Have You Seen This Man?

“Antoinette Bourignon, that extraordinary mystic of the seventeenth century, had some strange visions of the primeval man and the birth of Eve. The body of Adam, she says, was more pure, translucent, and transparent than crystal, light and buoyant as air. In it were vessels and streams of light, which entered and exuded through the pores. The vessels were charged with liquors of various colours of intense brilliancy and transparency; some of these fluids were water, milk, wine, fire, &c. Every motion of Adam’s body produced ineffable harmonies. Every creature obeyed him; nothing could resist or injure him. He was taller than men of this time; his hair was short, curled, and approaching to black. He had a little down on his lower lip. In his stomach was a clear fluid, like water in a crystal bowl, in which tiny eggs developed themselves, like bubbles in wine, as he glowed with the ardour of Divine charity; and when he strongly desired that others should unite with him in the work of praise, he deposited some of these eggs, which hatched, and from one of them emerged his consort, Eve.”

Sabine Baring-Gould, Curiosities Of Olden Times (1869)

If you have seen anyone answering to this description, please contact your local police, or a priest, in strictest confidence.

Tiny Enid’s Unhatched God Egg

“Now certain Nations there be that account beasts, yea, and some filthie things for gods; yea and many other matters more shamefull to be spoken; swearing by stinking meats, by garlicke, and such like. But surely, to beleeve that gods have contracted mariage, and that in so long continuance of time no children should be borne between them : also that some are aged, and ever hoarie and gray: others againe young and alwaies children: that they be blacke of colour and complexion, winged, lame, hatched of eggs, living and dying each other day; are meere fooleries, little better than childish toies.”

Pliny The Elder, The Naturall Historie, The Second Booke, Chap. 7. Of God in the 1634 English translation by Philomen Holland

One person who was very familiar with the ancient idea that an egg might serve as a childish toy, and that from the egg would hatch a god, was Tiny Enid. On the day of her birth she was presented with an egg by her mysterious, unnamed mentor, and as soon as she grew old enough for childish play it became her favoured toy. It is easy to forget, given the plucky tot’s many deeds of heroism and derring-do, that she was still but a tot, and, when time allowed, she played as other tots do. She played games such as Hide The Egg In The Pantry, Roll The Egg Down A Gentle Incline, and Balance The Egg On A Precipice Over A Yawning Chasm.

It is not entirely clear when Tiny Enid learned that her egg contained an as yet unhatched god. It is also perfectly possible that it did not, and that the venturesome little fascist simply invented the idea for purposes of self-dramatisation. Either way, we do know that one hot summer’s day she stopped treating the egg as a plaything, placed it in a carton, put the carton on her mantelpiece, and spent many hours watching over it, waiting for it to hatch.

Several writers – better to call them hacks – have devoted vast swathes of psychobabble to the suggestion that Tiny Enid was convinced, or convinced herself, that by embarking on ever greater feats of infant heroism she could somehow persuade the god to crack open its egg and burst forth into the world, ushering in a new dispensation under the cope of heaven and, not incidentally, installing the tot as its Archangel. In this reading, Tiny Enid is impelled to acts and adventures of ever greater recklessness for purely selfish reasons. The hacks who peddle this stuff never stop to consider two blindingly obvious facts. One, it makes no sense whatsoever, and two, there is no evidence that, at the end of each of her adventures, Tiny Enid dashed back to her mantelpiece to check on the egg. On the contrary, she was notorious for sticking around to receive plaudits and medals and cups and cash prizes and to watch parades pass by in her honour, and on occasions when these things did not happen, she would bash a few heads together, literally, until she considered due gratitude was displayed. These are not the activities of one who hankers for the imminent intervention of the divine, whether from an egg or from anywhere else.

