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Thoughts, musings, odds and ends.


❖ During a recent trip to Barnes & Noble, we were immediately confronted by a table advertising novels which are popular on something called #BOOKTOK. This pyramid of fiction included such titles as Conversations With Friends, People We Meet on Vacation, The Charm Offensive, Dirty Rowdy Thing, and The Kiss Quotient. We don’t object to B. and N.’s decision to dump its refuse at the very front of the store, just as we don’t resent its aisles dedicated to “Teen Paranormal Romance” and “Religion & Inspiration.” But we left the store wishing that the Olympia Press were still around to repackage these lurid paperbacks in its smart green Traveller’s Companion series.

❖ We do not pretend to understand much about the conflict between the People’s Republic of China and its estranged cousin across the Taiwan Strait. But we were surprised to learn that the youths of that island—even more so than some of their contemporaries in the United States—want no part in a struggle with the mainland. A recent report in the Wall Street Journal detailed the lengths to which many young Taiwanese men will go to avoid military conscription. One claimed to have “stuffed himself with large meals every four hours for a month, including McDonald’s combo meals, to gain enough pounds to be exempted.” Another confessed to a similar strategy, adding that a local government official encouraged his desperate gluttony.

❖ Anyone who commutes on public transportation regularly interacts with the homeless, especially during the colder months when the wind forces people off the streets. It is charitable to carry cigarettes in anticipation of such encounters. Of course, a few dollars is usually helpful, too, but a cigarette is more personal. Friends bum cigarettes from friends, after all, and you and your temporary companion will end up smoking together. This only takes a few minutes. It makes the dead space outside a train station more hospitable. And who knows what else might come of the encounter?

❖ Why didn’t Peggy Noonan get a writing credit on “Rockin’ in the Free World”?

❖ We commend to all readers the Divine Worship Daily Office, a beautiful new publication from the Catholic Truth Society in London. This wonderful volume, approved for official liturgical use in the Ordinariate communities but available to all for private devotion, brings the Book of Common Prayer one of the great jewels of the Anglican Patrimony to all Catholics. (The First Lesson of Mattins for the Wednesday after the First Sunday of Advent, when this issue was sent to the printer, begins with Isaias: “In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple.”) The first edition sold out immediately, but we are told that more will be printed shortly.

❖ Twenty-one New York residents and business owners sued the city this year for allowing restaurants to build semi-permanent outdoor dining enclosures in the streets. They claim that these hutches are responsible for the sidewalk partying that rages nightly until the sun rises over the Lower East Side. Supporters of the enclosures claim that their presence has saved more than one-hundred thousand jobs since the city instituted lockdowns. For our part, we don’t understand why anyone would eat a meal or drink a beer in a windowed plywood shed. It seems immodest. We are reminded of Mildred Lathbury’s lament in Excellent Women regarding the ordeal of eating Italian food in public. “Perhaps long spaghetti is the kind of thing that ought to be eaten quite alone with nobody to watch one’s struggles,” she said. “Surely many a romance must have been nipped in the bud by sitting opposite somebody eating spaghetti.”

❖ Orson Welles was a compulsive doodler throughout his entire life, especially after his exile from Hollywood. He left behind many bizarre sketches, including, most memorably, a drawing of himself puffing on a cigar with Kermit the Frog, sent to Jim Henson after Welles received a bit part in The Muppets. (He played, somewhat bitterly, a successful producer.) Welles’s best sketches, though, came in his annual Christmas cards, in which he invariably depicted himself as a dangerously overweight, drunken, and altogether merry Santa Claus. Welles was not a professional artist, only a broke filmmaker, but his Christmas cards are charming and a reminder that homemade cards are not solely the province of children.

