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Dreams of La Mancha with Archy and Mehitabel (links incl.)

Today, I woke up with a song in my head. Part of the lyrics go like this:

'Why do you march through that dream that you're in --
Covered in glory and rusty old tin...'

I didn't know why I was thinking of it, but I knew where it was from. 'Man of La Mancha', one of my favourite, musicals. (The difference is technical, and slight, in my book.) I went looking for the rest of the words, satisfied my curiosity on that score, and then got nosy about the lyricist, a man named Joe Darion.

Nobody seems to know much about him. He wasn't all that famous. Wikipedia even has his birth year wrong. He was born on 30 January 1911, so he has a birthday coming up. He was 90 when he died.

Darion wrote lyrics to everything from pop songs to oratorios. He's responsible for the lyrics to the musical version of 'Archy and Mehitabel', which contains this song:

If you find this song inspiring, you might want to watch the animated version with the original singers from the 1950s:

Kafka it ain't. It's MUCH better than Kafka. Says an old German teacher. I'll take Archy the Cockroach over Gregor Samsa any day.

I can't find the oratorio about Galileo, or the cantatas. One was called 'Mass for Cain'. I'd like to hear this. He wrote the lyrics to 'Ricochet', a novelty song:

Yeah, okay, it's silly - but what clever lyrics. He also wrote the words to the 'Ho-Ho Song', a 1953 hit for Red Buttons:

Okay, cool fella. But what does this have to do with the songs about the knight who fights 'battles that aren't your own'? And that more famous song, the one that's probably forming in your head.

We almost didn't have those wonderful songs, you know. We wouldn't have, if playwright Dale Wasserman had been a snob. Thank the gods he wasn't. You see, the first lyricist hired for 'Man of La Mancha' was...


Auden was considered by many, apparently, as the greatest writer of the 20th Century. He's definitely considered a great poet - and hey, he's not too bad. Look at this one, 'The Fall of Rome':

Pretty good stuff. But could he write 'The Impossible Dream'?

Could he, heck no. Here's what Auden wrote:

Mr Auden, we have an idea. Why don't you call up Pete Jackson and write something suitable for the next Hobbit movie? There's a good lad.

In case you don't remember, here's what Joe Darion, the not-so-classy poet, came up with instead:


Who was it said that it wasn't enough to be good - that you had to be good for something? I forget, but that's a very true statement. A poem can be a good thing. It can also be terribly self-indulgent. But a good set of lyrics - one that makes 'music and sweet poetry agree', in the immortal words of Shakespeare - can touch the hearts of millions. Something few poets manage to do.

So thank you, Joe Darion. My kind of genius. The guy who finds the right word for the right occasion.


Oh, and there was another reason WH Auden and Dale Wasserman didn't agree. Auden didn't like the premise of 'Man of La Mancha'. He thought Wasserman was taking liberties with Cervantes. Of course he was. Wasserman's version is much better. As Wasserman said, 'The novel is bleak, it renounces dreams...Quixote dies sane and beaten. The madness is what I love, and it`s what the people in the play respond to.'

Amen, brother. Long live the Impossible Dream.

And now, enjoy the song I woke up with, and the pantomime mules:

If you're like me, the Auden poem will stick you with another improved lyric, which I think is better than Auden's poem. Can you guess...?

smiley - dragon

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Latest reply: Yesterday

Hobgoblin nor foul fiend can daunt our spirits...

I've got a little treat for you. Some kind soul on Youtube has made a slideshow to a scrumptious rendition of John Bunyan's hymn, 'He Who Valiant Be'. It will take you on a little trip - and I think, like Bunyan, that the journey's worth the fare.

First of all, in case you don't know who Bunyan was (no, Yanks, he wasn't the lumberjack with the blue ox): John Bunyan wrote this hymn while in Bedford Gaol. He was serving a 12-year sentence for...wait for it...preaching without a licence.

We will pause while you ruminate on the wisdom of English law. There will be opinions pro and con, we suspect....

Ahem. Back to the topic, which is magical journeys. Bunyan also wrote 'Pilgrim's Progress', which is really the English answer to Dante, as far as I'm concerned. And pace Dorothy Sayers and generations of medieval scholars, I find Bunyan's version superior. It's a vision for the common human, and I think he was a cool mystic, Mr Bunyan.

His hymn is usually described as, er, 'robust'. That's a good word. Not enough robust hymns around. Here are the words, both modern and original:

The modern words are the ones sung by church people. Now, look at the original - much more fun. Question, students: why wouldn't churchgoers want to sing Bunyan's original words?

Er, 'hobgoblin', seriously?

I know this stunt. They fancify Isaac Watts, too. When I was young, a good old-time preacher chided the congregation about it. 'You don't want to sing 'for such a worm as I', do you? You don't think you're worms? Makes you squirm, does it? Well, let me tell you...'

This amused me much as a ten-year-old.

