A Sneaky Assistant

Moscow in the late 17th Century in winter, painted by Apollinary Vasnetsov in 1901.

Snippets 165. One of the most brave and remarkable explorers in British history was the relatively little-known Lucy Atkinson (nee Finley).  During the late 1830s and early 1840s she worked as a governess in St Petersburg, where she met her husband Thomas Atkinson.  They were married in 1848 and set off on a grand tour of Siberia and Central Asia, which lasted until 1853.  During the first year of their travels she gave birth to their son in a small Russian military outpost, but that is a story for another day.  The following quote is from her account of her travels, Recollections of Tartar Steppes and their Inhabitants, published in 1863, and concerned an assistant who was employed to help them on the first leg of their journey, a man named Nicholai.  It soon became evident that he was unreliable and couldn’t be entirely trusted.  We pick up the story with the Atkinsons’ arrival at a post station on the outskirts of Moscow.

All was darkness in the building — not a person was visible, it appeared deserted. Mr. Atkinson desired Nicholai to rouse up the people and hasten the horses; the man soon unharnessed those which had brought us, and then he vanished in the darkness, and we were left alone. A considerable time elapsed, and no one appeared. I then suggested that it was better to call for Nicholai; this Mr. Atkinson did, but there was no response. He then concluded to leave me in the sledge, and enter the house; he groped his way in the darkness, through two rooms, without finding a soul; in a third he trod on a body, and nearly tumbled over others, but they did not utter a word; a candle was flickering in a corridor beyond; having obtained this, he discovered that he had passed through a room in which six people were lying in a state of drunken insensibility, from whom he could not get an answer; proceeding further, others were found in a like condition. Here he discovered Nicholai fast asleep on a bench, with our road papers and the bag of money lying on the floor; he also was drunk, and had forgotten both us and the horses.

Eventually Nicholai’s services were dispensed with:

I presume one reason for my friend impressing the necessity of caution on us was, that we had discharged Nicholai, on account of neglect of duty, and gross misconduct in many ways. The fellow was not to be trusted, and Mr. Atkinson had always treated him with great leniency. I had been rather amused at some of his doings in Moscow. Whilst there, he received a sum of money in advance, to enable him to fit himself out with everything necessary for a journey of two years. At almost the last hour he asked for more, which astonished Mr. Atkinson, as he had received in advance a whole year’s salary, and was therefore refused, until he said he wanted to buy something for his ‘old mother,’ — he might have known his master’s weak point — Mr. Atkinson’s heart relented immediately. On arriving in Ekaterinburg we found out that he had brought in our sledge a large quantity of goods on speculation, and was occupied in disposing of them, the poor ‘old mother’ receiving not a single article of all he had brought with him.

We will look at another quote from Atkinson’s fascinating account in a future “snippet”.

Moscow in the late 17th Century in winter, painted by Apollinary Vasnetsov in 1901.


If you enjoyed this “snippet” please consider sharing on Facebook or Twitter, to help other people find and enjoy Windows into History. You can keep updated each time I post a new entry by clicking on the follow button on the right of the screen. I welcome any comments or suggestions, and will consider guest posts.

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Never Cruel or Cowardly (Seneca 3)

A statue of Seneca the Younger at his birthplace, Cordoba.

For the last couple of weeks we have been looking at one of the most fascinating books ever written in Latin: De Vita Beata, by Seneca the Younger (c. 4BC – 65AD): About a Happy Life.  The following is my own translation of the third “book” (don’t worry, his books are just big paragraphs!), with the original text rendered into a style of English that is easily readable, unlike a lot of academic translations of Latin.  Please see below for further explanation of this project, and some more information about Seneca himself.

For his third book, Seneca is still skirting around the issue of how exactly to achieve happiness, skillfully avoiding specifics, while often using a lot of words to say not much.  But there are some important ideas here, such as learning to recognise what is truly important in life, something that still holds true today, and his closing remark is sheer perfection.  He also starts talking about Stoicism at this point, an important belief system for philosophers in ancient Rome (with origins in ancient Greece).

Let’s search for some kind of a blessing in life, and not one that just looks good, but one that is firmly and inherently good, with the most beautiful aspects the least obvious. Let’s unearth that. It is not far away, and it can be found. All you need to know is what direction to reach out your hand for it. As things stand, though, we behave as though we were in the dark, and reach beyond what is within our grasp, knocking aside the very things we want in the process.

