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The end of a lie

florio was shakespeare So there I was in Patisserie Valerie, sinking my teeth into a wickedly creamy Tarte Aux Framboises and reminiscing about old times with the companion of my youth, John Florio.

“But tell me, John,” I said. “What do you say to people who claim you were the one who actually wrote all those world-famous plays of William Shakespeare?”

“William who?”

“You know, the country boy, the player from Stratford-upon-Avon who put his name to The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merchant of Venice and all those plays set in Italy and Rome. Only an Italian could have written those plays, right?”

“I am not in verity an Italian,” he said. “I am an Englishman in Italian. Un Inglese Italianato, e un Diavolo incarnato!”

“Yes, yes, I know that. You were born here, in London. Your mother was an English woman…”

“I entreat you never to breathe a word about my mother.”

“Well, but your father only was Italian…”

“My father was Michael Angelo Florio, Italian tutor, preceptor, professor, pedagogue to the Queen of England, her Royal Majesty, Queen Elizabeth, why and belike to Lady Jane Grey and to many more noble gentlemen and noble ladies in the English court besides.”

“Indeed he was, and he did his job well no doubt, for they all spoke very fine Italian, I’m sure. But what I’m getting at is this. Was it you or Shakespeare who wrote Love’s Labour’s Lost?”

“We need not speak so much of that. Why, his plays are but men’s eloquence, essayes, histories, philosophy pieced together. You might as well say, several texts and multitudes of authors. Yea, marry, are not all writings thefts? If with acknowledgements, it is well; if by stealth it is too bad.”

“You don’t accuse him, then?”

“In this, our conscience is our accuser, posterity our judge.”

“And, let’s be clear, you were not the real author of those plays?”

“In that, our study is our advocate.”

“You mean you did write them?”

“Our readers are our jury.”

A glistening slice of a Tarte aux Fruits disappeared into the mouth of my interlocutor and his eyes rolled ecstatically. I sipped my coffee.

“Good?” I asked.

“Bellissimo.”

“You knew Shakespeare personally, didn’t you?”

“I knew many men and gentlemen, ladies, charmers, gallants, doctors, lawyers, secretaries, wits, scholars…”

“What was he like?”

“I will shortly cross the Channel to visit our erstwhile acquaintance Michel de Montaigne, he whom we spoke of but now. What say you we betake us there together and lighten our travels with goodly discourse and diverse scholarly digressions?”

“I would love to meet Montaigne again,” I said.

“You may with less labour meet him in your armchair sitting alone in a chimney-corner or on your English stage. England, it may be said, is a nation, if not for European influences, that hath no kind of literature, no knowledge of letters, no intelligence of numbers, no name of magistrate nor of politic superiority, no use of service, of riches or of poverty, no contracts, no successions, no dividences, no occupation but idle, no respect of kindred but common, no apparel but natural, no manuring of lands, no use of wine, corn or metal.”

“Ah, you are quoting those famous lines from The Tempest.”

“From, Montaigne, dear old fellow. From my Montaigne.”

“Then let us go and meet the man himself,” I said. “I’m at your beck and call.”

 

Done into English

done into english I first stumbled across John Florio when I was 19 or so. He was flamboyant, frothy and, of course florid. He introduced me to the inventor of blogging, Michel de Montaigne, and I was totally captivated by them both.

But the years went by and somehow I lost contact with them until recently, when I sought out the introspective Frenchman on Le FaceBook. I found him a little dry and disappointingly dull. Maybe my French was too rusty. He was as full of himself as ever but somehow I just wasn’t interested any more. There were no pictures of him drunk at a party. No plates of food. No indiscreet selfies.

Then, while loitering in a bookshop in Piccadilly last year who do you think I bumped into but dear old John Florio.

“John, is it really you? You haven’t changed a bit! Still dressed to the nines, I see! Did no-one tell you ruffs went out of fashion 400 years ago?”

“Sir, I am still a scholar, and be circumspect how you offend scholars!”

