch Scandal "Like any great headlining play, the newest sex scandal to hit America's acting profession has a fresh twist: the top producer accused of sexually harassing the cast of a Broadway play is a woman.
Her alleged victims are also far from being wide-eyed starlets. Instead they are some of the top names on Broadway, including Irish actor Gabriel Byrne." The Observer 02/19/06
Posted: 02/19/2006 9:56 am,,1713043,00.html

Also from ALD today:
London's Skyrocketing Ticket Prices Theatre ticket prices have gone "mad" in London's West End. It's £127 for some seats? "These prices weed out the poor, the young and the would-be first-time theatregoer and ensure that the gilded auditorium retains its Victorian smugness and rows of white hair and glinting jewellery." The Observer 02/19/06
Posted: 02/19/2006 9:58 am,,1713131,00.html

Of Dramaturgs And How Theatre Is Made "I teach dramaturgy, and I spend a good two or three weeks with my students talking about what different dramaturgs think dramaturgy is. The problem is that the term is used to encompass so many things." One of her favorite short definitions, she adds, is "information designer, [which tells people that] the dramaturg is part of the design staff. ... I'm in charge of the text and context of the play." Chicago Tribune 02/19/06
Posted: 02/19/2006 10:43 am

Sunday, February 19, 2006

another boring post on globalization and the US economy

For quite a while I've wondered what's been sustaining the US economy. Why haven't American businesses overextended themselves, as so often they did in the past? Why have consumers been so exuberant in their spending? How have we been able to keep interest rates low?

I've found some answers. The ones that come to mind (at the moment I'm too lazy to go back to previous posts on this) are -
1. Unusually rational behavior of American businesses following the last debacle. This may be partly due to increased use of automation and the existence of a wonderful, cheap, worldwide, high-speed communications infrastructure. They haven't overloaded inventories, haven't built up payrolls (but have continued to layoff workers), they've learned to outsource to foreign service organizations, and they have shifted away from products that compete with ones that can be produced more cheaply abroad.

2. A not-surprising reaction of American home owners to increases in real estate value and sustained low mortgage rates. American law helps here since it permits easy re-mortgaging and gives tax benefits to mortgage borrowers. So Americans have substituted home equity for personal savings and, by taking out cash when re-mortgaging, have converted much of this home equity into consumption. It's helped that there's been a final shucking off by Americans of the penurious habits of the generations of the 30's, 40's, and 50's.

3. Sustained demand by foreigners for American financial instruments (by which I mean Treasuries, stocks and bonds, and all the other stuff in which foreigners can invest), and this was enabled by the failure of other industrial nations to match the rate of US economic growth, the failure of non-industrial nations with emerging economies to create the stability and other structures needed to attract investment, and the preference of the oil-rich nations for safe (though unspectacular) returns on US investments over risky (though potentially more rewarding) ones elsewhere.
Given that there are so many conditions (and both positive and negative feedback loops, to use some jargon in current favor) on which American prosperity rests, you'd think the war, the hurricane damage, and the unhelpful policies of Congress and the Bush administration would unstabilize and bring down (quickly or slowly) this precarious ediface.

Experts, virtually all of them I think, say the current situation cannot be sustained. There will, definitely will, be a change, and the question is whether it will be quick and painful or slow and reasonably pain-free. Everyone seems to be looking for signs that the changeover has begun.

I read a couple of accounts today giving evidence that it's near:
1. A Reuters report says that in December foreign purchases of US financial assets did not match US purchases of foreign goods and services. Normally inflows from abroad exceed outflows from within the US. This is one of the factors keeping interest rates down. Putting this a bit simplistically, if foreigners do not step forward to fund the US deficit, the US has to increase interest rates to induce them to buy.

The report isn't a warning shout. Over the course of 2005 inflows were considerably higher than outflows. It's just a question as to what the December figures may indicate.

Here's a link to the Reuters report: Dollar supported by 2005 inflows but trends changing, Wed Feb 15, 2006, By Jamie McGeever
2. An opinion piece in the Times of London by an American, Irwin Stelzer, director of economic policy studies at the Hudson Institute, giving a reasonable argument for continued notching up of US interest rates until the Fed rate moves above 5% in coming months. With the cascading effect that the Fed rate has on other interest rates, this would dampen consumer spending (and probably push lots of those who hold adjustable-rate mortgages into bankrupcy).

