A History of the World in 100 Objects – Neil MacGregor

In 2010 BBC Radio 4 ran a fascinating series where the then Director of the British Museum in London chose 99 objects from the museums collection to illustrate world history. Each object was described in its own radio programme over a period of several months and soon became addictive. By Christmas a book had been produced which not only included versions of each lecture but importantly had a really good photograph accompanying it. MacGregor had done a wonderful job describing each item for the radio but the inclusion of pictures completed the project.

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The book is over seven hundred pages long to cover properly the 100 objects in the series and has an excellent index and bibliography which alone makes the book an invaluable companion to the series. The 100th object was chosen by MacGregor from suggestions by listeners to represent the modern day and was purchased by the museum to complete the collection. Fortunately both the BBC and the British Museum regard this as a milestone project so all 100 episodes are still available as downloadable podcasts from this BBC site. The museum also maintains a series of web pages dedicated to the project including a programme by programme set of pages which also tell you where the object can be found in the museum if it is currently on display (at the time of writing 21 of the 100 objects are not in a museum gallery).

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The above mosaic shows all 100 objects and as you would probably guess this is not a book you can really just sit and read. Not only from its sheer length, but also from the way it was created from 100 separate lectures which were never intended to be listened to one after an other although it does make sense to hear or read them in sequence. Having loved the series from its inception I of course bought the book when it came out but still I tend to listen to Neil when I want to delve into the series, preferably with the book to hand so that I can admire the object as he talks about it.

We start with the mummy case of Hornedjitef and end with a Chinese made solar lamp and charger but I’m just going to pick out five of my favourites:-

  • 12 – Standard of Ur – A truly beautiful object which nobody knows what it was used for. It is inlaid with a mosaic of people coming to pay their taxes to the king so is clearly a demonstration of his power.
  • 17 – Rhind Mathematical Papyrus – Basically a primer in ‘all the mathematics that you need’ in order to work in the Egyptian civil service. How such a document came to survive the centuries is a miracle. I have a book on ancient Egyptian mathematics, maybe I should review that sometime?

  • 47 – Sutton Hoo Helmet – It was reading about the Sutton Hoo discoveries as a child that first gave me an interest in archaeology and history.
  • 76 – The Mechanical Galleon – It was this object that really made me want this book, listening to Neil’s description of this marvellously intricate device made me want to see it and there is a wonderful close up image of the stern with the beautifully detailed figures standing there.
  • 91 – Ships Chronometer from HMS Beagle – One of twenty two carried on the famous voyage where Charles Darwin was inspired in his great work on evolution. The chronometers were used to determine longitude and led to the first truly accurate maps of South America.

So this short article before I hit my planned August reading marathon for this year is yes a suggestion that you should obtain and read the book but really  a big hint to check out the podcasts available via the links I have included and enjoy a master at work.

The Communist Manifesto

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I was first introduced to the works of Karl Marx at school. At the age of seventeen the teacher assigned to my year to teach the compulsory Religious Education class (oddly the only subject mandated by law in the UK) decided to take a VERY wide view of his brief. What he decided to do was, as we had already done many years of ‘normal’ RE classes, he would spend a term each on three significant thinkers of the modern age. This was interesting as philosophy was not available as a subject at my school so exposure to the three people he chose was a whole new concept for most of us. We started with Marx, then after Christmas moved on to Sigmund Freud and finally after Easter we reached Jean Paul Satre. We didn’t read The Communist Manifesto at the time (purchasing thirty copies might have been pushing the school governors a bit too much) but did discuss his ideas. I’ve owned this book for three years now so it seems about time I opened it.

A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of Communism. All the Powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pope and Czar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies.