“No offence meant, my dear old friend.”

“For know, a serpent’s tooth bites not so ill as doth a scholar’s angry quill.”

“Scholars use Apples and BlackBerries these days, John.”

“Tarnished fruits.”

“Possibly. Are you really offended? Your face has turned as red as a radish. What have you been up to? Still translating fusty old foreign bloggers?”

“Shall I apologize translation?”

“No, certainly not. Without your translation I would never have discovered how funny Montaigne was.”

“Why, but scholars should have some privilege of preeminence. So have they: they only are worthy translators.”

“You sound like you have a chip on your shoulder.”

“What, because the best translators do but glean after others’ harvest? Borrow their colours, inherit their possessions? What, do they but translate? Perhaps, usurp?”

“Have you met Michel lately? He’s dull without your company.”

“Yea, marry, but Montaigne, had he wit, it was but a French wit.”

“You didn’t think much of his wit?”

“Ferdillant.”

“Come again?”

“Ferdillant.”

“I’m not familiar … Did you just make that word up?”

“Ferdillant, legier … ”

“Ah, lightweight, you mean?”

“And extravagant.”

“He was certainly that. He spent a fortune doing up his country seat. That great house of his never was finished, I believe.”

“He betook him somewhat oftener to his library where, without order, without method, and by piecemeals he turned over and ransacked now one book, and now another.”

“Didn’t he have an inscription on the wall next to his library? What did it say? I can’t remember now.”

At this John Florio cast his eyes to heaven and, leaning rakishly on his ornate cane, recited the following extraordinary statement as if reading from a Latin inscription on the ceiling.

“In the year of Christ 1571, at the age of thirty-eight, on the last day of February, his birthday, Michel de Montaigne, long weary of the service of the court and public employments, while still entire, retired to the bosom of the learned virgins, where in the calm and freedom from all cares he will spend what little remains of his life, now more than half run out. If the fates permit, he will complete this abode, this sweet ancestral retreat; and he has consecrated to it his freedom, tranquility, and leisure.”

“How the world must envy him,” I said.

“And should or would any dog-toothed Critic or adder-tongued Satirist scoff or find fault that, in the course of his discourses or web of his posts or entitling of his blog articles, he holdeth a disjointed, broken, and gadding style; and that many times his posts answer not his titles and have no coherence together, to such I will say little, for they deserve but little.”

“I quite agree,” I said. “He doesn’t shine on Le FaceBook. His true genius is in his essayes.”

“But if they list, else let them choose, I send them to his blog post On Vanity, where himself preventeth their carping, and foreseeing their criticism answereth them for me at full.”

“Oh, really? You must send me the link.”

“What say you we betake us to a coffee house and discourse further, my old fellow.”

“Yes, yes. But don’t forget to send me the link.”

“You may have my email and eftsoones know my meaning. But let me pray and entreat you for your own sake to correct as you read, to amend as you list.”

“Oh, you write in nothing but the most flawless English. One would never know you were an Italian.”

“I am an Englishman in Italian.”

“You are that, John, and still the same, still the same. Let’s go to Patisserie Valerie and have a fat French cake with our coffee. I can’t wait to hear more of your discourse on this old man of letters, Montaigne.”

And we strolled up Piccadilly towards the Ritz where, on a corner, you can find Patisserie Valerie and look out on the weird and wonderful foreigners bustling along in some of the most extravagant clothes you could imagine. But what we said there will have to wait for another time. I’ve imposed on your patience long enough.

I can’t afford this woman

lucy_kellaway All I can do is sneak a look at her over the shoulder of one of my fellow commuters. She’s very pretty, isn’t she? Her name is Lucy Kellaway and she writes a regular column in The Financial Times.

I bought The FT Weekend two weeks ago when the FTSE-100 index had plummeted to 5550 and there was little point in trying to save any money any more. The £3.50 cover price seemed inconsequential then. But it was a reckless extravagance. In the last two weeks the index has climbed 7.2%. £3.50 invested in a tracker fund two weeks ago would be worth £3.75 today.

