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Euell Gibbons, 1974

Euell Gibbons, near High Point, North Carolina, February 1974

I came across this photo today while going through an old box of photos. I have sometimes mentioned to people that I once went foraging with Euell Gibbons and took a nice picture of him, but I had never scanned the picture, and I had forgotten what box the photo was in. Today I came across the photo while sorting through my disorganized archives.

It was February of 1974. A reporter friend at the Winston-Salem Journal (which was the first newspaper I ever worked for) had arranged an interview and a foraging trip with Gibbons, who probably was on a publicity tour. My reporter friend asked me to go along, since I at least had a bit of experience with foraging while she had none.

Even on a strawberry farm in February, Gibbons found plenty to eat. After the foraging, the owners of the strawberry farm had invited us to fix lunch in their kitchen, using our foraging finds.

I still remember taking that photo. I saw the row of ducks on the far end of the field, and I realized that if I made a quick dash to get into position, I could get a photo of Gibbons with the ducks in the background. The Winston-Salem Journal, of course, had photographers, and copy-editing, not photography, was my job. But rather than sending a staff photographer over to the next county, they trusted me to come back with pictures.

Sadly, Gibbons died the following year. He was quite a cultural phenomenon in the early 1970s — outdoorsman and natural foods advocate. I am pretty sure that Stalking the Wild Asparagus has been kept in print for all these years. I lost my first edition years ago but replaced it with a new edition that doesn’t seem to have a date other than the date of the first edition, 1962.

WorldCon will be in Glasgow in 2024

I have never been to a World Science Fiction Convention, but I hope do that in August 2024, when it will be in Glasgow.

The annual Hugo Awards for science fiction and fantasy are given at WorldCon. Hugos are voted on by the fans who attend the convention (unlike the Nebula Awards, which are given by Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America).

Preparations for WorldCons begin way in advance. You can follow the progress here. You can also follow the preparations on Facebook by searching for “Glasgow 2024.”

My first thought was to attend only for a day, mostly because Glasgow is such a gloomy city compared with Edinburgh. Yet I respect Glasgow for what it is — an old industrial city working hard to re-invent itself. Though WorldCon is reserving rooms in at least eight hotels, the main events will be at the Crowne Plaza. That’s also where the parties will be, and I think it’s pretty much a certainty that there will be a cèilidh. This may be the only occasion I’ll ever have for attending a proper Scottish cèilidh. So instead of ducking in for only a day, I think I’ll buy a ticket for the entire event and see how it goes.

This year’s WorldCon, by the way, is in China.

A seriously good novel, now 85 years old

The Hopkins Manuscript. R.C. Sherriff, Macmillan, 1939.

This book got to me. I finished it just before sunset, and all evening, as a nearly full moon rose, I was spooked by a sense of unreality as I worked my way out of the world of the novel and back to the real world. I considered pouring myself some Scotch (but didn’t). How did R.C. Sherriff tell his story so compellingly that, in spite of the improbable science of his falling moon, we suspend all disbelief and enter that state of total immersion that, as readers, we long for?

First of all, the novel is beautifully written. As for why it’s so compelling, I think it’s because he tells the story through the eyes of very ordinary people living in very ordinary circumstances — a village and small farm in Worcestershire. The main character is Edgar Hopkins, a former schoolmaster and rather dull man who, upon inheriting some money, settles down on his little hilltop farm and breeds poultry as a hobby. There are side trips by train to London, but it’s on this farm and in the nearby village where most of the story takes place.

The novel was first published in 1939. My copy of the book, which I bought from a used book seller, is a book club edition from 1963. A third edition (or possibly the fourth or fifth including a paperback in the 1950s) was published this year and was reviewed in the Washington Post: The moon falls to Earth in a 1939 novel that remains chillingly relevant.

Robert Cedrick Sherriff was better known as a playwright and screenwriter than as a novelist. He wrote Journey’s End, a play about World War I that opened at London’s Savoy Theater in 1929 and ran for 594 performances. Sherriff was a veteran of that war, and it seems certain that his experiences during the war had much to do with the emotional tone of The Hopkins Manuscript, a strange blend of optimism and pessimism that Sherriff skillfully pulls off. Sherriff was born in 1896 and died in 1975. After the war, in which he was badly wounded, Sherriff led an ordinary life as an insurance adjuster. He returned to Oxford in 1931 to study history. He probably was gay and was probably an ephebophile. Journey’s End was originally written as an all-male play, a fund-raiser to buy a new boat for the Kingston Rowing Club, which he coached. There are two characters in The Hopkins Manuscript that, I think, were inspired by his ephebophilia.