Irwin Stelzer says: US economic data for January are unrealistically high: retail sales rose 2.3%, factory output was strong, and "housing starts surged to levels not seen for more than 30 years."

While US data are somewhat scary, so too are the numbers from overseas: There is increasing consumer demand in China, Japan, and the oil-rich nations and this along with "continued willingness of American consumers to shop until they drop, might just be sopping up a good deal of the worldwide capacity that has restrained inflation in America."

Here's a link to the piece in the Sunday Times: The Sunday Times - Business, February 19, 2006, Rates must rise if world growth fuels inflation,


1. Stelzer makes an interesting, if unsurprising, comment on layoffs of American workers:
Greenspan persuaded his monetary-policy colleagues that globalisation has made worldwide capacity, rather than only domestic capacity, available to American consumers and producers. No matter if American labour markets tighten; there are all those low-wage Chinese and Indians eager to turn out the goods Americans want and, in the process, prevent American workers from driving their wages to inflation-producing levels. No matter if American factories are at capacity; Asian and Latin American factories will prevent American companies from raising prices.

The availability of that worldwide capacity, along with rising productivity, has indeed kept compensation and prices restrained. And the large pool of Chinese labour will continue to restrain the wages of many American workers.

He also says:
Greenspan once predicted that anyone betting that interest rates would remain low is doomed to lose some money. Bernanke may be the man who imposes that loss on those who failed to take Greenspan’s advice. Unless ... but that’s for another column.

2. The Reuters article says a global upward trend in interest rates is another factor pushing up US rates.:
Behind the headline figures are underlying trends that show shifts in where the foreign financing of America's deficits is coming from and into what U.S. markets it's going.

The vast bulk of foreign inflows last year went into U.S. fixed-income assets, although the burden of deficit funding shifted dramatically to the private sector from foreign central banks.

But with more central banks around the world in addition to the Federal Reserve now raising interest rates, these investors should have more alternatives to tempt them.
It also says an end result of all this will be greater declines in the value of the dollar.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Diary of Lady Shelburne - 4th Post

Here is a description of Birmingham and its industry written by Lady Shelburne and her husband in May of 1766. This is the fourth set of entries from her diary. The first three are here, here and here. As before, the entries come from the Fitzmaurice biography of the Earl of Shelburne.

May 14th [1766]. We got into the coach for Birmingham, and arrived through rough roads at nine o'clock there. We were kindly and politely received by Mr. Garbett; but before I dwell upon the curiosities of this place I must mention having seen some very good portraits at Warwick Castle, particularly one said to be an original of the famous Earl of Essex.

May 15th. We breakfasted, and went soon after with Mr. Garbett to see the manufactory of buttons and hardwares, which are very curious, and entertained us very much till dinner-time. Mr. Taylor, the principal manufacturer there, dined with us, and we went afterwards to Mr. Bolden's, who trades much in the same way. His house is a very pretty one about a mile out of the town, and his workshops newly built at the end of his garden, where they take up a large piece of ground which has named Soho Square. There, as in the morning, we purchased some watch chains and trinkets at an amazing cheap price, and drank tea afterwards in his house, which a very pleasant one. We returned home to supper ween nine and ten, for we kept early hours. Mr. Baskerville supped with us.

May 16th. This morning we went to Gimlett's, where bought a great many toys and saw his warehouse of watches, &c., one of which I bought for Master Parker, also went to a quaker's to see the making of guns, neither Lady Louisa or I being much interested about that, we left Lord Shelburne and Mr. Garbett and went with his son to the toyshops, where we made some purchases. At Mr. Taylor's we met again, and he made and ennamel'd a landscape on the top of a box before us, which he afterwards gave me as a curiosity from my having seen it done. The method of doing it is this: a stamping instrument managed only by one woman first impresses the picture on paper, which paper is then laid even upon a piece of white enamel and rubbed hard with a knife or instrument like it, till it is marked upon the box. Then there is spread over it with a brush some metallic colour reduced to a fine powder which adheres to the moist part, and, by putting it afterwards into an oven for a few minutes, the whole is completed by fixing colour. We came home, dined, went again to Gimlett's, and from thence to drink tea at Mr. Taylor's villa. This is a very handsome house with a dairy and garden about it. His wife and daughter, a girl of about fourteen, received us, and she played on the harpsichord and sung to us. Mr. Taylor and his son walked about with Lord Shelburne and Mr. Garbett. After this Mr. Frank Garbett went with Lady Louisa and me in the coach to Mr. Baskerville's, which is also a pretty place out of the town; he showed us his garden and hothouse, Mrs. Baskerville the Japan, which business she has chiefly the management of. By this time Mr. Garbett and Lord Shelburne, who walked, arrived; he bought some new books printed by Mr. Baskerville, and I some Japan, and it being now dark we returned home.

