A Wodehousian Reading List

P.G. Wodehouse on his reading habits, in The Paris Review (Winter, 1975):

INTERVIEWER: …What have you been reading most recently?

WODEHOUSE: I’ve been reading the old books, books that I’ve read before. The first time you read a book, you don’t read it at all carefully—you just read it for the story. You have to keep rereading. Every year or so I read Shakespeare straight through. But then I go to the latest by Agatha Christie or Rex Stout. I read every book of theirs. I do like a book with an elaborate plot. But I haven’t any definite plan of reading. I read almost everything, and I like anything that’s good. I’ve just reread a book by A.A. Milne’s called Two People, which I had read several times before. His novel is simply a novel of character. It’s not the sort of think I can write myself, but as a reader I enjoy it thoroughly.

“We played cricket, that sort of thing”

P.G. Wodehouse on a worry-free life, in The Paris Review (Winter, 1975):

INTERVIEWER: There must have been some bad times for you, even so.

WODEHOUSE: Do you know, I don’t think I’ve had any really bad times. I disliked the bank I had to work in when I was young very much my first month or so. But once I got used to it, I became very fond of it.

INTERVIEWER: How about the war years, particularly the year in the German internment camp? That must have been pretty bad.

WODEHOUSE: I don’t know. Looking back to it, it wasn’t at all unpleasant. Everybody seems to think a German internment camp must be a sort of torture chamber. It was really perfectly normal and ordinary. The camp had an extraordinarily nice commander, and we did all sorts of things, you know. We played cricket, that sort of thing. Of course, I was writing all the time. Most writers would have gotten fifty novels out of the experience—the men they met there—but I have never written a word about it, except those broadcasts.

INTERVIEWER: It sounds as if you’ve never had any worries at all.

WODEHOUSE: I’m rather blessed in a way. I really don’t worry about anything much. I can adjust myself to things pretty well.

A New Age of Sail?


Addressing the decline of American cities—and the greater decline yet to come in the wake of peak oil—James Howard Kunstler predicts the return of tall ships to the Great Lakes:

When people use the term “post-industrial” these days, they don’t really mean it, and, more mysteriously, they don’t know that they don’t mean it. They expect complex, organized, high-powered industry to still be here, only in a new form. They almost always seem to imply (or so I infer) that we can remain “modern” by moving beyond the old smoke and clanking machinery into a nirvana of computer-printed reality. I doubt that we can maintain the complex supply chains of our dwindling material resources and run all those computer operations — even if we can still manage to get some electricity from Niagara Falls.

In my forthcoming novel A History of the Future (third installment of the World Made By Hand series), two of my characters journey to Buffalo a couple of decades from now. They find a town with its back turned to abandoned monuments of the industrial age. All the action is on the Lake Erie waterfront where trade is conducted by sailing ships at the scale of Sixteenth century, but with an identifiable American gloss. I’d be surprised if one in a thousand educated people in this country (including the New Urbanists) can take that vision seriously.

The age of sail lasted into the early twentieth century with windjammers and clippers running trans-oceanic freight. As resource depletion and ecological crises imperil the oil-based economy, sail power seems like an obvious alternative for the future.

There have been small-scale efforts to revive wind-powered transport recently. In 2009 the BBC reported on a modern day brigantine, Tres Hombres:

On a warm summer’s day in August, Danish wine merchant Sune Rosforth took delivery of 8,000 bottles of wine that had arrived from France.

From the offices of financial institutions flanking the quay, workers looked out at something that had not been seen in central Copenhagen for many years.

The ship that had brought the wine from the Breton port of Brest was a 32m-long brigantine, a twin-masted sailing ship, called the Tres Hombres.

Mr Rosforth’s company, Rosforth and Rosforth, supplies restaurants in Denmark with organic and biodynamic wines.

Moving wine in a more eco-friendly fashion was something he had been talking about for some time with an Anjou wine producer who was also a skipper, but the plan had originally been to use canal barges.

In 2012 the Tres Hombres embarked on a more ambitious trade route, as reported by CNN:

This week, the 32-meter brigantine Tres Hombres set sail from the Netherlands to the Caribbean in an eight-month voyage transporting ale, wine, rum and chocolate — much the same way as merchant ships would have done 150 years ago.

Named in honor of the three friends who founded the ambitious scheme, the 35-ton carbon-neutral vessel has no motor and relies on solar-powered fridges to keep its cargo cool.

