On this day, two hundred years ago, was born Cornelius Crake, the man who proved conclusively that the Bottomless Viper Pit of Gaar was indeed bottomless. Well, perhaps not conclusively, for arguments continue to rage on the fringes of what I suppose we can call the Bottomless Viper Pit community. There remains a handful of doubting Thomases, wild-eyed loons for the most part, and I use the word “loons” advisedly, for at their meetings they all make noises not unlike loons, those birds of the order Gaviiformes, sometimes confused with cormorants by people less expert in ornithology than myself. I can state with quiet and rather compelling confidence that I have never mistaken a loon for a cormorant, nor a cormorant for a loon, and I will pursue through the courts anybody who claims I have, so be very, very careful.
Gosh, I really must learn to avoid mentioning birds so early in a piece which is meant to be addressing another subject entirely. Such is my enthusiasm for our avian friends that I get quite carried away, and babble on recklessly, so spirited that I actually forget the existence of full stops, just breathlessly adding phrase after phrase, connected by commas, about loons and cormorants and all sorts of other birds, robins and ducks and even ostriches, until I have completely lost track of what I intended to write about when first I set fingertip to tippytapper, and I am led, or I suppose in truth I should say I lead myself, down unintended bird-haunted paths, for example by saying I lose track, the word “track” makes me think of a rail, and of course a rail, apart from being a track, such as a locomotive might thunder along, is also a type of bird, an entire family of birds in fact, the Rallidae, including the coot and the gallinule and the crake.
Ah, crake, Crake! As often happens when one is miffling down the by-ways of ornithology, one is led inexorably back to where one started, in this case, with Cornelius Crake, whose two hundredth birthday we celebrate today. He it was who, as I have mentioned, proved conclusively, or almost conclusively, were it not for a curiously persistent band of wild-eyed loons, the bottomlessness of the Bottomless Viper Pit of Gaar.
A country parson who devoted his time equally between the spiritual welfare of his peasant flock and the intense study of pits, Crake first came to public attention with his pamphlet on the Bottomless Viper Pit of Shoeburyness. Written in Latin, with footnotes in Dog Latin and an index in Pig Latin, it was little read, but the front cover caused a sensation. It featured a mezzotint by the nineteenth-century mezzotintist Rexus Tintus, depicting literally millions of vipers writhing in a bottomless pit.
“I tried to count each and every viper in this sensational mezzotint,” wrote Wilkie Collins, “but there were simply too many of them. And the pit itself was bottomless.”
Incidentally, did you know that there is no such bird as a “wilkie”? This in spite of the fact that it would make a very suitable name for a bird, as can be proved by pretending it is and trying it out on the tongue. For example, when out roaming the hills staring at the sky, if one sees a flock of birds appear, swooping, swooping, one can point and cry “Oh look! A flock of wilkies!” Or, similarly, if one sees, on one’s lawn, if one has a lawn, a bird pulling from the earth an earthworm, for its supper, one might remark to one’s companion, “There, my darling, is nature red in tooth and claw, an earthworm being eaten by a wilkie”. To my mind, both these examples sound convincing to the ear. “Wilkie” sounds as if it could be a bird, “Collins” does not. One might in fact work one’s way through a list of nineteenth-century novelists, judging which ones would make possible bird names, for newly discovered birds, perhaps, or in a new artificial language, like Esperanto or Glosa or Orghast. That will be a happy project for my twilight years, when they crash upon me.
But there I go again, prey to the blandishments of birds. Unless I am careful I will start prating about parakeets and vultures, and that will not get us anywhere. Well, it will no doubt extend your knowledge of the parakeet and the vulture, of which you may think you know something until I bestow upon you the full titanic weight of my own parakeet and vulture learning, when you will realise how fathomless is your ignorance.
Fathomless… bottomless. The Bottomless Viper Pit of Gaar! That is my proper subject today, not birds. Anyway, buried in one of the Dog Latin footnotes in his pamphlet on the Bottomless Viper Pit of Shoeburyness, Cornelius Crake made mention of what at that time was known merely as the Viper Pit of Gaar, its bottomlessness being not only unproven but unsuspected. There had been conjecture among viperists and pit observers, but of a desultory kind, stray remarks between mouthfuls of sausage at picnics and that sort of thing. Nineteenth-century viperists were forever charging off on picnics, usually choosing sites close to viper pits. Crake, being a pit enthusiast rather than a viperist, did not receive invitations to such picnics, and his fellow pit aficionados tended not to picnic at all, preferring to rent rooms in banqueting houses and the like. This all changed in the late Victorian era, of course, but we must not get ahead of ourselves.
It so happened, however, one stormy March day, that the country parson stumbled upon a viperist picnic quite by chance while sallying across a moor. Famished, he was offered a sausage and a beaker of invigorating tonic. A shy parson, he did not at once join in the conversation of the viperists, but squatted to one side of their picnic blanket, eyes glued to the sky. There are no pits in the sky, but there are pipits, sometimes, a bird which always fascinated Crake, probably because “pipit” and “pit” are so close in sound. It may even be that, short-sighted as he was, he had once misread a reference to a pipit as being a reference to a pit, and that happy accident had led him along a mental path he had never intended to follow. I am restraining a powerful temptation to tell you everything I know about pipits.
As he was munching his last mouthful of sausage, and preparing to flit away from the picnic, one of the viperists made a controversial remark about the Bottomless Viper Pit of Shoeburyness. Cornelius Crake was impelled to utter both a rejoinder and a corrective. These raised the collective eyebrows of the viperists, until the parson revealed himself as the author of the stupendous pamphlet, at which point he was garlanded with praise, given a second sausage, had his beaker refilled, and was coaxed on to the picnic blanket.
And it was at this very picnic that he was persuaded to undertake his study of the Bottomless Viper Pit of Gaar, challenged to ascertain once and for all, as best the science of the time allowed, whether it was bottomless or not. With much-needed funding from wealthy and well-connected viperists, Crake devised and constructed a probe, involving vacuum funnels and nozzles and steam power and Coddington lenses. He had this transported to Gaar by train, following in its wake astride his humble horse, Keith. Before the year was out, he was able to write up his results, in Latin, and have them translated and published in one of the leading viperist journals.
On a stormy March day precisely one year after the historic picnic, the Viper Pit of Gaar was officially renamed the Bottomless Viper Pit of Gaar at a special pitside ceremony. The mayor, the beadle, the Grand Vizier, the honest burghers and a gaggle of peasant folk gathered for speeches, the cutting of ribbons, the flying of banners, the relentless pounding of drums, the parping of tootlers, and chanting, chanting, chanting, and other celebratory what have you, including the tossing into the Bottomless Viper Pit of several vipers, and a picnic, with sausages and beakers of invigorating tonic.
Cornelius Crake, the shy and modest country parson, was in attendance but went unrecognised, for he had grown a massive beard, and wore a weird hat, and would talk of nothing but pipits. I will tell you everything you could possibly want to know, and more, on the subject of pipits, another time.