From his banishment in a pompous land, Mike Jennings writes to suggest that I exhume the piece Dim Tyrant, posted here in 2010. “The dim tyrant, Crepuscus VIII, would seem very relevant all of a sudden,” says Mr Jennings, “Given his, quote, fateful combination of childish whimsy and an inability to string together a coherent sentence, unquote.” What POTUS could he possibly be thinking of? Anyway, here is the piece, which does seem, at least in its earlier passages, spookily prophetic.
Assessing the career of the tyrant king Crepuscus VIII, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that he was excessively dull-witted and dim. There is a plethora of anecdotage, from courtiers and palace leeches, revealing that the king was rarely able to answer simple questions such as “What part of the body sits atop the neck?”, “How many angels can dance upon the head of a pin?” or “Who won the 1953 FA Cup Final?”
And yet this atrociously stupid man ruled over a mighty kingdom for many years, his hands steady at the helm though his mind was doolally. So, dim as he was, he has much to teach us about the craft of kingship, and indeed of tyranny, if we consider tyranny a craft. For let there be no doubt that his reign was tyrannical.
“In the case of Crepuscus VIII,” wrote the historian Sagely, sagely, “we find a fateful combination of childish whimsy and an inability to string together a coherent sentence. Thus it was that his henchpersons invariably misunderstood his ukases, but hurried to fulfil them come what may.” Sagely gives as an example the occasion when the tyrant king’s whim was to burn down every barn in the land. But so muddled and mangled was the manner in which he gave the command that his Royal Barn Burner mistakenly put a pot-belled pig in charge of the palace treasury instead. As might have been expected, the pig spent every last golden coin on swill, and not a barn was burned to the ground. Fortunately, Crepuscus VIII was so dim that he did not realise what had happened, nor why, and he retired to his boudoir to gaze at the ceiling, thinking it was the vault of heaven.
One could multiply such flimflam until the cows come home, and indeed there are many amusing – and sometimes alarming – books which cobble together hundreds of instances of Crepuscus VIII’s imbecility. I want to take a slightly different tack, however. The thing that has always fascinated me about the tyrant king is not his breathtaking dimness but his dinner jackets.
Dinner was of supreme importance at the court of Crepuscus VIII. Whatever else was going on, at four o’ clock sharp every day, the king would sweep into his banqueting hall and sit down at his banqueting table, at which would be gathered all sorts of banqueting companions. In spite of his dimness, the king liked to be entertained during dinner by philosophers, scientists, novelists, artists, actors, clowns, jugglers, pamphleteers, scruffily-bearded film directors, engineers, podcast maestros, deep sea divers, chefs, snipers, ornithologists, sundry persons with metal plates in their skulls, magicians, mountaineers, ex-Beatles, priests, anthropologists, cartographers, architects, mesmerists, and, if he was available, Rolf Harris. It is doubtful if any of the high-flown table talk penetrated the king’s dull-witted brain, but he sat there, a fork in each hand (he never used a knife), beaming, and resplendent in his dinner jacket of the day.
There were seven of these jackets, one for each day of the week, and the king cut quite a dash in all of them. Monday’s was made of crimplene and cardboard, with golden stars and ribbons and a coathanger embedded in it. Tuesday’s was of plain burlap sacking, adorned with coal dust and grease. Wednesday’s was a gorgeous embroidered flapping wonder. Thursday’s was satin, boxy and black. Friday’s was knit from strands of a rare and stinking wool, shorn from rabid sheep, tie-dyed like some hippy shawl, surrounded by an aura invisible. Saturday’s was of classic cut but frayed at the cuffs, with dangling bells. Sunday’s was somehow a blur, as if the king was vibrating, or on another plane just beyond human apprehension. Whatever day of the week it was, whichever dinner jacket he was wearing, the tyrant king ate sparingly, birdseed and millet mostly, accompanied by sips of lukewarm water from the palace spigot.