May 17th. As soon as breakfast was over we went to see the making of buckles, papier mâché boxes, and the melting, painting, and stamping of glass. By twelve o'clock we returned to Mr. Garbett's, took some chocolate, and, thanking him for our entertainment at Birmingham, got into our coach to return home, the young Mr. Garbett being of the party till we got through the town. Then we parted, giving him an invitation to Bowood Park, and dined at Shipston; at night we lay at Chappel-on-the-Heath.

May 19th. After breakfast Lady Louisa went to attend Princess Amelia, and we sent, without success, to Eton to desire leave for Master Parker to come to us. We dined alone, and in the evening Lord Shelburne was so good to write for me the following account of the place we had been so much amused at:
Birmingham originally had no manufacture except a small one of linen thread, which continues there to this day, though now to the amount of ten or twelve thousand pounds. It is not fifty years since the hardware began to make a figure, from thence begun by people not worth above three or four hundred pounds a-piece, some of which are now worth three or four hundred thousand, particularly a Mr. Taylor, the most established manufacturer and trader; some, however, are beginning to rival him in the extent of his trade. Its great rise was owing to two things, first the discovery of mixed metal so mollient or ductile as easily to suffer stamping, the consequence of which is they do buttons, buckles, toys, and everything in the hardware way by stamping machines which were before obliged to be performed by human labour. Another thing quickly followed, instead of employing the same hand to finish a button or any other thing, they subdivide it into as many different hands as possible, finding beyond doubt that the human faculties by being confined to a repetition of the same thing become more expeditious and more to be depended on than when obliged or suffered to pass from one to another. Thus a button passes through fifty hands, and each hand perhaps passes a thousand in a day; likewise, by this means, the work becomes so simple that, five times in six, children of six or eight years old do it as well as men, and earn from ten pence to eight shillings a week. There are besides an infinity of smaller improvements which each workman has and sedulously keeps secret from the rest. Upon the whole they have reduced the price so low that the small matter of gold on a button makes the chief expense of it, being as three to one including all other materials and manufacture. However, they have lately discovered a method of washing them with aquafortis, which gives them the colour of gold, and are come to stamp them so well that 'tis scarce possible at any distance to distinguish them from a thread button. There are many other manufactures here; most of the spirit of hartshorn consumed in England, and oil of a great quantity, but the greatest manufacture of that is now removed to Preston Pans in Scotland. The reason Mr. Garbett gave for it was, first, secrecy as to the method of making it (which is almost impossible to preserve in Birmingham, there is so much enterprise and sharpness); next, the cheapness of provisions; and, lastly, the obedient turn of the Scotch. Refining of gold and silver, and gun-making to a prodigious amount for exportation, are likewise another branch of their trade, of which they send annually above a hundred and fifty thousand to the coast of Africa, some of which are sold for five and sixpence a-piece, but what is shocking to humanity, above half of them, from the manner they are finished in, are sure to burst in the first hand that fires them. If an Act of Parliament was passed ordering a proof-master to be settled at the expence of the manufacturers themselves, for one shilling more the barrels might be properly bored and finished, so as to secure the buyer at least from certain danger, the trade by this means assured and confirmed in its present channel, and the moral infamy in the individuals who are thus induced to multiply gain, suppressed. This trade, great as it is, is not above twenty or twenty-five years' standing. Another thing they are in great want of is an assay-master, which is allowed both at Chester and York; but it is very hard on a manufacturer to be obliged to send every piece of plate to Chester to be marked, without which no one will purchase it, where the great object of the whole trade is to make a quantity and thus to reduce the profits as low as 'tis possible. It would be of infinite public advantage if silver plate came to be manufactured here as watches lately are, and that it should be taken out of the imposing monopoly of it in London.


Some notes on people and places mentioned in this diary set of diary entries:

Warwick Castle, click to enlarge.

A painting in the castle, not Essex, click to enlarge.

