Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

This blog was born of my interest - curiosity, really - about words and language. I am an analyst first and foremost, with an emphasis on the architecture of information. This leads me down many paths, but primarily my overriding goal is to clarify; I find ways to simplify the complex, extract the essence of things, restate and restructure into more understandable terms. This activity isn't limited to only written things, but this post is about the interpretation of written things.

Charles Dickens was a 19th century British writer - he would say English writer, I'm sure - who mostly wrote about life in the early part of that century. He wrote fiction, to be sure, but fiction that was set against the background of the reality of the times in which he lived. One can learn a lot about what life was like for those who lived back then by reading Dickens' descriptions - descriptions of the sometimes squalid lives of the poor or common people of the first part of that century.

I have loved reading since I was a child. I can't remember a time when I wasn't reading some book or other, and I can't remember when I first discovered Charles Dickens. I remember studying David Copperfield as a requirement in school, but that wasn't the first.

Like many others in this age of instant communication, I have fallen into the lazy trap of watching "books" in the cinema, or on TV. For example, every Christmas I watch the TV versions of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," with the Alastair Sim version being my favorite I think. After many times of watching it, one gets to almost be able to say the dialog by heart.

Although I watch it on TV every Christmas, in its many renditions, it has been years and years since I actually read the words Charles Dickens wrote. I did dig it out the other day and began reading it, and was immediately reminded of how the movie versions don't do Dickens' writing justice. If you have been guilty of this lazy habit of watching instead of reading, I would recommend you pick up the book again.

What makes an author successful? Famous? We've talked about what makes certain books "classics," but, in my mind, it is almost totally the author's powers of description that make him good, great, or classically great. Of course, one needs an interesting story to begin with, but the telling of that story will determine mediocrity or greatness, in my opinion. Nobody describes better than Charles Dickens.

When I was a child, I always read books far over my head, so to speak. Books written for children never interested me. Of course that meant I needed to always have a dictionary nearby, and it had to be used with nearly every paragraph. Today, I am older and perhaps even wiser, but I still need my dictionary when I read Dickens. I don't mind.

We all know the story of Dickens' A Christmas Carol by heart. It is the story of the meaning of Christmas and how an old man lost his way by forgetting what life is really all about. And then, as Paul Simon might say, he was given another shot at redemption.

To watch the old story unfold on TV is one thing. But to read Dickens describe the story, well... that is something else again.

Part of the reason I still need my dictionary to read Dickens in the flesh is because the story was written a long time ago and people spoke differently in the 19th century. Another reason is because Dickens was British and used British phrases and idioms, some foreign to an American eye. But, mainly, I need a dictionary because Dickens' vocabulary is simply so much more extensive than mine.

I know some of you reading this are also analysts, and I know some of you are also interested in literature. As I began reading A Christmas Carol, and looking up words, just as I had done as a child, and trying to sort out his underlying meanings, it occurred to me that perhaps you would enjoy doing some of that right along with me. If so, what follows might even be a little bit fun for some of you. Let's do some together.
A Christmas Carol
Stave I: Marley's Ghost

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to.

Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Mind! I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country's done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Marley was dead. Got that. But 'Change? I don't get that. "Exchange"? Hmmm. Dictionary no help here. Well, the meaning was clear that Scrooge's name carried considerable weight. And that Scrooge knew for sure that Marley was dead. Dead as a doornail? I'm surprised that expression is so old that Dickens used it, but I know what it means.

Scrooge knew he was dead? Of course he did. How could it be otherwise? Scrooge and he were partners for I don't know how many years. Scrooge was his sole executor, his sole administrator, his sole assign, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend, and sole mourner. And even Scrooge was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event, but that he was an excellent man of business on the very day of the funeral, and solemnised it with an undoubted bargain. The mention of Marley's funeral brings me back to the point I started from. There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate. If we were not perfectly convinced that Hamlet's Father died before the play began, there would be nothing more remarkable in his taking a stroll at night, in an easterly wind, upon his own ramparts, than there would be in any other middle-aged gentleman rashly turning out after dark in a breezy spot -- say Saint Paul's Churchyard for instance -- literally to astonish his son's weak mind.

Scrooge was Marley's sole residuary legatee. My dictionary says "residuary" means an estate and "legatee" is a person who is the beneficiary of such. I take this to mean that Scrooge inherited all of his partner's estate when he died. His part of the business. His house. The movie versions don't tell you that. We further glean, in Dickens' rather roundabout manner of speaking, that Scrooge didn't take the day off when Marley died, but conducted business as usual and even closed a nice transaction that day. Do you agree with my interpretation? But why the lengthy reference to Hamlet? Why, to warn the reader that he, Dickens the writer, is also about to set up a scene with a ghost and wants to make sure you agree the guy is dead. That's the gist of it, I think. Still, I don't understand the reference to St. Paul's in this context, or the part about his son's weak mind. Maybe some of you who are up on your Hamlet can explain it better than I. And I'm trying. Help.

