Relayed Dispatches

That Heavenly Relic

Lysippus’ Hercules was melted for its bronze; so was Bellerophon on his flying horse; the Servant of the Winds was wrenched from her pillar, and all the copper sheathing was stripped from Constantine’s column. The she-wolf of Rome, the ox-head of Pergamon, were thrown into the cauldron for their metals, and Nicetas’ Helen of Troy, that heavenly relic of the Golden Age, was never seen again.

The Venetian Empire, Jan Morris

The People From the Sky

He learned to communicate with them “either by speech or signs,” but no matter what passed between them, the Indians “believe very firmly that I, with these ships and people, came from the sky.” The conviction remained unshakeable, and ubiquitous. Wherever he journeyed, the startled inhabitants “went running from house to house and to the neighboring towns with loud cries of ‘Come! Come! See the people from the sky!’”

Columbus: The Four Voyages, Laurence Bergreen

Native Americans thought Columbus and his ships came from the sky. Let us question our own assumptions about where UAPs originate.

The idea of a vampire was to me absurd. Such things do not happen in criminal practice in England.

The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

What Cook Noticed

In his voyages across the Pacific, Cook had noticed that as far east as Easter Island and as far west as New Zealand and as far north as Hawaii, the people not only looked similar, they spoke only slight variations of the same language. But if they shared a common origin, Cook was hard-pressed to explain how these people managed to scatter themselves across such an immense space. He had seen the natives’ oceangoing outrigger canoes. They were capable of incredible speeds and had, on several occasions, literally sailed circles around his pudgy ships. But if the canoes were fast, they could only sail effectively with the wind, and the trade winds blew from the southeast. Since the Polynesians looked nothing like Native Americans, he reasoned that they must have come from the west. But how did they sail against the trade winds? And exactly where did they originally come from?

Sea of Glory: America’s Voyage of Discovery, The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842, Nathaniel Philbrick

The Unwritten Rule

The initial reactions of both leaders had been bellicose. Kennedy had favored an air strike; Khrushchev thought seriously about giving his commanders on Cuba authority to use nuclear weapons. After much agonizing, both were now determined to find a way out that would not involve armed conflict. The problem was that it was practically impossible for them to communicate frankly with one another.

The unwritten rule of Cold War diplomacy—never concede anything—made it very difficult for either side to back down. The question was no longer whether the leaders of the two superpowers wanted war—but whether they had the power to prevent it.

One Minute to Midnight, Michael Dobbs

His most detested vice was the lie, maybe because with the help of the mathematical science he knew the beauty of the Truth too well.

Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love, Dava Sobel

A Hidden Prince

Whether Oxford was born in September or October 1548 to Princess Elizabeth by Thomas Seymour, or in April 1550 to Margery Golding by John de Vere, Earl of Oxford, the shadow of bastardy hung over him.

My own view, which determines the perspective from which I write, is that Oxford was the bastard son of Elizabeth and Seymour, the infant whom rumor declared “miserably destroyed” at birth. Throughout his life, no one knew quite how to treat Oxford. He was alternately deified and demonized, as one would expect of a hidden prince, whose presence promised a bright new future—and blew a hole in his mother’s carefully crafted myth.

Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom: The True History of Shakespeare and Elizabeth, Charles Beauclerk

(The author contends that Shakespeare was the Earl of Oxford and that Oxford was the bastard son of Queen Elizabeth I.)