So that I don’t lead you astray, I will pass over the opinions of other philosophers, because it would take forever to describe them all and prove them wrong. Just take ours. But when I say “ours”, I don’t tie myself to any of the main proponents of Stoic philosophy, because I also have a right to form my own opinion. So I will follow the teachings of some of them, but will challenge others. Once I have reported all their opinions I will offer my own if appropriate, but I will not trash the beliefs of my predecessors. Instead, I will add something to them.

In the process, I will follow nature. This is something all Stoic philosophers agree. True wisdom doesn’t come from turning away from nature, but from shaping our behaviour according to natural laws and examples from nature. So a happy life is one that is in harmony with the very nature of life itself, and cannot be achieved unless the mind is sound, and remains so uninterrupted, and is also brave and strong, enduring all hardships with admirable courage, well-suited to the times it lives in, wary of the physical world and all its trappings, but not careful to a fault.

A sound mind must also recognise the value of all the things that make up our lives, without over-estimating the value of any of them, and must enjoy what Fortune brings without becoming her slave. It goes without saying that this will lead to a lasting serenity and freedom, when we have driven away all the things which over-excite us or alarm us. In place of the pleasures of the flesh and the fleeting rush of euphoria from immoral crimes, instead we gain an immense, permanent, calm joy, along with peace, serenity and strength of mind.

And kindness.  For all cruelty is a sign of weakness.

Being courageous in the face of hardship, and always kind.  I can’t help but be reminded of Doctor Who: “never cruel or cowardly”.

Seneca was a philosopher, a dramatist, a satirist, a senator and a tutor and advisor to Nero.  He was also a vegetarian for a grand total of one year, until his father persuaded him to abandon the “foreign” practice.  After his retirement he was accused (probably falsely) of being involved in an attempt to assassinate Nero, and was forced to commit suicide, which he did with calm dignity and stoicism (or so the story goes – history is rarely told in an unbiased manner), after attending to his final letters.

Seneca wrote 124 letters tackling issues of morality, and they are absolutely fascinating and still thought-provoking today.  At least, they are thought-provoking if they are translated in an accessible manner.

We will look at some more of Seneca’s advice about how to achieve happiness next time.


An explanation of this project:

Roman writing can have a reputation for being a rather dry subject for those who never had their enthusiasm sparked by Latin, and I would lay the fault with that firmly at the door of the translations. Rome was a vibrant, exciting society and that was reflected in their writing, but I remember when studying Latin finding the obsession in academia with accurately translating everything word for word frustrating. I can see the necessity for that approach from an academic point of view, but if the end result is a piece of hackneyed, stuffy prose, then you have actually produced something that is a million miles away from the original, despite including all the right words. For the general reader, I think Latin needs to be translated a little more loosely: get the meaning across without copying every aspect of the sentence structure. So I am attempting more modern translations.  For these Seneca translations I will be working with the original Latin text and with reference where necessary to a standard translation by Aubrey Stewart from 1900.

Let’s look at what Seneca wrote, but with the translation tidied up into a much more natural form of English. Let’s render the work back to a natural prose, the manner in which it would originally have been enjoyed. I’m not going to take any huge liberties with the original material, just give it a bit of a spruce up.  Let’s see what Seneca really had to say.


If you enjoyed reading this, please consider sharing on Facebook or Twitter, to help other people find and enjoy Windows into History. You can keep updated each time I post a new entry by clicking on the follow button on the right of the screen. I welcome any comments or suggestions, and will consider guest posts.

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The Clog Almanac

clog-almanac.jpgSnippets 164.  An early form of calendar used in England, amongst other countries, was the “clog almanac”.  It was described in detail in The Book of Days (1864) by Robert Chambers, one of the great pioneers of the trivia book.  The illustration on the right is also from the same book.  It is not upside down, despite some appearance to the contrary!