The tune, 'Monks Gate', is from the sacred domain of Sussex. Where else? Google informs me that from Brightling to Monks Gate is 37.9 miles - but it will take you an hour and 14 minutes on the A272. Which is haunted, but hey. Maybe you will see the ghosts of John Bunyan's pilgrims.

Enjoy the slideshow:

And thanks to whoever put that up. It's a glorious bit of dimensional travel.

smiley - dragon

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Latest reply: Last Week

The Palaeography of the Internet: A Case Study

Aargh and double aargh. I've been ranting for years now about the ignoramuses who prevent the internet from reaching its full potential as a reference source. You know the people I mean: the ones who think they're clever because they have opposable thumbs. These appendages allow them to hit CTRL+C and CTRL+V, thereby passing on wisdom from somebody else's website to their own - the one THEY get Adsense revenue from.

And thus proliferating misspellings and misinformation of all kinds.

Ages ago, I was taught how to trace the genealogy of parchment texts using 'scribal error' as my guide. This is a really useful skill if you're trying to figure out how a manuscript passed from some monastery and Turkey, all the way to the far north of Scotland. Just follow the typos. I'd never really thought how vital this skill was going to be in the internet age, though. But take a look at this.

1. Incredible statement in 2014:

'Believe it or not the Ancient Egyptians created papyrus signs and steel carvings to advertise their goods in 2000 BCE.'

Er, yeah. Believe it or not. Hm, where did this COME from?

2. Hm. In 2011, somebody created a really cool 'educational' page that states:

'Four thousand years ago Ancient Egyptians invented advertising by carving public notices in steel.'

WHAT? Are you envisioning this? 'Violators will be prosecuted.--Pharaoh.' Carved in steel. Where? Oh, probably on the corner of the First National Bank of Thebes.

Website, so you'll know I didn't make it up:

Now, I'm a palaeographer, not a papyrologist. I wouldn't even begin to tackle a steel engraving. But I do have the advantage of having tried to figure out misspelled words in numerous dead languages. Like English, apparently. It's impossible to find any examples of these steel ads on the web. But maybe...just maybe...there was an accident involving 'scribal error', a careless copyist, and an overactive Word program. Could it be...?

3. 'The Stele of Taimhotep'.

Possibility: somebody copied 'stele', thinking, 'Yeah, it was a way of promulgating announcements.' Okay, okay, people who do this sort of thing don't use words like 'promulgate', but you get the idea. And then the bossy Word program did what it always does - which is why I have to proofread Word docs. It changed the unfamiliar 'stele' to 'steel'. The cyberscribe missed it, natch, and the next dumb bunny who copied it just...hit CTRL+C and CTRL+V. Well, perhaps this textual crux is now resolved, perhaps not. Shall we send a paper to 'Notes and Queries'?

PS: Alas, we have searched in vain for the steel engravings of ancient Egypt's Madison Avenue (conveniently located near Times Square, Memphis). But we can comfort ourselves that today, at least, STEEL+EGYPT+AD will yield this on Youtube:

O brave new world, that hath such people in it.

smiley - dragon

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Latest reply: Last Week

Freebie Reading Tip: A Bit of Psychology

Do you like detective stories? I suspect you might, now and again.

What do they say about us? What do they reveal about our society, its fears and hopes?

I've just run across an elegant little essay, from the online version of 'Psychology Today'. The article, by a psychologist, examines the popularity of the series 'Dexter', about a very sympathetic psychopathic serial killer, and modern experience of PTSD, war, and the fear of terrorism. I think it's worth a read. Very thoughtful essay, and well done.

Here it is, with hopes that it's internationally available:

I appreciate the psychologist's personal touches, such as his letting us in on his experiences with mosquitoes and salmon packing. It contextualises the argument nicely.

Yep, we need to think about these things. As the author would put it, just saying...

smiley - dragon

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Latest reply: 3 Weeks Ago

Freebie Blog Tip: Edward Petherbridge

Here's a hot tip for you, especially if you like all things British, cinematic, theatrical, or artistic. Veteran actor/artist/all-round hoopy frood Edward Petherbridge has the most wonderful blog:

Not only is his blog insightful and witty, full of fascinating connections, but he's a terrific photographer. And he's got a keen eye for the telling moment. Check out those Santa Clauses on the escalator.

I came to be looking up Petherbridge - and stumbling across his beautiful blog - because we'd been nattering about Dorothy Sayers, and I'd found the Peterbridge version of the detective stories on Youtube. From 1987, and we'd never seen them before. Here's the first link for you:

Peterbridge is really spectacular. I say that, and I'm not a big fan of Lord Peter's. But this performance is up there with Suchet's Poirot - interesting even to people who aren't enamoured of 'snobbery with violence'.

Be sure to watch Peterbridge's Christmas video, 'A Thrill of Hope'. It will surprise you, promise. Here it is, separate from the blog:

It's nice to find such creative people on the internet who are willing to share. Sort of a kindred spirit with h2g2, don't you think?

smiley - dragon

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Latest reply: 3 Weeks Ago

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