While on this muddled, worm-eaten continent we still keep reading the works of Ernest Hemingway, that wind egg filled with ego, few Europeans have ever heard of an American author of far greater writing skills called Ambrose Bierce. That is a tremendous pity, for Bierce (1842 – 1913?) is one of the most fascinating characters to come from the other side of the Atlantic. From birth to death his life is a long string of anecdotes. He was the 10th of 13 children, all of whom were baptised with a first name starting ‘A’ (imagine the scene if a love letter arrived addressed to A. Bierce!) He was a fine soldier, a splendid journalist, a sometime entrepreneur, and – most praiseworthy of all - an implacable foe of corruption.
Once his newspaper send him to Washington to investigate a scandalous bill which the railroad companies wished to pass in the deepest secret, so that they wouldn’t have to pay back a cent of a 130 million government loan. Fearful that Bierce’s denunciation would torpedo the deal, a railroad magnate offered him a bribe not to publish, with the words: ‘Name your price!’ Bierce answered: ‘My price is 130 million dollars. If I happen to be out of town, you can hand the money to my friend the US Treasurer’.
To end it all in style, Bierce went on a trip to Mexico in 1913 and was never heard of again. It is still a complete mystery what happened to him. Hence my question mark behind the year of his death up above.
As a writer, Bierce possessed the grip of Richard Ford and the wit of Twain. His short stories are gems and his journalism can still be read today, but my favourite book of his remains ‘The Devil’s Dictionary’, a satirical lexicon guaranteed to make you double up twice over every page. Of the Golden Sauce, he has for instance the following to say:
Mayonnaise, n. One of the sauces which serve the French in place of a state religion.
On moral questions we find such beauties as:
Destiny, n. A tyrant's authority for crime and fool's excuse for failure.
And in the realm of statecraft we are treated to telling fairy tales like:
Cabbage, n. A familiar kitchen-garden vegetable about as large and wise as a man's head. The cabbage is so called from Cabagius, a prince who on ascending the throne issued a decree appointing a High Council of Empire consisting of the members of his predecessor's Ministry and the cabbages in the royal garden. When any of his Majesty's measures of state policy miscarried conspicuously it was gravely announced that several members of the High Council had been beheaded, and his murmuring subjects were appeased.
Which, incidentally, may well be the blueprint for the oft announced but never yet realized Democratic Improvements in the EU: a European Commission consisting of Unelected Bureaucrats and a garden plot full of Brussels Sprouts. It will be an improvement...
The future European Commission in Conclave...