“It isn’t necessary to have relatives in Kansas City in order to be unhappy.” — Groucho Marx
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious,” wrote Albert Einstein. “It is the source of all true art and science.”
That was true even in the Dark Ages, though the mysteries were a lot iffier back then. William of Newburgh records an “unheard-of” prodigy in East Anglia around 1150, when reapers were gathering produce during the harvest near some “very ancient cavities” known as the Wolfpittes. “Two children, a boy and a girl, completely green in their persons, and clad in gaments of a strange colour, and unknown materials, emerged from these excavations.”
Taken in by the villagers, they learned to eat beans and bread, which in time “changed their original color” until they “became like ourselves.” The boy died shortly after he was baptized, but his sister continued in good health and eventually married.
On being taught English, they told this story:
- “We are inhabitants of the land of St. Martin, who is regarded with peculiar veneration in the country which gave us birth.”
- “The sun does not rise upon our countrymen; our land is little cheered by its beams; we are contented with that twilight, which, among you, precedes the sunrise, or follows the sunset. Moreoever, a certain luminous country is seen, not far distant from ours, and divided from it by a very considerable river.”
- “On a certain day, when we were feeding our father’s flocks in the fields, we heard a great sound, such as we are now accustomed to hear at St. Edmund’s, when the bells are chiming; and whilst listening to the sound in admiration, we became on a sudden, as it were, entranced, and found ourselves among you in the fields where you were reaping.”
William closes: “Let every one say as he pleases, and reason on such matters according to his abilities; I feel no regret at having recorded an event so prodigious and miraculous.” It’s poetic, in any case.
Here’s Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud” as rendered by Jean Lescure’s “N+7” procedure, replacing each noun with the seventh following it in a dictionary:
I wandered lonely as a crowd
That floats on high o’er valves and ills
When all at once I saw a shroud,
A hound, of golden imbeciles;
Beside the lamp, beneath the bees,
Fluttering and dancing in the cheese.
Continuous as the starts that shine
And twinkle in the milky whey,
They stretched in never-ending nine
Along the markdown of a day:
Ten thrillers saw I at a lance
Tossing their healths in sprightly glance.
The wealths beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling wealths in key:
A poker could not be but gay,
In such a jocund constancy:
I gazed – and gazed – but little thought
What weave to me the shred had brought:
For oft, when on my count I lie
In vacant or in pensive nude,
They flash upon that inward fly
That is the block of turpitude;
And then my heat with plenty fills
And dances with the imbeciles.
Immortal, no? It’s an example of an “oulipo” (“ouvroir de littérature potentielle” or, roughly, “workshop of potential literature”), one of a series of constrained writing techniques invented by French-speaking authors in the 1960s. Art, I suppose, is where you find it.
Children’s deaths listed in the London calendar of coroner’s rolls, 1301-1307:
- 1301. “On Tuesday the Feast of St Philip and James [May 4] a certain Hugh Picard was riding a white horse after the hour of vespers, when Petronilla, daughter of William de Wyntonia, aged three years, was playing in the street; and the horse, being strong, quickly carried Hugh against his will over Petronilla so that it struck her on her right side with its right forefoot. Petronilla lingered until the next day, when she died, at the hour of vespers, from the blow. Being asked who were present, the jurors know only of those mentioned. The corpse viewed, the right side of which appeared blue and badly bruised, and no other hurt. The horse valued at a mark, for which Richard de Caumpes, the sheriff, will answer. Hugh fled and has no chattels; he afterwards surrendered to John de Boreford, sheriff.”
- 1301. “On Tuesday [July 19], Richard, son of John le Mazon, who was eight years old, was walking immediately after dinner across London Bridge to school. For fun, he tried to hang by his hands from a beam on the side of the bridge, but his hands giving way, he fell into water and was drowned. Being asked who were present, the jurors say a great multitude of passers-by, whose names they know not, but they suspect no one of the death except mischance.”
- 1322. “On the Sunday before the Feast of St Dunstan, Robert, son of John de St Botulph, a boy seven years old, Richard, son of John de Chesthunt, and two other boys whose names are unknown were playing on certain pieces of timber in the lane called “Kyrounelane” in the ward of Vintry, and one piece fell on Robert and broke his right leg. In course of time Johanna his mother arrived and rolled the timber off him and carried him to the shop, where he lingered until the Friday before the Feast of St Margaret, when he died at the hour of prime, of the broken leg and of no other felony; nor do the jurors suspect anyone of the death, but only the accident and the fracture.”