Scrooge never painted out Old Marley's name. There it stood, years afterwards, above the warehouse door: Scrooge and Marley. The firm was known as Scrooge and Marley. Sometimes people new to the business called Scrooge Scrooge, and sometimes Marley, but he answered to both names. It was all the same to him.

Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dogdays; and didn't thaw it one degree at Christmas.

Hard and sharp as a flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire. I like that, don't you? Elegant. So is the Oyster simile. "Rime", I learned long ago in the Air force, is thin ice that forms on wings and causes planes to crash. Must be deiced. But on Scrooge's head? Well, Dickens never saw an airplane, so we are talking about a hoary frost on his thin hair and eyebrows. But not literally; Scrooge was a cold character even in the summer, so Dickens isn't referring to the winter air causing Scrooge to be cold - he was simply cold-hearted, period. Indeed, Dickens goes on to clarify this by saying Scrooge was a cold character even in the dogdays. Dogdays meaning the hottest part of summer. I think.


Well, maybe this analysis isn't so much fun for you as it is me after all.

Try the following all by yourself. I mean, rewrite it into modern simple English if you can:

External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge. No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill him. No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty. Foul weather didn't know where to have him. The heaviest rain, and snow, and hail, and sleet, could boast of the advantage over him in only one respect. They often `came down' handsomely, and Scrooge never did.

Nobody ever stopped him in the street to say, with gladsome looks, `My dear Scrooge, how are you? When will you come to see me?' No beggars implored him to bestow a trifle, no children asked him what it was o'clock, no man or woman ever once in all his life inquired the way to such and such a place, of Scrooge. Even the blind men's dogs appeared to know him; and when they saw him coming on, would tug their owners into doorways and up courts; and then would wag their tails as though they said, `No eye at all is better than an evil eye, dark master!'

But what did Scrooge care! It was the very thing he liked. To edge his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance, was what the knowing ones call `nuts' to Scrooge.

Once upon a time -- of all the good days in the year, on Christmas Eve -- old Scrooge sat busy in his counting-house. It was cold, bleak, biting weather: foggy withal: and he could hear the people in the court outside, go wheezing up and down, beating their hands upon their breasts, and stamping their feet upon the pavement stones to warm them. The city clocks had only just gone three, but it was quite dark already -- it had not been light all day -- and candles were flaring in the windows of the neighbouring offices, like ruddy smears upon the palpable brown air. The fog came pouring in at every chink and keyhole, and was so dense without, that although the court was of the narrowest, the houses opposite were mere phantoms. To see the dingy cloud come drooping down, obscuring everything, one might have thought that Nature lived hard by, and was brewing on a large scale.


I HATE multiple-choice tests; all of mine are essay. Do translate. For the fun of it.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

A little Gilbert and Sullivan

Some of you know that one of my major hobbies is collecting music. I collect just about all genres if I like it, and I like a lot.

This post is not really about the lives or professional careers of Gilbert and Sullivan, except to say briefly, for those who may not be familiar with the names, that they wrote words and music for operettas (short, light, operas) and that they were mostly active in the last quarter of the 19th century, in Great Britain.

These men collaborated on 14 comic operas, geared for Victorian audiences. Of these 14, three were more popular than the others: H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, and The Mikado.

Their business was parody. For the most part, their operettas poked fun at the Victorian establishment, the hypocrisy, the incompetence at high levels. Their stuff is fun to watch. It is very witty and it goes by really fast; you can see the same one several times and pick up more and more each time that you didn't get the first time.

My personal favorite Gilbert and Sullivan happens to be The Pirates of Penzance. I won't go into a summary of the "plot" because if you know Gilbert and Sullivan then you already know what it is about. What I want to talk about is a particular performance of Pirates. Bear in mind that if one sings opera, even if that opera is light comedy, one must have the kind of voice that can sing opera. Well, I guess that is obvious.

Linda Ronstadt is of Hispanic origins through her father, though there was (obviously) a German ancestor somewhere in his family history. His ancestors were wagon makers and came up from Mexico to Arizona way back when. Her mother is of German, Dutch and English heritage. Linda was born in Tucson, Arizona. Her father was a successful machinery merchant.

