A pigeon arrives bearing a note and a snippage from OutaSpaceman. “I felt you needed to see this picture”, reads the note. Seldom has a man been more correct in his hunch.
Musingly he lit a cigarette. Through the open window a bee droned in on the blue air of evening. Closing his eyes he fell to considering whether the bee of one country would understand the remarks of that of another. The effect of the soil of a nation, had it consequences upon its flora? Were plants influenced at their roots? People sometimes spoke (and especially ladies) of the language of flowers . . . the pollen therefore of an English rose would probably vary, not inconsiderably, from that of a French, and a bee born and bred at home . . .would be at a loss to understand (it clearly followed) the conversation of one born and bred, here, abroad. A bee’s idiom varied then, as did man’s! And he wondered, this being proved the case, where the best bees’ accents were generally acquired.
Ronald Firbank, The Flower Beneath The Foot (1923)
Every now and then I ponder whether it would be a good idea to abandon all this Hooting Yardery and instead devote my energies to writing a blockbuster. In my mind’s eye I see the shelves of airport bookstalls groaning under the weight of sundry copies of a thick paperback with gold-embossed lettering on the cover. I further imagine staring at a computer screen on which my earnings from royalties and commercial licensing deals are continuously updated, the numbers growing huger with every passing second. Meanwhile, the telephone does not stop ringing, as calls come in from Hollywood agents desperate to obtain the film rights. And then I think, why bother writing the blockbuster? Why not just go straight to the film script? I have never actually attempted to write a screenplay, but it can’t be that difficult. Well, maybe it is, but needs must when the devil drives.
The Devil Drives might have been a good title for my film script a few years ago, when Hollywood was enamoured of Satan and all his works. But I suspect the time for a road movie in which Beelzebub drives across America wreaking fiendishness at every turn has passed. Vampires and zombies seem more the thing these days, but that is a furrow well-ploughed.
So I decided to play a game of Protagonist Location Literary Reference, or Prolo Litref for short. This is a pastime I devised myself. You get a set of bleached blank playing cards, and divide them into three. Readers with their wits about them will know what to do next, but for any clots and dullards drooling their way through this, the idea is that on one set of cards you write the names of various protagonists, on another a variety of settings or locations, and on the third some interesting literary bittybobs, be they names of authors, or book titles, or anecdotes, or what have you. You then splat the cards face down in three groups upon a large flat surface, such as an ice rink, and pick one card from each.
That is how I arrived at the idea for my screenplay, which involves an underpants bomber on a submarine, also aboard which are Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. This seems to me to have the potential to be a surefire multiplex hit. I have heard that Hollywood producers sometimes like to have a “wild card” element in a plot, some little thing to differentiate the film from a thousand others. In this case, I think that, having Ted Hughes aboard the sub – actually, it might be a U-Boat – we could introduce a stowaway crow. This would add so many frissons I can’t begin to count them.
Already I am carried away with enthusiasm, and imagining scenes which I will somehow have to fit in to the script. Ted and Sylvia kissing and drawing blood from each other, as they tended to do. The underpants bomber being revealed to have a morbid fear of crows. The U-Boat captain, who I suppose will have to be portrayed negatively, shouting orders in German, with subtitles, while water from a leaking pipe drips from the brim of his captain’s cap.
Maddened Plathists would no doubt complain, and even picket the cinemas, if Ted got to hang out with a U-boat crow without Sylvia’s enthusiasms being equally catered for, so perhaps she could have a box full of bees in the cargo hold. I realise that we would be skittering a little close to Snakes On A Plane territory – Bees In A U-Boat – but that is a risk I am willing to take. It could also provide the pretext for a scene in which the bees somehow get into the underpants bomber’s underpants, and either trigger or disable the bomb. What the crow might be up to at the time I have not yet worked out – probably perching atop Ted’s head, cawing.