The simple-minded, yet for his time intelligent and inquiring Dr Robert Plot, in his Natural History of Staffordshire (folio, 1686), gives an account of what he calls the Clog Almanac, which he found in popular use in that and other northern counties, but unknown further south, and which, from its being also used in Denmark, he conceived to have come into England with our Danish invaders and settlers many centuries before. The clog bore the same relation to a printed almanac which the Exchequer tallies bore to a set of account books. It is a square stick of box, or any other hard wood, about eight inches long, fitted to be hung tip in the family parlour for common reference, but sometimes carried as part of a walking-cane. Properly it was a perpetual almanac, designed mainly to show the Sundays and other fixed holidays of the year, each person being content, for use of the instrument, to observe on what day the year actually began, as compared with that represented on the clog; so that, if they were various, a brief mental calculation of addition or subtraction was sufficient to enable him to attain what he desired to know.

The entire series of days constituting the year was represented by notches running along the angles of the square block, each side and angle thus presenting three months; the first day of a month was marked by a notch having a patulous stroke turned up from it, and each Sunday was distinguished by a notch somewhat broader than usual. There were indications— but they are not easily described — for the Golden Number and the cycle of the moon. The feasts were denoted by symbols resembling hieroglyphics, in a manner which will be best understood by examples. Thus, a peculiarly shaped emblem referred to the Circumcisio Domini on the 1st of January. From the notch on the 13th of that month proceeded a cross, as indicative of the episcopal rank of St Hilary; from that on the 25th, an axe for St Paul, such being the instrument of his martyrdom. Against St Valentine’s Day was a true lover’s knot, and against St David’s Day (March 1), a harp, because the Welsh saint was accustomed on that instrument to praise God. The notch for the 2nd of March (St Ceadda’s Day) ended in a bough, indicating the hermit’s life which Ceadda led in the woods near Lichfield. The 1st of May had a similar object with reference to the popular fete of bringing home the May. A rake on St Barnaby’s Day (11th June) denoted hay harvest. St John the Baptist having been beheaded with a sword, his day (June 24) was graced with that implement. St Lawrence had his gridiron on the 10th of August, St Catherine her wheel on the 25th of the same month, and St Andrew his peculiar cross on the last of November. The 23rd of November (St Clement’s Day) was marked with a pot, in reference to the custom of going about that night begging drink to make merry with. For the Purification, Annunciation, and all other feasts of the Virgin, there was a heart, though “what it should import, relating to Mary, unless because upon the shepherds’ relation of their vision, Mary is said to have kept all these things and pondered them in her heart, I cannot imagine,” says our author. For Christmas there was a horn, “the ancient vessel in which the Danes used to wassail or drink healths, signifying to us that this is the time we ought to make merry, cornua exhaurienda notans, as Wormius will have it.” The learned writer adds: “The marks for the greater feasts observed in the church have a large point set in the middle of them, and another over against the preceding day, if vigils or fasts were observed before them.”

The British Museum holds a very good example of a clog almanac, as illustrated on their website.  “Wormius” refers to Ole Worm, a Danish antiquarian and natural historian, and his Latin quote can be translated as “denoting drinking from horns”.  Some readers may have stumbled on “patulous”, which means “spreading from”, and a gridiron is a cooking grill.


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Don’t Copy Celebrities (Seneca 2)

A painting of Cicero in the Senate by Cesare Maccari (1840 – 1919)

One of the most fascinating books ever written in Latin is De Vita Beata, by Seneca the Younger (c. 4BC – 65AD): About a Happy Life.  So much of what Seneca wrote holds true today.

In his second book, Seneca discusses something that is every bit as significant to modern life as it was in his day, perhaps even more so: the foolishness of copying and envying those in a position of power or wealth. Nowadays we would probably describe that as the obsession with celebrities. He also challenges the nature of friendships built on envy, and he has another important message as well: be careful what you wish for in life.

The following is my own translation, with the original text rendered into a style of English that is easily readable, unlike a lot of academic translations of Latin.  Please see below for further explanation of this project, and some more information about Seneca himself.

When we are thinking about how to achieve a happy life, you cannot answer that question as if we were talking about a political vote: “this view has the most supporters.” If that is the case, it will be the worst option. It is not human nature for the majority to prefer the better course of action. The more people do a particular thing, the worse it is likely to be.