OK that was not how I expected the book to start but all is explained further down the page. What is being pointed out is that Communism at the time was being blamed for all sorts of things without anyone really knowing what it does stand for so the decision was made to have a symposium of international Communists and come up with a manifesto which ultimately came to be written by Marx and Engels. By the way His Most Serene Highness The Prince of Metternich-Winneburg was Chancellor of the Austrian Empire and François Guizot was Prime Minister of France during the time the manifesto was written. It’s safe to assume that whilst almost everyone has heard of Karl Marx and probably to a lesser extent Friedrich Engels almost nobody knows who the two people mentioned in the opening paragraph are any more.

In fact the entire book is nothing like I expected as it isn’t a manifesto as we would now understand the word, which is a document that sets outs a party’s proposed policies and aims in the lead up to an election. Instead it relies more on the original Latin derivation manifestare (to make public) which also comes from manifestus (obvious). What the book is intended to do is make public and obvious the arguments for communism and against the current status quo as seen by Marx, Engels and their grouping that instigated the document. In doing so it is split into four sections after the initial introduction.

The first is entitled Bourgeois and Proletarians. This is an attempt by Marx and Engels to set out their view of the current situation and how we got there with the modern industrialist bourgeois making money out of the work and indeed the lives of their downtrodden workforce proletariat. The irony that Engels is the son of a wealthy industrialist with factories in Germany and England and that it is his money that finances not only his lifestyle but allows Marx to live for the rest of his life without having to do any actual physical work and instead spend a large amount of time writing his later magnum opus Das Kapital in the British Library reading room is completely lost on both of them.

The second section is headed Proletarians and Communists. This is the only section that actually includes anything that can be described as a policy plan in the entire book.

These measures will of course be different in different countries.

Nevertheless in the most advanced countries, the following will be pretty generally applicable.

1. Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes.

2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.

3. Abolition of all right of inheritance.

4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels.

5. Centralisation of credit in the hands of the State, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.

6. Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State.

7. Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State; the bringing into cultivation of waste-lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.

8. Equal liability of all to labour. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.

9. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country, by a more equable distribution of the population over the country.

10. Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labour in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, &c., &c.

Of these the last one is probably the only non-contentious concept. The fourth is yet again an inability of Marx and Engels to recognise irony as both are emigrants to England from Germany but without Engels’ money they wouldn’t have had the leisure time to develop their theories. These policies have been tried to a greater or lesser extent several times by various countries. Sometimes, when taken literally, they have had disastrous consequences such as the application of numbers eight and nine by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia which started with forced movement of population away from the cities to the land, regardless of whether it was good for agriculture and ultimately led to the genocide of millions.

Even Marx and Engels recognised the difficulty in selling several of these to the proletariat, why should they work hard if the state takes everything they earn above what is needed to live? Most of part two is made up of a question and answer format addressing such points.

Part three, Socialist and Communist Literature, is probably the oddest part of the manifesto. It seems to consist mainly of the authors rubbishing of other movements, they appear to have a particular dislike of German Socialism spending almost 8% of the entire manifesto in a diatribe about its failures.

The final section, with the unwieldy title of “Position of the Communists in relation to the various existing opposition parties”, is a quick bounce around Europe stating where the authors see the state of communism. The manifesto ends with probably the most well known quotes from it, even amongst people who have never read it.

In short, the Communists everywhere support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things.

In all these movements they bring to the front, as the leading question in each, the property question, no matter what its degree of development at the time.

Finally, they labour everywhere for the union and agreement of the democratic parties of all countries.

The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution.
The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains.
They have a world to win.

WORKING MEN OF ALL COUNTRIES, UNITE!

White Horses – Eric Ravilious

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Puffin Picture Books, an imprint of Penguin Books intended for children, started in December 1940 and ran until March 1965, although by then you were lucky to get one new title a year. In all 119 titles were published out of 120 that were given numbers, the missing title was 116 assigned to Life Histories by Paxton Chadwick and this was eventually printed by the Penguin Collectors Society in March 1996 under the guidance of Steve Hare. The story of the series appeared to be complete, but there were in the archives references to other titles that never even got as far down the path to publication that Life Histories had. One of these was Eric Ravilious’s White Horses. The beautiful watercolours of chalk figures and hills on the English chalk Downs intended for the book did exist but there appeared to be nothing more.

