Thursday 15 December 2011

Horse-drawn Vehicle

“That bridle is an infringement of thy liberty, o horse!”

“It is a bit.”

In the meantime, here is a horse-drawn carriage:

(The horse couldn’t get the crayon between his hooves.)

By way of contrast, here is a picture of a carriage drawn by a man:


All of which goes to show that there is a clear difference between a draughtsperson and a drafthorse.

(And that's not even to mention Warhorse, the moving story of a horse conscripted into the Army.)

Wednesday 23 November 2011

Awash with Rhetoric

Algernon Swift visits a political meeting and listens to a soapbox Demosthenes warn of the dangers and trials to come. The orator proclaims:

“Only the most steadfast will hold their ground!

“Only the most die-hard will not surrender!”

Algernon Swift cannot contain himself and shouts out:

“Only the most dye-fast will not change their colours!”

and is surprised to find himself hoisted on shoulders and surrounded by applause.

Wednesday 16 November 2011

The Hawker's Pot Song

It is the wintry time of year.
The hawker’s pot is cold and bare.
The hawker walks his doleful walk.
He hawks his wares, but where’s his hawk?

Things as they are, stay as they are
It is the wintry time of year.
The wind blows through the wintry ranges
Trees just stand there. Nothing changes.

The hawker walks the midnight track.
From out his mouth he makes a crack!
The crack of light lights up the dark,
It brightly burns and twists and sparks!

The path is lit, the ash trees twig,
The oak trees bark, the badgers dig,
The barn owls hoot, the green wood talks
As gay as larks, as wild as hawks.

Up on the downs the hawker walks;
The sheep look up, as gay as hawks.
He swiftly treads the upland down,
The downland up, the downland down.

Then to the church he takes his way.
The dead sit up to have their say.
The dead feel quick: till rosy morn
They tell their jokes: the graves all yawn.

The graves all yawn, the coffins cough,
The trees up sticks, the bats take off,
Leant on his grave, each dead man talks,
As wild as larks, as gay as hawks.

The hawker’s pot is filling up,
That ancient vase, that broken cup.
That cut-price grail, the hawker’s pot,
It is half-full, as full as not!

It is the moonlight’s steady drip
That dripping down is filling it!

Deep in the woods, the wild rose brakes,
The badger runs, the blossom shakes,
The petals cling to tender stalks
As gay as larks, as wild as hawks.

The hawker’s work is nearly done.
For in the east rises the sun.
His steps he hastens to the town
And there he sets his backpack down.

The market stalls, the market starts,
The buyers come, as gay as larks,
The buyers leave, with knives and forks
Clutched to their chests, as wild as hawks.

About the sky, in a great arc
There flies the hawk, gay as a lark.
The heavy bird, so full of charm,
Swoops down upon the hawker’s arm.

Upon his wrist, the dear bird parks
The two walk on, as gay as larks.

As gay as larks, as wild as hawks,
Our work is done, the thunder talks,
The pot is full, the heron flaps.
To you, good sirs, we raise our caps.

Let none speak on unless he talks
As wild as larks, as gay as hawks.

Thursday 3 November 2011

John Martin

Last week Hawker’s Pot took the train to London to see an exhibition of paintings by Mr John Martin.

We particularly enjoyed his many representations of the Deity vs. the Laity.

The Deluge (after J.M.)

The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (after J.M.)

The Great Day of His Wrath (after J.M.)

We also enjoyed his illustrations to Paradise Lost, especially the scene where Satan decides to build a city in Hell, and Pandemonium ensues ...

Thursday 13 October 2011

The Sea

Algernon Swift takes his holiday beside the sea and is moved to write some verse:

The Sea

The ocean heaves and raves and roars.
The waves crash down with spumy white.
The sea is mighty deep, one feels,
but all one sees is surface surf

is surf is surf is surface surf
-- and glittering light
which nothing of its deeps reveals
for all the waves’ just might.

Tuesday 4 October 2011

Horde Oeuvre

In the early thirteenth century a new threat arises in the East --
Genghis Khan and his horde of fearful worriers.

