A tortoise crosses the road

From John Steinbeck’sSteinbeck The Grapes of Wrath

This story is a metaphor in which Steinbeck compares the easygoing, patient, persistent land turtle, or tortoise, with the dirt-poor, downtrodden farmers of the dustbowl seeking a better life in the far West. I so admire the turtle and how it keeps going. And Steinbeck’s description of it, of course.

John Steinbeck, 1902 to 1968.

The concrete highway was edged with a mat of tangled, broken, dry grass, and the grass heads were heavy with oat beards to catch on a dog’s coat, and foxtails to tangle in a horse’s fetlocks, and clover burrs to fasten in sheep’s wool; sleeping life waiting to be spread and dispersed, every seed armed with an appliance of dispersal, twisting darts and parachutes for the wind, little spears and balls of tiny thorns, and all waiting for animals and for the wind, for a man’s trouser cuff or the hem of a woman’s skirt, all passive but armed with appliances of activity, still, but each possessed of the anlage of movement,

The sun lay on the grass and warmed it, and in the shade under the grass the insects moved, ants and ant lions to set traps for them, grasshoppers to jump into the air and flick their yellow wings for a second, sow bugs like little armadillos, plodding restlessly on many tender feet. And over the grass at the roadside a land turtle crawled, turning aside for nothing, dragging his high-domed shell over the grass. His hard legs and yellow-nailed feet threshed slowly through the grass, not really walking, but boosting and dragging his shell along.
Land turtle

The barley beards slid off his shell, and the clover burrs fell on him and rolled to the ground. His horny beak was partly open, and his fierce, humorous eyes, under brows like fingernails, stared straight ahead. He came over the grass leaving a beaten trail behind him, and the hill, which was the highway embankment, reared up ahead of him. For a moment he stopped, his head held high. He blinked and looked up and down. At last he started to climb the embankment. Front clawed feet reached forward but did not touch. The hind feet kicked his shell along, and it scraped on the grass, and on the gravel. As the embankment grew steeper and steeper, the more frantic were the efforts of the land turtle. Pushing hind legs strained and slipped, boosting the shell along, and the horny head protruded as far as the neck could stretch. Little by little the shell slid up the embankment until at last a parapet cut straight across its line of march, the shoulder of the road, a concrete wall four inches high. As though they worked independently the hind legs pushed the shell against the wall. The head upraised and peered over the wall to the broad smooth plain of cement. Now the hands, braced on top of the wall, strained and lifted, and the shell came slowly up and rested its front end on the wall. For a moment the turtle rested. A red ant ran into the shell, into the soft skin inside the shell, and suddenly head and legs snapped in, and the armored tail clamped in sideways. The red ant was crushed between body and legs. And one head of wild oats was clamped into the shell by a front leg. For a long moment the turtle lay still and then the neck crept out and the old humorous frowning eyes looked about and the legs and tail came out. The back legs went to work, straining like elephant legs, and the shell tipped to an angle so that the front legs could not reach the level cement plain. But higher and higher the hind legs boosted it, until at last the center of balance was reached, the front tipped down, the front legs scratched at the pavement, and it was up. But the head of wild oats was held by its stem around the front legs.

Now the going was easy, and all the legs worked, and the shell boosted along, waggling from side to side. A sedan driven by a forty-year old woman approached. She saw the turtle and swung to the right, off the highway, the wheels screamed and a cloud of dust boiled up, two wheels lifted for a moment and then settled, the car skidded back onto the road, and went on, but more slowly. The turtle had jerked into its shell, but now it hurried on, for the highway was burning hot.

And now a light truck approached, and as it came near, the driver saw the turtle and swerved to hit it. His front wheel struck the edge of the shell, flipped the turtle like a tiddly-wink, spun it like a coin, and rolled it off the highway. The truck went back to its course along the right side. Lying on its back, the turtle was tight in its shell for a long time. But at last its legs waved in the air, reaching for something to pull it over. Its front foot caught a piece of quartz and little by little the shell pulled over and flopped upright. The wild oat head fell out and three of the spearhead seeds stuck in the ground. And as the turtle crawled on down the embankment, its shell dragged dirt over the seeds. The turtle entered a dust road and jerked itself along, drawing a wavy shallow trench in the dust with its shell. The old humorous eyes looked ahead, and the horny beak opened a little. His yellow toe nails slipped a fraction in the dust. 

Rough sex down by the river

A brutal encounter sets the wind among the willows.
by Ken Burnett


Jonathan Swift once said ‘Vision is the art of seeing the invisible.’ I like this story because it allows me to show the potential for observation in everyday things. It comes from my book The Field by the River and was originally titled The rape of the banded demoiselle. Early one July I saw this extraordinary encounter and I wrote it down on the spot. Afterwards, as I read about these delicate insects and their habits, I found all other accounts without exception were sterile and restrained by comparison. Perhaps in describing this as rape I’m over-anthropomorphising the actions of the male demoiselles. Such encounters may indeed just be normal. But I merely report what I saw and how it struck me at the time.

Sex in the world of insects is often rough, frequently not consensual. The damselfly is a favourite insect for me, and particularly among that grouping, I like the banded demoiselle.

