After seeing ‘Duck Soup’ (1933) I had Groucho on the brain. Then I remembered this book which I had started to read years ago, but it had gotten bumped by…a deadline, another book, a failure of concentration, the winds of time, or something. My flawless shelving system allowed me to retrieve in a the twirl of a moustache end.

It is simple and diverting, though Groucho wears, erodes, irks, and bores. Julius Henry Marx just does not have an off-switch. Even when sleuthing, he is wisecracking and pratfalling much to the irritation of his straight-man Watson, Frank Denby, a gagwriter for radio when not sleuthing.

Groucho book cover.jpg

In 1937 a girl’s suicide in Hollywood irks Julius who is quite sure that she was not the suicide-type, and Denby finds the police stonewall suspicious. Off they go…. A midnight visit to a funeral home/office/parlour is straight out of a Marx Brothers picture with an unexpected touch that I will not spoil here.

They come up with nothing but then, true to the scriptwriter’s formula, someone takes a shot at them, convincing them that there is a conspiracy afoot. The plot twist toward the end was visible for miles.

There are a number of other titles in this series from the industrious Mr. Goulart.

Ron Goulart.jpg Ron Goulart

But if the trash-talk of Groucho was cut from this book, the remainder would be a short story of 60 pages or so. Too bad because the writer can write. The romance between Jane and Frank is charming, and some of the minor characters like the aged bellboy are well drawn, and the plot brings in the usual suspects, crooked cops from Bay City (where else), gamblers, starlets who will do anything with anybody for shot at fame and fortune, and even a bloodhound.

Wikipedia is full of information about the Marxes. The short version is five brothers, one of whom never acted, Gummo, another, Zeppo, who only did a little before moving on, and the three core brothers of stage, radio, and screen: Groucho, Harpo, and Chico. Stage names, yes, all ending in ‘o’ as was some fashion in their early years. Even Gummo who never took to the stage had an ‘o’ nickname to be consistent.

Marx_brothers_Tonight_Show.jpg From left to right: [do it yourself]

Chico because he chased women (chicks), Harpo because…. [figure it out]. Zeppo after the airship. Gummo because he crept around like a gumshoe. And Grocho because…. He preserved his mystique by giving numerous explanations over the years. Their parents immigrated to New York from Alsace, ethnic German Jews. No relation to Karl, the one without any sense of humour.

This book from a major New York City publisher has had a big push. It pops up on web sites, newspaper review pages, NPR programs, and more.

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I took the bait, remembering how much fun reading ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves’ (2003) by Lynn Truss was. Inspired by reading that I tried Jacques Barzun’s ‘Simple and Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers’ (2001, and it, too, was entertaining and enlightening, but much heavier going, and at about page 50 I cut Jack loose. It was too much! It was like getting an assignment back from Miss Moses in junior high school drenched in the Red Sea of ink flooding over each page. (The name has been changed to protect the guilty.) She did not know when to quit and neither did Jack.

In ‘Between you & me’ the usual suspects appeared in the lineup. Among them were the evil twins Who and Whom, the hyphen, and the serial comma.

Who is on first? That is the nominative case. To whom did I give the keys? That is the accusative case (aka dative case). Got it? The doer is nominative and the done to is accusative. With me? It gets more complicated with noun groups and compounds, but I left the train before that. Their cousin, possessive case, Whose is best left for the advanced course.

The hyphen is just too hard for me. Compound nouns seldom take it but the words rendered as a compound adjective must. The boarding house fell down. But the boarding-house fire was bad. See? Sort of, but not for long. Then there is breaking words over lines with hyphens. Is it at the first syllable. the first pair of consonants, or at the first meaningful break? Eng-land or En-gland or Eng-land. Two out of three? Grammar does not accept such populist methods of decision-making (or is that ‘decision making'). It turns out Herman Melville’s whale was Moby Dick but his book about Moby Dick was Moby-Dick. Sit down and think about that.

My favourite is the serial comma which I learned way back in Hastings on the Platte to call the Oxford comma; so called because it was prescribed by the Oxford University Press, which was regarded along the Platte as the highest court for punctuation, though patriotism required Noah Webster’s spelling. The Oxford comma is that one before ‘and’ at the end of series, as in ‘eats, shoots, and leaves.’ This by the way illustrates one of the features of John Stuart Mill’s rule-utilitarianism. That last comma is not always necessary but it is best to include it because it is too time-consuming to decide if it is needed in this or that instance and that decision may be mistaken. Just follow the rule, and include it.

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I have enlivened many dinner parties by bringing up the Oxford comma, discovering that some people, not many I am glad to say, invest much of themselves in that little squiggle, the ‘,’ and their cool, detached, and cynical demeanour slips entirely when it is bruited. People who yawn at important subjects like man’s inhumanity to man, spitting by baseball players, or coal-seam gas, roll-up their sleeves for Indian wrestling when the serial comma is mentioned. (I feel free to say ‘man’s’ inhumanity to ‘man’ in the masculine since men are the principle culprits.) Defending the serial comma, I have alienated some guests who went away muttering never to return!

