Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

An extract from Conquest: Montezuma, Cortes and the Fall of Old Mexico by Hugh Thomas.

A trunk was then brought to Tenochititlan [now Mexico City] from the Gulf of Mexico. It had been washed up on the shore. Inside were several suits of clothes, some jewels and a sword. Whose possessions were they? No one had ever seen anything like them before. The Emporor Montezuma divided the contents between the kings of Tacubaya and Texcoco. A little later a message came from Yucatan, probably sent by a Mexican merchant. It was a folded manuscript. This depicted three white temples at sea floating on large canoes…

Then merchants from Xicallanco seem to have more reports of strange new men. This probably confirmed stories from the other Mexican outposts farther south down the isthmus of Central America. The Mexica would thus perhaps have heard of a colony of white men which had been established in 1513 only a thousand miles (as the crow flies) south east of Yucatan, in Darien.

It was also, later reported that in Mexico, after about 1502 a series of phenomena were observed which seemed to presage difficult times. First, for example, a tongue of fire in the sky, presumably a comet of unusual brilliance, was said to have been seen every night for a year. Then the thatched roof of the temple of Huitzilopochtli caught fire on top of the great pyramid: the flames could not be put out. Another temple, that of a more ancient deity, Xiuhtecuhtli, the god of fire (also known as the lord of the turquoise and even as the father and mother of the gods), was destroyed by what was described as a noiseless thunderbolt. This was especially alarming, since fire, expressed by family hearths and braziers before temples, was looked upon as one of the great achievements of the gods. Then a comet was said to have fallen sharply in the sky, to have divided in three, and to have scattered sparks throughout the Valley of Mexico. The water of the lake [on which Tenochititlan was built] foamed for no reason; many houses built next to the water were flooded…

The most famous tale of this time is the most esoteric: some fishermen were said to have found a bird like a crane, of an ashen colour. They showed it to the Emperor, who saw a mirror on its head. In the mirror, he observed the heavens and the stars, and then a number of men riding on deer, approaching as for war. The Emperor is said to have summoned specialist wise men. He asked them for their interpretation. But when they looked, the vision, the mirror, and he bird had all disappeared…

People in old Mexico were often influenced by far less dramatic events than these. Unaccustomed noises or sights of any kind, from the cry of an owl to the sight of a rabbit running into a house, suggested calamities. The call of a white headed hawk (identified with the sun) might have several interpretations. Anyone whose path was crossed by a weasel might expect a setback. The Mexica spent a great deal of time speculating about the significance of such things. This should not be a matter of surprise. It has been represented that these “portents” never occurred and the interpretations in consequence were invented later. Machiavelli in his Discorsi, in these very years (1515-18) remarked: “Both modern and ancient examples go to show that great events never happened in any town or in any country without their having been announced by portents, revelations, prodigious events or other celestial signs”… In this spirit of scepticism… some have argued that these portents in Mexico were artfully devised in the 1530s or 40s on the ground that simple people find catastrophes easier to bear if it can be argued that they have been foretold.

Yet most of these phenomena in Mexico were unsensational. Assuming that one or other of them occurred at all, they might have been forgotten had the Mexican empire subsequently prospered… Storms on the Lake of Mexico which caused water to foam were not infrequent. Fires on the thatched roofs on the top of  pyramids should have been expected since braziers were nearby. Two-headed beings [also having appeared] could have been Siamese twins. Both they and the bird with the mirror sound as if they were figments in the imagination of someone who had eaten sacred mushrooms… [Finally,] comets and eclipses were in fact seen in these years.

The most likely interpretation of the story of these portents is that some, if not all, of them occurred; that given that rumours of atrocious happenings in Panama and the Caribbean had reached Tenochtitlan, gloomy conclusions were being draw; that though they may have been temporarily forgotten, both the portents and the interpretations were recalled in 1519.

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An extract from The Lawless Roads by Graham Greene, an account of his travels in the Mexico of 1938. Thanks to Sir William Wilmot for giving me the book to accompany me on my travels.

