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Lives of Great Men All Remind Us On:2007-02-27 10:23:16

Nobody---not Leonardo, not Einstein, not even me---nobody is good at absolutely everything.

Consider, for example, George Washington. Apart from all the bad oral hygiene, George’s big problem was that he was probably the world’s worst gardener. Indeed the oft-told story of George and the axe and the cherry tree and the father and so forth was not, as is so frequently claimed, a complete fabrication out of whole cloth by that man of the cloth Parson Mason L. Weems; but was instead more of a misremembering, or as it’s now called a libbyscooterism1, coupled with a total misunderstanding of one of Washington’s early pruning disasters.
And as he got older and gummier things just got worse: there wasn’t a plant alive (and only temporarily alive if he was involved) that he couldn’t stunt or shrivel or kill. And yet he cared so much and he tried so hard. It was pathetic ...and rather embarrassing for all concerned, especially for the poor plant.
In this, George (‘GW’ as we’ll call him to save time) inhabiting, as he did, the otherwise lush land of Virginia was quite unlike George III (or G3 as we’ll call him to save even more time) back in the much more challenging climate of England. And so it was that G3 became GW’s bête noir, and bitter rival (not that G3 realised that until much later). GW was particularly annoyed that G3 had invented the wonderfully efficacious technique, beloved of so many modern gardeners, of talking to one’s plants.
And so it went from bad to badder, until eventually (though it is a tragic, little known and virtually unsung fact) it so fell out that one of the major causes of the American Revolution was Washington’s jealousy of George III’s horticultural successes.

And then there was Ludwig van Beethoven who surprisingly enough was almost as bad a carpenter as GW was a gardener. Indeed once, noticing a slight but annoying wobble in his brand-new Broadwood grand he attempted to level its legs in the traditional way by shortening one of them and (to use what turns out to be the really appropriate phrase ‘to cut a long story short’) he ended up in a vile rage with his hair and clothes all filthy and awry, and the bloody2 piano legless and flat (well flattish) on the floor while he pounded on its keys.

Then there are some who, though towering talents, and geniuses of the first order, can be utterly useless at the most mundane and simple of tasks. Take the painter van Gogh: you would think that someone who had such mastery over his paint brushes (not to mention his palette knives) could handle a shaving brush (not to mention a razor).
But no: one morning, trying yet again to shave, he missed his beard completely stuck his well-lathered shaving brush right up his nose and promptly performed an impromptu lobulectomy on his left ear!

Then we come, at last, to the saddest case of all.
When you look at all the references to food and to eating and to cooking in his works, you quickly realise just how heart-rending it is that Shakespeare was an absolutely lousy cook. I mean the poor guy even named one of his kids Hamnet for Heavens sake!
Now as is well known Shakespeare originally left Stratford for London hoping to set up a bistro in the City or perhaps in Notting Hill Gate, and it was only after that panned; and he learned that the general opinion was that the only tasty thing in the whole restaurant was the writing on the menu; that he gave up and entered the theatre.
The end of his career as a restauranteur came when he tried really really hard all day (and half the previous night) to make a grate cheesy, French-derived potato dish (which he intended to serve in the manner of nouvelle cuisine with a garnish of Allium Porrum) only to have it viciously reviewed by Ben Jonson, the highly influential food editor of the First Folio, as having “little gratin and less leek.”3

Cheerio for now
Richard Howland-Bolton


The title is a reference to; not as you might fear ‘A Psalm of Life’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow*---“Lives of great men all remind us / We can make our lives sublime, / And, departing, leave behind us / Footprints on the sands of time” which is just total sycophantic crap; but instead refers to the delightful if anonymous ‘A Strike Among the Poets’---“Lives of great men all remind us / We can make as much as they”.
In fact Strike is so good I’ll give you all of it, and the apparatus to enable the more poetically challenged among you to fully savour it:


In his chamber, weak and dying,
While the Norman Baron lay,
Loud, without, his men were crying,
'Shorter hours and better pay.'
In his chamber, weak and dying,
Was the Norman baron lying;
Loud, without, the tempest thundered
And the castle-turret shook,
The Norman Baron Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Know you why the ploughman, fretting,
Homeward plods his weary way
Ere his time? He's after getting
Shorter hours and better pay.
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day;
The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea;
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard Thomas Gray
See! the Hesperus is swinging
Idle in the wintry bay,
And the skipper's daughter's singing,
'Shorter hours and better pay.'
It was the schooner Hesperus,
That sailed the wintry sea;
And the skipper had taken his little daughter,
To bear him company.
The Wreck of the Hesperus Bloody Longfellow again
Where's the minstrel boy? I've found him
Joining in the labour fray
With his placards slung about him,
'Shorter hours and better pay.'
The Minstrel Boy to the war is gone
In the ranks of death you will find him;
His father's sword he hath girded on,
And his wild harp slung behind him
The Minstrel Boy Thomas Moore
Oh, young Lochinvar is coming;
Though his hair is getting grey,
Yet I'm glad to hear him humming,
'Shorter hours and better pay.'
O, young Lochinvar is come out of the west,
Through all the wide Border his steed was the best;
And save his good broadsword, he weapons had none,
He rode all unarm'd, and he rode all alone.
Lochinvar Sir Walter Scott (see my 'Debride the Dastard")
E'en the boy upon the burning
Deck has got a word to say,
Something rather cross concerning
Shorter hours and better pay.
The boy stod on the burning deck,
Whence all but him had fled;
The flame that lit the battle's wreck
Shone round him o'er the dead.
Casabianca Felicia Hemans (Mrs)
Lives of great men all remind us
We can make as much as they,
Work no more, until they find us
Shorter hours and better pay.
Well we don't need to dwell on bloody
Longfellow yet again.
Hail to thee, blithe spirit! (Shelley)
Wilt thou be a blackleg? Nay.
Soaring, sing above the mêlée,
'Shorter hours and better pay.'
Hail to thee, blithe spirit!
Bird thou never wert,
That from heaven, or near it,
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.
To a Skylark Percy Byshhe Shelley

* Not to be confused with Henry Wordsworth Tallchap


1 "libbyscooterism...**" See the supposed etymology of side-burns

2 "bloody... " and for once I'm not using 'bloody' as a bloody swear-word!

3 “...little gratin and less leek”: actually in the quaint ways of that time Jonson really wrote that it “had’st small Gratine and lesse Leeke” but who remembers that or (after all this time) cares.
If you are the sort of person who does care about such minutiæ this, though it has absolutely nothing at all to do with my quotation, may be of interest.


** Ahh! Time goes by, and by and by everyone will have forgotten 'Scooter' Libby The lucky bastards!

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