Much of the beauty of this book is in the clear, elegant, and yet modest writing. I’m reminded of Isaac Asimov’s author’s note for Nemesis:

“Another point: I made up my mind long ago to follow one cardinal rule in all my writing — to be clear. I have given up all thought of writing poetically or symbolically or experimentally, or in any of the other modes that might (if I were good enough) get me a Pulitzer prize. I would write merely clearly and in this way establish a warm relationship between myself and my readers, and the professional critics– Well, they can do whatever they wish.”

Asimov steers clear of snark, but it’s clear enough what he thinks of writers who bamboozle the critics (and even some readers) with quirky and affected writing styles. And Asimov is being a touch ironic with his choice of the word merely, because Asimov certainly knew that to write clearly is hard. Only the best writers can do it. I wish I’d known about R.C. Sherriff a long time ago.

My edition of the book includes illustrations by Joseph Mugnaini.

Saturday afternoons at 1

Vineta Sareika-Völkner, the new concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic.

Once upon a time, Saturday afternoons at 1 (at least, on the east coast of the United States where I live now) was when the Metropolitan Opera broadcast on American radio, from New York, a live Saturday matinée from the Met. I don’t think they do those radio broadcasts anymore, though the live Metropolitan Opera performances may be shown in some theaters for a hefty price.

The new Saturday afternoons at 1 (at least, on the east coast of the United States) coincides with 7 p.m. in Berlin. That’s when the Berlin Philharmonic live-streams its Saturday evening concerts.

I’ve written previously about subscribing to a year’s worth of streaming from the Berlin Philharmonic. At today’s concert — Saturday March 4 — I immediately noticed a new concertmaster. Because of the beautiful video from the Berlin Philharmonic’s live streams, I had often previously noticed her in the violin section, not least because of her bright blonde hair contrasted with her black outfits, plus the intensity of her playing. Today, in the live stream from Berlin, she took her seat as concertmaster for the first time. Her name is Vineta Sareika-Völkner. She is Latvian. She is the first female concertmaster ever in the Berlin Philharmonic.

Internet streaming is a miracle. But one day I hope to find myself inside that Berlin concert hall on a Saturday evening at 7 p.m.

The noble and neglected soybean

I neglect soybeans myself. I go for months without cooking any, and then suddenly I realize that I’m out of them. Most recently I was reminded of soybeans by this piece in the Washington Post on the environmental impact of foods: Which food is better for the planet? Nothing ranks better than soy.

Something like 80 percent of the world’s soybeans are used to feed farm animals, then the animals are eaten. Obviously that’s not a very green way to use soybeans. It’s much healthier — and better for the planet — to just eat the soybeans, even if the soybeans have been processed into something like tofu.

But cooked soybeans are not nearly as boring as we might think. Like tofu, it’s all about what you do with them. Soybeans can be rush-cooked in a pressure cooker, but the tastiest way to cook them, by far, is in a slow cooker (or Crockpot, as we call them in the U.S.). Soybeans smell surprisingly meaty and appetizing when cooked in a slow cooker. They turn out nice and brown, and they have the magical property of amplifying whatever seasonings you use. When cooking them in a slow cooker, I first soak them for about 12 hours. Then I change the water and cook them on low for about 12 hours. Adjust the amount of water you use so that, when the beans are done, they are just barely covered, or not quite covered, with water. The cooking water will thicken and add to the flavor. The cooked beans will easily keep for five to seven days in the refrigerator.

For burgers, mash the beans with a fork. I like to use a small amount of a large variety of seasonings so that no one flavor takes over — salt, garlic powder, brewer’s yeast, sage, Liquid Smoke, toasted sesame oil, tomato paste, pepper paste, Trader Joe’s mushroom umami seasoning, a touch of Worcestershire. Gluten flour is the perfect binder. Add a little cooked brown rice to improve the bite, or, better yet, cooked barley. The burgers will fry up in olive oil nice and brown and tasty.

