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Shocking, shocking! that there were amongst all those stuffy, straight-laced, repressive, Victorian prudes, a few wags who knew a thing or two:

The secret of Gilbert’s success can be summed up in the quote on his memorial on the Embankment: “His foe was folly and his weapon wit.” For the Victorian audience, Gilbert and Sullivan’s works were ideal, respectable entertainment. Yet running through Gilbert’s libretti is a suggestion of a something else. In Trial by Jury, where the Plaintiff is suing for breach of promise of marriage, her Counsel sings: “To marry two at once is burglaree”. The legal definition of burglary, as a qualified barrister like Gilbert would have known, is “unlawful entry”. The trio from The Yeomen of the Guard, where the disguised Colonel Fairfax is teaching Jack Point how to woo, includes the lines: “He must learn that the thrill of a touch/ May mean little, or nothing, or much;/ It’s an instrument rare,/ To be handled with care,/ And ought to be treated as such.”

I can’t help feeling that, here and elsewhere, Gilbert knew exactly what he was saying. “Where is Mrs Gilbert?” he once asked at the Savoy Theatre. “She’s round behind,” came the reply. “I know,” said Gilbert, “but where is she?” A member of the audience, seeing him standing in the foyer after one performance, mistook the dramatist for a commissionaire and brusquely ordered him to call him a cab. “Certainly,” said Gilbert, “you’re a four-wheeler.” “What!” exclaimed the man. “Well,” said Gilbert, “I certainly wouldn’t call you hansom.”

Um, I can’t help feeling that there were plenty of audience members who knew exactly what he was saying, too.  Cutting up wasn’t invented in 1968, contrary to the prevailing wisdom.  Prior ages were simply better at being witty and discrete about it.

As I happened to finally get around to firing up the port-swiller grill this past weekend, my roving eye fell on this piece from CNN: Five most common grilling mistakes.

Most of it is sensible, indeed, fairly obvious stuff.  But one passage discussing the application of barbeque sauce made me do a double-take:

Always use the BBQ sauce towards the end of grilling, during the last 10 to 20 minutes, as BBQ sauces often have high sugar content, some more than others, and will burn off before your meat is done.

Last 10 to 20 minutes”?  I seriously doubt if my grillings ever last even that long, in toto.

It is a long-standing tradition, handed down to self from the Old Gentleman, that there is only one way to grill a steak.  First, get your meat cut at about two inches in thickness.  Next, crank up your grill to blast-furnace strength. (I’m glad to see that the author of this piece is a charcoal man.)  Then, toss your steaks on for maybe a couple minutes per side.

Result? Blackened on the outside, still quivering on the inside.  Authentic Neanderthal cuisine.  Delicious.  Aaaaand having to keep preventing your steak from trying to escape from your plate adds solid entertainment value to the meal.

Regular port-swillers may be wondering what became of my effort to swot up the history of Confederate raiding along the Maine coast?  Well, the answer is that I found myself forced to abandon the enterprise, owing to the terrible writing that I mentioned in my prior post on the topic.  The final straw was a consistent misspelling of Fort Sumter, with an extraneous “p” inserted into its midst.  (This on top of a summary of Grant’s Virginia campaign of 1864 that started at the Wilderness and jumped directly to the trenches ’round Petersburg, bypassing such minor scraps as Spotsylvania Court House, the North Anna and Cold Harbor.)  I reasoned that, given how substantively obscure and arcane the book is, the author had better be on his very best stylistic behavior if he expects me to read it.  And if the author isn’t going to care about something like this, why should I?

I hate giving up, but life is just too short.

Now, children, gather round and observe how silly Uncle Robbo’s thought processes work:

In order to get the taste of bad history out of my mouth, I decided to read some good history.  To this end, my hand fell on my copy of the complete works of Tacitus, which I proceeded to read right the way through, covering his Annals, his Histories, his Agricola, his treatise on the tribes of Germany and his dialogue on Oratory. If anybody engages me in a conversation on the four emperors of 69 A.D. at my next drinks party, I’ll be able to dazzle ’em.