Symptomatic of the Dysfunction

It is symptomatic of the dysfunction within the White House that a break-in Nixon explicitly ordered was shelved while one that he never authorized became a mortal threat to his presidency. Haldeman was proud of his highly disciplined staffing system and paper trail for implementing presidential instructions. But the system broke down when it came to waging war on Nixon’s political enemies. In these cases, orders were issued verbally or in code. Sometimes his instructions were ignored; at other times they were exaggerated. People down the chain of command interpreted his wishes according to their own priorities or pressure from third parties. This is what appears to have happened with Watergate. Nixon’s push for actionable intelligence on the Democrats was transmitted through Haldeman to Magruder (via Haldeman’s aide Gordon Strachan) and from Magruder to Liddy. Another line of communication ran from Nixon to Colson to Hunt, back up to Colson, and down to Magruder and Liddy. A third ran upward from Liddy to Magruder to Mitchell. The result of these competing channels of authority was that a man described by Nixon as “a little nuts” was able to build his own fantasies around the supposed wishes of his superiors. “I mean he just isn’t well screwed on, is he?” Nixon said of Liddy, after learning of his activities in the Watergate. “No, but he was under pressure, apparently, to get more information,” replied Haldeman. “As he got more pressure, he pushed the people harder.”

King Richard, Michael Dobbs

A Special Navigation Helmet

In spite of these obvious difficulties, Galileo had designed a special navigation helmet for finding longitude with the Jovian satellites. The headgear—the celatone—has been compared to a brass gas mask in appearance, with a telescope attached to one of the eyeholes. Through the empty eyehole, the observer’s naked eye could locate the steady light of Jupiter in the sky. The telescope afforded the other eye a look at the planet’s moons.

Longitude, Dava Sobel

A Running Narrative in the Perfect Tense

INTERVIEWER: Do you map out your way with any kind of outline or notes before you begin?

BALLARD: Yes, always. With short stories I do a brief synopsis of about a page, and only if I feel the story works as a story, as a dramatic narrative with the right shape and balance to grip the reader’s imagination, do I begin to write it. Even in the Atrocity Exhibition pieces, there are strong stories embedded in the apparent confusion….

In the case of the novels, the synopsis is much longer. For High-Rise, it was about twenty-five thousand words, written in the form of a social worker’s report on the strange events that had taken place in this apartment block, an extended case history. I wish I’d kept it; I think it was better than the novel. In the case of The Unlimited Dream Company, I spent a full year writing a synopsis that was eventually about seventy thousand words long, longer than the eventual novel. In fact, I was cutting down and pruning the synopsis as I wrote the novel. By synopsis I don’t mean a rough draft, but a running narrative in the perfect tense with the dialogue in reported speech, and with an absence of reflective passages and editorializing.

— J.G. Ballard interview with The Paris Review published in 1984 (discovered via Warren Ellis’ blog)

A Rampage Through the Inner Solar System

Jupiter is not just the oldest planet orbiting the sun—it’s also the largest. So when the young gas giant went on a rampage through the inner solar system, it shaped the fate of everything in its path. Speeding towards the Sun, Jupiter’s massive gravitational force hurled debris into interstellar space, stunting the growth of would-be planets. Earth might have been doomed had Saturn not pulled Jupiter back. Today, Jupiter resides in the outer solar system, where its gravity bends the paths of asteroids and stokes volcanic activity on its moon Io. But it could one day wreak havoc again.

— PBS, posted summary of “Nova” episode “The Planets: Jupiter”

The Eye-Aching Glimmer

INTERVIEWER: What are your daily working habits like?
BALLARD: Every day, five days a week. Longhand now, it’s less tiring than a typewriter. When I’m writing a novel or story I set myself a target of about seven hundred words a day, sometimes a little more. I do a first draft in longhand, then do a very careful longhand revision of the text, then type out the final manuscript. I used to type first and revise in longhand, but I find that modern fiber-tip pens are less effort than a typewriter. Perhaps I ought to try a seventeenth-century quill. I rewrite a great deal, so the word processor sounds like my dream. My neighbor is a BBC videotape editor and he offered to lend me his, but apart from the eye-aching glimmer, I found that the editing functions are terribly laborious. I’m told that already one can see the difference between fiction composed on the word processor and that on the typewriter. The word processor lends itself to a text that has great polish and clarity on a sentence-by-sentence and paragraph level, but has haywire overall chapter-by-chapter construction, because it’s almost impossible to rifle through and do a quick scan of, say, twenty pages. Or so they say.

