Cicero

cicero’s corner
by
Karim

The life given us, by nature is short; but the memory of a well-spent life is eternal.

― Marcus Tullius Cicero

There was a corner of a library where I once learned and debated much about two of these subjects – History and Literature. It was a place with an unusual name – Cicero’s Corner.

That was in the 1980’s in Manhattan.

I learned about Cicero’s Corner from my friend Rory’s grandmother, Mrs. Katherine Day. She opened up the world of literature for me like nobody else before – or after – has done.

Remire Island, Seychelles

Let me start by telling you about Rory, the reluctant President of The British Toast Rack Society …

Rory-V-C

Rory Veevers-Carter, President, The British Toast Rack Society

Rory Veevers-Carter is a dear friend, and like me, Rory spent his early years in Africa. His father was named Mark, and Rory’s own son (who is my godson) is also named Mark.

Mark Veevers-Carter the Edler was an African explorer in the tradition of Henry Morton Stanley and David Livingstone.

Rory and his brother Digby and his sister Ming all grew up “wild” in the Seychelles. And their explorer dad, and their author mum – Wendy Day Veevers-Carter – raised their family with a healthy outdoors island life of fishing and hunting and building boats and mending fishing nets on the island of Remire in the Seychelles Archipelogo. Wendy actually wrote a book about this family adventure entitled Island Home.

Remire

Remire Island, Seychelles, where Rory lived as a boy with his family

Rory was a special breed of English expats in Africa that we in Kenya used to call “English Cowboys”. As kids, the English Cowboys grow up immersed in the natural African wilderness – developing an intuitive and encyclopedic knowledge of species of snakes and ants and birds. Knowing how to forage for berries and jackfruit. Playing soccer barefoot and climbing trees and stealing bird’s eggs and fishing in shallow ravines with a hand-carved wooden dagger – and speaking the local dialects fluently with no accent.

… Then – all of a sudden – it all changes!

They come of age and they have to suddenly wash up, clean up, smarten up their attire and are swiftly shipped off to boarding school in England – in Rory’s case – King’s College, Taunton. A school that spawned statesmen and captains of industry. Where Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli gave his maiden speech in Taunton when he first stood for parliament.

This is the kind of juxtaposed life that many an English boy in Africa – or English boy in India  – had lived for centuries. Rudyard Kipling, who was born in India and then shipped off to England for school, lived it. And George Orwell, who was also born in India and then sent off to Eton (because, as the saying went “the British Empire was won on the playing fields of Eton”). Orwell also lived this stark cultural shock and juxtaposition of a life.

Eton

The playing fields of Eton where Empire was won

You cannot ever imagine what this sort of cultural juxtaposition does to a young child unless you have lived it yourself. I have lived it. I know what it means.

One moment I was playing soccer barefoot in Nairobi as a kid, speaking excellent Kutchi and accent-less Swahili and very poor pidgin English in an embarrassing sing-song sprinkled with lots of  “golly gosh” and “goodness gracious, isn’t it” – then suddenly – at age 7 – I get shipped off to school in London and I am learning Latin and Greek and Tudors and Stuarts.

For books are more than books, they are the life, the very heart and core of ages past, the reason why men worked and died, the essence and quintessence of their lives. 

― Marcus Tullius Cicero

The Peace Signs

Rory’s American grandfather was Clarence Day (Mrs Katherine Day’s husband) an essayist, novelist and playwright who wrote Life with Father. And so inevitably Rory – like me – was a bookworm. And in his grandfather’s old home in Vermont was a library of beautiful first editions – rare and valuable books. And Rory and I spent several cold winter’s days there with the fireplace blazing and just Chesterton, Dickens, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Edith Wharton, The Brontes, T.S. Elliot, Emile Zola, Proust and Pushkin to keep us company.

dayC

However, we met not in a book club as tidy bookworms, but at the New York Rugby Club in the early 1980’s – battered, bruised and scruffy. He was always far better at rugby than I was – but I usually beat him at squash. It was a complementary friendship.

In the mid-80’s, I was teaching school at Martin Luther King Jr. High School in Harlem and when Rory’s grandmother heard of this she said:

“My next door neighbor is spending a lot of time in Harlem at the moment so you ought to come for dinner and meet him. He’s researching a book over there.”

To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child.

For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?

― Marcus Tullius Cicero

Rory and his grandma lived in a townhouse on East 62nd Street in Manhattan. Only when I showed up for dinner at their home, did I realized that Mrs. Day’s next door neighbor was the author Tom Wolfe and the book he was researching in Harlem was The Bonfire of the Vanities. Wolfe, who was a chronicler of the American life had written about the 1960’s hippie generation in books like The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. And he described to us at dinner that evening how surprising he found it that now, in the decadent 1980’s when he was conducting research in Harlem, he saw young African-American men wearing silver metal “peace signs” around their neck. He found it heartwarming to witness this.

sim

Wolfe had not seen this since the hippie era – the flower children of the 1960’s.

As he deepened his research however, the answer became more obvious to him – these were not “peace signs” at all – they were trophies. There was a new trend amongst the Harlem drug dealing set to saw off the chrome Mercedes Benz car emblems (which were contoured like a peace sign), and then add a silver chain to the emblem and wear it around your neck like a necklace. This was a prized trophy, not a peace sign. A social statement.