Back to Norris, there was a very informative and amusing aside on Noah Webster’s several efforts to create an American language, stimulated in equal measure by his patriotism and rationality. No less a figure than George Washington encouraged him in that endeavour. He had successes and he had failures. The ‘ou’ passed out of most American use and he made the ‘z’ do a lot more work than it did across the Atlantic, and, animated by the egalitarian spirit, he called it by its right name ‘zee’ and not that snobbish ‘zed.’ If it looks like a zee, acts like a zee, sounds like a zee, then call is ‘zee.’

Webster’s failures may out number his successes. His multiple efforts to match sound values to sight did not always carry the day, e.g., ‘cloke’ for ‘cloak’ and many of the same ilk died in the pages of his lexicography. I have resolved to read a biography of this Webster (and maybe one day Daniel Webster, too).

It was also an eye-opener to learn that any dictionary can take the name of Webster, and several have. But an heir to Noah always bears the name Merriam because the brothers Merriam bought the rights from the widow Webster when Noah died, and that company has continued to publish it. A dictionary titled ‘Internationl Websters’ or ‘Websters New’ is unlikely to have anything to do with the founder, Noah. I turned to my reference shelf and was glad to see that mine is a Merriam. I am now armed against such infiltrators in the future.

There was also a poignant moment when Norris quoted from a hand-written letter Jacqueline Kennedy sent to Richard Nixon in reply to his note of condolence when Jack was murdered to show how emotion is conveyed by punctuation. More importantly, to this observer it confirmed once again that Jackie was a higher being.

Emily Dickinson haunts the pages. Her poems, all written privately like a diary, have presented editors and analysts a lifetime of challenges since she relied almost exclusively on the dash (—) for terminal punctuation, sometimes straight and level, sometime upward ascending, and sometimes downward descending, and some times wiggly. That combines with her very poor penmanship has created the space for many learned seminars to interpret her intentions and how best to convey them. When I read her poems (Saturday mornings at 8:00) I was unaware of that (and much else). Signing up for a class that met on Saturday at 8:00 am seemed like a good idea when I registered one semester as an undergraduate, so I did. By 9:00 am I would have knocked off another credit and have the day ahead. That was the plan. The reality was that it never seemed like a good idea on Saturday morning at 7:00 am.

I was impressed by the many editorial stages through which a ‘New Yorker” manuscript, once accepted, passes en route to the glossy page. The effort is great; the division of labor is elaborate; and the care is microscopic. Yet the product is largely ephemeral compared to the hubris that creates it.The elephant brings forth the mouse, a phrase I learned in Thailand when visiting Chulalongkorn University, meaning a great effort for a small result.

New Yorker cover.jpg

The difference between copyediting non-fiction and fiction was most interesting. It presents many challenges that have never crossed my mind when reading William Faulkner or John Updike. The details are many but perhaps the best illustration is that difference between the spoken and written language. That difference is a tension in fiction, whereas in non-fiction it is a rule. The imperative in fiction is let the author’s voice sound. Updike must sound like the prissy perfectionist and Ivy-League graduate he is and Faulkner must sound like the uneducated backwoodsman he is. But, yes there is a ‘but’ coming and it is a sizeable one, another thing I never considered.

If it appears in the ‘New Yorker’ does that henceforth make it right? If the magazine publishes one of Faulkner’s malapropisms, e.g., ‘most all’ for ‘almost all,’ will that cause its lemming-like readers all use that neo-logism? That the responsibility the ‘New Yorker’ bears in its self-assigned role as arbiter of United States English. [Sound of fife and drum.] Believe it or not, Ripley, decisions over punctuation at the ‘New Yorker’ are made against that national standard, and authors like Richard Ford have been subjected to editorial correspondence of some volume arguing over commas, what else?

By the way, getting that hyphen in ‘neologism’ above was a head-on struggle with automatic correct. Norris comments more than once on the habit of autocorrect to change things it ought not to change and the struggles at the ‘New Yorker’ to devise an in-house system to let it be itself. Regrettably nowhere does she discuss how it is that autocorrect got like that. Is it nature or nurture? Would remediation help?

I found no discussion of the relationship of quotation marks to punctuation, an old pet peeve of mine. I solved years ago, inspired by a teacher whose name is gone, by opting for what I now know to be a Millian (as in John Stuart) solution by putting the punctuation inside the quotation marks to keep it tidy. I see this is common in North American publications and seldom seen in British publications. The lucky ones will not know what I am talking about.

Like all pedants I have bones to pick. Norris uses direct address, ‘you,’ frequently. Ugh. She also goes to considerable lengths more than once to use the F-word. Most of all there is that title. No, the ‘me’ is right in the accusative, but what about that ampersand? She spares not a word for ‘&’ which I revile in anything but grocery lists. The dentist says I grind my teeth, well I know why!