(click on image to enlarge)

After a string of conquests, the lightning progress of the Mongols comes to a standstill as the hordes hoard:

Dissension arises among the previously-unified tribes of barbarians:

Some decide they are fed-up with a lifestyle of compulsive pillaging and no longer wish to be barbarians.

(The twelve-steppe programme is introduced.)

Tuesday 20 September 2011

Thursday 15 September 2011

In the Running

Algernon Swift organises a race for all the nice guys he has ever known (and treats the winner with some distrust).

Saturday 27 August 2011

Law En-forcers

There were some savvy plainclothes detectives present, as well as the usual uninformed police.

Tuesday 23 August 2011

Wisdom of Hawker’s Pot #10

Coming in through a door is entrancing, but leaving through it is equally exiting.

Saturday 20 August 2011

Bad Bots

Leon and Clive try their hands at making a robot, but their creation turns out a terrible botch job, scarred by clumsy soldering and hideous to behold. Spurred on by the revulsion he everywhere encounters, the robotic monster runs amuck, finally demanding that Leon and Clive make him a female companion as the price for leaving humanity alone. Leon and Clive’s soldering has not improved, and the female robot turns out just as much of a mess as the male. Leon doubts that the two of them should ever be united, but then, as Clive says, if the robot wants to go off and live with his awfully welded wife, why shouldn’t he?

Sunday 7 August 2011

What is it with the makers of horror films and bridges?

The Bridge of Frankenstein


Not forgetting The Bridges of Dracula, of course.

Nor that terrifying saga of a bridge running amuck:

The Runaway Bridge

(a cantering cantilever! a trussed bridge not be trusted!)

Or that suspense classic:

The Bridge Wore Black
(They crossed the wrong bridge, those guys!)

But how could I forget surely the most terrifying of all?

The Bridges of Madison County ...

Wednesday 3 August 2011

Wisdom of Hawker's Pot #9

Necessity is the Mother of Invention (or, if mothers didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent them).

Friday 22 July 2011

Oh dear.

All that was left of the once-mighty reindeer herd ...

... was a few last remaindeers.

Thursday 14 July 2011

Wisdom of Hawker's Pot #8

Depth is really only shallowness multiplied many, many times.

Too Much for Any Body

Algernon Swift laments the physicality of human life.

“Everywhere I go, it’s the same. People knuckle down and shoulder their responsibilities. They make a fist of it. They toe the line and foot the bill and hand over cash. Some try backing out. Some leg it. They get things off their chests, they make a clean breast of it. What’s worse is when they start necking and head for the bedroom ...”

“But why do you have to go on about it so?” exclaims exasperated Reverend Hawker.

“Because I mind,” says Swift. “I MIND!”

Thursday 7 July 2011

Some Aunts

The Aunt of Michelangelo, The Aunts and Crafts Movement, The Dark Aunts of Aleister Crowley, The Decorative Aunts, The Dramatic Aunts, The Erotic Aunts of the Orient, The Liberal Aunts

Q: Why (you ask) this sudden enthusiasm for Aunts?

A: It’s just something I got into at Aunt College.

Q: Then your enthusiasm is qualified?

A: Certainly. It grew by degrees. First I became a Bachelor of Aunts, then a Master of Aunts. But it all started for me when I read Robert Hughes’ book about Modern Aunt movements The Shock of the N(eph)ew.

... The Martial Aunts, The Plastic Aunts, The Sacred Aunts, “In my Craft and Sullen Aunt”, Zen and the Aunt of Motorcycle Maintenance. And, of course, the Japanese have an Aunt for everything: Flower-Arranging, Tea, Calligraphy, etc.

Q: Your interest in the Aunts is certainly timely. For currently many Aunts bodies are under threat.

A: This government has a complete disregard for the Aunts. (See Why The Aunts Matter, a publication of the Aunts Council.) And yet there are still spots in the country where the Aunts are flourishing:

(for instance, in the many aunted houses that litter our counties).

Saturday 2 July 2011

Tuesday 28 June 2011

Brought to Book

While you were trimming your toenails, placing the parings in a matchbox and using it as a quiet and primitive maracas to entertain the mice in your flat, Leon and Clive have opened a small hotel. However, they have failed to master the bookings system and the party of German tourists to whom they had promised rooms arrive to find those rooms already occupied. Leon says “I can only apologise unreservedly” (which doesn’t help matters one bit).