Linda Ronstadt came onto the music scene in late 1967. The name of the group was The Stone Poneys; the name of the hit song was "Different Drum" and in small print on the record under Stone Poneys were the words, "Featuring Linda Ronstadt." To my knowledge, that was the only record she cut with The Stone Poneys. She has been a single artist since then, though she has appeared on many collaboration albums with other singing stars. Since 1967 she has become an international star in several musical genres, famous enough that you don't need me to tell you who she is. She sings rock and roll and Folk Rock, became a big-time Country singer, and has released albums in Jazz, Latin American (Canciones de mi Padre), Rhythm and Blues, Big Band, Pop, and one more. Well, you know.

I can't tell you how many theater companies and college drama classes have staged The Pirates of Penzance over the past 130 years, much less how many millions of people have fallen in love with the songs and mouth the words along with the singers, much like the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Except that The Pirates of Penzance was written in 1880.

There really is a town called Penzance in England. It's in Cornwall. I don't think there are any pirates there, though.

In my music collecting, I came accross a video tape of an old TV special of a live production of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance. As I say, I like Pirates, so I watched the tape. A live performance, as I say, but both the male and female leads were rock and country singers, not opera people. That disappointed me, I must say, knowing they were going to screw up one of my favorite operettas.

Linda Ronstadt was cast in the female lead (Mabel, one of the Modern Major General's many daughters.) The Pirate King is sung by Kevin Kline, a comedic actor, but with a great singing voice, and Little Ruthie is sung by Angela Landsbury (Murder, She Wrote), who, of course, has a professionally trained voice as well. The other principal singers and chorus are just dandy. But Linda Ronstadt can't sing opera, right? No way. Well, I watched the TV production of Pirates anyway, and let me be frank: when Linda applied her pipes to Gilbert and Sullivan, she just blew me away!

Go, ye heroes, go to glory,

Though you die in combat gory,

Ye shall live in song and story.

Go to immortality!

Go to death, and go to slaughter;

Die, and every Cornish daughter

With her tears your grave shall water.

Go, ye heroes, go and die!

See if you agree with me that the lass can sing opera too. At least Gilbert and Sullivan. Let me know what you thought. Were you as surprised as I?

Note: this was posted on BritishSpeak blog because Gilbert and Sullivan were British.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Rerun Australian omelette recipe

When I first started the BritishSpeak blog, I used to stay up all night and stalk Australian blogs. Some were pretty amazing. Aussies can be pretty irreverent.

I can think A. for reminding me (by proxy) of this old post I did back in March of 2008, because A. ran a recipe of a delicious chocolate cake on her blog today. Of course, A. would never speak as the Aussies speak.

A.'s recipe for chocolate cake is very precise, with measurements down to half an ounce. That's what you need for perfection. Aussies are not always so precise with their ingredients, as evidenced by the omelette recipe below.

Warning - please don't continue reading if you are easily offended; Aussie humor is not cutesy double-entendre.

Recipe for Australian omelette:


2 fucking eggs
some fucking salt and pepper
fucking chives
1 fucking knob (?) of fucking butter


Heat the fucking butter in a fucking omelette pan.
Fucking break the fucking eggs into a fucking bowl.
Fucking whisk the fuckers and add some fucking salt and fucking pepper to taste.
When the fucking butter is hot, add the fucking mixture to the pan.
When cooked, take the fucking thing out.
Eat the fucker.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Guy Fawkes Day (That's today)

Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I know of no reason
Why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, t’was his intent
To blow up King and Parliament.
Three-score barrels of powder below
To prove old England’s overthrow;
By God’s providence he was catch’d
With a dark lantern and burning match.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, let the bells ring.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!

I must tell you that on the day I started this blog a couple years back, all that I knew about Guy Fawkes was... um... nothing, actually.

Today, I know a little bit more about the holiday, though I still don't know why you would want to have a holiday for such a man. It is as if we in the U.S. were to have a Benedict Arnold Day, or, more to the point of bombing government buildings, a Bill Ayers Day. Now, if you were to have a "Burning Guy Fawkes in Effigy Day," that I would understand. I am going to use this space today to tell you what I've learned about Guy Fawkes.

First, a couple of really cool words I have added to my vocabulary:

1. Recusant

2. Undercroft

Recusant: a person who refuses to submit to an authority or to comply with a regulation. Primarily refers to historic Roman Catholics in England who refused to attend the Church of England.

Undercroft: a basement or cellar under a building, often bricked and with vaulted ceilings. Used for storage, of, say, gunpower or like that.

Guy Fawkes (1570-1606) was born in York. His father died when he was eight years old and his mother then married a recusant Catholic. Fawkes himself converted to Catholicism and emigrated to Spain. Where there were a LOT of Catholic folk.

