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.