Saturday 21 May 2011

Crashaw’s Diary (part x)

The story so far: Philip Crashaw is the Curate to the Rev. Arthur Jenkins in a Country Parish in Dorset. The year is 1871.

Thursday 31st August
A mighty thunderstorm this afternoon, the sky lit up livid and purple. Before the storm came on, the air seemed to be teeming with electricity. Everyone I spoke to in B--- seemed much quicker in their manner, as if enlivened by the electricity in the air. I was enlivened by the electricity too, I suspect, or at least a part of me – the pun-making part. For as I neared home I suddenly thought, what an odd phrase it is -- “the storm breaks” -- and a rather fine joke came to me. I rushed in to tell Mr Jenkins, who was sitting at his desk.

“What do you need when the storm breaks?” I asked.
Mr Jenkins said nothing.
“Lightning repairs!”
And then I said:
“And how do you repair lightning?”
(More silence.)
“Bolt it back together!”

Mr Jenkins looked up at me from his work. I think it could be justly said that his brow was “full of thunder”. The first lightning flashed outside the window, and it struck me* that I had perhaps been rather carried away by the enthusiasm of the moment.

*(it struck me!)

Friday 1st September
What a world of coherences we live in! Yesterday, the storm lightened and the rain fell! And after the storm had passed, the wind blew and gusts of it shook the water from the trees onto the very land that they had sheltered. The trees then were like clouds! As if the storm had been the storm of the tumultuous events and great battles of mankind, and the tree a woman weeping once all had passed by! Trees! Clouds! Women! Tears! The trees like women, but the trees like clouds too and yet the women also like clouds! Pure, distant, untouchable! I can imagine that someone could make a passable poem out of this, but it is quite beyond me.

Sunday 15 May 2011

Words Get the Better of him

Algernon Swift goes to a cheese and wine party but the intensely social atmosphere brings on a sudden attack of logorrhoea. He starts to pun compulsively on the canapés, the décor and the facial characteristics of the other guests.

Soon no-one at the party is willing to talk to him and for the rest of the evening he is left languaging in a corner.

Saturday 7 May 2011

Like a Wholegrain Cowboy

Cowboy Jim has to move with the times and takes a job at a vegetarian restaurant. The hours are long and every night he comes home weary and salad-sore.

Sunday 1 May 2011

A Spirited Reply

Leon becomes a medium and holds his first séance in a pub, but the only spirits he manages to raise are a bottle of whisky, a bottle of gin and a bottle of Malibu. These hover for a few moments above the table. Clive decides to go one better and says he will levitate all the bottles in the pub, even the wall-mounted ones. Which he does, raising the bar somewhat.

Wednesday 27 April 2011

Seductio ad Absurdum

After reading von Clausewitz’s statement that “war is a mere continuation of politics by other means,” Algernon Swift’s rakish brother, Archibald, determines to try his hand at making love by other means. He calls on the virtuous Tilly and extravagantly compliments the furnishings of her sitting room. “How beautifully your curtains hang!” he exclaims. “How delicate your doilies and anti-macassars!” Tilly is unmoved. Archibald reaches boldly forward and gives the upholstered arm of an armchair a squeeze. Tilly blushes. Seizing the moment, Archibald opens his violin case and starts to play. “A skilled violinist can play the violin like it is a violin,” he mutters suavely. Tilly collapses on the floor, a trembling wreck, and holds on for dear life to the standard lamp.

Friday 22 April 2011

Great Lengths

After his adventures among the pretentious parallelograms, the insinuating squares and the tricksy triangles, Leon finds himself in a land where the only inhabitants are Lines. Here he feels at home right away: there’s no side to any of them.

(With apologies to Edwin A Abbott’s Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions.)

Tuesday 19 April 2011

Mavis Complains ...

That feller I was telling you about, no, not him, the one who night after night plays to full houses at the Palladium doing his stand-up routine, yes, him, well, it was all right between us in the early days, but then he started to get a bit funny.