Soybeans ought to be cheap. Right now, they’re not. Whole Foods used to sell them in bulk. But the last time I tried to buy soybeans at Whole Foods they didn’t have any anywhere in the store! Amazon has them, but good organic soybeans are more expensive than they ought to be. Still, I’d bet a dollar that even kids would love well seasoned soybean burgers.

Justice as spite

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Paul Waldman has an important column this week at the Washington Post. It’s On student loans, conservatives turn ‘fairness’ upside down.”

Waldman writes:

“The justices sounded almost as though they were advocating a strict version of communism, under which no one should receive any government benefit that isn’t given to everyone. You could ask why Social Security is so unfair to people who aren’t elderly, or farm supports are unfair to people who aren’t farmers, or funding schools is unfair to the childless.

“These same justices, and the party they come from, seem to rouse themselves to fret about fairness only when those who don’t ordinarily get a lot of breaks — people struggling with debt or who need help feeding their families — are given a government benefit. When that happens, the fairness police of the right turn on their sirens, usually with the argument that someone else’s gain must be your loss — even if you didn’t actually lose anything.”

In ethics, there is a word for this: spite.

John Rawls discusses spite in A Theory of Justice, in the chapter entitled “The Problem of Envy”:

“A person who is better off may wish those less fortunate than he to stay in their place. He is jealous of his superior position and begrudges them the greater advantages that would put them on a level with himself. And should this propensity extend to denying them benefits that he does not need and cannot use himself, then he is moved by spite.”

As Waldman points out, you would never hear a conservative justice invoke the principle of fairness when the arrangements benefit those who already have the advantage. Waldman quotes Samuel Alito, who interrupted a lawyer to say this: “Why is it fair? Why is it fair? … I’ll try one more time. Why was it fair to the people who didn’t get arguably comparable relief?”

I realize that I’m a tiny voice in the wilderness, with my belief that the conservative mind isn’t merely different, it’s stunted and defective and dangerous. Conservatives who make it all the way to the Supreme Court may know all about the Ten Commandments, but anything they know about moral philosophy seems to be centuries out of date. And as Alito’s perverted sense of fairness shows, they’re incapable of even elementary moral reasoning.

Yesterday’s fiction

Robert Cedric Sherriff, circa 1928. Source: Hear the Boat Sing.

Unless a novel becomes a classic, it will become obscure. It may or may not show up on book lists. There probably won’t ever be a Gutenberg edition. The review industry, of course, is concerned with what’s new. How might we discover now-obscure books that were published before we were born?

With R.C. Sherriff’s The Hopkins Manuscript, first published in 1939, a kind of miracle brought it to our attention. The publisher brought out a new edition, and the Washington Post wrote about it: “The moon falls to Earth in a 1939 novel that remains chillingly relevant.”

I ordered the book immediately, of course. It’s a post-apocalyptic novel that never showed up on the many lists of post-apocalyptic novels that I had scoured. I bought a used hardback copy on Amazon that I assumed would be the 1939 edition. But when the book arrived I was surprised to discover that it’s from 1963 and is some sort of book club edition. That means that there have been three editions of The Hopkins Manuscript.

I’m only 52 pages into the book and will write more about it later. It’s beautifully written, something we might expect from an author who was educated at Oxford and who also was a playwright.

Yesterday Ken, who knows I’m on the lookout for memorable science fiction and fantasy that has fallen into obscurity, sent me a link to an article about Hope Mirrlees: “Hope Mirrlees and her curious masterpiece.” Mirlees was a lesser-known member of the Bloomsbury Group. One of her poems was published by the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press. The novel is Lud-in-the-Mist, first published in 1926 and now in the public domain. I’ve ordered a copy of Lud-in-the-Mist from a used book seller. I assume it is the 1926 edition, though someone — I’m not sure who — has reprinted it in paperback now that the book is in the public domain.

Why was it so easy to find good science fiction and fantasy up through the 1980s? Was it only because, 35 years ago, there was so much that I had not yet read? Or has something changed, either in what people want to read or what publishers choose to publish?