Algonquin5-19-2015a

The Algonquin (photo by Bored Member Marisa Marsey)

The Algonquin

Since Clarence Day had been a prominent author in the 1920’s and 1930’s he and Mrs. Day knew many of the New York and transatlantic authors of that period – everyone from William Faulkner to PG Wodehouse. And then, there were also gatherings with literary figures at the Algonquin Round Table such as Dorothy Parker and Alexander Woolcott.

“Without education, we are in a deep and deadly danger of taking educated people seriously.” 

― G.K. Chesterton

When I knew Mrs Day in the 1980’s she was herself close to 90 years old – however, she had a mind like a steel trap and she did not suffer fools gladly. She spoke her mind and cared nothing for political correctness. Her memory was impeccable. She would demand that I select random passages from the works of G.K Chesterton and then as I started to read a poem or a novel, she would remember the lines and finish it off for me herself. Then she would sprinkle her subsequent conversation with smatterings of Chesterton.

Algonquin

My fondest memories of Rory’s grandma – who passed on in the 1990’s – was having afternoon tea with her at the Algonquin Hotel.

We had a deal. She would tell me stories about the authors whom she met there in the 1920’s and 1930’s – she would bring the room alive with her anecdotes – as long as I ensured that I would read all their books. “All their books!” I would exclaim. “Well, most of the ones worth reading.. let me make you a list..”.

It was very shrewd of her – she would not divulge the insights and banter of these giant literary figures – that used to be her and her husband’s personal friends – unless she made me work for them! I read a lot for my tutor Mrs. Day before our teas at the Algonquin.

Read at every wait; read at all hours; read within leisure; read in times of labor; read as one goes in; read as one goest out. The task of the educated mind is simply put: read to lead.

― Marcus Tullius Cicero

Algonquin5-19-2015b

The Algonquin (photo by Bored Member Marisa Marsey)

Being Cornered

One time, I arrived for one of our teas at the Algonquin and she asked where I had been. I said I had just played squash at the Harvard Club on West 44th Street. She winced in painful disapproval. I could rarely tell if she was genuinely annoyed or just winding me up… Perhaps she thought squash a frivolous game?… Perhaps this was a set-up. She went very quiet.

Then she looked up with her mischievous grin and said unapologetically – bluntly:

“My husband Clarence was a Yale man you know? He belonged to the Yale Club on Vanderbilt Avenue. That is the only club worth being a member of in New York.”

Ahh.. the old rivalry. Mrs Day was clearly from another era. She then added…

HarvardClub

The Harvard Club, 35 W 44TH Street, New York

“.. Well, it’s not all bad I suppose. The place (she refused to dignify the Harvard Club by name) does have the Cicero’s Corner in the library, of course. Now that is a group you might care to join – you may even learn something…”

I had no idea what this Cicero’s Corner group thing was, and I had absolutely no intention of joining it… until somehow, gradually, Mrs Day persuaded me to join the group making me almost feel that it was my penance for being a member of the Harvard Club.

Mrs Day cornered me.

“No man who worships education has got the best out of education… Without a gentle contempt for education no man’s education is complete.” 

― G.K. Chesterton

Discovering Cicero

My first encounter with the Cicero Corner group at the Harvard Club was riveting!

And it got only better ever after. This was a dedicated group of Manhattan professionals, most of whom had studied Classics at Harvard College. They were natty and tweedy and nerdy. They spent 4 full hours once every week (on a week day) discussing Cicero. We met from 6pm to 10pm, first in the Harvard Club library after which we all dined together in the adjoining dining room. The banter and depth of discussion of Cicero’s Corner went non-stop for four hours.

CiceroCorner

Cicero’s Corner, Harvard Club Library, 35 W 44TH Street, New York

Dum Spiro, spero

(As long as I breathe, I hope).

― Marcus Tullius Cicero

Cicero is such a vast subject so here is an excerpt from Cicero’s Facebook Page:

The Personal life of Marcus Tullius Cicero provided the underpinnings of one of the most significant politicians of the Roman Republic. Cicero, a Roman statesman, lawyer, political theoristphilosopher, and Roman constitutionalist, played a critical role in the transformation of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire. A contemporary of Julius Caesar, Cicero is widely considered one of Rome’s greatest orators and prose stylists.

Cicero is perceived to be one of the most versatile minds of ancient Rome.

He introduced the Romans to the chief schools of Greek philosophy and created a Latin philosophical vocabulary, distinguishing himself as a linguist, translator, and philosopher. An impressive orator and successful lawyer, Cicero probably thought his political career his most important achievement. Today, he is appreciated primarily for his humanism and philosophical and political writings.

cicero-denounces-catiline

Cicero Denounces Catiline, painting by Cesare Maccari (1889)

Sustainablility

The word sustainability is bandied about a lot these days. It has so many related meanings. My sense is that one simple dimension of this word is that it is “something that lasts”. Something that endures. If we can agree that this is true then I would say that the writings of Cicero are a sustainable resource. A resource that endures. Especially when you consider that Marcus Tullius Cicero lived from 106 to 43 BC. That is a long, long, long, long time ago.

Non nobis solum nati sumus.

(Not for ourselves alone are we born.)

― Marcus Tullius Cicero

Mrs Katherine Day’s husband Clarence is known for an enduring quote – it is on his Wikipedia page. This quote says as much about Cicero as about books:

“The world of books is the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else that he builds ever lasts. Monuments fall, nations perish, civilizations grow old and die out; and, after an era of darkness, new races build others. But in the world of books are volumes that have seen this happen again and again, and yet live on, still young, still as fresh as the day they were written, still telling men’s hearts of the hearts of men centuries dead.”

 

Clarence Day (1874-1935)