Saturday 16 April 2011

No Hoper, No Shopper

While you were boring all around you with your exhausting bonhomie, a terrible anomie has descended on Clive. It extends even to getting the shopping. In the grocery aisle, Leon asks him “Did you write down what we need?” “No,” he replies listlessly.

Monday 11 April 2011

Two Squares

While you were talking about Fermat with a lady on the bus, Leon and Clive have both made busts of the great mathematician for the village sculpture competition. Clive feels that his expressive maquette has caught something of the character of the man, but Leon is having none of it. “Mine is a hundred times better,” he says in a calculated insult.

Tuesday 5 April 2011

Stoppage no more

Algernon Swift, tired of reading insufficiently punctuated writing, invents a machine that pumps punctuation into a text. Experimentally, he sets the machine to (:) and applies it to Rebecca:

Last night: I dreamt: I went to Manderley again: It seemed to me: I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive: and for a while I could not enter: for the way was barred to me: there was a padlock and a chain upon the gate.

The result is as uncomfortable as you would expect from colonic irrigation.

(But worse is to come when Swift, turning the colon dial through ninety degrees, gets chronic diaeresis.)

Thursday 31 March 2011

Dashed Peculiar

In a second hand bookshop in Teignmouth, Algernon Swift discovers a rare nineteenth century novel, and is immediately engrossed. (However, further research into its author draws a blank.)

It was in September in the year 18— that I found myself on the road to B------, in the county of D-----. As night was drawing in, I asked a ruddy-faced man how far on my way I had yet to go before I reached my goal.
“B------!” he exclaimed. “Don’t go to B------! D—---n b---------d place! You’re better off going to H-------.”
“H-------?” I queried. “Why not B-------?”
“D----n me, you can go to the d-------l, for all I care! But B------! It’s a b---------d awful place. The men are b----------------s, the women are b-------------s, and their children are the biggest b---------d bunch of d---------d imbeciles you’ve ever seen.”
I asked him on what he based his information.
“Why, man, I have lived there since 18--! Or was it 18--? D--—n my eyes, I can’t b--------d remember! And why do I stay? Because I’m the d----n b---------d village b---------d school teacher, b-------t it!”
“---------------,” I said. I was lost for words.
My new acquaintance now fell in beside me, and clearly intended to accompany me all the way to B-----. I, however, was much affrighted by his manner and, when the first opportunity presented, made a -------- for it.

Sunday 27 March 2011

Mavis Complains ...

That feller I was telling you about, yes, you know, him, well, his latest new “friend” is a female superhero. She’s strong enough to lift up a mountain, she can run as fast as a train and, to hear her talk, she can even fly through the air. Impossible woman.

Wednesday 23 March 2011

No Rest

Algernon Swift, on returning to his native country, is appalled to discover the mishandling of the funeral arrangements for his beloved mother. Not only has she been buried in the wrong plot, but the memorial that has been erected to her is completely inappropriate. He writes a stern email to the undertaker, and puts as the subject:

Grave Mistake, Monumental Error.


(However, when Swift discovers that a Methodist minister conducted the funeral service and not a priest of Rome, it is easy enough for him to imagine how that happened.)

Sunday 20 March 2011

Mavis Complains ...

That feller I was telling you about, yes, that one, I said to him, “You never splash out on me. You never treat me like a lady,” and I told him all about when I was with the Crown Prince of Monaco and the good times we had. “Good times?” he says, “I’ll show you a good time,” and he tells me to put on my coat and we walk down the High Street and peer in at the window of The Greyhound and look at all the people in there, drinking and enjoying themselves. And that’s it.

Wednesday 16 March 2011

Mavis Complains ...

That feller I was telling you about, you know the one, yes, him, one time he took me away for a weekend in the Lake District. I couldn’t hardly believe it, I can tell you, but I should have known better. Up at the crack of dawn he was, and off walking the fells all day on his own. Then back he’d come in the evening, dosed up to the eyeballs on opiates, and sit down with a book of metaphysical speculations, and not even look at me once. “That’s not very romantic,” I said. “Shut up,” he said.

