The Helmsman

Am I not the helmsman here?” I called out.

Most of you, I hope, will recognise this as the opening line of my Great Speech. It will certainly be familiar to younger readers, who must learn the Great Speech by rote in their kindergartens. Only when they have it by heart are they permitted to move on to other essential topics, such as pig husbandry, Latin, and knitting. For the older generation, we have made possession of the printed transcript compulsory. There are several editions available, including one with cardboard covers and a lovely frontispiece featuring a mezzotint by Dot Tint. Unfortunately, not all of these editions are reliable, some containing misprints and even wilful interpolations serving to twist my words. There have been several executions at the gibbets atop Polkadot Hill.

As is well known, I delivered the Great Speech while standing at the helm of a barge on an important stretch of canal, the better to illustrate my point for the thickos in the audience. They probably comprised about ninety per cent of those gathered on the towpath, if not more. It is quite astonishing to recall that, in those antebellum days, the bulk of the population completed their six months of kindergarten completely unable to husband a pig, speak Latin, or knit.

But things have changed, and credit must be given to my Great Speech. It was stirring, it was majestic, it was very loud, and it took four hours to deliver. It was punctuated, as all my speeches are, with copious spitting. Before I began speaking, I had the Earwax Squad move among the crowd with their little wooden ear-prodders, to ensure every last thicko peasant would hear me properly. They might not understand half of what I said, or any of it, but at least the words would enter their ears unmuffled by wax.

I was pleased with the rhetorical flourish at the beginning of my speech, partly because I was daring anyone in the crowd to contradict me. Doing so was made the more difficult by my standing at the helm of the barge, wearing a bargee’s cap. But you can never be sure with the peasantry. As it was, nobody did try to deny that I was the helmsman, so I was able to proceed without pause.

I explained that the old days were over and, quoting Blair, declared “a New Dawn has broken, has it not?”, again inviting contradiction. No voice was raised against me, so I pressed on. From now on, there would be more and better pig husbandry. Latin would be the lingua franca. Idle hands would be forced to knit in special new knitting camps, fenced with barbed wire.

I outlined other exciting features of the New Dawn, covering everything from albatross slaughter to zoo regulations, with twenty-four other alphabetically-ordered areas of urban and rustic life in between. I am not sure, frankly, why I bothered to include urban matters, because the peasants gathered by the canalside to hear me were the sort of peasants who, faced with something urban, like a pavement or a street light or a civic art installation, would faint or swoon or just topple over, in uncomprehending mental chaos.

Indeed, quite a large proportion of the crowd listening to my Great Speech seemed similarly brain-bedizened. They stood there, gawping, open-mouthed, dribbling and drooling, a slouching bunch of dimwits. These are the riffraff my regime of the New Dawn will mould into terrifically energetic and Stakhanovite pig husbanders, Latin speakers, and knitters.

That, at least, was the plan. But – and it is a huge but. Do they ever think, or do they only shuffle pointlessly over the earth?

The first sentence, and the last, were translated from the German by Tania and James Stern. Everything in between was not.

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