Since the theme of the last couple of posts has been misreported events giving rise to stories of the paranormal, it makes sense that this one should be about someone who has done sterling work in getting to the truth behind such stories. In their ideal forms, the roles of journalists and historians are similar: establishing with reasonable certainty what exactly happened, why and how, and placing the events into a wider context of significance and influence. This means a lot of legwork and research, so people who are quite lazy, like me, always appreciate it when it’s done properly. Unfortunately, because so many people, many of them journalists, are just as lazy as I am, what more usually happens is that a story is picked up and simply regurgitated without going through any critical evaluation.

Perhaps the best example of this is the legend of the Bermuda Triangle. Put simply, a lot of people believe that there is an area between Florida, Bermuda and Puerto Rico that has an unusually high incidence of unexplained disappearances and freak navigational glitches. The story is usually backed up with examples of aircraft and ships that have supposedly vanished without trace in good weather and with no distress message being received. Almost everybody starts with the infamous Flight 19, a U.S. Navy training exercise that went tragically wrong in December, 1945.

For something that has so pervaded the public consciousness, it seems impossible that the legend could be anything other than of immemorial age, but in fact it dates back only as far as the 1950s. The term ‘Bermuda Triangle’ first appears in an article written for the magazine Argosy by Vincent Gaddis in February 1964, but the first inklings of a mystery were presented by Edward Van Winkle Jones in an associated Press article of 17th September, 1950. Incidentally, in searching for the full text of that article I’ve found three different dates for its publication, which only goes to show how difficult it is to pin down any facts in this case. Ever since Jones’ article, a whole vast industry has been building up, dedicated to publishing and republishing stories of various ships and aircraft that have vanished in the general area of Bermuda. Most of these follow a general consensus that something strange is going on there, but is there really?

Enter journalist and pilot Lawrence J. “Larry” Kusche, who is a man after my own heart. Faced with an enormous body of largely unprovenanced folklore, he did what any historian worth his salt would do and set out to track down as many of the facts in each disappearance as he could. He went back to contemporary newspaper accounts of disappearances, the records of official bodies, most notably the U.S. Weather Bureau, statistics of shipping and aircraft losses, the reports of inquiries and the Lloyds register of shipping. What he did not do was to repeat with embellishment stories that had already appeared in Triangle literature. His findings should be unsurprising.

In many cases, disappearances occurred outside the traditional area of the Bermuda Triangle. A classic example is the Mary Celeste, which set out for New York and was found drifting 500 miles east of the Azores, having never passed within sight of the Triangle. This is usually explained away by positing a larger area extending to the Azores, which is dangerously close to making “The Bermuda Triangle” a synonym for “the sea”. Some ships discussed in the sensationalist literature, such as Lotta, Viego and Miramon, could not even be proven to have existed in the first place. In other cases, weather that had been reported as good by other investigators proved to have been bad to terrible in the accounts of the official weather bureau or contemporary newspapers. The Coast Guard reports into the loss of the Marine Sulphur Queen in February, 1963 could only not conclude a definite cause because of the sheer number of plausible rational explanations they uncovered. In the case of Flight 19, Kusche devoted an entire book to his investigation, which concluded, as did the initial U.S. Navy board of inquiry, that the flight leader became disoriented, decided that he was south of Florida when he was in fact east of it and led his men on a rambling course trending generally northward until they ran out of fuel and ditched in heavy seas. The most damning fact I leave to last. Statistically, disappearances and losses in the area of the Bermuda Triangle form no greater a proportion of total traffic than in any other region. The number of vanishing aircraft and ships is so high there because it’s among the most travelled stretches of ocean in the world. This only emphasises a comment by one sceptic, reported in a article on the subject, that “trying to find a common cause for every Bermuda Triangle disappearance is no more logical than trying to find a common cause for every automobile accident in Arizona”.

