Category Archives: Favourite passages

Two Richards – A hard day’s discontent

Richard III, through Shakespeare, famously complains that “Dogs bark at me as I halt by them.” A walk once in the South of France gave me a vivid and lasting feeling of empathy with him. Every house had a dog which raged at me as I walked past (even without halting) and at the end of my hour-long  walk I was so out of sorts that I could have stifled any number of princes I might have found in a tower. If I were to put on a production of Richard III, I would make sure that there were dogs barking at him every time he made a stage entrance or exit.
Below I am going to invite you to compare two versions of Richard. The first one is Laurence Olivier and the second is Peter Sellers pretending to be Laurence Olivier doing almost the same speech (actually the Lennon-McCartney version, sometimes known as “A hard day’s night”.

Lu Xun – Hope

Hope cannot be said to exist, nor can it be said not to exist. It is just like roads across the earth. For actually the earth had no roads to begin with, but when many pass one way, a road is made.



Lu Xun – My Old Home (January 1921)


(You can read the story this quotation is taken from as well as others by Lu Xun on this page. Unfortunately, as far as I know, there is no really good translation of his work into English available. In my opinion Lu Xun was from the same family of writers as Orwell. He thought things out acutely and honestly for himself however  uncomfortable the conclusions he came to were. Lu Xun died in 1936. I doubt, despite claims you may read to the contrary, that he would have accepted to be the mouthpiece of anybody had he lived longer.)

Instructions on How to Climb a Staircase

click on picture to enlarge

cortazar staircase
It took me a long time to write this out following the curves of the staircase and it will probably take you quite a long time to read it. But when you've finished climbing the stairs will never seem easy again. 

Patrick O’Brian – “I do love a blow” – Aboard HMS Surprise

hms surpriseI hesitate to write about Patrick O’Brian since he is one of the most popular authors there is. But then  I remember  reading glowing reviews of his books and thinking  “This can’t be true . How interesting can an endless series about a naval captain during the Napoleonic wars and his travelling companion an Irish surgeon be ?.” Seeing the film Master and Commander did nothing to encourage me to change my mind. And then one day, I  read an article which claimed that if you started reading these books you would not  be able to stop. I thought I would give it a try. I remember being sceptical  as  I read page one  and then all  I remember is  that  I  read eighteen  of  the Aubrey/Maturin  novels in less than  a year and that in every book I marked passages  I wanted to read again.  The first thing you notice  is  the  masterful way  O’Brian describes the sea.  When  you  read  a description of a storm you have to go and get a towel to dry off.  But he also provides wonderful descriptions of scenes on land. There are two I remember in particular. The first is when  Stephen (the Irish surgeon) is  taken  round  Bombay by an untouchable girl  who  decides that he must be a holy man because he is so ugly. The second when he walks up  into the mountains  on  an  island  in  the East Indies and stays at a Buddhist monastery. Here he finds that the animals, having never been disturbed by the monks, do not avoid him but mill around him.

It is hard to list all the things O’Brian is good at. He has created two  characters , Jack  Aubrey (the captain) and Stephen Maturin who interact wonderfully.  He portrays their very different natures with great sympathy. In fact one thing  I noticed about  O’Brian is the sympathy and respect he has for every country and culture he describes in the book – and there are a great many because Jack and Stephen travel all around the world. It is not just people he shows a sympathy for (and there are dozens of interesting minor characters among the crew) but also animals. Stephen is constantly bringing specimens aboard and they are all described with great fondness. Stephen is a window onto the natural sciences, medicine and philosophy of the period. O’Brian’s books are also a kind of encylopaedia of knowledge on the border of the 18th and 19th centuries. One more thing he is a master of is period speech. Only once, in the thousands of pages  I  read did I think he might have used a term which was from a later age. The phrase was “Bob’s your uncle”, but considering all the things O’Brian knew the odds that I was right and he was wrong are very slim. There are many passages I would like to copy out, but I shall start with the first one which truly amazed me. This is from the third book of the series called HMS Surprise. On Stephen’s  request, Jack has instructed the sailors not to capture and kill albatrosses. The crew is upset -(albatrosses bring luck and protect against drowning) and is  convinced bad weather and bad luck  will ensue.  Here the bad weather starts below the Cape of Good Hope. (The sloth which is mentioned is an animal which Stephen had brought on board  after landing in Brazil. It had spent a lot of time hanging from the ship’s rigging until Jack in a move to gain its sympathy had started giving it wine to drink. After which Stephen decided to leave it with some priests on the mainland). Here’s the passage:

Many a grizzled head was shaken on the forecastle, with the ominous words, profoundly true and not altogether outside Stephen’s hearing. ‘We shall see what we shall see.’ South and south she ran, flanking across the west wind, utterly alone under the grey sky, heading into the immensity of ocean. From one day to the next the sea grew icy cold, and the cold seeped into the holds, the berth-deck and the cabins, a humid, penetrating cold. Stephen came on deck reflecting with satisfaction upon his sloth, now a parlour-boarder with the Irish Franciscans at Rio, and a secret drinker of the altar-wine. He found the frigate was racing along under a press of canvas, lying over so that her deck sloped like a roof and her lee chains were buried in the foam; twelve and a half knots with the wind on her quarter – royals, upper and lower studdingsails, almost everything she had; her starboard tacks aboard, for Jack still wanted a little more southing. He was there, right aft by the taffrail, looking now at the western sky, now up at the rigging. ‘What do you think of this for a swell?’ he cried.

