Hannibal L’Estrange, bart.,
the County of Norsex
* * *
I first made the acquaintance of Sir Hannibal
1982, when he was over ninety, and was lucky enough to be invited to
visit him at Fosswick on several occasions. In 1983 I started
taking along a small cassette recorder to record his
conversations. He was rather amused at the idea that his
might be preserved for posterity and wagered that I would never get
around to publishing them. Hoping to prove him wrong I set
transcribing some of his table-talk at once, but, unfortunately did not
get very far.
I found myself under considerable pressure at work.
thirty-one years I occupied the post of Third Clerk to Curtmantle
Pursuivant in the University Registry at Auksford, eventually rising to
the dizzy heights of Second Clerk and Keeper of the Scrolls.
There is, of course, no First Clerk in that office, and has not been
since 1673, when First Clerk Gervase Barber disappeared. The
Second Clerk, Thaddeus Muncaster, a plain, blunt northerner from
Swardale, was made Acting Keeper of the Scrolls, and confirmed in that
office when Barber was discovered to have absconded with 150 guineas of
the University’s money and the wife of the Professor of
Hymnology. Muncaster remained, however, Second
post of First Clerk was abolished, and a Third Clerk was employed at a
lower salary. 150 guineas was a considerable sum in those
and the University needed to make savings where it could.
As for Gervase Barber, he eventually abandoned his paramour
favour of a younger and more attractive mistress, whereupon the lady
avenged herself by denouncing him to the authorities. He was
arrested, sent back to Auksford and hanged.
The reason for my abandonment of the L’Estrange
was, as you may have guessed, the computerisation of the
For several centuries the records of Curtmantle Pursuivant’s
office have been held, not on scrolls but in codex form, in great
leather-bound ledgers, and for a couple of decades, in loose-leaf
ring-binders. Instructions came down from the Archdeacon and
Council that digital copies were to be made of all records, starting
with a pilot project in our office. It was, I need hardly
fraught with difficulty, but we eventually succeeded, and my successor
as holder of the Keeper’s Quill is a fully qualified
Free at last of these cares I turned once more to my own
and eventually found the transcriptions I had made of Sir
Hannnibal’s observations on Love. A search for
material proved fruitless, unfortunately. I suspect that the
cassettes were appropriated by my son some time in the 1990s and used
to record pop-songs from the radio. I have therefore decided
publish the surviving material, which I do with the blessing of Sir
Hannibal’s grandson, Sir John L’Estrange, bart., of
Fosswick in the County of Norsex.
The Power of Love
You know, I never cease to be amazed at the way young chaps
be so totally changed by that strange combination of emotions we call
love. Even the steadiest young man seems to go entirely to
when he comes under its influence. Well, take the case of my
nephew Richard. If you were looking for a steady, reliable
man you couldn’t find a duller and drearier
Meticulous to a fault, you might say: never forgot anything or anyone,
always knew the date without looking at the calendar, carried a supply
of postage stamps in his wallet and his loose change in a purse, and
could supply you with any bit of miscellaneous general information you
happened to need, from the colour of Caesar’s toupee and the
of his wigmaker to the date of the Zulu Wars. Not quite so
things that happened this century, of course, and completely thrown if
you asked him to list the last ten Derby winner – but then
can’t have everything, I suppose.
Now don’t go imagining that Richard was one of
dried up sort of fellows with heads like skulls, sallow complexions and
weak chests. None of our family have ever belonged to the
woolly-hat and hey-fever brigade, thank God, and young Richard was no
exception. Looked rather like a sort of younger version of
m’self, if you want to know – bit more insipid, of
and too often inclined to look like a stuffed owl with a frog in its
throat, but nonetheless a handsome sort of fellow.
Carried himself well, and got himself togged out at the best
tailor’s in town – none of your scruffy casuals for
him. If only he’d had a bit more sparkle and dash
really have made a name for himself with the gals, but …
… I suppose with that mother of his, what could you
expect? Daughter of an evangelical bishop with non-conformist
leanings, or something of the sort. Can’t say I
these delicate nuances m’self.
