On The Great Frost

Over in his Inexplicable World yesterday, Outa_Spaceman conducted “an experiment in writing something using the first word I read after waking this morning”. Sacré bleu!, I thought, now that is a simple and efficacious way to solve the problem, which often besets me, of having to summon up from within the deep interior cranial nooks and crannies a topic each day to which I can devote a thousandish words.

Two questions may occur to you about my thinking process: (1) Does Mr Key habitually think in French oaths? (2) Why is his thinking so prolix?

I would like to address both those queries, though I fear that my response to (2) would in itself be prolix. I therefore intend to put it to one side, as a topic for a future essay on prolix thinking. Had I an in-tray, I would scribble the question on a sheet of paper and pop it into the tray, which I visualise as being constructed of wire. In the absence of such a tray, I shall merely shove the idea into one of those deep interior cranial nooks and crannies and pluck it out, as one would thine eye if it offended thee (Matthew 18:9) at an appropriate time.

As for (1), it is not the case that I habitually think in French oaths. I am to all intents and purposes a monoglot, regrettably, though like most people I have a little store of foreign words and phrases I am able to deploy when the fancy takes me. When my thought processes call for a foreign oath, it is probably more likely to be the Russian Боже мой. This is pronounced “bozhe moy”, and translates as “My God!”, for as you will know if you have been reading Hooting Yard assiduously, God in Russian is Bog, the root form of “bozhe”. And if you have not been reading Hooting Yard assiduously, then I am afraid all I can say is God – or Bog – help you.

Outa_Spaceman claims that the first word he encountered after he woke up yesterday was “opinionated”. Plenty of room for manoeuvre there, and had it been by some inexplicable Koestlerian coincidence the first word I had read today, I think I could quite easily have strung out a thousandish words, particularly if I considered truncations such as pinion and pin. Pinion would have allowed me to “go off on one” about birds, a topic upon which I can expatiate for umpteen thousands of words, as assiduous Hooting Yard readers will know (see above).

Unfortunately, however, the first word I read after waking this morning held less promise. While slurping coffee, I picked up the book I am currently reading – Saturnine by Rayner Heppenstall – opened it at the page where I had slipped my cardboard bookmark – bearing a photograph of St Alberto Hurtado SJ, Jesuit, Priest, Companion of God, Saint, Born 22 January 1901, Died 18 August 1952, Canonised 23 October 2005, given to me by Chris Weaver of Resonance104.4FM, who believes that I have a “thing” about Jesuits – and scanned my eyes down the right-hand page (p. 9) where I had left off reading yesterday. As is apparent, I have only just started reading this book, but I am enjoying it immensely. The Acknowledgements and Disclaimer alone (p. 5) made me laugh (though not out loud). Assiduous Hooting Yard readers (see above, see above) will I hope have shared that laughter as I fatally interrupted my reading to transcribe p. 5 yesterday evening. I say “fatally” as I barely returned to Saturnine, managing only pp. 7-9 (or most of 9) before I began to feel sleepy.

I think there are far too many parenthetical and subsidiary clauses in this essay. But I am not going to rewrite it. You will just have to cope as best you can.

So there I was, slurping coffee, shortly after 6.00 a.m., taking Outa_Spaceman as my guide, and I read “The”. Or rather “THE”, for the typesetting of the book (1943) renders the first line of each new section entirely in upper case. “THE”. And what was my project? To write “something using the first word I read after waking this morning”. A thousandish words on “THE”, then. Any prospect of finding, however tangentially, an ornithological angle and thus being able to spout effortlessly until the cows come home was cruelly blocked.

Now I am sure that if I put my mind to it, I probably could bash out a thousandish words on the definite article, and the fact that in Saturnine it was printed in capital letters would be of enormous help, in that I could prattle on about upper and lower case. Well, another time perhaps. For now I decided that On “THE” was a topic for my imaginary wire in-tray. Instead, I would resort to cheating. I read on:

THE GREAT FROST OF 1938 BEGAN ON DECEMBER 20TH, the date of my first visit to the Middlesex Hospital.

Much, much more promising than a mere “THE”. I could take as my topic either the Great Frost Of 1938 or, failing that, The Great Frost. The latter would allow me to write either about the Great Frost of 1683, or of 1709, or indeed of Great Frosts generally, with their attendant frost fairs. (If I wrote about frost fairs and frozen rivers I would no doubt be able to shoehorn in a paragraph or two about birds, river birds such as moorhens and kingfishers.) Alternatively, I could write about Robert Frost or David Frost, or both, tackling the thorny question of which more justly deserved the title of “The Great Frost”, were such a title to be bestowed, and were it to be limited to the poet or the television person, to the exclusion of any other Frosts you might care to name. In fact, such a vista of possibilities opened up before me that there was an ominous rumbling noise in the deep interior cranial nooks and crannies. I know from bitter experience that this betokens an overheated brain, so instead of writing a single word, I slammed Saturnine shut and wrapped a cold wet towel around my head and stared out of the window, at crows and starlings and sparrows and linnets and pipits and swifts and nuthatches and so an ad infinitum.

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