cordial terms with all the distinguished men of the period including
fellow poet Horace, and a personal friend of Emperor Augustus, Publius
Vergilius Maro (Virgil to you and me) lived a placid life during
stirring times, from 70 to 19 BC. Best known for his Aeneid — an
epic poem which describes the wanderings of Trojan prince Aeneas and his
followers after the fall of Troy, including his fateful love affair with
Dido, Queen of Carthage — Virgil also wrote two shorter groups of poems,
the Eclogues and the Georgics.
Georgics is a set of four books ostensibly forming a
treatise on husbandry — crop raising (Book 1), the
cultivation of trees, particularly the vine and the olive
(Book 2), the rearing of stock (Book 3) and beekeeping
(Book 4). These poems, totalling 2,188 lines, took him
seven painstaking years to write, which means that he
completed an average of one line a day.
Georgics do give some practical advice, they are more a sort of
patriotic song extolling the glories of Italy, together with a impassioned
call back to the simple but hard life of rural endeavours. Stoic piety was
Virgil's real message, and so Book 4 on beekeeping proceeds eloquently
throughout, despite its humble theme: "in tenui labor; at tenuis non
gloria (slight is the field of labour, but not slight the glory)." One
commentator (J. Wight Duff) put it this way:
So it is
with a humour not so much mock-heroic as kindly that . . . he enters on a
miniature epic which has "the kindred" of the bees for them, and their
"high-souled captains" (magnanimosque duces) for heroes. Into their
statecraft, the polity, their thrift, and battles he penetrates with the
understanding of genius.
son of the soil into a practical farming family, Virgil actually did know
his agricultural subjects, and later authors such as Pliny took his
science seriously. Virgil had a strong affinity with the farmer's life
and, like Wordsworth, with the uncommon beauty of ordinary nature. Thus,
although he speaks of them as human, with human interests, and governed by
human laws, Virgil has observed the life of bees closely:
however — since life brings such misfortunes as ours to bees as well —
their bodies droop with severe disease (which when it happens you will be
able to discern by no uncertain signs:
as soon as they begin to sicken they
change colour; a ragged leanness spoils their appearance; then they
carry out of the hives the bodies of their dead and lead the mournful
funeral train; or else they hang twined in a cluster by their feet at
the entrance, or linger within their closed dwellings, all spiritless
with hunger and sluggish with a pinched chill; then a deeper sound is
heard, and there is a long-drawn buzzing, as at times the cold south
wind rustles amidst the woods, as the fretful sea hisses when the surge
flows back, as the devouring fire seethes in closed furnaces),
then when this happens I would advise you
to burn scented galbanum and supply honey through pipes made of reed,
freely encouraging the weary things to the familiar food.
be also be useful to mingle therewith the pounded oak-gall's flavour and
dried rose leaves, or wine-syrup made rich with much boiling, or wine made
from dried grapes from the Psithian vine, and Attic thyme and
strong-smelling centaury. There is also a flower in the meadows given the
name amellus by husbandmen, a plant easily found by the seeker, for it
raises from one stalk a massive clump; the flower itself is golden, but in
the petals that spread abundantly round it a purple sheen gleams beneath
dark violet; often are the altars of the gods adorned with woven garlands;
its taste is sour in the mouth; shepherds gather it in the valleys when
the hay has been cut and beside the winding waters of the Mella. Boil its
roots in wine with bouquet and place the food in full baskets at the
English prose that is a great word picture.
and Tennyson certainly thought highly of Virgil's language, the former, a
fine translator of all Virgil's works, calling the Georgics "the best Poem
by the best Poet". And listen to this from Tennyson ("Mantovano" means "Mantuan",
referring to Virgil's birthplace):
salute thee, Mantovano,
meticulous study of bees would find echoes in the early career of the next
person on our visiting list. He in fact was once a professional apiarist.
Born nearly 2,000 years after the Roman — and about 20,000 kilometres away
— he has this in common with him, namely that despite their early farming
expertise, both are today hardly remembered as breeders of living things
that loved thee since my day began,
of the stateliest measure
moulded by the lips of man.
course, the fame of this man rests not in the ethereal Olympus of fine
poetry, but instead high in the rarefied atmosphere of mountain climbing,
for, yes, I am referring to New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary. On
May 29, 1953, he and Tenzing Norgay, a Nepalese Sherpa, after following a
climb via the Nepalese side of the mountain never been used before,
stepped upon the summit of Everest, the highest point on earth. In
Hillary's own words, "I have had the world lie beneath my clumsy boots . .
that year, Hillary (b. 1919) had lived an obscure life in Tuakau, near
Auckland, where his father ran a family beekeeping business that he had
transformed into his life's enterprise from what had been first just a
hobby. Although this was right in the Great Depression somehow the family
managed to keep the trade in honey and beeswax afloat, and by 1935 for son
Edmund (in his final year at school) it had become hard and unpaid, yet
enjoyable after-hours work.
It was at
this time, on a school excursion, that the young Hillary discovered the
sport of skiing:
little natural skill at skiing but plenty of strength and energy and I
returned home in a glow of fiery enthusiasm for the sun and the cold and
the snow — especially the snow!
uneventful years at university Hillary joined his father full-time in the
family business, and during the winter months, which are the off-season
for bees, got involved in vigorous outdoor activities such as bush
walking, as well as other physical pursuits like fencing, jujitsu and
was 20 he and a friend took a holiday to the Southern Alps of New Zealand,
where they met two men who had just climbed Mount Cook, the country's
highest mountain (12,349 feet). Hillary at once became excited with the
idea of doing the same himself, but when a few days later he and his
friend hired a guide for this purpose they were informed that as beginners
all they would be attempting something much more modest — Mount Olivier.
