Saturday Nov. 8, 2014

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April Day in November, Edinburgh

The sun punches through the cloud gaps
with strong fists and the wind
buffets the buildings
with boisterous good will.

Bad memories are blown away
over the capering sea. Life
pulls up without straining
the jungle tangle between us
and the future.

Easy to forget
the last leaves thicken the ground
and the last roses are dying
in their sad, cramped hospitals.
For gaiety’s funfair whirls
in the gray squares. Energy
sends volts from suburb to suburb.

And April, gay trespasser,
dances the dark streets of November,
Pied Piper leading a procession
of the coloured dreams of summer.

"April Day in November, Edinburgh" by Norman MacCaig from Collected Poems. © Chatto & Windus, 1991. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It's the birthday of the woman who wrote Gone with the Wind (1936), Margaret Mitchell (books by this author), born in Atlanta (1900). Growing up, she always tried to be at the center of attention. She said, "If I were a boy, I would try for West Point, if I could make it; or, well, I'd be a prize fighter — anything for the thrills." In her 20s, she began writing feature stories for an Atlanta newspaper. She got the job when she lied to the editor, saying she was a "speed demon" on a typewriter. She traveled all over the city, writing about rodeos, beauty contests, summer camps, hospitals, and prison cells. She also wrote for a gossip column called "Elizabeth Bennett."

In 1926, she fell off a horse and was badly injured. She couldn't walk, so she had to quit her job and stay in her apartment. Her husband, an editor, brought her piles of books from the Atlanta library to keep her entertained. But then one day, he came home with a Remington typewriter so she could write her own book. She asked him what to write about, and he told her to write about what she knew, so she wrote about Southern belles and Civil War veterans.

She eventually completed Gone With the Wind, starting with the last chapter. The book tells the story of Scarlett O'Hara, a woman born on a plantation who loses everything after the Civil War. Today it is one of the best-selling American novels of all time, having sold more than 30 million copies.

It's the birthday of novelist Kazuo Ishiguro (books by this author), born in Nagasaki, Japan (1954). He grew up in suburban England, idolizing Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. He spent years trying to make it as a songwriter, but nothing ever panned out. Then he took a creative writing course and immediately got several stories published and a contract for his first novel, so he decided to become a writer instead.

After he published his first novel, A Pale View of Hills (1982), about an old Japanese woman recollecting her youth in Nagasaki, a reporter came to interview him. Ishiguro remembers: "My wife said, ‘Wouldn't it be funny if this person came in to ask you these serious, solemn questions about your novel and you pretended that you were my butler?' We thought this was a very amusing idea." And that idea inspired him to write The Remains of the Day (1989), narrated by an English butler, which won the Booker Prize. His other novels include When We Were Orphans (2000), a detective story set in China, and Never Let Me Go (2005), a science-fiction story of clones living in a boarding school in rural England.

It's the birthday of the English astronomer Edmond Halley, born in Shoreditch, London, in 1656. His father was a wealthy soapmaker, and he employed an apprentice who — in addition to his soap-boiling duties — taught the nine-year-old Edmond how to write and figure arithmetic. Young Halley later went to school and did well, with a particular aptitude for astronomy. The 17th-century biographer John Aubrey recounted Halley's student days: "He was very perfect in the celestial globes, insomuch that I heard Mr. Moxon (the globe-maker) say that if a star were misplaced he would at once find it."

When Halley was 16, he went off to Oxford, equipped with a fine collection of scientific instruments provided by his father. At Oxford, he became the protégé of John Flamsteed, the Astronomer Royal. Three years later, Halley left Oxford without completing his education, and he sailed to the South Atlantic, where he charted 341 stars visible from the Southern Hemisphere. Along the way, he also made some improvements to the sextant, discovered a new star cluster, and observed a transit of Mercury in front of the face of the Sun. When he published his work two years later, his reputation as an astronomer was secure. He was elected to the Royal Society at the age of 22, and was awarded his master's degree by order of King Charles II. His old mentor, Flamsteed, felt threatened by the protégé's meteoric rise to fame, and turned against him.

In 1684, Halley began working with Christopher Wren, Isaac Newton, and Robert Hooke to come up with a theory of planetary motion using Kepler's third law. Halley was also embroiled in family and legal difficulties as he settled his late father's estate, so he was distracted, and Newton carried on much of this work without him. Halley did, however edit — and encourage Newton to publish — the Principia Mathematica in 1687. Without Halley, Newton's most famous work might never have seen the light of day; the Royal Society was broke, so Halley paid all the publishing costs. He wasn't a wealthy man, and though he eventually made his money back again, he was forced to begin looking for teaching appointments. He applied to be the Chair of Astronomy at Oxford, but Flamsteed sabotaged him out of jealousy, and put the word out that Halley didn't believe in a literal interpretation of the biblical creation story. Halley would corrupt the students, Flamsteed said. Halley lost the appointment to another astronomer, but was eventually named Chair of Geometry several years later, much to Flamsteed's displeasure. He succeeded his former mentor as Astronomer Royal in 1720; Flamsteed's widow was so angry that she sold all her late husband's instruments so Halley would never get his hands on them.

Halley continued to work with the Royal Society in various capacities. He produced the first actuarial tables, published the first meteorological chart, captained a British Navy vessel on a scientific expedition, and established accurate latitude and longitude measurements for his various ports of call. He determined the distance from the Earth to the Sun based on his observations of the planet Venus as it passed in front of the Sun. He invented two types of undersea diving bells. But for most people, Halley is best known for lending his name to a comet. He had already observed one comet and deduced the size and shape of its orbit. Going through historical records, he found that comets observed in 1456, 1531, 1607, and 1682 were so similar that they were probably the same one. He predicted the return of this same comet in 1758. And it did: the comet that would come to bear his name reappeared on Christmas Day of that year. Halley did not live to see it, however. He had died 15 years earlier.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®