El Retiro is the swagger cabaret of Socialist Mexico, all red and gold and little baloons filled with gas, and chicken a la king. A film star at one table and a famous singer, and a rich men everywhere. American couples moved sedately accross the tiny dance floor while the music wailed, the women with exquisite hair and gentle indifference, and the middle aged American businessmen like overgrown schoolboys a hundred years younger than their young women. Then the cabaret began – a Mexican dancer with great bold thighs, and the American women lost a little of their remote superiority. They were being beaten at their own game – somebody who wasn’t beautiful and remote was drawing the attention of their men. They got vivacious and talked a little shrilly and powdered their faces, and suddenly appeared very young and inexperienced and unconfident, as the great thighs moved. But their turn came when the famous tenor sang. The American men lit their pipes and talked all through the song and then calpped heartily to show that they didn’t care, and the women closed their compact and listened – avidly…

Then the Waikiki, on a lower level socially and morally. Armed policemen (later that night the place was raided for Perez, the drug trafficker).  Lovely sexual instruments wearing little gold crosses, lolled on the sofas; a man had passed out altogether beside a blue soda water bottle. Small intimate parties struggled obscurely with shoulder straps, and presently got up and made for the hotel a little way down the street. My friend thought I might be lonely and insisted on finding me an American girl – there was only one in the place, and she was called Sally. I said I didn’t want her, but she obviously had for him (he was a Mexican) the glamour of foreignness. He said, ‘She’s nice. She’s refined – and interesting. You’ll like to talk to her. You’re a writer. She’ll tell you all about her life.’

I said, ‘I don’t want to talk to her about her life.’ You could see it all around without asking questions – in the red velvet sofas and the blue soda-water bottles and the passed out Mexican. But my friend had got a girl and he wanted me to have an American – somebody I could talk to easily. He kept on asking everybody, ‘Where’s Sally?’ and presently they found her – so there she came, picking a refined way across the dance floor, pasty, genteel, and a little scared, and very badly dressed. She said, ‘Yes, sir,’ ‘No, sir,’ ‘Yes, sir’ to everything I said. The formality, the subservience, the terrible refinement were uncanny.

My Mexican friend said, ‘She’s pretty, eh?’ and I had to look at that infinitely plain pasty face with all the vacancy of drug-stores and cheap movies and say, ‘Yes, fine.’

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Taste in Men Defined

You remember I said before that Ackley was a slob in his personal habits? Well, so was Stradlater, but in a different way. Stradlater was more of a secret slob. He always looked all right, Stradlater, but for instance, you should’ve seen the razor he shaved himself with. It was always rusty as hell and full of lather and hairs and crap. He never cleaner it or anything. He always looked good when he was finished fixing himself up, but he was a secret slob anyway, if you knew him the way I did. The reason he fixed himself up to look good was because he was madly in love with himself. He thought he was the handsomest guy in the Western Hemisphere. He was pretty handsome, too – I’ll admit it. But he was mostly the kind of handsome guy that if your parents saw his picture in your Year Book, they’d right away say, “Who’s this boy?” I mean he was mostly a Year Book kind of handsome guy. I knew a lot of guys at Pencey [a school] I thought were a lot handsomer than Stradlater, but they wouldn’t look handsome if you saw their pictures in the Year Book. They’d look like they had big noses or their ears stuck out. I’ve had that experience frequently.

An extract from The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger

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This is the description of Coketown from Hard Times by charles Dickens. It begins to expound one of the main themes of the book, namely the application and continual deference to free market principals in all aspects of existence such that anything non-tangible, not purchaseable,  such as emotional wellbeing, the creative inner mind, and a propensity to wonder at the marvels of the world, are excluded from what in the estimation of the industrialist, constitutes a good life.

It was a town of red brick, or a brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes would had allowed it; but as matters stood it was a town of unnatural red and black like the painted face of a savage.  It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever, and never got uncoiled. It had a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye, and vast piles of building full of windows where there was a rattling and trembling all day long, and where the piston of the steam engine worked monotonously up and down like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness. It contained several large streets all very like one another, inhabited by people equally like one another, who all went in and out at the same hours , with the same sound upon the same pavements, to do the same work , and to whom every day was the same as yesterday, and tomorrow, and every year the counterpart of the last and the next.