As often happens with religion, Spain fought the 80 Years War with the Protestant Dutch just because, and Guy (called "Guido" by the Spanish) took part and became a fairly knowledgeable soldier. I don't know how long the war lasted. I'm guessing Guido was a demolition man, but I don't know that for sure. Somewhere along the way I'll bet he learned to speak Spanish. According to another unreliable source (Wikipedia being the first) it is said that when he was about to be drawn and quartered, he shouted, "Ole! Ole!" just before he jumped. Only this source had two upside down exclamation marks and mine doesn't.

Sometime after his military discharge, Guido, having fallen in with a bad crowd, thought it would be a good idea to return to England and kill King James I. As you do.

Security being not quite what it is today in our airports, the conspirators were able to rent some storage space in the undercroft under Parliament. "Hire," I mean. They have since installed motion detectors and retired security guards down there. But, back then, it didn't occur to anyone that renting out space under Parliament to people who frothed at the mouth was anything unusual.

Quickly, the protestant-hating renegades moved in a couple megatons of explosives and chose Guido F. to guard the stuff until D-Day.

Someone who either loved James or hated Guido sent an anonymous letter to the authorities, though, and in the early morning of 5 November, 1605, the coppers came arrestingly, and read the hapless G.F. his rights.

"You have the right to be tortured until you confess." And, before long, Guido broke. As you do.

Yes, Guido broke from the torture (no pun intended) and the hanging/quarter-drawing was scheduled for January next.

Well, getting more or less right to the point, on 31 January 1606, standing on the gallows and a-waitin' his hanging, no doubt freezing his treasonous arse in the January breeze, contemplating the agony that was awaiting him at the drawing and quartering party which was scheduled after the half-hanging (partial strangulation, actually) and came to the obvious conclusion: "Fuck this!" and jumped off the scaffold and broke his neck. By breaking his neck, he thus avoided hanging and... um... breaking his neck. He showed them.

But, truly - and there is no real reason not to throw in a tidbit of truth here - back then they didn't hang you like we think of hanging. No, when that many people show up for the show, they drug it out more. So instead of dropping you with a rope around your neck, they slowly RAISED you with a rope around your neck. When you turned purple enough, they took the rope off and brought you back to consciousness, then they had four horses yank your arms and legs off your torso. Then you just sort of lay there looking up at the sky, blinking rapidly, yearning for some pain killers. I assume. Piking your head was then optional. This was supposed to act as a deterrent for any would-be traitors in the viewing audience. It probably did.

Since Guy Fawkes was to be hanged and then drawn and quartered, of course the British celebrate this event with bonfires and fireworks. Go figure.

You'd think they'd hold horse-pulling contests or something.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Rail disaster at Quintinshill

In the spring of 1915, the Great War was underway. Troops were being mobilized and shipped to various battle sites. Back in those days, the railways were used to transport troops. On May 22 of 1915, two such trains were transporting soldiers of the Royal Scots 7th Battalion to a troop transport ship at Liverpool, bound for the war in Gallipoli. The second train didn't make it.

Quintinshill Junction is/was a railway switch point just outside Gretna, Dumfriesshire, Scotland. There were two main through-tracks and, above and below the main lines, two sidings (passing loops.) Shortly after 6 a.m. that morning, due to railway workers negligence, there was a terrible train crash which involved five trains. 226 people lost their lives, the worst UK train disaster in history, in terms of loss of life.

Due to wartime censorship, the event was not widely reported at the time. Click here to view a diagram of the railway switch at that point.

On the top (up) running line was parked a local train waiting for an express train to pass on the other (down) running line. This was done because both sidings were already occupied: On the top siding was parked an empty coal train returning to Wales, and on the bottom siding was a waiting goods train.

It was during a shift change where replacement workers were arriving. The switch worker responsible "forgot" that he had just shunted the local train onto the upper main line and left it sitting there in the path of oncoming traffic. At approximately 6:47 a.m. the troop train arrived as expected and collided with the stationary local. Within seconds of the collision, the express arrived on the down main line from the other direction and collided with the wreckage which had blocked that track too.

The troop train carriages were obsolete wood ones. The lighting was gas. The oil-gas reservoirs were slung under the passenger cars and had just been charged (filled.) The wreckage began to burn with the troops still inside. Red hot coals from the crashed locomotive fire boxes ignited. The two trains on the sidings became involved in the fire and wreckage.

Of the 500 members of the 7th Battalion, only 60 were able to answer roll call the next day. 214 soldiers dead, 246 injured. Certainly the fires caused more deaths than the crash. Due to the remoteness of the crash site, it took four hours for the fire engines to arrive, traveling the last mile over an open field. The bodies of three children were found burned in the wreckage, presumed stowaways on the train. The rest of the dead were engineers and other train employees.

See an animation of the crash on Wikipedia.


Related Posts with Thumbnails