Thursday 30 December 2010

The Crisis (3)

It was dear kind Margaret, who had come to my rescue, that cherished companion of my childhood who had grown up to be a paragon of all womanly virtue and sober sense. Our walk led us through the larch plantation on the hill. It was a grey afternoon and the trees in the plantation resisted all interpretation: they were trees, just trees.

“But others have sustained a similar loss of faith,” Margaret said, “and they have gone on to do many great things ...”

“Yes, but they only lost their faith in religion, or in their mission to do right by others, or to sacrifice themselves in some noble cause. Whereas I have lost my faith in Puns! Can you not see the difference?”

Margaret drew her cape around her, and was about to speak. I continued:

“If I had lost my faith in a religion, I could easily replace it with another religion. There are enough to choose from! But to have lost my faith in Puns means I have lost something central to my very existence. For what is language, what are words for, if Puns have no significance?”

“Well,” came the measured voice of Margaret, “perhaps you could use words to describe things as they are.”

I exclaimed in horror.

“Journalism?! Never! The most awful lies and smiling approximations, bearing no relation to the reality they claim to describe -- that’s journalism!”

“Not journalism, necessarily. There are other ways to describe the world: one chooses one’s words carefully, and by finding the best words and setting them down in the best order ...”

“Poetry, Margaret?! Poetry?! All poetry does is to pile one obvious lie upon another, and attempt in their absurd juxtapositions to create an unwieldy impression of truth! Margaret! I despair!”

Margaret was silent a while. “True bravery,” she finally said, “is to try one’s hardest at a task one knows to be impossible, with tools one knows are inadequate. The truly brave man would try to describe the world, because he knows it is important, even while the tools fail in his hands.”

We walked on in silence. My mood was one of bitterness and gall. In addition to the spiritual crisis that threatened to overwhelm me, I now had the bitter knowledge that my oldest friend thought me a coward. Worse still, I had no words to defend myself.

At the edge of the plantation the track came out onto open farmland, that sloped downwards towards our home. From beyond the limestone wall rose up a great sound of bickering and carping and creaking unrest. Approaching, we found the field to be carpeted by a vast congregation of jackdaws and rooks. These strutted among and around each other, as if intent on their own business like tradespeople at a country fair. Ragged like ripped bin bags they were, dark and wet-seeming in the diminishing light of the overcast sky. And all the while the chipped, broken notes of their complaint did not cease.

“Our old friend Corvus,” I said weakly. Margaret smiled at me, and I had no doubt of her all-forgiving heart. Suddenly the jackdaws lifted from the field in a swirling mass, and rose up in the air, with a great clattering, chattering, clacking racket that sounded to me like a whole service of dinner plates sliding from a dresser and smashing on the floor. In that moment it seemed to me that the very words lifted up from dumb reality with the sole intention of making merry, and were set loose for a moment, circling with the jackdaws, and then, along with the jackdaws, returned once more to the dull wet field.

I turned to Margaret. There was something I needed to tell her, something that I could articulate at that moment for the first time, something I feared I had left too late. She regarded me with her level grey eyes, a look of readiness flickering over her face. But, just then, I saw Algernon Swift on the hillside, waving, and making his way very determinedly towards us.

Monday 20 December 2010

The Goats of Christmas Past

The Crisis (2)

It was four o’clock in the afternoon. The Reverend Hawker sat by the cold fireside with his fingers curled around a glass of whisky. Swift flicked matches into the empty grate, each flaring as it fell like Satan falling from Heaven. Hawker swilled the liquid in his glass like the thoughts in his head; drank from the glass; began:

“Puns,” he said, “enjoyed greater status in the past. One need only to read the works of the medieval divines to see how they considered each word at a remove, seeking a double meaning which might reveal the secret purposes of their God.”

“Indeed,” said Algernon Swift, breezily, “was not the Christianisation of our island the result of a pun? And not one pun, but a whole string of puns, by the future Pope Gregory the Great.”

He flicked another match flaring into the fire. Hawker grimaced.

“The point is,” the Reverend said, “no-one thought of slapping their thighs with laughter when the future Pope said ‘Not Angles, but angels. From the province Deiri, but truly de ira, plucked from the wrath of God.’ No-one said: 'That man – who, I have no doubt who will one day occupy the pre-eminent position in the Church of Rome -- he’s a great laugh!’ The pun was seen as a serious indication of a reality beyond the material and the apparent.

“The rise of Humanism put the pun into the service of the individual, as a means of displaying his wit, but still it retained much of its seriousness. In Hamlet ...”

“Or, indeed, the Metaphysical Poets,” said Swift and sent another match blazing towards the grate. “Their careful double meanings do not detract from, but strengthen, their poems, just as the cleverness of their conceits adds to their emotional force ...”

Hawker glared at him. “I wish you’d stop doing that,” he said.

“What? Wasting matches?”

“No. Interrupting.”

Swift closed the box of matches, and placed it squarely on his lap.