These attributes of Coketown were in the main inseparable from the attributes of the work by which it was sustained; against them were to be set off, comforts of life which found their way all over the world, and elegancies of life which made, we will not ask how much of the fine lady, who could scarcely bare to hear the place mentioned. The rest of its features were voluntary and they were these.

You saw nothing in Coketown but what was severely workful. If the members of a religious persuasion built a chapel there, as the members of eighteen religious persuasions had done – they made it a pious warehouse of red brick, with sometimes (but this is only in highly ornamental examples) a bell in a birdcage on the top of it. The solitary exception was the New Church      ; a stuccoed edifice with a square steeple over the door, terminating in four short pinnacles like florid wooden legs. All the public inscriptions in the town were painted alike, in severe characters of black and white. The jail might have been the infirmary, the infirmary might have been the jail, the town hall might have been either, or both, or anything else, for anything that appeared to contrary in the graces of their construction. Fact, fact, fact, everywhere in the material aspect of the town; fact, fact, fact, everywhere in the immaterial. The M’Choakumchild school was all fact, and the school of design was all fact, and the relations between master and man were all fact, and everything was fact between lying-in hospital and in the cemetery, and what you couldn’t state in figures , or show to be purchaseable in the cheapest market and saleable in the dearest, was not, and never should be, world without end, Amen.

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The following is an extract from Sense and Sensibility, and to my mind perfectly sums up why I am beginning to really enjoy Jane Austen and why she has been read by so many millions of people; terse and deeply entertaining dialogue, perfect characterisation and an entertaining wander through issues that preoccupy us now as fervently as they did the characters placed in the early 19th century. 

To bring those who have not yet the book up to speed, the “Sense” of the novel is Elinor, and the Sensibility is Marianne (her sister). The scene is thus; Elinor, Marianne, Margaret (the third sister) and their mother, Mrs Dashwood are at their new home in Devon many miles from their native Sussex.  Edward Farrars, a former potential love match for Elinor has called. Willoughby (as referred to) is the absent lover of Marianne.

“‘What are Mrs. Farrars’s views for you at present Edward?’ said she [Mrs Dashwood], when dinner was over, and they had drawn round the fire; ‘are you still to be a great orator in spite of yourself?’

‘No. I hope my mother is now convinced that I have no more talents than inclination for public life.’

‘But how is your fame to be established? for famous you must be to satisfy all of your family; and with no inclination for expense, no affectation for stranger, no proffession, and no assurance, you may find it a difficult matter.’

‘I shall not attempt it. I have no wish to be distinguished; and I have every reason to hope I never shall. Thank Heaven! I cannot be forced into genius and eloquence.’

‘You have no ambition, I well know. Your wishes are all moderate.’ 

‘As moderate as those of the rest of the world, I believe. I wish, as everybody else, to be perfectly happy; but, like everybody else, it must be in my own way. Greatness will not make me so.’

‘Strange if it would’ cried Marianne. ‘What have wealth or grandeur got to do with happiness?’

‘Grandeur has but little’ said Elinor, ‘but wealth has much to do with it.’

‘Elinor for shame!’ said Marianne; ‘money can only give happiness where there is nothing else to give it. Beyond a competence, it can afford no real satisfaction, as far as mere self is concerned.’

‘Perhaps,’ said Elinor, smiling, ‘we , may come to the same point. Your competence and my wealth are very much alike, I daresay; and without them, as the world goes now, we shall both agree that every kind of external comfort must be wanting. Your ideas are only more noble than mine. Come what is your competence?’

‘About eighteen hundred or two thousand a year; not more than that.’

Elinor laughed. ‘Two thousand a year; One is my wealth! I guessed how it would end.’

‘And yet two thousand a year is a very moderate income,’ said Marianne. ‘A family cannot well be maintained on a smaller. I am sure I am not extravagant in my demands. A proper establishment of servants, a carriage, perhaps two, and hunters, cannot be supported on less.’

