Virgil, Hillary and Morris
[ Issue 16 ]

Emily Bronto clearly approves of Virgil, Hillary and Morris

Bikwil is pleased to present Virgil, Hillary and Morris

Virgil, Hillary and Morris

Virgil, Hillary and Morris is part one of From Virgil to Velikovsky, the first in our occasional series we call Stepping Stones.

Beginning with the Roman poet Virgil, Tony Rogers takes us on a tour of some unexpectedly related people.

Despite their early farming expertise, both are today hardly remembered as breeders of living things at all

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From Virgil to Velikovsky
[ Stepping Stones No. 1 ]
— Tony Rogers


On 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.

The 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.

While the 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.

Born a 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:

If 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.

It will 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 doorways.

Even in English prose that is a great word picture.

Dryden 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):

I salute thee, Mantovano,
I that loved thee since my day began,
Wielder of the stateliest measure
ever moulded by the lips of man.

Virgil’s 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 at all.

Of 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 . . ."

Until 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:

I showed 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!

After two 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 boxing.

When he 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.

Between 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, characteristically saying,

Mt. 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."

It was 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."

After 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 workers, etc..

Among the 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 sensitive intellectual".

Few, if 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.

That's right, the Jan Morris who's written all those acclaimed travel books about Oxford, Venice, New York, Spain, Wales, Ireland, Sydney, Hong Kong . . .

For the ordeal of "the operation" Morris travelled to Morocco, to the rooms of Dr. Georges Burou:

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.

Good 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.

Of 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.

Perhaps 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 Renée Richards.

Not so 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 next issue of Bikwil.)

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