The female of the species is slight, delicate, almost transparent; she has none of the bright, gaudy displays of her larger mate, being coloured a dull green with translucent wings, making her hard to spot. But the male of the species knows what he’s looking for and can spot her easily.

He is larger, stronger and much more brightly coloured. The one I observed was a brilliant shimmering blue with darker blue markings across his four splendid wings. His body is thicker than hers and longer too, powerful, pliable and very strong.


Watching insects have sex is a strange pastime. The thing about Peeping Toms is they should aspire not to be seen, but I can hardly avoid it. And Peeping Tom seems a strange name to give a chap when his leering visage must seem to the two sweaty beasts shagging about four inches away to loom like Jupiter seen from its moons, occupying at least a third of their available sky.

There are numerous damselflies and other winged travellers around at the water’s edge now. The female I’ve spotted has also attracted the attentions of a group of idly hovering males. Though all seem interested, one is more attentive and persistent than the rest. 

Congress can only commence when the male has trapped the female, often after a tiring chase. The chase begins at a dizzying pace with twists, turns and pirouettes up, down and sideways around the plant strewn riverbank above and across the rocks at the water’s edge. But there’s only one possible end as the male traps the female on the ground, asserting his mastery by fixing his abdomen firmly around the back of her neck. No female can resist the power of that grip. This is about control, domination and subjugation. The male then grasps and mounts his paramour and there’s nothing gentle or discreet about what he does, from here on it’s rough full-on sex, no pretence at otherwise.

After flying in tandem for a while the pair adopt what’s called the wheel position, where he holds her firmly by the neck, forcing her onto his secondary genitals. Dragonflies and damselflies are unique in that males have two sets of genitals. To fertilise his mate the male must first pass a sperm packet from his primary genitals, located at the end of his abdomen, to the secondary genitals at the top of his abdomen, just above the chest. These have hook-like grippers attached, designed for holding her firmly. Here he has to attach her genitals – just one set she has, at the end of her abdomen, which is now curled up and held against his chest, ready for the deed.

Penetration is rough and determined. In some damselfly males the tip of the whiplike penis is equipped with spines for scouring out the genital tract of the female, to remove the sperm of any other males. 

So, no gentle foreplay here. Of course it occurs to me that despite the apparent brutality the female demoiselle, while not actually enjoying it, might at least be OK. Given her contortions I conclude that this is unlikely. The female is bent over backwards and upside down, pinned down and forced to offer herself to her assailant.

From time to time throughout their vigorous coupling the male appears to pause to mop his brow, brushing his antennae with a loose forearm. The female stays trapped beneath, inverted and held in a vicelike grip while the male thrusts deeply, vigorously, rhythmically, urgently and with scant regard for his subservient partner.

At last the satiated male releases his grip and his victim is set free. It seems to take her some time to recover, while he saunters off to a nearby leaf where he sits, nay reclines, basking in the sunlight, seemingly more than a little pleased with himself – the boy done good.

Having painfully straightened her bruised and sore abdomen, she is having trouble getting her wings to work. The right wings have been bent sideways. For a while it looks like she might be unable to fly. Having forgotten the encounter already the male now moves off, in the insect equivalent of a post-coital fag, to lounge on a nearby leaf. But two more likely lads hove in view and quickly spot the weakened and disabled female, dishevelled but obviously still at least a bit alluring and fair game to her opposite sex. Eagerly they swoop and a second desperate chase begins among the ferns, with again only one possible outcome. A second rape appears inevitable and it’s unlikely to be more considerate of the female than was the first.

Of course there’s nothing to suggest that the apparent abuse I witnessed was her first or even second coupling that morning. The male who inseminates her just before she lays her eggs will be the one who gets to spread his genes. She, poor creature, has no option other than to submit to him and all others before him.


Such is the lot of the female banded demoiselle. Tempting though it is to intervene, I’ll resist and leave the banded demoiselles to their own devices, which inevitably means to the less than tender care of their males.



Billy Ray Harris and the ring of fortune: what happens when a homeless man does the right thing?

From NBC’s TODAY programme.

‘His spirit has been rejuvenated,’ said Sarah Darling, who accidentally dropped her engagement ring in Billy Ray Harris’ donation cup in February. Harris returned the ring and the story inspired donors around the world. Sarah Darling and her husband Bill have since formed a lifelong friendship with Harris.

 9. Billy Ray Harris
Billy Ray Harris is no longer homeless, after returning a stranger’s ring.

A few short months ago, 55-year-old Billy Ray Harris was homeless. He lived on a street corner in Kansas City, holding out a cup and asking passers-by for spare change. But then, one day, his life changed.

Last February Sarah Darling passed Harris at his usual spot and dropped some change into his cup. But, unbeknownst to her, she also accidentally dropped in her engagement ring. Though Harris considered selling the ring — he got it appraised for $4,000 — he ultimately couldn’t go through with it, and a few days later, he returned the ring to Darling.

‘I am not trying to say that I am no saint, but I am no devil either,’ he said at the time.

‘I was so incredibly upset’, said Sarah Darling, who lost the ring, ‘because, I mean, more than the value of the ring, it had sentimental value,’  

Realising her loss she had returned to the same spot in the Plaza where she had first encountered Harris. Squatting down beside him, she asked if he remembered her.

