Tag Archives: conversation

Dorothy Wordsworth walking and talking in England’s Lake District,

It is Tuesday 2nd October 1849 and Dorothy Wordsworth is in Grasmere in England’s Lake District. It would appear to be a semi-planned time as she writes into her diary:

‘A very rainy morning.  We walked after dinner to observe the torrents.  I followed William to Rydale, he afterwards went to Butterlip How.  I came home to receive the Lloyds.  They walked with us to see Churnmilk force and the Black quarter.  The black quarter looked marshy, and the general prospect was cold, but the Force was very grand.

We also find an interesting conversation regarding the manners of the rich of the country.  These are described as avaricious and greedy for gain while having the effeminacy, unnaturalness and the unworthiness of their kind.

I don’t think Dorothy liked the upper-crust of Britain’s rich!

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Fact or Fiction? True or False? You’re the decider!

Arthur Furguson (1883–1938) was (or may have been) a Scottish con artist who allegedly became known for “selling” English national monuments and other government property to visiting American tourists during the 1920s. 

His moment happened in Trafalgar Square, one bright and sunny morning in 1923 – the source of his revelation being a rich American from Iowa, who he found staring reverently at Nelson’s Column.  The American was interested and inquired as to the price. Furguson mused and explained that it was to be sold for just £6,000. Obviously, it would have to go to the right buyer: someone who would protect and appreciate a monument of this scale. Furguson decided to appoint himself as the official guide to the Square and, speaking to the American, he explained that the statue at the top the column was of Admiral Lord Nelson, one of Britain’s most famous seafarers and naval heroes. He had died in during the Battle of Trafalgar, after which the square was named. ‘Such a terrible shame’ he sighed, ‘the square wouldn’t feel the same without it. However, it all had to go, lions and fountains included. Britain’s debts were sky-high, and the government had decided to sell off the landmark to the highest bidder.’

By a curious coincidence, it was Furguson himself who had been entrusted by the government with the task of organizing the sale, which had to be kept top-secret. The American pleaded with Furguson to allow him to jump the queue. At last Ferguson relented and telephoned his employers for instructions. He returned within a matter of minutes and advised his buyer that it was decided that Britain was prepared to accept a cheque right away, to complete the deal as soon as possible!  Furguson, amazed at his own cunning, immediately went off and cashed the cheque while his customer got in touch with some contractors. They were extremely reluctant to accept the job and told him why. It was not until he received an official assurance from Scotland Yard that he would believe that he had been conned. The police however, were far from happy.

That summer was a good one as far as Arthur Furguson was concerned. One American complained that he had paid £1000 for Big Ben while another had made a £2000 down payment on Buckingham Palace!

While visiting Paris, he managed to sell the Eiffel Tower for scrap at an unknown price to yet another American. Since Americans had all been his best customers, he decided to continue his work in their country. In 1925, he leased the White House to a Texan cattle-rancher for 99 years at $100,000 a year, with the first year’s rent payable in advance.

Furguson’s bank balance was now sufficiently large for him to consider retiring but his vanity got the better of him.  He wanted to end his career with a grand finale and emigrated to the USA in 1925.  There he sold the White House to a rancher on the installment plan of yearly payments of $100,000.

However, his most perfect victim seemed to be an Australian from Sydney. Furguson told him that the entrance to New York harbour was to be widened and, unfortunately, the Statue of Liberty was in the way. Sentimental attachments was not going to stop the path of progress, and the US State Department was prepared to sell it to anyone who would to take it away.  Would his visiting Australian like to buy the Statue of Liberty?

The Australian attempted to raise the £100,000 deposit over the next couple of days with Furguson practically glued to his side, carefully steering him away from anyone with whom he might be tempted to boast about his venture. Furguson kindly allowed himself to be photographed with his buyer, arm in arm in front of the Statue of Liberty. Unfortunately, there was a delay in getting the money through; Furguson grew impatient, and the Australian became suspicious and took the photograph of himself and Furguson to the police.

It was exactly the breakthrough the police wanted. They already knew about the salesman of monuments, but he had always managed to escape them. The Australian led them straight to Furguson, who was promptly arrested.  Furguson was jailed for five years, a rather small price to pay for the fortune he had made. He was released in 1930, and moved to Los Angeles where he lived in a lap of luxury (paid for by a few more convenient tricks) until he died in 1938.

BUT – subsequent research suggests that the existence of Furguson himself was a hoax and that the earliest known reference to Furguson dates from the 1960s.  Is this true?  Who knows?  True or false – it doesn’t really matter; it still makes an interesting story!

It’s amazing what you can find by mistake!