Indeed, a better case could be made that a child as self-possessed and drunk on her own reputation as Tiny Enid would consider the arrival of a new god as fatally stealing her thunder. It is worth asking what sort of god she was expecting to hatch from the egg on her mantelpiece. Although she was not a religious girl, it is a matter of record that she had, like the Swiss skiing ace Woodcarver Steiner, great ecstasies. During these entrancements, did she have visions of her egg-hatched god? It is a great pity that she never left us an account of at least one of her great ecstasies in her Memoirs. The egg itself is mentioned, over and over again, at first in references to its status as a plaything, as here, on page 47:

I passed many a happy hour playing Carry The Egg Towards The Pond and other delightful pastimes

and then, from page 88 onwards, she constantly reminds us of its numinous presence:

Before revving up my jalopy to speed to the rescue of the stricken and the maimed who had been attacked by the giant lobster being, I paused to look at the egg in its carton on the mantelpiece. It had not yet hatched.

for example, and

The next Thursday was a particularly dull day without any opportunity for daring rescues of those imperilled. I spent much of my time contemplating the egg in its carton on the mantelpiece, from which no god had yet hatched.

In her lifetime, no god ever did hatch from the egg, but I suppose it is not impossible that one might still do so. For though Tiny Enid herself grew old and died, she always kept the egg with her wherever she roamed in her long life, and at her death it was found among her effects. Carefully catalogued by those who keep her flame alive, the egg, in its carton, is now kept in the Tiny Enid Museum, recently established in a cavernous hangar on a so-called “rustic industrial estate” on the edge of the mephitic marshes on the outskirts of Pointy Town. If you visit, and pay through the nose for an entrance ticket, seek out the egg in its refrigerated chamber, and who knows?, perhaps while you are there you will see the shell crack, and a god hatch out, come blind and trembling into the world.

Eggs, Stick

It is quite some time since I have heard from Dr Ruth Pastry, but at last she has broken her silence. Here is her letter:

Dear Mr Key : Last week I read your postage Poultry Yards Of The Grand Archdukes and, though I was not impressed, I could not help but be intrigued by your reference to a breakfast recipe which involves, and I quote, “more eggs than you can shake a stick at”. How many eggs is that?, I wondered. The only indication you give, and I quote again, is “a goodly number of eggs”. This is less than helpful. “A goodly number”, in and of itself, is not a measurable quantity. A writer with more concern for his or her readers would be precise in these matters, and tell us plainly how many eggs we would have to assemble before we were no longer able to shake a stick at them.

Because of your laxity, I was put in the position of having to find out for myself. I went for a walk in the woods and came back carrying a stout and sturdy stick. I think it was a branch from a hornbeam. It was a very shakeable stick, as I ascertained by shaking it experimentally a few times while still in the woods. Squirrels scattered as I shook it, and there was movement in shrubbery as if a small woodland creature had been startled. Had I had with me my net, I would have used it to entrap the creature, whatever it was, and then rained blows upon it with the stick until ’twere dead, and taken it home with me to boil for a snack, garnished perhaps with a tomato and some basil. As it was, I was netless, so I returned home with just the stick.

I then set to preparing my test area. You know, I think, how thorough I am. I shoved the kitchen table back against the kitchen wall, thus creating sufficient space for me to be able to shake the stick without risking damage to my many and various kitchen appurtenances. Next, I opened my refrigerator, and removed from it every single egg currently in my possession, placing them, in their carton, on my countertop. I was somewhat dismayed to note that I had only five eggs, from the carton’s original complement of six. My instinctive thought was that five was unlikely to be the “goodly number of eggs” you prescribed. However, instinct is one thing, and empirical evidence is another thing entirely. It was clear to me that the absolute minimum possible indicated by “a goodly number of eggs” was a simple plurality, in other words, two eggs.

Before continuing, I fetched from a cubby a fresh ledger, dozens of pages of creamy paper divided by faint blue lines into squares. In this, I would tabulate my results, using several different coloured pencils, which I duly sharpened with a pencil sharpener. I then removed two eggs from the carton and placed them on the table, taking care to position them in such a way that they would not roll off the tabletop and smash to squelchy ruin upon the floor linoleum. I had already made certain the tabletop was level, using a Van Der Hoddle Levelometer, a splendid device which I find far more effective than the common spirit level, and which uses no spirits whatsoever.

With the two eggs in place upon the table, as they would be were I to be embarking upon my breakfast preparation, I shook the stick at them. I suffered no hindrance, and could have gone on shaking the stick for hours upon end, had I been so minded. But I shook the stick only for long enough to become convinced beyond any shade of doubt that two was not the “goodly number of eggs” defined as “more eggs than I could shake a stick at”. I noted the results in the ledger, painstakingly, and then removed a third egg from the carton and placed it next to the original brace of eggs on the table, proceeding to shake the stick once again.