‘I don’t know.’ Harris replied.  ‘I see a lot of faces.’ Darling then said she may have given him something very valuable the day before. Then Harris then knew exactly who she was.

‘I says, ‘Was it a ring?’ Harris recalled. ‘And she says, ‘Yeah.’

The homeless man then pulled the ring from his pocket and presented it to Darling.

‘It seemed like a miracle. I thought for sure there was no way I would get it back,’ Darling told KCTV5. ‘I think in our world we often jump to like the worst conclusion, and it just makes you realize that there are good people out there.’

Though Harris had lived beneath a bridge and begged for his living in the Plaza in Kansas City, Mo., he says, ‘my grandfather was a reverend. He raised me from the time I was six months old, and thank the good lord, it’s a blessing, but I do still have some character.’

So while Darling rewarded Harris with all the cash she was carrying in her wallet, perhaps even greater reward was the homeless man’s sense of pride that he had done the right thing.

Sarah Darling
Sarah Darling said her concern wasn’t the monetary value of the engagement ring, but its sentimental value.

As a way to say thank you, Sarah and her husband Bill started a fund to raise money for Harris, to help him get his life back on track. ‘We set a goal for a thousand dollars,’ Darling told TODAY in March. ‘We set it up because a lot of people who had been touched by the story expressed interest in helping Billy Ray.’

The fund raised far more than any of them expected — in just three months, people donated more than $190,000. 

Harris talked to a lawyer, who helped him put the money in a trust. Since then, he’s been able to buy a car and even put money down on a house, which he’s fixing up himself.

And that’s not all: After he appeared on TV, his family members, who had not been able to find him for 16 years and had heard rumors he was dead, were able to track him down. They were happily reunited, and Harris is now working on his relationship with them, including nieces and nephews he hadn’t even known existed.

‘When I think of the past, I think, thank God that it’s over,’ he told TODAY. ‘I mean, I feel human now.’

And the Kansas City community hasn’t forgotten about Harris and his good deed. ‘I still see some of the same people,” he says, ‘but only now, instead of coming up and giving me change, they’re coming up shaking my hand and, you know, saying ‘hey, good job’.’

Since the fateful day that Darling’s ring landed in his cup, Billy Ray Harris’ life has done a 180. ‘This is what they call the American Dream,’ he says. ‘I want to thank all the people that helped me out. I want them to see where all their efforts, blessings and kindness is going.’ I got an air mattress now, it’s like living like a king compared to where I was,” he said.

Later the TV station reunited Billy Ray with his family, who he’d fallen out of touch with.

‘I never would’ve thought this,’ Billy Ray Harris said during a joyous reunion with his siblings on the TODAY show on Sunday. ‘This was a total shock.’



The strange yet instructive case of Mr Phineas Gage

Phineas Gage

Phineas Gage, above, was clearing rocks for the US railroad in 1848 when dynamite he’d just placed in a hole was accidentally fired. The heavy metal pole he’s seen holding rocketed through his skull leaving a two-inch tunnel diagonally through his head, tearing away his pre-frontal lobe. Amazingly he not only lived, he sat up beside the buggy driver who took him to the nearest doctor, chatting away. Despite the severity and extent of his injuries he seemed to make an almost complete physical recovery, though it was soon evident that mentally he had changed, significantly. More than 100 years passed before scientists realised that Phineas Gage had been living proof that brain and mind are connected but are not single separate entities. Instead they’re made of several different compartments all with distinct and separate functions.

Or, so it seemed. But nothing to do with the brain is ever simple
. Or uncontroversial.

That summer Mr Phineas Gage was a young man of 25 years, a popular gang boss working on the Rutland and Burlington railway of Boston. He was fit, energetic, strong, a model employee, a pillar of his community. Then he suffered an accident so traumatic it is a miracle he survived yet he survived almost unchanged. Almost, but not quite.

Phineas Gage’s survival was a boon to what was the then unknown, barely even nascent science of neurology. From Mr Gage scientists learned perhaps their single most important insight ever into the workings of the human brain.

At the time of the accident the railroad faced a stubborn outcrop of rock blocking its planned path. Mr Gage’s job was to break these rocks with strategically placed explosives. In this task he employed a straight cylindrical metal pole three and a half feet in length, one and one half inches thick, ground to a needle-sharp point and weighing 13 and a half pounds. With this implement in hand Mr Gage would first make a deep hole, fill it one third with gunpowder, attach a fuse, top this with sand, damping down the sand to form a tight seal. Then, from a safe distance, he and his assistant would light the fuse to detonate the charge and clear the rock.

On the day in question Mr Gage was going about his business when his attention was distracted by a call from behind. He failed to realise that the sand had not been applied and began damping down heavily onto the exposed gunpowder with his metal bar. This created a spark that ignited the powder causing a large explosion. The metal bar, his damping iron, rocketed skyward with the force of an exploding missile.

