Archive for the 'Things I Have Learned' Category

Butch Otter

I was delighted to learn that the Governor of Idaho is named Butch Otter. Mr Otter is not to be confused with his namesake, the character who made occasional appearances in the Unconscious Squirrel cartoon strip, along with his anthropomorphic pals Milksop Weasel, Mordant Heron, Smarmy Badger, and Rancorous Peewit.

Invisible Crowe

croweMrs Catherine Crowe, who wrote the best-selling Night Side Of Nature [1848], an enormous compilation of ghost stories, was found ‘in the street, clothed only in her chastity, a pocket-handkerchief, and a visiting-card. She had been informed, it appeared, by the spirits, that if she went in that trim she would be invisible’,

from The Spiritualists : The Passion For The Occult In The Nineteenth And Twentieth Centuries by Ruth Brandon (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1983)

Baron De Kepen

In certain letters to his wife Josephine, Napoleon Bonaparte referred to her private parts as “Baron de Kepen”. Nobody knows why (nor who the Baron was).


Joesphine de Beauharnais

Raid And Attack

I was excited to note in the television listings that there is a showing this afternoon of a remake of the 1977 film Raid on Entebbe, entitled Raid on N. Tebbit, in which a crack team of Mossad agents attempts to rescue hostages from the home of a deranged octogenarian ex-cabinet minister.


Readers may recall that the very same N. Tebbit was in the news a few years ago for attacking a child dressed in a dragon outfit.

Sausage Surprise

You’d be surprised how many people around the world appreciate sausages.

A world sausage expert quoted this morning on Farming Today on Radio Four.


Zamoyski is adept at painterly scene-setting. One vivid paragraph shows the Paris revolution of 1848, which sent King Louis Philippe scurrying into exile and ignited populist insurrections across Europe, as caused by a clumsy bandsman with a big drum. After a day of innocuous, anti-climactic Paris demonstrations, a company of soldiers stationed on a boulevard corner tried to retreat from a rowdy but hardly murderous crowd into the courtyard of the ministry of foreign affairs. They were blocked because the musician carrying the drum got jammed in the porte-cochère of the ministry. As a result some soldiers had to turn and face the crowd, grew rattled, and fired shots that left over 30 dead. The mangled corpses were piled onto a wagon, which was trundled through the streets of Paris by rabble-rousers crying for revenge. It was the drummer, rather than the previous uprisings in Palermo and Naples, and the granting of constitutions in Sicily, Sardinia and Tuscany, that triggered the continent-wide uprisings of 1848.

Rupert Davenport-Hines reviewing Phantom Terror: The Threat of Revolution and the Repression of Liberty, 1789 – 1848 by Adam Zamoyski in The Spectator.

Mobile Gull Appreciation Unit Field Guide Pamphlet

Many thanks to long-time Hooting Yard devotee Jonathan Coleclough, from whom I received in the post today this splendid pamphlet. Mr Coleclough suspects it was published in 2008, though whether or not it is out of print is not clear.


Myers & Butler

To a man of [Frederic] Myers’ eager temperament restrained indifference was not possible; his pent-up enthusiasm was sooner or later sure to find some line of discharge. And it so happened that a ready line of discharge was at that point presented to him by the crusading Christianity of Mrs. Josephine Butler, the still young and beautiful wife of George Butler, Vice-Principal of Cheltenham College, and later Principal of Liverpool College. Mrs. Butler later, of course, became famous for her work among prostitutes and her campaign against the Contagious Diseases Acts. At this time however she was chiefly engaged in what might be described as the spiritual seduction of promising young men. Her religion was emotional rather than dogmatic, and her methods of conversion were simple. Having aroused her quarry by her exciting concern for his welfare, she would flatter him with an earnest account of her own inner trials and victories – an account delivered perhaps at twilight while she lay with her slim form stretched out upon a sofa – and at last capture him by a well-staged dénouement. She might, for instance, call him into her room to find her kneeling in pale beauty before her mirror, devoutly praying for his salvation. Only men with the coolest heads could resist such an appeal; and Myers was not one of them. During the next few years he met or visited Mrs. Butler repeatedly, and his way of life changed so much that his friends hardly knew him. One of them, Richard Jebb, noted in his Journal for 26 February 1866: “Myers devotes himself to self-discipline. He never goes anywhere. He gets up at 6.30 and goes to bed at 10.00. His days are spent in reading Ecce Homo and in thinking.”

Alan Gauld, The Founders of Psychical Research (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968)

Talking Twaddle

In 1871, T. H. Huxley was invited to join a committee for the investigation of Spiritualist phenomena. He declined, writing:

supposing the phenomena to be genuine – they do not interest me. If anybody would endow me with the faculty of listening to the chatter of old women and curates in the nearest cathedral town, I should decline the privilege, having better things to do.

And if the folk in the spiritual world do not talk more wisely and sensibly than their friends report them to do, I put them in the same category.

The only good that I can see in a demonstration of the truth of ‘Spiritualism’ is to furnish an additional argument against suicide. Better live a crossing-sweeper than die and be made to talk twaddle by a ‘medium’ hired at a guinea a séance.

