On croquet, a game of strategy, grace, humiliation and malice. Mere football cannot compare.

By Dr. Jeffrey Lant

Author’s program note. Friend, I suspect you are not up on the all-important words and necessary phrases from the world of croquet. That is scandalous, of course, and you should be ashamed of yourself for the dereliction. Fortunately it can be remedied at once by going to the always helpful Wikipedia, where you’ll find an admirable glossary. Go now… and while you’re there be sure to find the original score for the quirky film “Heathers.” (1989). Why?

Because those ever inventive jeunes femmes fatales invent a game (so clever, don’t you know) called “strip croquet”. You won’t play it in your neighborhood; your crusty neighbors would be scandalized… but I can play it in mine, because I live in Cambridge… where beautiful young people abound, glorious to look at but without the sense they were born with. They’d love the inspired innovation. Play the theme music right away. It will put you in just the right frame of mind for this scrutiny of one of the most conspiratorial and vengeful games on earth and where (on the pretext of helping another player with her grip) you can snuggle up without demur…

Lord Reggie learns the power of croquet…

Lord Reggie Pasworthy was in despair. This 7th impecunious son of the impecunious 17th marquess of Unworthington had heard, always on the very best authority, that Lady Pamela Noacres had cast sheep eyes at…… but that couldn’t possibly be… for she was… his… and had once nearly said so. She couldn’t…… she wouldn’t. But it appears she might.

What could he do?

He applied at once to Basil Uppercrust, who knew all but said nothing, so admirably discrete, so clever Basil. “Freddie, old chum, you need to do only one thing to be right as rain with the gel… ” Then he whispered just one word……

“Croquet”…. and immediately wrote his cousin the duchess to arrange a week-end where Lord Freddie might shine amongst the wickets, his admirable figure displayed to best advantage.

Though it has been many years now since that week-end at Castle Allworthy not a thing about it has been forgotten. How Lord Freddie confounded Lady Pamela’s advance with a ball-in-hand.

How Lady Pamela distracted him by proposing a double-bank with her grace. (He won that, too.)

How it all came down to the final hoop… and that unforgettable moment when Lord Freddie took control, determined, insistent, a gentleman no longer but a beast, my dear, I tell you a beast…. Lady Pamela’s temperature rose from tepid to scalding… from polite interest to… riveted… while Freddie ran the hoops until he completed that glorious sextuple peel to roquet her ball spinning down the verdant acres… and when the gallant victor offered his lavendered handkerchief, her fate was sealed…

The engagement was announced in the “Morning Post” just today.

The plight of the World Croquet Association.

Pity the situation and plight of these admirable folks and their invaluable efforts on behalf of croquet. They want us to see croquet in the benign light of demos and beer…. when most of us enjoy the game because of its unabashed elitist, aristocratic nuances played out with insouciance and fine champagne on the most perfect grass we have ever seen, the result of hundreds of years of arrogance and care.

A brief history of croquet.

Ask anyone (anyone, that is, of any intelligence and discernment whatsoever) just where croquet was invented… and, without missing a beat — they’d tell you “Why, old man, in Jolly Old England, what.” And, of course, they’d be wrong… and, such are the ways of croquet, they’d also be right.

Croquet scholars (fastidious and accurate) will tell you the rules of the modern game arrived from Ireland during the 1850s, perhaps coming from Brittany, where a similar game was played on the beaches. A game called “crookey” was played at Castlebellingham in 1834 and, in 1835 was played in the bishop’s palace garden; later that year it was played in the genteel Dublin suburb then called Kingstowne (now Dun Laoghaire) where it was first spelled as “croquet.” There is, however, no pre-1858 Irish document that describes the way the game was played… but the Irish don’t care about such details. They claim croquet and that is that…

…but, of course, that most assuredly is not that, especially if you are of the English ilk, and damn their cheeky assertion.

In the book “Queen of Games: The History of Croquet,” author Nicky Smith offers another hypothesis. Smith says that the game was introduced to Britain from France during the reign of Charles II of England, and was played under the name of paille maille or pall mall, derived ultimately from the Latin words for “ball and mallet.” This is what the “Encyclopedia Britannica” wrote in 1877. But of course the xenophobic Britannica would say so, wouldn’t they?