“But how the pun’s stock has fallen!” Hawker exclaimed. “And it has become .... what? By the eighteenth century every vestige of seriousness had been lost from it; and in the nineteenth century – oh, horrors! – it had developed into a bit of entertainment suitable for all the family. Worse still, it was reduced into another weapon in the armoury of the Englishman to avoid the embarrassment of looking life in the face! How far we have travelled from Hamlet in the graveyard – ‘quite chopfallen’, indeed! How far we have travelled into triviality ...”

“But, Reverend Hawker,” risked Swift, “what of the great resurgence of the pun in the twentieth century? What of Freud’s work on puns? What of Joyce’s monumental Finnegan’s Wake?”

Hawker waved his hand, dismissively. “Too late, too late. We might as well face facts, Swift: the Pun in this day and age is nothing more than ... just a bit of fun.”

The words had been said. Swift closed his eyes. Hawker stared blackly into the cold grate. The unbearable tension of his being manifested itself in white spots in his grey complexion. I stood up, unnoticed, and left the room.

Half-unseeing, I strayed onto the drive. The setting sun was an orange jewel, peeping out behind lurid scrolls of cloud. How desolate I felt, surveying this grand spectacle of nature! How small my concerns had revealed themselves to be! Puns were merely the result of the arbitrary nature of language. They were not traces of the handiwork of God, not clues to another existence. A mirror reflected and so did I, but that meant nothing. A brake in the forest was the same word as the brake in a car, but there was no significance to it. And to think I had travelled so far, had left my home, had sold my birthright and worked my passage, had worked every passage for double meanings and triple meanings, for strong misreadings, and had reached at last Hawker’s Pot. And there to hear from the mouth of the man himself that puns were just ... No! The words were inestimably bitter! I can say truthfully that the sun that day set also on my hopes and dreams. The earth around me had grown grey. Behind the house the rooks cawed.

Saturday 18 December 2010

Goodbye, Captain Beefheart

The stars are matter,
We’re matter,
But it doesn’t matter.

(Don Van Vliet)

Much saddened by the news of the death yesterday of Don Van Vliet, Captain Beefheart. He was one of our greatest heroes at Hawker’s Pot. At times I thought he had heard the secret sound of the Universe and gave it back to us in words like twisted Bacofoil and music like bits of broken glass, glinting in the late afternoon sun. Good night, dear Captain, and thank you.

Tuesday 14 December 2010

The Crisis (1)

“The search for the earliest puns in this country,” said Reverend Hawker, leaning back in his chair, and revealing on his old clerical shirt a variety of stains – gravy, wine and smudges of cigarette ash -- somewhat resembling a map, “takes us back to the Norman Conquest. From that point on, the Germanic language of the Anglo-Saxons and the Old French of the Normans jostled for space on this island, mingling like the leaping waters of two tributaries at a confluence. Many were the words in French that had the same sounds as words in Anglo-Saxon, and thus puns arose, because these words invariably had different meanings.

“Then, during the Renaissance, many thousands more words were introduced from French, Latin and Greek, making English the language we treasure today, a language unparalleled in its capacity for punning!”

Algernon Swift leaned forward in that intense way of his. “While your theory has the benefits of long age and wide acceptance,” he began, “there is little evidence that it has any relation to the truth. Of course, the situation you describe may have led to some comic misunderstandings during the Middle English period, but ...”

Reverend Hawker raised his hand towards the rebellious Swift. “You would deny that one of the greatest puns in our literature relies on just such a mingling of languages?” And Hawker recited the famous passage from Milton’s Paradise Regained:

“Him thought he by the brook of Cherith stood
And saw the ravens with their horny beaks
Food to Elijah bringing even and morn --
Though ravenous, taught to abstain from what they brought.

“... where ‘raven’ has a different meaning in its French and Old English derivations.”

“I do not deny it,” said Algernon Swift, “but, I tell you, such puns are an exception. I have recently conducted a statistical survey – Reverend Hawker, do not roll your eyes! do not sigh so heavily! -- and, of the puns I studied, over 85% were cases where both words derived from French or Latin roots. The merest fraction combined words derived from the Romance languages with similar-sounding ones of Germanic origin. In fact, those Germanic words were far more likely to pun with other words of Germanic origin ...”

I, meanwhile, put another log on the fire, blew on it, and watched the sparks fly up the chimney. The night was closing in on Hawker’s Pot and I pictured, in my mind’s eye, the black trees in the thickening twilight of the park. Bare, leafless, soon to be lost in darkness, those trees had nothing to do with puns. Nor, I began to suspect for the first time that evening, did the wider world beyond them. I put the thought quickly to the back of my mind and watched the bright fire in the grate. How it crackled and sparked and wheezed! Hawker and Swift talked on.

Friday 10 December 2010

The Smirking Ban

One of the unforeseen consequences of the recent Smirking Ban has been that the streets are now lined with unrepentant smirkers. Every spot out of doors, be it kerbside, bus-stop or handkerchief garden, is now occupied by them, with their little fires of self-complacence smouldering behind their tight smiles. Of course, this is not so much of a problem in the countryside (although it is never pleasant to find a smirker in one’s flowerbed) but the consequences for the big cities could be devastating: the cumulative effect of all those little fires of self-satisfaction could result in a situation not seen since the Great Smug of 1952.