Jun. 20, 2012
I love to imagine London fallen quiet,
silent really, just past the toll of twelve;
walking past the white bulk of St. Paul's
or by the steps of Paternoster Square;
not in the panicked silences of nights
of the Blitz but merely unpeopled streets,
London asleep, lit bright by the moon,
quiet as the pond and woods behind our house.
I stroll down Fleet Street in my dreaming
to peer in the dark alleys and entries
that lead to the Inns of Court; a stray dog
may stroll by but of even the police
I hear no more than their echoing talk.
Up the curl of Goodge Street I lay my
hand flat in affection on the stout black
door of Johnson's house, and as in my
night the church is lit, I enter
the sadness of St. Dunstan's, its
silences like the streets outside. In
the short night of a poem I reach
Trafalgar Square, still lit, like an
etching, by the moon, unpeopled yet
even by lovers; then pale dawn edges up
and people appear, morning-eyed, stepping
from their dreams to speech, and like
them I take coffee in the crypt below
St. Martin's. I watch them, the creatures
of a city I have dreamed, the flowering
of an ache to be at home and there,
and they vanish up the bustle of
Charing Cross or past the fruit market
at Villiers Street, they vanish as I start
awake to other thoughts, or fall past
them in the peace of dreaming.
The 18-year-old Alexandrina Victoria became Queen of England on this date in 1837. "Drina," as she was known to her family, had a fairly quiet childhood. She kept a diary, so we know a lot about her private life. She was a lively and sometimes mischievous child, with a romantic streak, and she was well educated in things like music, history, and foreign languages, but her mother was overprotective and kept her isolated at Kensington Palace in London. Victoria later remembered her childhood as "rather melancholy." When she was born, she was fifth in line for the throne behind her uncles and her father, and no one expected her to become a monarch. But one by one, her uncles and their heirs died, and by 1830, she was heiress presumptive, next in line for the crown.
The dawn hours of June 20, 1837, brought the news that she was now a queen. She wrote in her diary: "I was awoke at 6 o'clock by Mamma, who told me the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Conyngham were here and wished to see me. I got out of bed and went into my sitting-room (only in my dressing gown) and alone, and saw them. Lord Conyngham then acquainted me that my poor Uncle, the King, was no more, and had expired at 12 minutes past 2 this morning, and consequently that I am Queen."
She remains Britain's longest-ruling monarch, having reigned for 63 years, seven months, and two days. The current queen, Elizabeth II, is closing in on her record, though; this year marks Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee, 60 years on the throne.
On this date in 1840, Samuel Morse received a patent for his "Morse code" system. Morse was a painter, originally. He also studied photography with Louis Daguerre in France, and brought the new technology to America, where he opened a photographic studio in New York City. He became interested in telegraphy after he failed in his bid to become the mayor of New York. During a demonstration of one of his early telegraph machines, he met Alfred Vail, a young mechanical engineer. Vail was fascinated by the telegraph, and he convinced Morse to bring him aboard as an assistant. Vail helped Morse work out some problems with Morse's original system, and it didn't hurt that Vail's father was a wealthy industrialist. Vail put up the money to pay the patent application fees in exchange for a share in whatever resulted.
The telegraph works by sending an electromagnetic signal over a wire. Morse had an idea that the current could be used to move a pencil along a moving strip of paper, but Vail simplified it by suggesting a cheaper and more practical alternative: an arm that would bounce up and down. The pair then had to devise a way to convert a tapping arm into a system of language. It was actually Vail, not Morse, who came up with the first dot-and-dash system, with each letter and number being made up of a different combination of long and short sounds or flashes. Vail's first message using his code was, "A patient waiter is no loser." But Morse was the better known of the two inventors, and it was his name on the patents, and that's why we call it "Morse Code" and not "Vail Code."
Today is the 60th birthday of Indian poet and novelist Vikram Seth (books by this author), born in Calcutta (1952). His dad was a shoe salesman, and his mother was the first female chief justice on the High Court of Delhi. Seth was working on a graduate school dissertation on the economies of Chinese villages when he picked up a copy of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin in a bookstore near the Stanford campus. He was so captivated by it that he took a break from graduate school to write his own novel in verse. He never went back to grad school, but he did publish that book: Golden Gate (1986), an epic poem about Yuppies in Silicon Valley. He also wrote a lengthy prose novel, A Suitable Boy (1993). He first thought it would be a fairly short book, but at almost 600,000 words — nearly 1,500 pages in the paperback edition — it's one of the longest single-volume works of fiction in the English language. In the opening dedication, Seth writes, "Buy me before good sense insists / You'll strain your purse and sprain your wrists."
For the last few years, he's been at work on a sequel to A Suitable Boy. A Suitable Girl is expected to be published sometime next year.
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®