So instead let’s not ask what is done the most, but what is the best thing for us to do. Let’s ask what will put us in possession of undying happiness, not what is approved of by the worst possible people who offer their opinions: the vulgar people. By “vulgar”, I mean those who wear the political robes and the crowns of power. I am not interested in the colour of their clothes. I do not trust my eyes to tell me about a man’s character. I have a better and more reliable method for telling true from false: let your own mind discover what is good for it.

If a man allows his mind some breathing space, and has time for self-reflection, what truths will he confess to himself, after he has put himself to torture! He will say:

“Everything I have done before I wish could be undone. When I think over what I have said in the past, I envy those who lack the power of speech. Everything I have longed for has turned out to be a curse my enemies would have prayed would befall me. Good heavens, how much more enduring have been the things I have feared, than the things I have desired! I have been the enemy of many men, only for my dislike of them to turn to friendship, if friendship can even exist between bad men. And yet, I have still not made peace with myself.

“I have tried with all my strength to raise myself above the common herd, and to make myself remarkable with some kind of a talent. What have I achieved except to make myself a target for the arrows of my enemies, and to show those who hate me where to wound me?

“Can you see people complimenting you on your eloquence, envying your wealth, sucking up to you, praising your power? All of them are, or will be (which amounts to the same thing) your enemies. The number of people who envy you is as great as those who admire you. Why don’t I search instead for some kind of goodness I can use, and feel, rather than what I can show? The good things which men gaze at in wonder, which they crowd to see, which one person points out to another in breathless admiration, are outwardly brilliant. But inwardly they are miseries to those who possess them.”

Seneca was a philosopher, a dramatist, a satirist, a senator and a tutor and advisor to Nero.  He was also a vegetarian for a grand total of one year, until his father persuaded him to abandon the “foreign” practice.  After his retirement he was accused (probably falsely) of being involved in an attempt to assassinate Nero, and was forced to commit suicide, which he did with calm dignity and stoicism (or so the story goes – history is rarely told in an unbiased manner), after attending to his final letters.

Seneca wrote 124 letters tackling issues of morality, and they are absolutely fascinating and still thought-provoking today.  At least, they are thought-provoking if they are translated in an accessible manner.

We will look at some more of Seneca’s advice about how to achieve happiness next time.


An explanation of this project:

Roman writing can have a reputation for being a rather dry subject for those who never had their enthusiasm sparked by Latin, and I would lay the fault with that firmly at the door of the translations. Rome was a vibrant, exciting society and that was reflected in their writing, but I remember when studying Latin finding the obsession in academia with accurately translating everything word for word frustrating. I can see the necessity for that approach from an academic point of view, but if the end result is a piece of hackneyed, stuffy prose, then you have actually produced something that is a million miles away from the original, despite including all the right words. For the general reader, I think Latin needs to be translated a little more loosely: get the meaning across without copying every aspect of the sentence structure. So I am attempting more modern translations.  For these Seneca translations I will be working with the original Latin text and with reference where necessary to a standard translation by Aubrey Stewart from 1900.

Let’s look at what Seneca wrote, but with the translation tidied up into a much more natural form of English. Let’s render the work back to a natural prose, the manner in which it would originally have been enjoyed. I’m not going to take any huge liberties with the original material, just give it a bit of a spruce up.  Let’s see what Seneca really had to say.


If you enjoyed reading this, please consider sharing on Facebook or Twitter, to help other people find and enjoy Windows into History. You can keep updated each time I post a new entry by clicking on the follow button on the right of the screen. I welcome any comments or suggestions, and will consider guest posts.

A painting of Cicero in the Senate by Cesare Maccari (1840 – 1919)

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Thirteen O’Clock

Great Tom of Westminster, illustrated c. 1776.

Snippets 163. One of the great pioneers of the trivia book was Scottish Author Robert Chambers (1802-1871), who edited The Book of Days, from 1864. His work is packed full of fascinating information, and the following quote is taken from the first volume. It concerns a London legend, “the clock which struck thirteen, and saved a man’s life”.

There is a traditionary story very widely diffused over the country, to the effect that St Paul’s clock on one occasion struck thirteen at midnight, with the extraordinary result of saving the life of a sentinel accused of sleeping at his post. It is not much less than half a century since the writer heard the tale related in a remote part of Scotland. In later times, the question has been put, Is there any historic basis for this tradition? followed by another still more pertinent, Is the alleged fact mechanically possible? and to both an affirmative answer has been given.