You will, I suppose, have worked out that soon enough I tried four, then five, eggs, with identical outcomes. Pleased as I was with the severe beauty of the tabulation of results in my ledger, I had now exhausted my supply of eggs. For a madcap moment, I considered propping a mirror upon the kitchen table, thus doubling the visible number of eggs, thinking by doing so I could somehow “trick” the stick. Two immediate objections to such tomfoolery rapidly presented themselves. First, the positioning of the mirror would be enormously complicated if I were to be able to present the appearance of the intermediate egg numbers, from six through nine. Second, the stick was just a stick, from a hornbeam, probably, and did not in itself have sense perception, visual or otherwise. The impossibility of shaking a stick at “a goodly number of eggs”, whatever that number might be, was, I felt sure, dependent not upon the stick itself, but on the quantity of eggs one was attempting to shake it at. And in turn, that surely meant they had to be real eggs, not mirror images nor any other eggs of illusion.

Now, I was reluctant to march off to my nearest egg shop to buy the extra eggs I would need. For one thing, I had no idea how many eggs that might be. Also, what was I going to do with them all when my experiment was done? One can only eat so many eggs before becoming disgusted at the prospect of yet another egg-based meal, and it would be a terrible sin, and a waste of money, to let them rot uneaten. I thought it unlikely that the proprietor of the egg shop would be willing to allow me to return any bought but unused eggs, for he is not the most amiable of shopkeepers. Indeed, more than once I had had blazing arguments with him, and not always on the subject of eggs.

Then I recalled that there had been recent tidings from the farmyard of Mad Old Farmer Frack. It was said that he was no longer devoting himself exclusively to his bellowing cows, but had installed a hen coop, with hens in it, on the farm. Where there’s hens there’s eggs, I said to myself, not wholly grammatically, but memorably. I wondered if it was an old country saying. I resolved to ask Old Farmer Frack if this were so, although the main business of the visit to him I now embarked upon, without delay, was to borrow from him as many eggs as possible.

“Hail to thee, Old Farmer Frack,” I cried, within the hour, leaning against his fence, “I was wondering if it would be possible for me to borrow from you as many eggs as possible? I will bring them back before nightfall.”

The mad old farmer was standing in the middle of one of his fields, looking mad and farmerly, doing something with a spade. When he heard me, he looked up, let fall the spade, and came bounding over to me at inhuman speed. His eyes were bloodshot and his hair was a tangle of filth.

“My eggs are not for borrowing,” he said, “Under any circumstances. But for an old friend like you, Dr Pastry, I might consider renting them out.”

And so we haggled. We had done so many times before, over the years. The thing is, I have advanced haggling skills, whereas Mad Old Farmer Frack is hopeless and inept in this area as in so many others. Within a few minutes, I had him agreeing to let me take away hundreds upon hundreds of eggs in return for a photocopy of my bus pass and a sprig o’ myrtle. Of course, I then had to scoot off to town to get the photocopy, and pop in to Myrtle Sprigs R Us® to get the sprig, but that was soon accomplished.

When I returned to the farm, Mad Old Farmer Frack was nowhere to be seen. I thought he might be herding his bellowing cows from field to field, pointlessly, and went a-roaming to see if I could spot him, and them. I found the cows, all of them, without their farmer, standing around in a distant field beyond a drainage ditch, in the rain. I trudged back through muck and puddles to the hen coop, and poked my head in for a look-see. Lots and lots of hens, but no farmer, and, more to the point, no eggs. A couple of the more savage hens made moves to attack me, but I remonstrated with them in a sort of screechy hensprache I picked up from a hen person I met on my travels, long ago, and they were immediately pacified, and not just pacified but put into comas, from which they will only awake when next it is time for them to lay an egg.

That done, I wandered aimlessly around the farm for a few hours before giving up and going home, cursing Mad Old Farmer Frack and throwing pebbles at crows in my annoyance. I unlatched the door of Pastry Cottage, and there, in my kitchen, was the mad old farmer himself, waving a stick at the kitchen table upon which teetered a gigantic pile of eggs. He looked around as I came in.

