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Christmas Eve, 1938

Just before this wonderful, cold, dark—and in the lives of some of us—nearly final Christmas Eve, I suddenly found that my plans were not the same as my Mothers’.  I thought I would be in Brookline with my friends (they would call for me in ancient cars that shot out jets of steam and smoke), and Mother thought I would be with her, singing to the old people at the Convalescent Home.  I still remember that, as I learned this, I was standing just next to the Christmas tree in the morning room (it had glass Christmas lights shaped like fish).  Mother had, I realized, made up her mind that I would not be allowed to leave the family on Christmas Eve, and I had made up mine that no power on Earth would separate me from my friends.  In the end, we all went to the Convalescent Home—and since then, the visit is so well-remembered and often mentioned by my friends that I think they may remember it better than they remember me.

Picking Lingonberries

In the fall, when we were living on Karlavagen in Stockholm, we would go out to the forest to pick Lingonberries.  In my mind, this seems like a custom, something we did many times, although logic tells me that we only lived on Karlavagan for a short time and that we couldn’t have gone picking more than twice.  As in feudal Europe, “twice makes a custom.”

Carin Malmberg would arrive in the morning to pick us up.  She had a new Volkswagen Beetle.  That must have been rather remarkable at the time since this was probably about 1950 and only small numbers of cars were being produced.  Certainly it was unlike any other car I’d ever seen.  Possum sat in the front and I had the back seat to myself.  What I liked about the car was the small, open luggage area behind the back seat.  I was still small enough to climb in there and feel a bit like a baby kangaroo in a mother’s pouch.  For an eight-year old boy the view from the luggage area was also a big improvement.

Our destination was a wooded area outside of Stockholm.  I have no idea if this was public land or a park or just a wild area but in Sweden the public has a common-law right to pick lingon in the forests.  We would spend the morning picking lingon off the low bushes — only about ten inches high, much smaller than blueberry bushes.   The berries are also smaller than blueberries and very tart.  The picking goes rather faster with lingon as compared to blueberries because there is no temptation to eat them.  I have the impression that we picked a couple of good-sized pails full..

Once we got the berries home Possum would put them on the stove in a large, deep pot; the sort of thing that you would use for making a fish chowder.  The berries were mixed with a great deal of sugar and then stirred.  We did this on the stove, but I’m not sure if the sauce was actually cooked, or just stirred.  The red berries were beautiful in with the crystaline sugar. 

Postcript:  I was hunting around on the Web for information about the 1950 VW Bug and found this ad.  It would be hard to prove but I suspect that a big part of the success of the Bug was due to the clever and often very funny advertisements.  It was only after they switched to more conventional ads that the Beetle died off. 

For those of you who aren’t old enough to remember discussions about whether a Beetle would actually float I can’t do better than recount the story that was told about my first boss at Honeywell, John Wiley.  John was a interesting guy.  He’d put himself through college riding rodeo and had a tough, independent streak.  The story is that John drove a Saab and another section head drove a VW.  They were out drinking one night and got to discussing their respective cars.  They both were convinced that their car would float and that the other’s car would not, so they decided to put the matter to a test.   In those days the area outside  Route 128 wasn’t particularly built up and they quickly found a suitable pond and drove both cars down the bank and into the water.  Neither floated.

Children’s Books

I wonder why some children’s books stay with us for generations and others fall out of favor.  The Story About Ping was pusblished in 1933 and yet is still on Meg’s list of favorites.  But The Chinese Twins (and their twin siblings), published about the same time are nowhere to be seen.  Perhaps the twin books went the way of Little Black Sambo, displaced by greater sensitivity to the feelings of people who aren’t middle-class white Americans?

Does anybody still actually read the Oz books any more?  Can you name one of them other than The Wizard of Oz?  How about A Child’s Geography of the World?   or  A Child’s History of the World?  Surely those would be worth an update to account for the changes since V. M. Hillier wrote them in the 1930’s.  And where are Peter Rabbit and Reddy Fox?  Somebody must still reads Thornton Burgess.

All of these books were in a small bookcase at 44 Elm Street.  Even as a child they seemed a bit dated. I remember the books and their illustrations quite clearly; I remember the dusty, old-book smell of them;  I remember being fascinated by the Oz books, which seemed mystical and deeply interesting.  And yet I have no memory of where the bookcase was in the house – perhaps it wasn’t even there?  Perhaps it was in some other house?  But I don’t think so.