I have treated all this with amusement but inside, I am very glad that someone takes the language seriously enough to work that hard at it. Why? Because most people do not, and the people I have in mind are authors and editors, not just teenagers who cannot be bothered.

There was a time when even Disney films cared about the language. Who can forget that touching scene in ‘The Lady and the Tramp’ (1955) when the latter explains to the former that a ‘dog lover’ without a hyphen is a dog. I remember this vividly because Miss Moses was overjoyed after it opened at the Rivoli on Second Street. She positively glowed, unlike the glower that was the norm on Monday mornings, Tuesday mornings, Wednesday… [etc.] and that was so unusual there was much comment among we grammarians, mostly by stolen glances and wrinkled frontal lobes, and some pinching to see if this was reality or a dream.

Norris.jpg Mary Norris

Like most books rooted in the ‘New Yorker,’ it is snappy, breezy, and a 60-page article puffed up into hardcovers. While the meandering introduction is easy to read, I did not see the point of the recollection of dairy work, nor was it clear to me from the start what the purpose of the book was, though Norris is an amusing and informative companion for trip, the destination was never named.

In the absence of a higher purpose I read it as a memoir of her life and times as a copyeditor for the slickest of the slick magazines. The lustre of the ‘New Yorker’ will never dim in my eyes because it published Hannah Arendt when no other magazine would. Credit William Shawn with that.

Who was the democrat Winston Churchill (1874-1965) or Adolf Hitler (1889-1945)? (For those readers who do not recognise these names, stop here and turn on 7MATE, the two of you deserve each other.)

Wait! Before answering think! What does ‘democracy’ mean?

Most of the time, most people think ‘democracy’ means voting, voting, voting, and counting the votes. Journalists intone the solemnity of leaders submitting themselves to vox populi. Well, the voice of the people, since most would not dare use Latin, even if they knew it.

If voting is the criterion, how do Churchill and Hitler compare?

Short answer: Hitler led his party in far more elections than Churchill did.

Hitler was a candidate for chancellor in five national elections between 1928 and 1933. In those parliamentary elections the vote for his Nazi Party grew from 3% to 44%. He heard the voice of the people. In addition, he led his party in elections in several German states in that period. Moreover, he held a plebiscite in Austria to confirm the Anschluss (the unification of German and Austria).

Hitler 1932.jpg Hitler campaigning in 1932.

Churchill, the great war leader and champion of democracy, became Prime Minister in May 1940. There was no vote. The Conservative Party changed leaders. There was no election in Great Britain during World War II (though there were in Australia, Canada, and the United States). The last general election in the United Kingdom had been in 1935. Churchill’s government decided not to call the elections due in 1940. Imagine the fuss a shock-jock would make of an incumbent government not facing the scheduled election. Horror! Outrage! Cliché!

Only in 1945, after the European War was over did Churchill call an election, and he lost, and lost decisively. (He remained leader and led his party to victory in 1949, that being the only election he won as leader.)

Churchill_June 1940.jpg The 65-year old Churchill on his first day as Prime Minister in 1940.

Yet, I would say Churchill’s claim to the title of democrat is greater than Hitler’s. Why?

First, Hitler campaigned in election-after-election AGAINST democracy. He proclaimed the idiocy of choosing leaders by votes and promised to do away with elections, once he had the authority to do so. He was explicit and overt about this. Elections counted the votes of Jews, bankers, women, trade unionists, Gypsies, homosexuals, cripples, and others equal to Aryan votes. ‘Stop that at once!’ he declared. He used the campaigns to air his views, identify, educate, mobilise, and license supporters. As the strength of his party grew in 1932 he unleashed those supporters to intimidate voters, forge ballots, burn ballot boxes from Jewish quarters, threaten voters at polling booths…

These are the facts.

We might speculate that had Hitler called an election in August 1940, November 1941, March 1942, even in February of 1944, he would have won easily and by a big margin. Here is a guess, he (and the Nazi Party) might have garnered 80% of the vote or more. There was after all no opposition left but we could imagine that one of the conservative agrarian parties that merged with the Nazis in 1930 breaking away as the opposition, against them Hitler’s victory might have been 90+%. The contrast is Churchill who called an election in July 1945 and lost while the Asian War continued.

Hitler 1933.jpg Hitler greets the people after being sworn in as Chancellor.

Second, Churchill’s claim rests principally on his unstinting respect for and use of parliament during the war years. First he formed a national war cabinet by including the Labour opposition, and second he submitted himself and his government to parliament which remained supreme, though the mandate of its members had lapsed. He explained and justified his actions in parliament, and he replied to questions and criticisms. He permitted the criticisms in the first place. Churchill kept and respected the institutions of British government, including the courts, whereas Hitler fused authorities and abolished institutions, reducing everything to personal loyalty to him in the army oath, and executive orders. It is this respect for and adherence to procedure, process, and practice that adds credit to Churchill’s democratic account. Of course, it is true that there were compromises in the name of the war effort and security, and some of the constraints were probably unnecessary when judged in the cold, clear light of hindsight, but the fundamental institutions remained; there to be re-awakened.