Between this rocketing metal spear and the freedom of the sky there stood Phineas Gage. Upon exiting its silo the missile missed his body but entered his jawbone just left of his chin. Without slowing it rocketed upwards though his brain, blasting away the prefrontal lobe to exit through a two inch gaping, mushroom-shaped hole at the top of his skull. The metal spear landed some 50 feet from the scene. Phineas Gage was knocked clean off his feet and assumed by all watching to be instantly killed. Not so. Incredibly he rose mere seconds after the explosion and walked unaided to a nearby bench, shaken, bleeding but seemingly otherwise little the worse. All including Gage himself at first assumed that the missile had hit him only a glancing blow.

This was not so, though even when the scale of injury was realized Gage refused to lie down. A coach and pair came to convey him four miles to the local doctor. He sat upright beside the driver the entire way.

The local doctor, James Harlow, promptly examined the patient and found a remarkable clear, clean wound. ‘The patient’, Dr Harlow later wrote, ‘bore his sufferings with the most heroic firmness. He recognized me at once, and said he hoped he was not much hurt. He seemed to be perfectly conscious, but was getting exhausted from the hemorrhage. His person, and the bed on which he was laid, were literally one gore of blood.’

Gage appeared normal, speaking and behaving merely as if slightly shaken, though he had a near perfect two inch hole right through his head from below his chin to the top of his skull. Yet he seemed coherent, alert and in little pain. Harlow’s assistant Dr Williams wrote later that he could see the man’s brain pulsating clearly through the gaping, funnel-shaped hole in his skull. Gage talked all the time while Williams was examining him. Crude chemical disinfection was recognized as important even then and the wound was vigorously if rather roughly cleaned. Gage later suffered from abscesses, but survived not just that day, but for 13 more years.’

The point of such a bizarre tale is simple. What Phileas Gage had shown was that the mind has many distinct compartments each responsible for different parts of what, collectively, adds up to our mind, to ‘us’.

Phineas Gage was healed and appeared unchanged. Physically, remarkably, he was. He rapidly regained outward health and strength. Save for losing the sight in his left eye he could touch, see and hear as before. His sense of smell was unchanged. He could walk purposefully upright, use his hands dexterously as before yet those who knew him noticed powerful, seemingly permanent change to his character and personality.

Dr Harlow described him as follows. ‘The intellectual balance between his human faculties and animal propensities has been destroyed.’ Gage started to swear foul oaths and gross profanities, something foreign to him before the accident.  He became irreverent, irritable, inconstant, a drunkard and a brawler. Women were counselled to avoid his company for fear of offence or worse. Indeed so radical was the change in personality that people who had known him before could scarcely recognise the man. It became clear: Phineas Gage was no longer Phineas Gage.

Though intensely documented, the real lessons from the strange case of Phineas Gage were not realised for 100 years, before it was appreciated that Gage’s experience shows that by altering or removing a small and specific portion of the brain, the mind can be so changed as to alter someone’s personality out of all recognition. Phineas Gage’s accident shows us that the human mind in its home the brain has many compartments and that damage in one area need not noticeably affect all or even any of the other areas.

Recently though this version of Mr Gage’s story has been challenged. Two photographs of Gage and a physician’s report of his physical and mental condition late in life were published in 2009 and 2010, detailing new evidence that suggests Gage’s most serious mental changes may have been temporary, so that in later life he was far more functional, and socially far better adjusted, than was previously assumed.

Perhaps, over time, his brain regained some of its former functions. It is of course a remarkable thing, the human brain. However, a noted psychologist has commented, ‘Phineas’s story is [primarily] worth remembering because it illustrates how easily a small stock of facts becomes transformed into popular and scientific myth.’

It’s a good story though. And true, for sure.

A modest proposal. Jonathan Swift’s enterprising solution to the growth of the urban poor

For Preventing The Children of Poor People in Ireland From Being A burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to The Publick.

by Jonathan Swift 

Swift’s straight-faced satire of heartless attitudes to the poor and Irish political policy generally dates from 1729. No doubt many will have seen it as a creative, far-sighted solution to what was evidently an irksome problem of the day. Of course, he wasn’t being entirely serious. Because the original is so long I felt obliged to edit it in the interests of space, but do so with regret.Jonathan Swift

It is a melancholy object to those who walk through this great town or travel in the country, when they see the streets, the roads, and cabin doors, crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags and importuning every passenger for an alms. These mothers, instead of being able to work for their honest livelihood, are forced to employ all their time in strolling to beg sustenance for their helpless infants: who as they grow up either turn thieves for want of work, or leave their dear native country to fight for the Pretender in Spain, or sell themselves to the Barbadoes.

I think it is agreed by all parties that this prodigious number of children in the arms, or on the backs, or at the heels of their mothers, and frequently of their fathers, is in the present deplorable state of the kingdom a very great additional grievance; and, therefore, whoever could find out a fair, cheap, and easy method of making these children sound, useful members of the commonwealth, would deserve so well of the public as to have his statue set up for a preserver of the nation…

The number of souls in this kingdom being usually reckoned one million and a half, of these I calculate there may be about two hundred thousand couple whose wives are breeders; from which number I subtract thirty thousand couples who are able to maintain their own children, although I apprehend there cannot be so many, under the present distresses of the kingdom; but this being granted, there will remain an hundred and seventy thousand breeders. …

I am assured by our merchants, that a boy or a girl before twelve years old is no salable commodity; and even when they come to this age they will not yield above three pounds, or three pounds and half-a-crown at most on the exchange; which cannot turn to account either to the parents or kingdom, the charge of nutriment and rags having been at least four times that value.