But at last there is documentary evidence that confirms English inventiveness and croquet paternity. Isaac Spratt is the champion. He created the oldest document known to bear the word “croquet”. He wrote a description of the modern game of croquet and the first set of rules and regulations of a game which became ever more esoteric, obscure, arcane. Just the way the players like it!

Spratt’s contribution came in November, 1856 when he filed his document with the Stationers’ Company in London. It is now in the English Public Records Office. In 1868 the first croquet all-comers’ meeting was held at Morton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire and in the same year the All England Croquet Club was formed at Wimbleton, London. There was absolutely nothing democratic about any of it, and one would have drunk beer, instead of a stirrup cup, at one’s considerable peril.

This result, however, was unacceptable to Ellery McClatchy, dead at 86, in September, 2011 at his home in Pope Valley, California.

If you live in Northern California and are even remotely with it, you will recognize at once the surname, for there (and amongst the politically sentient) it is a household name because of their substantial newspaper properties, not least the major paper in Sacramento, the Bee. As you may imagine, to have such a property, such a position in the largest state in the Great Republic is to have financial resources… and the time and ability to pursue your particular interests. In this case… croquet.

McClatchy was, and this is crucial to the case, an all-American boy; thus he disdained the exclusivities of old regimes everywhere. He had a “desire to make croquet available to people of all ages and to see croquet lawns in a great variety of places,” according to a profile on the US Croquet Association website. He pursued this inclusive objective over the many years he was a ranked croquet player and in 1995 when he was inducted into the US Croquet Hall of Fame.

While we all think highly of his years of effort, democratic (or republican) croquet is not what any of us desires. Which is why our favorite croquet match ever is the one overseen by the Queen of Hearts in Lewis Carroll’s immortal book “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). The balls are live hedge hogs and the mallets are opinionated flamingoes. It is curious, odd, unconventional, the best way to play this marvelous game which puts dull baseball and interminable football in their places. I say “off with their heads” to any with the reckless temerity to gainsay me.

How one man — known to history as ‘Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne’ — lost his majesty’s empire and gave victory to the rebellious Americans. An astonishing tale.

By Dr. Jeffrey Lant

Author’s program note. “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne loved the pomp and circumstance of war. That is very apparent from one of the greatest “swagger” portraits ever painted. It is the masterpiece of Sir Joshua Reynolds, who captured if not the man, then the way the man wished others to see him. To Burgoyne we may guess, even if we have no record to confirm, that that pomp and circumstance include just the right martial music. That it stir the blood, quicken the step, and motivate every heart to — victory, for King and Old England.

As the tale of the Gentleman demands, only the renowned music of the celebrated “March of the British Grenadiers” would do. Burgoyne would have known it well. Once you’ve found it in any search engine, play it… more than once. Unless there is water in your tired veins, you will instantly feel its power… and you will understand the loyal soldiers of the monarch stood tall and moved so well as they marched to their fate. And so “Gentleman Johnny” marched to his…

Find the man in the myth.

On his deathbed, August 4, 1792, I suspect the expiring Gentleman would have known (and would surely have rued) the fate and reputation impressed on him. He knew he would be, thanks in large part to the unfortunate sobriquet he once found so stylish, considered a popinjay, vainglorious, interested in the trifles of war, not its often deadly essentials. In short, the classic situation of a man fatefully over his head. It is a situation common in history, often bringing about the most serious consequences and world-changing realities. The question we must ask ourselves is this: does such an evaluation do justice to the man? For history must not be merely (as Voltaire said) a pack of tricks we living play on the dead. It must strive to be just, honest, truth-telling, not truth-manipulating.

Facts about John Burgoyne, born 24 February, 1722.

Right from the start, fate seemed to be playing games with Burgoyne. He was born in Sutton, Bedfordshire, into a county family with the required Baronet at its head. His mother was Anna Maria Burgoyne, daughter of a wealthy merchant. His father… but there’s the rub. The story line might have been taken from “The History of Tom Jones, foundling,” written by Henry Fieldilng in 1749.