M’grandfather used to
say there are only two kinds of padre: those that hunt and those that
don’t. But times have changed, I expect.
when I was up at Auksford … but that’s another
Now, where was I? Ah yes, m’nephew
staid, reliable, steady, and, apart from taking after our side of the
family in appearance, deadly dull. Not the sort of chap to
bitten by the love-bug, you might think, but you’d be
wrong. Egad! No-one’s immune to that
monster. From Cairo to the Cape, from Moscow to Mandalay,
Istanbul to Singapore … Did I ever tell you about that time
Rio, when Sooty McFall and I … No, wait a minute.
keep m’mind on the job. M’nephew Henry,
it? No, Richard, that’s right – not
all. What was her name, dammit? Er …
Marilyn? Ah well, it doesn’t matter,
anyway. All you
need know is Richard fell for her good and proper.
seen it, haven’t you? Half a slice of toast for
not much more for dinner, not taking a blind bit of notice of what
anyone said to him. I was telling him that story of mine
the two Sikhs in Poonah and the Maharajah’s white elephant,
I’d just got to the point at which I was about to save the
situation with a brilliant stratagem I’d learned up the
– remind me to tell you about it sometime – when he
the salt, threw a glass of wine over his left shoulder, and then
wandered off looking like a moonstruck calf.
I knew what it was, of course. Alice, or
whatever her blasted name was. Used to pride m’self
never forgetting a name, or a face for that matter, but that was in the
old days when I had more of a personal interest. Well, there
is, I thought, there’s m’nephew Richard, old
struck down just like the rest of us, and a jolly bad case
got too. Well, here’s hoping he’s
inherited enough of
the family savvy to know what to do about it.
Seems he had. Patricia, or Susan, or Mabel,
Emmeline, or … well, she’d obviously seen
him, because the next time I saw him he was actually smiling
ghastly sight: smiling at flowers and bees and people passing in the
street. Even smiled at me – but a couple of stiff
soon put me right. Well, it seems she consented to go out
him – to the cinema, would you believe. I told him,
that’s not the sort of place for you, my lad. I
the names of one or two nightspots … oh, what memories
D’you know, he looked at me pityingly – pityingly
– at me!
“Uncle,” he said, “times have
For the worse, it seems, and getting worse all the
time. It was cinemas then, now it’s discos and jigs,
which, as far as I can make out, are somewhere between a Ktavari tribal
shindig, without the liquor or the sophistication, and the torment of
damned souls in Hell. Well, at least the cinema
bad as that, though I never thought any nephew of mine would have sunk
to the level of a clerk taking out a shopgirl. Still, I
he’s not much better than a clerk, earning his living by
in an office – things are coming to a pretty pass, what?
But I digress. No, no, no, no, I know
isn’t what it was, and, come to that, neither was
Richard’s. I mean, smiling’s all right on
the sort of
face that’s used to smiling, but he
hadn’t smiled since he’d won the class prize for
the five times table. He carried on winning prizes at school,
course, but he never smiled after that first time. Well, why
should he? It was all part of the natural order of things for
to win. Not like me. I never won anything at
Never really got going at anything much till afterwards – if
there’s one thing I know I’m not much good at
book-learning, but put me among the fillies, eh?
So, it was all a new experience for Richard. The
tinged with gold, and there was beautiful music all around him,
probably played by one of those ghastly gypsy violinists who all claim
to be Hungarian. Spoke to one once in Hungarian.
how long he’d been in this country. Longer than me
turned out – not that he’d understood a word
to him. Born in Bermondsey. Never been further than
Isle of Wight in his life, but there you are, what can you expect
Ah, yes, Richard: seven feet tall, walking on air, over the
and all because his floozie had agreed to sit with him in a cinema
watching the benighted rubbish that passes for entertainment these days
– and probably chewing popcorn.
Total change! Complete emotional
You’d hardly have recognised him. Stiff upper
Flabby as a wet pilchard. You know, when I told him about
accident with the tigress – he must have been about twelve at
time – sad business: she killed both his parents before I
get a shot in – well I know lots of little chaps would have
blubbed their eyes out, but Richard took it right on the
Asked where we’d buried what remained of them. I
of him. But now, well, one word from Monica or Harriet
was it Jane? – well, one word from her and he was in the
heaven. A lesser man might have gone skipping and carolling
the streets, but he just smiled. Bad enough! Well,
and you’re up, another and you’re down. I
it coming. Still, not my place to interfere, or I’d
told him, “Watch yourself, m’boy.
Don’t put all
your eggs in one basket or you may go breaking the lot of
them!” Held himself on too tight a rein before, you
see. Meticulous, punctilious, pompous even.
do to break out all at once.