Possum read a number of the Twin  books to me.  The stories of twins living in foreign place seemed like just that, stories.  They held no reality for me.  On the other hand, Garney took great delight in reading me Thornton Burgess.  Those seemed much more real.  I could easily imagine Jerry Muskrat swimming in the Smiling Pool.  I could sense the safety of the old briar patch and the danger of being caught outside.

Do these books go away because our grandchildren’s world is so different from ours?  Or is it adult taste that dictates the survivors?  I suppose the answer is a bit of each.  Consider the case of The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes and of The Wind on the Moon.  When it came time for me to read these to my children they were nowhere to be found.  I had to order The Wind on the Moon from England.  Now, both books are back in favor and can be readily found – even without Amazon.  This seems to be a triumph of adult taste over the publishers’ failure to keep the books in print.

On the other hand the Oz books and the Twins books probably deserved to fade away.  It’s hard to be sure without having them at hand, but I suspect that they are rather dated and would have a hard time competing with all of the alternative forms of entertainment now available.

So, which were your favorite books as a child?  if enough people respond perhaps we can detect a pattern.  I guess I’d have to list Thornton Burgess, Pippi Longtocking, Dr. Dolittle and the Green Canary and, perhaps, Tom Sawyer.

The God Delusion

In the early 70s when I worked at Warren Gorham & Lamont, we used to send out literally millions of pieces of junk mail.  Most of them included a letter that would be addressed “Dear Sir.”  Since we were advertising to bankers, lawyers and real estate developers this seemed like the appropriate way to address a business letter.  Over the years there was at first a trickle and then a flood of letters complaining that this was a sexist form of address and that we should change our ways.  Because I’m a fairly stubborn person and because I couldn’t think of a good alternative, we simply ignored them.

In his book, The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins links his quest to break the conspiracy of silence about religious truth to the consciousness-raising efforts of early feminists.  He makes the point that we have an unwritten rule that we won’t criticise other peoples religious beliefs and that we won’t make a fuss about our own disbelief.  His book is, in part, an effort to get people who disbelieve in God to speak up in the same way that the early feminists were speaking out about the implicit assumptions  behind a phrase like “Dear Sir.”

My first reaction to Dawkins was perhaps similar to my first reaction to the letters complaining about “Dear Sir:”  What was the harm in letting people go their own way if they chose to believe in God?  I have found, however, that in the weeks since I read Dawkins’ book my consciousness has, indeed, been raised.  Now I notice the pervasive assumption in our society that everybody believes in God, and the almost total lack of discussion of the question.

One way to see the hypocrisy involved is to think about the following joke (not mine, and I’m not sure where I heard it):  George Bush is widely reported to have been influenced by his conversations with God; this raises no eyebrows.  Now suppose that he had claimed to have been talking to God on the telephone; that would surely raise a huge fuss.  But what what difference does the intervention of the telephone make?

The point here is that talking to God on the telephone is surely no less likely than talking to God directly (after all, Moses used a burning bush).  Yet the intervention of the telephone pierces the conspiracy of silence around religion and we see the absurdity.  So, I now find that my conciousness has indeed been raised and I suspect that I am more likely to speak out about my views than I was before.  Oh, and about those letters, we did eventually change them to read “Dear Reader.”

A Visit to St. Ives

As I was going to St Ives
I met a man with seven wives
Seven wives with seven sacks
Seven sacks with seven cats
Seven cats with seven kits
Kits, cats, sacks, wives
How many were going to St Ives?

English schools run to a very civilized calendar. The school year starts in September, takes a four-week Christmas recess, continues until April, when there is another four-week Easter recess, and finally winds up at the end of July. There are also a number of extra bank holidays throughout the year. (I never did understand why they were called bank holidays, since everybody seemed to get them off, but I didn’t complain either.)

One Easter recess shortly after we arrived in England, we all set out for St. Ives by car. At that time we – or perhaps I should say Robert, since it was definitely his car – had a black Jaguar MK VII saloon with leather seats. In these days, when leather seats are a suburban comonplace, that may not seem like much, but in 1950’s London that was not only a fancy car but rather an advanced car as well. (A less advanced car would have been a Rover or a Woolsey.)