Burgoyne’s father was (legally) Captain John Burgoyne; in actual fact, it may have been milord Bingley, who served as his godfather. When his lordship died in 1731, his will specified that Burgoyne was to inherit his estate if his daughters had no male issue. Thus did the young Burgoyne find himself treated like a likely lad with great expectations… but no certainties. Charles Dickens wrote a classic on this predicament which wrecked havoc in many lives.

Burgoyne, like many future officers, was sent to Westminster School. There handsome, athletic, high spirited, gifted with the ability to make friends and to lead boys, he flourished. Perhaps, like many such, he peaked there; it is a common enough tragedy. But at the time things seemed very different… and he made many friends, including Thomas Gage and Lord James Strange. What he needed was money…. a career… and more money, in just that order.

With family help, in August, 1737 he purchased a commission (the usual way of getting one) in the Horse Guards, a very fashionable and very expensive regiment composed of just the kind of people he had spent his life around. His duties were light… the life congenial, not least because it enabled him to find a rich wife, absolutely necessary to maintain the ostentatious life style he loved, pressingly necessary because of his huge gambling debts, so characteristic of the 18th century, so puzzling to us.

Such a man, of course, beautiful, charming, all genteel condescension and winning plausibility was not to be denied by mere woman, no matter how well connected. Her name was Lady Charlotte Stanley, and she was one of the great catches of her day. Her brother was Burgoyne’s school friend, Lord Strange, the heir to one of England’s grandest and most historic families. Unfortunately, the head of that family, Lord Derby, demanded more than white teeth and insinuating manners. He nixed the marriage, whereupon in 1751 Burgoyne and lady eloped, to parental fury, the end to her allowance… and (unthinkable!) a possible lifetime of just making do. But that wasn’t Burgoyne. And so he used his assets to best advantage… and in due course, the Burgoyne’s produced their only child, Charlotte Elizabeth, in 1754. She was the gambler’s lucky chip he needed to reinstate happy (and remunerative) relations with Lord Derby, who in due course, succumbed to Burgoyne’s undeniable charm. It wasn’t enough, of course, and there was absolutely no glory to be delivered from living off his wife’s rich father.

He went back to the military where freedom from wives and debts was to be found and, to the lucky ones, renown and bright shining fame…

Having acquired an empire, England needed the military establishment to sustain and protect it. Wars, small, middling and international, were the order of the day, most every day. Trained officers like Burgoyne were valued… and their peccadilloes winked at. He was (in the parlance of the day), “honorable and gallant”… the more so as he was also in Parliament from 1768. He was leading the charmed life of a man who had (nearly) everything, including a string of military honors and advancements starting with the British raid on St. Malo (1758) and combating the Spanish invasion of Portugal (1762).

His tryst with America.

Like most professional soldiers of the day, Burgoyne despised the colonials and thought they’d be promptly defeated and put back in their place. Right from the start, at Concord, at Lexington, at Bunker Hill this view was challenged. But it was a prejudice that persisted and was to cost him, and his sovereign, dearly. A temper tantrum by Burgoyne in 1775, when he fulminated against the limited opportunities he felt insufficient for his genius might have saved his eternal reputation. He resigned and went home in a huff… but, fatefully, he returned. He thought he had to, since the American theatre was where glory lay… and so it was — but not for him.

And that was because of a place called Saratoga, where Burgoyne’s career of happy mobility ended in 1777 and where the United States of America as a plausible entity began.

Lord George Germain, Secretary of State for the Colonies, had a plan, a clever plan for dividing New England from the rest of the colonies. He would send Burgoyne down the Hudson, General Howe up the Hudson, to rendezvous at Albany and victory. Unfortunately his lordship forgot to tell General Howe, who sat and did nothing while Burgoyne walked into a trap he thought mere colonials could never execute. Too late he discovered American grit, learning to his chagrin that even rebellious Britons are Britons still and that “Britons never, never shall be slaves,” surrendering his entire army of 5000 and the fate of British North America. Lord George Germain, too powerful and well placed for blame, made sure Burgoyne was the culprit and never held another active command,, while his lordship got the chance to muddle again — this time at Yorktown in 1781 — where he got another, final chance to destroy the jewel in the crown.