❖ The other piece of fiction in this issue is not suitable bedtime reading. “The Cottager and His Cat,” taken from Lang’s Crimson Fairy Book, is:

Once upon a time there lived an old man and his wife in a dirty, tumble-down cottage, not very far from the splendid palace where the king and queen dwelt. In spite of the wretched state of the hut, which many people declared was too bad even for a pig to live in, the old man was very rich, for he was a great miser, and lucky besides, and would often go without food all day sooner than change one of his beloved gold pieces.

But after a while he found that he had starved himself once too often. He fell ill, and had no strength to get well again, and in a few days he died, leaving his wife and one son behind him.

The night following his death, the son dreamed that an unknown man appeared to him and said: ‘Listen to me; your father is dead and your mother will soon die, and all their riches will belong to you. Half of his wealth is ill-gotten, and this you must give back to the poor from whom he squeezed it. The other half you must throw into the sea. Watch, however, as the money sinks into the water, and if anything should swim, catch it and keep it, even if it is nothing more than a bit of paper.’

Then the man vanished, and the youth awoke.

The remembrance of his dream troubled him greatly. He did not want to part with the riches that his father had left him, for he had known all his life what it was to be cold and hungry, and now he had hoped for a little comfort and pleasure. Still, he was honest and good-hearted, and if his father had come wrongfully by his wealth he felt he could never enjoy it, and at last he made up his mind to do as he had been bidden. He found out who were the people who were poorest in the village, and spent half of his money in helping them, and the other half he put in his pocket. From a rock that jutted right out into the sea he flung it in. In a moment it was out of sight, and no man could have told the spot where it had sunk, except for a tiny scrap of paper floating on the water. He stretched down carefully and managed to reach it, and on opening it found six shillings wrapped inside. This was now all the money he had in the world.

The young man stood and looked at it thoughtfully. ‘Well, I can’t do much with this,’ he said to himself; but, after all, six shillings were better than nothing, and he wrapped them up again and slipped them into his coat.

He worked in his garden for the next few weeks, and he and his mother contrived to live on the fruit and vegetables he got out of it, and then she too died suddenly. The poor fellow felt very sad when he had laid her in her grave, and with a heavy heart he wandered into the forest, not knowing where he was going. By-and-by he began to get hungry, and seeing a small hut in front of him, he knocked at the door and asked if they could give him some milk. The old woman who opened it begged him to come in, adding kindly, that if he wanted a night’s lodging he might have it without its costing him anything.

Two women and three men were at supper when he entered, and silently made room for him to sit down by them. When he had eaten he began to look about him, and was surprised to see an animal sitting by the fire different from anything he had ever noticed before. It was grey in colour, and not very big; but its eyes were large and very bright, and it seemed to be singing in an odd way, quite unlike any animal in the forest. ‘What is the name of that strange little creature?’ asked he. And they answered, ‘We call it a cat.’

‘I should like to buy it—if it is not too dear,’ said the young man; ‘it would be company for me.’ And they told him that he might have it for six shillings, if he cared to give so much. The young man took out his precious bit of paper, handed them the six shillings, and the next morning bade them farewell, with the cat lying snugly in his cloak.

For the whole day they wandered through meadows and forests, till in the evening they reached a house. The young fellow knocked at the door and asked the old man who opened it if he could rest there that night, adding that he had no money to pay for it. ‘Then I must give it to you,’ answered the man, and led him into a room where two women and two men were sitting at supper. One of the women was the old man’s wife, the other his daughter. He placed the cat on the mantel shelf, and they all crowded round to examine this strange beast, and the cat rubbed itself against them, and held out its paw, and sang to them; and the women were delighted, and gave it everything that a cat could eat, and a great deal more besides.

After hearing the youth’s story, and how he had nothing in the world left him except his cat, the old man advised him to go to the palace, which was only a few miles distant, and take counsel of the king, who was kind to everyone, and would certainly be his friend. The young man thanked him, and said he would gladly take his advice; and early next morning he set out for the royal palace.

He sent a message to the king to beg for an audience, and received a reply that he was to go into the great hall, where he would find his Majesty.