Having finished up on Tacitus over the weekend, I was faced with the question of where to go next.  Perhaps it’s because of the name “Annals” and because I had just been reading of the Ancient World, that I was suddenly seized with the idea of revisiting James McPhee’s Annals of the Former World.  Having finished the first chapter of the book, for the next fifteen minutes or so I will now be able to give a basic geological description of the Basin and Range Province of the western United States, that rapidly expanding and thinning region that will eventually be the pathway by which the Pacific Ocean breaks in and turns California into an island.  Here’s a neat trick:  At several points in the story, McPhee describes stops at various highway cuttings along I-80 – Golconda Mountain in Nevada, the Palisades in New Jersey, etc.  Now, with the wonder of Google Earth, one can actually find the spots oneself and, with the street-view function, get a picture of what he’s talking about.

I don’t know why I find the topic of the history of Earth’s geology so fascinating.  (Certain smarty-pants might say that I seem to find every subject fascinating.  This isn’t completely true: I certainly have no interest in math, for example.)  Part of it is the shiver induced by contemplating the gargantuan time-scales involved.  Part of it is being able to look at a topographical map and see first-hand the evidence of the various forces in action.  As an exercise in perspective,  it all makes one think a bit, it does.  Plus, all the descriptions of plate tectonics, glacial activity, faults, calderas and the like just simply raise a boyish coo-el response in me.

Yes, it all may sound pretty shallow, sometimes coming perilously close to Cliff Clavin depth, but then I’ve never claimed to be an intellectual.   And anyway, I would argue that there’s a certain kind of mental pointillism to my approach to casual reading, especially in areas like history (including natural history).  Enough flitting about from topic to topic and one begins to see larger pictures and patterns emerge.  And that is probably what I enjoy the most.

Recently, it occurred to ol’ Robbo that I am guilty of renting about the same thirty-odd movies from Netflix over and over again.  Therefore, I decided to branch out and sample a few current flix that I had never seen before, just by way of mounting an affirmative defense against charges of stick-in-the-mudism.  Because summah is upon us, I deliberately chose lighter fare.  My thumbnail thoughts (and, for the benefit of the Mothe, short synopses) on said movies:

Red – Bruce Willis as a retired CIA rock star who suddenly finds himself the subject of a hit order put out (for reasons never quite clear to me) by the Vice President.  Willis teams up with some of the Old Gang, together with a hot young thing to put the kybosh on the Veep and his Agency goons.  Not a bad flick, although I’m fairly certain one viewing was enough.  It was fun to see Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich and Helen Mirren doing their git-off’n-my-lawn-ya-young-punks routine.

Iron Man II –  Robert Downey Jr. returns as the 21st Century Tin Woodsman to continue battling bad guys (both foreigners bent on revenge and eeeeeevil corporate dorks bent on soaking Uncle) while at the same time staving off his own impending death due to his power pack.   Meh.  I thought the first movie was all right, but this one seemed a lot more, well, confused about what it was trying to say.  And how is it that these Iron Man suits seem to be so easy to put together?  You’d think any kid could knock one up in his garage out of  the water-heater, the family p.c. and the microwave.   I have to say that I thought the Russian bad guy was magnificent – he looked like he was right off the Steppes and could give the Mongol Hordes a pointer or two.

Date Night – Steve Carrell and Tina Fey as stolid, boring suburban couple who go to Manhattan for said date night and,  in a plot device stolen directly from North By Northwest, get mistaken by some crooked cops at a fancy restaurant for denizens of the underworld who stole a flashdrive from a mob boss, which drive the crooked cops want pronto.  Thrills, chases, detective work and middle-aged suburban family wisecracks ensue, with the whole thing winding up, alas, in a strip-club, where it turns out that the flashdrive contains pron pictures involving the City DA who (of course) has a public image as Mr. Clean.   Eh.  I like Carrell and Fey, and also Mark Wolberg (who looks like he’s wearing a Stretch Armstrong suit here).  I also liked a few of the one-liners and action bits.  But I still much prefer Cary Grant and Eve Marie Saint chasing about the face of Mt. Rushmore.

Prince of Persia –  An adventure story from way-back-when involving said Prince, a delicious princess, desert armies, a magical dagger and palace intrigue.  (Oh, how you’ve fallen Ben Kingsley!)  I think I actually enjoyed this film more than any of the others in this list, simply because it delivered exactly what it promised – mindless action.  (I understand it’s based on some video game, so there you go.)  The only criticism that comes to mind is the fact that Jake Gyllenhaal is positively the least Persian-looking actor one can possibly think of,  resembling more a Crusader who got lost on the way to Joppa.

So there you have it.  Now that I have done my duty viz the horizon-broadening, I shall now return to my regular cycle of the likes of John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart and Alec Guinness, because in the end it’s quite true that they don’t make ’em like they used to.


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May 2011