Elmo

Saint Elmo’s fire, like Saint Vitus Dance, is a natural phenomenon, named after the Italian saint Erasmus. Apparently the patron saint of both sailors and abdominal disorders—I’m not completely sure what the two have in common, except insofar as sailors might well have pooped their pants at the sight of a pirate ship or when tossed around in raging seas.

“Soldier,” he murmured, “I’ve just come from below. Não cheira. The water, it doesn’t smell anymore …”
Some of the other men looked blank. Álvaro dragged himself up.
“Merda! Tell the master. Quick! We’re shipping water, lots of water.”
Just then the dreaded shout came from above. “Água aberta! Open water!”
The São Pantaleão had two bilge pumps, on the starboard and port sides, fixed to the keel on either side of the mainmast housing. The pumps were manned at every watch; all wooden ships leak. The water in the hold was a permanent stench, with food remains, human excrement, and all forms of waste, dead rats, and roaches. The bilge water ran off the top deck into the sea from the pump outlet pipes, and now it was coming out clear and fresh.
The meaning of the fresh water dawned on the new men, fear sinking their hearts. “Avé Maria, Cheia de Graça.” The Hail Mary’s had started. “We’re all going to drown!”

This India Road snippet from Bartolomeu Dias’ trip round the Cape of Good Hope, sailing fifty tonners, provides a paradox: when the hold stopped smelling of shit, the mariners shit themselves, knowing there was a massive leak in the hull.

St. Vitus, on the other hand, is the patron saint of dancers, and gave his name to the disease now known as Sydenham’s chorea—χορεία means dance, and the affliction, more common in girls than boys, originates from a bacterial infection.

Both saints lived around the third century A.D., in a period when the Roman emperors were hell-bent on persecuting Christians. These unbelievers in Venus and Mars, the planetary gods, preached a doctrine of love, and told of a master greater than Caesar himself.

Martyrdom was the destiny of these apostates of Rome, eerily reminiscent of the Islamic martyrs of today—the distinction, as I see it, is that those saints of yore didn’t want to die, they were killed, whereas the lunatics of today commit suicide.

Saint Erasmus, Santelmo in Portuguese, patron of boats and bowels, was martyred by Maximian for preaching the gospel.

His teeth were … plucked out of his head with iron pincers. And after that they bound him to a pillar and carded his skin with iron cards, and then they roasted him upon a gridiron…and did smite sharp nails of iron in his fingers, and after, they put out his eyes of his head with their fingers, and after that they laid this holy bishop upon the ground naked and stretched him with strong withes bound to horses about his blessed neck, arms, and legs, so that all his veins and sinews that he had in his body burst.

Maximian probably tweeted ‘don’t fuck with the Romans!’

The death of another elmo, the writer Elmore Leonard, occurred a couple of weeks ago. Mr. Leonard’s books were wonderful, and are not particulary well-known outside the U.S. and perhaps the U.K. But if I say Jackie Brown, or Get Shorty, you might immediately go “Oh, that was him?” Likewise if you ever saw the TV soap Justified.

Leonard was famous for characters such as Maximum Bob, the heavy-handed Florida judge. He also wrote books consisting almost entirely of dialog, and was a specialist in economy with words. Both are an art form. Like the great bluesman Albert King, he was the master of the few but searing licks.

Elmore Leonard, a great writer who hated literature.

Elmore Leonard, a great writer who hated literature. 24th August 2013.

It’s impossible to bring up this Elmore wthout mourning another great Elmore, this one called James. Funny how this is turning into an elmo epitaph, and that both Elmores had surnames that were given names. If you write under a pseudonym, it’s cool to have an easy name and wierd one—John Le Carré comes to mind.

The earlier Elmore was a master of slide guitar, and wrote many songs that were subsequently made famous by other artists. Happens all the time: the Australian Olivia Newton-John, famous for her role in Grease, made this a smash hit in the early 1970s. Who’d have thought it was written by this scarred old warhorse? And in another wow moment, who’d have thought Ms. Newton-John was the granddaughter of the German Nobel Prize winner Max Born, one of the fathers of quantum mechanics?

The elmo serendipity increases when you read Born’s biography—obviously a brilliant man, Born was half-Jewish, so in the nineteen thirties he went to Britain to escape Nazism. After a spell in Cambridge, he worked at the University of Edinburgh, where he had a German assistant called Klaus Fuchs—a man later convicted by the British of espionage for the Soviets, and one of the contributors to the atomic weapons program of the U.S.S.R. In Britain, he served nine years of a fourteen year jail sentence—in the U.S. he would have been executed.

There’s a bizarre twist to all this, since Fuchs worked in the U.S. on the Manhattan Project, and with Feynman at Los Alamos—despite being a member of the German Communist Party in the nineteen thirties, and nicknamed rotfuchs (red fox). I guess project Echelon would have stopped all that. Or not. It didn’t stop Edward Snowden.

Some time after I began writing in earnest I bought a book by Elmore Leonard: it’s called the ten rules of writing. It’s one of the shortest books I ever purchased, and initially I felt cheated. I don’t any more—these are great rules, and he also mentions Steinbeck, who is one of my all time favorite authors, in the context of a marvelous word—hooptedoodle.

1. Never open a book with weather
2. Avoid prologues
3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialog
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”
5. Keep your exclamation points under control
6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose”
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip

So here they are, Elmore’s ten commandments. Set in stone.

Mr. Leonard’s best rule is the one that sums up all ten:

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

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