May 9, 2013
The Blue Dress
I don't recall pain, or joy, only the blue dress
I wore, and the door open to the sea,
and the liquid sun across the floor beside the bed,
and our crooning sense of having climbed Everest,
I didn't know who I was or who you were,
or even what we hoped for, in that slow, rushed,
soft, harsh, pretend, real, world. Even now,
I don't know how to devour love like a golden apple
stolen from a teacher who gives too many tests.
So tell me what you remember,
and who you think we were,
and I will nod and agree, though I doubt it happened—
beyond the sea, the sun, the open door,
the blue dress, and the dream.
It's the birthday of playwright Alan Bennett (books by this author), born in Leeds, England (1934). His career began when he was a 26-year-old student at Oxford, when he helped write and star in a comedy stage revue called Beyond the Fringe with Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, and Jonathan Miller. They performed Beyond the Fringe at the Edinburgh Festival, and it was such a big success that they took the satire on the road to London and New York.
Alan Bennett has been writing plays ever since, many of them for television. His plays include Afternoon Off (1979), A Question of Attribution (1991), and his popular Talking Heads, which was a series of monologues for the BBC. Each Talking Heads episode was a story in itself — in "A Bed Among the Lentils," Maggie Smith played a vicar's wife named Susan who has an affair with a local grocer; in "A Chip in the Sugar," Bennett himself played a middle-aged man who lives with his mother and is jealous of her love life. There were two Talking Heads series, one in 1988 and the second in 1998.
In 2004, Bennett wrote The History Boys, which was very successful and won awards in Britain and the United States. It's the story of a group of boys preparing to take their A-level exams in history, two of their male teachers with opposite approaches to teaching, and all of their attempts to understand their sexuality.
In The History Boys, Bennett wrote: "The best moments in reading are when you come across something — a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things — which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours."
Bennett said of his recent career: "I often wanted to be bolder than I was, and as I've got older it's bothered me less what people think. ... I've been able to be much more outrageous, really."
It's the birthday of poet Charles Simic (books by this author), born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia (1938). His family survived the bombing of Belgrade during World War II and fled Eastern Europe after the war was over. They wound up in Oak Park, Illinois, and Simic went to the same high school Ernest Hemingway had gone to. The high school teachers there were always reminding kids that Hemingway had gone before them, and that inspired Simic to become a writer. He was drawn to poetry because his English still wasn't very good, and in poems he didn't have to use so many words.
In 1962, Simic enlisted in the Army. While stationed in Germany, he asked his brother to send him all the poems he had left behind in the United States. When he got the poems in the mail, he sat up all night in the barracks reading them and ripping them up one by one, because he thought they were all imitations of other writers. When they were all gone he suddenly realized that he had nothing left and he would have to start from scratch. So he started writing poems about simple things, household objects — a knife, a fork, a spoon, his shoes. Simic published his first book of poetry, What the Grass Says, in 1967, and he went on to publish many more collections, including School for Dark Thoughts (1978), Frightening Toys (1995), and Night Picnic (2001). His most recent collection is New and Selected Poems: 1962-2012, published in 2013.
It is also the birthday of J.M. Barrie (books by this author), born James Matthew Barrie in Kirriemuir, Scotland (1860). He was a shy boy and a shy man. His contemporary Charles Lewis Hind wrote: "Barrie is a little man, shy-looking and dark, with black hair, a dome-like forehead, pale as ivory, and eyes that look as if they always want to escape from what he is doing. [...] He loves to spring surprises on rather a dense world. He is the child — a silent, inward-laughing, restless child, learning his lessons in his own way — who will never grow up. [...] The career of J.M. Barrie shows how useless schools of journalism or literature are to produce the real writing man or woman. What were Barrie's assets? An intense love for home, for the Scots folk with whom he grew up; for children; the power to express himself in straightforward, supple English — and, above all else, humor; something of Puck, something of Ariel, something of Charles Lamb and Tom Hood, mixed with Celtic wistfulness and wonder. Add to that sympathy, the observation of a cat watching a bird, with the power to use everything he sees and feels as material for his craft, and we begin to understand why the poor Scots boy has become Sir James Matthew Barrie, 1st Bt. Cr. 1913. I wager that all this is nothing to him. In his heart he is still Jamie of Kirriemuir, N.B., always making mental notes, hurrying over high tea (scones and jam) so that he may dip his pen in a penny ink bottle, and chuckle over the writing of an Auld Licht Idyll, and, mind you, being a Scot, always with his eye on the goal."