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Ravilious had been approached by Noel Carrington, editor of the Puffin Picture Book series to produce illustrations for a thirty two page landscape book of Downland figures back in 1939 and he was originally very enthusiastic about the project working of watercolours straight away. By the beginning of 1941 he had produced a dummy which showed the planned layout but by then commitments to the War Ministry left him no time to do more. Sadly on 28th August 1942 Ravilious was killed in an air crash whilst working as war artist in Iceland, the dummy of Downland Man (as Carrington referred to it)  disappeared and the planned book appeared to have died with him.

The story leaps to 2010 and the rediscovery of the dummy tucked away with other papers in the possession of Roland Collins. This critical evidence is now held at The Wiltshire Museum in Devizes and it is with their permission to make use of the document that the book I now have in front of me exists. Step forward Joe Pearson, owner of a small printing company in London, book and illustration collector and Penguin Books expert.

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Design For Today has, since its launch in 2015, already built up a reputation for producing fine examples of illustrated books based on Joe’s love of mid 20th century design, either reprints or more often using contemporary artists as inspired by the period as Joe is. As their website says…

Design For Today’s artists’ books are all designed, crafted and printed in the UK, using quality, sustainable materials and printed using the traditional processes of lithography, letterpress, screenprint, or linocut.  Editions are small, from 500 – 1500

Joe had been hinting throughout 2018 that White Horses (as Ravilious titled the dummy) was a project he was working on; with Alice Pattullo commissioned to produce the black and white illustrations needed to complete the artwork as Ravilious had only ever done the colour pictures and Puffin Picture Books are a mix of both. The text of the final book is by Joe himself.

On the 31st December 2018 disaster struck, as the warehouse holding all of DFT’s stock, along with part of Joe’s own book collection and personal items, was burnt to the ground and nothing could be saved. White Horses is the first book to be launched after that loss of all of the back stock from the first years of the business and members of the Penguin Collectors Society are to receive a copy of the standard edition with their June mailing.

My copy of the limited edition version, which also includes a signed A3 print of one of the pictures by Alice, arrived the other day and it is an excellent piece of work not just well printed as I expected having quite a few of DFT’s products already, but entirely in the spirit of the Puffin Picture Book series.

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The double page spread above shows the sort of village that the creators of the earliest chalk carvings would have lived in at about 1500BC and this is the illustration that comes as the print with the limited edition book. The limited edition appears to have sold out already but standard copies of this beautiful book are available for £15 plus postage from Design For Today, anyone who like me loves Puffin Picture Books and/or the works of Eric Ravilious is sure to want one.

Storm – George R Stewart

Way out here they got a name
For rain and wind and fire
The rain is Tess, the fire’s Joe
And they call the wind Maria

Maria blows the stars around
And sends the clouds a-flyin’
Maria makes the mountain sound
Like folks were up there dyin’

Maria, Maria
They call the wind Maria

Lyrics from probably the best known song from Paint your Wagon, the 1951 musical by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe and the song was inspired by the book that is the subject of this review. For Stewart names his storm Maria and gave rise to the whole idea of naming cyclones and hurricanes. In a later edition Stewart addresses the issue of how to pronounce Maria, originally he was thinking of Ma-Ree-Ah but changed his mind as he though she needed the harder sound of Ma-Rye-Ah so Lerner and Loewe were correct in rhyming the name with ‘fire’. Maria is very much the heroine of the book, to such an extent that the usual disclaimer at the start of a novel is in this case:-

The characters of this book – including Maria – are imaginary.