“A lot of shipping companies are going bankrupt because fuel is so expensive,” said one of the ship’s founders and co-captain, Arjen van der Veen.

“The model we have now of shipping is unsustainable — both for business and the environment. We chose a traditional rig because it’s a beautiful design and we wanted to show people sailing can still be effective.”

From its base in Den Helder in the Netherlands, Tres Hombres will head to Brixham in England where it will pick up 100,000 bottles of ale, delivering them to Douarnenez in France.

From there it will sail to ports across Europe and the Caribbean, transporting 500 liters of wine, 50,000 chocolate bars, 4,000 bottles of rum and 5-tons of cocoa beans in a round trip.

All the cargo is organic, making it eco-friendly from the moment it is produced to the moment it lands on the supermarket shelf, Van der Veen explained.
“The whole chain of production is sustainable,” he said.

“For companies, it makes their goods unique. It’s a little more expensive but people are willing to pay because it has no carbon footprint.”

The French maritime company Trans Oceanic Wind Transport (TOWT) operates Tres Hombres. Founded in 2009 by Guillaume Le Grand TOWT charters a fleet of a dozen sailing ships to carry freight between ports. Almost a decade later the company is still in business. I don’t know if there is enough business to make wind power profitable at this point. I wish the venture well. To paraphrase Kunstler, how many people today understand that companies like TOWT are ahead of their time, not behind?

Villages, Genetics, Genius

In The New York Review of Books this month Freeman Dyson reviews Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies by Geoffrey West. Dyson offers insight into why small cities and villages have historically produced men of genius and why the present-day trend toward mega-cities is almost certainly dysgenic.

If a small population is inbreeding, the rate of drift of the average measure of any human capability scales with the inverse square root of the population. Big fluctuations of the average happen in isolated villages far more often than in cities. On the average, people in villages are not more capable than people in cities. But if ten million people are divided into a thousand genetically isolated villages, there is a good chance that one lucky village will have a population with outstandingly high average capability, and there is a good chance that an inbreeding population with high average capability produces an occasional bunch of geniuses in a short time. The effect of genetic isolation is even stronger if the population of the village is divided by barriers of rank or caste or religion. Social snobbery can be as effective as geography in keeping people from spreading their genes widely.

A substantial fraction of the population of Europe and the Middle East in the time between 1000 BC and 1800 AD lived in genetically isolated villages, so that genetic drift may have been the most important factor making intellectual revolutions possible. Places where intellectual revolutions happened include, among many others, Jerusalem around 800 BC (the invention of monotheistic religion), Athens around 500 BC (the invention of drama and philosophy and the beginnings of science), Venice around 1300 AD (the invention of modern commerce), Florence around 1600 (the invention of modern science), and Manchester around 1750 (the invention of modern industry).

These places were all villages, with populations of a few tens of thousands, divided into tribes and social classes with even smaller populations. In each case, a small starburst of geniuses emerged from a small inbred population within a few centuries, and changed our ways of thinking irreversibly. These eruptions have many historical causes. Cultural and political accidents may provide unusual opportunities for young geniuses to exploit. But the appearance of a starburst must be to some extent a consequence of genetic drift. The examples that I mentioned all belong to Western cultures. No doubt similar starbursts of genius occurred in other cultures, but I am ignorant of the details of their history.

West’s neglect of villages as agents of change raises an important question. How likely is it that significant numbers of humans will choose to remain in genetically isolated communities in centuries to come?

The Tomb of Coleridge Rediscovered

When the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge died in 1834, he was buried in the chapel of Highgate School near his final home in the north London village. There he lay with other members of his family for more than a century until 1961. That year the coffins of Coleridge, his wife, daughter, son-in-law, and grandson, were moved to St Michael’s Church on Highgate Hill amidst much fanfare.

But in the ensuing decades the exact location of Coleridge’s tomb in the church had been forgotten. An excavation has now uncovered the poet’s final resting place behind a brick wall enclosing one end of a seventeenth-century cellar. The church itself dates from 1831. The Coleridge vault is in the former wine cellar of the 1696 Ashurst House that had earlier occupied the location, and was incorporated into the church basements. According to St Michael’s website: “Covered in dust and barely distinguishable from the rubble in which they repose, the five coffins are bricked solidly into the rear portion of this wine cellar, barely visible through the grille of one of two air vents.” It is, apparently, “a rather dangerous, rubble-strewn area of the church.”