In so doing, Churchill left the democratic culture of Britain undiminished. Men and women grumbled about the government, questioned the need for rationing, complained about health care, suspected profiteering, and wrote letters expressing their vexations to members of parliament, to the BBC, and to newspapers. Newspapers picked away at the foibles and mistakes of government ministries. During the height of the Battle of Britain, during all-clears orators on the ladders in Hyde Park, London, excoriated the British government for its continued hold on India. This was all constrained but compared to Germany after 1933 it was a riot of freedom.

By the way, there was a great deal of opposition to Churchill, within his own party for a start. He was too belligerent many thought, including the first of his foreign ministers. Some Conservatives wanted him to fail and be replaced by a more pliable figure. Theirs was a whispering campaign, true, but it would have been exterminated in Germany, whereas Churchill combated it though parliament.

Conclusion? Voting alone does not democracy make. A small conclusion it might seem but it has major implications.

Francis Bacon (1561-1626) has many claims to fame, but this book is mainly and obsessively concerned with one of his claims to infamy as a betrayer of Robert Devereux, Second Earl of Essex, a favourite of Queen Elizabeth who overreached himself. Essex was patron to Bacon’s client. It is a study of the formation and transmission of Bacon’s reputation with periodic rehabilitations and denunciations.

BAcon bok cover.jpg

Insofar as the book is a study of Bacon’s reputation, there are comparisons to Niccolò Machiavelli. Like Machiavelli’s contemporary Thomas More, Bacon was both a scholar and a politician, as was Machiavelli. For all three of these men the ease with which erroneous assertions become fact by repetition is remarkable and once realised causes me to wonder what else in received option is equally erroneous.

To blacken Bacon’s name takes only a few words. To rebut and refute that assertion takes many pages to detail context, to infer intention, to shift testimony of eye-witnesses and so on. Believe me, Nieves Mathews is just the woman for the job of filling pages, though she complains more than once that she has too few pages to do the material justice. I took these asides to be references to the publisher’s insistence that the book end … sometime. She complains that Ignatius Donnelly’s book on Francis Bacon was too short to do justice to the subject. Too short at 900+ pages! See what I mean?

Essex is well known to anyone with even a slight knowledge of Queen Elizabeth. He was an attractive young man who captured the Queen's interest and held it, despite some appalling behaviour. His indiscipline combined with hubris of considerable proportions such that he put himself forward for all manner of things, and he got some of them. He was promoted several levels above his competence. Thus was he sent to Ireland as the head of an army to quell the fractious Irish. For most of that campaign, at great expense to the public purse, he disported, drank Ireland dry, left no wench go unmolested, wrote piteous letters to the Queen lying about his noble efforts on her behalf, and knighted seventy (70) of his drinking buddies. That escapade alone, and it was not unique, gave his enemies ammunition for a lifetime.

Bacon counselled moderation to this wastrel with a patience that bespeaks the lack of alternatives. Bacon was Essex’s man and he did his best to help him. Of course, Essex knew no bounds and when his plot against the Queen foundered Bacon was safely clear of the fallout. Like many others in politics, Essex contended that his plot of seize the Queen was to protect her from others with sinister designs on her. Perhaps because even the dim Essex realised Bacon would not play, Essex made no effort to involve him in the plot. Or, more likely, Essex regarded Bacon as unimportant. None of the copious correspondence produced as evidence against Essex named Bacon as conspirator. Nonetheless he was guilty by association in the minds of many then and since.


The story is not as clear-cut as summarised above. There have since been apologists and historians who see in Essex a victim of other forces. In that light, Bacon figures as a false friend who either betrayed Essex by revealing the plot, did too little to stop Essex’s mad scheme, or did too little to reconcile the Queen him. For the Essex-apologists Bacon’s treason to Essex is proven by fact that Bacon survived the drama and Essex did not.

Bacon’s reputation as a savant and public servant was sound for two hundred years until Baron Macaulay (1800-1859), wrote a hundred page essay on him, while resident in Calcutta during his tenure on the Indian Supreme Court. That got my attention because this same Macauley made a valiant attempt at about the same time to rescue Machiavelli’s reputation.

Back-and-forth through these 592 pages Mathews refutes every word Macaulay wrote and some he thought of writing but did not and still others he might have written. It is as thorough as a very expensive legal brief and just about as interesting to read. She is not one to summarise evidence when it can be paraphrased in full over pages and pages.

Macaulay started an anti-Bacon trend which she details from sources I never heard of but then I did not know his reputation had ever been blackened. She quotes letters to editors from literary magazines in 1891 to prove the point. Did I say ‘obsessive’ above? I did. It is. The thoroughness is that a PhD dissertation but it is not that, as I discovered when I tried to find out more about the author. For that see below.

Every card has been played against Bacon, she says, including the speculation that he was homosexual. My, my another comparison to Machiavelli who was accused of this practice by some plotting his downfall.

