'I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.' - Bruce Lee


The Perfect Summer: England 1911

Juliet Nicolson

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Jul 27, 2014
Category: Non Fiction

What a summer! Mass murder, drought, the slaughter of children, government stupor, the predicted breakup of Jay Z and Beyoncé’s marriage — the bummers go on and on. Was it ever like this before? Yes, it was. England, 1911.

In our secret hearts, many of us imagine that we belong elsewhere — say, in England, at a great country estate, in good weather, where we enjoy every luxury because we are rich and titled.

And why not, say, in May of 1911? Edward VII had died the previous spring; mourning was over, George V was about to be crowned, there would be a full season of glorious parties.

And the parties would be…hot. Paul Poiret’s evening gowns were in vogue, and they were wonderfully sheer. The brassiere was replacing the corset; women were displaying their assets. Sex was everywhere. When Rolls-Royce commissioned a new hood ornament, it chose a woman in a clinging gown.

In that year, Winston Churchill wore pink silk underwear. Extra night watchmen were hired at great country houses to protect the precious jewels of weekenders. Porters rang bells at 6 AM so guests could scurry back to the rooms they were supposed to occupy. At parties, the jaded acted out — for fun — moments like announcing a child’s death to its mother.

And, out of sight and out of mind, the lower orders seethed.

The upstairs/downstairs drama is old news — the stuff of Masterpiece Theater.

What makes "The Perfect Summer" fascinating is that England was, in 1911, about to experience dramatic change. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

And — how funny is this? — the weather was a big factor.

Nicolson tells her story chronologically, month by month, a method that always builds suspense. In June, the crew of the Olympic goes on strike in Southampton; others follow. Diaghilev brings his new ballets to London. Leonard Woolf, dining with Lytton Strachey, meets 23-year-old Rupert Brooke.

In July, the temperature’s in the 80s and there are 20 consecutive days without rain.  Fires begin to break out along railroad tracks. At the Savoy, management sprays dancers with “ozone from iced cylinders”. Only the African animals in the London Zoo thrive.

Along the way, there are fascinating details. Did you know that, in 1911, 700 families owned a quarter of England? That a fingertip rubbed on soap and then on the rim of a bottle of champagne will keep the bubbly from frothing? That, after rent, the greatest fixed expense the poor routinely faced was insurance to cover the cost of funerals and burial?

But the poor are a bore. Always with us, etc. Not good copy. So let us gloss over the 548 reported deaths from childhood diarrhea in England in August, when the temperature hit 100 degrees. And let’s not spend too much time reading about that summer’s strikes, even though some believed a revolution was happening and, in mid-August, a railroad strike pretty much crippled the country

And so it goes, day after blistering day, with the rich as idle as ever and the poor making unaccustomed protest. And, of course, three years away and counting down, the war that will slaughter a generation.

This is a gripping portrait of otherwise intelligent people acting like fools because — well, it’s what people of a certain class do. In a way, it’s a very reassuring read: nothing new under the sun, and all. And who can resist several hundred amusing stories about Society Folk?

Short takes

“The Curse of Van Gogh”

When I met Paul Hoppe all those years ago, he was a callow young Washington lobbyist and I was a callow young journalist. Worlds collided, and we became friends. Does that compromise me? You bet. But that’s not to say I’m charmed by high-testosterone thrillers — I loathe car chases, shootouts, encounters with nasty foreigners. Happily, “The Curse of Van Gogh” features an unusual main character — Tyler Sears, a gifted art thief who is, after a jail term, eager to go straight — and 12 masterpieces in Washington’s impregnable National Gallery of Art that become his new obsession. Wait, didn’t I say he’s going straight? Yes, but that’s before he meets Komate Imasu, a mega-rich art collector who doesn’t care who he has to threaten to rip art off a museum’s wall for him. Tyler’s his patsy — he gets car chases, shootouts, encounters with nasty foreigners, and worse. Does he prevail? Better than Pierce Brosnan might. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

Two-thirds of a terrific book about “The Great Gatsby”

Did the film of “The Great Gatsby” leave you with Fitzgerald fatigue? “Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of The Great Gatsby” will revive you. Better, it will excite you, for Sarah Churchwell, professor of English Literature at the University of East Anglia, has focused on a single year — 1922, the year “Gatsby” was conceived — and delivered an original way to read the book.

1922 was the year the “Twenties” happened, and Churchwell gets it all: the dancing and boozing, the new slang, the lights and noise of Manhattan. And she chronicles, in greater detail than I’ve read elsewhere, Scott and Zelda. He kept detailed notebooks and scrapbooks, and they chart a year of ruin, much of it on the North Shore of Long Island: “February: Still drunk… April… Another fight. Tearing drunk.” His household budget recorded $80 a month to “house liquor” and $100 to “wild parties.” (In 1922, Fitzgerald averaged 100 words a day; elsewhere in 1922, Eliot published “The Waste Land” and Joyce published “Ulysses.”) So when Fitzgerald produced “Gatsby” in 1925, people read it the way we once read Tom Wolfe’s “Bonfire of the Vanities” — as a novel of current events. Riveting stuff. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

If “Careless People” is so hot, why doesn’t it get a feature review? Because a third of the book is given to a sensational 1922 crime, the double homicide of an Episcopal sexton and a choir singer. The investigation was botched and the crime was never solved — it was just the kind of scandal that makes headlines and stays news. Churchwell believes Fitzgerald used the case to plot some of “Gatsby.” Maybe he did, but I tired of it quickly; if I had been Churchwell’s editor, I would have begged, on bended knee, for her to cut it. So will you. But if you skip that murder — Lord, that sounds strange — “Careless People” is a revelation.

Tom Fels: Shadow Work

When Tom Fels, my old friend from the sixties, isn’t curating exhibitions or chronicling the era we once shared (most recently, Buying the Farm: Peace and war on a sixties commune) he works in what he calls the “supply side” of the arts, in this case photography. Over the past few years he’s been making three-by-two-foot cyanotypes in a process nearly as old as photography itself, but rarely seen in recent decades. His lush, sensuous work is featured (until September 7) at the Albany Institute of History and Art.

Blackie: The Horse Who Stood Still

I can now reveal that Paige Peterson, the New York artist who became world famous for illustrating my adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic Christmas Carol, has illustrated another book. It too has an unlikely hero: a horse that stood for 28 years, pretty much without moving, in a California field. Blackie had been a rodeo horse and a crowd-pleaser at Yosemite, but it was his late-life career as a fixture in Tiburon that’s celebrated in Blackie: The Horse Who Stood Still. As a child, Paige would bring him sugar and carrots; in this book, with a rhymed text by Christopher Cerf, she feeds us quirk and whimsey. Ideal for kids who have exhausted the Dr. Seuss books and who may not be ready for Tiny Tim.