An obituary notice of John Hatfield, who died at his house in Glasshouse-yard, Aldersgate, on the 18th of June 1770, at the age of 102 — which notice appeared in the Public Advertiser a few days afterwards — states that, when a soldier in the time of William and Mary, he was tried by a court-martial, on a charge of having fallen asleep when on duty upon the terrace at Windsor. It goes on to state — ‘He absolutely denied the charge against him, and solemnly declared [as a proof of his having been awake at the time], that he heard St Paul’s clock strike thirteen, the truth of which was much doubted by the court because of the great distance. But while he was under sentence of death, an affidavit was made by several persons that the clock actually did strike thirteen instead of twelve; whereupon he received his majesty’s pardon.’ It is added, that a recital of these circumstances was engraved on the coffin-plate of the old soldier, ‘to satisfy the world of the truth of a story which has been much doubted, though he had often confirmed it to many gentlemen, and a few days before his death told it to several of his acquaintances.’

An allusion to the story occurs in a poem styled A Trip to Windsor, one of a volume published in 1774 under the title of Weeds of Parnassus, by Timothy Scribble:

‘The terrace walk we with surprise behold,
Of which the guides have oft the story told:
Hatfield, accused of sleeping on his post,
Heard Paul’s bell sounding, or his life had lost.’

A correction, however, must here be applied — namely, that the clock which struck on this important occasion was Tom of Westminster, which was afterwards removed to St Paul’s. It seems a long way for the sound to travel, and when we think of the noises which fill this bustling city even at midnight, the possibility of its being heard even in the suburbs seems faint. Yet we must recollect that London was a much quieter town a hundred and fifty years ago than now, and the fact that the tolling of St Paul’s has often been heard at Windsor, is undoubted. There might, moreover, be a favourable state of the atmosphere.

As to the query, Is the striking of thirteen mechanically possible? a correspondent of the Notes and Queries has given it a satisfactory answer. ‘All striking clocks have two spindles for winding: one of these is for the going part, which turns the hands, and is connected with and regulated by the pendulum or balance-spring. Every time that the minute hand comes to twelve, it raises a catch connected with the striking part (which has been standing still for the previous sixty minutes), and the striking work then makes as many strokes on the bell (or spring gong) as the space between the notch which the catch has left and the next notch allows. When the catch falls into the next notch, it again stops the striking work till the minute hand reaches twelve again an hour afterwards. Now, if the catch be stiff, so as not to fall into the notch, or the notch be worn so as not to hold it, the clock will strike on till the catch does hold. … If a clock strike midnight and the succeeding hour together, there is thirteen at once, and very simply. … If the story of St Paul’s clock be true, and it only happened once, it must have been from stiffness or some mechanical obstacles.’

In connection with the above London legend, it is worthy of remark that, on the morning of Thursday the 14th of March 1861, ‘the inhabitants of the metropolis were roused by repeated strokes of the new great bell of Westminster, and most persons supposed it was for a death in the royal family. It proved, however, to be due to some derangement of the clock, for at four and five o’clock, ten or twelve strokes were struck instead of the proper number.’ The gentleman who communicated this fact through the medium of the Notes and Queries, added: ‘On mentioning this in the morning to a friend, who is deep in London antiquities, he observed that there is an opinion in the city that anything the matter with St Paul’s great bell is an omen of ill to the royal family; and he added: “I hope the opinion will not extend to the Westminster bell.” This was at 11 on Friday morning. I see this morning that it was not till 1 a.m. the lamented Duchess of Kent was considered in the least danger, and, as you are aware, she expired in less than twenty-four hours.’

So could there be any truth in the legend of the clock that struck thirteen?  Opinions are divided.  According to Mark Twain, “the thirteenth strike of the clock is not only false of itself, but casts grave doubt on the credibility of the preceding twelve.”


If you enjoyed this “snippet” please consider sharing on Facebook or Twitter, to help other people find and enjoy Windows into History. You can keep updated each time I post a new entry by clicking on the follow button on the right of the screen. I welcome any comments or suggestions, and will consider guest posts.

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Live a Happy Life (Seneca 1)

Cordoba, birthplace of Seneca, painted by Carlo Bossoli in the 19th Century.

