Who was Captain Nitty? Interestingly enough, it is a question that has never been asked before. In the long march of humankind, from primeval swamps to space age fabness, nobody has ever wanted to know who exactly this Captain Nitty person actually was. That should tell us something, but what? It might tell us that Captain Nitty was an almost staggeringly insignificant figure. It might tell us that he never actually existed and is mere figment.
Note those figs. Fig-ure, and fig-ment. We are all familiar, I think, from our picture books, with “Fig. 1” or “Fig. A.” Sometimes, depending on the nature of the book, a Fig. might be a Plate. How much easier it would be to answer our question if we had a Fig. or a Plate depicting Captain Nitty. If that were the case, we could simply point at the picture and say, “There! That is Captain Nitty,” and all curiosity – if indeed there were any – would be satisfied, and we could go off and do something else, something perhaps of more import, such as circumnavigating a duckpond, or visiting an owl sanctuary.
But, just as nobody has ever cared to ask who Captain Nitty was, nor has anybody ever bothered to depict him, whether in pen and ink or daubs of paint or by mechanical means such as a camera or Blötzmannscope. Even the noted mezzotintist Rex Tint never made a mezzotint of Captain Nitty, possibly because nobody was ever prepared to pay the fat fee demanded by Rex Tint for one of his mezzotints.
In the absence of a Fig. or a Plate, then, how are we to go about answering the question? Is there a potted biography to which we might refer? “Potted”, in this sense, does not mean literally that the biography is to be found planted in a pot, like, say, an aspidistra. We must not get in a muddle about all these figs and plates and pots. If we confuse them with actual figs, and actual plates, and actual pots, our brains are likely to overheat as we struggle to comprehend what we are talking about. If such overheating does occur – and there are times when it does, it does – then a circumnavigation of the duckpond, or a visit to an owl sanctuary, is a splendid coolant.
Brain duly cooled, however, we are still at something of a loss regarding Captain Nitty, as we have discovered, to our horror – and that is not too strong a word – that no potted biography of him exists. We ought of course to realise this. For someone to have written a biography, potted or otherwise, they would first have had to ask the question “Who was Captain Nitty?”, albeit silently, to themselves, and we already know that it is an unasked question.
There are of course innumerable other questions which have never been asked, ever, by anybody. How do you boil an ostrich-head?, for example, or Were the tears of Saint Veronica used as a gum for postage stamps? We could witter away until the cows come home compiling a list of untold thousands of unasked questions, but to do so would bring us no closer to knowing who Captain Nitty was, would it?
“Would” has the same pronunciation as “wood”, but again we must avoid getting all befuddled about wood, as with figs and plates and pots. Generally, we should always be on our guard against befuddlement. I should cocoa.