I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection.

I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.

I do therefore humbly offer it to public consideration that of the hundred and twenty thousand children already computed, twenty thousand may be reserved for breed, whereof only one-fourth part to be males; which is more than we allow to sheep, black cattle or swine; and my reason is, that these children are seldom the fruits of marriage, a circumstance not much regarded by our savages, therefore one male will be sufficient to serve four females. That the remaining hundred thousand may, at a year old, be offered in the sale to the persons of quality and fortune through the kingdom; always advising the mother to let them suck plentifully in the last month, so as to render them plump and fat for a good table. A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends; and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter.

I have reckoned upon a medium that a child just born will weigh 12 pounds, and in a solar year, if tolerably nursed, increaseth to 28 pounds.

I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.

Infant’s flesh will be in season throughout the year, but more plentiful in March, and a little before and after; for we are told by a grave author, an eminent French physician, that fish being a prolific diet, there are more children born in Roman Catholic countries about nine months after Lent than at any other season; therefore, reckoning a year after Lent, the markets will be more glutted than usual, because the number of popish infants is at least three to one in this kingdom: and therefore it will have one other collateral advantage, by lessening the number of papists among us…

I profess, in the sincerity of my heart, that I have not the least personal interest in endeavoring to promote this necessary work, having no other motive than the public good of my country, by advancing our trade, providing for infants, relieving the poor, and giving some pleasure to the rich. I have no children by which I can propose to get a single penny; the youngest being nine years old, and my wife past child-bearing.


The End


Fanny Burney endures a mastectomy, 30 September 1811

This story is so graphically detailed it will make you squirm. It’s included because it’s so simply and courageously told. And though you may wriggle, writhe, weep and wonder, it might touch you powerfully too.

by Fanny Burney

Frances (Fanny) Burney was an admired friend of Dr Samuel Johnson. She served five years at the court of George III and Queen Charlotte as Second Keeper of the Royal Robes (1786-1791). Fanny Burney married Alexandre d’Arblay in 1793 after he had fled to England to escape the Revolution. They lived for ten years in France, from 1802-1812.

This rare patient narrative describes a mastectomy performed before the introduction of anesthesia. Madame d’Arblay first felt pain in her breast in August 1810. Cancer was diagnosed and Baron Larrey, Napoleon’s surgeon, agreed to perform the operation. To spare her suspense, she was given very little notice. The ‘M. d’A’ of her account is her husband. Alexander is her son.

Fanny Burney

Before the operation M. d’Arblay arranged for linen and bandages as his wife made her will and wrote farewell letters to him and her son. Her doctor gave her a wine cordial, the only anesthetic she received. Waiting for all the doctors to arrive must have been agony. The image of Fanny Burney is from a 1772 painting by Edward Francisco Burney.

