Wednesday Jul. 23, 2014

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Small boy

He picked up a pebble
and threw it into the sea.

And another, and another.
He couldn’t stop.

He wasn’t trying to fill the sea.
He wasn’t trying to empty the beach.

He was just throwing away,
nothing else but.

Like a kitten playing
he was practising for the future

when there’ll be so many things
he’ll want to throw away

if only his fingers will unclench
and let them go.

"Small boy" by Norman MacCaig from The Poems of Norman MacCaig. © Birlinn, 2009. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It was on this night in 1967 that a riot broke out in Detroit, marking the beginning of the decline of one of the greatest manufacturing cities in the country. An all-white squadron of police officers decided to raid a bar in a black neighborhood where there was a party to welcome home two recent veterans of the Vietnam War. The police stormed the bar, rounded up and arrested 85 black men and began loading them into vans.

The riot that broke out raged for five days. Thousands of soldiers from the Michigan National Guard were called in, along with tanks. The National Guardsmen fired off more than 150,000 bullets over the course of the riot.

Forty-three people were killed and whole blocks of the city went up in flames. After the riots, many of the white residents of the city moved to the suburbs. Thousands of homes were abandoned, and the city's population plunged from 1.6 million to 992,000 in just a few years. By 1990, Detroit was one of the poorest cities in America, with one in every three residents living in poverty.

It was on this day in 1903 that the Ford Motor Company sold its first car, a two-cylinder Model A. It was sold to a Chicago dentist named Ernst Pfenning, who paid $850 for it. The Model A was painted red, with a seat that fit two people, and no roof. It reached 28 mph at top speed. The Ford Motor Company had organized just a month earlier. There were 12 stockholders, including Henry Ford himself, who was also the vice president and chief engineer.

Ford had $28,000 in investment funds, but by the time the first Model A was sold, the company had just $224 left in the bank. Fewer than 2,000 Model As sold during the two years the car was manufactured, but it was enough to make the Ford Motor Company profitable.

In 1908, five years after selling the first Model A, Ford rolled out its Model T, and the company truly took off. The Model T was the first car produced on assembly lines, and Ford marketed it to the middle class.

It's the birthday of detective novelist Raymond Chandler (books by this author), born in Chicago (1888). After his alcoholic father abandoned the family, his Irish mother took young Raymond to London, where they lived with her relatives. He enrolled in an elite London school, and excelled at academics. He wrote later: "It would seem that a classical education might be a poor basis for writing novels in a hard-boiled vernacular. I happen to think otherwise. A classical education saves you from being fooled by pretentiousness, which is what most current fiction is too full of."

Chandler hoped to become a lawyer, but his uncle — who was supporting Chandler and his mother — didn't want to pay for the expensive training. He insisted that his nephew begin supporting his mother as soon as possible, so Chandler didn't go to college. Instead, he passed the difficult British Civil Service exams and got a job recording shipments of naval supplies. It was a good job, but Chandler hated it. He quit after six months and set out to become a writer in London, publishing mediocre poetry and some essays and reviews. He couldn't make a living. About that time, he met the writer Richard Middleton, who committed suicide shortly after their meeting. Chandler wrote: "The incident made a great impression on me, because Middleton struck me as having far more talent than I was ever likely to possess; and if he couldn't make a go of it, it wasn't very likely that I could." At the age of 23, broke and desperate and a disappointment to his family, Chandler asked his uncle for a loan for the ship's passage to America, promising that after that he would never ask his uncle for anything again.

A fellow ship passenger convinced Chandler to visit Southern California. For the next 20 years, Chandler made his living in Los Angeles. He worked odd jobs, fought in France during World War I, then returned to California and eventually landed a position as an executive with an oil company. His drinking became an increasing problem — he stopped showing up at work, had affairs with young secretaries, and once he tried to sell the entire company while he was drunk. He was fired in 1932, during the middle of the Great Depression. He was poor and hungry, and he and his estranged wife moved back in together to save money on rent. Chandler said of those days: "It didn't kill me, but neither did it increase my love of humanity."

Desperate for a way to earn money, Chandler decided to return to writing. Pulp fiction seemed more financially promising than poetry. He read pulp detective magazines obsessively, and learned to imitate the stories. As a schoolboy in London, Chandler had learned to translate Latin texts into English and then back again into Latin. He used this same technique with mystery stories: he read them, wrote down detailed plot summaries, and then tried to rewrite the stories. Then he compared his finished versions to the originals, to determine where he could have done better. After five months, Chandler sold his first story, "Blackmailers Don't Shoot" (1932), for one cent per word. He continued to sell stories, and in 1939 he published his first novel, The Big Sleep. He wrote seven novels, all narrated by a wisecracking private eye named Philip Marlowe.

His other novels include Farewell, My Lovely (1940), The Little Sister (1949), and The Long Goodbye (1953).

He said: "The most durable thing in writing is style, and style is the most valuable investment a writer can make with his time. It pays off slowly, your agent will sneer at it, your publisher will misunderstand it, and it will take people you have never heard of to convince them by slow degrees that the writer who puts his individual mark on the way he writes will always pay off."

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