So why do I believe this writer’s version of events over those presented by other writers and on television? It’s quite simple really. Kusche goes to reliable sources. He evaluates his sources for trustworthiness, presents the details he finds and tells his readers what he concluded. His investigation is transparent and he only uses facts that can be independently verified from primary sources. From methodology alone a reader can have confidence that the author isn’t trying to pull a fast one. Where he does find an inexplicable mystery, he admits the lack of evidence and moves on, and if he has his facts wrong we can find out because he reveals a clear chain of transmission for them. In a field that can generate vast sums for people prepared to feed the legend, the temptation is very great to repeat stories uncritically, leave out important details and otherwise dupe a reader into false conclusions. Kusche even reports in The Bermuda Triangle Mystery Solved an incident in which a tabloid newspaper openly admitted not referring to his book because it provided rational explanations. The real lesson of his investigations can therefore best be summed up in his own introduction to that work:

Like the body, the mind must be properly exercised or it will become flabby. It must be fed a nutritious diet of accurate information and proper logic. Given inaccurate facts and faulty logic, its powers will decline.

My concern is not so much the mysteries of the Bermuda Triangle, but rather, the mental processes by which people make decisions about such topics. My purpose is to encourage people to think more critically, to be more skeptical, to be more concerned about the quality of what goes into their minds.

…topics of this sort often do have logical answers, if only we work hard enough to find them.

A mystery should be a challenge to investigation. The purpose of research is to solve mysteries, not prolong them.

For the second day in a row I find myself thinking about ghost stories I read about as a boy that I’ve later debunked thanks to the internet. Aeroplanes, particularly very early ones, were almost my earliest enthusiasm, so when I was given a pulp book about strange events I was drawn to two stories that involved aviation. Both of them were nonsense, but each had grown from a kernel of truth, so they serve as perfect examples of how myths are created.

The first of these stories I encountered in this form: during the Second World War, pilots based at an airfield in Scotland began to report sightings of a strange biplane. It looked obsolete, but could always outrun their own machines. The mystery continued until one day the strange aircraft was spotted on the ground on a remote stretch of moorland. A ground party went to investigate and found an old Sopwith Camel that had clearly been parked there for years. At the controls was the pilot’s skeleton, his broken legs trapped under the rudder pedals in a forced landing. When the dead airman was removed, sightings of the ghostly intruder suddenly ceased.

No mention was made of which RAF station in Scotland was involved, the name of the missing airman or any other details that might have shed light on the story (a sure sign of an urban legend, but we’ve all been to Snopes). Fortunately, though, there weren’t that many Highland crashes that matched the decription, and eventually a discussion forum cleared up the whole issue without any effort from me at all. It seems that one or two details had got a little garbled: it was a Pup, not a Camel; the pilot was removed and buried in 1918 and the second discovery of the wreckage took place accidentally during the search for a different crashed aircraft in 1940. I notice no reference to spectral aviators plying the skies over Montrose. Perhaps this story became attached to one I heard once about a ghostly Spitfire that sometimes appears over Biggin Hill. The really interesting thing is that the wreckage wasn’t entirely removed. A lot of it was buried where it lay so that it couldn’t confuse future searches and a wooden cross was later placed as a marker. Somewhere in the hills above Montrose are the buried remains of a Sopwith Pup, waiting to be found.

The second story concerned a bizarre discovery in the Arctic. This one concerns the discovery of a whole formation of American warbirds buried in ice with their magneto switches on and all their controls set for flight. No mention was made in the version I saw of what makes they were, which unit they belonged to, their point of departure or their destination. Again, this is very suspicious, as it makes it very difficult to check the facts. There is, though, only one multiple crash site that even comes close to matching the story, and that’s the Greenland location from which the P-38 Glacier Girl was recovered in 1992. While it’s possible that some of the aircraft hadn’t been completely switched off after their mass forced landing in 1942. it’s more likely that this detail was just included to add mystery to this otherwise straightforward story of pilots being forced to ditch their planes in an inhospitable location.

This brings me to something that’s annoyed me for a long time. I’m prepared to accept that there may be things that science can’t explain, but it seems that people who make that claim rarely give the scientific method a fair chance to provide answers. They leap straight to the paranormal, because it makes for a good story. History is full of such leaps, I think because we prefer a good story to a messy one, a mystery to a prosaic solution.