The king was at dinner with his court when the young man entered, and he signed to him to come near. The youth bowed low, and then gazed in surprise at the crowd of little black creatures who were running about the floor, and even on the table itself. Indeed, they were so bold that they snatched pieces of food from the King’s own plate, and if he drove them away, tried to bite his hands, so that he could not eat his food, and his courtiers fared no better.

‘What sort of animals are these?’ asked the youth of one of the ladies sitting near him.

‘They are called rats,’ answered the king, who had overheard the question, ‘and for years we have tried some way of putting an end to them, but it is impossible. They come into our very beds.’

At this moment something was seen flying through the air. The cat was on the table, and with two or three shakes a number of rats were lying dead round him. Then a great scuffling of feet was heard, and in a few minutes the hall was clear.

For some minutes the King and his courtiers only looked at each other in astonishment. ‘What kind of animal is that which can work magic of this sort?’ asked he. And the young man told him that it was called a cat, and that he had bought it for six shillings.

And the King answered: ‘Because of the luck you have brought me, in freeing my palace from the plague which has tormented me for many years, I will give you the choice of two things. Either you shall be my Prime Minister, or else you shall marry my daughter and reign after me. Say, which shall it be?’

‘The princess and the kingdom,’ said the young man.

And so it was.

❖ The top names recommended to replace the Washington Football Team are across the board incredibly offensive. “Defenders,” for instance, insults the memory of Washington’s short-lived X.F.L. franchise. “Armada” is sure to rattle the W.A.S.P. types. As for “Presidents,” “Commanders,” and “Brigade”—Washington doesn’t need any more people in these fields. We pass over in silence the suggestions “Red Wolves” and “Red Hogs,” which rather tastelessly allude to the past. The Team will always be the team, and every true Washington fan knows what that means.

❖ We would like to thank all those—an astonishing number of you—who participated in The Lamp’s Christmas ghost story competition, whose winner Ree Brannigan describes herself as “splitting her time between driving her three children around and answering phones in an office.” We hope it isn’t the sort of office that appears in her story! Visit throughout the Christmas season to read the runners-up. We hope to make this competition an annual feature.

❖ Thomas Mann is surely among the luckiest novelists of the last century. In 1899, when he was twenty-four and the author of only a few short stories, he mailed a manuscript exceeding four-hundred thousand words to S. Fischer Verlag, then the most distinguished publishing house in Berlin. It was written in longhand and on both sides of the page in Mann’s journal notebooks. After only a little negotiation with this unpleasantly confident writer, the house published the work in two volumes as Buddenbrooks—to immediate (and lasting) acclaim. Only thirty years later, when the Swedish Academy awarded Mann the Nobel Prize in Literature, the judges cited the “great novel” as the primary reason for the honor. Our managing editor knows several young authors who hoped to achieve similar results with their handwritten manuscripts—to no avail.

❖ The pike is perhaps the most mythologized fish in history. In all ages and climes there are legends concerning it. Anglo-Saxons called the pike “the waterwolf” and they frequently compared its sharp movements to that of a thrusting spear. It was also once widely believed that some pike lived for hundreds of years and grew to monstrous sizes. In 1497, German fishermen claimed to have caught a pike that was nineteen feet long and weighed two-hundred sixty-seven pounds. In its belly, they said they found a brass ring bearing a message inscribed in Greek: “I am the first fish that was placed in this lake, by the hand of Frederick II., Governor of the World, on the fifth October 1230.” The fish was long displayed in Mannheim, but was eventually revealed to be a clever hoax concocted by a mischievous taxidermist. Still, even if the wilder legends about the pike are untrue, it is still a fierce fish. McClane’s Standard Fishing Encyclopedia captures it perfectly: “Nothing stirs the soul more than the abrupt arrival of a twenty-pound pike behind the lure. With baleful eyes and underslung jaw, it comes grimly to the feast.”

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