Now St Michael’s is launching a fundraiser to restore the cellar and vault and build a resource center. A program of events will be held on June 2:

[T]wo distinguished authorities on Coleridge—Malcolm Guite and Seamus Perry have kindly agreed to provide addresses on Coleridge’s spirituality and his life in Highgate. Malcolm is Chaplain of Girton College Cambridge and author of Mariner: A Voyage with Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Hodder 2017). Seamus is Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford and Fellow of Balliol College.

Meanwhile a distinguished local poetry performer, Lance Pearson; members of the Friends [of Coleridge], and hopefully descendants of STC himself will recite some of his words and poems. A tour of Coleridge’s Highgate will include a visit to the HSLI’s Coleridge Room, and a limited tour of the crypt and burial area beneath our church.

Tickets are £40 for a good cause. More information on the church website here.

Papers and Collections of Prince Albert to be Published for the First Time


As I have written elsewhere, I am an ardent admirer of Prince Albert, the husband and consort of Queen Victoria. So I was excited to read that the Royal Collection Trust is in the process of digitizing an enormous collection of his letters, photographs, and papers (both official and private). A press release yesterday from the Royal Collection Trust announced The Prince Albert Digitisation Project:

An unparalleled collection of papers and primary materials belonging to Prince Albert is due to be published online by Royal Collection Trust over the next two years, transforming our knowledge of Queen Victoria’s consort.

The three-year Prince Albert Digitisation Project, scheduled for completion at the end of 2020, will make available on the Royal Collection Trust website some 23,500 items from the Royal Archives, Royal Collection and the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851.  This wide-ranging material, most of which has never been published before, will shed new light on Albert’s contribution as consort of Queen Victoria, unofficial Private Secretary, a guide and mentor to some of the greatest national projects of his day, university chancellor, art historian, collector and patron of art, architecture and design.  The first tranche will be published in the summer of 2019 to mark the bicentenary of Prince Albert’s birth.

The Prince Albert Digitisation Project is supported by Sir Hugh and Lady Stevenson in honour of the late Dame Anne Griffiths DCVO, former Librarian and Archivist to His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh, and by the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851.  Royal Collection Trust is also partnering with the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, on a post-doctoral research fellowship, building on a previous collaboration to present Queen Victoria’s Journals online.

Prince Albert (1819–1861) was the second son of Ernest I, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, and Princess Louise of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg.  He married Queen Victoria, his first cousin, in 1840.  The period of his active life in Britain saw a fundamental change in social welfare, university education, the structure of government and parliament, and in British relations with the rest of the world.  It witnessed the arrival of railways and fast transatlantic trade, the rise of trade unions, and the transformation of Britain into a world-class industrial economy and sea power.

The Prince Albert Digitisation Project will bring together official and private papers relating to Prince Albert from the Royal Archives and the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851; material in the Royal Library, including catalogues of Prince Albert’s private library; inventories of paintings commissioned or collected by Albert; the Raphael Collection, the Prince’s study collection of more than 5,000 prints and photographs after the works of Raphael; and the significant body of early photography collected and commissioned by Prince Albert (more than 10,000 photographs).

Oliver Urquhart Irvine, The Librarian & Assistant Keeper of The Queen’s Archives, said, ‘The Prince Albert Digitisation Project will increase understanding of material held in the Royal Archives, Royal Collection and the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 and enable a comprehensive study of the life, work and legacy of Prince Albert on a scale that does justice to his contribution to 19th-century Britain and the world.  We are very grateful to Sir Hugh and Lady Stevenson for their support and look forward to working with our partners to create a resource which will transform academic and public access to this unparalleled collection, and will allow a fresh assessment of this influential man.’

How William Morris Printed Wallpaper


William Morris’s quintessential Victorian wallpaper patterns—lush, verdant, botanical—were printed using simple wood-block presses and a maximum of human craftsmanship. This was in accordance with the philosophy of the Arts and Crafts movement, which he founded, advocating workshops over and against factories.

The Victoria and Albert Museum, which holds a fine collection of Morris prints and textiles, produced a video to demonstrate how Morris’s patterns were (and in some cases still are) printed. The process is painstaking and impressive. Watch below.

“Strange Stories of the Death of Poets”

The Funeral of Shelley, by Louis Édouard Fournier, 1889

The Quarterly Review probably did not kill John Keats with its criticism of Endymion, as Lord Byron claimed, but it did eerily foretell the death of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Notwithstanding his obvious talents as a poet, like all radicals Shelley was rather insufferable. He would give “atheist” as his occupation in hotel registers and bore casual acquaintances with tirades against the government. Even the gentle Keats was provoked to a sharp retort. “Does Shelley go on telling strange Stories of the Death of kings,” he asked a mutual friend. “Tell him there are strange Stories of the death of Poets—some have died before they were conceived.”