Saturday 12 March 2011

The Horror of it, or Something

Algernon Swift invents a virus of the printed word, which he is foolhardy enough to release in a bookshop. The virus is one of inexactitude: it makes every statement a mere approximation by inserting “or something” after it. Now Nietzsche’s Zarathustra proclaims:

“Behold! I teach you the Super-man, or something!”

Du Maurier’s Rebecca begins:

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again, or something.”

And Eliot’s “The Wasteland” starts:

“April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire or something ...”

Swift walks away from the bookshop, regretting what he has done. But there is worse to come. The virus has jumped from the printed word to the words in his brain. He is confronted by the horror of our existence, or something, and resolves to kill himself, or something. He knows that it is not just a matter of words, but of life itself, or something, where any course of action might as well be taken as any another, or something, because all are equally meaningless as we trudge inexorably on

towards death,


and nothingness,

or something.

Wednesday 9 March 2011

Nothing if not Punctual

Now that Spring is here, Clive spends much of his time sitting on a park bench with a lady librarian of his acquaintance. This paragon of librarian-ly loveliness introduces Clive to the poetry of E. E. Cummings, but Clive is distressed by the poet’s unorthodox use of punctuation. The birds sing in the trees, the green world revives itself, lovers stroll arm in arm, but when this beauteous queen of the bookshelves shows him the lines

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

Clive merely says: “There should be a full stop there.”

“I think you’re missing the point,” she says.

Saturday 5 March 2011

How I see it ...

Meanwhile Leon has got a job at the local opticians giving eye-tests. Here he insists on re-arranging the displays so that the glasses are all in one half of the shop. Every morning he checks on the stock as he likes to see the glasses’ half full. After all, he’s an optometrist.

Thursday 3 March 2011

Crockett and Tubbs

What the hell was this?

Crockett’s spirit had gone into Tubbs’s body, and Tubbs’s spirit into Crockett’s body; Tubbs was acting like Crockett, Crockett was acting like Tubbs, and all sorts of hilarious situations were ensuing.


It was Miami Vice Versa.

Sunday 27 February 2011

Diametrically Opposed

While you were trying to square a circle with a compass and straight edge, Leon has become friends with a range of extraordinary people: a successful neurosurgeon, a Nobel-prize winning physicist, an influential politician, a concert violinist. “All people of the highest calibre,” Leon smirks. Clive is having none of it. “People of the highest calibre are a bore,” he says, dismissing them roundly.

Tuesday 22 February 2011

A Crack in Time

While you were upstairs trying on your wife’s underclothes and hats, Leon and Clive have been sucked separately through a spatio-temporal vortex. Leon finds himself for a while on the streets of Harlem in the late twentieth century. Here he fits in well, honing his basketball skills and listening to hip-hop – until, that is, the vortex opens again and he is rushed off to Regency England. Here Clive has been all along, and, after some successful speculation in cotton mills and coal mines, is now a wealthy man. On seeing Leon at the road-side, he reins in his galloping grey, bringing his spanking new two-wheeler to a screeching halt, and greets his old friend.

“And what do you think of my new carriage?” Clive asks.

“Pretty fly,” says Leon.

Friday 18 February 2011

Should he stay or should he go?

While you were off looking for powdered eggs in the cupboard, Leon has become manager of a successful football team. Here his natural stoicism serves him well. After five triumphant seasons, Leon decides it’s time to move on, but the Board of Directors won’t let him go.

Friends ask Clive how Leon feels about staying.

“He’s resigned,” says Clive.

Tuesday 15 February 2011

Dark Humour

While you were dozing in your chair with your hand in a bowl of nachos, Clive has got lost in the maze of cellars beneath Hawker’s Pot.

“It’s pitch black down here and I can’t find my way out,” he says, feelingly.

Saturday 12 February 2011

After considering the propensity of gravediggers to make puns, Algernon Swift discovers that the same is true of geologists. (If you do not believe him, try googling “jokes about geology”.) Both professions involve looking at the ground for long periods of time and Swift supposes that this inclination of the head stimulates the area of the brain responsible for punning.

As an experiment, Algernon Swift tries staring at the sky for ten minutes, and does not think of a single pun.