Burgoyne spent the remainder of his life rethinking what had happened and in writing plays… but none of his dramatic endeavors were as compelling as the plot of his own life.

How one man’s disgust and dedication helped Ghana eradicate the guinea worm disease.

By Dr. Jeffrey Lant

Author’s program note. When I did the search the other day for music with worms in the title I wasn’t terribly optimistic. But my fears were baseless. Right away I found just the perfect accompaniment to this article. It’s the music used in a popular video game called “Worms” from a company called Team17. Their theme song is a soaring, powerful piece of music juiced up for an episode called “Worms Armageddon”, and it rocks.

First, let’s start with the dictionary definition of “Armageddon”: the site or time of a final and conclusive battle between the forces of good and evil.

To confuse you, I must point out that in the game the worms are the heroes; in this article they most assuredly are not. So, “Worms Armageddon” takes on an entirely new meaning here. And when in the tune the lyrics say “the worms battled on, through hunger and pain. Living to fight just to victor again”, you will understand that for Team17 that is a good thing… but not for the sufferers of the guinea worm disease.

Now… to get started search for “Worms Armageddon”. You’ll find it in any search engine. And get ready for a story of the sustained battle and final end of this dread disease…

It all started 23 years ago, when our most useful ex-president, Jimmy Carter, saw something in Ghana which almost made him puke. There in front of him was a young woman… and from her breast one inch after another of a guinea worm was emerging. Carter was horrified! Disgusted! Without having to think twice, out of his revulsion came an immediate pledge. He promised to eradicate the disease within 10 years. And so “worms armageddon” well and truly began.

Dracunculiasis

The disease is Dracunculiasis, also known as guinea worm disease. It is a parasitic infection caused by a long and very thin nematode (roundworm). The infection begins when a person drinks stagnant water contaminated with copepods infested by the larvae of the guinea worm. Approximately one year later, the disease presents a painful, burning sensation as the worm forms a blister, usually on the lower limb.

Known since the 2nd century BC. The guinea worm has been known since the 2nd century BC from Greek chronicles. It is also mentioned in the Egyptian medical Ebers Papyrus, dating back to 1550 BC. The name dracunculiasis is derived from the Latin “affliction with little dragons”, while the common name “guinea worm” appeared after Europeans saw the disease on the Guinea coast of West Africa in the 17th century.

As the worm moves downwards, usually to the lower leg, through the subcutaneous tissues it leads to immense pain localized to its path of travel. The painful, burning sensation has led to the disease being called “the fiery serpent”. Other symptoms include fever, nausea, and vomiting.

The world knew and did nothing, private citizen Jimmy Carter acted.

Jimmy Carter was president of the United States for one term (1976-1980). He left office ridiculed and reviled, an angry, bitter man. And so it might have remained… but somewhere along the line, Carter had an “aha!” moment… that he could do untold good for untold millions using his status, contacts, and brains. And thus by patient application emerge as a great humanitarian, finally securing the good opinion, perhaps even the love of the nation. The means he chose was not a presidential library; that concept he concluded is far too passive and removed from service. Instead he created an activist entity called The Carter Center.

The Carter Center.

The Carter Center is a nongovernmental, not-for-profit organization founded in 1982 by Carter and his wife Rosalynn Carter. In partnership with Emory University, The Carter Center works to advance human rights and alleviate human suffering. The Center is governed by a Board of Trustees, consisting of many prominent business persons, educators, former government officials, and eminent philanthropists. The Atlanta-based center has helped to improve the quality of life for people in more than 70 countries. The eradication of the guinea worm in Ghana is just the latest feather in its cap.

The idea, the will, the dedication.

Every triumph of mankind has begun in the mind of a single person, a person who looked, as perhaps many people have done before, but this time not only sees but resolves to tackle the problem… and by slow and steady stages solve it.