I’m very suspicious about the current state of the publishing industry. This piece in the Times of London increased my suspicion: “Publishers cower in fear of ambush by woke critics.” (Unfortunately the article is behind a paywall. I read it through my subscription to Apple News.) As I’ve said here before, as very much a liberal I’m in accord with the principles that conservatives deplore as “woke.” But that doesn’t mean that I want to read novels that have been pre-policed to make sure they don’t offend anyone. While I’m gasping for a good space opera (which were plentiful in the 1980s), that’s not the sort of thing that publishers seem interested in these days. (I do note, though, with some optimism, that John Twelve Hawks reported on Facebook yesterday that he has finished the draft of a new novel.)

The classics are always there for us, if publishers let us down. I greatly enjoyed the time I spent reading seven of Sir Walter Scott’s novels. Thus I was particularly amused to find this passage on page 42 of The Hopkins Manuscript:

“But I knew that I must do something to preserve my sanity, and after long thought I resolved upon what may seem a pathetic attempt to alleviate my awful loneliness. I resolved to read from beginning to end the works of Sir Walter Scott. I possessed these in thirty volumes, and one a week would carry me far into the winter — even until the day when I should no longer need to nurse my secret.”

The Hopkins Manuscript is often laugh-out-loud funny. I understood the passage above to be an example of Sherriff’s dry humor: Just how pathetically bored would someone have to be to read so much Walter Scott, which lots of people possessed in thirty volumes, but none of which had been read? You can still buy those sets, complete or not, on eBay and in used book stores.

Is there someone, somewhere — part historian and part booklover — whose mission it is to keep obscure old novels from being forgotten? It would be hard work, and it would require access to the right kind of libraries. These days, shops that sell out-of-print books list them on Amazon or eBay. But how do we figure out what to look for?

As an aside, I might mention here that the World Science Fiction Convention, also called WorldCon, will be in Glasgow next year (August 8-12, 2024). I’m overdue for a trip to Scotland, so I’m hoping to attend. Maybe I’ll be able to pick up some intel on what readers are thinking versus what publishers are thinking. There has been a good bit of protesting at WorldCons during the past few years, mostly from the right.

I’m rooting for Oxford, not for the cars

Bicycles at Oxford. Source: Wikimedia Commons. A third of the people of Oxford don’t have cars.

Slate Magazine has an excellent piece this morning on the town of Oxford’s plan to stop cars from overwhelming its medieval streets: How One City’s Traffic Plan Kicked Off a Global Right-Wing Freakout.

The problem that Oxford is trying to solve is easy to see. Too many cars in central Oxford are causing so much congestion that every other kind of traffic is obstructed. The streets have become more dangerous for people who are walking and cycling. And that’s not just a few people. More than 60 percent of the people in central Oxford are walking, cycling, or riding buses. Oxford came up with a plan to try to make the streets faster and safer by restricting cars during the day.

To right-wingers, it’s socialist tyranny. And not only that, it’s an opportunity to come up with conspiracy theories about how it’s all part of a global socialist plan to “herd people” and control their movements.

We all value individual freedom. But if individual freedom always overrides all other values, then how do we solve collective problems? Do those who are protesting Oxford’s plan acknowledge the problem? If so, what would they do about it? The American solution would be to put cars first, knock down some of those old buildings, displace a bunch of poor people, and build more streets. In a place like Oxford, that kind of solution is not an option.

Whether it’s a local problem such as Oxford’s or a global problem such as climate change, for every collective problem that we deny or refuse to solve we move closer to a Hunger Games world. If that Hunger Games world were a world in which individual rights were equally and justly preserved for all, then the miseries, as well as the individual rights, would at least be equally shared. But some of us know that that would never be the case. I think I know why. I think it’s because there are some people who assume that they’ll always be at the top of the order, as lords over those below them, whose portion of the order is the misery. So of course it’s not just bicycles and cars. It’s two incompatible ways of ordering the world. In a place like Oxford, I think I can guess who will win. But in a thousand other places that magazines don’t write about, I think I can guess who’s losing.

Carnival Row

Vignette and Philo, before Philo got his ridiculous hat and his bad haircut.

When the “Carnival Row” series started in 2019, I ignored it because I misconstrued what it was. It’s fantasy. But because of the name, and because of the stupid hat that Orlando Bloom wears in the promotional photos (under which is a very unbecoming haircut), I assumed that the Orlando Bloom character was a carnival barker and that the series had to do with a bunch of dysfunctional people rejected by society who traveled with a carnival. I was wrong.