Wednesday 9 February 2011

The Ineffable

Algernon Swift has an experience that, in spite of his large vocabulary, he cannot successfully convey. He takes a hint from modern life and tries again, this time effing and blinding his way through the telling of it, but still to no avail. It truly cannot be expressed in words.

Saturday 5 February 2011

Sporting Chance

Algernon Swift (previously uninterested in athletic exercise) has the good fortune to fall in with the members of a women’s Olympic sporting team.

“I’m a great fan of any sport played with a high net, a ball, and your bare hands,” he says, suddenly voluble.

Thursday 3 February 2011

Polygraphic, Stratigraphic

Algernon Swift has been reading Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son and has been struck by Gosse Sr.’s theory that God created the world within the Biblical timescale, but gave it the appearance – by concealing fossilised remains in the rocks -- of a planet on which life had existed for millions of years previously.

The geological record, that is to say, is deceptive and some parts of it are just plain Lias.

Friday 28 January 2011

Public Speaking

How nervous Algernon Swift feels when he is called upon to address the Naturists Convention. But he remembers his old mentor’s advice and imagines them all sitting there in their underwear.

Private Matter

Algernon Swift receives a card from his acquaintance Mavis and with some consternation notices she has placed an X after her name. His botanical textbooks have taught him only too well what that means:

I want to hybridise with you.

Thursday 20 January 2011

The Crisis (5)

A surprising number of guests came for Reverend Hawker’s funeral, and ate their way through the spread of cold meats in aspic that we had laid out on the old oak tables. Some came from epochs of Hawker’s life that we were accustomed to hear of – tug-boat Captains, High Church clergymen, casino owners, dictionary compilers – and others from periods that must remain a mystery, including a Native American woman and her four grown up sons. That afternoon, the reminiscences were many that flowed in the hall of Hawker’s Pot, and the deceased was celebrated as a man of great wit. But how many of those reminiscences ended with: “Oh! ... but I can’t remember exactly what he said ... least ways, we laughed a great deal ... I’m sure it will come back to me ... No.” And I received the strong impression that the words of the man were disappearing after him quickly, just as he had disappeared, and soon there would be no trace left of him upon the earth.

But now the guests were gone and Swift and I were left alone at Hawker’s Pot.

“And what will you do now, Mr Swift?” I asked.

“There is much for me to do. There is the matter of Reverend Hawker’s legacy, which must be continued, especially in the light of his dying words. I will mine the archives for the best of his jokes, turn them into greetings cards and travel the craft fairs of the land. For there is also the small matter of making a living ...”

“I wish you all the luck in the world, Mr Swift.”

“And should you care to join me, Mr Jones ....”

But I had just seen Margaret pull up at the gates in her black Morris Minor. I shook my head and shook Algernon by the hand. “My work with Puns is done now,” I said. “Henceforward, I will accept the brokenness of language and try my hardest to say the things that need to be said as best I can. And when I fail I will console myself that the world I try to describe can never be perfect either, so what matter if the words I use are imperfect too?”

Margaret tooted the horn. I grabbed my bag and ran out to greet her. Swift followed me to the front door.

“Always remember to have fun!” he called out after me.

As the car pulled away, I looked over my shoulder for one last time at the dark towers and mullioned windows of Hawker’s Pot, and its empty-handed beech trees waving their arms in the air (the rooks had left the day of Hawker’s death). Then, smiling at Margaret, I looked at the landscape ahead of us, the rolling hills and the maze of hedges climbing up them, and, up above, the few shining rags of fleecy cloud. I was irresistibly reminded of Milton’s words,

The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest ...

as the car followed the undulating road among the bright and laughing fields.

Sunday 16 January 2011

Let's hear it for Starlings!

So You Wanna be a Rock and Roll Starling?
(A Song by The Byrds)

The Starling-Spattered Banner

Starlings in their Eyes

Tuesday 11 January 2011

The Crisis (4)

Grey-faced Hawker sat in bed. The doctor had whispered to us in the hall “Catarrhal apoplexy, with involved ataraxia. I doubt he has long to live.” Swift and I stepped back into the hushed room, and sat at the bedside of the old man. He spoke to us in a broken voice from the side of his mouth.