Well, he went floating off to get himself togged
can imagine it. The pale blue silk shirt laid out on the bed;
perusal of the trousers, selection of the light greys, the finger
testing the sharpness of the creases; the question of the jacket, the
grey tweed or the navy-blue blazer, decision deferred, both laid out on
the bed next to the shirt; the long, refreshing bath – a
man might have permitted himself a bit of warbling, but Richard merely
luxuriated quietly. The brisk rub dry, the donning of the
the agonising over the tie, the final selection of the maroon silk tie
and the blazer, the final adjustment of the hair, and the ethereal,
dream-filled walk to the trysting place – outside the Odeon
Cinema in the town-hall square.
I’ve always said the whole world loves a lover and
smile the world smiles with you – or if it wasn’t
me it was
some other fella with his head screwed on properly.
the way it was for m’nephew Richard. He strode off
the streets were paved with swansdown, smiling that ghastly smile of
his at every living creature that happened to cross his path.
know how it is: when your miserable the entire beastly world is a
miserable hole until you’ve had a few, and then it takes on a
rosier sort of hue, and when you’re in love all you see is
smiling faces. Can you imagine a more ghastly
just one hideous smile but a whole world full of hideous
Anyway, there was Richard, striding through the town with a smile on
his lips and laughter in his heart, or some such drivel, buying flowers
here and chocolates there, and seeing nothing but smiles all around him.
When he got to the cinema and saw Marguerite or Annabel, his
heart did that funny sort of flip and he nearly broke into a
gallop. If it hadn’t been for the evangelical
nonconformist leanings, he’d have swept her up in his arms,
covered her with kisses, and roared “My mate!” or
of the sort. Being Richard he just thrust the flowers and
chocolates at her and gurgled a bit, and then, of course, as
you’ve probably guessed, she said just a few little words
gave him a nasty shock and sent his castles in the air crashing in
ruins. Started off by shilly-shallying of course, as modern
“Richard,” she said,
I’m carping or criticising or anything, but … can
you a question?”
He gurgled his assent.
“Well,” she said,
“it’s not that I … well what I mean is
And then she came right out with it.
“Richard,” she said, “why
haven’t you got any trousers on?”
A gnome at Auksford
Egad, that story that I told you about m’nephew
you know, the fella that went all to pieces when he was bitten by the
love bug, well it reminds me of how m’great nephew John met
wife. No need to worry this time. This is one of
stories with a happy ending, what you might call a nice, conventional
romance, the sort of soppy gush that sells by the million and leaves
scarcely a dry eye from Dover to Dunoon.
How can I describe m’great nephew John?
Took after his blasted father, and what Hermione ever saw in the damned
fella I never could understand. Many’s the time
been tempted to take a horsewhip to the little beast, still,
that’s another half-dozen stories. Suffice it to
m’niece Hermione threw herself away on him and went to live
absolute poverty in a beastly little five-bedroomed house in the
suburbs of some benighted provincial town in the North.
Well, I suppose there was some
good in John. At least he got himself to Auksford, which was
than I could do for him. Phaugh! I went along to my
college, and I said to the blasted Senior Tutor, “Look here,
there’s m’nephew John ready to come up, and I want
have my old rooms.” He just looked at me with that
infuriatingly smug expression that the middle classes wear when they
think they’ve got you by the short hairs, and drivelled on
A-levels and B-levels or some such nonsense. So I said to
“No need to worry about that; the lad learned to read when he
a nipper. Well beyond his ABC and his blasted
to come up. Want him to have my old rooms.”
Well, damn me if the fella didn’t laugh in
face. Anyway the upshot was I couldn’t do a thing
John. Equality of opportunity, they call it, no more
string-pulling, everyone starts off together and the race is to the
swiftest and all that sort of thing. Well, that’s
think he said, though, of course, if you want my opinion, things would
have been different if he’d gone to a good school, but there
is, what can you do? That little beast didn’t
public schools, or so he said. Either he didn’t
admit he couldn’t afford it, or, more likely, he
want his son to look down on him – not that you could do
Well, I couldn’t help John, but he got in all the
same. Epiphany! Damn good college too.