I discovered, anyway, that the columnists in The Financial Times haven’t got any better idea than I have what the oil price is going to do. And Lucy Kellaway’s column isn’t published on a Saturday.

That’s a shame because Lucy Kellaway’s column is actually worth reading. Or it always used to be. When I could afford to read it.

I was reminded of her excellent book Who Moved my BlackBerry on the way to work this morning when a fellow commuter whipped out his BlackBerry and clickety-clicked all the way to Waterloo. Commuters on my train line are generally very well brought up but they don’t seem to know how to turn off the clicks on their BlackBerries. I was almost ready to explode when, fortunately, he put it in his pocket and kissed his pregnant wife goodbye. What a lovely couple they looked. But how irritating BlackBerries are!

I’m on a new train line now. In fact I used to walk to work before. Or hop on a bus. I have far less leisure time now, which explains why I haven’t written anything in this blog for a while.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. I could blog on my BlackBerry. But no, I couldn’t. Or, to be more exact, I don’t want to. On a train I’d rather sneak a look at one or two pretty faces and monitor the rise and fall of various indices.

I may work in a bank but life doesn’t have to be dull.

Other women’s legs

ImageThis summer a terrible thing happened. My wife became friends with my Chinese teacher. They go shopping together in the mall. Serena has been trying to get my wife to wear the same tantalisingly short skirts and hot pants that she wears to my lessons. They talk about diets and Chinese parents and men. Men! Yes, and women, too. And women’s legs!

It used to be that my Chinese lessons consisted of me telling my teacher things about my wife and my teacher telling me things about her husband.

Then I would go home and tell my wife things about my teacher.

It worked well for a while and I suppose I should be glad that I’ve known at least some happiness in my life, however briefly. Now I try as much as possible to say nothing to either of them, although the talk at home is all of Serena.

The first pair of hot pants Lanying came home in were so short she couldn’t sit down. She had to take them back to the shop the next day and get a more comfortable pair. I told one of my colleagues about it. He shook his had sadly. “I can’t say anything,” he said, “that one of us won’t regret.”

Lanying talks every day about my Chinese teacher. Yesterday she told me something Serena’s husband had told her. “He likes looking at legs,” Serena told her. “He thinks there should be a law against women wearing long trousers.”

“That’s the most ridiculous thing I ever heard!” I said. “But that doesn’t mean he likes other men to look at Serena’s legs.”

“No, of course not. He likes looking at other women’s legs.”

“Not that Serena doesn’t have good legs,” I said diplomatically.

“Serena has great legs.”

“She does. But, you know, in general, a man doesn’t like the world to see his wife’s legs.”

“Exactly,” said Lanying, “no matter how good his wife’s legs may be. ”

“Between a man and his wife, of course, it’s quite all right. But in public, it’s a different thing.”

“But I suppose a man gets bored of looking at the same legs all the time,” she said, “and needs fresh legs to look at.”

“Fresh legs. Indeed.” I’m always happy when I can agree with my wife.

“She is still very young,” Lanying said. “She wants to please him.”

“Yes. I’m sure that’s the reason she wears hot pants all the time.”

“But, really, I think her skirts are too short.”

“So you won’t be buying any short skirts?”

“Definitely not. I’m not a teenager any more.”

Once again I was able to agree. “I’m glad you understand men so well,” I told her. “You don’t try and please me, at least.”

“I dress only for myself,” she told me.

We were walking along the River Thames at the time and I noted that although winter was well under way, the day was exceptionally fine.

“It’s going to be cold on Thursday,” she said.

“Oh, that’s a pity. I suppose you shall have to put away your hot pants and get out your winter clothes.”

“You shall have to get out my winter clothes. The box is too heavy for me.”

“I will be only too glad,” I told her.

