After it all, the events of the holidays,
the dinner tables passing like great ships,
everybody made soups for a while.
Cooked and cooked until the broth kept
the story of the onion, the weeping meat.
It was over, the year was spent, the new one
had yet to make its demands on us,
each day lay in the dark like a folded letter.
Then out of it all we made one final thing
out of the bounty that had not always filled us,
out of the ruined cathedral carcass of the turkey,
the limp celery chopped back into plenty,
the fish head, the spine. Out of the rejected,
the passed over, never the object of love.
It was as if all the pageantry had been for this:
the quiet after, the simmered light,
the soothing shapes our mouths made as we tasted.
“Everybody Made Soups” by Lisa Coffman from Less Obvious Gods. © Iris Press, 2013. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
It’s the third Monday in January, so today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. In 1983, after years of petitions, conferences, and advocacy on behalf of the holiday, Ronald Reagan signed a bill into law that made Martin Luther King Jr. Day a federal holiday.
It’s the birthday of a man who started a project classifying words while he was still in his 20s, and worked on it for almost 50 years, finally publishing his manuscript as Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases Classified and Arranged So as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition (1852). That’s Peter Mark Roget (books by this author), born in London in 1779. He had a long and distinguished career as a doctor, he lectured, he invented a slide rule that did complex mathematics, he studied optics and made an important breakthrough about how the retina perceives images. But when he retired, he came back to his pet project, a compilation of 15,000 words arranged in categories. And Roget’s Thesaurus has never been out of print and now contains more than a quarter of a million words.
In 2008, Joshua Kendall published a biography of Roget called The Man Who Made Lists: Love, Death, Madness, and the Creation of Roget’s Thesaurus.
It’s the birthday of author and illustrator Raymond Briggs (books by this author), born in London (1934). He went to a nice school where science and sports were the only subjects considered worthwhile, and kids who did art were suspect. His father was also unsure about his son’s pursuing art, but Raymond Briggs loved cartooning, and he went on to art school.
In 1973, he published Father Christmas, which he wrote and illustrated, starring a very grumpy Santa Claus who just wanted a vacation. It was laid out like a comic book instead of a classic children’s book, with separate text underneath a page of illustration. Then he wrote a sequel, Father Christmas Goes On Holiday (1975), and then he spent awhile working on a book called Fungus the Bogeyman (1977).
And then he created his most famous book, The Snowman (1978). It’s just pictures, no words, but with those pictures it tells the story of a boy who makes a snowman that comes alive. They go on adventures and even fly through the air. But the next morning, the sun comes out and the snowman melts. The book was a big success, and a few years later it was made into a short animated film of the same name, which is shown on TV every year at the Christmas season.
When someone asked him why The Snowman ended so sadly, he said: “I don’t believe in happy endings. Children have got to face death sooner or later. Granny and Grandpa die, dogs die, cats die, gerbils and those frightful things — what are they called? — hamsters: all die like flies. So there’s no point avoiding it.”
It’s the birthday of Alan Alexander Milne — better known as A.A. Milne (books by this author) — born in London (1882). The young H.G. Wells was one of his schoolteachers, and served as a kind of mentor to the boy. Milne attended Trinity College at Cambridge on a mathematics scholarship, but when he wasn’t occupied with his studies, he gained a foothold in the literary world. He worked as a writer and editor for Granta, Cambridge’s literary magazine, and when he had earned his degree in mathematics, he moved to London to work as a freelance writer. He took a job with Punch in 1906, writing essays and light verse for the satirical magazine until 1914.
Milne served in both World Wars. He enlisted in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment to fight in World War I, and later served as a signaling officer. He was stationed in France, but was sent home after he was injured in the Battle of the Somme. After he recovered, he wrote propaganda articles for British Intelligence. Support for the war was dropping, and Milne — a lifelong pacifist — was ordered to write about British heroism and German treachery to rally the home front. He followed orders, but when the war ended, he contributed to a pamphlet called The Green Book; in it, he made his true feelings known through verses. During World War II, he served as captain of the Home Guard. He also had a falling out with his former friend, P.G. Wodehouse, who was taken prisoner — albeit at a comfortable seaside resort — and made radio broadcasts at the request of the Germans. Milne was one of his harshest critics, and the friendship never quite recovered.