Not that I got any news from him. Not a letter all
he was there. Don’t know what they teach them in
blasted comprehensive schools. No conversation at
Talking to him was like talking to one of the under-gardeners, or it
would have been if he’d had the decency to call me
“Sir”. Nothing but
“no” and “all right”.
asked him what he thought of Auksford. Know what the little
bounder answered? “Quite nice.”
egad! No spark of adventure. Asked him if
he’d got up
on the roof of the Babylon Library or hung a chamber-pot on the spire
of the University Church. Faugh! He just looked
Now, luckily, another of m’great nephews, Tristram,
at Crucifixion, so at least I could rely on him to keep me informed,
and I can’t say I was any too pleased at what I
seemed John was what they call a gnome,
what we used to call a troglodyte in my day: the sort of chap that
spent whole days in the underground stacks at the Babylon.
didn’t even do that. These days the undergraduates
don’t get much of a look-in at the Babylon: the dons keep the
whole place for themselves, or they try to. Boah!
have changed since my day: a don learned all he needed at high table.
Anyway, m’nephew Henry … no
m’great nephew John
– forget my own name next –
m’great nephew John
spent all his days, when he ought to have been out rowing and playing
rugger, cooped up in one of those faculty library places reading
Semiotics or some such folderol. Ghastly sort of hole it was
by all accounts. Shelves twelve feet high, books crammed in
left in piles wherever they would go, people tripping over each other
dragging ladders about, and nearly falling off the bally
Gad, when I think of my old college library …
“Why the damned squalor?” I said to
Didn’t know, so I asked young Knuckleweed.*¹
Pah! It’s not that the blasted University
the money to build anything better. All to do with some
interfering Government department poking its nose in and saying that,
even if you have got the funds you mustn’t build anything any
better than anyone else. And some chap called Sniggerleigh
into it somehow. Wanted to make himself Babylon Librarian and
some reason that meant getting the new Semiotics Library building
cancelled. I remember the name Sniggerleigh
wondered when I heard it if he was any relation of that slimy toad
Silas Sniggerleigh. Never knew such a damned liar, never
unless he was getting some innocent chap into trouble. We
his trousers up the college flagpole a couple of times, but it
didn’t do any good. Last I heard he’d
into the Mastership at Assumption.
“Now, you remember what I said about Richard being
all of a dither by the power of love? Well, the same thing
happened to John. You’ll never guess what her
was … Damn-me if I haven’t gone and forgotten it
on the tip of m’tongue – ah, yes, that was it: Nigella!
Know what it means, don’t you? Love-in-the-mist.
Well, by the time it got to m’nephew John it was a damned
pea-souper of a fog, I can tell you. Picture the
floats past like a blasted dream-princess, and he gulps and stares at
her like a myopic frog.
“Who is that beautiful girl?” he croaks,
course some idiot has to go and tell him – and
end of sitting in libraries reading books.
She belonged to a fast set, you see. Nothing
about them, I suppose, apart from the chaps being too fond of dressing
up in girls’ clothes, that sort of thing. Something
unhealthy about it, what? Wouldn’t have done in my
time. Knew where you were then. Auksford men were
or they were aesthetes and the two didn’t mix, or if ever
did there was an almighty explosion. All good clean fun, but
you’d hardly know who’s a nancy-boy and who
isn’t. Pah! Last time I saw
Tristram he was wearing yellow trousers. String of
trousers! Well, times have changed, thought I.
But to get back to these fast friends of Nigella’s:
sort of people, certainly not John’s kind. Too much
too few responsibilities. No land behind
service to their country. They make it in the city doing God
knows what, and they spend it like water, or they send it overseas and
stache it away in Switzerland – feathering their own nests
for the day when poor old England goes down for the third time, bless
But enough of that maudlin sentimentality.
nephew John abandoned his books and devoted himself to following
Nigella around like a moonstruck calf. He wouldn’t
have set foot in a library again if he hadn’t had to take a
part-time job putting books away and tidying shelves to pay for all his
party-going and all the rounds of drinks he had to buy to keep up with
her fast friends.
Can you imagine it? Little John, who
wouldn’t say boo
to a goose, trying to turn himself into a bright young thing.
Ghastly thought. They wouldn’t have him, of
Kept him on the fringe. Made him into a sort of pet monkey,
letting him perform tricks for them. Not that he could see
There’s one thing you’ve got to know in
– even more important than when to delegate –
got to know who you are, what your own capabilities are. Push
yourself if you like, the harder the better, but don’t try to
pretend you’re something you’re not.