Blinking in the strong cold wind Stephen considered it: vast smooth waves, dark, mottled with white, running from the west diagonally across the frigate’s course, two hundred yards from crest to crest: they came with perfect regularity, running under her quarter, lifting her high, high, so that the horizon spread out another twenty miles, then passing ahead, so that she sank into the trough, and her courses, her lower sails, sagged in the calm down there. In one of these valleys that he saw was an albatross flying without effort or concern, a huge bird, but now so diminished by the vast scale of the sea that it might have been one of the smaller gulls. ‘It is grandiose,’ he said.

‘Ain’t it?’ said Jack. ‘I do love a blow.’

How to Open and Close a Door Quietly

tuareg door

From : The Butler’s Guide to Clothes Care, Managing the Table, Running the Home and Other Graces by Stanley Ager and Fiona St. Aubyn

On party nights two matched footmen stood ready to open the doors leading to the reception rooms. They were both six feet tall, wore identical liveries and had similar features. So that the guests would have no trouble acknowledging them, whoever stood on the left was called John and the other was addressed as James, regardless of their real names.

You never heard a footman actually close a door, it was done so quietly and discreetly. I  open and close a door the same way today. The trick is to release the door handle only once.   Most people open a door, let go of the handle again and shut the door. But after I have  opened the door, I keep the handle turned until I have passed through the doorway. Then,without releasing the catch, I take hold of the handle in my other hand. I hold it in the same position until I have gently closed the door and the catch is ready to click into place.

(next week-  How to climb the stairs).

John (quietly coming through the door in the picture above) and James can be hired from On odd days of the month John answers, on even days James.


This is what Diderot had to say about “aguaxima” in the Encylopédie.

AGUAXIMA, (Hist. nat. bot.) plante du Brésil & des isles de l’Amérique méridionale. Voilà tout ce qu’on nous en dit; & je demanderois volontiers pour qui de pareilles descriptions sont faites. Ce ne peut être pour les naturels du pays, qui vraissemblablement connoissent plus de caracteres de l’aguaxima, que cette description n’en renferme, & à qui on n’a pas besoin d’apprendre que l’aguaxima naît dans leur pays; c’est, comme si l’on disoit à un François, que le poirier est un arbre qui croît en France, en Allemagne, &c. Ce n’est pas non plus pour nous; car que nous importe qu’il y ait au Brésil un arbre appellé aguaxima, si nous n’en savons que ce nom? à quoi sert ce nom? Il laisse les ignorans tels qu’ils sont; il n’apprend rien aux autres: s’il m’arrive donc de faire mention de cette plante, & de plusieurs autres aussi mal caractérisées, c’est par condescendance pour certains lecteurs, qui aiment mieux ne rien trouver dans un article de Dictionnaire, ou même n’y trouver qu’une sottise, que de ne point trouver l’article du tout.

Aguaxima, a plant growing in Brazil and on the islands of South America. This is all that we are told about it; and I would like to know for whom such descriptions are made. It cannot be for the natives of the countries concerned, who are likely to know more about the aguaxima than is contained in this description, and who do not need to learn that the aguaxima grows in their country. It is as if you said to a Frenchman that the pear tree is a tree that grows in France, in Germany, etc . It is not meant for us either, for what do we care that there is a tree in Brazil named aguaxima , if all we know about it is its name? What is the point of giving the name? It leaves the ignorant just as they were and teaches the rest of us nothing. If all the same I mention this plant here, along with several others that are described just as poorly, then it is out of consideration for certain readers who prefer to find nothing in a dictionary article or even to find something stupid than to find no article at all.

There doesn’t appear to be much more information available about aguaxima than there was in Diderot’s day. I find that it Is a variety of Brazilian black pepper, commonly called Caapeba (Latin – Piper marginatum Jacq.). Synonyms in Portuguese: pariparoba, piperomia, malvaísco, caapeba-cheirosa, capava, malvarisco, capeba, capeba-branca, pimenta-do-mato, pimenta-dos-índios, nhandi.

It seems to me that there are many people capable of making  long speeches and writing intricate articles on subjects like aguaxima.  Most of them hold a degree in tautology. The problem is that often you only realise this after you have heard the speech or read the article. I suggest that we label them aguaximatists. If we could identify them with just one word, it might save us time which could be spent more usefully watching clouds or counting the spots on passing dalmatians.