And I felt gladder than I’ve felt for a while. The warmth of the sun was very pleasant on my face and the rolling of the waves in the river made a beautiful sound that covered our words and seemed to promise a beautiful English autumn ahead, leading into an even more beautiful English winter.

eyeballs in the skyInterzone magazine has a regular section called Thog’s Masterclass, which all writers should read. It’s better than any book I’ve ever read on how to write. It simply quotes sentences from published works, which it classifies with scholarly care.

Here are a couple from Interzone 247 (Jul-Aug 2013).

Eyeballs in the Sky. ‘She still didn’t see the hot eyes running and melting all over her.’ (Whit Harrison [Harry Whittington], Any Woman He Wanted, 1961).

Eyeballs in the Sky (Surgical Division). ‘From under bushy brows peered eyes of a peculiar golden-green hue; a thousand phosphorus needles flickered there in high-frequency movement, as in a battery’s spark-gap, giving the pupils an expression of luminous penetration; these eyes literally cut into the body and examined its subject to the minutest fiber.’ (Stefan Grabinski, ‘On a Tangent’ [circa 1918] translated by Miroslaw Lipinski in On the Hill of Roses, 2012)

If ever a sentence needed the word ‘literally’ it was that one.

I really admire the editorial team at Interzone for regularly coming up with fresh examples of eyeballs-in-the-sky sentences from classic and modern texts. It’s a magazine of understated greatness. I appreciate it more than I can say.

Image

Red Sonja

Dynamite is one of my favourite publishers of comics. I buy a lot of their titles. I loved their take on Zorro and I’m still enjoying their Lone Ranger. The Shadow has had some brilliant moments and The Red Team got off to a good start. But not everything they do at Dynamite is good. In fact it’s best not to believe their hype.

They’ve been pumping up Red Sonja recently until she’s fit to burst. The new series is written by Gail Simone — “one of the premiere writers in the comics industry” — and they’ve been making a song and dance about it in all their other comics for months. But I am very disappointed. The writing isn’t bad. It’s average for the genre. But I really think Dynamite have let it down with a supporting team who are just not taking Sonja seriously.

The details in the pictures don’t support what is in the text. In episode 1, for example, we see Sonja pull a dagger from a sheath fastened to the small of her back. A nice move. And a lethal surprise for one of her assailants. But the sheath doesn’t exist in any other picture.

Then someone is sick on her boots so she gives her boots to her bodyguards to be washed. We see her taking the boots off, but in the next panel she’s still wearing the boots, while the bodyguards are holding them at arm’s length in the firelight.

Then there is her constantly changing dress at the state dinner.

And as for the spelling … well!

No-one expects a feisty, Hyrkanian barbarian to spend time with a dictionary but, Tarim’s blood, she has an editor, and she boasts of her “educated blade.” Sonja is no imbecile. But Dynamite have turned her into an imbecile with a capital I. Three capital I’s, actually, more’s the pity.

The visual power of words

Britt Reid - The Green Hornet

Britt Reid – The Green Hornet

Can you spot the spelling mistake in this panel from Dynamite’s Green Hornet?

It’s the first panel in episode 5 of a story by Mark Waid.

It’s a very confusing story. It’s one of the most intellectually challenging stories I’ve ever struggled through. I’m not sure who is who or what is what. Everything is turned on its head.

Britt Reid, The Green Hornet, is supposed to be out crushing criminals but he’s running for mayor instead. An innocent man is in hospital because of Britt’s arrogance and pride. Even Kato is confused.

But the picture in this panel is clear enough. Britt Reid has put himself on a pedestal. He’s blind to his own shortcomings. He’s turned his back on the paper he controls. He’s taken his eye off the ball and is concentrating only on his own ego.

It’s a shame he can’t spell infallible. Especially when everything in this panel crashes down with its full weight on that one, emboldened word.

I expected better of a newspaper mogul but, oh well, this is the 21st century. We shouldn’t expect moguls, writers, editors or artists to be able to spell.

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