— J.G. Ballard interview with The Paris Review published in 1984 (discovered via Warren Ellis’ blog)

Costume as a Visual Art

There were outfits of cloth of gold, Florentine velvet, silver tissue, damask and satin, mantles lined with ermine, heavy gold collars with diamonds the size of walnuts suspended from them, ceremonial robes with trains four yards long, and jeweled rings worn on fingers and thumbs. Some clothes were cut in “Hungarian” or “Turkish” fashion, and many had raised embroidery in gold or silver thread. It was an age in which men strutted like peacocks in their finery, although none was finer than the King, who looked upon costume as a visual art.

The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Alison Weir

An Alternate History

Charles Thomson was uniquely qualified to write a history of his times. As secretary of the Continental Congress from 1774 to 1789, he had functioned as what one historian has described as the “prime minister” of the Congress….

Soon after his retirement in July 1789, Thomson set to work on a memoir of his tenure as secretary to the Congress, eventually completing a manuscript of more than a thousand pages. But as time went on and the story of the Revolution became enshrined in myth, Thomson realized that his account, titled “Notes of the Intrigues and Severe Altercations or Quarrels in the Congress,” would “contradict all the histories of the great events of the Revolution.” Around 1816 he finally decided that it was not for him “to tear away the veil that hides our weaknesses,” and he destroyed the manuscript. “Let the world admire the supposed wisdom and valor of our great men,” he wrote. “Perhaps they may adopt the qualities that have been ascribed to them, and thus good may be done. I shall not undeceive future generations.”

Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution, Nathaniel Philbrick

Jefferson on Washington

To Jefferson, Washington had been a grand, often distant figure whose grace and aloofness made him a living figure of myth. “He was incapable of fear, meeting personal dangers with the calmest unconcern,” Jefferson wrote long afterward. “Perhaps the strongest feature in his character was prudence, never acting until every circumstance, every consideration was maturely weighed; refraining if he saw a doubt, but, when once decided, going through with his purpose, whatever obstacles opposed.” Jefferson was less impressed with Washington’s intellectual gifts. “His mind was great and powerful, without being of the very first order; his penetration strong, though not so acute as that of a Newton, Bacon, or Locke; and as far as he saw, no judgment was ever sounder. It was slow in operation, being little aided by invention or imagination, but sure in conclusion.”

There were hidden depths. “His temper was naturally irritable and high toned; but reflection and resolution had obtained a firm and habitual ascendency over it,” Jefferson continued. “If ever, however, it broke its bonds, he was most tremendous in his wrath.” Washington was a man, in other words, around whom one was careful.

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, Jon Meacham

To Acquire a Quire

“In the Middle Ages, a quire (also called a ‘gathering’) was most often formed of 4 folded sheets of vellum or parchment, i.e. 8 leaves, 16 sides. The term ‘quaternion’ (or sometimes quaternum) designates such a quire. A quire made of a single folded sheet (i.e. 2 leaves, 4 sides) is a ‘bifolium’ (plural ‘bifolia’); a ‘binion’ is a quire of two sheets (i.e. 4 leaves, 8 sides); and a ‘quinion’ is five sheets (10 leaves, 20 sides). This last meaning is preserved in the modern Italian meaning of quire, quinterno di carta.

“The current word ‘quire’ derives from OE ‘quair’ or ‘guaer’, from OF ‘quayer’, ‘cayer’, (cf. modern Fr. cahier), from L. quaternum, ‘by fours’, ‘fourfold’….

“It also became the name for any booklet small enough to be made from a single quire of paper. Simon Winchester, in The Surgeon of Crowthorne, cites a specific number, defining quire as ‘a booklet eight pages thick.’ Several European words for quire keep the meaning of ‘book of paper.’”


John Steinbeck Must Have Used a Selectric

In this interview with John Steinbeck’s son Thomas conducted by the makers of Blackwing pencils, Steinbeck relates what happened when his father’s publisher informed him that his typist died. She had been the only person who could read his handwriting. He couldn’t turn in handwritten manuscripts; he had to get a typewriter.