How do you achieve happiness in your life?  It’s not a straightforward question, and it is an issue that interested the ancient Romans just as much as it interests us today.

Over the last few weeks I have been providing modern translations of some selected passages from Cato’s De Agri Cultura.  Now it’s time to look at something different: De Vita Beata, by Seneca the Younger (c. 4BC – 65AD): About a Happy Life.

Seneca was a philosopher, a dramatist, a satirist, a senator and a tutor and advisor to Nero.  He was also a vegetarian for a grand total of one year, until his father persuaded him to abandon the “foreign” practice.  After his retirement he was accused (probably falsely) of being involved in an attempt to assassinate Nero, and was forced to commit suicide, which he did with calm dignity and stoicism (or so the story goes – history is rarely told in an unbiased manner), after attending to his final letters.

Seneca wrote 124 letters tackling issues of morality, and they are absolutely fascinating and still thought-provoking today.  At least, they are thought-provoking if they are translated in an accessible manner.  More on that below, but first let’s have a look at the first section (or “book”) of De Vita Beata, written around 58AD.  The letter was written to his brother Gallio.

Everyone wants a happy life, but are slow to understand what makes life happy. It is so difficult to achieve happiness that the more eagerly a man struggles to find it, the further he travels away from it, if he takes the wrong path. It leads him in the opposite direction, so when he rushes that way he moves further away from his goal.

So, first we need to work out exactly what we are looking for. Then we need to find the quickest route to reach it. As long as we are heading in the right direction, we will learn each day on our journey how much progress we have made, and how much closer we are to our goal.

But if we wander randomly, not following any guide except for all the different noisy opinions of those who send us off in all different directions, our short lives will be wasted roaming uselessly, however much we try to understand where we are heading, day and night.

So let’s not decide where we are going, and by what route, until we have taken advice from somebody who has already travelled the path we are going to tread. Local expert advice on the path will take us in the right direction, but the most popular routes will often lead us most astray. The most important thing is not to follow the flock that has gone before us like sheep, and end up going the same way as everyone else, rather than the way we should be headed.

Nothing gets us into more trouble than taking notice of rumours, and thinking the best things are those that other people think are best, being sucked in by fakes and living life by copying others rather than using our own common sense. That is what causes men to rush together until they are piled in great heaps on top of each other; in a great crush of people, when the crowd presses in on itself, nobody can fall without bringing somebody else down with him.

You might have observed this in day-to-day life. Nobody can simply go wrong by himself, but must cause someone else to go wrong as well, by giving advice. It is harmful to follow the path of those who have gone before us, and because everyone would rather believe somebody else than form their own opinions, we never make our own deliberate judgements about life. Some traditional error always ensnares us and brings us to ruin, and we perish following the examples of other men. We need to be cured of this if we are to break away from the herd, but as things stand the mob is ready to fight against reason in defence of its own mistakes.

The same thing happens at elections. When the fickle breeze of popular opinion has changed direction, those who have been chosen as politicians are viewed with admiration by the very men who put them there. Every decision made according to the voice of the majority ends up with us all approving and disapproving of the same things.

I think what Seneca as saying in that final paragraph really boils down to “the majority is often wrong”.

We will look at some more of Seneca’s advice about how to achieve happiness next time.


An explanation of this project:

Roman writing can have a reputation for being a rather dry subject for those who never had their enthusiasm sparked by Latin, and I would lay the fault with that firmly at the door of the translations. Rome was a vibrant, exciting society and that was reflected in their writing, but I remember when studying Latin finding the obsession in academia with accurately translating everything word for word frustrating. I can see the necessity for that approach from an academic point of view, but if the end result is a piece of hackneyed, stuffy prose, then you have actually produced something that is a million miles away from the original, despite including all the right words. For the general reader, I think Latin needs to be translated a little more loosely: get the meaning across without copying every aspect of the sentence structure. So I am attempting more modern translations.  For these Seneca translations I will be working with the original Latin text and with reference where necessary to a standard translation by Aubrey Stewart from 1900.

Let’s look at what Seneca wrote, but with the translation tidied up into a much more natural form of English. Let’s render the work back to a natural prose, the manner in which it would originally have been enjoyed. I’m not going to take any huge liberties with the original material, just give it a bit of a spruce up.  Let’s see what Seneca really had to say.