A good general source of background for the Shelburne's visit to Birmingham is The lunar men : five friends whose curiosity changed the world, by Jennifer S Uglow (2002). She identifies Samuel Garbett was a prominent button and hardware maker (p. 22). John Taylor was one of the first manufactures to replace the old putting-out system with a new-fangled factory: a conglomeration of workshops on a single site (p. 67). In 1759, Garbett and Taylor he testified in the House of Commons about the toy trade of Birmingham, reporting that it employed 20,000 people and exported about 80% of its production.

The man Sophie identifies as Mr. Bolden was Samuel Boulton, who started out as a maker of buckles and became one of the most wealthy and famous of the Birmingham industrialists. Of him, Jennifer Uglow says: "Matt Boulton was neat and dark and dapper, with curly brown hair, keen eyes and a broad grin. Frank and humorous, always with an eye to the main chance, he was a man on the make, like his town." (p. 25)

Boulton enjoyed displaying his workshops. A year after the Shelburne's visit he was something of a tour-guide, writing to his London agent that "I had lords and ladies to wait on yesterday; I have Spaniards today; and tomorrow I shall have Germans, Russians, and Norwegians." (Uglow, p. 221)

Boulton's works at Soho Square, Birmingham. Uglow quotes Boulton about this huge enterprise: "I founded my manufactory upon one of the most barren commons of England, where there existed but a few miserable huts filled with idle beggarly people, who by the help of the common land and a little thieving made shift to live without working. The scene is now entirely changed. I have employed a thousand men, women, and children, in my aforesaid manufactory, for nearly thirty years." About this quote she says Boulton wrote "with the proud intolerance of a merchant prince." (p 69)

John Baskerville, was the famous type designer; also a writing master and printer.
{click to enlarge}

I haven't identified Mr. Gimlett, nor the Mr. Taylor (later connected with Eton and so presumably a young acquaintance of the Shelburne's).

It's interesting that Sophie mentions a foundry for making guns that is run by Quakers. I don't have more information about this.

This is an example of japaning, which business, Sophie says, Mrs. Baskerville "has chiefly the management of."

This gives some idea of the village of Shipton in the Cotswolds where the Shelburnes dined on their trip homeward.

The essay by Lord Shelburne that ends the piece is remarkable. It shows he had done his homework and knew the subject well. It also shows that an intelligent observer at the time could perceive the importance of the innovations being introduced in Birmingham and, as well, the extreme competitive spirit and "sharpness" of the Birmingham entrepreneurs -- including an cavalier attitude toward African buyers of cheap and very dangerous guns. Though he does not say so directly, it's apparent he perceives both the importance of regulation to prevent export of dangerous weapons and also the importance of eliminating restraints on free-enterprise (the suppression of monopoly industries).

Most of the men whom the Shelburne's met were members of the Lunar Society of Birmingham. As you'd expect, Jennifer Uglow's book is a good source for information about the society and its members. In addition to those mentioned in the diary, those members included Josiah Wedgwood, Erasmus Darwin (Charles' grandfather), Joseph Priestley, James Watt, and Samuel Galton. They were, like Lord Shelburne himself, friends of Benjamin Franklin. The web page of the City of Birmingham Archives has a short introduction to Boulton, Soho, and the Lunar Society.

It's interesting that the radical, Priestley, is not mentioned in the diary entries. He was later, on recommendation of Benjamin Franklin, to become the librarian at the Shelburne Bowood estate.

Friday, February 17, 2006

no way to treat an ally?

You may have seen reports of a new Turkish film which depicts an act of callousness (I would like to think unpremeditated callousness) by the military forces of the most powerful nation in the world on a small and weak, but valuable ally.

The event brings to mind the mindless brutalities of the British Raj. And that thought, in turn, churns up a favorite essay by a favorite author: During the time that George Orwell was a police office in Burma, he was required to shoot an elephant. In Shooting an Elephant, he describes his own misgivings and the reactions of the local populace. He concludes sardonically:
Afterwards, of course, there were endless discussions about the shooting of the elephant. The owner was furious, but he was only an Indian and could do nothing. Besides, legally I had done the right thing, for a mad elephant has to be killed, like a mad dog, if its owner fails to control it. Among the Europeans opinion was divided. The older men said I was right, the younger men said it was a damn shame to shoot an elephant for killing a coolie, because an elephant was worth more than any damn Coringhee coolie. And afterwards I was very glad that the coolie had been killed; it put me legally in the right and it gave me a sufficient pretext for shooting the elephant. I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.