One morning – the last of September, 1811, while I was in Bed & M. d’ A. was arranging some papers for his office, I received a  letter written by M. de Lally to a Journalist, in vindication of the honoured memory of his Father against the assertions of Mme Deffand. I read it aloud to My Alexanders, with tears of admiration & sympathy, & then sent it by Alex: to its excellent Author, as I had promised the preceding evening. I then dressed, aided, as usual for many months, by my maid, my right arm being condemned to total inaction; but not yet was the grand business over, when another Letter was delivered to me – another. indeed! – ‘twas from M. Larrey, to acquaint me that at 10 o’clock he should be with me, properly accompanied, & to exhort me to rely as much upon his sensibility & his prudence, as upon his dexterity & his experience; he charged to secure the absence of M. d’ A: & told me that the young Physician who would deliver me his announce would prepare for the operation, in which he must lend his aid: & also that it had been the decision of the consultation to allow me but two hours’ notice. – Judge, my Esther, if I read this unmoved! – yet I had to disguise my sensations & intentions from M. d’ A! – Dr Aumont, the Messenger & terrible Herald, was in waiting; M. d’ A stood by my bedside; I affected to be long reading the Note, to gain time for forming some plan, & such was my terror of involving M. d’A. in the unavailing wretchedness of witnessing what I must go through, that it conquered every other, & gave me the force to act as if I were directing some third person. The detail would be too Wordy, as James says, but the wholesale is – I called Alex to my Bedside, & sent him to inform M. Barbier Neuville, chef du division du Bureau de M. d’A. that the moment was come, & I entreated him to write a summons upon urgent business for M. d’A. & to detain him till all should be over. Speechless & appalled, off went Alex, &, as I have since heard, was forced to sit down & sob in executing his commission. I then, by the maid, sent word to the young Dr Aumont that I could not be ready till one o’clock: & I finished my breakfast, & – not with much appetite, you will believe! forced down a crust of bread, & hurried off, under various pretences, M. d’ A. He was scarcely gone, when M Du Bois arrived: I renewed my request for one o’clock: the rest came; all were fain to consent to the delay, for I had an apartment to prepare for my banished Mate. This arrangement, & those for myself, occupied me completely. Two engaged nurses were out of the way – I had a bed, Curtains, & heaven knows what to prepare – but business was good for my nerves. I was obliged to quit my room to have it put in order: – Dr Aumont would not leave the house; he remained in the Sallon, folding linen! – He had demanded 4 or 5 old & fine left off under Garments – I glided to our Book Cabinet: sundry necessary works    & orders filled up my time entirely till One o’dock, When all was ready – but Dr Moreau then arrived, with news that M. Dubois could not attend till three. Dr Aumont went away – & the Coast was clear. This, indeed, was a dreadful interval. I had no longer anything to do – I had only to think – TWO HOURS thus spent seemed never-ending. I would fain have written to my dearest Father – to You, my Esther – to Charlotte James – Charles – Amelia Lock – but my arm prohibited me: I strolled to the Sallon – I saw it fitted with preparations, & I recoiled – But I soon returned; to what effect disguise from myself what I must so soon know? – yet the sight of the immense quantity of bandages, compresses, spunges, Lint – made me a little sick: – I walked backwards & forwards till I quieted all emotion, & became, by degrees, nearly stupid – torpid, without sentiment or consciousness; – & thus I remained till the Clock struck three. A sudden spirit of exertion then returned, – I defied my poor arm, no longer worth sparing, & took my long banished pen to write a few words to M. d’ A – & a few more for Alex, in case of a fatal result. These short billets I could only deposit safely, when the Cabriolets – one – two – three – four – succeeded rapidly to each other in stopping at the door. Dr Moreau instantly entered my room, to see if I were alive. He gave me a wine cordial, & went to the Sallon. I rang for my Maid & Nurses, – but before I could speak to them, my room, without previous message, was entered by 7 Men in black, Dr Larry, M. Dubois, Dr Moreau, Dr Aumont, Dr Ribe, & a pupil of Dr Larry, & another of M. Dubois. I was now awakened from my stupor – & by a sort of indignation – Why so many? & without leave? – But I could not utter a syllable. M. Dubois acted as Commander in Chief. Dr Larry kept out of sight; M. Dubois ordered a Bed stead into the middle of the room. Astonished, I turned to Dr Larry, who had promised that an Arm Chair would suffice; but he hung his head, & would not look at me. Two old mattrasses M. Dubois then demanded, & an old Sheet. I now began to tremble violently, more with distaste & horror of the preparations even than of the pain. These arranged to his liking, he desired me to mount the Bed stead. I stood suspended, for a moment, whether I should not abruptly escape – I looked at the door, the windows – I felt desperate – but it was only for a moment, my reason then took the command, & my fears & feelings struggled vainly against it. I called to my maid – she was crying, & the two Nurses stood transfixed at the door. Let those women all go! cried M. Dubois. This order recovered me my Voice – No, I cried, let them stay! qu’elles restent! This occasioned a little dispute, that re-animated me – The maid, however & one of the nurses ran off – I charged the other to approach, & she obeyed. M. Dubois now tried to issue his commands en militaire, but I resisted all that were resistable – I was compelled, however, to submit to taking off my long robe de Chambre, which I had meant to retain – Ah, then, how did I think of my Sisters! – not one, at so dreadful an instant, at hand, to protect – adjust – guard me _ I regretted that I had refused Mlle de Maisonneuve – Mlle Chastel _ no one upon whom I could rely – my departed Angel! _ how did I think of her! – how did I long -long for my Esther _ my Charlotte! – My distress was, I suppose, apparent, though not my Wishes, for M. Dubois himself now softened, & spoke soothingly. Can You, I cried, feel for an operation that, to You, must seem so trivial? _ Trivial? he repeated – taking up a bit of paper, which he tore unconsciously, into a million of pieces, oui c’est peu de chose, mais – ‘ he stammered, & could not go on. No one else attempted to speak, but I was softened myself, when I saw even M. Dubois grow agitated, while Dr Larry kept always aloof, yet a glance showed me he was pale as ashes. I knew not, positively, then, the immediate danger, but every thing convinced me danger was hovering about me, & that this experiment could alone save me from its jaws. I mounted, therefore, unbidden, the Bed stead & M. Dubois placed me upon the mattress. & spread a cambric handkerchief upon my face. It was transparent, however, & I saw, through it, that the Bed stead was instantly surrounded by the 7 men & my nurse. I refused to be held; but when, Bright through the cambric, I saw the glitter of polished Steel – I closed my Eyes. I would not trust to convulsive fear the sight of the terrible incision. A silence the most profound ensued, which lasted for some minutes, during which, I imagine, they took their orders by signs, so made their examination – Oh what a horrible suspension! – I did not breathe – & M. Dubois tried vainly to find any pulse. This pause, at length, was broken by Dr Larry, who, in a voice of solemn melancholy, said ‘Qui me tiendra ce sein? -’ .