Cordoba, birthplace of Seneca, painted by Carlo Bossoli in the 19th Century.


If you enjoyed reading this, please consider sharing on Facebook or Twitter, to help other people find and enjoy Windows into History. You can keep updated each time I post a new entry by clicking on the follow button on the right of the screen. I welcome any comments or suggestions, and will consider guest posts.

Posted in 1st Century, Books, History, Inspiration, Latin, People | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

A Grumpy Serenade

An illustration of a bookseller in Finsbury Square from 1828.

Snippets 162. When American Thomas Rees went on a tour of Europe at the beginning of the 20th Century, his journey concluded in Britain, the birthplace of his father. His account of his travels was published under the title Sixty Days in Europe and What We Saw There, in 1908. The moment when he finally visited his father’s old house for the first time should have been fascinating and emotional, but he didn’t receive the welcome he had hoped for:

My father was born near St. Paul’s Cathedral and I thought while I was in London, I would visit his old home. The house stands on Finnsbury Square [sic], which is a small park surrounded by an iron fence. As the park is the property of the owners of the houses which front on that square, in former days each family that lived fronting on the park had a key to the iron gate which enclosed it.

The houses are built in rows as they are in residence districts of most large cities. They are all alike, are each four stories high, besides a basement half above ground, and are numbered clear around the square, commencing with Number 1 and ending with about Number 60. The house where my father was born was Number 45. Of course I got off at the wrong corner of the square, and had to follow clear around the block to come to the number which I wanted to find.

As I came up to the somber old house that had stood there over a century, I naturally had some peculiar feelings which would likely come upon persons when they have found a place of which they have always heard with reverence and have never seen. I went up the few stairs on the outside to the main landing to the parlor floor. There was a number of push buttons and speaking tubes that connected with the upper apartments, one of which was marked “The Housekeeper.” I pushed the button indicated by this label and immediately in the parlor at my left was heard the sound of music from a brass band of considerable proportions. I was both surprised and delighted to think that I was welcomed to my father’s old home with such a genuine display of melody and musical enthusiasm.

About this time a little, old, gray haired man, who seemed to belong to a past generation, came down the upper stairs in response to my signal on the bell. I asked him if he was the housekeeper, to which he replied no, that he was the janitor, that the housekeeper was out and that the building was an office building occupied by lawyers, doctors and real estate men, but that none of them were in at that hour of the day. I told him that my father was born in that house, but instead of meeting me cordially, he looked at me with apparently considerable suspicion and I do not think he believed what I said, and, evidently thinking I had some designs on the house, he backed off upstairs, and that was the last I saw of him.

The door from the hallway into the parlor from which the sounds of music continued with unabated fury, was of the double-spring pattern, having spring hinges which allowed the door to swing either in or out. I took the handle of the door and started to open it, but as I did so, a man on the other side grabbed it and jerked it shut more violently than I had opened it. I narrowly escaped having my head caught between the door and the jamb, and I returned the compliment by giving the door a jerk back and came about as near catching the other fellow as he had me. After a slight tug-of-war between us, during which the door vibrated actively back and forth, he finally slipped through the crack and got out into the hallway and asked me what I wanted. I told him that I did not want anything, but that my father was born in that house, and that I would like to thank him for the grand serenade on my home-coming. He did not seem pleased and informed me that he was not serenading me but was operating a company for the making of records to use in phonographs, and that it required absolute silence in order to get perfect records. He presumed already the slamming of that door and our conversation would be found in the middle of one of the most superb marches that had ever been produced for phonographic instruments.

This ended the conversation, the gentleman retreated into the music room, while I went on upstairs, found all the offices locked and all of the tenants probably out to lunch. I think by this time the janitor was fully armed and ready to call the police to rid the premises of my presence, so I came away.

I find, after all, there is not much satisfaction in looking for the house of your father in this world and I have concluded it is better to look for your father’s house in the world to come than in this one, for there, we are told, are many mansions, while in my father’s house in London there are only lawyers, doctors, real estate men, and other people bent on commercial pursuits.

The “somber old house” Rees’s father grew up in no longer exists.  The seven storey building that replaced it was built in 1930.


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