On Bravura Bunkum

The speech, it was agreed, was bunkum, but it was bravura bunkum. Certainly, to judge by the prolonged clapping of hands at the finish, accompanied by faintly hysterical screeches, it had gone down a storm. I wrote in my diary at the time that it was my first, and possibly last, experience of bravura bunkum.

‘Bunkum’ is also spelled ‘buncombe’. You can take your pick. The Japanese have a word for it, but I do not know what it is. Perhaps they call it bunkum too. I could find out, if I were avid to know, but I am not. Why should I waste my precious hours on this tingling planet wondering what word they use to describe bunkum in faraway Japan? I have better things to do. I made a list of them, in my diary, years ago, and am gradually working my way through it. It is good to have a plan.

Mother looked over my list, shortly after I had compiled it, and crossed out a number of items, savagely, with her pencil. She wore a blue brooch on her bosom and her hair was tangled and as dry as straw. She peered at my list through her lorgnette, lips pursed, emitting the odd snort, and now and then something would cause her grief and she would stab the pencil on the page and slash it back and forth across the words I had written. I cannot for the life of me remember why I let her read my diary in the first place, quite apart from then allowing her to obliterate certain of the plans I had made for my life. It was surely not filial devotion. She was a mad old bat with a fragile grasp on reality. In any case, I could have ignored her scratchings, rewritten my list in a separate notebook with the deleted items reinstated, but I did not. Nor did I ever ask Mother what prompted her disapproval, not that I would have been likely to understand her reply, for her babblings were for the most part incoherent. There were moments of lucidity, usually after she had eaten an egg, but at such times she used the opportunity to give commands to the servants.

So many years have passed that I barely recall the items on my list which Mother scratched out, and so effective was the savagery of the scratchings that they are pretty much illegible. For whatever reason, I never did pursue those plans. One, that can still be read, was a desire to “Collect even more ants than Horace Donisthorpe”. In retrospect, I am rather glad Mother crossed that one out. Donisthorpe devoted six decades to the collection of ants. Six decades! I am not that interested in ants, and I would hardly have had time to do anything else. I might never have fulfilled one of my other plans, which was to “Listen to a lot of bunkum”.

Now that one I did pursue, and I pursued it systematically and with great vigour. If I heard rumours abroad of the speaking of bunkum, I made sure I was on the spot when the time came for it to be spouted. I never made any notes, I had no desire to remember any of the bunkum after the speaker was done. I just wanted to listen. And listen I did, here and there, over the course of many years. It was not beyond my wit nor my means to go to Japan, to hear Japanese bunkum, or whatever they call bunkum in Japan, spoken, but I never did. I am sure Mother would not have stood in my way, had I brandished a ticket for an ocean voyage and a Japanese phrasebook, waved them in front of her, and announced that I was setting out at the break of dawn. Had she recently ingested an egg, she might have questioned me about the purpose of my trip and its likely duration, but she would not have stopped me going. I did not go because, I confess, I was frightened of Japan, of faraway Japan.

No doubt it was an irrational fear. I was not, for example, in the least afraid of huge swathes of the globe, from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli. I felt almost affectionate towards eastern Europe, and often had pleasant dreams of Africa. Not that I ever visited these parts, but I would happily have done so had I ever been granted a passport. Sadly, I was not allowed one, by dint of some past infraction committed by Mother in the ambassador’s official residence in a geopolitical hotspot. I never did find out exactly what she had done, or not done, and never asked, in a lucid post-egg moment, when I might have found out. I think there is part of me that did not wish to know.

But I certainly never needed to go to Japan, or to anywhere else, to hear bunkum. There was a vast amount of it to be heard close to home, within the distance of a short bus ride. Perhaps there is as much bunkum elsewhere in the world, or it may be that there is something particular about my little bailiwick that attracts bunkumites – a word defined by the OED as “one who talks bunkum”. Whatever the case, I heard more than enough bunkum over the years, without ever having encountered bravura bunkum.

That was what made Thursday afternoon, in that marquee, on that lawn, in that park, so decisive in my life. Having heard bravura bunkum, I had to ask myself if I wished or needed to hear any other bunkum ever again. I asked myself because I could not ask Mother, who by this time was cold in her grave, in the cemetery adjoining the very same park, her grave set upon a little hillock, where stood a sycamore on the branches of which birds perched, ravens and crows. When Mother first lay there, before the worms got her, I would sometimes go to the hillock and ask questions of the birds. The birds always answered me, cawing, cawing, but I could never interpret the caws nor wring any sense from them. Eventually I ceased to make those visits, and learned to trust to my instincts.

It was instinct that made me take from the sideboard drawer Mother’s pencil, and to cross out the item in my list of plans to “Listen to a lot of bunkum”. I scratched through it savagely, as Mother might have done, but I was calm, eerily calm, as I did so. Now I need never hear any bunkum again. I can move on, at last, to the next item on my list of things to do during my lifetime. I closed the diary, returned Mother’s pencil to the sideboard drawer, and shuffled into the kitchen to boil an egg.

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