“Ah, there you are, doctor,” he said in his mad voice, “I was so interested in what you were telling me about your egg experiment during our haggling process, I thought I’d carry on where you left off while you were fetching the agreed rental. Speaking of which, do you have the photocopy of your bus pass and the sprig o’ myrtle?”

Nonplussed, I handed over the items without a word.

“So far I am up to a hundred and sixty-two eggs,” said Old Farmer Frack, “And still nothing is impeding me from shaking the stick at them.”

“Have you been tabulating the results in the ledger?” I asked, not unreasonably.

“Oh… I forgot to do that bit,” he said. At least he had the grace to look shamefaced.

“Then we must begin again, from six upwards,” I said, “Otherwise the experiment will not have been conducted with sufficient rigour.”

“Yes, yes, of course,” said the mad old farmer, and I was delighted to see that he immediately began to remove a hundred and fifty-six eggs from the table, one by one, with surprisingly dainty movements, placing them hither and thither about the kitchen wherever he was able to find space among the many and various kitchen appurtenances I mentioned earlier, only a few of which he had broken or dented when clumping about before suddenly remembering his daintiness upon my arrival home.

I have to say that tackling this as a two-person job has been a marked improvement. I can concentrate on the majestic sweeping penmanship of my ledger entries, while Mad Old Farmer Frack shakes the stick. As a farmer, he is able to shake a stick with much more conviction than I can muster, for of course he shakes a stick at something most days, whereas I only rarely do so. We are taking it in turns to move the eggs from their temporary storage places, one at a time, to join the eggs accumulated upon the table.

I am beginning to worry if the legs of my kitchen table will continue to support the ever-increasing weight of eggs, and, as I write, have sent Mad Old Farmer Frack off to fetch lengths of titanium cut to size, from Old Ma Purgative’s Cut To Size Titanium Reinforcement Rods Shoppe. I scribbled a note for him to take, explaining to Old Ma Purgative that the table is currently supporting six hundred and forty eggs, and asking that she supply titanium rods sturdy enough to support twice that number. I added, of course, the relevant measurements, of both my table legs and the approximate weight of eggs.

Fairly soon, however, we are going to run out of eggs. Between us, I am sure we will work out how to get more, by hire or theft or, as a last resort, cash purchase. Meanwhile, I am beginning to wonder just how many eggs we will have piled on my reinforced table before I pause, coloured pencil held steady over my ledger, and the time comes when Mad Old Farmer Frack raises the hornbeam stick, to shake it yet again, and finds – oh! sweet mystery of life, or rather of egg-numbers – that he is completely unable to do so. When that time comes, Mr Key, I will write to you again, requesting further details of your eggy breakfast recipe, which I have no doubt is both succulent and toothsome.

Yours waiting for Mad Old Farmer Frack to come crashing through the door,

Dr Ruth Pastry

Poultry Yards Of The Grand Archdukes

Within minutes of beginning my research into the poultry yards of archdukes, I struck gold. I suppose I should not have been surprised to learn that it was a topic to which Dobson had turned his attention, in his pamphlet The Poultry Yards Of The Grand Archdukes (out of print). Alackaday!, as Hadrian Beverland would put it, I then struck base metal, for it turns out that this is one of the rarest of the rare of Dobson pamphlets, and I could not get my hands on a copy try as I might, not that I tried very hard, having other things on my mind, such as Pantsil’s performance in the World Cup, guff, pomposity, and potato crisps. Of which, more later, if it please your Lordship.

Now the unobtainability of a pamphlet would deal a knockout blow to a weedy, milksop researcher, but I am made of sterner stuff. I gulped down a beaker of Squelcho! and, at dead of night, I stole out to the weird woods of Woohoohoodiwoo and sought out the Woohoohoodiwoo Woman. I found her crouching in a patch of nettles, moving her withered arms in some incomprehensible but no doubt eldritch fashion, and muttering gibberish. Good old Woohoohoodiwoo Woman!, I thought, she never lets you down. Not, at least, if you remember to bring her a gift, as I did. I greeted her and handed over a rather smudged back number of the Reader’s Digest. I had no idea to what weird and spooky use she would put it, but it is better not to ask. She gave the magazine a couple of gummy bites to make sure it was genuine, and then asked me, in her weird woohoohoodiwoo voice, what I wanted. I cleared my throat.