For as long as I can remember I’ve been fascinated by shipwrecks, so it should come as no surprise that I’ve been interested in all things White Star for years. When Robert Ballard published a book about his 1985 expedition to the Titanic I wasn’t slow to get hold of a copy and pore over it for hours, and I was very taken with the revelation I found there that the whole disaster had been predicted in an 1898 novel by Morgan Robertson. The idea was like a ghost story: the prescient writer foreseeing with uncanny accuracy a tragedy that seemed when it occurred to be so unexpected. He even almost got the name of the ship right. Perhaps this story could prove E.S.P., or time-slips, or something. To be fair to myself, I was only ten at the time.

Thanks to the internet, I recently read Robertson’s novel (The Wreck of the Titan; or Futility), and discovered that fans of the supernatural have been a bit economical with their descriptions. Although his liner does, indeed, sink after colliding with ice in the North Atlantic, the author was more concerned with his hero’s battles with alcoholism and his evil British superiors on board than commentary on maritime safety. His book is overwrought, poorly written and descends several times into anti-semitism, misogyny and xenophobia (the worst kind: Anglophobia). His Jewish underwriter is a sub-Shylock ogre that could have been penned by Julius Streicher. He presents disregard for maritime safety as a trait confined to British lines (ironically, in 1912 the White Star Line was owned by International Mercantile Marine, an American firm). The recipient of his protagonist’s unrequited love –  much of the novel is spent in his realisation that she isn’t worth his tears – is a timid, paranoid and fickle marital opportunist, who is entirely to blame for his drinking problem and subsequent wreck of his career as a U.S. Navy officer. The fight between the unarmed hero and a polar bear on an ice floe is ridiculous and his survival beyond unlikely. Even the disaster itself is mainly caused not by incompetence, but a malicious bid to discredit our noble hero’s forthcoming testimony that the great liner has run down a sailing vessel at high speed and failed to stop. How nobly he turns down the gagging bribe offered by the wicked captain, an RNR officer. How pernicious is that figure’s gift of a large bottle of whisky, and subsequent drugging of his bridge lookout. The Royal Naval Reserve probably wasn’t a Nelsonian paragon in those days, but I doubt that they would have given a commission to someone stupid enough to deliberately incapacitate his own lookouts. I digress. The point is that this wasn’t a literary genius at work, just a man who knew about common practice on the North Atlantic lanes.

This is where the novel really starts to shed useful light on the Titanic disaster. In the officers’ testimony at both inquests it becomes clear that it was normal and expected that a captain would make the greatest possible speed at all times. That Robertson was aware in 1898 that this could be a problem only underlines how myopic was the culture at sea, where each new crossing was expected to be smoother and faster than the last. It also makes the argument presented by Titanic‘s senior surviving crew that events conspired against them to bring about an unavoidable catastrophe ring more than a little hollow. Of course, people being what they are, readers nowadays prefer to see a creepy supernatural premonition rather than a simple prediction based on known flaws in safety procedures. Even the name Titan isn’t much of a reach, given that it was common to call the new superliners by names that emphasised their scale.

This brings me neatly to another great and ill-fated liner with a spooky history. Many years ago, I read in The Usborne Book of the Unexplained that S.S. Great Eastern had been plagued throughout her unlucky career by a mysterious hammering from her double hull, and that when she was broken up the skeleton of a riveter was found sealed between the plates. Nobody ever seems to have identified this person or turned up a contemporary account of the discovery, but a fairly cursory internet search reveals an article from the Providence Evening Press of December 2nd, 1862 that describes an industrial dispute during major repairs. Workmen had been disturbed by a mysterious hammering from the hull, and due to the involvement of a psychic medium they had decided the ship was haunted and unsafe. Captain Paton, the ship’s master, investigated the noise and found a cable tapping against the outer hull. He told the story to a meeting of the Mercantile Marine Association in Liverpool on November 14th of that year and this was reported in the Liverpool Times, so it was hardly a secret.