I was sorting through some files the other day and came across a letter I sent the ‘Woman’ magazine back in 1990.  This is what I wrote:

I was recently visiting a health club manager on business when the telephone rang.  As his secretary was out for the moment he answered the call through his ‘hands free’ extension.

At the other end of the line was a lady who wanted to enroll for one of their afternoon exercise classes.  All the formalities were completed and the lady was told to come along at the appropriate time wearing something loose.

Over the box came a sad voice saying: ‘If I had something loose to wear I wouldn’t need to enroll in your class’.  Then the line went dead.

I wonder if the lady ever resolved her situation.

What the ….

‘What the …’ Peter’s loud, slow, voice echoed over everything and everyone.
Everyone stopped talking.  Silence fell across the room.
He chuckled to himself: ‘I thought that would work’.

It did, and everyone turned to look at him.  23 pairs of eyes turned on him as he stood on the bench at the side of the hall.

‘Yes’, he said in a clear but quicker voice, ‘what the heck are we going to do about the grass verges in our village?  Three times I have called the council – and three times they have said they will be cutting it, but they never say when.  I think it’s time we set to and did it ourselves.  What do you think?’

Predictably a silence fell over the group followed by a burst of everyone talking.  Peter let it run for a minute or two then called them to order.

‘Hands up all that think we should leave it to the council’.
13 hands were raised.

‘Hands up all those who think we should do it ourselves’.
He counted the raised hands.  There were 17.

Ladies and gentlemen – there are 24 of us in this room.  13 said the Council should do the cutting and 17 said we should do it.  I make that 30 voters.  How come?’’

There was laughter at this.  Bill Taylor put up a hand.

‘Some of us voted for both!’  There was laughter in the hall. ‘I reckon – we all reckoned – that the council should do it but, as we have seen, they haven’t.  The village looks a mess so I suggest that we should do it – and properly‘.

There was a round of applause with two or three ‘hear hears’ as well.

Pete Sheldon stood up. ‘Why the heck should we do it.  We pay our taxes for them to do the work.  I don’t reckon that we should do the work as well.’
There was a ripple of applause but nowhere near what Bill had got.

It was Susie Williams that closed the discussion.

‘There are seven ladies here.  Starting on this coming Saturday we will all begin cutting the grass in question.  If any gentlemen wish to join us they will be very welcome.  If they don’t we’ll do it all ourselves’. 
There was laughter across the room with more than one voice calling ‘We’re with you Susie’.
Susie continued – ‘At 8.00 a.m. we shall meet at the post-box on the green and work out from there’.

She sat down to loud applause.

At eight o’clock on Saturday morning virtually all – 20 to be precise – from the meeting were there.  There were also five individuals of the younger generation.  At least two did not seem to be keen but … you never know.  They each had brought with them something to cut shrubs and, of course, some lunch.
Peter organised them into five groups of four and handed each group a barrow and a rake.  He had also brought three motor-mowers with him.

It was amazing how quickly the grass got cut and loaded into the barrows.

Peter had also arranged for a friend of his to bring his tip-up truck.
It was surprising just how quickly the overgrown grass verges disappeared and bright fresh, green, short grass took its place.

Peter kept an eye on all five groups and as soon as each group finished their patch he moved them on to the next.  His wife Jane and Helen their daughter brought round tea, coffee and buns of all kinds for the team.

By 5 o’clock Peter announced that there were just two bits left to deal with and they would do that tomorrow morning – hopefully completing this before church.
They did.

It was early on Tuesday morning as he drove down the road that he saw the council lorry parked up near the Green.  He stopped and went over to speak to them. They spoke first!
‘Where’s the bloody grass and that that you’ve been moaning about?

Peter politely told them.

‘You’ve what?  You’ve wasted our time and council time. You’ll be hearing about this.’

‘I don’t think so’, Peter politely replied. ‘I’ve just told our story to the local paper.  You’ll be able to read about it on Friday.  I think you’ll see some pictures as well.  Unfortunately you won’t be in them but your counsellor will be. 

Perhaps he’ll have a few words with your boss – and he, of course, might want a chat with you’ added Peter as he got into his car and headed off to a Council Committee Meeting.

A Final Farewell

My father and I stood in silence at the bottom of the panel as we looked at the name carved there – Jaime Domenech – a brave ancestor from many years ago.

It was the chief councillor who broke into our thoughts at last.

“Now you know what happened to your ancestor. He did not die. He lived, and he and his men gave life to this valley, this village. The Indians did not go away. They camped outside the valley, making it impossible for Jaime Domenech and his soldiers to escape.”