“Are you familiar with the out of print pamphleteer Dobson?” I asked her. When I spoke aloud the great man’s name, an owl hooted and a wolf howled. The Woohoohoodiwoo Woman’s head moved slightly, in what might have been a nod. It was either that or a magical spasm. I pressed on.

“There is an unobtainable pamphlet by Dobson which I feel impelled to read, oh Woman of Woohoohoodiwoo,” I continued, “And I was wondering if, through your tremendously strange powers, you might be able to commune with transient shimmerings of ectoplasmic doo-dah and somehow have transmitted to you the full text of this pamphlet, entitled The Poultry Yards Of The Grand Archdukes, and declaim it to me, here in the weird woods in moonlight, while I scribble down what you say in my notepad with my propelling pencil.” I patted my pocket to indicate that I had come prepared with these essential items.

The Woohoohoodiwoo Woman did some business with a toad and a newt and a hacksaw and some parsley and the bleached and boiled skull of a starling and a handful of breadcrumbs, and there was a mighty flash of eerie incandescence across the sky and a boom as of thunder and then she began to writhe in hideous jarring contortions as the night air grew chill as the grave. Then she began to babble, and I started scribbling.

When we were done, I patted the Weird Woman on her weird head, promised her further back copies of the Reader’s Digest or Carp Talk!, her other favourite periodical, and headed for home clutching the precious recovered text. I had a long day’s work ahead of me, transcribing the scribble in my notepad using my iWoo, a fantastic new device from Apple specifically designed for the transcription of unearthly hallucinatory babblings into tough sensible prose. I chuckled to myself, wondering what Dobson would have made of our twenty-first century technology. Somehow I could not imagine the great man Twittering or Facebooking or posting videos on YouTube, though there is of course that tantalising paragraph in his pamphlet Tantalising Paragraphs About The World O’ The Future (out of print) where he seems to be hinting at some kind of hand-held apparatus called an iRuskin. I must look it up and parlay my observations into a postage here one of these days.

As soon as I got home, just after dawn, I switched on or, as they say nowadays, powered up my iWoo, and left it to bleep and hum while I fixed a solid breakfast. This involved more eggs than you can shake a stick at, which is a goodly number of eggs, I can tell you. This is my own breakfast recipe, called Hitchcock’s Nightmare, or, alternatively, Orwell’s Glut. All of my many and various breakfast recipes are named after writers, painters, and film directors, and I hope one day to cobble them together into a compendium. But a more urgent task was at hand. What, I wondered, had Dobson had to say about the poultry yards of the grand archdukes in that rare, o rare!, pamphlet?

The iWoo hissed and juddered like some living organism as it tackled the bonkers babbling of the Woohoohoodiwoo Woman, but before sunset I had a print-out. It ran to forty pages of densely-set text, cleverly imitating the authentic look of a Gestetnered pamphlet direct from Marigold Chew’s shed. I was too exhausted to read it then and there, so I shoved it into a drawer and went to bed.

During the night I had that dream about the Kibbo Kift again.

The next morning, after a breakfast I call a Claude Chabrol Special, I sat down to read. I was careful to bear in mind that what I was reading was not Dobson as such, but Dobson as filtered through the eerie inexplicable powers of the Woohoohoodiwoo Woman, a different text entirely. Nonetheless, it was the nearest I could get to the pamphleteer’s own words.

Dobson, or the WooDobson, began by listing the grand archdukes whose poultry yards he had studied. It was an incredibly long and tedious list, packed with Ludwigs and Viggos and Hohenhohens and Gothengeists and Ulrics and Umbertos. Here and there, a few biographical or historical details were scattered about, but nothing about poultry yards nor, indeed, disgusting rabbits. Next came one of those Dobsonian digressions, sometimes fascinating, sometimes infuriating. This one was firmly in the latter camp, being an extended meditation upon stars and yeast, neither of which topics the pamphleteer seemed to have a clue about. By the time he had finished wittering, I was halfway through the recovered pamphlet, and still waiting to learn about its ostensible subject matter. I began to wonder if the Woohoohoodiwoo Woman had played a joke on me. Had she really been in contact with ectoplasmic beings from a realm beyond our puny understanding, or was she just raving? I wanted to trust her, not least because I had paid good money for that back number of the Reader’s Digest from Old Ma Purgative’s Anti-Communist Secondhand Periodicals Shoppe.