Though it would be tempting to portray the underpants bomber as a beardy jihadist nutcase, I would like the film to be a little more subtle. I am also bearing in mind television showings, where, at least in Europe, the Muslim character always turns out to be innocent, even saintly, in spite of being a prime suspect early on. Perhaps we would need to cast someone like Tom Hanks as the terrorist. The details of why he has a bomb in his underpants can be worked on. Perhaps it was placed there against his will? By Sylvia? Or by Ted and Sylvia working in unison? There are various possibilities, and the great thing is they are all packed with thrills and spills.
I have mentioned that there has to be a lot of water leaking into the U-Boat, which is old and riddled with metal fatigue. Seals and bolts creak and strain under the pressure as the sub dives ever deeper. It might even be heading into an abyss, a previously unknown trench on the sea bed wherein, billions of years ago, superintelligent aliens beings formed a colony… no, no, I am not going to go there.
Actually, why make a one-off film when surely a twelve or twenty-four episode television series would prove more lucrative? This would necessitate having all the actors speaking Danish and wearing chunky knitwear which might get sodden by all that leaking water. But there would be time to insert all sorts of subplots and also to explore the complex pasts of, and the relationships between the characters. Is the captain an old flame of Sylvia’s? Is the underpants bomber a failed poet with a grudge against Ted? Is the captain a secret Muslim? I don’t know if the Danes have, or had, U-Boats, but a little tweaking of history is forgiveable.
Clearly I have a lot of work to do pulling all the strands together, but quite frankly I can’t see this failing to be a popular success.
In those dark times, astrologer, mathematician and conjuror were accounted the same things, and the vulgar did verily believe [Thomas Allen] to be a conjuror. He had a great many mathematical instruments and glasses in his chamber, which did also confirm the ignorant in their opinion, and his servitor (to impose on freshmen and simple people) would tell them that sometimes he should meet the spirits, coming up his stairs like bees.
from John Aubrey, Brief Lives (1972 edition edited by Oliver Lawson Dick)
Over in his Inexplicable World, Outa_Spaceman tells us he has adopted a bee as a domestic pet. Curiously, he has not yet given it a name. I would ask all readers to head over to his postage right away and bombard him with suggestions. To assist you in choosing an apposite and beguiling bee name, here is a photograph of the little chap.
In a German forest, sunk in gloom
Surrounded by men who spell my doom
All these Fritzes, Horsts and Kurts
Explain the depth of my Weltschmerz
But then they all fall to their knees
Attacked by German killer bees
And now my spirits are surely buoyed
As I am filled with Schadenfreude
You can read all about it at ferrebeekeeper
Luna Park, the Linnanmäki [in Helsinki] … is high above the city on a granite outcrop with a water-tower that looks like a stone gasometer with trees growing on top, and which is circled with lights… One side-show, to judge by the pictures outside, was a house in which people are attacked by bees.
Oswell Blakeston, Sun At Midnight (1958)
On this day, three years ago, I noted a startling insight from the Today programme on Radio Four:
There are differences in the ways serial killers and bees behave, obviously.
Thus spake serial-killer-and-bee expert Dr Nigel Rayne. Obviously.
“Some years since, observes a correspondent of the Athenaeum, a gentleman at a dinner table happened to mention that he was surprised, on the death of a relative, by his servant inquiring ‘whether his master would inform the bees of the event, or whether he should do so’. On asking the meaning of so strange a question, the servant assured him that bees ought always to be informed of a death in the family, or they would resent the neglect by deserting the hive. One of the party present took the opportunity of testing the prevalence of this strange notion, by inquiring of a cottager who had lately lost a relative, and happened to complain of the loss of her bees, ‘whether she had told them all she ought to do?’ She immediately replied, ‘Oh yes : when my aunt died I told every skep [hive] myself, and put them into mourning’.”
John Brand, Observations On The Popular Antiquities Of Great Britain: Including The Whole Of Mr. Bourne’s Antiquitates Vulgares (1777)
Here is another project to keep the tinies occupied during the summer holidays.
Get your pippy bag, and cram it full of kapok. Using a length of butcher’s string, or an old bootlace, tie the pippy bag tightly closed so that none of the kapok will fall out. Now stick innumerable pins into it, and voila! you have a splendid homemade pin cushion.