Stick with your
Take m’son Peter now: fine young fellow, only one
m’blasted children I can stand the sight of. Damn
cricketer too. Could have bowled for England if I’d
longer to take him in hand. But he knew exactly what he
and where he belonged. Stayed with his mother’s
people. Egad, he could twist them round his little
Got his charm from her, of course. Got his savvy from
Village headman now. Richest fellow for miles
Don’t suppose he’ll ever come to Fosswick now
– and I
won’t be going back to Papua New Guinea: touch of the anno domini, what?
Anyway, point is, m’son Peter knew where he
stayed there. M’great nephew John should have known
he didn’t belong but didn’t have the sense to steer
clear. Started putting on side. Gad, the little
told this Nigella popsie his name was Jonathan, thought it sounded
better than plain John. Phaugh! As if there
been John after John in the Family, from Jehan l’Estrange who
given the manor of Fosswick by the Conqueror himself, right up to
m’dear old dad.
Pshaw! A L’Estrange, or at least a
offshoot, sucking up to these johnnie-come-lately nouveaux riches.
Don’t know what the world’s coming to.
All the fault
of that little swine, of course. Kept him away from the
Family. Poor little chap went up to Auksford not knowing a
soul. He’d never even met his cousin Tristram
he knew about Auksford he got out of a couple of cheap novelettes and a
bit of gossip at his damned reprehensive school. Never really
Auksford man, just a blasted pixie … or a dwarf or whatever
things are called … things they have in Switzerland
that’s right: gnomes.
Phaugh! If he’d been brought up by the
he’d have recognised Nigella and her cronies for what they
were. As it was he followed her around bleating like a bally
sheep, and all the time he was quaking in his boots.
Knowles and Cunningham and all the rest of ‘em.
he’d seen Tommy Knowles in Afghanistan he’d have
sort of a family they were – but that’s another
Now! Ah, yes. Terrified of Knowles and
Cunningham. Knew he was an outsider. Thought
up trouserless in a fountain – damn novelettes, you
All the time mooning after Nigella and scared of being made to look
ridiculous in front of her.
Of course he was ridiculous, and they were all laughing at
all the time, but he didn’t realise it. They knew
exactly how far to go. What m’nephew Tristram
called stringing him
along, what I call keeping him as a pet monkey.
Next thing, as you might guess, he got a rocket from his
tutor. Things aren’t what they were, but you have
the fellow had a point. Thanks to that little swine, John
hadn’t two brass farthings to rub together – though
anyone should want to rub brass farthings together beats me.
It’s not as if you could kindle a flame from the bally
things. Anyway, the world being the dismal sort of place it
these days, and the Family being mortgaged to the hilt to pay off
m’brother Hildebrand’s death duties – you
even die these days without some greedy little whippersnapper of a
jack-in-office getting his grubby claws on your property; Hildebrand
was a mean old skinflint, but if he’d managed to take it with
no-one would have cheered more loudly than I would.
Where were we? Ah yes: brass farthings, dismal
a degree to earn his living. So there you are: buckle down to
m’boy, or you leave Auksford instanter.
So off goes John, heart heavy within him and all that sort of dismal
tommyrot, and does what any sensible man would have done in his place,
and has a few. In fact, by the time he got to that evening’s
party he was so squiffy he didn’t give a fig for Knowles and
Cunningham or any of the other moneyed twerps. He’d
his Dutch courage to the sticking place and made up his mind to propose.
Phaugh! You know what happened, of
laughed in his face. Told him to go and crawl back under a
stone. More or less what he did do, too. Back to
books. Back to that beastly hole of a library.
Apparently there’s a square table in there, tucked
behind some sort of makeshift bookcase. Librarians have put
chairs around it. Damn silly, but it seems that ghastly
Sniggerleigh convinced the powers that be that lending libraries
don’t need space for people to read, so they just had to do
best they could for the poor little beasts. Tristram says
it’s overcrowded if two people sit there, but it’s
the afternoons – at least that’s one thing that
So, there’s John, hidden away in this dark little
and he gets quite a surprise when he hears braying voices, and then
Knowles and Cunningham and their gang come bouncing in. Well,
can imagine how he felt. He tried to bury himself behind his
books, but they came right over to his corner, braying in those awful
johnnie-come-lately look-at-me sort of voices, looking for some book or
other and dragging one of those beastly great ladders around, and
generally creating the sort of mayhem that would get them chucked in
the clink if they were working class lads. Course
no-one to stop ‘em. Librarians all miles away at
the end of
a corridor – you know what these Auksford buildings are like.