Once Barrie went to a dinner party with the poet and scholar A.E. Housman, whom he had wanted to meet for a long time, but he was so shy that he couldn't talk to him. He wrote him a letter afterward that said: "Dear Professor Houseman, I am sorry about last night, when I sat next to you and did not say a word. You must have thought I was a very rude man: I am really a very shy man. Sincerely yours, J.M. Barrie." Housman wrote back: "Dear Sir James Barrie, I am sorry about last night, when I sat next to you and did not say a word. You must have thought I was a very rude man: I am really a very shy man. Sincerely yours, A.E. Housman. P.S. And now you've made it worse for you have spelt my name wrong."
But Barrie was playful and outgoing when he was with children, and he loved to write for and about them — his masterpiece was Peter Pan; or, the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up (1904). It's the story of Peter Pan, whose magical powers include his ability to fly and his perpetual youth; and the human children he befriends: Wendy, John, and Michael Darling.
In 1929, Britain's most famous children's hospital, the Great Ormond Street Hospital, asked J.M. Barrie to come do a series of lectures there. But he was too shy to speak in public. Instead, he offered to donate all the royalties from Peter Pan to the hospital. He died eight years later, and according to British law, copyrights last for 50 years after the artist's death. After those 50 years, the work enters the public domain and the royalties stop coming. For years, the Great Ormond Street Hospital received royalties not just from sales of the book, but from plays, merchandise, TV shows, and movies, including Hook (1991) and Finding Neverland (2004). In 1987, Peter Pan had been scheduled to enter public domain, but the British Parliament made a special case and extended the royalties so that the hospital could continue to thrive. Unfortunately, European Union law decrees that a copyright lasts 70 years after the death of the author, and they made no special allowances for Peter Pan. So in 2007, the Great Ormond Street Hospital lost its copyright in the European Union at large — but it still receives royalties from anything Peter Pan that happens in Britain.
J.M. Barrie wrote: "I'm not young enough to know everything."
It was on this day in 1941 that the German submarine U-110 was captured by British destroyers. The German commander was Fritz-Julius Lemp, and he and one other submarine commander were attacking a convoy in the North Atlantic, just south of Iceland. Lemp left his periscope up too long, and a British destroyer spotted it and dropped depth charges. The U-110 surfaced, and Lemp believed that they would all be killed, so he ordered his men up on the deck. They were captured, and since the submarine was still stable, the Allies boarded the ship, where they found a secret cipher machine. They called the cipher machine the Enigma, and they took it on board a British destroyer, the HMS Bulldog, and then let the submarine sink. The Germans didn't even realize that anyone had boarded the U-110 — they thought their cipher machine was safe at the bottom of the ocean.
Instead, the Enigma was taken to Bletchley Park, a 581-acre estate in Buckinghamshire, England. Inside a red brick mansion there, a team of thousands of codebreakers worked to decipher coded German messages. With the help of the Enigma, they managed to break the German naval code, which was a crucial turning point in the Battle of the Atlantic, and probably in the war itself.
Rudyard Kipling wrote the poem "Tin Fish" about submarines:
The ships destroy us above
And ensnare us beneath.
We arise, we lie down, and we move
In the belly of Death.
The ships have a thousand eyes
To mark where we come ...
But the mirth of a seaport dies
When our blow gets home.
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®