She also has a chapter on Bacon’s reputation in France, Germany, and Italy. No stone is left unturned. Among these enlightened Continental people he has long been recognised as a savant without equal.

‘I know of no other Renaissance writer who is so regularly vilified,’ said Brian Vickers (qv., p. 406). Brian should get out more. Try Machiavelli.

I did love her description of a Penguin edition of Bacon’s ‘Essays’ as aimed at discouraging students from ever reading them with the many derogatory things said of the man and his work in the editor’s preface. There is a student’s guide to Plato that is similar. Its editor, an Oxbridge don of high repute, is so plainly bored with Plato that he ends up making him boring. Penguin editions are cheap and available, but they are not always the best.

Overall this book is combative, sometimes polemical, but the subject matter saves it. Bacon was an interesting man and so were his times. Though it remains a mystery to me why Yale University Press published it. There are many mysteries out there, Scully. Another is the gentle review in the ‘American Historical Review,’ which went so far as to praise the writing style. Sometimes one suspects that reviews have not read all the way through a book.

Bacon’s claims to our attention are many. Along with several others he has been granted title to the plays and poems to which William Shakespeare put his name. Others have credited him with writing most of the works attributed to Michel de Montaigne, and still others say he wrote 'Don Quixote' in his spare time. True. He held two major public offices in the turbulent world of the Tudor and then Stuart courts: Attorney-General and Chancellor of the Exchequer. In addition, he served in parliament for many years. He articulated the scientific method, or at least, empiricism as a foundation for science, including particularly experimentation. His personal private secretary for some time was Thomas Hobbes, that giant of political theory. His personal physician was William Harvey. He knew a lot of big brains. Moreover, Bacon’s 40-page book the ‘New Atlantis,’ gave rise to cult of the Rosicrucians. However, some readers will be disappointed to know that he has nothing to do with the food of the same name.

The Child Bride gave me this book for Christmas some years ago. I tried to read it then and found it hard going. Feeling guilty after leaving it to ripen on shelf, when my eye fell on it recently I took it up to try again. Hard going. It is a specialist monograph based one extensive research into the time and place written without concession to an avocational reader (me), and the prose is leaden. Still it did get me thinking about Francis Bacon.


The author’s full name is Nieves Hayat de Madariaga Archibald, Mrs. Mathews (1917–2003). This from the Wikipedia stub: 'She was also deeply influenced by the works of Immanuel Velikovsky. In her earlier years, 1956, she wrote a crime novel, 'She Died Without Light'. She was inspired to do the Bacon book by Chandra Mohan Jain (1931-1990), also known as Acharya Rajneesh from the 1960s onwards, as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.' Her guru told her to do it. If Velikovsky is unknown, my advice, is to leave it that way.

I came across this title in March 2015 on a list of krimies set in Nebraska provided by the Omaha Public Library. When my eye fell on it, I knew I had to read it. Amazon came to the rescue with a copy. Carhenge! Been there, see that! Once you’ve seen Carhenge, it stays. We have tried for years to work Carhenge into conversations with the globetrotters we meet. Paris, Rio, Shanghai, Cairo, New York, these have little to offer in comparison. [Applause!]

Carhenge cover.jpg

The setting is college summer school offered in Alliance (named by French trappers having taken a wrong turn from the Platte River, they were a long way from anything to trap)— class lists (inaccurate), class rooms (unready), dean (officious), photocopying machine (broken down), internet (off line), textbooks (not arrived), desk top computer for the visitor (inoperative), one pushy student (give me the syllabus now, four months before the session starts!), and more slack students (going through the motions for career or social purposes). In short, a typical summer school. The only thing I found hard to believe was a full professor from the University of Colorado had a modest mien and accepted this assignment and seemed to like students and teaching. That is not a creature I have caught sight of in our local zoo.

These students are largely elementary school teachers accumulating credits either for another degree or to comply with a continuing education requirement. That, too, is familiar. Inevitably one student comes late to the course and another to each class and both demand to know what has been missed (i.e., private tuition). Another underlines every word in the reading but cannot answer any question about it (trees without a forest in sight). Par for any course.

One of the students disappears from class. Yes, that happens. But a few days later her boyfriend is found with a very big knife stuck in his very dead body…. Everything indicates she did it. Now that is not par for any course.

Moreover, she was a thoughtful and bright student who had befriended (advised and counselled, he discovers) several of the other women students. Could she be the culprit?

David McIntyre, our hero, wonders about this and he meets a few local people who, knowing her better than he does, also wonder. The pace is deliberate, and the passing parade of small town characters is given its due. The freelance mechanic, a weedy, bony, twenty year old with tattoos and studs, who longs to be a tough guy but keeps tripping over things, he is a hoot. The denizens of the burger joint act as a Greek chorus. Then there is the heat in the panhandle - open spaces are no-go zones after 10.30 on a July morning. The canopy of elm trees captures and holds a stifling, albeit shady, heat beneath, dark and hot like an oven. Most of all, there is: Carhenge.

car-henge-4.jpg Carhenge-1.jpg carhenge-2.jpg carhenge-4.jpg carhenge-7.jpg carhemge=8.jpg

The book gives instructions on the best method of viewing the site. To find that out, read the book for I shall not reveal it here. I hope to visit Carhenge again myself next year and make use of the instructions I found here.

