It is with great pleasure that I have come to this charming – if windswept – seaside resort, at the invitation of the Dobson Memorial Lecture Organising Committee, to speak upon that most fascinating of topics, the administration of lighthouses. First of all, I must confess that it is a topic of which I am almost wholly ignorant. Ask me about ponds, or badgers, and I can rattle on like a maniac for days on end. But I have never even set foot in a lighthouse, and can think of no conceivable reason why I should ever want to. Much as I adore ponds, I am terrified of the sea, for the sea is a fearsome and horrible thing, progenitor of countless nightmares, a vast and unpitying force of nature, hideous to behold and murderous in its immensity.
Still, I have promised to speak of lighthouses, and I am not a man to shy away from a challenge. As luck would have it, my oldest and dearest friend, the Reverend F. X. Heliogabalus, has spent the best part of his life engaged in the administration of lighthouses, and he has been kind enough to share with me some of the more thrilling details of his career.
You may think it odd that an ordained clergyman, indeed a Jesuit, should devote his life to such a calling. Heliogabalus spends his days on horseback, galloping across the land from one lighthouse to another, his pipe clamped in his jaws and his catechism tucked into the pocket of his soutane. The man hardly knows the meaning of rest. Sometimes he will accept an invitation to sleep overnight when a kindly lighthouse keeper offers him a mattress upon which to sprawl, but more often this most driven of priests will ride his trusty steed through the night, careering with alarming speed along clifftop paths whose tempest-racked fences have been broken or uprooted, and where both man and horse are in constant danger of plunging hundreds of feet into the churning waters below.
I beg your pardon. I must pause for a sip of milk of magnesia.
What is Father Heliogabalus up to, charging from lighthouse to lighthouse? I have asked him this question many times, and he simply refuses to answer, merely clamping that pipe in his jaws and raising his eyebrows in a manner I find confoundedly vexing. Oh, there have been times when I have felt like dashing the man to the ground in a fit of deranged violence, but he is much stronger than me, and indeed much taller; at seven and a half feet in height, he is bigger than most people I have come across as I wend my way through life on this blissful and miraculous planet. But I digress. The invitation to give this talk prompted me to ask Heliogabalus once again about life as an administrator of lighthouses. I tracked him down to a filthy harbour south of Hooting Yard, where he was being forced to pause for a few days due to his horse having contracted lockjaw. Heliogabalus was curled up in a chair in the corner of the veterinarian’s waiting room. It was the kind of chair Michael Caine might have sat in in one of those mid-1960s films about swinging London. A number of sick animals – a badger among them, I was distressed to note – huddled together fearfully in the opposite corner of the room, staring wild-eyed at the Jesuit and every now and then emitting whimpers of abject terror.
“I have this effect upon beasts of the field,” said Heliogabalus, languid and unconcerned, “They regard me with dread, as well they might.”
I wondered whether to pursue this comment, and decided against it. I have said that Heliogabalus was my oldest friend, but I admit that there are times when he scares me fair out of my wits. As it was, I had no opportunity to say anything, as my old mucker continued to speak:
“I understand that you wish to know something of my lighthouse administration activities, Key,” he sneered, “Otherwise you will suffer humiliation when called upon to speak of the subject at some godforsaken seaside resort. Is that correct?”
He did not wait for a reply, but – his voice growing louder, and causing the pitiable assortment of ailing badgers, stoats, hedgehogs, lampreys, pigs, cormorants, axolotls and bison to start up a soul-wrenching cacophony of squealing, hissing, whining and other, indescribable noises – he stood up, towering over me, and thundered:
“Imagine a world, Key, a Godless world, bereft of divine order, in which each lighthouse keeper is allowed to do as he or she wishes. Picture them, hundreds, nay, thousands of lighthouses, each running to its own timetable, each setting its lights flashing and rotating and signalling and whatnot whenever the keeper feels like it. What is the result? Chaos, pure and simple! Chaos leading to shipwrecks, tugboat accidents, buoy disasters, general nautical mayhem and the Lord knows what other kinds of marine catastrophe. Is that the world you wish to inhabit? Eh? You would be no better off than one of these sickly beasts here” – he gestured violently towards a tiny hummingbird with a stab wound on its head which was trying to hide behind the veterinarian’s chaise longue – “these foul beasts which quiver and quake at my every word. No, that is not the world we wish to live in. In our world – in God’s world – we must make sure that lighthouse keepers do their work according to a plan. I carry in my saddlebags a thumping great book of over nine hundred pages. It is a manual of lighthouse administration. I have memorised every word in that book, Key. Indeed, though it pains me to say it, I know it better than I know my Bible. So as I traverse this evil land astride my sick and neglected horse, I go from lighthouse to lighthouse to ensure that the keepers are following the rules laid down in the manual. And if they stray from its commands, I smite them.
“Think not, Key, that the commands are onerous. Most of them are simply common sense. But the devil works to undermine the sensible workings of each and every lighthouse. I have seen with my own eyes, for example, a lighthouse keeper of many years’ experience failing to sharpen his pencil over a wastepaper basket. Does he not know that wood-shavings are a cause of fire? That by his actions he could burn down his lighthouse in a matter of minutes? Again, I have seen a lighthouse keeper using a frayed rope to tie his boat to his jetty. It is barely imaginable!”
Such was his excitement that Heliogabalus began to hurl pieces of cutlery at the cowering animals.
“Tell me, ” I ventured, “Do you just call round to these lighthouses and declaim instructive passages from your manual?”
“Why, no,” he replied, chucking a sugar spoon at a weasel, “I am not a harsh man. While in one saddlebag I keep the manual with which to strike terror into the hearts of ingrates and backsliders, in my other saddlebag I carry a selection of useful supplies, the items the keepers do not receive in their regular hampers from the lighthouse equipment warehouse. I bring them things such as gigantic rolls of blotting paper, hard-boiled eggs steeped in maple syrup, specially darned flags from every continent, buckets filled with a solution for the removal of dried ink from hair, reticules for the blind, nozzles to be attached to burst cartons -”
At this point the veterinary surgeon entered the room to announce that the Jesuit’s horse was fully recovered. Heliogabalus took my hand, and nearly crushed it in bidding me farewell. Within seconds he was gone, galloping away to administer his peculiar justice tempered with mercy to the lighthouse keepers of the land. I am glad I am not one of them.