Oct. 9, 2004

Proverbial Ballade

by Wendy Cope

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Poem: "Proverbial Ballade," by Wendy Cope, from Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis (Faber & Faber).

Proverbial Ballade

Fine words won't turn the icing pink;
A wild rose has no employees;
Who boils his socks will make them shrink;
Who catches cold is sure to sneeze.
Who has two legs must wash two knees;
Who breaks the egg will find the yolk;
Who locks his door will need his keys-
So say I and so say the folk.

You can't shave with a tiddlywink,
Nor make red wine from garden peas,
Nor show a blindworm how to blink,
Nor teach an old racoon Chinese.
The juiciest orange feels the squeeze;
Who spends his portion will be broke;
Who has no milk can make no cheese-
So say I and so say the folk.

He makes no blot who has no ink,
Nor gathers honey who keeps no bees.
The ship that does not float will sink;
Who'd travel far must cross the seas.
Lone wolves are seldom seen in threes;
A conker ne'er becomes an oak;
Rome wasn't built by chimpanzees-
So say I and so say the folk.


Dear friends! If adages like these
Should seem banal, or just a joke,
Remember fish don't grow on trees-
So say I and so say the folk.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1888 that the public was first admitted to the Washington Monument. The cornerstone of the monument had been laid 40 years earlier, on July 4th. But there wasn't enough money to complete the project, and the construction went on and off for four decades until February 21, 1885. It was 555 feet tall, with 893 steps to the top. There was a steam-powered elevator installed that took ten to twelve minutes to ride. It was the tallest building in the world, and people flocked to it when it opened on this day. In the first nine months, more than 600,000 people visited, and by the turn of the century, more than 1.5 million had come. One woman wanted to be married in the elevator while suspended in the middle of the monument. One man wanted to scatter his wife's ashes from the window. Gabby Street, a pitcher for the Washington Senators, stood at the base and caught a ball dropped from the top, traveling at 125 miles per hour. In 1915, the first suicide occurred down the elevator shaft. The monument continues to be the site of important events—the woman's suffrage rallies of the '20s, the civil rights marches in the '60s, anti-war demonstrations in the '70s, and the Million Man March in 1995.

It's the birthday of memoirist Jill Ker Conway, born in New South Wales, Australia (1934). She began her three-part memoir with The Road from Coorain (1990), about growing up in the Australian outback and going to school in wartime Sydney. Then she wrote True North (1995), about her Harvard education, and continued telling her story, as the first woman president of Smith College, in A Woman's Education (2001).

It's the birthday of composer Camille Saint-Saens, born in Paris (1835). He was a child prodigy, with perfect pitch and a fantastic memory. He learned the piano and organ, and played the music of Beethoven, Bach and Mozart in recitals. He composed nice waltzes and gallops by the age of five, and wrote his first symphony at sixteen. His first famous opera was Samson and Dalila (1877). He wrote lots of other operas too, but they were less well-known outside of France. He was always surprised that the greater public gave him such high praise, yet constantly wanted to hear Samson and Dalila and ignored his other work. Over the course of his lifetime he composed more than 300 pieces, including thirteen operas, and he was the first major composer to write specifically for the cinema. He's best-known for Samson et Dalila , his Third (organ) Symphony , (1886), his Second and Fourth Piano Concertos, and Carnival of the Animals (1886) for piano and orchestra. He toured frequently, conducting his oratorios and premiering his piano concertos all over Europe and the United States, sometimes accompanied only by his servant, Gabriel, and his pet dogs. Saint-Saens was very polite but highly opinionated. He wasn't outwardly emotional, but he poured out long, flowery letters to his friends. He did everything with speed—he talked, walked, wrote, conducted rehearsals and composed very quickly. He said, ''I like good company, but I like hard work still better.'' He didn't like the dreary weather of Paris, and skipped off to Algiers in the winters. It was there he died at age 86. He was given a huge state funeral on Christmas Eve and was buried at the Montparnasse Cemetery. At his grave, the composer Alfred Bruneau said, ''[His pieces] have won a place that they will hold so long as beauty lasts, so long as orchestras and choirs shall gather together to move and charm us.''

It's the birthday of Charles R(udolph) Walgreen, owner of the Walgreens drug store chain, born near Galesburg, Illinois (1873). He lost part of his left hand's middle finger when he was working in a shoe factory. The doctor who attended to him convinced him to become a druggist's apprentice, at $4 an hour. He did, and after fighting in the Spanish-American War, became a pharmacist and eventually bought out the store he was working for, in 1901. It was just 50 feet by 20 feet, on Chicago's South Side, and Walgreen had to take out a huge loan to afford it. There was considerable drug store competition in Chicago at the time, so Walgreen fixed up his store as soon as he got his hands on it. He put in brand new light fixtures, widened the aisles, had an employee at the front door to greet each customer. It was the only drug store where you could buy pots and pans. He acquired another store and continued to specialize in customer service. Almost all drug stores had soda fountains, but they only did well in the hot weather. Walgreen kept his counters open year-round, and had hot food served during the winter months. His wife Myrtle cooked all the food in their home kitchen. She rose before dawn and brought everything to his two stores by 11:00 AM—chicken, tongue, egg salad, bean and cream of tomato soup. In 1922, a man working at a Walgreen soda fountain created the first malted milkshake, and it was a roaring success.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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