The book was first published in 1941 by Random House in the US, my copy is the Fighting Forces Penguin Special numbered S238 printed in June 1944 part of a series of books printed for American troops during WWII in a collaboration between The American Infantry Journal and the British Penguin Books. Almost all of the titles from this joint venture were factual and dealt with aspects of the war such as aircraft recognition, army handbooks, military history and exploits during the conflict. There were a total of three novels included though

  • S211 The Good Soldier Schweik by Jaroslav Hasek
  • S219 The Moon is down by John Steinbeck
  • S238 Storm by George R Stewart

An excellent selection of titles and one I will probably come back to in future articles for this site.

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The structure of the novel is unusual, there are twelve chapters, one for each day of the storm and within the chapters there are numbered sections each of which follow a particular group of characters. These range from the meteorologists, to the telephone company repair crews, the dispatcher at air traffic control, railway workers and for myself the most interesting group which is the snow plough crews charged with keeping route 40 over the Donner Pass clear of snow.  Theirs is probably the best written story in the book and you really get to feel for their struggle to keep the road open. There are also various groups of travellers on roads, ships and trains that we keep track of and sometimes a section just deals with one incident on one day so we never hear of the characters involved again. Some of these people survive the storm, some don’t, but we follow their story in their own episodes as the book progresses, it’s like watching numerous daily soap operas before the days of binge-watching where you have to wait until the next day to find out what happens but meantime here is another story to keep track of. At the peak of the storm, through days six to nine, there are fourteen or fifteen separate stories being told in this manner for each day.

Stewart casually mentions small incidents at the beginning of the book that later become major hazards like a piece of wood falling off the back of a lorry, or somebody shooting at a junction box for a bit of fun and these later on are shown to have consequences far beyond their initial triviality. Likewise we follow Maria from a small squall off the coast of Japan across the Pacific and see her interacting with other weather systems some of which divert her route others of which strengthen and then after twelve days ultimately destroy her. During the time she gives birth to other storms and affects places right across North and Central America. One issue with the book is that in order to make sense of it you really do need a good functional knowledge of the geography of the US to follow what is going on and this may be one reason for the apparent lack of an edition in print at the moment. Fortunately I have travelled extensively across America so do know the relationship between most of the places mentioned but it could be confusing if you don’t have that knowledge. The book was a best seller in the 1940’s and 50’s so it’s a pity that it is now largely forgotten especially considering its two influences on contemprary culture beyond the books own boundaries.

As stated at the start of this blog when Stewart decided to have one of his characters (the Junior Meteorologist) name the storm this was not something that was done at the time. The JM, as he is referred to throughout the book, is somewhat ashamed of his habit of naming storms and when halfway through the story he accidentally calls the storm Maria whilst talking to his boss he is mortified. His boss however quite likes the idea and the book is cited as the main influence on the decision of the United States Weather Bureau to start naming storms using women’s names in 1953. Maria was not part of the original series of names but was added in tribute to the book and is now officially retired after Hurricane Maria killed over 3000 people in 2017.

As for its impact on music you can hear Bryn Terfel singing They Call the Wind Maria by clicking here.

 

It’s been a year

I have kept this weekly blog now for just over a year and I thought I would take the opportunity to look back at the entries and see if it can give me some ideas as to which books to talk about next. To my surprise the top five liked entries as I write this are all related to Scotland

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William McGonagall wrote excruciatingly bad verse about Scotland and the people there and was a proud resident of Dundee, eventually Dundee has become proud of him as well. Iain Banks was another Scotsman through and through and the book I reviewed was his homage to the land of his birth. Shaun Bythell’s book was one of the first things I wrote about so his diary of keeping a Scottish bookshop going has had a whole year to accumulate its tally of likes whilst I only wrote about Elizabeth Cummings book about Scottish artist Sir Robin Philipson a couple of weeks ago and it has already made it to number five. You may have noticed I skipped Robert Service, he was also Scottish although found fame as a poet in Canada however I left him to last as he highlights another trend in popular posts here and that is poetry.

This is even more obvious when I look at the next five entries…

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The Frogs is a classical Greek play in verse, Persian Poets is clearly about poetry and Under Milk Wood is a poetic masterpiece by Dylan Thomas, this makes half of the top ten liked entries are about poetry although there is nowhere near that percentage represented in the total number of essays I have produced so far.