“Very soon, they found that they did not want to escape. They liked the tranquillity of the valley. There were many Indian villages in the hills and mountains around. In time the Indian maidens came to the valley. The attraction of the strange fair-skinned men overcame their fear of Quetzalcóatl. In fact, they believed the newcomers were the children of Quetzalcóatl, and they were pleased to come and live with them. They married the soldiers. More and more the Spanish and Indian bloods mixed. The children of these marriages were brought up in the traditions of old Spain. In time the population increased to over 600 souls.

“Then the maidens stopped coming. The Indian tribes moved away. Slowly the numbers in the valley started to fall. We are now less than one hundred, with few young men and no young women to continue our village. In a few more years our village will be empty; a home for ghosts and memories. It will be returned to Quetzalcóatl. We had hoped that we would go without anyone ever knowing we had been here.”

“We are the first white men to visit this valley in all those years?” My father’s voice was hushed.

The old man nodded. “Yes Señor. No man from Cortez’s force found the soldiers. The maidens that came never returned to their villages so building on the fear of Quetzalcóatl that kept the Indian warriors out. Everyone here can trace their ancestry to one of that first brave band; the band led by your ancestor Jaime Domenech.”

My father and I stood there silently, thinking about the life these people had led over the previous 400 years.

At last my father spoke: “It is a strange story you tell, Señor. My son and I have many questions to ask but that would be prying into your private history. You said you wished to leave this valley as you came, with no one knowing you have been here. We will respect that wish.”

He reached into the shoulder bag that lay at his feet. “All the notes I have made in coming to this valley of yours are in this book. I give it to you to do with as you wish. Your secret will remain safe with us. No one will ever find your valley because of us.” With that, father handed his journal to the elder who took it with a smile.

“Thank you,” was all he said.

We left the valley, escorted by the same two men we first met. They took us past their cottage to the edge of the valley near where we had entered. As we stood on the ridge, looking back to the edge of the valley and the village my father turned to the two men.

“One question, if I may, my friends. What is the name of your chief councillor, the man we have been talking with in the large hall?”

It was councillor Blue Belt who replied in that strange lilting tongue so like, and yet so unlike, our own. “His name, Señor, is Jaime Domenech. A direct descendent of the leader of the band of soldiers who first came to this valley. You and he are of the same family, Señor.”

 

An historic story unfolds

As my father and I moved forward, facing the three men at the top table, they stood up.
When we reached our appointed place, the men at the side tables followed the three men’s example and gave a stiff bow in our direction.  All except the middle of the three at the top table then sat down. He remained standing and spoke to us.

“Welcome, señores. We welcome you to our valley. I am told you are of our country. Is this true?”
“We are Spanish,” my father replied. “We have travelled here from Veracruz.”
“Ah – the city of Cortez. We have stories of the city handed down from our forefathers.”

The man fell silent for a moment, then: “What is your name?”
“Domenech.  I am Jaime Domenech and this is my son, Juan.”
As my father announced our names, a gasp came from all the men seated at the tables.
“That is a true Spanish name, Señor. Have you and your family lived in the New World long?”
“My parents left Spain just after I was born. I have lived here in this country that we call Mexico all my life,” my father answered.
“And what about your father’s ancestors?” the man asked. “Where did they live?”

“Many lived here in the Americas. Our family have always had close links with these lands. Two came to the New World with Cortez in 1517. One died in battle in 1521. The other also died, but later and we know not how. He commanded a troop of experienced soldiers into an unknown part of the Aztec empire. Nothing was ever heard of them again and they were presumed to have perished at the hands of the Indian warriors.”

The man’s face lit up. “You know your family history well, Señor.”
“Our family have a long history. I am proud of it,” my father replied.
“You should be, Señor. You should be.” The man stood there at the head of this strange gathering and nodded. “Yes, you should be proud,” he repeated, almost to himself.

He fell silent. For a moment there was no sound in the hall. Then he turned and walked to the wall behind him. He stopped and stood against a large, light coloured panel in the centre of the wall. “Come Señor. Come here and learn the true story of your missing ancestor.” He motioned for us to join him at the panel.

All the assembled village councillors rose as we walked round the tables to join the man.
“Look,” he said as we reached him. “Read, and be proud of your ancestor!” On it was carved, in sixteenth century Spanish, the story of the missing soldiers.
The stone panel told how the soldiers had been surprised and cut off by the Indians. They had spent many days defending themselves, always being forced toward the mountains. By sheer good fortune they had entered this valley and found, to their relief, that the Indians did not follow them. The valley was sacred to the Indians’ god, Quetzalcóatl.