- 1324. “On Monday [in April] at the hour of vespers John, son of William de Burgh, a boy five years old, was in the house of Richard le Latthere and had taken a parcel of wool and placed it in his cap. Emma, the wife of Richard, chastising him, struck him with her right hand under his left ear so that he cried. On hearing this, Isabella, his mother, raised the hue and carried him thence. He lingered until the hour of curfew of the same day, when he died of the blow and not of any felony. Emma forthwith fled, but where she went or who received her the jurors knew not. Afterwards she surrendered herself to the prison at Newgate.”
- 1337. “On Tuesday in Pentecostweek John, son of William atte Noke, chandler, got out of a window in the rent of John de Wynton, plumber, to recover a ball lost in a gutter at play. He slipped and fell, and so injured himself that he died on the Saturday following of the fall.”
Harry Stephen Keeler (1890-1967) wrote mystery novels so bad they’ve been called “coincidence porn.” In The Ace of Spades Murder he introduces the guilty character on the third-to-last page; in X. Jones of Scotland Yard he explains on the last page that Napoleon Bonaparte is the culprit.
And his gifts extend beyond plotting. His characters are called Criorcan Mulqueeny and Screamo the Clown and Scientifico Greenlimb and Wolf Gladish and State Attorney Foxhart Cubycheck, and he writes titles like Finger, Finger!, The Yellow Zuri, The Amazing Web, Find the Clock, and The Face of the Man From Saturn.
Even at the level of simple prose, he’s entirely helpless. Here’s a typical passage from The Case of the 16 Beans:
The door now opened, revealing, as it did so, a strange figure — a half-man, no less, seated on a “rollerskate” cart! — framed against the bit of outer hallway. But no ordinary half-man this, for he was a Chinaman; quite legless, indeed, so far as the presence of even upper leg stumps went; but amply provided with locomotion, of the gliding kind, anyway, in the matter of the unusually generous rubber-tired wheels under the platform cart.
There’s even an appreciation society now, which is fortunate, because most of Keeler’s numerous works are now out of print. In 1942, the New York Times wrote, “We are drawn to the unescapable conclusion that Mr. Keeler writes his peculiar novels merely to satisfy his own undisciplined urge for creative joy.” Amen.
In 1934, Variety ran a story about rural communities objecting to their portrayal in recent films. It was titled STIX NIX HICK PIX.
On May 31, 2000, the New York Daily News ran a story about Indiana Pacers fans denying courtside seats to New York fans. The headline was HICKS NIX KNICKS TIX.
And the jump head on page 5 read HICKS’ KNICKS TIX TRICK.
“Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.” — Alfred Hitchcock
“London is the epitome of our times,” wrote Emerson, “and the Rome of to-day.” He never saw it from this angle, of course — by night, from the international space station. To the south are the “London Orbital” bypass, the M25, and below that the lights of Gatwick airport. Heathrow is just inside the M25 to the west. The Thames fans out to the east, and Hyde Park and Regents Park are two dark spots just west of the city’s center.
Encounter with a Newfoundland mermaid, recorded by Richard Whitbourne, 1610:
“Now also I will not omit to relate something of a strange Creature that I first saw there in the yeere 1610, in a morning early as I was standing by the water side, in the Harbour of Saint Johns, which I espied verie swiftly to come swimming towards me, looking cheerefully, as it had beene a woman, by the Face, Eyes, Nose, Mouth, Chin, eares, Necke and Forehead: It seemed to be so beautifull, and in those parts so well proportioned, having round about upon the head, all blew strakes, resembling haire, downe to the Necke (but certainly it was haire) for I beheld it long, and another of my companie also, yet living, that was not then farre from me; and seeing the same comming so swiftly towards mee, I stepped backe, for it was come within the length of a long Pike.
“Which when this strange Creature saw that I went from it, it presently thereupon dived a little under water, and did swim to the place where before I landed; whereby I beheld the shoulders and backe downe to the middle, to be as square, white and smooth as the backe of a man, and from the middle to the hinder part, pointing in proportion like a broad hooked Arrow; how it was proportioned in the forepart from the necke and shoulders, I know not; but the same came shortly after unto a Boat, wherein one William Hawkridge, then my servant, was, that hath bin since a Captaine in a Ship to the East Indies, and is lately there imploied againe by Sir Thomas Smith, in the like Voyage; and the same Creature did put both his hands upon the side of the Boate, and did strive to come in to him and others then in the said Boate; whereat they were afraid; and one of them strooke it a full blow on the head; whereat it fell off from them: and afterwards it came to two other Boates in the Harbour; the men in them, for feare fled to land: This (I suppose) was a Mermaide.”
Notable people who have had a fear of flying:
- Isaac Asimov
- Doris Day
- Aretha Franklin
- Jackie Gleason
- Kim Jong-Il
- Stanley Kubrick
- Loretta Lynn
- John Madden
- Matthew Sweet
- Billy Bob Thornton