He says his father bought an IBM that was so loud it rattled the walls. It must have been a Selectric. He mentions the ball the IBM Selectric used, which was a rapidly rotating, replaceable ball that traveled across the page typing the letters instead of keys.

From the video’s transcript:

“So he went out and bought balls in every language. Remember they had the ball? And he got balls in Finnish, and balls in Russian. Just to see what they looked like, you know?

“And just to get it back on his publishers, he one day wrote… sent them… three pages in Russian. Now he couldn’t speak or read Russian, he just used the Russian ball and made all these letters in Russian.

“Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick.

“And shipped it off and said ‘How’s this?”

“And they said, ‘You’re kidding.’”

A State of Chronic Edginess

Writing a novel is one of those modern rites of passage, I think, that lead us from an innocent world of contentment, drunkenness, and good humor, to a state of chronic edginess and the perpetual scanning of bank statements. By the eighteenth book, one has a sense of having bricked oneself into a niche, a roosting place for other people’s pigeons. I wouldn’t recommend it.

— J.G. Ballard in an interview with The Paris Review published in 1984 (discovered via Warren Ellis’ blog)

The Size of the World

Ptolemy’s omissions inadvertently encouraged exploration because he made the world seem smaller and more navigable than it really was. If he had correctly estimated the size of the world, the Age of Discovery might never have occurred.

Over the Edge of the World, Laurence Bergreen

Oh! Double 0 ... Seven!

A man whom Elizabeth called “my philosopher,” [John] Dee inspired the character of Prospero in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. And he helped to create the British intelligence service….

To enhance his mystique, he signed his letters to Queen Elizabeth with a pair of O’s to indicate watchful eyes, followed by the number 7, believed to be lucky, drawn across the O’s: 007, from which Ian Fleming, a former British intelligence officer turned spy novelist, is said to have taken James Bond’s code number. The spirit of James Bond, combining absolute loyalty to the Crown with a cavalier attitude toward danger, extends back to [Sir Francis] Drake.

In Search of a Kingdom, Laurence Bergreen

A Forked Fork

In 1004, a Byzantine aristocrat named Maria sparked enormous interest in Venice by eating with an ancient Roman double-pronged golden instrument. Touted as the latest word in sophistication, the device became enormously popular, and soon the fork was common throughout the West.

Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization, Lars Brownworth

Adventures Were What They Were Being Protected From

Heinlein always had a hard time coming up with ideas for these boys’ books. He had to invent something adventurous that boys would be interested in, without needing excessive background explanations. And it was always a problem to get the boys out from under the thumbs of their adult “protectors,” because adventures were what they were being protected from. Targeted at a general readership, these boys’ books could not use the genre conventions of the science-fiction magazines — but he could use ordinary science.

Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century, William H. Patterson, Jr.

“To me, in order to make a good American pie you almost have to make it British.”

— Paul Hollywood, “Great British Baking Show”

Oh, snap.

The Essential Features of the Modern Revolt

The ballet contains and illustrates many of the essential features of the modern revolt: the overt hostility to inherited form; the fascination with primitivism and indeed with anything that contradicts the notion of civilization; the emphasis on vitalism as opposed to rationalism; the perception of existence as continuous flux and a series of relations, not as constants and absolutes; the psychological introspection accompanying the rebellion against social convention.

Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age, Modris Eksteins

I had no idea ballet was so subversive.

Carneys, Causeways, and Herepaths

Pilgrim paths, green roads, drove roads, corpse roads, trods, leys, dykes, drongs, sarns, snickets — say the names of paths out loud and at speed and they become a poem or rite — holloways, bostles, shutes, driftways, lichways, ridings, halterpaths, cartways, carneys, causeways, herepaths….

In the Netherlands there are doodwegen and spookwegen — death roads and ghost roads — which converge on medieveal cemeteries…. In Scotlands there are clachan and rathad — cairned paths and shieling paths — and in Japan the slender farm tracks that the poet Basho followed in 1689 when writing his Narrow Road to the Far North.