No one answered; at least not verbally; but this aroused me from my passively submissive state, for I feared they imagined the whole breast infected – feared it too justly, – for, again through the Cambric, I saw the hand of M. Dubois held up, while his forefinger first described a straight line from top to bottom of the breast, secondly a Cross, & thirdly a Circle; intimating that the WHOLE was to be taken off. Excited by this idea, I started up, threw off my veil, &, in answer to the demand ‘Qui me tiendra ce sein?’ cried ‘C’est moi, Monsieur!’ & I held my hand under it, & explained the nature of my sufferings, which all sprang from one point, though they darted into every part. I was heard attentively, but in utter silence, & M. Dubois then replaced me as before, &, as before, spread my veil over my face. How vain. alas, my representation! immediately again I saw the fatal finger describe the Cross – & the circle _ Hopeless, then, desperate, & self-given up, I closed once more my Eyes, relinquishing all watching, all resistance, and interference, & sadly resolute to be wholly resigned.

My dearest Esther, – & all my dears to whom she communicated this doleful ditty, will rejoice to hear that this resolution once taken. was firmly adhered to, in defiance of a terror that surpasses description, & the most torturing pain. Yet – when the dreadful steel was plunged into the breast – cutting through veins – arteries –  flesh – nerves – I needed no injunctions not to restrain my cries, – began a scream that lasted unintermittingly during the whole time of the incision & I almost marvel that it rings not in my Ears still, so excruciating was the agony. When the wound was made, & the instrument was withdrawn, the pain seemed undiminished, for the air that suddenly rushed into those delicate parts felt like a mass of minute but sharp & forked poniards, that were tearing the edges of the wound – but when again I felt the instrument – describing a curve, cutting against the grain, if I may so say, while the flesh resisted in a manner so forcible as to oppose & tire the hand of the operator, who was forced to change from the right to the left – then, indeed, I thought I must have expired. I attempted no more to open my Eyes – they felt as if hermetically shut, & so firmly closed that the Eyelids seemed indented into the Cheeks. The instrument this second time withdrawn, I concluded the operation over – Oh no! presently the terrible cutting was renewed – & worse than ever, to separate the bottom, the foundation of this dreadful gland, the parts to which it adhered – Again all description would be baffled – yet again all was not over, – Dr Larry rested but his own hand & – Oh Heaven! – I then felt the Knife rackling against the breast bone – scraping it! – This performed, while I yet remained in utterly speechless torture, I heard the Voice of Mr Larry, – (all others guarded a dead silence) in a tone nearly tragic, desire everyone present to pronounce if anything more remained to, be done; The general voice was Yes, – but the finger of Mr Dubois – which I literally felt elevated over the wound, though I saw nothing, & though he touched nothing, so indescribably sensitive was the spot – pointed to some further requisition – & again began the scraping! – and, after this, Dr Moreau thought he discerned a peccant attom – and still, & still, M. Dubois demanded attom after attom – My dearest Esther, not for days, not for Weeks, but for Months I could not speak of this terrible business without nearly again going through it! I could not think of it with impunity! I was sick, I was disordered by a single question – even now, 9 months after it is over, I have a headache from going on with the account! & this miserable account, which I began 3 Months ago, at least, I dare not revise, nor read, the recollection is still so painful.

To conclude, the evil was so profound, the case so delicate, & the precautions necessary for preventing a return so numerous, that the operation, including the treatment & the dressing, lasted 20 minutes! a time, for sufferings so acute, that was hardly supportable – However, I bore it with all the courage I could exert, & never moved, nor stopt them, nor resisted, nor remonstrated, nor spoke except once or twice, during the dressings, to say ‘Ah Messieurs! que je vous plains! -’ for indeed I was sensible to the feeling concern with which they all saw what I endured, though my speech was principally – very principally meant for Dr Larry. Except this, I uttered not a syllable, save, when so often they recommended, calling out ‘Avertissez moi, Messieurs! avertissez moi!’ Twice, I believe, I fainted; at least, I have two total chasms in my memory of this transaction, that impede my tying together what passed. When all was done, & they lifted me up that I might be put to bed, my strength was so totally annihilated, that I was obliged to be carried, & could not even sustain my hands & arms, which hung as if I had been lifeless; while my face, as the Nurse has told me, was utterly colourless. This removal made me open my Eyes – & I then saw my good Dr Larry, pale nearly as myself, his face streaked with blood & its expression depicting grief, apprehension, & almost horror.’

When I was in bed, – my poor M. d’Arblay – who ought to write you himself his own history of this Morning – was called to me – & afterwards our Alex.



Jaded at the Odeon

by George Smith, an extract from his 2003 book Tiny Essentials of Writing for Fundraising.

George and I worked together for 20 years and we were close pals for even more. I’ve never stopped loving the way he writes. I’ve included this snippet from an anthology of his press articles because I treasure this image of him sitting in solitude in the darkened cinema, railing at the screen and life’s little injustices, just as he did his whole life through. KB.


And another thing …
This is therefore the age of prolixity – of excess words filling the space afforded by the means of expressing those words – the media again. Hundreds of radio and television channels have to be filled with something and are filled with dross – the ramblings of the presenter, the opinions of the phone-in callers and latterly the recitations of the e-mailers. You would not want to be stuck in a lift with any of these people but there they are in your house day or night.

And what are people communicating over mobile phones that could not have been thus communicated 15 years ago? Gibberish usually. How much content is there in the average office e-mail? Bugger all. It’s words filling space again, I fear.