Inevitably, Shelley ran afoul of the the Quarterly Review, which was the leading conservative literary journal of the early-nineteenth century. Contributors included Sir Walter Scott, Robert Southey, the future prime minister George Canning, gothic novelist Charles Maturin, and others. Scott’s enthusiastic praise for Emma in its pages established the contemporary reputation of Jane Austen. But the Quarterly was better known for its pugilistic criticism, gaining a reputation as the “Hanged, Drawn, and Quarterly.”

In the issue for April of 1819, editor John Taylor Coleridge (brother of Samuel) wrote an absolutely withering mockery of Shelley’s political philosophy:

Mr Shelley would abrogate our laws—this would put an end to felonies and misdemeanours at a blow; he would abolish the rights of property, of course there could thenceforward be no violations of them, no heart-burnings between the poor and the rich, no disputed wills, no litigated inheritances, no food in short for sophistical judges, or hireling lawyers; he would overthrow the constitution, and then we should have no expensive court, no pensions or sinecures, no silken lords or corrupt commoners, no slavish and enslaving army or navy; he would pull down our churches, level our Establishment, and burn our bibles—then we should pay no tithes, be enslaved by no superstitions, abused by no priestly artifices: marriage he cannot endure, and there would at once be a stop put to the lamented increase of adulterous connections amongst us, whilst by repealing the canon of heaven against incest, he would add to the purity, and heighten the ardour of those feelings with which brother and sister now regard each other; finally, as the basis of the whole scheme, he would have us renounce our belief in our religion…

This is at least intelligible; but it is not so easy to describe the structure, which Mr Shelley would build upon this vast heap of ruins. ‘Love,’ he says, ‘is to be the sole law which shall govern the moral world;’ but Love is a wide word with many significations, and we are at a loss as to which of them he would have it now bear. We are loath to understand it in its lowest sense, though we believe that as to the issue this would be the correctest mode of interpreting it; but this at least is clear, that Mr. Shelley does not mean it in its highest sense: he does not mean that love, which is the fulfilling of the law, and which walks after the commandments, for he would erase the Decalogue, and every other code of laws.

Then came the coup de grâce, in the form of an ill omen:

Like the Egyptian of old, the wheels of his chariot are broken, the path of mighty waters closes in upon him behind, and a still deepening ocean is before him:—for a short time, are seen his impotent struggles against a resistless power, his blasphemous execrations are heard, his despair but poorly assumes the tone of triumph and defiance, and he calls ineffectually on others to follow him to the same ruin—finally, he sinks ‘like lead’ to the bottom, and is forgotten. So it is now in part, so shortly will it be entirely with Mr. Shelley.

When the article was published Shelley was living in Italy. He read it in October at Delesert’s English Library in Florence. He was observed there, “earnestly bent over the last Quarterly…reading to the end of the article in the same earnest manner, his nose almost touching the book: suddenly he burst into convulsive laughter, and hastily rising, closed the book and left the room, his Ha! ha! ringing down the stairs.”

Less than three years later, Shelley drowned in the Ligurian Sea when a sudden storm overtook his sailboat, on July 8, 1822.  “We shall never know by what curious premonition John Taylor Coleridge found his biblical image,” writes Richard Holmes in Shelley: The Pursuit.

Map of the Etymology of Tea

Quartz has an interesting etymological map of the words for “tea” around the world. They fall into two groups, based on where in China the tea trade was based. The Chinese character for tea is . In the Mandarin and Canton dialects of inland China the word is pronounced “cha.” In the Min Nan dialect of the southern coast it is pronounced “te.”

Countries that historically imported tea by overland trade routes (Russia, India, the former Ottoman Empire) call tea by some variant of chai, and countries that shipped it by sea (the Netherlands, Britain, France) call it by some variant of tea.


An Interview with H. Rider Haggard from 1923

“To Norfolk we journeyed to meet the famous novelist whose books are read all the world over.”

In 1923 British Pathé filmed a short profile of Sir H. Rider Haggard at his home, Ditchingham House, in Norfolk. The author of King Solomon’s MinesShe, and other colonial adventures, can be seen at his writing desk and in his garden. At one point he shows off a staff given to him by the Zulu.

Watch below.