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4-5 March

From the archives

They can’t touch what we have in our heads

In the end, says the late literary critic and philosopher George Steiner on Of Beauty and Consolation, “we are what we remember”. Our generation has learnt that we are all “wanderers hunted on this earth”. Millions of people have been displaced from their homelands and become exiles, their possessions and way of life taken from them. But there’s one thing that couldn’t be stolen: the words they had committed to memory. In Ezekiel, God dictates a text to the prophet and then asks him to eat the scroll. The surprised prophet does as instructed, and the scroll literally becomes a part of him. Ben Jonson described the act of reading with the verb “ingest”: you eat what you read; it nourishes you like food. It becomes “fibre of your fibre, heart of your heart” and stays with you. Over time, the house of your mind becomes full of “wonderful furniture”. To be able to find inside you “the company” of what John Milton called “the master spirits” means you will always come home to a “full house”.


Last month, says Jason Wilson in Everyday Drinking, a letter from the Carthusian monks of Voiron, France, floored the world of booze. The frères chartreux announced they would be reducing production of their famed Alpine liqueur – Chartreuse – to “protect their monastic life and devote their time to solitude and prayer”. Which is fair enough, but does make it rather harder to get hold of the green stuff. The monks have been brewing it since the early 18th century, using a secret 1605 recipe involving 130 different herbs, plants and flowers. Today, just three monks know the full formula, and the two others who actually make it each only knows his half of the operation. All five have taken a vow of silence.


It’s become an “article of trans faith” that there are “exactly 73 genders”, says Mary Wakefield in The Spectator. The fastest-growing subset is said to be “xenogender” – people who feel “more akin to animals or plants or foods than humans”. There’s a girl on TikTok who explains very seriously that her gender is “bird” – specifically a cardinal, with “ey/em” pronouns. There’s a horse child who is taken out by school staff for gallops; “a boy dinosaur who is fed on strips of meat”. I’ve also found several people who “identify as cake”. There is some disagreement in the community about how it feels to be cake, but in general I gather it’s a sort of “sweet, fluffy feeling; a lightness”. “No one who’s cake-gender can have tasted a cake I’ve baked.”


quote 4.3.23 Pascal

“I have made this letter longer than usual, only because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”

Mathematician Blaise Pascal


Volcanoes have had a surprisingly large impact on global history, says Peter Frankopan in The Guardian. One key factor in the fall of Cleopatra was the enormous 43 BC eruption of the Okmok volcano in Alaska, which blocked out so much sunlight it led to crop shortfalls around the world. Faced with “famine, migration, inflation and land abandonment”, Cleopatra threw her lot in with Mark Antony, “with fateful consequences”. Similarly, when Mount Tambora blew in 1815, in modern-day Indonesia, it brought about a “year without a summer”. This not only led to agrarian collapse in New England, triggering America’s first economic depression; it also “created the atmospheric conditions that inspired Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein, while holidaying in an unusually cold and stormy Switzerland”.

Quirk of history

When Argentina invaded the Falklands in 1982, the RAF had a problem: it didn’t have enough mid-air refuelling nozzles for its Vulcan bombers. Various quick fixes were attempted, before someone remembered that three Vulcans had recently been withdrawn from service and donated to American aviation museums. The RAF put in a call to Washington, and a small team of technicians flew over to the US and sneaked around the museums surreptitiously removing the Vulcan probes. After the war, one of the officers involved recalled, the museums sent him a message “congratulating us on our success and demanding the immediate return of stolen property”.


The estate

This 46-acre property near the Suffolk village of Holbrook is up for sale for the first time since it was built in 1845. The main home has seven bedrooms, five bathrooms, a grand reception hall and a breakfast room which opens out on to the garden. Outside there’s a heated swimming pool, a pergola shrouded in vines and a south-facing terrace with flower beds. The train to London takes less than an hour from nearby Ipswich. £2.5m.

The church

This four-bedroom home is a converted Wesleyan chapel in the Derbyshire village of Middleton-by-Wirksworth. Its 3,000 sq ft interior is set over three storeys, with a light-flooded kitchen, stained-glass windows and original floorboards throughout. Outside, wrought-iron gates lead to a private courtyard and walled garden complete with a pond and vegetable beds. The house is surrounded by scenic Peak District hiking trails, and Derby city centre is a 30-minute drive. £700,000.



quote 4.3.23 Diller

“I want my children to have all the things I couldn’t afford. Then I want to move in with them.”

American comedian Phyllis Diller