Everyone feels the need to say more than is necessary. A cornflake packet now carries enough words for a short story. A weather forecast can fill its five minutes by telling you about today’s weather as well as tomorrow’s. Three commentators will discuss an endlessly replayed goal. So many words, so little meaning, so little attention!

And it’s irritating too. My favourite current example is the cinema, now subject to the new demands of branding.

I enter the Odeon while strobe lights scan the corridors telling me that I am in the Odeon. I am subjected to ads by Kodak and Dolby who want me to know that they played a part in proceedings. And, yes, I am subjected to a clip from the Odeon chain telling me that they show films.

I knew this already. But you want to scream at the screen. ‘I know you show films. It’s why I’m sitting here. Sod you, Odeon.’

All these new and malign things define the world in which the storyteller tries to do his or her job. Let me repeat the sixth word I used: jaded. That’s how people are these days. They’ve heard everything several times over and you are going to have to express yourself remarkably well to catch their attention and persuade them to give you money.

We should try harder with words in the belief that raising money to do good is still an honourable occupation, no matter how shabby and weary its tradecraft has become.

© George Smith 2011

The witch-finder Gagool

by H. Rider Haggard, from  King Solomon’s Mines.

As a small boy Gagool so terrified me that only an excitement more powerful than imagination could have encouraged me to keep reading when any minute she might creep into the tale to wreak her dark magic and spoil everything. This short passage explains why she scared me so and scares me still.

King Solomon's Mines
An early cover shows, from the right, Foulata, Captain Good, Sir Henry Curtis, Allan Quatermain and Gagool on the hillside below the chamber of the dead, at the entrance to King Solomon’s Mines.

The king took it very gingerly, and laid it down at his feet. I observed the wizened, monkey-like figure creeping from the shadow of the hut. It crept on all fours, but when it reached the place where the king sat it rose upon its feet, and throwing the furry covering from its face revealed a most extraordinary and weird countenance. Apparently it was that of a woman of great age, so shrunken that in size it seemed no larger than the face of a year-old child, although made up of a number of deep and yellow wrinkles. Set in these wrinkles was a sunken slit, that represented the mouth, beneath which the chin curved outwards, to a point. There was no nose to speak of; indeed, the visage might have been taken for that of a sun-dried corpse had it not been for a pair of large black eyes, still full of fire and intelligence, which gleamed and played under the snow-white eyebrows, and the projecting parchment-coloured skull, like jewels in a charnel house. As for the head itself, it was perfectly bare, and yellow in hue, while its wrinkled scalp moved and contracted like the hood of a cobra.

The figure to which this fearful countenance belonged, a countenance so fearful indeed that it caused a shiver to pass through us as we gazed on it, stood still for a moment. Then suddenly it projected a skinny claw armed with nails nearly an inch long, and laying it on the shoulder of Twala the king, began to speak in a thin and piercing voice.

Joe Louis knocks out Max Schmeling, 22nd June 1938

This breathless transcript from a radio broadcast paints a powerful picture. It’s included because it packs so much action into so few words. In a previous fight Schmeling had beaten Louis, an achievement the recently elected Nazi party took as a symbol of German supremacy over non-Aryans. Just before this fight in Madison Square Gardens New York, Adolf Hitler apparently wrote to Max Schmeling reminding him of his nation’s expectations, leaving the boxer in no doubt that this was one fight he had to win. The controversy sold a lot of tickets, adding hugely to the pre-fight hype.

Joe Louis Max Schmeling

‘Listen to this, buddy, for it comes from a guy whose palms are still wet, whose throat is still dry, and whose jaw is still agape from the utter shock of watching Joe Louis knock out Max Schmeling.

‘It was a shocking thing, that knockout – short, sharp, merciless, complete. Louis was like this.

‘He was a big lean copper spring, tightened and retightened through weeks of training until he was one pregnant package of coiled venom.

‘Schmeling hit that spring with a whistling, right-handed punch in the first minute of that fight and the spring, tormented with tension, suddenly burst with one brazen spang of activity. Hard brown arms, propelling two unerring fists, blurred beneath the hot white candelabra of the ring lights. And Schmeling was in the path of them, a man caught and mangled in the whirring claws of a mad and feverish machine.

‘There were four steps to Schmeling’s knockout…’

From Bob Considine’s ringside commentary, reported in The New York Times.

Joe Louis 2


A salamander, c. mid 1990s

By Kang Cheol-hwan.

Yodok Salamander
Kang Cheol-hwan described his years in Yodok, political prison camp 15, North Korea, in a press ad for Amnesty International, 21 February 2014.

Mothers tried to keep their children alive by catching pregnant rats. The placentas and tiny foetuses made rich eating and were thought to cure disease.

Kang caught frogs and worms, snakes and centipedes and learned to relish salamanders, which were thought to provide the vitamins needed for survival, but his first attempt to eat one was a failure.

‘I pushed it into my mouth, but could not swallow. The creature was struggling to get out of my mouth. I was frightened, I closed my eyes and bit it hard. My mouth was suddenly full of bitter and stinking juice and I had to spit it out.’

A friend taught Kang that the only way to eat one was to hold the tail and gulp it down.