I suppose that the point I want to make is that everyone loves a good ghost story, but few ever hold up to serious scrutiny. More than that, it’s always worth investigating mysteries of the unknown, because quite often there’s nothing unknown or mysterious about them.

Every couple of months at least, some media-appointed literary expert is bemoaning the market that exists for really bad writing. I’m not talking about the merely workmanlike stodge of Trease or Jenkins, Geoffries both, but the literary junk food that gets the Guardianistas sniffing about the things some people will read, while looking around for a copy so they won’t be left out of the loop on the latest love-to-hate trend. Seriously, just trying to read all of the acknowledged classics is a lifetime’s work: if you’re already wasting hours a day skimming through articles about Scandiwegian interior design tips and which charities are the most carbon-friendly, you really don’t have the time to spare for retouched internet fan-fiction.

Still, I digress. I was thinking about the phenomenon of vastly grossing drivel a while ago and was sure that I could remember having read something very apposite about it in an article by Hilaire Belloc, he of the lyric elegy to mowing one’s lawn with a scythe. Belloc knew a thing or two about publishing, as he’d been a jobbing writer and journalist for many years before he made his comments, but they proved very hard to find because he made them as an aside in a piece about sailing. I found this out after having checked the entire volume and finally in desperation decided that reading about yachting around South Devon in 1914 might take my mind off things.

This brings me to the real crux of this post. What I remembered as an article is really an extract from a much longer work, The Cruise of the Nona. It’s a portmanteau of commentary, reminiscences and various tangential musings, structured and bound together by the itinerary of a sailing trip around Britain and Ireland, but just a few minutes skimming through it yielded up so much gorgeous prose that it seems unfair to choose only two examples. They’re not the best, but one is the comment I had been trying to find and the other was read on the hundredth anniversary of the events it describes, so if they have pushed ahead of more deserving fellows there is at least reason behind it.

Belloc said of writing and its market:

A man is no more meant to live by writing than he is meant to live by conversation, or by dressing, or by walking about and seeing the world. For there is no relation between the function of letters and the economic effect of letters; there is no relation between the goodness and the badness of the work, or the usefulness of the work, or the magnitude of the work, and the sums paid for the work. It would not be natural that there should be such a relation, and, in fact, there is none.

This truth is missed by people who say that good writing has no market. That is not the point. Good writing sometimes has a market, and very bad writing sometimes has a market. Useful writing sometimes has a market, and writing of no use whatsoever, even as recreation, sometimes has a market. Writing important truths sometimes has a market. Writing the most ridiculous errors and false judgements sometimes has a market. the point is that the market has nothing to do with the qualities attached to writing. It never had and it never will. There is no injustice about it, any more than there is an injustice in the survival of beauty or ugliness in human beings, or the early death of the beautiful or the ugly.

Only a couple of pages earlier, Belloc was reminiscing about an experience while sailing off Plymouth in 1914 that he describes as marking “…in a sort of visionary way, the unleashing of the Great War”.

In this loneliness and content, as I sailed northward, I chanced to look, after an hour’s steering or so, eastward again towards the open sea – and then it was that there passed me the vision I shall remember for ever, or for so long as the longest life may last.

Like ghosts, like things themselves made of mist, there passed between me and the newly risen sun, a procession of great forms, all in line, hastening eastward. It was the Fleet recalled.
The slight haze along the that distant water had thickened, perhaps, imperceptibly; or perhaps the great speed of the men-of-war buried them too quickly in the distance. But, from whatever cause, this marvel was of short duration. It was seen for a moment, and in a moment it was gone.

Then I knew that war would come, and my mind was changed. The bright air was the same around me and the heartening morning wind; the happy course of the Nona, making for a known port with all in her favour and something of youth in her and all round. What that war would bring, its magnitude, its character, was veiled from us all; but the advent of it, the mass of it coming, put a new face on everything I saw and felt and heard; on the steady breeze, on the little lapping of the salt sea-water, on the strong headlands of England.