This Hillary conquered with great gusto, and from the moment he arrived at
the summit he knew mountaineering was for him.
that exhilarating day and the even more stupendous one on Everest 14 years
later Hillary climbed many a difficult peak in New Zealand, Austria,
Switzerland, and Nepal, and naturally began to set his sights on "the big
one". On his first attempt on Everest he failed, however,
Everest, you have defeated me once and you might defeat me again. But I'm
coming back again and again, and I'm going to win because you can't get
any bigger, Mt. Everest, and I can."
without a doubt on the strength of this wide and largely successful
experience that he was invited to be part of the 1953 British Everest
Expedition led by Colonel John Hunt. Hunt and Hillary were awarded
knighthoods for their success — Hillary not without misgivings, since he
had never approved of titles. Here he ruefully describes his first thought
after getting over his surprise:
I had a
vivid picture of myself walking down the main street of Papakura dressed
in my torn and dirty overalls. "My God!" I thought, "I'll have to get a
new pair of overalls."
numerous further climbs as well as expeditions to the South Pole, in his
later years Hillary has dedicated much of his effort towards humanitarian
ends. In Nepal he has helped build schools, airfields, hospitals and
village clinics, and has established hygienic waste systems and
reforestation projects. All of his philanthropic enterprises have had the
goal of providing enough education for the Nepalese young people so that
they can contribute to their own villages as teachers, health-care
1953 Everest party were three "non-climbers”, including our next
fascinating subject James Morris (b.1926), a reporter for The
Times, whom Hillary in his 1975 autobiography described as "a slim and
any, of the team knew just how sensitive. Morris' dilemma was that he was
born a woman in a man's body. In 1972, nearly two decades after winning
international plaudits for his Everest reporting — years of mental anguish
during which he nevertheless persisted with conformity (marriage and
children) — he underwent male-to-female sex-reassignment surgery, and began living as Jan Morris.
right, the Jan Morris who's written all those acclaimed travel books about
Oxford, Venice, New York, Spain, Wales, Ireland, Sydney, Hong Kong . . .
ordeal of "the operation" Morris travelled to Morocco, to the rooms of Dr.
I was led
along corridors and up staircases into the inner premises of the clinic.
The atmosphere thickened as we proceeded. The rooms became more heavily
curtained, more velvety, more voluptuous. Portrait busts appeared, I
think, and there was a hint of heavy perfume. Presently I saw, advancing
upon me through the dim alcoves of this retreat, which distinctly
suggested to me the allure of a harem, a figure no less recognizably
odalesque. It was Madame Burou. She was dressed in a long white robe,
tasseled I think around the waist, which subtly managed to combine the
luxuriance of a caftan with the hygiene of a nurse's uniform, and she was
blonde herself, and carefully mysterious . . . Powers beyond my control
had brought me to Room 5 at the clinic in Casablanca, and I could not have
run away then even if I had wanted to . . . I went to say good-bye to
myself in the mirror. We would never meet again, and I wanted to give that
other self a long last look in the eye, and a wink for luck. As I did so a
sreet vendor outside played a delicate arpeggio upon his flute, a very
gentle merry sound which he repeated, over and over again, in sweet
diminuendo down the street. Flights of angels, I said to myself, and so
staggered . . . to my bed, and oblivion.
writing, that, and here's some more style, on her addiction to the
intoxicating smell of books (Bikwilians may sigh dreamily):
I am a
book-sniffer . . . I like all the literary smells, from leather to glue to
old dust to new paper, and most of all I like the smell of old-fashioned
American printing ink. They no longer use this fragrant substance —
perhaps they don't use ink at all? — but fortunately it is very resilient,
and there are a number of books in my collection which, having been
printed in the United States half a century or more ago, contribute far
more than their share to the aroma. H.L. Mencken's The American Language
is one, and John Gunther's Inside USA another. Sometimes I take them down
from their shelves just for a sniff; and each year I sense their powers
fading, so I feel my own life passing with them.
course, gaining acceptance after a sex-change operation takes time.
Journalist Richard M. Levine, for instance, has described Morris'
disconcerting effect on people at a party in her honour not long after her
surgery. Despite the fact as James she'd climbed three-quarters of Everest
and travelled round the world half a dozen times since, and in so doing
produced work they'd all greatly admired,
. . . [t]hey
seemed frightened and even repulsed by what he had become — a proper,
somewhat dowdy, middle-aged Englishwoman who looked as though a trip to
the local tearoom was about all the adventure she could handle.
the best publicised of the transsexuals of the last 50 years was Christine
(George) Jorgensen, who underwent "GI-Becomes-Blonde-Bombshell" surgery as
early as 1952 in Copenhagen. Another who caught the public eye more
recently (largely because she was already well known) was tennis player
prominent for his sexual transformation was Wally Stott, a second
Englishman already married with teenage children when he changed his sex.
He became Angela Morely. Remember him? He was the bandleader and arranger
for many BBC programmes, including the "highly esteemed talking-type
wireless" Goon Show.
(This associative essay will be continued in the
issue of Bikwil.)