Today the dinner jackets can be found hanging in display cases in a jolly little museum hidden away in one of the less salubrious faubourgs of Pointy Town. I exhort you to pay a visit, nay, repeated visits. Study the jackets, now caked with dust, hear the echoes of all that banqueting table babbling, take away with you a souvenir packet of Tyrant King’s Birdseed®, relive the days when Crepuscus VIII reigned over us, dim and tyrannical and cutting quite a dash.
The part of the body atop the king’s neck, by the way, was his head.
There was an item on the Today programme on BBC Radio Four this morning about a new scientific study of penguins. I am afraid I was not paying due attention so cannot enlighten you. However, it did serve to remind me that, in the long ago, when I used to draw pictures, I once depicted, in the medium of pen and ink, a scientific experiment upon a penguin.
Browsing in a bookshop the other day, I noticed among the new titles a considerable number of books about “The New China”. I have not read any of them, and did not buy any of them, but I have nevertheless been thinking about The New China and how it might differ from The Old China.
I began by wondering if I could gain a grasp of the matter by comparing New Labour with Old Labour. A moment’s reflection, however, dissuaded me from going down that path. First, The New China clearly has a definite article, whereas my researches have shown that nowhere was New Labour ever referred to as The New Labour. Second, while New Labour supplanted Old Labour, it has in itself now been replaced by, variously, Blue Labour, New Old Labour, or simply Labour. As far as I have been able to ascertain, this has not yet happened to The New China, which remains The New China in opposition to The Old China.
There is one remarkable similarity, and one glaring difference, between The New China and The Old China. (I am sure there are more, of each, but these two instances will suffice to get us to the nub. The nub, after all, is where we want to be, whether it be The New Nub or The Old Nub, or just The Nub,)
The similarity is this. To a large extent, one will find that the rivers and the mountains of The New China are almost exactly the same as those of The Old China. There may be the occasional small variation, but nothing a geographer of any stripe would deem significant. (I will be writing about the stripes of geographers, in another context, shortly.)
On the other hand, the people of The Old China have been completely replaced by new people in The New China. If we pluck a year of The Old China at random – say 1736 – we find that every single one of those Old Chinese people is gone, and also that not one of the New Chinese people has yet arrived on the scene.
It is of course possible to posit a very different kind of The New China, where all the mountains and rivers have been replaced by new ones, whereas the people are the same. They would be staggering about, withered and wizened and toothless and doolally, without a clue where they were, their familiar landmarks, the rivers and mountains, changed, and changed utterly, in The New China.
The Yazidi, a primarily Kurdish religious minority, have been much in the news recently, threatened with death by the rampaging nutcases of IS, or Isis. You can read about their current travails elsewhere. I want here simply to mention the somehow endearing fact – reported by the BBC’s Paul Wood – that in the Yazidi faith it is forbidden to eat lettuce.
A little belated, but here is a topical clerihew:
Was a columnist of some renown
But it was a TV appearance, rather than something she wrote,
That prompted Michael Fabricant to want to punch her in the throat.
Reading about yet another teenage shooting murder in east London in yesterday’s paper, I could not help but burst into inappropriate laughter at the name of the victim. Her name, apparently, was Shereka Fab-Ann Marsh. “Shereka” is bad enough, eliding easily into “Shrieker”, but “Fab-Ann”? What on earth were her parents thinking?
I am not sure if it is possible for me to re-register the births of my own (now adult) sons, but I am tempted to rechristen them Fab-Sam and Fab-Ed. And while we are about it, could I become Fab-Frank? Or perhaps With-It-Mr-Key?
Perhaps the tragic Miss Marsh’s parents were fans of Thunderbirds.
Naturally, the moment I heard of Mandela’s death, I wondered what Bono had thought of him. Turns out he approved..
Tom Holland reacts to the news. As does Rod Liddle:
for Christ’s sake BBC, give it a bloody break for five minutes, will you? It’s as if the poor bugger now has to bear your entire self-flagellating white post-colonial bien pensant guilt; look! Famous nice black man dies! Let’s re-run the entire history of South Africa. That’s better than watching the country we’re in being flattened by a storm.