A second season starts this Friday on Amazon Prime Video. The first season is now streaming again, and I took a closer look. “Carnival Row” actually is the name of a rough street in an imaginary city that is a lot like a gothic, pagan, somewhat steampunk London of the 19th Century. The Orlando Bloom character, Philo, is a detective who tries to protect the odd people who live on Carnival Row. Philo has a secret (which is revealed in episode 3). Some of these odd people have hooves. Some have wings and can fly. The ones with wings are called fae, and they’re a lot like human-size faeries. One of the fae, Vignette (played by the very fey English actress Cara Delevingne), has a grudge against Philo (also explained in episode 3).

After four episodes (of eight) in the first season, I’ve discovered that “Carnival Row” is a good bit of fun to watch. The sets and settings are excellent. The cast, which includes Indira Varma, is expensive. If this series had better writers rather than writers who are somewhere short of excellent, it would be great. It’s the writing that falls short, with dialogue that’s just not quite good enough for the cast.

In short, “Carnival Row” probably deserves its weak Rotten Tomatoes score of 57/88. But when there’s not anything better to watch, it will do.

As for anything better, I am mystified why “The Last of Us” has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 97/91. To my taste, it’s pure junk, nothing more than yet another lame zombie series, a useless genre that should have died twenty years ago. “Zombie genre” is a double entendre — a genre that keeps stumbling around and refuses to die. Yes, episode 3, which a friend persuaded me to watch, was completely different. But episode 4 (I won’t watch any more of it) went right back to the usual boring zombie nonsense. I wasted a lot of popcorn watching four episodes. Even perfectly popped Orville Reddenbacher with sea salt, real butter powder, and brewer’s yeast couldn’t make “The Last of Us” fit to watch.

Meanwhile, “Mandalorian” season 3 will start on Disney+ on March 1, a series that’s more than worth its popcorn.

Pearls before swine

Credit: CSpan

When in the same room as the abundant kindness and goodness of President Joe Biden, how can Republicans even stand themselves? I’ll answer my own question. Many Republicans are so far gone that they can’t even know what they are.

I did not watch Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ Republican rebuttal. But according to Heather Cox Richardson, Sanders said, “The dividing line in America is no longer between right or left. The choice is between normal or crazy.”

I have little doubt, professional liar that she is, that Sanders is so blind that she actually sees things that way. And she is far too far gone to realize that normal people, aghast at such a voluntary public display of blindness, will instantly understand that Sanders is projecting, a psychological trick that is essential to maintaining stability in the right-wing psyche. If they didn’t project their own craziness and meanness onto other people, they’d have only themselves to hate.

I never go on Twitter, but several news outlets are reporting that George Santos, an amateur liar and swine so vile that even many Republicans can’t stomach him, tweeted: “SOTU category is: GASLIGHTING!” I’m glad that I can’t even imagine what goes on in the mind of someone who can be like that and think like that.

Kevin McCarthy deserves some credit here. He was completely civil all through Biden’s speech, and he even tried to shush the outbreaks of booing and heckling from the Republican side of the room. But McCarthy has made his bed, and now we will see how long he can lie in it. McCarthy has only two choices, really. He can become more like Biden. Or he can become more like Marjorie Taylor Greene. Increasingly I think that the best solution for the world’s Republican problem is for Trump to draw off all the lunatics into a third party, enabling everyone to see what a minority of losers the deplorables are. Then the losers can glory in the acid purity of their own meanness, as they dissolve in it.

For good and decent human beings, the challenge is how to be civil to such people. For Joe Biden, as president of the United States, the standard of civility is very high (not that Donald Trump ever had any such standard). But even Joe Biden baited them and made fun of their cluelessness. He got the best of them, too, right in front of the American people, though no doubt Republicans think the opposite.

President Biden did a brilliant job of describing his vision of an America that is more just, more equal, more fair, more kind, and more prosperous. And yet the Republican Party wants us to believe that Biden’s vision is crazy. Those of us who are not Republicans should be endlessly grateful that, by the grace of God, we are not like that.

Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.” — Matthew 7:6, King James version.

“The choice is no longer between right or left. The choice is between normal and crazy.”