Here's a description of the U.S.-Turkish incident and the movie in which it appears:

Popular Turkish movie portrays American soldiers as brutal killers
By Matthew Schofield
Knight Ridder Newspapers

BERLIN - A Turkish-made film that portrays American soldiers in Iraq as brutal and callous killers is setting attendance records in Turkey and has just opened throughout Europe. The movie, the most expensive production in Turkish film history, has been a runaway success in Turkey since it opened Feb. 3. Would-be viewers must wait weeks for tickets. Yusuf Kanli, the editor in chief of the Turkish Daily News, said the film is grounded in a real event known as the "bag incident," which cemented the movie's popularity in Turkey.

"Abu Ghraib is a deep wound, but it's war, and war is never clean," Kanli said. "But what happened in July 2003 can never be forgotten by any Turk."

In that incident, U.S. troops arrested 11 Turkish special-forces officers in northern Iraq and walked them from their headquarters with bags over their heads. It was considered a bitter betrayal by a trusted ally. Turkish newspapers dubbed it the "Rambo Crisis." Recent opinion polls rank it as the most humiliating moment in Turkish history.

Blog credits:

The perks of power are sweet! SWEET! by Jonathan Schwartz, who says he knew nothing about the incident before reading about the film, and Crooked Timber: Slap Shots, but Ted Barlow, whosays: "I’ve got a funny vibe about the story, like it’s something that will get a lot more attention in history books than newspapers."

And from another article in the Telegraph (UK):

Turkish film of murderous GIs adds fuel to smouldering anti-US feelings, By Amberin Zaman in Ankara

Traditionally cordial relations between Ankara and Washington were badly bruised when the Turkish parliament voted against a Bill in March 2003 that would have enabled thousands of US soldiers to open a second front against Saddam Hussein from south-eastern Turkey.

Four months later, US forces raided a Turkish special forces office in northern Iraq, handcuffed and hooded 11 officers and took them for interrogation in Baghdad. The incident caused an outcry throughout Turkey where it was seen as an act of revenge. US officials said the Turks were plotting to kill a senior Kurdish politician and huge amounts of explosives were found during the raid.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

150th anniversary of Heine's death

Tomorrow is the 150th anniversary of the death of Heinrich Heine. I know his work best via the famous Dichterliebe cycle of Robert Schumann (of which I'm very fond). It's nice to know he was also an irreverant poet whose satires are worth reading even in translation. In the one called On Teleology, he takes a look at an oddity of man's anatomy. The first speaker, a woman, has questioned why two of some things (hands, feet, eyes, ...) and only one of others. In this excerpt the man tells her why:
Child, you do not grasp God's mighty
System of utility,
How He works economy:
So, in turn, the apparatus
Serves all kinds of need and status,
Holy needs just like profane ones,
Piquant needs just like mundane ones,
All is simplified, refined;
All is clever when combined:
That, which man must use to piss,
Doubles as his genesis,
On the same old bagpipe plays
Same old riff-raff, come what may.
Dainty paws and mitts much grosser
Fiddle on the same viola,
Through the same old wheels and vapors
Each one yawns and sings and capers,
And the same old omnibus
Takes us all to Tartarus.

{A note helpfully explains that Tartarus is the infernal regions of ancient Greek mythology.}
Here are links to Heine's wikipedia entry and one from

My father passed down to me a medal struck to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Heine's birth (which occured on December 13, 1897). It came from my great-grandfather, a prominent German-American New Yorker, who, though not a poet, probably felt some kinship with Heine (see more on this at bottom). He, my great-grandfather, contributed to the erection of this Heine statue in Joyce Kilmer Park:

There's information about it on the NYC Parks and Recreation page:
Ernst Herter
The Heinrich Heine Fountain, 1893
Joyce Kilmer Park
161st Street and Grand Concourse, The Bronx

Joyce Kilmer Park is dedicated to the memory of the American poet, Alfred Joyce Kilmer, who was killed in action in France in World War I. The park has been variously called Heintz Park and Heine Park, and is best known for its Lorelei Fountain.

