January 24


I notice in the almanac: "Emperor Hadrian born, today, 76CE", and immediately I am drawn to Brussels, one of the loveliest of European cities, but in the years of "l'entre deux guerres" as T.S. Eliot described them, and then to Northeast Harbor in Maine, the snowy eastern seaboard where it is very hard to tell what is Canada and what America, and why would anyone want to define a boundary and force the two apart?

You are bewildered, I know. The great French writer Marguerite Yourcenar spoke Flemish and French, so presumably she had no difficulty understanding Quebecois when she left her native Brussels for America, and became a US citizen in 1947. She published her historical novel "Memoirs of Hadrian" in 1963, and the truth is, were it not for her, I might not have cared two hoots about this Roman Emperor.

What does anyone know about him, or care about him, except that he once built a wall, a forced separation between northern England and southern Scotland? They did the same in Berlin, and for a long time they had one in Jerusalem as well, and the Chinese built one so vast you can see it, apparently, from the moon; and now Donald Trump wants to build one along the Mexican border, and... all such walls have only one purpose, which is to divide people: walls of xenophobia, hostility, hatred.

As to Hadrian's. I stopped to look at it once, decades ago, on a holiday excursion to the Scottish Highlands. Very little of it was left, because local people for centuries had been filching pieces of it, to build their barns and cottages, and no doubt their own walls too, to divide themselves from hated neighbours.

Hadrian also played a part in Jewish history, in Judea, but I can't remember what it was (well actually, sadly, I can; I just don't want to; click here and you'll understand why). Marguerite Yourcenar's book is one of the truly great historical novels ever written; you can find my piece about it in "Private Collection" by clicking here.

Amber pages

William Congreve, playwright, born today in 1670


Pierre-Augustin Beaumarchais (the list of what he was includes, in alphabetical order because he was inclined to that sort of ohseedeeery: arms dealer, diplomat, financier, horticulturist, inventor, musician, playwright, publisher, revolutionary, satirist, spy and watchmaker, born today in 1732

both of them names that you probably recognise, have a sense that they merit inclusion on a list, but then, when you stare at them for the upteenth time, still wondering why you recognise them but can't get beyond that vagueness, let alone find the energy to start researching them, it does eventually become clear that fame, which is rather more than mere celebrity, is still insufficient to insist on your attention, however scantily, or briefly, or probably superficially. So their names are here, but unlikely anything more.

Whereas, speaking of great writers, and not just great women writers, because Edith Wharton, born today in 1862, like Marguerite Yourcenar, counts among the great regardless of gender. Watch this space.

And finally, today, 1984, Apple Computer unveiled the Macintosh computer. Why am I even noting this, given that I don't use Mac? 

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