Jimmy Carter was that person… to the consternation of the guinea worm.

Carter learned that clean, safe drinking water systems were the key to the problem’s solution. And he knew that with hard work, political commitment, and the support of the international community he could deliver that. And so, out of personal revulsion, came patient action…

The situation when Carter made his commitment.

In 1986, 20 countries, 17 in Africa alone with India, Pakistan and Yemen, reported a total of 3.5 million cases a year. 3.5 million people acting as hosts for the fast reproducing guinea worm whose female burrows into the deep connective tissue and leaves multitudes of larvae soon to start their excruciating feast on the terror stricken victims, principally women and children.

Clean water, the key.

Guinea worm disease can only be transmitted by drinking contaminated water, and can be completely prevented through relatively simple measures that could result in complete disease eradication. These measures include

1) Drinking solely water drawn from underground sources free from contamination, such as borehole or hand-dug wells.

2) Filtering drinking water, using a fine-mesh cloth filter like nylon, to remove the guinea worm crustaceans.

3) Preventing people with emerging guinea worm from entering ponds and wells used for drinking water.

4) Developing new sources of drinking water that lack the parasites or repairing dysfunctional ones.

And so Jimmy Carter, touched and outraged by what he saw on his trip to Africa in 1988 seized the initiative, creating an international network that spelled doom for the guinea worm and relief for hitherto suffering, ignored victims.

It took more than 10 years… more than twice that long. But the work, prodded by an insistent Carter, never flagged as he made it clear to dictators and insouciant presidents of ramshackle republics that enough was enough and that their afflicted people needed action… and not insufferable indifference. Thus year by year the number of reported cases dropped… until just the other day, victory was declared in Ghana where, at the start of this project, the guinea worm and its fiery pains were endemic.

A model for victory.

The guinea worm persists, of course, but in victorious Ghana, water filters, a mild pesticide that kills the carrier in water holes and a persistent education effort that keeps villagers out of infected waters has paid off and provides the world with a model. Including a model of leadership by a man whose greatness derives not from the great office he held.. but his unflagging efforts for human improvement. And let us never forget in this unremitting fight the now 86-year-old Carter has always been accompanied by his lady, Rosalynn who sustains and comforts him through this and every other battle of his life. “So fight with their honour, and fight until the end”.

Ex Libris. A new day dawns for books and we bibliophiles are sad, resigned.

By Dr. Jeffrey Lant

Author’s program note. This is an article about books and the people who love them…. people who are seeing what they love so much undergoing the most profound changes, challenges right before their eyes. Books, in all their glories, were we were sure as much a verity for us as for our grandparents. The only thing that could take them away from us was the kind of thought control dictatorship so convincingly drawn in “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury (1953).

But now, for us, it is not some menacing autocracy that threatens books… it is the very Internet you are using now. And so I went in search of a perfect sound for this article and while I was looking I remembered the superb musical theme when “Anne of Green Gables” and “Anne of Avonlea” made a most memorable television event. The touch- your-heart music was composed by Hugh Hagood Hardy, and you can find it in any search engine. Go find it now… and allow the music to create the perfect background for this article.

Anne was (as all bibliophiles, and some others, know) a reader of books, a collector of books, a writer of books. And now her theme garlands an article about the dwindling future of books. Anne would be distressed by this development and would wax eloquent, that “Something must be done.” Thus she would stand ready to mobilize her fellow kindred-spirits, but to what end, for what purpose: because we should do it, she’d say, because it is the right thing to do, because to go down fighting for a thing so important is just what bibliophiles should be doing.

From as early as I can remember…

I am the kind of person books were invented for. I love everything about them and always have. I love them in paper backs which can be spilled on and written in with impunity. I love them with tooled leather covers with seigneurial coats of arms and the mottos of kings and noble princes. I love textbooks… I love olde books… I love new books (but the pas goes to the olde).. I love the way they smell… I love the ways they pile up… and, so high, then fall down to litter the floor.

I love them when I can easily find them… and when, determined, I cannot.