It may be that your interests do not run to needlework or embroidery, in which case you will not find much use for a pin cushion. So let me show you how easy it is to turn it into something far more exciting!
Fashion a few pipe cleaners into the basic shape of a human body – arms and legs and torso. Then poke this into your pin cushion, which serves as the head. Depending on the size of your pippy bag, the proportions will be all wrong, and it will look a bit like a three-dimensional stick person with a huge bloated hydrocephalic head, but don’t worry about that. Think of it as a voodoo dolly.
The next thing you need to do is to force your mind into believing that the dolly is genuinely imbued with the spirit of a real person, just as Francis Galton convinced himself that Mr Punch was a god. Bear in mind that the dolly has innumerable pins stuck in its head, which almost guarantees that the person you choose, whether it is David Blunkett, for example, or Gore Vidal, will shortly afterwards have their actual head attacked by a swarm of bees.
A letter arrives from Miss Kimika Ying, with important bee information:
Dear Mr. Key : I have been reading a biography of one of the early pioneers of flight (Wings of Madness: Alberto Santos-Dumont and the Invention of Flight by Paul Hoffman) and today I came upon a delightful passage which made me feel as though I had wandered into Hooting Yard. From page 226:
“The Wrights’ historic first flights, and subsequent ones in Ohio over the next two years, received little publicity. Indeed, the first journalist to watch them pilot the Flyer biplane in Ohio wrote up what he saw in a magazine for apiarists, Gleanings in Bee Culture, and the account did not appear until more than two years after Kitty Hawk. No other invention of monumental importance was ushered into the world so quietly.”
Miss Ying adds that in pursuing her researches, she found a link to a volume of Gleanings in Bee Culture, from which she has extracted a couple of quotations readers will no doubt find instructive:
“W. F. Clark says in Annals, ‘Happy is the bee keeper, who can get possession of an old fashioned, black lace veil.’ I think I understand him. With a veil made as follows, no gloves, and a pair of fine tweezers to draw out the little beard that sometimes breaks off in the flesh, as you take away the sting, you may work with very little fear. [some details of veil-making omitted ] N. B. – If you have any very prominent features, don’t draw the veil too closely.”
And, in response to a gentleman’s question in which he mentioned his wife’s health:
“If more of our American women were bee-keepers they would know better what health and happiness is possible for them in this world of ours.”
This is surely nothing but the truth, unalloyed. Many thanks to Kimika Ying for drawing it to our attention.
I didn’t know this. In Koba The Dread, Martin Amis tells us: “Hitler’s father (somehow very appropriately) was more and more obsessed, as he grew older, by bee-keeping.”
“Among the animals who expend industry on hygiene and the protection of their dwellings, we must place Bees in the first line. It may happen that mice, snakes, and moths may find their way into a hive. Assaulted by the swarm, and riddled with stings, they die without being able to escape. These great corpses cannot be dragged out by the Hymenoptera, and their putrefaction threatens to cause disease. To remedy this scourge the insects immediately cover them with propolis – that is to say, the paste which they manufacture from the resin of poplars, birches, and pines. The corpse thus sheltered from contact with the air does not putrefy. In other respects Bees are very careful about the cleanliness of their dwellings; they remove with care and throw outside dust, mud, and sawdust which may be found there. Bees are careful also not to defile their hives with excrement, as Kirby noted; they go aside to expel their excretions, and in winter, when prevented by extreme cold or the closing of the hive from going out for this purpose, their bodies become so swollen from retention of fæces that when at last able to go out they fall to the ground and perish.”
From The Industries Of Animals by Frédéric Houssay (1893)
Is that not inexpressibly sad?
The Islamic chaplain at Yale University says there is “great wisdom” in the idea of putting to death those who leave his religion. I suspect he may need to have his brain tampered with, or at least be given a dictionary so that he can learn the meaning of “wisdom”. Here, for example, is a proper example of great wisdom from Mick Hartley:
“In these dark days it’s somehow comforting to think that someone, somewhere, has been spending their time fitting eye-patches on bees.”
It is indeed.