The Old Ways, Robert Macfarlane

“Please don’t cry in the chocolate.”

— “The Great British Baking Show”

Prince: Farewell, Allhallown summer.

Henry IV, Part I

Happy Allhallown Eve. 🎃

“He started writing The Star Lummox [The Star Beast] on August 26…. He was able, even with interruptions, to finish the entire seventy-five-thousand-word book by September 26….”

Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue With His Century, Volume 2


“Heinlein was able to start Starman Jones on February 2, 1953, and finish up on February 28, averaging twenty-three hundred words a day and working without an outline, even through distractions….”

Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue With His Century, Volume 2


“Just a hippie gypsy.”

— The Who. And the self-description on my résumé.

“So Athena vowed and under her feet fastened the supple sandals, ever-glowing gold, that wing her over the waves and boundless earth with the rush of gusting winds.”

The Odyssey

Prince: Farewell, latter spring. Farewell, Allhallown summer.

Henry IV, Part I

Falstaff: ‘Sblood, I am as melancholy as a gib cat or a lugged bear. …

Prince: What sayest thou to a hare, or the melancholy of Moorditch?

Henry IV, Part I

🎼 And do you think you’ve made the right decision this time?”

— The Smiths

“If you lay violent hands on me, you’ll have my body, but my mind will remain with Stilpo.”

— Zeno, quoted in The Daily Stoic

I’m With Stilpo would make a good title. 

“Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops.”

Romeo and Juliet

Have a jocund day.

Animation still from Monty Python and the Holy Grail of a sun with legs standing on a hilltop ready to jump

(Image: Monty Python and the Holy Grail)

“How bloodily the sun begins to peer above yon bulky hill. The day looks pale at his distemp’rature.”

Henry IV, Part I

Red sky in morning, sailor take warning. 

“What, Hal, how now, mad wag?”

Henry IV, Part I

“I’m shocked – shocked to find that gambling is going on in here.”

“Here are your winnings, sir.”

“Oh, thank you.”

Casablanca. And everywhere else.

“You were just let down by time.”

— “The Great British Baking Show”

Falstaff: Why, there is it: come sing me a bawdy song; make me merry. I was as virtuously given as a gentleman need to be; virtuous enough; swore little; diced not above seven times a week; went to a bawdy-house once in a quarter — of an hour … lived well and in good compass: and now I live out of all order, out of all compass.

Lord Bardolph: Why, you are so fat, Sir John, that you must needs be out of all compass, out of all reasonable compass, Sir John.

— Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part I

“And soon I shall have understanding of video cassette recorders and car telephones. And when I have understanding of them, I shall have understanding of computers. And when I have understanding of computers, I shall be the Supreme Being!”

– Evil, played by David Warner, Time Bandits

”… and dozens of others who made art from history’s trash and yoked together styles that felt like they belonged in different galaxies.” — Apple Music

Something to aspire to.

“We taught you, because you already knew.”

— Master Kan, “Kung Fu”

“That which you do not know, the doing will quickly teach you.”

— Master Po, “Kung Fu”

Hemingway said, “… stop while you are going good.” I understand this. Thelonius Monk said, “When you’re swinging, swing some more!” I understand this too. 📝

“Fear is the enemy…. Do what must be done with a docile heart.”

– Master Po, “Kung Fu” TV series

“Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.”

— John Steinbeck

“There are no lines in the real world, so don’t paint them.”

— Leonardo da Vinci

“Don’t break the chain!”

– Jerry Seinfeld, on writing every day 📝

"You don't seem to be worrying too much about what will happen."
"If I worry, will the future change?"

– “Kung Fu,” TV series

“It’s really important to keep in mind who you are now because people are always offering you the job of being who you were then.”

– M. John Harrison, in a social media post

“The demands on a Vulcan’s character are extraordinarily difficult. Do not mistake composure for ease.”

– Tuvok