France in the immediate aftermath of the revolution was not the only place in which a commissioner, seeking to climb a bell tower, would be deterred by the presence of an axe-wielding madman. It is a dilemma which has faced many commissioners, of differing stripes, in many lands at many times. What all the known and recorded instances have in common is the difficulty of ascertaining whether the woodcutter in the belfry is truly a madman, or is feigning madness as a ruse. No commissioner, it appears, has ever been able to say definitively, upon entering a bell tower with an axe-wielding woodcutter in situ, “Ah, a genuine madman!” or, conversely, “Oh ho, a perfectly sensible woodcutter pretending to be mad!”
A recent scholarly analysis of the phenomenon sheds light on the methods commissioners and their minions have used to decide the question. It is not an incandescent light, nor even a bright one, for the past is suffused with a great darkness, as Pang Gong Loon demonstrated in his important paper on the subject, the title of which escapes me, understandably, as it was published long ago, in the past, and was thus suffused with a great darkness, which rather goes to prove Pang Gong Loon’s point, if proof were needed. Me, I’ll take him at his word.
Even when the darkness is pitch black, we may still cast glimmers of light if we deploy what Pang Gong Loon called the “pointy torch of inquiry” into it. The author of the recent scholarly analysis clearly has such a pointy torch, for in the study we find such accounts as this:
Hail to thee! I am a commissioner. My most recent commission was to go to the bell tower of St Bibblybibdib’s church in the vicinity of Blister Lane and to count the bells. When I had counted them, I was to report back to the County Bell Counting Register Panel. There my duties ended. A straightforward task, but one nevertheless calling for a large breakfast, which I proceeded to enjoy in the salubrious setting of Alphonso’s Dining Room hard by the banks of the Toss. I had sausages and kippers and kedgeree and thrush-brains and wolves’ livers and custard triangles and milk slops and jugged hare and toasted grease and Doctor Baxter’s Fine Pudding and a pig’s head and wren innards and smokers’ poptarts, all washed down with a pot of boiling hot tea.
I then summoned my minions and we headed for St Bibblybibdib’s. One minion carried my propelling pencil and the other my bell-count ledger. The lych-gate was off its sneck but that was no business of mine. I paused to weep at the grave of a floozie of past acquaintance, but then it was down to business. Or should I say up, for we must climb the bell tower to count the bells.
No sooner had we entered the church, however, than a cry came from above. To my ears it sounded like the inarticulate gibbering of a madman. I sent Minion Lars to the foot of the bell tower to peer upwards and to tell me what he saw. He reported that, as so often happens, the belfry was occupied by an axe-wielding madman who would surely chop us to bits if we dared venture further.
I took from my pocket my two-way radio contraption and gave the details to HQ. They said a mad-doctor would be sent immediately, and that I should do nothing until he got there. I ushered the minions into the St Bibblybibdib’s annexe, where there was a snack bar. We tucked in to toffee and boiled seal and Carlsbad plums while we waited.
The mad-doctor duly arrived on his motorbike at 0955 hours. Brain-probe in one hand and pack of flash-cards in the other, he sprinted up the spiral staircase like a man half his age, which I estimated to be in the region of forty. What went on up there I have no idea, though I assume he probed the axeman’s brain and tested him with the flash-cards, each of which bore a mysterious occult symbol.
At approximately 1005 hours the bloodied corpse of the mad-doctor toppled from the belfry. It was missing the head. I radioed through the details to HQ, who advised that the axeman in the belfry was almost certainly a genuine madman, and not one of those pretenders who feign madness as a ruse to prevent bell-counting by commissioners. As I am the bravest commissioner in the entire commission, I offered to climb up to the belfry and give the madman a sound thrashing with my seagull-beating stick before he had a chance to chop my head off with his axe. But I was forbidden to do so by HQ, who suggested I return to the snack bar to await the arrival of the priest and the verger and the sexton, all of whom were on an unofficial St Bibblybibdib’s charabanc outing.
Unfortunately by this time the snack bar was shut, so I blew off steam by giving Minion Lars and Minion Tim a sound thrashing with my seagull-beating stick. Then I sat on the floozie’s grave to write this report in my bell-count ledger with my propelling pencil.
This is but one of no fewer than three contemporaneous accounts of commissioners confronting axe-wielding madmen in bell towers cobbled together in this fascinating piece of scholarly analysis. Frankly, I am not convinced that the analysis following the accounts is up to snuff, but then I am no scholar. I am merely a fanatical devotee of the teachings of Pang Gong Loon. If you have any sense in your heads, you ought to be too.