The first of these passages could have been written at any time. Publish it today under another name and it would pass for topical commentary. The thing about my little Everyman Belloc collection, though, is that such commentary can appear so close to a passage that in the events it recalls, its style, imagery and vocabulary, is so very much of its time. A voice from out of the great shipwreck of the Victorian world offers a quiet glimpse of the massing forces that would break it, much as Hardy does in Channel Firing.

Another point of interest that occurred to me while I was skimming through the author’s biography at the beginning of my book is that Belloc was an Oxford-educated Catholic writer with foreign antecedents and connections to Edgbaston. One figure from the next generation of writers, a descendent of German piano makers, would also come from Birmingham up to Oxford and make a name for himself, but that, of course, is a different story. Perhaps at some time I should analyse what it is that I find appealing in the works of twentieth-century Roman Catholics. Certainly I think that the literature departments backed the wrong horse creatively, if only in thinking of literature as some sort of competition, but these are thoughts for another day.

At work the other day, we had a call from a dental surgery. A clasp had broken off from a casting that we made for one of their associates a few months ago, which shouldn’t happen. We said that we’d repair it free of charge, because it shouldn’t have failed so early in its life. Yesterday they called us again to ask how much we’d originally charged them for the work, which seemed a little suspicious since we’d already agreed that the problem could be put right without money changing hands. It isn’t as though we’ll have to remake the whole thing for them, because the design is sound and as far as we know it fits perfectly. It will take about half an hour to put on a replacement clasp, and the combined time used by the surgery staff has been about an hour.

This morning we had a call from the prescribing surgeon, who had been informed by his former associates that they were billing him for a complete remake of the denture. Apparently his profit-sharing position in the surgery obliged him to repay to them any costs incurred after the fact on any work he conducted for them. Furthermore they were adding £150 for their time. Their one hour of working time: half an hour to see the patient and discuss the options, half an hour to have two ten-minute conversations with us and put the broken denture in the post.

If I were feeling charitable, I’d assume that the surgery intended to guarantee absolutely that the device would not fail again by asking us to make it again from scratch rather than make a simple repair to it, but I’ve seen enough of dental surgeries to take a more cynical view. I suspect that what they will actually do is get us to repair the damage for nothing, then claim the best part of £500 from the original surgeon, possibly bill the patient for their time too, and laugh all the way to the bank. The only fly in their ointment is that we go back a long way with the original dentist, and he called us as soon as he heard from them. What happens next is fortunately not our problem. We’ll make the repair, send it back and let them all fight it out amongst themselves. However, the situation does offer a nice example of how much penny pinching, marking up and general unprofessional money grubbing goes on in the dental trade. If you thought that the laboratory bill for dentures was about what the surgery charges, think again. I’ve heard of twice the bill for making the dentures being added on to the patient’s account by the surgery for their time, which is typically about three half-hour appointments and a couple of phone calls to their laboratory. More than that, there are still some surgeons who try to make an even bigger profit than that by buying the cheapest technical work they can possibly find and then charging it out as the most expensive.

What does all this mean? Well, for those who have good teeth, not much. Look after them, floss, use mouthwash, avoid contact sports and don’t pick any fights, and the preceding story will always be irrelevant to you. If you do need dentures, I’m saying that you should be aware how much your dentist pays for the work he fits in your mouth. Despite that degree and the fancy surgery, he’s just as likely to rip you off as a car mechanic or a builder. The surgery is legally obliged to supply you with a certificate of manufacture that will tell you where the work was done, and most technicians are finally catching up with technology and have websites with price lists on them (a surgeon once asked us to take ours off line in case his patients saw it, but it’s still there). If your work was done overseas for resale, you’re entitled to know that too; make sure you ask, since the Dental Laboratories Association is currently running a campaign promoting British dental technology.

In short, then, it’s not just what’s being done in your mouth that you should worry about, but what’s being done in your wallet. Apply the same standards to your dental work that you would to any other product purchase. In the end it’s your health, and caveat emptor never applies more than it does in that area.

