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Information overload, 18th century style

“Meantime, the pamphlets and half-sheets grow so upon our hands,” groaned Swift in 1710, “it will very well employ a man every day from morning til night to read them.” His solution? Never to open any! The doctor Thomas Beddoes was another who grumbled about the welter of print – all those endless pamphlets and periodicals befuddling the brain. “Did you see the papers today? Have you read the new play – the new poem – the new pamphlet – the last novel?” –  that was all you heard.” You cannot creditably frequent intelligent company, without being prepared to answer these questions, and the progeny that springs from them. The consequence? “You must needs hang your heavy head, and roll your bloodshot eyes over thousands of pages weekly. Of their contents at the week’s end, you will know about as much as of a district through which you have been whirled night and day in the mail-coach.” Yet that didn’t sap his ardour for enlightenment, or his quill.

Roy Porter, “Enlightenment: Britain and the Creation of the Modern World”.

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J.L. Carr, “How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup“.

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New world, old world

bill murray and vogler

A fascinating evening of music and readings from Bill Murray and cellist Jan Vogler. They certainly deserved the standing ovations. I had one reservation though:

Yes, that Bill Murray — actor, comic, loon and, maybe, the man who has found a way of bringing a new audience to music that isn’t pop. The idea is simple enough: he and a chamber trio led by his friend the German cellist Jan Vogler present music and readings loosely gathered around the theme of American history and identity. On paper it is the kind of high-minded venture that you might once have associated with Peter Ustinov. Murray being Murray, however, things took an increasingly zany turn. Although at first he seemed content to cut a conventional path through Walt Whitman and James Fenimore Cooper, he was soon delivering a masterclass in physical humour… One nagging thought, though: how strange that the content was so weighted towards dead white males. It might have been a syllabus from Murray’s schooldays. Gershwin but not Ellington, Hemingway and Thurber but not Richard Wright and James Baldwin. Listening to Murray make a brilliant job of a scene from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, n-word and all, you assumed he was aware he was walking on thin ice. Perhaps his point was that Mark Twain, Leonard Bernstein and Co were turning the African-American voice into a universal voice. Still, unless I am mistaken, the first black artist to make the cut was Smokey Robinson, and that was in the encore, followed by an uncredited poem by Lucille Clifton. Odd, very odd.

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Red on green

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The judge had led quite a sheltered life

Like Carman, the Honourable Sir Joseph Donaldson Cantley was from Manchester. But that was just about all they had in common. Far from having a rackety private life, Cantley was rumoured to have been a virgin until the age of fifty-six, when he had married the widow of a former judge. Marriage had done nothing to dispel his air of unworldliness. Cantley had once tried a case in which a 23-year-old man had applied for damages after being badly injured in a bulldozer accident. Told that the injuries had affected the man’s sex life, he asked if he was married. Learning that he was not, a puzzled Cantley said, “Well, I can’t see how it affects his sex life.”

John Preston, “A Very English Scandal: Sex, Lies and a Murder Plot at the Heart of the Establishment”.

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The man who had too much of everything

robin williams bk rev pic

Talent being at the top of the list. From my Times review of a weighty new account of the rise and fall of the genius that was Robin Williams:

The warning signs were there that moment in the 1970s when Robin Williams, then a star of the Los Angeles stand-up circuit, was signed by the leading talent agency that also handled Woody Allen. Everyone knew that being on its books was a ticket to the big league, but Williams’s wife-to-be, Valerie, felt uneasy when she met the men in suits. “They took me out to lunch, and I’ll never forget this. They said, ‘You are going to be very, very rich. You are not going to have to do anything any more. You can lunch and shop.’ I’ll never forget that. Lunch and shop.”

Money versus creativity: it is the age-old battle. Allen kept the accountants at bay by being his own writer and director. Not having those gifts, Williams was more vulnerable to the whims of the Hollywood machine. So it was that he spent a large chunk of his career doing lucrative work that did little for his reputation. When you reach the final sections of Dave Itzkoff’s conscientious if overlong biography (500-odd pages is 200 too many) you are wading through one forgettable movie after another. How depressing that an actor who had shown us how well he could handle a “straight” role in Awakenings should have been reduced to a supporting role in the Night at the Museum franchise.

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In the know

Insider or outsider? From Robert Verkaik’s new book, “Posh Boys: How the English Public Schools Run Britain”:

“Did you go to school?”

The question asked of suspected Old Etonians by Old Etonians.

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Mayfly season

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