The Heinrich Heine Fountain (Lorelei Fountain), dedicated on July 8, 1899, honors the great 19th century German poet, Heinrich Heine. The fountain celebrates the poet's revered lyric, Die Lorelei, and is often referred to as the Lorelei Fountain. Die Lorelei is the legend of a siren whose beauty and irresistible singing lured sailors to their deaths at the dangerous narrows of the Rhine River. The Lorelei Fountain is a white Tyrolean marble masterpiece consisting of a pillar surmounted by the figure of Die Lorelei. A bas-relief portrait of Heine himself appears on one side of the pillar. The marble base is elaborately strewn with aquatic animals and plants, and three monumental mermaids flank the foot of the shaft. The German/American sculptor Ernst Herter completed the monument to Heine, in 1893. The work, commissioned by Princess Elizabeth of Austria, was offered to the city of Dusseldorf, Germany, Heine's birthplace. Rejected by Dusseldorf, the monument was purchased by a group of Americans of German descent and offered to the City. It took six years of debate before the Lorelei Fountain found its permanent home and then, immediately after its unveiling, it was seriously vandalized. The sculpture has had numerous restorations, the most recent completed in 1999 with joint funding by Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, and the City Council, as well as a donation from the Stephen and Anna-Maria Kellen Foundation. It now stands proudly again in fully restored form near its original location at the southern end of Joyce Kilmer Park.

A nod: The anniversary is noted on Cliopatria, one of my favorite blogs: Nathanael D. Robinson,
Germany since Heine.

About Heine and my great-grandfather: Both came from neighboring areas in Westphalia (Dusseldorf and Munster; see map below), both came from German merchant families, both were converts to Christianity. Both were idealists, liberal, and optimistic about political reform. Both saw the humorous side of life (my father's description of his granfather was "jolly"). However my great-grandfather was a generation younger than Heine, and, unlike him, faced financial difficulties which kept him from attending university and which were a major factor in his decision to emigrate to New York City.

Monday, February 13, 2006

readiest way to hell

The Post-Boy, attributed to John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester

'Son of a whore, God damn you, can you tell
A peerless peer the readiest way to Hell?
I've outswilled Bacchus, sworn, of my own make,
Oaths would fright Furies and make Pluto shake'
Witness heroic scars - look here, ne'er go -
Cerecloths and ulcers from the top to toe.
Frighted at my own mischiefs I have fled
And bravely left my life's defender dead.
Broke houses to break chastity, and dyed
The flower with murder that my lust denied.
Pox on it, why do I speak of these poor things?
I have blasphemed my God and libelled Kings;
The readiest way to Hell, boy, quick -'
Boy: 'Ne'er stir,
The readiest way, my lord's by Rochester.'
Judging from the contents of this site, I'd say this poem, if it's Rochester's, is one that's least likely to offend the Legion of Decency.

I've been reading England in the 1670s by John Spurr. There's a review on H-Net that explains the focus of the book and it's thematic approach to the subject.

Spurr has lots to say about Rochester throughout the book. In the section in which the painting that I've reproduced below appears, he's discussing the heroes and anti-heroes of the age. Here are extracts (pp 91-93):
The anti-hero - for that, surely, is what we should call them - was a recognizable literary type and one rooted in the possibility that there might really be such people in the world. ... [T]he debauched courtiers and rakes who surrounded Charles II, ... these drunkards, adulterers, duellists and scoffers at conventional morality and piety were the subject of prurient public interest as much for who they were as what they did. ... [And] it is Rochester who most completely and glaringly demonstrates both the interplay between reality and myth and the rake as archetypal anti-hero.

In 1670 rumour credited Rochester with the murder of a watchman who had dared to remark on the Earl's extreme handsomeness. ... Rochester was a 'famous hero', according to his elegists, 'truly heroic more than can be told' fighting with sword and pen; but his 'heroic virtues' were far from clear: his youthful courage had certainly been tested at the naval battle of Bergen, but thereafter his physical bravery was demonstrated principally in destroying sundials and fighting constables and his intellectual courage by a series of corruscatingly cynical or nihilistic poems. As so often, Rochester himself both raised and subverted the question. In the poem To the Post-boy, the 'peerless peer' recounts his debauchery and blasphemy, and alludes to his cowardice during the 1676 affray at Epsom when his companion was abandoned to his fate; then the poet asks the postboy which is 'the readiest way to hell', and receives the reply, 'Ne'er stir:/ the readiest way, my Lord, 's by Rochester."'

John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester crowning a monkey. This portrait, says Spurr, "alludes to Rochester's disdain for human vanity and pretentions, and reflects the libertine commonplace that man is as much at the mercy of his passions and his body as are brute animals." (p 92)

Detail of the same portrait