Friday 30 October 2009

The Wisdom of Hawker's Pot #1

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, so do be careful.

Crashaw's Diary (part v)

The story so far: Philip Crashaw is the Curate to the Rev. Arthur Jenkins in a Country Parish in Dorset. The year is 1870.

Saturday, 29th October
A great expedition to view the prospect from B--- Knoll, in the company of Mrs Jenkins, Frank, and the Misses Milligan. On the way back we passed the vicarage at S----, with its elm-shaded garden and ancient yew hedges. Our day of walking had relaxed our spirits somewhat and I said to Miss Milligan that I hoped that one day I would live in a vicarage just such as that. There is something about Miss Milligan’s brown eyes and her direct open manner that encourages one to share one’s thoughts. It must have seemed like presumption on my part, however, because she gave me a meaning look and replied, quite shortly, “Yes, no doubt it is a favourite reverie of yours.”

But – oh Lord! – how foolish I am! It is only now, in writing it down that I realise she was making a joke. How dull I must have appeared! The rest of the journey passed in silence, while Miss Milligan darted occasional reproving glances at me.

Wednesday 21 October 2009

Researchers at the School of Botanical Theology have proved that the serpent knew exactly what he was doing when he persuaded Eve to taste the apple, that he explicitly intended to bring death into the world (to Eve and all her descendants), and that it was a clear case of malus aforethought.*
*Malus domestica: apple
Malus malus: bad apple
Malleus Maleficarum: Vatican guide to apple-bobbing

Thursday 15 October 2009

L’Esprit d’Escalier



Stairtrek: The Older Generation

These are the voyages of the Stairship Enterprise: Its five year mission: To boldly go where no man has gone before, one step at a time.

Captain’s log, Stairdate 4523.3. The crew continue to complain about how many stairs there are on this ship. “None of us are getting any younger”, they say. “And it’s hell on the hips and knees”. In the afternoon we received a Mayday call from Mr Scott and Mr Spock. They were stuck on the seventh staircase, intermediate flight, fifteenth step, to Poop Hatch Deck 9, deferred. “For heaven’s sake,” said Mr Scott, when they were brought in, “it’s the 23rd century. You’d have thought they’d have come up with something better than stairs by now!” “It is my belief,” interjected Mr Spock, “that some of these staircases lead nowhere at all. Who designed this spaceship anyway? ...

Doris Day in a Piranesi prison. She does not care that she must spend her days among wretches dressed in rags, among awful engines, dreadful abutments, pulleys, beams, levers, chains – and oh! those endless staircases. No, with her unwearying fatalism, she climbs those never-ending stairs, and as she trudges she sings: Carceri, -ceri.

(Excuse my flights of fancy.)

The Human Condition

From starry-eyed youth to stary-eyed madman, 'tis but a short distance.

Going out or staying in? he wondered.
The shimmering carpet of stars vs. the stair carpet,
The mysterious starlight vs. the stairlight.


The Stannah Starlift

The moon landing.

Monday 12 October 2009

The Casebook of Carstairs, the Ghost Finder (part i)

Of course, I had come across such manifestations of evil before. How could I forget the case of the Whispering Voice? That little voice in the darkness, as cold and horrible as the grave, that whispered endless “What do you get?” jokes. “What do you get if you cross a sheep with a kangaroo?” “What do you get if you cross a cat with a parrot?” Any person who spent the night in the room was found the next morning to be incurably insane. I quickly discovered that the normal spiritual defences were to no avail. When I made the sign of the cross, it laughed horribly and said: “What do you get if you cross yourself?”. I gritted my teeth and replied: “The reasons I cross myself are different from the ones you suppose.” “Tell me,” demanded the tiny voice, as icy as the polar wastes. “No,” I said, “for then we should be talking at cross-purposes.” There was an awful sobbing in the dark. Then and there I took my opportunity and cursed the spirit back to hell.

But this was the worst manifestation I had seen, in all my born days. In the dusty passage from the charnel vault, a dreadful Pun was forming. I stopped by the partly open door through which I had meant to thrust myself and watched, gripped with terror, as the Pun -- horrible, homonymic, inimical to good sense -- began to manifest itself. I can hardly express it – as I stared, paralysed with fear, two separate meanings seemed to move minutely closer together. And, as is the wont of these awful eldritch entities, they threatened at any moment to mingle their senses into one uncanny form, and create a Contradiction, or a double-entendre, or, worst of all, a Nonsense.

And yet, as the two meanings drew ever closer together, Time and Space were weirdly altered – Space became Time, if you like! – and down the gloomy subterranean corridor, like the vista of a thousand silent years, I could make out the actual body of the Joke approaching. For as the two meanings had drawn closer together, their electrical current had animated the most ancient charnel dust into the actual form the Joke would take. And as I saw this ancient stumbling form of horror approaching the very door next to which I stood, it came to me where I had heard tell of that Joke before. It was surely in the arcane volume of Opie and Opie, amidst the descriptions of weird chants and many-centuried rituals*. And then, just as this ancient creature reached the partly open door, I knew what I had to do. I said:

“You might make a joke on that -- something about ‘ajar’ and ‘a jar’, you know.”
The Pun stopped. Its mouth gaped open. It said:
“I ... er ... er ...”

Now, fatally robbed of its strength, the Pun was irresistibly drawn backwards down the drear vaulted corridor, down the empty whispering millennia, back to its original resting place among dust and bones, as the two un-connected meanings of “ajar” drew apart and wilted on the ancient paving. I muttered the solemn words of the Sealing Ceremony and made the accompanying magic passes. And it was then that my nerves gave out, and my whole being shook, for I knew I had been in the presence of one of the Old Ones.

* Opie and Opie, The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (1959)

Sunday 4 October 2009

Death of Sardineapalus

(after the painting by Delacroix, based on a piece of Romantic writhing by George Gordon, Lord Byron.)

Thursday 1 October 2009


In his autobiographical work, The Prelude, William Wordsworth describes how, as a boy, he one night stole a shepherd’s boat and rowed it out into the middle of a lake. Above his point of departure there rose “a rocky steep” and it was upon the top of this cliff – beyond which “Was nothing but the stars and the grey sky” – that Wordsworth fixed his view as he pulled on the oars. Wordsworth rowed on, congratulating himself on his technique ...

... When from behind that craggy Steep, till then
The bound of the horizon, a huge Cliff,
As if with voluntary power instinct,
Upreared its head. I struck and struck again,
And growing still in stature, the huge Cliff
Rose up between me and the stars, and still,
With measured motion, like a living thing,
Strode after me.

Wordsworth writes that this spectacle affected his mind for many days, creating in it a sense of “solitude ... [and] blank desertion” and dark visions of “mighty forms that do not live Like living men”. I don’t know why I mention it, except that attention is often drawn to Wordsworth’s use of the double negative, but this is the poet’s only use of a double bluff.