So where have I been since October last year? Well, obviously I’ve been right here in Exmouth and I’ve been quite busy; but I don’t particularly feel like telling the world at large what I’ve been up to.

I don’t usually go in for political commentary here, because usually everything that can be said has been said on the internet before I find out about it, but occasionally I read something utterly vulgar and depressing and I think it worthy of a punt.

The most obvious thing to deplore is what has upset the Daily Fascist, which is a paper that people read in order to be outraged. The protest during yesterday’s Armistice Day silence was vulgar, tasteless and calculated to be as offensive and nasty as possible, and it clearly succeeded in being all of those things. What it did for the plight of Muslims throughout the world is far more debatable, but somehow I doubt that was ever the point. The aim of the protesters was to become instant hate figures, and hopefully to provoke some violence from the police or members of the public. That this failed to happen is clearly not due to the forbearance of the Great British Public, which is predictably violently angry about the whole affair, but somehow I wish it were. I wish that everybody had commented on how childish it is to pour scorn on a solemn national ceremony in the hope of starting a fight; how laughable and pathetic it is to seek martyrdom when the people you want to kill you are paying more attention to what happened on The Apprentice last night than to you or your religion; or that someone who takes Armistice Day as a celebration of British military power has completely failed to understand the ceremony and is therefore an idiot.

Sadly, that is not how the people of Britain have responded. Some have set up hate campaigns against British Islam; others have simply called for the deportation of those who engage in these ridiculous publicity stunts, demanded their arrest and criticised the police for protecting them from the violence they intended to provoke. The people of Britain are in this respect failing to understand their enemy, and therefore failing to hurt him effectively; and I think that we could learn something about that from our grandparents.

The enemy in this case is the religious extremist. He has absolutely no sense of humour, takes himself very seriously, is utterly convinced that he is right and believes anything he does for the good of his religion as he sees it to be justified. He will do anything to be heard and cannot abide any attempt to argue with him; but what really hurts him is one of two things: either to be ridiculed or to be ignored. The religious extremist has a lot in common with the political extremist, and back in the ‘forties Britain had to deal with political extremists who had managed to take over a country and were therefore far more of a threat to us than a lot of cretinous hillbillies with stupid placards. Yet even while bombs were falling on British cities and the enemy was trying his hardest to break civilian morale, the civilian population was defying him with two very simple weapons: the ‘business as usual’ sign and the lampoon. People laughed about Hitler; they laughed about how fat Goering was, and what a skinny runt Goebbels looked; about Hitler’s ridiculous fringe, or how his moustache made him look like Charlie Chaplin. They refused to be afraid of their enemy and turned him instead into a figure of ridicule. They then proceeded to try as much as possible to live their lives normally, because that defies an enemy who wants to break public morale, but mainly because the only other thing to do was to give up completely.

In this respect, the Metropolitan Police have done exactly the right thing. They have denied the enemy the martyrdom he craves and instead given him the opportunity to state his case in such a way that nobody will ever agree with him who was not already a rabid supporter. They have given him enough rope to hang himself, but have prevented Britain from perpetrating a lynching, while the only people who have been dishonoured or sullied by yesterday’s vulgar display are those who perpetrated it. We have been protected from being dragged into the gutter of unreasoning violence that extremists of all stamps inhabit while demonstrating that we really believe in free speech, and we will not be the losers by that. We would do well to remember that the moment when British fascism ceased to be a realistic political movement was not at the Cable Street riot, but at Oswald Moseley’s most triumphant rally at Olympia, where the extremists had free rein to expose their moral bankruptcy to the full glare of public scrutiny.

If we must pay attention to the nutters, then, I would like it to be in the form of comedy. Perhaps their protest could be overdubbed with dialogue from Yes, Minister, or re-cut so that they appear to be dancing to the Birdie Song. I’d like to see the placards Photoshopped so that they say ‘Sorry about the bag; didn’t have time to shave’ or ‘Danish Bacon is great’. I want to see people laughing at the enemy, because it will hurt him; and I think he deserves to be hurt.

