Father Ninian Tonguelash, the Jesuit priest and self-styled “Soutane-Attired Nemesis of Sea Monsters” who appeared in my dream yesterday, was, I would have you know, a real historical figure. He is often thought to be fictional, probably because the only reliable biography we have of him, by Pebblehead père, was published in the form of a series of short episodes between the covers of pulp magazines such as Mildly Alarming Stories!, Yarns That Might Raise Your Blood Pressure Just A Tad, and Vaguely Disquieting Tales. That the various scattered pieces were never brought together as a proper book is one of literature’s, indeed life’s, great tragedies, and the blame must lie squarely with Pebblehead père himself. For all his learning and wisdom and panache as a biographer, he was a very bewildering person. Even just walking down the street, he left a swathe of boggle-eyed bewilderment in his wake, and the captains of ships were ever reluctant to have him aboard their pleasure steamers.
Bewildering, too, is his treatment of the life of Father Tonguelash, quite apart from its being broken up into bits and published in magazines designed for a readership of the semi-literate and the timid and the nerve-bejangled. Although what research has been done seems to confirm that Pebblehead père‘s accounts are historically accurate, indeed devastatingly so, each episode as written is almost identical. The general schema is as follows:
1. Father Ninian Tonguelash has just finished saying Mass when an urchin sprints panting into the vestry to announce that a sea monster has been sighted. Either a ship or a boat or a coastal hamlet is imperilled.
2. Without stopping to ask any questions – even something as basic as in which direction he should speed – Father Tonguelash grabs a harpoon and a crucifix and charges out into the wild and windy shoreland. It is invariably wild and windy.
3. After a little while of harum scarum scampering, the priest stops, as Christ stopped at Eboli, and, all windswept and resolute, takes from his pocket a volume of poems by his friend and colleague Father Gerard Manley Hopkins. He opens the book at random and declaims a poem, shouting into the wind. Declaiming done, he returns the book to his pocket, makes the sign of the cross, and scampers onward. The panting urchin who brought the message of sea monster peril has now had time to catch up with the priest, and sticks close to his heels.
4. Father Ninian arrives at the scene of imperilment and confronts the sea monster. He is absolutely fearless. “I am attired in the soutane of a Jesuit, and I am your Nemesis!” he cries. At this point the sea monster usually makes a gurgling sound we are led to interpret as a plea for God’s ineffable mercy. But Father Ninian shows none. He hands the crucifix to the panting urchin, telling the lad to brandish it at the sea monster. Then he launches the harpoon, with unerring accuracy, felling the sea monster instantly.
5. It is an interesting point that all of the sea monsters harpooned by the Jesuit were of the kind that, when struck, shrivel up and vanish in a puff of cloudy gaseous green vapour.
6. Father Tonguelash reels in his harpoon, pats the panting urchin on the head, retrieves his crucifix, and acknowledges the grovelling gratitude of those whose imperilment he has quashed, be they the crew of a ship or a boat or the peasant inhabitants of a coastal hamlet.
7. As the priest wends his way back to his vestry, Pebblehead père does three things. He makes note, based upon what sources he never reveals, of all the types of birds in the sky and perched upon branches which the Jesuit, were he looking, would see upon his journey. He makes some attempt, not always successfully, to elucidate various sea monster references hidden in the text of the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem declaimed by Father Tonguelash earlier in the episode. Lastly, and characteristically, he ends each piece with a flourish of distinctively bewildering prose.
As a tot, Pebblehead fils, the bestselling paperbackist, was taught this “seven-point plan of literary composition”, as his père dubbed it. Careful readers will still find traces of the technique in some of the potboilers that pour out of the “chalet o’ prose” day after day. Consider, for example, even so recent a blockbuster as The Jesuit And The Sea Serpent which follows the pattern almost exactly, despite being over a thousand pages fat, with a gold-embossed cover making it suitable for airport book kiosks.