So witless are the worlds of television and pop music that when, from time to time, a figure emerges in their midst who is capable of stringing a few coherent sentences together, they are held up as intellectual titans of our age. One thinks of Stephen Fry, regularly – if inexplicably – acclaimed as the possessor of the largest and most pulsating brain on this or any other planet. It is a case of Triton among the minnows, the majority of television persons being so vacuous and stupid that someone like Fry can dazzle simply by using words of three or more syllables.
The delusion is even more pronounced in pop music, and nowhere more preposterously than in the adulation of the lead singer of The Smiths, a band that split up a quarter of a century ago. His autobiography has now been published as a Penguin Classic. Reread and digest that sentence, please, for it tells us much about the pitiable state of our culture, if indeed we could still be said to have one.
What we have here is a combination of overweening vanity (on the part of the pop singer) and the sacrifice of any literary credibility to hard-headed marketing (on the part of the publisher). It would be bad enough had Penguin issued it as a Modern Classic, the usual imprint for suitably recognised works written after 1918. But no, this solipsistic screed is deemed worthy for inclusion in what the Penguin website still maintains is an imprint devoted to “the best literature of several thousand years and countless cultures”.
When the pop singer said “I’d like my book to be published as a Penguin Classic”, the correct response would have been “You are ridiculous. Go away.”
My thoughts are with E. V. Rieu, a proper scholar, the original editor of the Penguin Classics list, who died in 1972. The poor man will be turning in his grave.
As far as I am aware, we have not yet mastered the art of travelling backwards in time. That being so, why is it that no politician, of whatever stripe, can open their mouth without uttering the redundant phrase “going forward”, often repeatedly? Listen to any current affairs programme for a few minutes and you will hear it.
The only solution is for the whole sorry lot of them to have some kind of contraption fitted to their heads which delivers a high-voltage electro-convulsive shock each and every time they use the phrase. Perhaps – in the future – this will happen. (“In the future” is an archaic term. It used to be what people said where they now say “going forward”.)
I have paid little attention to the current kerfuffle at the BBC. As stated previously, I am intensely relaxed about the fact that some people have far more money than I will ever have, and I cannot bestir myself to get in a flap about it. It is of course preposterous that the ex-Deputy Director General was given a million pound payoff in order to keep him focussed on his decisively important work (or words to that affect) but, heigh ho, that is the way of the world and to expect any better is to live in a fool’s paradise.
At the same time, I can be roused to a sort of impotent armchair-based fury when these ridiculously overpaid persons make public display of their own witlessness and stupidity. Consider Ian Katz, lately the deputy editor of the Guardian and now installed as the editor of BBC’s Newsnight. I do not know how much he is paid but it is no doubt a sum beyond my wildest dreams.
Katz is the latest in a long line of supposedly intelligent persons who is unable to master the difference between sending a private message and broadcasting it to the entire world. In his editorial role, he apparently sent a “tweet” in which he said a Labour shadow minister was boring – for which he later apologised. Frankly, I couldn’t care less. It is the sentence that followed the accusation that bothers me. Katz wrote:
playout was fun tho, wasn’t it? telly MUCH better than snooooozepapers innit
Let me remind you. This man was deputy editor of a serious newspaper and is now editor of a flagship current affairs programme. No doubt he would say he is being playful and “ironic”. But for him to even think of writing – and then actually to write – such infantile twaddle is profoundly depressing.
Katz should be locked in a cupboard with a copy of The Anatomy Of Melancholy, and taken out at intervals to have his brain sluiced. Then he might begin to earn a tiny fraction of what he is paid.
Comparing the footage of the 1963 March on Washington and yesterday’s anniversary of the “I Have A Dream” speech, what struck most forcefully was how much better dressed everybody was fifty years ago.
