Daily Archives: 1 February 2006

T. G. Ash on the Luck of the Poles

Timothy Garton Ash, who did some of the best reporting (in English) from Poland during the rise of Solidarity and the Götterdämmerung of the Soviet Empire, recently published a catch-up piece in the New York Review of Books.

Peoples can be luckier than people. People are only young once. They seize their chances or miss them; then they grow old and die. Despite the anthropomorphic similes beloved of romantic nationalists—”young Italy,” “young Germany”—peoples “live,” in some important sense, for centuries, even millennia, sustained by real or imagined continuities of political geography and collective experience. They can be “sick” or “old” for hundreds of years, but then become renewed and youthful.

China today is one example, Spain another, and Poland a third. For two hundred years, from the end of the eighteenth century, when the first Polish rzeczpospolita, or republic (actually an elective monarchy), was divided up like a Christmas turkey between the Prussian, Russian, and Austrian empires, to Poland’s achievement of full independence (within very different frontiers) at the end of the twentieth century, the Poles had only two decades of fragile self-rule in a single state— their “second republic,” between 1918 and 1939….

Peoples can be luckier than people. But in a given time, what matters most is the happiness of the individual people who make up a given people. Honesty demands a plain acknowledgment that for millions of Polish men and women, especially among the workers, the poor, the old, and those living in the south and east, the years since 1989 have been painful and disappointing. For them, the reality of freedom has proved very different from the dream.

There is, however, another side to the story. One of the unexpected delights of the Solidarity anniversary reunion was to meet not just old friends and acquaintances, but their children —now, like my own, in their early twenties. Back in 1980, my Polish friends and I lived in different worlds. Not just the political possibilities but the life chances, in the broadest sense, of a young Pole were incomparably more limited than those of a young Brit. In the generation of our children, that is no longer true. Today, the life chances of an enterprising young Pole are altogether comparable with those of a young Brit, and by no means only for those from a privileged background, as I see every day among the Polish students and student-workers in Oxford. Something has been won.

via Arts & Letters Daily

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Harper Lee, Gregarious?

The New York Times on 30 January reports on Tuscaloosa’s equivalent of Groundhog Day.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala., Jan. 27 — Of all the functions at the president’s mansion of the University of Alabama here, none has acquired the mystique surrounding a modest annual luncheon attended by high school students from around the state.

They come with cameras dangling on their wrists and dressed, respectfully, as if they were about to issue an insurance policy or anchor the news. An awards ceremony for an essay contest on the subject of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the occasion attracts no actor, politician or music figure. Instead, it draws someone to whom Alabamians collectively attach far more obsession: the author of the book itself, Harper Lee, who lives in the small town of Monroeville, Ala., one of the most reclusive writers in the history of American letters….

The students write with longing for the kind of unmanaged childhood experienced by Jem and Scout Finch in the rural 1930’s Alabama of Ms. Lee’s rendering. Some tell of the racial tensions they witness in their school cafeterias, others of the regional prejudices they experience at the hands of Northern peers who assume anyone from Alabama must drive a pickup truck or live in a mobile home. In an essay a few years ago one girl likened the trial of the book’s Tom Robinson, a black man unjustly accused of raping a white girl, to the 1999 murder of Billy Jack Gaither, a young man living in Sylacauga, killed because he was gay….

Ms. Lee is quick-witted and gregarious. At the ceremony she greeted a server at the mansion whom she remembered from luncheons past. “I went back to my friends and I told everyone that I’d met you,” the young woman said. “Nobody believed me. I said, ‘Oh, yeah, I did, and she is the nicest, sweetest lady.” Ms. Lee looked at her with amused suspicion and started to laugh.

During lunch she reminisced about her old friend Horton Foote, who wrote the screenplay for the acclaimed 1962 film of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” starring Gregory Peck. Ms. Lee spent three weeks on the set, she said, and took off when she realized everything would be fine without her.

“I think it is one of the best translations of a book to film ever made,” she said. Ms. Lee attended Peck’s memorial service in California three years ago. About her friend Mr. Foote, who is 89, she said, “He’s become quite amazing looking in old age, like God, but clean-shaven.”

When Mr. Carruthers approached and asked why he hadn’t received a letter from her in so long — the two have become good friends — she answered that she would get to him “once I finish off all the letters I have to write.” Since the release of “Capote,” much of her time has been spent writing demurrals to reporters seeking interviews about her life. Someone suggested she come up with a form-letter response to such requests.

What it would say, she joked, “is hell, no.”

via Arts & Letters Daily

To my mind, Catherine Keener’s Harper Lee character in the film Capote was almost a eulogy to the passing of common sense and the common touch among literary types in our age of celebrity mania.

P.S. I didn’t realize Harper Lee was a descendant of Robert E.

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The Last Telegrams

Donald Sensing of One Hand Clapping recalls some of the roles that telegrams have played in his blogpost about the demise of Western Union’s telegram service. (Wire transfers are now their primary business.)

Cheap long distance telephone service and email did telegrams in. Their passing is the demise of real Americana. For military members telegrams always had a measure of foreboding. In World War II the services notified next of kin of death and serious injuries by sending a telegram. This practice was gradually modified over the years so that by the time of 1991’s Gulf War the Army made death notifications in person but sent telegrams to notify kin of soldiers listed as Very Seriously Injured or Seriously Injured….

It used to be a custom, in the South, anyway, that brides and grooms would send a telegram to their parents the day after their wedding to thank them for the occasion. Sometimes the telegram would be sent from their honeymoon location. Cathy and I sent such a telegram.

I never heard of that custom, but I suppose it makes sense that private telegrams announced only the most important events: weddings and funerals. Be sure to read the first comment to Rev. Sensing’s post, about the lengthy telegraph traffic into the town of Bedford, VA, in the wake of D-Day.

The last telegram I can recall sending was in China in 1988, when we sent a message to some fellow teachers from the porcelain-making town of Jingdezhen in Jiangxi Province during our Spring Festival trip to Hangzhou, Nanjing, and Jingdezhen during our year in Zhongshan City, Guangdong Province. I wrote out the short message announcing our arrival date and time into the square blocks of the telegram form and handed it to the clerk. She then translated each Chinese character into its 4-digit telegraph code, charged us a small fee per character, and passed the message on to the stack awaiting the transmission clerk, who must have shown up for work that day because our friends were waiting for us when our train pulled into the station at drab, sooty Jingdezhen, where street vendors hawked porcelain factory seconds.

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