I’ve not been updating this thing for the last week due to a sudden attack of social life. In this case, the society flew in from Canada, helped with the Oxonmoot transport costs and bought me dinner on several occasions. Thanks, Beth: it was every bit as much fun for us as it was for you.

Such excuses aside, it’s high time I posted something, and the familiar Monday evening poetry selection seems like a pretty good place to start.

Since I was at Tintern Abbey with Bethberry not so very long ago, Wordsworth provides a fitting opening for today’s collection with his misleadingly titled poem of the same name.

wreaths of smoke
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees!
With some uncertain notice, as might seem
Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods,
Or of some Hermit’s cave, where by his fire
The Hermit sits alone.

Next I’ve selected one by Robert Graves that, being a First World War poem that refers to Norse mythology, should probably have appeared here far earlier than it has.

Dead Cow Farm

An ancient saga tells us how
In the beginning the First Cow
(For nothing living yet had birth
But elemental cow on earth)
Began to lick cold stones and mud:
Under her warm tongue flesh and blood
Blossomed, a miracle to believe;
And so was Adam born, and Eve.
Here now is chaos once again,
Primaeval mud, cold stones and rain.
Here flesh decays and blood drips red,
And the Cow’s dead, the old Cow’s dead.

The foregoing is a little dishonest: the saga is Snorri’s Gylfaginning, and the story is of the primeval cow, Auðumla, whose milk nourished Ymir, father of the frost-giants. She licked salty blocks of ice, from which Búri, ancestor of Oðinn, emerged. Graves adapts the myth to his own ends to connect the beginning of humanity with what he chooses to see as its apocalyptic end.

Next, John Lyly tells us a cautionary tale about playing cards with people who have Classical nicknames. Campaspe was the mistress of Alexander of Macedon and a famed beauty, but here her name is applied in true Romantic style to the poet’s current flame. I do like to see the boy Cupid humbled. To be perfectly honest, though, I find it difficult to care what happens to the poet.

Cards and Kisses

Cupid and my Campaspe play’d
At cards for kisses – Cupid paid:
He stakes his quiver, bow and arrows,
His mother’s doves, and team of sparrows;
Loses them too; then down he throws
The coral of his lips, the rose
Growing on’s cheek (but none knows how);
With these, the crystal of his brow,
And then the dimple of his chin:
All these did my Campaspe win.
At last he set her both his eyes –
She won, and Cupid blind did rise.
O Love! has she done this for thee?
What shall, alas! become of me?

Next is Ambrose Bierce, giving us a wry look at religious hypocrisy. Although he chooses an exotic Islamic setting, it’s more than likely that he intended his barb to be felt by people much closer to his Ohio home.


Hassan Bedriddin, clad in rags, ill-shod,
Sought the great temple of the living God.
The worshippers arose and drove him forth,
and one in power beat him with a rod.

“Allah,” he cried, “thou seest what I got;
Thy servants bar me from the sacred spot.”
“Be comforted,” the Holy One replied;
“It is the only place where I am not.”

Finally, since I’m quite tired and have already had a large glass of wine this evening, a poem about flying. Specifically, it’s about taking off in an emergency in the early years of the Second World War. The author, David Bourne, was killed in action in September 1941.

“Operations Calling!”

“Clearing Black Section
Patrol Bass Rock,”
Leaps heart; after shock
Action comes stumbling;
Snatch your helmet;
Then run smoothly, to the grumbling
Of a dozing Merlin heating
Supercharged air.
You are there
by “Z”

Down hard on the behind
The parachute; you are blind
With your oxygen snout
But click, click, click, click, you feel
and the harness is fixed.
Round the wing
And “Out of the cockpit, you,”
Clamber the rung
And the wing as if a wasp had stung
You, hop and jump into the cockpit
Split second to spike
The Sutton harness holes,
One, two, three, four,
Thrust with your
Hand to the throttle open…

“Operations” called and spoken.

I would write more, but nothing springs immediately to mind. I shall therefore leave you with the usual instruction to share and enjoy.


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