The remaining two are interesting. The Royal Tour is a beautifully illustrated diary of a cruise around a lot of the then British Empire and Uncle Jim is a bit of a sleeper as it deals with the early output of fantasy author Sir Terry Pratchett but without mentioning him in the title so you had to read the article to find out.

There are other statistics available that don’t display on the front page so aren’t visible to readers of the blog and from those I can see that Deep in the Forest – Estonian Folk Tales is looked at more often than any other entry and it is viewed from all over the world, as opposed to my other Estonian review of the Apothacary Melchior books which also gets quite a few readers but 90% of these are in Estonia or Finland. Only one entry has not been read by anybody according to the statistics available and that is The Tempest by William Shakespeare. Sorry Will although I have all your plays several times I don’t think you are going to be featured here again.

So what does all this tell me? Well poetry is definitely popular here and that’s good as I also like poetry and have quite a few more poets to write about, one of which will probably be in the next four weeks. Bearing in mind the Scottish bias as well I suppose I had better get the volume of Robert Burns I have from 1946 out and reread that soon.

The Frogs by Aristophanes was a surprise hit, to me at least, so we will see how next weeks entry, which is also classical Greek, goes down. I have a lot of ‘the Classics’ and am also planning a review of a book dealing with the subject of what makes a classic in the next month or so. Art and Design has also been popular and again this is something I have a lot about in my library so expect more of those subjects in the coming year.

But is there anything you would like me to write about? Not specific books, as according to the rules I set myself I have to own the title to write about it so you would have to be really lucky to hit one of the 6,500 titles on my shelves, but general subjects. I haven’t done much on Travel and Exploration but what has been done has been generally well received, should I do more? Any suggestions would be good either as a comment below or as a message through the site.

The Temple of Flora

One of the most ambitious books ever printed was a publishing disaster twice over but also one of the most beautiful books about flowers that exists, even if in far fewer numbers than was intended by either of its publishers.

20190115 temple of flora 1The sheer size of the book can be glimpsed from the clamshell box that my Folio Society edition comes in. The book weighs in at 27½ lbs (12½ kg) so is definitely in literatures heavyweight division and at 22½” x 18¼” (57cm x 46½cm) is a true giant of a volume. The original was the brainchild of Robert Thornton in the second half of the 18th century and it rapidly attracted royal patronage from not just Queen Charlotte (wife of George III) but also her son the Prince of Wales and other members of the British royal family.

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He sold it as a subscription edition from 1797 at a guinea per part (roughly £165 in today’s money) and there were planned to be lots of parts and he did keep going for several years. Thornton’s ambition was to create a botanical book that would be a National honour

which in Point of Magnificence is intended to exceed all other Works of a similar Nature on the Continent.

it was never to be finished…

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but what he did get produced is magnificent, the flower paintings are of the finest detail and there were plans to have far more than the twenty nine that were ultimately produced before Thornton was driven into bankruptcy by the sheer scale of the venture. It has to be said that the text chosen is odd, lots of long and rambling poems rather than a scholarly text which would have been preferable in my view but it is the pictures that makes this incredible book.

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There are long sections of text which presumably were intended to be broken up by the missing paintings but when you do get to the pictures the text doesn’t matter; what is important is the art, and in his way Thornton was trying to match the beauty of the flowers with literature which he perceived as equally beautiful. The fact that to modern readers the poems simply aren’t very good doesn’t mean that I don’t get a huge amount of pleasure from the book even if it is so unwieldy to actually get out and read.

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The craftsmanship that went into each painting was unbelievable expensive, Thornton commissioned the best engravers and also used the new techniques of mezzotint and aquatint which allowed a true wash of colour to be reproduced rather than relying on cross-hatched engraving which had been the standard method up to that time. Quite often his artists would use all three techniques on the same plate which vastly increased the cost especially as after printing each print was hand coloured so every page is unique to the volume that it appears in.