“All my life,” he muttered, “I have known that the cloud of language floats above the physical landscape and has nothing to do with the real world of objects at our feet. And all I ever wanted was to make people aware of that fact! To let the popular novelists, the eye-gazing lovers, the earnest preachers, know that their 'veries' and 'reallies' and 'trulies' are to no avail. But the fools ...”

Reverend Hawker began to cough horribly.

“Do not speak if it hurts you,” said solicitous Swift. Impatient Hawker waved him away.

“... the fools wouldn’t listen. And why not? Because ...”

(Another access of fearful coughing.)

“... because I chose to show it to them by jokes.” Suddenly Hawker’s eye alighted on me. (I! To whom, before that day, the Reverend had barely vouchsafed a word, except perhaps to ask where his shoes were, or else reluctantly to acknowledge a pun.) But now he grasped me by the hand: “Do not do as I have done, Jones. Take this lesson from me: If you spend your life telling people jokes, they will not take you seriously. Why, even the most mediocre dabbling in tragedy will keep their attention longer than the finest joke you can think of. And why? Because every fool likes to feel they have a dose of the tragic in them! Whereas if you tell them a joke, they will laugh and, in laughing, forget all about it. And, just as surely, by the time the daisies open their petals in the rays of the morning sun, they will have forgotten all about you too ...”


It was some hours later when, from the darkened hallway, I heard voices. Swift was conferring with the doctor, and it was the former’s urgent tones that had drawn my attention. “Doctor, there is something I need to ask you, that has been troubling me of late. There are over 500,000 words in the English language, and yet we have to use the same word for our national sport, an insect that produces a note by rubbing its wings with its hindmost legs, and a footstool*. It doesn’t make sense.”

“It’s an unfortunate situation, Mr Swift, but it cannot be helped. There are simply more things in the world than there are words for them.”

“But if the words were allocated sensibly – for instance, if we had only one word for tiredness – couldn’t we then use ‘fatigue’, ‘weariness’, ‘lassitude’, ‘languor’, ‘prostration’ and ‘exhaustion’ for other things? Would there be words enough then?”

The doctor shrugged.

“I must visit my patient, Mr Swift.”

Hawker was resting peacefully, only opening his eyes occasionally to reveal a look of unutterable horror. The doctor bent over him. To his enquiry, I replied that Hawker had only spoken a few words that afternoon, but those in the bitterest tone imaginable.

Swift came back in, clutching foreign dictionaries to his chest. “But if I used the words of European languages too? If I re-allocated them so that each one only represented one thing? But first, I suppose, I would have to know how many actual things there are in the world. Doctor, how many are there?”

The doctor shook his head.

“The patient needs quiet now, Mr Swift, and no unnecessary excitement.”


Swift and I watched all night. In the rare moments when he returned to consciousness, Hawker’s mind wandered, among bitter regrets for a life wasted in wordplay and, in contradiction, among puns not yet explored. “Tussis, tussock, testes, toast,” he muttered. Even in the last hours of his diminishing spirit, the over-riding concern of his life would not let him go. Meanwhile Swift sat at a small table in the corner, studying the foreign dictionaries by candlelight. Around 2 a.m. a sudden sob from his direction caused me to turn around. Hands in hair, haggard-faced Swift stared at the table.

“It is impossible,” he gasped. “Even if there is a finite number of things in the world, the moment we start talking about them we find more things to say about them, and their number multiplies inexorably. It’s a dead loss the minute we start talking.”

“Then come and be silent,” I said.

It was in the hour before dawn that a change came over Hawker’s countenance. That old harsh face softened, and a new light seemed to shine in his eyes. It was as if he was gazing into a world beyond ours, and in this world – wherever it was – lay the answer to our paltry existence on earth. Peace finally came to the old man. He half-closed his eyes and the faintest of smiles played on his lips. “It’s all just...” he murmured. Swift and I leaned forward to catch his words. Hawker exhaled heavily, and was silent for some moments. “It’s all just a bit of fun,” he said.

They were the last words he ever spoke and, by the time the sun rose, he was dead.