But of course I need not have worried. After some closing flimflam about boiled yeast, the WooDobson at last got to the matter in hand. Here was the sentence that made me sit bolt upright:

It is patently obvious to anyone who has studied these things that all grand archdukes, maintaining poultry yards upon their estates around which disgusting rabbits prowled, did so because of a fanatical devotion to the cause of Unreason.

He goes on to explain. Unfortunately, this is where the Woohoohoodiwoo Woman’s channels of communication with the mysterious realms seem to have broken down a tad.

I say “patently obvious” because it is both patent and obvious. Consider the Ancien Regime. Consider it again. Imagine yourself strutting about the corridors of the archducal palace. Is your path blocked by hens? It is! Why are the hens not in their coop in the poultry yard? Hear them clucking. If you could translate their clucking into human speech, specifically High Germanic speech, as spoken by quite a number of grand archdukes, what do you think they would be saying? “Eek! Eek! We are in fear of the disgusting rabbits who skulk about the perimeter of our yard!” You might argue that rabbits are one of the last animals on earth whose method of propelling themselves hither and thither could be described as “skulking”. You might argue that, but do you want to be seen arguing with hens, in your palace corridor, by one of your footmen or valets? “Ho ho ho”, they would sneer, your minions, later, downstairs in their pantry, “The old fool was arguing with hens. Who ever heard of such a thing?” Thereafter they would treat you with contempt and even come to question your Archdukedom. The lettered ones among them might start reading insurrectionist pamphlets produced by beardy German revolutionaries. Better by far never to argue with hens in the corridor, no matter how panic-stricken they appear. Gather them up, one by one, and put them right back in their coop, in the poultry yard. Send a rider to dash on horseback to the Landgrave, in his distant fastness, to alert him to the presence of disgusting rabbits. His forces may sweep in, within days or weeks, or not at all, for you can never second guess the Landgrave. He has his own hens, in his own poultry yard, where he argues with them all day long, for much interbreeding in his noble line has made him soft in the head. See him dribble. See him drool. See him argue frantically with this hen and that hen, hauling himself around the poultry yard on the crutches which support his withered legs. The legs of his hens are withered too, as are the legs of the disgusting rabbits who surround his castle, yes, he has his own disgusting rabbits to contend with, as do all Landgraves and Margraves and Grand Archdukes in the Ancien Regime, you would do well to learn that and to cease your whining. Strut your corridors as you may, for one day all will crumble, the footmen and valets will break out of the pantry and run amuck, and there will be traffic between the terrified hens and the disgusting rabbits, oh, odious, odious, but now you have glimpsed what is to come you must be a fierce and ruthless Grand Archduke, in all your finery, though it fray to tatters..

I will leave it to the experts to judge if this is the authentic voice of Dobson, or the witless prattle of the Woohoohoodiwoo Woman. Either way, it takes us some way towards a better understanding of the Hens of Unreason, and that is all we set out to do, in our modest way, on this summer’s day.

A Startling Number Of Eggs

It has been quite a while since I have drawn attention to George Orwell’s daily egg count, as I am sure all my readers are keeping abreast of it of their own volition. Today’s entry, however – or rather, the entry for this day seventy years ago – is rather intriguing, and raises, in my mind at least, certain questions.

Raining most of the day, & cold. 14 eggs. [From 25 April to 9 May Diary is written in Eileen’s hand.]

Now, we are used to one egg or two eggs, and very rarely three eggs, but fourteen? Can it be mere accident that this anomalous number of eggs is counted on the very day that Eileen has commandeered the writing of the diary? Has George been lying? Is it conceivable that all along the daily egg count has been higher than he has reported, and that he has been hiding the undeclared eggs from Eileen? One pictures Orwell sneaking off to the eggery while Eileen is out on an errand, making himself a secret omelette, perhaps, or hardboiling a clutch to carry in his pockets and give as gifts to any orphans and distressed widows he meets on his roamings. Or, conversely, is Eileen pretending to a larger egg count than is true, for her own purposes, which we can only guess at?

We shall have to see how many eggs are reported between now and the ninth of May, when Eileen gives George his pen back.