Today in History: May 11

At the end of a long printed scroll—16 feet—that was found in China in the early 20th Century sits an inscription declaring something about the origins of the scroll: It was “reverently made for universal free distribution by Wang Jie on behalf of his two parents on the 13th of the 4th moon of the 9th year of Xiantong.”

Scholars know when the 4th moon of the 9th year of the Xiantong era was, and they know on what day the 13th fell in that 4th moon: it was May 11 (today) of the year 868 A.D. The Diamond Sūtra, a woodblock-printed Buddhist manuscript that unspools from a bound side, was found by Sir Marc Aurel Stein in an expedition in 1907. It is the oldest printed book that carries a date on it. It is 1148 years old today. (Photo at top.)

The Diamond Sūtra now sits in the British Library.

* * * *

“We cannot tell the precise moment when friendship is formed. As in filling a vessel drop by drop, there is at last a drop which makes it run over; so in a series of kindnesses there is at last one which makes the heart run over.”—James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.

I remember our first conversation: it was on the phone. (Muffled sounds) years ago. I remember meeting her in person a year later. Many unique adventures followed: there was this help wanted ad that she or I responded to in 1991 but she and I went together only to find that the person who placed the ad seemed to have done so only in a search for new friends; there was a motel in Vermont that we were not entirely convinced was being operated by the people who owned the place—could someone break into an abandoned motel and figure out how to light the road sign, suss out which keys go where, turn on the ice machines, and then do business for a night? We did not get a receipt that weekend. There were other adventures.

Carrie has been more loyal to me than I deserved or deserve. She is, in no order, a scholar, a college teacher, a loyal friend, a beauty, a single mom whose son—now somehow 18 and through the special effect that some people call “Time,” a college freshman—reads this web site, perhaps to spite his mom. Today is Carrie’s birthday.

Perhaps the best thing one can feel about one’s friends is the desire to tell everyone you meet, “You ought to know this friend of mine,” or “I hope you can meet my friend” about them. Even better than that, I suppose, is telling your friends that you think of them in this way. I am grateful that this is a familiar feeling in my life. You ought to know Carrie.

* * * *
Cats, the musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, debuted at the New London Theatre in London’s West End on this date 35 years ago. Baron Lloyd Webber remembered with fondness from childhood the minor book of poems Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by the major poet T.S. Eliot and decided to develop a musical around the poems.

While working on the music, he had some of the songs performed for Eliot’s widow, Valerie, who gave her approval for the project; Eliot’s estate, however, added a stipulation: only Eliot’s poems could be used. There was to be no outside script, no external plot. And so there was not.

One song, the most famous from the musical, “Memory,” is the exception: the lyric is by Trevor Nunn, but he credits a 1917 Eliot poem, “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” with inspiring his lyric. That poem opens:

Twelve o’clock.
Along the reaches of the street
Held in a lunar synthesis,
Whispering lunar incantations
Dissolve the floors of memory
And all its clear relations,
Its divisions and precisions,
Every street lamp that I pass
Beats like a fatalistic drum,
And through the spaces of the dark
Midnight shakes the memory
As a madman shakes a dead geranium.

The musical set records for longevity—18 years on Broadway, 21 years in the West End—and ticket sales. Revivals and international tours continue, and a film version is finally being planned. The Eliot estate has benefited financially, no doubt. What might have happened had Valerie Eliot said no?

* * * *
The only British prime minister to have been assassinated is Spencer Perceval, who was shot and killed on this date in 1812. A lone gunman, John Bellingham, shot him at point-blank range; Belligham was convinced (insanely) that Perceval had something to do with Bellingham’s business troubles.

Bob Marley died 35 years ago today. “Redemption Song,” acoustic:

Douglas Adams died 15 years ago today.

Floyd Patterson died ten years ago today. For many years, he lived in the town I was living in: New Paltz, NY. I met him twice: once at a literary event with Gay and Nan Talese, and once at the local grocery store. The Shop Rite in New Paltz is small for a chain grocery store, with the narrow aisles of a store built when it was constructed in the 1970s. I recognized Patterson immediately, who was still in his 50s then, and my next thought was: I am taller than a former heavyweight boxing champion of the world. (I am six foot; he was five eleven.) He saw I had fewer items in my cart than he had (he appeared to be doing the shopping for the training camp he ran outside town and was pushing a cart so full that I would not have been strong enough to push it in a straight line with a running start, much less turn it around the tight corners in our small grocery store), so he let me go ahead of him at the checkout. He offered a hand for me to shake, too, and I learned that even though I have large hands, one of mine could not encompass his. The heavyweight champion had some big mitts for hands.

* * * *
Irving Berlin was born on this date in 1888. Here he sings his song “God Bless America” on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1968, a few days shy of his 80th birthday; it is, I believe, one of his last public appearances, even though he lived to age 101 when he died in 1989:

(Of all the performances of that song, this one, by its composer, may be the most affecting.)

Salvador Dalí was born on this date in 1904.

Phil Silvers was born on this date in 1911. Foster Brooks was born on this date in 1912. Camilo José Cela was born 100 years ago today.

* * * *
Mort Sahl is 89 today. He still performs stand-up each week at a theater in Mill Valley, CA. Jeremy Paxman is 66. Mike Lupica is 64. Martha Quinn is 57 today. Laetitia Casta is 38 today.

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