I love the kinds of paper they’re printed on… I love the names of the companies which have published them… and most of all I not only love but venerate all the authors who have written them and, in their way, advanced and preserved knowledge (and ignorance) for future generations as yet unimagined.

As such whatever threatens books, threatens me, the life and pleasures I have known and wished to know forever, the purposes they were written for, and the utmost feeling of total satisfaction one gets on an early day in springtime sitting under a newly budded tree lost in a world conveyed between two covers and opening just for you.

Book stories…

When I was a boy in 1950s Illinois, mine was a house of books. All the denizens of 4906 Woodward Avenue (requisite two parents and three offspring) were book readers, book collectors, and (to a person) scribblers of profound thoughts and declarations running wildly in the margins. I know to this day, 60 years on, just what books they were; my mother fancied Carl Sandberg and Anne Morrow Lindbergh. My father liked Edgar Cayce, Napoleon Hill, and the Good Book. And the children had boxes full of books, each a “favorite” for a time, only to be replaced by the next, but never forgotten or (don’t even ask) loaned to anyone.

Our village was so small we did not have a good book store. That was a discovery yet to come. For us the annual school book fare took its place. Every year the teachers of the elementary school would arrange for a huge array of books to be shown and sold for the benefit of the school. We ended up “needing” a vast number of these books and had the wheedling of parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles et al down to a science any publisher would have envied. So important the event, I could tell you precisely how the display tables were set up and who came amidst the throng of eager readers. I always walked away with a grand selection of the newest Landmark titles, principally on American history. I read them so often and thoroughly I can quote them today.

“King Arthur and His Knights”.

My favorite book growing up was based on Sir Thomas Mallory’s celebrated tale. Every page spoke to me… and the mere fact one had one hundred times thoroughly and carefully read it did not mean one would forego a hundred and first reading, just in case some small detail had been, no disrespect intended, overlooked. Like my Landmark books I memorized pages and pages… and made a positive fetish of ensuring I knew the name of every noble knight, his pedigree, and the complete details of each of his adventures. Bibliophiles are like that.

It was this book that produced the first great book trouble. My mother, for all that she loved books, thought her eldest child should spend less time inside “nose in a book” in the dismissive parlance of the day and more outside in God’s green acre doing the usual things prairie children did. Thus, on one never-to-be-forgotten day she came to my room, saw me and Sir Thomas Mallory tete-a-tete again and raised a broom, urging me with the utmost clarity and vehemence to go outside… and now! As she pushed me out the door and locked it, she screamed, “Now play!”

She might have known bibliophiles, especially those destined to write as many books and articles as I have, would have had a superb memory. I told this tale at the Parker House in Boston, when my suave and gentlemanly publisher Louis Strick, gave a party in honor of the publication of my first book, “Insubstantial Pageant: Ceremony and Confusion at Queen Victoria’s Court”. She wasn’t pleased but she had to admit the story was true, not ben trovato.

The Childcraft books.

My grandmother was not a great reader, unless you except her unmatched collection of recipes; under other circumstances she might have massaged them into a book. But for all that she was not a great reader… she understood that one of the myriad roles grandmothers play is to foster a love of books. Here she gets full marks, particularly for giving me a complete set of Childcraft books.

In the volume dealing with Boston there was an evocative line drawing, not a photograph, of Beacon Hill. There was that in the picture that made me want to live, not just in a similar place, but in that place. When I was a student at Harvard years later, I set out to find that street and, in due course, resided on it… where in a room with Ivy covered bow window, I joined the company of authors… so proud, so honored, so determined to keep writing and so remain in the best possible standing amidst so many such.

The end of Border’s Books.

All these reflections came to mind the other day when I read in my fast shrinking newspaper The Boston Globe (also being undone by the ‘net) that once proud Borders Books, once a significant chain which often carried my books, was now bankrupt, going out of business, another e-casualty. Life is constant change, old truths and venerable institutions tumble, their places taken by the “cutting edge” which will in due course be demode’ as well. I know all this. But there will be a void in the world now dawning where there are fewer books every day and fewer to rue their passing. But I shall always be one of them. I hope you will, too.