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You can properly judge the size of the book by the picture above which has a twelve inch (30cm) ruler resting on the open pages. The Folio Society edition that I have is the first time anyone had tried to reprint the book at its original size with all the plates in colour and as I hinted at in the opening sentence even the publishing experts of the Folio Society couldn’t make this book pay. They bought an original edition at auction and took it apart in order to do high resolution scans of each image before finally publishing this massive undertaking in 2008 in a planned edition of 1980 copies. The books were quarter bound in Nigerian goatskin with cloth on board sides with the front cover printed with a design taken from one of the pictures “The Night Blowing Cercus’.

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Fortunately for the Society with fine limited edition books like this they bind them as customers place their order as orders did not flow in. Three and a half years later in June 2011 the Production Director wrote to all purchasers of the book explaining that the edition was being cut. Far from 1980 copies just 600 actually got bound and even then they were left with books to sell from the severely truncated limitation. The remaining 1380 sets of flower prints were sold off in a buckram and cloth portfolio as an un-numbered edition. Presumably the remainder of the pages including the five decorative (non floral) plates were pulped.

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I doubt anyone will attempt to print this book at it’s original scale ever again. Collins had a go in 1951 but their edition is smaller and only twelve of the plates were colour. The Folio Society edition includes two extra loose plates intending for framing, Tulips and the Egyptian Lily both of which are shown above as they are bound within the book.

A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens

Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.

As I post every Tuesday and 25th December 2018 is a Tuesday then there seems only one book that could be covered for the post going live that day. It’s become an annual tradition for me, I read A Christmas Carol every December and usually watch the 1951 Alistair Sim film Scrooge as well, which for my taste captures the flavour of the book best, it is also the most copied sometimes shot for shot in subsequent adaptations. If you want to see it you may need to buy the DVD as they are pretty good at taking down versions on youtube but at the time of writing this was working. It is particularly good at visualising the original John Leech illustrations, each of which are seen within the film. Now it does take several liberties with the original including inventing a character and moving another from one position to another but it does it without messing with the moral of the tale and it can be excused for adding back story to what is actually barely a novella at 28,857 words or just seventy five pages in the classic Nonsuch Press edition in order to make a film.

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It’s not unreasonable to describe Dickens as the father of the modern Christmas, in his five Christmas books if he didn’t actually invent ‘traditions’ he did at least popularise family gatherings with turkey or goose and revived the moribund celebrations that had come to exemplify his time as people moved to the cities and families spread out losing contact. The Christmas tree was introduced to the UK from Germany by Prince Albert but it was Dickens referring to it in one of his other Christmas books and Leech’s etchings of fir branches decorating the house for the Ghost of Christmas Present that really spread the idea. The hale and hearty feast, the family gathering and the spirit of Christmas (dressed in green as this is before Coca Cola turned things red) a roaring fire and welcome to all, this is what Dickens has given us.

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This isn’t an attempt to review the book, pretty well everyone knows the story and if you don’t you can read it for free on Project Gutenberg. The tale of a miser who comes to understand what Christmas is all about with the assistance of the ghost of his business partner and three spirits representing the past, present and future is the quintessential story for this time of year. The tale of why those that can help others should help others, especially at this time of year is one that bears regular retelling. I have two copies, one is the King Penguin edition which makes a good attempt to look like the original edition and I also have the Duckworth Press volume of all five Christmas Stories.

The original book was published 175 years ago today as I write this, coming out on 19th December 1843 and had sold out by Christmas Eve, it went on to be published in ever increasing numbers but Dickens never made much money from the printed editions. The printing cost was too high for the retail price that Dickens himself insisted on for him to make anything much. It was only when he took it to theatres and read the book as a performance that he started to cover the costs and actually profit from his work.

There is no better way to finish than as Dickens himself ended A Christmas Carol

He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.

He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!