James Work.jpg James Work

That the plot turns on several novels is great fun and very well realised. There are other literary krimies but none quite like this where life is art is life. Readers of the book will follow. Readers of ‘Tess of the d'Urbervilles’ will put 2 and 2 together and get Carhenge.

If Carhenge is unknown, add a brick to the wall of knowledge by reading about it on Wikipedia, or see the film! [Yes, Mr. Spock, there is a film.] Best of all, pay it a visit.

Three men publicly declared their intentions to run the first time for public office within hours of each other, one in Massachusetts, another in California, and the last in Alabama: John Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and George Wallace (1919-1998), and despite his four presidential campaigns the latter, Wallace, has all but disappeared from the popular consciousness. The evidence is celebrations of anniversaries reported to television and the shelves of bookstores. Kennedy and Nixon appear now and again in those places. Pigmies (journalists) till occasionally try to hack a byline out of Kennedy or Nixon. Scholars continue to evaluate their achievements in monographs. The fiftieth anniversary of this or that has commanded television time. Hits on the internet are millions for Kennedy and Nixon.

But George Wallace, though in the time he preoccupied both Kennedy and Nixon, and commanded headlines around the world, is now all but forgotten except to specialists in American regional politics. Moreover, later in life, outwardly Wallace executed a 180 degree turn in his public persona and went from a fire-eater to a grand old man. Who was George C. Wallace?


He was the oldest son in a comfortable family, though its fortunes had declined in the previous generation, along with millions of others when the Great Depression hit. George completed high school and graduated from the University of Alabama with the help of the G.I. Bill of the (later despised) federal government.

He was small, and often called ‘Little George’ rather than ‘George, Junior. ‘ If that irritated him, he found an outlet for any resentment in Golden Gloves boxing. He did well in that as a bantam weight. More than once knocking out an opponent. As one coach said, George did not want to win the fight, he wanted to hurt his opponent. Trying to teach him to score points for a technical victory had no effect. George did not want to score points, he wanted to deck his opponent, draw blood, and have KO recorded. The pugnacity he showed later was there from the beginning.

He had served in the United State Air Force in the Pacific War and flew nine missions in a B-29 over Japan. He was the flight engineer for the large and complicated airplane. While the Japanese defences were weak sometimes it only took one hit to bring down even one of these super fortresses. In addition, the distances, the weather, the fatigue of the crew on 16-hour flights in combat conditions, and the temperamental nature of the aircraft combined to produce 5% losses on every sortie; if 500 planes took off for a mission, 475 made it back. Each plane carried 11-crewmen and so that meant 275 deaths. Yes, deaths because when the planes went down, whether over Japan or open water, all hands were lost. Air-sea rescue existed but the vast expanse of the Pacific ocean over a 6,000 mile course made recovery a million-to-one shot.

On at least one flight Wallace’s handling of the engines, the fuel flow, the oil pressure, the hydraulics saved the plane from disaster. Later he secured an honourable discharge despite some dubious behaviour. (From the details in these pages I rather think he served in the same unit as my father, likewise from the South, but there the similarity ends.)

When the war started Wallace knew he had to serve in order to secure his future political ambitions. And he had political ambitions that were articulated from about 15 years of age. He earned a place as an intern in the Alabama legislature and declared that one day he would be governor. Many a boy and today many a girl has done something like this. Few of them, however, conducted the kind of campaign he did to secure that internship. In early summer when school was out his father drove him to the capital, Montgomery, and young George laid siege to the legislature like Grant before Richmond. He had already written a stream of letters to every member of the legislature explaining his exceptional merits for one of the very few internships available, pledging to serve above and beyond the call of duty. Once in Montgomery he presented himself at the door of one legislator after another and talked his way into most. He slept at least one night in park and gave his suit an undergraduate iron, i.e., he slept on it. His father left him to his own devices. For the first but not the last time, Wallace wore down his adversaries and he got an internship. He loved it, and did do twice the work any of the others.

The man was something of a loner despite coming from a family of five children. He could keep to himself for days at a time, as he often did during this internship and later in the Air Force, but if he was with other people he was garrulous, excited, nervous, twitching with energy, and talking, and talking, and talking nothing but politics as one contemporary after another says, though what politics he talked from fifteen onward is not clear.

What is clear is that he had a burning ambition and politics was the field. The two defining poles of Southern politics were (1) hatred of the North (Federal) government because of the Civil War and Reconstruction and (2) white superiority at the cost of black oppression. The former meant that the federal government was the real enemy, though the largess from FDR’s many programs was quickly pocketed in the South, it was nothing more than overdue compensation for the great evils the North had visited on the South. Suitably encoded for contemporary sensibilities, we hear the same motifs today from the Tea Party and its media service, Fox News.

