An Old Manuscript

It looks as if much had been neglected in our country’s system of defence. Yes, Fort Hoity is famously impregnable, and Fort Toity likewise. But the fence linking them, running along the frontier, had been constructed from balsa wood and lollipop sticks. And when the swarm of specially-trained border wasps was wiped out by Hulbert-Courtneidge Disease, otherwise known as Border Wasp Wipeout Syndrome, the flimsiness of the fence had become all too apparent.

Our neighbours are ferocious and barbaric. Night after night, on the other side of the fence, they light bonfires and dance in circles round them, screaming impious guttural cries and waving pitchforks. They are unfathomably stupid. To date, they have been kept at bay by the papier-mâché wasps gummed to lollipop sticks at regular intervals along the frontier. The effectiveness of this defensive measure is unlikely to last. The puppet wasps cannot withstand torrential rainfall, of which there is much, in torrents, and our factories cannot churn out sufficient replacements, because of the shortages.

From Fort Hoity, as also from Fort Toity, we take snipes at our barbarian foe by launching snipe at them. For those of you who know little or nothing about flying things with wings and beaks and feathers, the snipe is a type of bird. It has a long, sharp, pointy bill or beak (see previous sentence). Our snipe are specially trained to swoop relentlessly towards barbarians, and to pierce them with their pointy beaks, ideally puncturing one of the major arteries. Note that, as with sheep and teal, the plural of snipe is snipe. I do not know why that is the case. Ask an ornitholinguist.

One drawback of our sniping is that, for all their savagery, our neighbours seem to have a way with birds. The original idea was that, having stabbed and slain a barbarian, the snipe would turn around and fly back to Fort Hoity (or Fort Toity), ready to be relaunched for another attack. But the barbarians cosset the snipe, and feed them millet and tiny terrified mammals, and make pets of them, and – maddeningly – the snipe thrive in their care. We are fortunate that thus far the savages have not yet worked out how to get the snipe to attack us.

One of our brightest engineers has devised a plan to dig a ha-ha along the length of the fence between Fort Hoity and Fort Toity. Thus, if the barbarians did manage to breach the balsa wood and lollipop sticks and papier-mâché wasps, they would immediately topple in to the ha-ha. They would be trapped like sitting ducks, and our forces could then make short work of them by dropping in a mass of violets and other flowers, smothering them as Heliogabalus did his enemies. Before we can put this plan into action, we need to convert much of our farmland into plantations for violets and other flowers, so we have enough for the smothering.

Meanwhile, our Black Ops team conducts various black ops on both sides of the border. By their nature, black ops are carried out under the radar. As we do not have a radar, we fashioned a convincing counterfeit by attaching a couple of wire coat-hangers to the top of a lamppost near Fort Hoity, and another one near Fort Toity. So pig-ignorant and backward are the barbarians, they are completely taken in. Baffled by our superior technology, they think a coat-hanger is the work of the devil – and that is when it is used for its original purpose. As a faux radar, they think it is the work of two devils.

Threatened as we are by brutes on the border, there is perhaps a greater peril lurking in our midst. I speak of the enemy within, the peaceniks. They are growing in number, in spite of our efficient secret police and the Friday night head-boilings at both Fort Hoity and Fort Toity. These “useful idiots” deny that our neighbours are barbaric savages who wish us harm, insisting rather that they are lovely people who just grunt rather more than we do. Look how they care for their snipe!, these nitwits cry, ignoring the fact that they are our snipe, primed to kill, and treacherously bought off by the barbarians with millet and tiny terrified mammals.

Of equal concern to the authorities is the fashionable theory, currently being bruited about the cement water-troughs of our fauborgs, that there is no land at all on the other side of the fence, no barbarians, just the sea, the vast wet illimitable sea that stretches forever, to the ends of the earth. Proponents of this codswallop maintain that the bonfires we see are strange inexplicable atmospheric phenomena, that the barbarians dancing in circles round them, screaming impious guttural cries and waving pitchforks are mere sea-sprites, phantoms of wind and water and the play of the light. This is a misunderstanding of some kind; and it will be the ruin of us.

The first sentence, and the last, were translated from the German by Willa and Edwin Muir. Everything in between was not.

3 thoughts on “An Old Manuscript

  1. Very good to see the humble snipe being given its due. So often they are ignored, or wantonly misrepresented, as in the case of the film directed by Clint Eastwood, ‘American Sniper’, which signally failed to live up to the promise of its title. Nevertheless, bird enthusiasts still cling to the hope that his much-trumpeted sequel, ‘American Pigeon-Fancier,’ will deliver the goods.

  2. That’s me not paying attention, Frank me old china. I should have suspected as much, given Clint’s previous form in the avian department: The Outlaw Josey’s Quail, The Coot The Bad & the Ugly, The Egret Sanction and of course the film which started it all, A Fistful of Birdseed.

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