Quoted in The Founders Of Psychical Research by Alan Gauld (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968)

220px-Huxley7T. H. Huxley : Victorian with beard

Schubert : The Stories Behind The Lieder, No. 1

In “Der Liedler” (1815), a minstrel saves a maiden from a werewolf by smashing his harp against him and then hurling him over a cliff.

As noted in The Spectator by Damian Thompson, who adds “Even Schubert couldn’t polish this particular turd. Long, corny, cod-mediaeval ballads never showed him at his best.”

Invoking Sumai (2)

Here is an example of the way in which invoking Sumai can liven up the most tedious of evenings.

A country road. A tree. Evening.

Estragon, sitting on a low mound, is trying to take off his boot. He pulls at it with both hands, panting. He gives up, exhausted, rests, tries again.

As before.

Enter Vladimir.

ESTRAGON: (giving up again) Nothing to be done.

VLADIMIR: (advancing with short, stiff strides, legs wide apart) I’m beginning to come round to that opinion. All my life I’ve tried to put it from me, saying Vladimir, be reasonable, you haven’t yet tried everything.

ESTRAGON : (interrupting) I invoke Sumai!

Enter a big band orchestra, crooners, chorus girls, dancers, acrobats, jugglers, clowns, etc, who proceed to put on some tiptop variety entertainment for the next two hours.


Invoking Sumai

There is a scene in the second series of Game Of Thrones where Daenarys Targaryen and her raggle-taggle band of Dothraki followers, having struggled across the vast and desolate Red Wastes, their food and water supplies exhausted, seek entrance to the walled city of Qarth. They are met, outside the gates, by the Thirteen, the ruling council, whose oleaginous spokesman refuses to let them enter. As the Mother of Dragons points out, not unreasonably, this dooms them to certain death. The spokesman is unmoved. How to resolve the impasse?

At this point, another member of the Thirteen, who has been lurking at the back of the group, steps forward. When his own arguments in favour of allowing the travellers in fail, he announces “I invoke Sumai!” He then unsheathes his dagger and slices a nasty cut in his own hand. Now the gates of Qarth are thrown open, and Daenarys and her “Dothraki savages” are ushered in, and saved.

I was going to praise writer George R. R. Martin for this touch of brilliance, until I learned – from one of the terrifyingly erudite websites devoted to the minutiae of the Game Of Thrones universe – that the scene is absent from the original books, and was devised for the television series. No explanation is ever offered for Sumai, or what precisely its invocation might mean in any other circumstances, and nobody ever refers to it again. Yet I am lost in admiration for it as a narrative technique to keep the story chugging along. I shall use it myself, and commend it to any other writer who reaches a sticking point in their story. The bit with the dagger and the blood can be modified, or left out entirely. But is there a single work of fiction that could not be improved by having a character, at some point, declaiming portentously “I invoke Sumai!”? I think not.

I have prepared a supply of slips of paper on which is typed “I invoke Sumai!”, said followed by a blank space. I intend, shortly, to work my way systematically through the volumes of fiction on the Key bookshelves, affixing with glue a slip at a point in each book where the narrative threatens to get stuck in a cul de sac, and then writing in an apt character name. The effect would be jarring if the phrase were to be spoken invariably by rogue member of the Thirteen Xaro Xhoan Doxos. Far better that it is put into the mouth of a character with whom we have grown familiar in each particular novel, say for example Humbert Humbert or Elizabeth Bennett or Josef K. or Bartleby the scrivener.

Invoking Sumai may also come in handy in real life. I am sure there are times, for example when you are leaning insouciantly against a mantelpiece at a sophisticated cocktail party, when the conversation palls and you are lost for words. Now, all you need do to avert social discomfort is to announce “I invoke Sumai!”. The ice will be broken, and stay broken, if I am correct.


Xaro Xhoan Doxos invokes Sumai

Disappointment Pot

I do not know the provenance of this map-snap, but I am grateful to OutaSpaceman for bringing it to my attention. (Click to embiggen.)


The Assassination Of Hilary Mantel

The Guardian today published a short story by Hilary Mantel entitled The Assassination Of Margaret Thatcher. This piece apparently took Ms Mantel thirty years to write, for “technical reasons” – “I just couldn’t see how to get [the characters] to work together”. The inference is that she has at last solved the problem, but it seems to me that the characters – an assassin and the woman whose flat he uses to set up his sniper’s nest – neither work together nor individually.

I have always found Mantel a curiously lifeless writer. The popularity of her prize-winning Thomas Cromwell books is a profound mystery, and Beyond Black was spectacularly turgid. In the present story she makes full use of her gift for clunking, tin-eared dialogue.

Most amusing is the revelation that the original title of the forthcoming collection of stories for which The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher acts as a trailer was Ten Transgressive Tales. Ooh! Transgressive! What could be less transgressive than an infantile fantasy about murdering a Tory prime minister published in the pages of the Guardian?

For the next thirty years I intend to work on a story entitled The Assassination of Hilary Mantel. The technical challenge, to drain all life from my prose, will be huge, but hey!, think how transgressive and shocking it will be.

NOTA BENE : For something genuinely transgressive, see my forthcoming book Tony Benn Was A Complete Wanker.

Weather Report

The county of Kent, 18 September 1796. Jane Austen writes :

What dreadful Hot weather we have! It keeps one in a continual state of Inelegance.

Many thanks to Nige.