Mary Bousted, leader of one of the teachers’ unions, was on the radio the other day giving her views on the planned new national curriculum. Obviously she disapproved of it, because the teachers’ unions automatically disapprove of any and all revisions suggested by the government, whichever government is in power. What was striking, however, was one of her principal objections. The new curriculum, she warned darkly, is “riddled with knowledge”.
Heaven forfend that the teachers in our schools self-esteem ‘n’ diversity awareness hubs should be expected to impart knowledge to the tinies!
I am left speechless, but will merely note that Mary Bousted attended a grammar school and bears the title of “Doctor”. I think she must have been taught some “knowledge” somewhere along the line.
I very rarely engage in social or political comment at Hooting Yard, partly because that is not what you lot come here for and partly because there are teeming thousands of other bloggers, of all shades of opinion, who engage in that sort of thing. On occasion, however, I am minded to comment on current affairs, and readers can always ignore this postage if they so wish.
Yesterday a bunch of “anti-capitalists” took to the West End of London to protest. I noted that anti-capitalists always seem to be armed with the latest mobile phones – I don’t have one myself, so I must be more anti-capitalist than them – and are generally well-fed and clothed. But let that pass. What struck me was a placard wielded by one of the protesters, which read “Make Excessive Wealth History”. (Clearly a play on the “Make Poverty History” campaign of a few years ago.)
Now let me first of all point out that I am as poor as a church mouse, and scrape by on very little. So I am in no way personally threatened by the sorts of people who wish to end excessive wealth. At the same time, I would echo the Prince of Darkness, Peter Mandelson, in saying that I am “intensely comfortable with people getting filthy rich”. Being uncomfortable about it is a bit like being uncomfortable about the air, or the motion of the planets. Throughout history, in all times and all places, some people have been filthy rich compared to the mass of others.
It is worth stressing the comparative. A tenth century king was much, much wealthier than any of his wretched subjects, but, in the western world at least, the poorest sod today is materially richer and more comfortable than that king. (That this state of affairs is due to capitalism need not detain us.)
Apart from the sheer inevitability of excessive wealth, it makes little difference to me, in terms of my daily life, that there are a few people out there in possession of billions. If all that money was taken away from them, would my life be happier? And it is precisely the “taking away” that I find myself wondering about.
That person with his placard – how does he envisage making excessive wealth history? First, he has to draw a line to define “excessive”. Presumably, any wealth above that line has to be confiscated, presumably by the government. Ideally, I suppose, this government would be run by enlightened persons such as our protester, and they would spend the money on things they thought fit. But a different government would spend it differently, in ways that our protester might not approve of. So there’s a snag, unless of course the protester and his enlightened pals could remain in government in perpetuity. That might make elections problematic.
There is also the point about who these excessively wealthy people are. The favoured targets are of course bankers and fatcats and plutocrats, hedge fund managers and oligarchs, a sort of amorphous mass of fiends who we can picture cackling evilly as they grind the faces of the poor into the dirt. What about excessively wealthy pop stars and film stars and footballers? (I was amused to learn that right on excessively wealthy people such as Sean Penn put in an appearance at the Occupy protests to show solidarity, parking their cars a few blocks away and arriving at the scene after a short ride on public transport.)
To take a single example. God knows how rich J K Rowling is. But this is a woman who has earned every penny, from the days when she was on the dole and sat in cafés writing her first book. No inherited wealth, no family connections, no evil cackling. She gives the impression of being as right on as the protesters and Sean Penn. Is it “fair” to say to her, “I’m sorry, your wealth exceeds the precise amount we have deemed acceptable, so we are taking it away from you”?
I do wish the iPhone-wielding “anti-capitalists” would think more clearly about their proposals. Or maybe they are just self-evidently right, and we should bow down to their superior morals?
“She walked like a partridge.” – Matthew Parris
“She scuttled about like a hen.” – Jon Snow
Two quotes from Maggie And Me, shown on Channel 4 this evening.