Damp bag, hot talc. Flimflam of the highest order. Cutthroats aboard ship, the ship of state, flying under a false flag, a flag of convenience, registered in a distant port. Pettigrew snarled. Melville writes somewhere of “inhuman hooting”. A prize for the first to find out where. I already know, because I read the words this morning, by dawn’s early light, or by candlelight, or both, or neither, squinting at the small print.
Does Peter Quint ever squint, in The Turn Of The Screw? I don’t know. That was Henry James, of course, not Herman Melville, both Americans, but only one of them ended his days in the grip of mad delusions. Or perhaps they both did.
Both did. Both did. If you say it aloud, over and over again, its meaning becomes lost, it becomes a kind of atavistic chant, to be chanted while leaping and capering around a bonfire in a night swarming with demons, in a forest clearing, your body painted with woad.
Both did, both did. It could be the name of a god, but what sort of god? The god of bees, the god of herons. Perhaps, at a pinch, the otter god. I can well imagine, if daubed in woad, shrieking a prayer to Both Did the otter god, by the light of a bonfire in a forest clearing, waving a tally stick, thousands of years ago. Thousands and thousands. Or just last week. But if last week, the kind of thing you might get arrested for these days.
Imagine the interrogation, in the cold bare room of the police station. You would have to explain yourself to win your freedom. Otherwise they might lock you up, judging you as mad as the aged Henry James. I think Herman Melville’s wife, at some point, was under pressure to have her husband declared insane. She refused.
“His wife refused”. The title of a piece from David Byrne’s score for The Catherine Wheel. Choreographed, as I recall, by Twyla Tharp. Now there is a woman who lends herself to anagranmatization. Especially in Welsh. And while we are on the subject of Welsh, however fugitively, is it not splendid that the Welsh language word for a microwave oven is a popty-ping? That, at least, is the claim made by Roger Lewis, in one of his newspaper articles.
It has ever been a wonder to me that I am not employed by a newspaper to write a column. I could bash out a few hundred words on any subject required. Prongs, tines, and nozzles would be three examples of topics I could blather about. Not to mention damp bags and hot talc, with which we began, if you remember. But what of damp talc and hot bags? What then, what then?
I used to know a couple whose idea of sightseeing, when on holiday, was to gaze into the windows of butcher’s shops, appraising the meat on display. What curious behaviour. I recall that I was both amused and a little disgusted, not a common combination of emotions. I think there may, too, have been an admixture of contempt.
Contempt. Le mépris, in French, and the title of a 1963 film by Jean-Luc Godard. I have seen it twice, both times on television, both times long ago, and all I remember of it is a shot – or shots – of an impossibly blue sea, the bluest sea I have ever seen in cinema. I think the film is considered a masterpiece. But then there is a certain type of film buff who will forever wax preposterous about Godard.
The auteur Godard and the otter-god. Now there is a pairing, almost homonymic, a pairing that lends itself, as Twyla Tharp does to anagrams, to the method outlined by Raymond Roussel in How I Wrote Certain Of My Books. I could write a piece about a wholly imaginary Godard film, one in which the blue, blue sea is reflected, blue-dazzlingly, in the glass window of a butcher’s shop. The film could begin with a quotation from Herman Melville and end with one from Henry James. And in between? In between, for roughly ninety minutes? I have no idea, for as I explained to a French art critic in New York only the other day, I do not have a visual imagination. That is why I work with words.