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Hallo again to all.

If there were an ability to see inside our skull today, the discovery would be peculiar. In no particular order, these have been rattling round our head:

  • The year 1947
  • The ridiculous number of Sundays after [Trinity, Pentecost]
  • André Leon Talley
  • The idiocy of iTunes match
  • Unripe avocado pears sold as 'ready to eat'
  • Bright, well-intentioned friends on Facebook who, through some unaccountable blind spot, share daily cute kitty or dog pictures with soi-disant clever captions, thereby casting themselves into a category called 'Seemed quite normal' (the friends, not the animals)
  • Noise
  • The Marechal Niel rose
  • Misattributed quotes on the Internet

A Vanity Fair caricature of Max in 1897Which brings us to a writer of some of the most exquisite English prose ever penned, Sir Max Beerbohm (1872-1956), whom we've admired since we were in our early twenties. Can't quite place the name? Fret not. During his lifetime, Max wryly suggested that there were only 1,500 people in England and another thousand in America who understood and appreciated his work, but Harold Nicholson wrote that he was 'the only modern essayist whose work is likely to survive'.

Sir Harold was partially right, but it is Max's one novel — 'Zuleika Dobson', an Oxford phantasy about a literal femme fatale written in the plummy days of the Edwardian era — that has never been out of print. (A movie with Audrey Hepburn was planned, but never materialised.) His essays are in turn mordant and delicate, wistful and wry, and always, always civilised. Max was also a brilliant caricaturist and perhaps equally well known in his life for that rare skill.

But back to the point: misattributed quotes. Reading even just a few paragraphs of anything Max Beerbohm has written would confirm the absolute unlikelihood that he wrote this sentence attributed to him in close to 90,000 links on the Internet:

'We must pay less attention to the American dream, and more to the dreams of Americans'.

Now Max was certainly aware of Americans, but he paid no mind to their dreams and altogether little attention to them despite the fact that he found their hospitality generous and much in their country admirable. (He married an American woman, but that's altogether another matter.) It was impossible for him to have written the line attributed to him — and we would have put good money on that.

But someone must have written it. A not-too-demanding use of a search engine revealed it to have been said by one Reubin (sic) Askew, quondam governor of the state of Florida, in a keynote address at the 1972 Democratic convention in Miami. Numerous contemporary newspaper articles confirmed that. And some Internet links — with variable spellings of 'Reubin' -- get it right. But Beerbohm edges out Askew.

So how did such a blunder occur? That we've not traced. There must be some locus classicus where the first ignorant misattribution appeared. But sussing that out would take more time than we have. We'd like to slap a dunce cap on that unknown transgressor and force him to read 'The Happy Hypocrite'.

Now it's very likely that you're thinking, 'Well, mildly interesting and all that, but where's the Anglican connection? With all due allowance for the silly season. . . '

The basics: Max was baptised and confirmed an Anglican. And he was a reader of the Church Times, '[remembering] the want ads of his youth. He read them, when he was a child, with fascination. He cherishes one that he read in the Church Times: "Medical Man in Cheltenham can accommodate one female resident patient. Epileptic Churchwoman preferred."'

The clergyman who appears and then vanishes in The Life of JohnsonMax's imaginative essay on a clergyman who appears briefly in Boswell's 'Life of Johnson' and then as quickly vanishes is surely one that every Anglican should know. If you don't, it's happily online here. We can't think of anything better to do with a spare 15 minutes than give it a read. (Or bookmark it!) It captures Max's fanciful imagination and wit splendidly. The clergyman who appears and then vanishes in The Life of Johnson

And 'Max was on especially good terms with Trollope. "He reminds us," said Max, "that sanity need not be Philistine." Max thought "The Warden" a perfect novel, and the cello-playing Mr. Harding was one of his favorite musicians, especially when he was playing a cello he didn't have with him'.

'Sanity need not be Philistine' is surely expresses an Anglican sensibility. We shall remember that line — and we absolutely shan't attribute it to Reubin Askew.

See you next week.

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25 August 2013

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