Elinor smiled again, to hear her sister describing so accurately their future expenses at Combe Magna [the estate of Willoughby].

‘Hunters!’ repeater Edward; ‘but why must you have hunters? Everybody does not hunt.’

Marianne coloured as she replied, ‘But most people do.’

‘I wish’ said Margaret, striking out a novel thought, ‘that somebody would give us a large fortune apiece!’

‘Oh that they would!’ cried Marianne, her eyes sparkling with animation, and her cheeks glowing with the delight of such imaginary happiness.

‘We are unanimous in that wish I suppose’ said Elinor, ‘in spite of the insufficiency of wealth.’


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In this second extract from The Corsair, we hear the corsair’s love, Medora, singing whilst he (unbeknownst to her) listens on from the bushes.

As background, although the corsair (a pirate) is “lone, wild, and strange” and stands “exempt/ From all affection and from all contempt” and is quite happy to prey off the weak (he “spurns the worm, but pauses ere he wake/ The slumbering venom of the folded snake”), he has one humanising and tender quality:


None are all evil – clinging round his heart,

One softer feeling would not yet depart;

Oft could he sneer at others as beguil’d

By passions worthy of a fool or child –

Yet ‘gainst that passion vainly still he stove,

And even in him it asks the name of Love!

So basically he is a rugged, handsome, fearsome brute, yet soft and squishy on the inside. One would never of guessed that Byron was a fan of that unspeakable sin of the Greeks would you? Now for Medora’s song:




Deep in my soul that tender secret dwells,

Lonely and lost to light for evermore.

Save when to thine my heart responsive swells,

Then trembles into silence as before.


There in its centre – a sepulchral lamp

Burns the slow flame eternal – but unseen;

Which not the darkness of despair can damp,

Though vain its ray as it had never been.


Remember me – Oh! Pass not thou my grave

Without one thought whose relics the recline;

The only pang my bosom dare not brave,

Must be to find forgetfulness in thine.


My fondest – faintest – latest – accents hear:

Grief for the dead not Virtue can reprove;

Then give me all I ever asked – a tear,

The first – last – sole reward of so much love.


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This is the first of two extracts from Lord Byron’s The Corsair, a poem about life on the high seas.

“O’er the glad waters of the dark blue sea,

Our thoughts as boundless, and our souls as free,

Far as the breeze can bear, the billows foam,

Survey our empire, and behold our home!

These are our realms, no limits to their sway –

Our flag the sceptre all who meet obey.

Ours the wild life in tumult still to range

From toil to rest, and joy in every change.

Oh who can tell? Not thou luxurious slave!

Whose soul would sicken o’er the heaving wave;

Not thou vain lord of wantonness and ease!

Whom slumber soothes not – pleasure cannot please –

Oh, who can tell, save he whose heart hath tried,

And danc’d in triumph o’er the waters wide,

The exulting sense – the pulse’s maddening play,

That thrills the wanderer of that tackless way?

That for itself can woo the approaching fight,

And turn what some deem danger to delight;

That seeks what cravens shun with more than zeal,

And where the feebler faint – can only feel –

Feel – to the rising bosom’s inmost core,

Its hope awaken and its spirit soar?

No dread of death – if with us die our foes –

Save that it seems even duller than repose:

Come when it will – we snatch the life of life –

Let him who crawls enamoured of decay,

Cling to his couch, and sicken years away;

Heave his thick breath; and shake his palsied head;

Ours – the fresh turf, and not the feverish bed.

While gasp by gasp he faulters fourth his soul,

Ours with one pang – one bound – escapes control.

His corpse may boast it’s urn and narrow cave,

And they who loath’d his life may gild his grave:

Ours are the tears, though few, sincerely shed,

When Ocean shrouds and sepulchres our dead.

For us, even banquets fond regret supply

In the red cup that crowns our memory;

And the brief epitaph in danger’s day,

When those who win at length divide the prey,

And cry, Remembrance saddening o’er each brow,

How had the brave who fell exulted now.”


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