Travelling in England, particularly with Robert driving, was an adventure. There were no motorways. The highways were either two-lane or three-lane. On the two-lane roads you could spend hours behind a slow-moving lorry; on the three-lane roads you got to play chicken with the car coming the other way, who was trying to pass his lorry. On the whole I think the two-lane were better. Invariably, Robert would drive, Possum would sit in the front right seat and Jeff, Mark, and I would fight over who had to sit in the middle in back. There was additional impediment that the street signs had been taken down during the War and not all of them had yet been replaced. (Personally I also suspect that some were misdirected to fool the Jerrys and that the locals decided that they rather liked them that way.)

Then there was the matter of food. As the day wore on you would become hungrier and hungrier, but nobody would like to suggest stopping because we all knew how dreadful the food would be. Finaly we would reach the point of desperation where we would stop at a restaurant in some country market town. We would be ushered upstairs to the dining room, which would have tables with stiff white tableclothes and heavy cutlery of dubious cleanliness – it seems improbable but I don’t believe that there were generally any napkins; the story was that they had been cut out as a War economy measure. The food would generally consist of tough, stringy roast beef, overcooked roast potatoes that you could have used as balast in a ship and brocolli that no amount of boiling could make palatable. (I suppose, in retrospect, that if we’d stopped sooner, the food might not have been so dreadfullly overcooked.)

But don’t let me give you the impression that we didn’t enjoy these trips. Quite the contrary. these were great adventures. We embarked on them with eager anticipation of the sights to be seen and the cameraderie of the trip. Possum and Robert would discuss the things we had seen and were about to see. These discussions were generally mysterious, if interesting, to those of us in the back seat, since we didn’t have the background knowledge to really understand them. But they always left us with the feeling that great things were coming. This trip was the first time that I heard the rhyme about the travellers to St. Ives. It too was rather mysterious to me then and the answer is still a bit of a mystery. According to Wikipedia, the answer is probably zero, but might be one, or possibly a much larger number. Personally I always imagined the travel to be taking place in a railway carriage, so all of the travellers would, of necessity, be going in the same direction. So it never occured to me that the kits, kats, sacks and wives might not all be going to St. Ives.

On this particular occasion, it was a very long grueling trip to Cornwall. I believe it took close to 10 hours for a trip of less than 300 miles. (Yahoo Maps tells me that it’s 285 miles from Edwardes Square to St. Ives and should take a little over 5 hours.) When we finally arrived, we found that we were to stay in a very nice hotel up over the beach just outside the town of St. Ives. The railway station was directly across the street from the hotel. But don’t picture a grand victorian station. This was a single line railway with just one tiny, Edwardian-era engine that pulled a single car back and forth across the Cornish peninsula to Penzance. Since this was in my trainspotting days, I loved it.

Early April in Cornwall is still out of season and fairly chilly, so we had the beach to ourselves. This particlular beach had a storm drain – at least I hope it was a storm drain, it did sometimes smell a little funny – that let out onto the beach and provided a constant stream of water for us to attempt to dam. In my memory we spent the entire four days on the beach trying one stratagem after another to staunch the flow of water. Naturally we always failed, but we didn’t mind.

I have a vague memory that we were supposed to like St. Ives for other reasons, art perhaps? But really, it was only the railway and the stream that counted. I don’t believe that I have ever been back to St. Ives, and yet, it holds a fond place in my memories. I would certainly return, if only it could still be 1958 and a simple village with an artists’ colony and not a tourist magnet overrun by cars and people.

There’s a new version of BeanBooks up on Spill The Beans.  This release allows you to indicate books that you would like and books that you already own.  You can also access other users’ wish lists and place a hold on a book to indicate that you intend to buy it for the user. 

To indicate that you own a book or would like to have a book, simply find the book in the listings on the home page and click the “Add to books I’d like” or “Add to books I own” links.  Once you have done this, the links will change to “Remove from books I’d like” and “Remove from books I own” so that you can change your mind.

To see a list of the books that a user would like, go to the User Directory page and click the “Wants” link next to the user’s name.  This will show you a list of books that user would like to have and give you the opportunity to reserve (or unreserve) the book.

You can see a list of the books that a user owns by clicking the “owns” link next to his/her name on the User Directory page.

You can see a listing of the books that you have reserved and the people who requested them  by clicking on the “Reserved” link on your My Account page.

You can see a listing of who owns a particular book by clicking on the “Owned by” link on the book’s listing on the BeanBooks Home page.