The soldiers stayed, recovered from their long battle, and waited for the Indians to go away. While they waited, they built a chapel, and carved their story on the stone we were now reading.

Father and I stood in silence. At the bottom of the panel was carved the name of the leader, Jaime Domenech, and the date – 1523!

A conversation on a train

A CONVERSATION ON A TRAIN

“I’m 200 years old today. It’s my birthday.”

The man who spoke sat in the opposite corner of the compartment. As people do, we sat as far away from each other as space would allow. We were the only two in the compartment and had been travelling for some 20 minutes. In this time we had not even acknowledged each other. As he spoke I looked at him for the first time.

He was small, perhaps no more than 5 feet 3 inches, with sparse, sandy hair. His brown suit was obviously old and well-worn but showed the unmistakable signs of having been carefully looked after. His footwear was similarly well-worn but polished and presentable. With his clean, white starched collar he looked a typical clerk; the type of man who diligently, and unambiguously, works out his life in the services of the same master in some commercial backwater.

His face was unremarkable until you looked into his eyes. They were a very pale grey and seemed to have vast, hidden depths. As I looked I seemed to see in them experience and understanding far beyond normal understanding.

“Yes,” he said, “I calculate I’m 200 years old today.”

“Oh,” I replied, feeling that I had to say something but not quite knowing what.

I looked at him again – more carefully. Apart from his eyes I would have credited him with little more than 40. But those eyes – they seemed to contain so much more than could be accumulated in a mere 40 years.

“Well, you certainly don’t look 200,” I finally managed to get out.

I had come to the conclusion that the man would need humouring, something I felt disinclined to do, so had decided to let the conversation die away as quickly as possible. However, in responding in the way I did, I seemed to have provided him with the necessary stimulus to speak.  His voice sounded tired, like the sound a well-fitting door makes when it slowly drifts shut in a carpeted room. Even so it came clearly to me over the rattle of the train wheels on the track joints.

“Yes, I suppose I don’t. After all, I was only 40 when I stopped aging. That was 160 years ago and for the past 50 of them I have regretted that fateful day. Yes, regretted it but done nothing about it. Now I’m tired and have come to the end.”

Definitely a man to be humoured, I convinced myself, and settled back to be a martyr to someone else’s needs.  The man sat back in the corner with a far-away look drifting into his eyes: as if he really was thinking back over so many years gone by. After a while he went on in his soft, tired voice. A voice that now had a far-away quality about it as well.

“It’s a strange gift, immortality,” he began. “When it first came to me I was overjoyed. So much time was mine. I had time to do anything and everything I wished. At first I rushed about doing all the hurried, urgent things that one does when confronted with unlimited choice. I had unlimited choice and unlimited time as well but I could not grasp the idea and control myself.

“It took me perhaps ten years to really grasp and accept the fact that I was immortal; that I had no need to hurry anything. It gradually dawned on me when I saw my reflection in the looking glass day after day. My features did not change. For 10 years my face had stayed the same. A little tanned from travelling in sunny climes perhaps, but still the same me. It was then that I slowed down. I could watch change take place. For a while inventions fascinated me. I watched them introduced, often with a great to do, come into common usage and then be overtaken by the next invention.

“I watched people. Great men appeared. Their careers and fame grew, blossomed into full glory and, in time, died. Sometimes their fame lived on, but more often it died with them. Countries appeared and developed from previously unknown corners of the world. Some took their place in world affairs; others sank back into the oblivion that had been theirs.

“I watched this ever-changing pageant with an absorbed interest, sure in the knowledge that I would outlast it all – and I have. But now my interest wanes and I grow tired. Old age is not just a physical thing; it is a mental thing as well.”

He lapsed into silence. Despite myself I had been intrigued by his story. Whether the story was true or not was something I could not tell, but he certainly believed it.  As he sat there in silence my curiosity got the better of me.

“How did you come by this immortality?” I asked.

He looked at me, almost as if he hadn’t seen me before. He studied me with eyes now shrewd and all-knowing. For perhaps a minute he studied me, looking critically into my eyes and at my face.

“The face tells the true story of its wearer” he murmured quietly to himself.

“Yes. How does one come by this gift of immortality?” he repeated, louder but still to himself. Almost as if he was asking himself the question. After a pause he looked straight at me; almost through me.

“I was travelling in the East when it came to me. I did a lot of travelling in those days. I had attached myself to a camel train heading eastwards; roughly in the direction I was aiming. For three days we trekked across the desert.