Leaving aside the details, which are thoroughly documented and dramatically presented in this book, from the beginning Wallace was a hollow man.

Wallace had a gigantic need for recognition which translated into an unquenchable ambition for political office (even before taking the oath of office as governor the first time he referred to running for president ‘next year’) that combined with his belligerent temperament. To serve that ambition he would cheat, steal, and lie while denying everything. His defiance of the federal government on civil rights was - it is abundantly clear - contrived to lock-in the white vote for his ambitions. He had no interest in the constitutional or legal aspects of the dispute. Nor did he seem to have any personal animosity to blacks. As Hitler never personally harmed a Jew, so Wallace never harmed a black person. Racism was necessary to win and he would not be out done in that. No sir! If racism got votes, he would talk racism day-and-night. Against such singleminded determination, the federal government wobbled. The Kennedy Administration wanted compromise not confrontation but Wallace wanted confrontation (before the television cameras) and not compromise of even the most cosmetic kind.

Wallace promoted the mayhem of Selma and the maelstrom of Birmingham. The descriptions of the bomb, the razor, poison, the truncheon, C-4 teargas (which is toxic), the torch, the shotgun, the knife, the pistol, the high-pressure firehose that broke limbs, the baseball bat, and the snarling police dogs, and let us not forget the electric cattle prods were, as one French journalist said, worse than any he had ever seen in banana republics. Wallace was indifferent to the blood he had let, ever ready to blame someone else. His message was clearly understood by those whites who wanted to fight. The haters came out in force and Wallace privately invited the Ku Klux Klan to mobilise to the drive the blacks off the streets.

George-Wallace-governor.jpg George Wallace. 'Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!'

Before reaching for stereotypes about Alabama, it might be noted that in the 1920s a governor of this very same state, Oscar Underwood (1862-1929), sacrificed his political career, including his own presidential ambitions, to confront the Klan. Equally, Wallace’s immediate predecessor in the gubernatorial chair, Jim Folsom was an advocate, albeit inconsistently, of racial accommodation. Wallace’s constituency was always a minority but it was an intense minority that he had identified, legitimated, recruited, mobilised, and unleashed with the full support of the state government and the connivance of some of Alabama’s Washington representatives and senators. I said 'recruited' because there is evidence that some of the perpetrators had flocked to Alabama from other states to seize the opportunity to crack skulls.

Wallace had found, as did another Southern midget, Alexander Stephens (1812-1883), that crowds were bored when he talked about states’ rights but responsive when he went in for race-baiting. What was am ambitious man to do, but play the race card? It was the only card in the deck.

Having just read some of the Robert Penn Warren’s essays written at the same time as Wallace was at his pinnacle it is hard to believe these two Southerners came from the same planet.

While Wallace ranted and raved at the evils of the federal government, he continued to receive and bank his monthly check for his war wound. War wound? His discharge was based on his unfitness for further duty due to mental instability, i.e. combat fatigue. For that disability he received a part-pension for the rest of his life. Imagine what an opponent as unscrupulous as Wallace himself would have made of that fact.

Wallace had a retentive memory and he made a point of remembering people he met, because they might be useful later, but he had no rapport with them, unlike Huey Long. They were assets to be catalogued not people whom he could help. Long's faults are encyclopaedic but he never played the race card. There is a coldness at Wallace’s core, which is also evident in this relationship with women, including his ever loyal wife, Lurleen. So seldom did he see his children that she wondered if he would recognise them in a crowd.

In all he served three discontinuous four-year terms as governor, and his wife, Lurleen, served one four-year term as his surrogate. As to Wallace’s change of heart after his own ordeal, the author is sceptical. Wallace’s injuries were terrible and left him in constant pain. But after so many years and so many lies, perhaps the one person who believed his lies was George Wallace. The author gives very short shrift to this period in Wallace's life which I took to be a silent comment on Wallace's credibility.

Reading this book brought back those times to me, and it was disturbing to recall those days of the news each night of blowing up children in churches, burning to death families at the kitchen dinner table, the murder of university students in the street, a woman beaten to death with baseball bats by five men in a town square.… Worse, the culprits in many cases were well known, and some openly bragged of their deeds, others were on-duty police officers. Looking back, it beggars belief. I had no wish to see ‘Selma.’ The original was enough for me.

The author goes to remarkable lengths to be even-handed and let the facts speak for themselves. They do.

dan-carter.jpg Dan Carter

Presidential campaigns. Wallace's strategy was to produce an indecisive election, i.e. no candidate with majority of electoral votes, and throw the (s)election of the president into the House of Representatives as prescribed by the Constitution at the time. There a combination of Southerners with some Northerners from blue-collar constituencies might give him enough votes to wangle a Vice-Presidential selection, and from that base the next time he would be the leading contender for the top job. It is not as crazy as it sounds.

1964. Wallace entered and campaigned hard in three Democratic primaries, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Maryland, and did well. That ended the supposition he was a regional politician with no appeal outside the deep South. After dropping out, privately he offered his support to Barry Goldwater in return for the Vice-Presidential place on the Republican ticket. Goldwater declined. LBJ swept all before him.