Milne was discharged in 1919 and moved back to London, where his son Christopher Robin was born the following year. Punch didn’t hire him back, so he worked for some years as a successful playwright; his plays include Mr. Pim Passes By (1921) and Toad of Toad Hall (1930), an adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 children’s book The Wind in the Willows. He also published a mystery novel, The Red House Mystery (1922), and worked as a screenwriter on several British films.
Milne wrote poems for his son, which resulted in a couple of volumes of light verse for children: When We Were Very Young (1924) and Now We Are Six (1927). Though he was successful as a writer of plays, essays, and verse for adults, most people think of him as a children’s author, due to these verse collections and especially for his most enduring works: Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) and The House at Pooh Corner (1928). Christopher Robin’s beloved stuffed animals inspired the tales. In addition to his famous bear, Milne’s son also had a piglet, a tiger, two kangaroos, and a donkey; all of them found their way into the stories, along with a rabbit and an owl that Milne made up just for the books. Pooh Bear made his debut on Christmas Day, 1925, in a story read over the BBC; by the time the first Winnie-the-Pooh collection hit the bookstores, Milne had already found himself typecast as a children’s author — a reputation he rather resented for the rest of his life. His son, Christopher Robin, felt resentment too: toward his father. He wrote in his autobiography that Milne “had filched from me my good name and had left me with nothing but the empty fame of being his son.”
On this date in 1788, the first convict ship of the First Fleet arrived to establish a penal colony in Australia. Britain had sent her convicts to America, but since the American Revolution, that was no longer an option, and the prisons were rapidly becoming overcrowded. Captain James Cook had discovered the eastern coast of Australia in 1770, and he reported that it was suitable for establishing a settlement, so he claimed it for the Crown. The British didn’t consider Australia to be inhabited, in spite of the large native population that had lived there for 10,000 years. Because the aborigines didn’t cultivate land, they weren’t “civilized,” and therefore the land was ripe for the picking. Eager to recover the income they lost when America gained her independence, Britain decided to kill two birds with one stone: send convicts to Australia to free up the prisons, and use their cheap labor to build up the infrastructure of a new colony.
The First Fleet was made up of 11 ships and it was led by Captain Arthur Phillip. The fleet carried about 1,500 passengers, over half of them convicts and the rest mostly marines and their families. Of the convicts, about 20 percent were women, and some of them brought their children with them. The fleet had traveled for 252 days, over 15,000 miles, and didn’t lose a single ship on the voyage. Only 48 people — 3 percent of the passengers — died on the voyage.
The fleet arrived in Botany Bay in what is now New South Wales, only to find that their first landing site was unsuitable. The land around Botany Bay was lacking in fresh water, its soil quality was deemed poor, and it was too open to the sea, making it dangerous for ships to dock. The fleet continued north to Port Jackson in Sydney Harbor, where they landed on January 26. They carried enough provisions to see them through until the colony was established and producing its own food through farming, hunting, and fishing. Unfortunately, the convicts were poor fishermen and even worse farmers, and everyone had to survive on food that was either rationed from the provisions or brought in on later ships. They augmented their meager supplies with meat from dogs, rats, crows, and the occasional kangaroo or emu. They had been provided with very few tools, and those they had were of inferior quality and not up to the challenge of Australia’s huge trees. No one thought to send extra clothes, either, so when subsequent ships arrived, they found people clad in heavily patched rags.
Arthur Phillip, the First Fleet’s commander, served as the first governor of the penal colony, and he instituted a system whereby convicts — regardless of their crime — were employed according to their skills. Educated convicts worked as bookkeepers. Female convicts were usually sent to textile factories, but they were released from their service if they married, because they were believed to have the most value serving as wives and mothers. Laborers worked as brickmakers, cattle and sheep ranchers, carpenters, and servants. Eventually, the wool trade and gold mining, combined with a scarcity of labor over the vast territory, made Australia a land of opportunity rather than punishment.
Over the next 80 years, Britain sent more than 160,000 convicts to Australia. Most of them were thieves, but some were mutinous soldiers. Almost all of them — 99 percent — were from the British Isles, but the rest came from British outposts in Canada, India, and Hong Kong.