“During that time I talked often with another itinerant traveller who did not belong to the train either. He, in fact, came from the mountainous lands to the north of India but had spent a long time travelling the desert wastes, never settling for long in one place or with one group of people.  He was presently heading back to this mountainous homeland, there, he said, finally to die. He had one last secret to pass to another and then he could rest in peace.”

Again the man stopped in the telling of his tale. Silence descended on the compartment, broken only by the click-clack of the wheels on the rails.  In a while he took up his story again.

“After the three days we reached an oasis where a number of desert tracks met. The camel train was heading north-east from here: my new found colleague, south. As I was heading nowhere in particular I elected to join him and together we set out, aiming for the mountains of his homeland.  He was a pleasant companion, seeming to have an unending fund of stories of strange parts of the world. His knowledge of the desert seemed limitless, unerringly picking watering places out of the vastness of the wilderness in which we travelled.

“Over the days of travelling we got to know each other very well. One night we had made camp and were sitting beside our small fire before finally settling down for the night. As was usual we were telling stories of our travels and the strange and interesting places we had visited. I remember that my story was of a visit I had made to the Holy Land a few years previously.

“His story went back longer than that – two centuries to be exact. He told me of a meeting with a holy man all those years ago in the land they now call Tibet. There, in the snowy fastness of those mountainous lands, he had spent a winter with a small community of holy men and their families. It appears that he made a very favourable impression on these holy hermits during this time. As the spring came and his departure drew nigh, the head man of the little community called him into his sparse cell.

“There he had told my travelling colleague about the small holy band. Since time immemorial they had lived there – six holy men with their families – untouched by the happenings in the vast world around them; untouched by illness or by old age: immortal.  Their children matured slowly as befitted the children of immortal parents. With no natural death to control their numbers it was important that they did not overpopulate their valley. To avoid this it was laid down in their laws that as a child reached maturity, at 100 years, the oldest of that child’s sex within the community must die.

“That was the problem that now confronted the head man. One of the young men had reached his maturity last summer and now wished to take his place in the community. So the oldest man, the head man, must die. Their law said that he could not leave the valley nor, because of his immortality, could he die in any normal sense of the word. The only way they could end their life was to give their immortality to another living being that was not immortal.

“This they achieved by telling the secret of immortality to one of the animals that lived in the valley. In the telling of the secret the gift of immortality was passed to the other. Having told their secret they aged and died. Provided they told an animal that had not reached breeding age, the balance of nature in the valley was never upset.  The head man, however, had long ago resolved to pass his secret to some other human. During the winter he had decided that their guest, my present companion, should be the receiver of the gift, the first human from outside the valley to become immortal. In the telling of the secret my companion had been given immortality, whether he wanted it or not.

“The head man had then hurried him on his way. The years would now rapidly and irrecoverably catch up with the head man and within hours he would be dead and the young man of the community would take his place.

“My companion had then found himself ushered out of the cell and into the bright spring day. His few belongings had been bundled together and these, together with a quantity of food, awaited him. One of the young men escorted him to the edge of the valley and directed him to a path that eventually led to the desert in which we were travelling.

“When we first met, my companion had been heading back to the valley to return the gift. However, the days we had spent together had changed his mind. His wish now was to pass on the gift to another dweller of the world. In telling me the secret the gift was given again. Like him before me I had had no choice.”

The man grew silent. In the time it had taken him to tell the story he had aged ten years, or so it seemed. After a while he spoke again.

“As I said, at first I was overjoyed. But now I feel old and I am tired and want to rest. I have had enough.”

He stopped speaking just as the train jerked. It was coming into a station, the first stop on the journey. That jerk of the breaks brought me back to reality and I shook myself as a dog does after getting caught in a shower of rain. As the train pulled to a halt the man stood up and reached for my hat and coat from the rack above the seat.

“I believe this is your stop for this journey,” he said as he handed me my things. I automatically stood up and took them. I climbed out of the carriage and for a moment stood on the platform looking back at the story teller. He smiled at me with a tired smile and spoke as he pulled the door closed.

“Take care of the precious gift of immortality. It is yours now, guard it well.”

The train pulled away from the platform and the man was lost to my sight. I stood on the platform and watched the train disappear into the distance. I stood on the station, slowly realising that I was immortal, and my erstwhile travelling companion would soon be no more.

It was in 1854 when I stood on that platform with realisation dawning. Now I too am tired of this ever-changing world and want to rest.  I cannot wait for 2055 to arrive. I cannot bear the burden of immortality for 200 years. Things now move so much more rapidly than they did when I had the conversation in the train. I believe that 150 years is now the limit a soul can take.  I have come to the end so ….. Take care of the gift of immortality for it, now, is yours.

Guard it well.