1968. Wallace ran as a third party candidate with Curtis ‘Bomber’ LeMay. Richard Nixon won but he feared that Wallace would split his vote. Once again Wallace let it be known he would accept the Vice-Presidential slot on first the Democratic and the Republican ticket. This messages were ignored. He got ten million votes, carried five deep South states with forty-five Electoral votes. This was his high tide. He seems to have taken votes from blue collar workers in the North who might have otherwise voted for Hubert Humphrey and from Southern rednecks who might otherwise have voted for Nixon.

1972. Wallace entered the crowded Democratic primary field and won Maryland, Michigan, as well as Florida. Once again he approached Hubert Humphrey through an intermediary about the Vice-Presidential slot and once again Humphrey did not respond. While Wallace got votes, George McGovern’s campaign was more astute at getting delegates, and there was never a chance Wallace could win, but he could certainly be a spoiler. Nixon was delighted to see him in the Democrat chicken coop but worried he might bolt once again and run as a third party candidate. Many calculation were made. Among McGovern’s campaign staff were Bill and Hilary Clinton. Then that weirdo shot him. HIs assailant sought fame and barely knew who Wallace was. One weirdo too many.

1976. In a wheel chair he entered another crowded Democratic primary field but had little impact and dropped out quickly. He was allowed to address the convention, but he was a shadow of the rabble rouser he once was, and his effort to play the elder statesman was lame. Jimmie ‘Who’ Carter won and won again, the nomination and the election.

Footnotes to Wallace

Hatred and fear, these win elections. This was the lesson the Republican Party took away from the Wallace experience it has gradually make its own since. To paraphrase a Republican campaign analyst in 1968, find out what they fear, find out what they hate, and play to those and only to those. If white blue-collar workers fear that lower-paid blacks will take their jobs, play that card. If white middle-class suburbanites fear blacks will move into the neighbourhood and lower real estate values and mix races, play that card. ‘Playing the card’ means articulating these fears for them in a way that is socially acceptable but unmistakeable -- code it -- so that they can say it and in so doing realise they are not alone. This crystallised into ‘The Silent Majority’ which was hardly silent and probably not a majority, but it was a brilliant conceptualization. People motivated by hatred and fear will go to the polls and vote. Wallace's campaigns both in Alabama and in northern primaries brought many hundreds of thousands first-time voters to the polls in general or primary elections. That campaign manager used other examples and expressed them much more forcefully than I have done in deference to the PG-17 rating of this blog.

Demeaning accounts in press. The resentment that Wallace bore toward the North and its surrogate, the federal government, is easy enough to understand when reading the contemporary press accounts of him, his followers, and his campaigns quoted here. The ‘New York Times,’ ‘Time Magazine,’ CBC-TV News, all struggled to find a slot into which to place them, and they settled on the easiest one to hand. Drawing on their knowledge of the South from reading Al Capp’s ‘Lil Abner’, the pigmies of the Fourth Estate labelled them hillbillies, rednecks, hicks, yokels, and rubes. The early descriptions of Wallace on the campaign trail in North reek of condescension and deprecation. Everything about him was described as though he were a specimen in a jar, his wristwatch, his haircut, his finger nails, these were all subjected to the journalistic acid test, namely, can I get a byline out of this?

Robert van Gulik (1910-1967), a Dutchman, wrote a series of krimies featuring Dee. Gulik was an orientalist and lived most of his life in the Far East. Scrupulously following the trail of historical authenticity in the novels, Gulik’s Dee is a judge, rather like a circuit court judge who travels around China finding wrongs and righting them, and not a detective. One supposes that the label ‘detective’ is used to make Dee accessible to contemporary audiences, unlikely to know their own history. Having read a couple over the years, when I saw this title in the SBS line up, I was curious to see what contemporary Chinese would make of a European’s appropriation of their society fifty years ago.

van-Gulik-robert.jpg Robert van Gulik

The short answer is not much. This is an original story, per the IMDB information, and the title does not match any of Gulik’s at my glance. I rather think this film takes more liberties with Chinese historical accuracy than did Gulik. It seems as free as a Hollywood script, veering this way and that, with talking animals, ghosts, and other excuses for CGI, CGI, and more CGI, without a meaningful story line or characters with any depth. A moving comic book, but then Stan Lee has ascended to royalty on that. I let it run but assigned only 1% cognitive attention to it while plowing through the NYT Sunday crossword puzzle.

Dee cover.jpg

IMDB scores is 6.6 and some reviewers found it ‘enthralling’ and ‘sumptuous.’ I found it repetitive, predictable, incomprehensible, and boring by turns. Something for everyone then.

There are ghosts in the Dee stories I know, but inevitably it turns out that some villain is trading on the belief in ghosts to get up to some dastardly deed, and the no-nonsense Judge Dee soon settles that!

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Thoughts on the canon of poltical theory and life.

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