 Similarly, you can see a listing of who would like a particular book by clicking on the “Wanted by” link on the book’s listing on the BeanBooks Home page.  (Handy if you have extra copies and would like to distribute them.  Tip of the hat to Meg.)

This is still alpha-release software, so please be forgiving of bugs.  But also, please feel free to tell your friends about it.  Anyone who likes books is welcome.

Armistice Day

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

              –John McCrae (1872 – 1918)

 

We moved to England in 1954.  The effects of the Second World War were still very much in evidence:  There were bomb craters scattered throughout London;  many of my teachers had fought in the war and had stories to tell about the experiences;  there were still many wounded men to be seen on the streets; and a great deal of popular fiction depended on its characters’ experiences in “The War.” Terrible as it was though, the Second World War seemed to carry an aura of adventure and great deeds with it.  This was not true of World War One. 

The First World War was an infinitely tired, sad War.  Fourty years after it ended large numbers of vetrans were still alive.  And Armistice day was their moment.  The veterans would wear red paper poppies in their buttonholes and march in a solemn, quiet parade.  At 11:00 AM the whole city would come to a full stop for two minutes of silence to commemorate the moment when the Armistice came into effect on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.  The moment of silence wasn’t just a token to be observed in public.  It was solemly observed in our classrooms at St. Paul’s.  It was solemly observed in the streets and in the stores.  Nobody moved, nobody made any noise.

The sadness of that day and that moment still resonates with me.

BeanBooks’ Debut

BeanBooks is a book recommendation system for family and friends.  Anyone can register and recommend books.   As I write this, it is in an early stage of development.  Right now you can:

  • Recomend books;
  • Edit the entries for the books you have recommended;
  • Browse through the recommended books;
  • Filter/sort your selection on books in various ways;
  • Download a utility that lets you browse through Amazon and easily create BeanBooks entries that include an image of the book and a link to the book on Amazon’s site.

Features that I haven’t yet implemented include:

  • The ability to indicate that you would like a book;
  • The ability to indicate that you already own a book;
  • The ability to “reserve” a book that somebody else wants, so that you can give it as a gift;
  • The ability to add comments to other users’ recommendations.

Already there are over 70 books in the system – thanks in large part to Meg’s determined efforts!

If you’d like to be kept abreast of developments to the system keep an eye on these pages.  I’ll post each new version as it is released.

Varvsgatan

My tea is nearly ready and the sun has left the sky.
It’s time to take the window to see Leerie going by;
For every night at teatime and before you take your seat,
With lantern and with ladder he comes posting up the street.

For we are very lucky, with a lamp before the door,
And Leerie stops to light it as he lights so many more;

                                            —  Robert Louis Stevenson

People who live in the north have a special relationsip with light.  In the tropics it’s easy to take the light for granted and even to relish the thought of dim, shaded, cool spots.  In the north light becomes your shelter from the surrounding dark.  The dark that can have a banefull effect on people, leading to depression, drink, and even suicide.  But that is not how I remember Stockholm.  In my mind it is late afternoon in November or December and the sky is dark but the streets are lit by the bright glow from the store windows. 

Possum and I are out running errands.  We are walking along the crooked, narrow streets of the old city.  Streets lined with little shops full of interesting things.  The butcher will have blood pudding and strings of sausages.  The chemist tins and tubes of salves and creams.  All the windows have Christmas decorations and the stores are warm and cozy. 

We pass a store with a cardboard carousel in the window.  The carousel has horses and candles.  It spins round and round.  We admire it very much.  Then, to my regret, we continue on our way.    A little later we stop in an art supply store  and Possum buys carboard and wooden pegs.  She tells me that we are going to build a carousel of our own.

Once we are home, Possum does, indeed, build a carousel.  It’s a beautiful, gaily painted creation with cardboard horses and candles.  Just as good as the one in the store.

The only problem is that the fan at the top is made of carboard not tin.  So once we light the candles the carousel catches fire and sits on the table spinning madly with flames flying up through the blades of the fan.  We have to extinguish it in the sink.  Never mind, that was pretty exciting too.  

Later we get a store-made carousel which we had for many, many years.  It is inexstricably linked with Christmas in my mind, along with the cloth place mats with the words and music from Swedish Carols printed on them and the soft yellow candles dripping wax on the backs of the horses that held them.

No, the dark wasn’t threatening, it made all the warmth and light possible.

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