Well, there’s still a spark of the old
spirit in young John, even if it is diluted by the blood of that little
swine. So he ups and gives them a glare. Pretty
of thing to do really, but there you are. Knowles just
his face. Seems to be a bit of a habit at Auksford these
days. Laughed in his face, took the book he was reading out
his bally hands, and said to Cunningham, “Is this what we
Cunningham sniggered and said, “No, not the book!”
Then up hops John, full of protestations and remonstrations,
next thing he knows they’ve got him flat on his back on the
and they’re dragging his trousers off!
Egad! I wish it had been his father.
enjoyed seeing that little swine debagged as much as horsewhipping him
– preferably one after the other.
So, what’s poor John to do? Sitting there
shirt-tails, praying no-one’s going to ask him to move so
can get the beastly stepladder round to the books above the
table. After a while it dawns on him that he’ll
have to get
someone to help, or he’d be turfed out into the street at
time, with a long walk back to college.
Well he let a couple of likely-looking chaps go because, just
he was about to call out to them, he got cold feet and started
imagining they’d laugh at him and call all their friends to
see. Then, of course, he reproached himself for being a fool
soon as they’d gone. What is it that poet chappy
says: the valiant taste
of death but once, the coward’s always feeling its bally
or something of the sort. Suppose he thought you have to be
totally unimaginative to be brave, but in my experience the more a man
knows what he’s up against, the greater the respect you have
him. General Flashman said something like that, I
That’s another thing I mean to tell you about some time: how
met Flashman when I was a boy. Quite tongue-tied I was too,
that’s hardly surprising given what a hero he was to us
Hrr! Yes, John. Reproaching himself and
screw up his courage to reveal his deficiencies in the nether-garment
department. Well at last a smallish sort of chap with dark
came in and started looking for a book. He had his back to
but he seemed a quiet sort of chap, and John finally managed to call
out: “I say, can you help me?”
Well the chap looked up and came towards him, and John
out all in a rush: “I’ve had my trousers
stolen.” Then, as soon as he said it, he felt it
You see, the small, dark-haired chap wasn’t a chap
at all – it was a girl in trousers!
So he blushed and stammered and wished the blasted earth
swallow him up and all that sort of fatuous nonsense – but it
turned out to be the luckiest mistake he’d made in his life,
Not only did she not laugh, she even lent him her
With her coat buttoned up she looked as if she was wearing a skirt, you
see, and John was able to carry a book or something to hide the fact
that her trousers didn’t meet around his dashed
they went together to his rooms, got talking on the way, decided to
have tea together, and now their eldest is up at Auksford herself, at
I only wish all m’blasted nephews and great nephews
were as lucky as John.
Pork pie, eh? said
Sir Hannibal, surveying the tea table with
approval. You know, I can never see a pork pie without
thinking of the
memsahib and how I first met her. Takes me right back to the
when I was a shy young man just back from m’first tour of
India. Nothing quite like your first trip, is
Shooting tigers … no nonsense about their being scarce in
days, of course, just a bally nuisance and far too ready to take a goat
– or a native. Hunting smugglers or river
Trips up into the Himalayas. I once went out with a couple of
chaps to track a Yeti. Got a beautiful sight on her, but I
let her go. Had a youngster you see. Probably just
well. Not right to shoot ‘em.
They’re a damn
sight more human than some of the creatures you see shambling round the
Can’t bear to go into town
m’self. Got enough
to do here, anyway. Since m’brother Hildebrand
– God rest his soul, the mean old skinflint –
spent m’time at Fosswick, gardening mostly. Gad,
I’d give for a team of native bearers with
Totally overgrown. Never spent a penny on it – or
house. Still, the Memsahib takes that in hand, and
do anything for her. Only thing is, I wish she
fill the place with m’damned relatives. Can’t stand
‘em, and I always did hate house-parties – and it
house-party I was going to tell you about.
As I said, I was just back from m’first tour of
India. I’d picked up a touch of malaria and
thought a few weeks quiet rest down at Fosswick would be just the thing
to put me back on m’feet. But a young chap with
mind on the other side of the world, soon begins to get bored, even at
Fosswick, so they thought I needed distraction and packed me off to
this ghastly house-party over at Whatsitsname -- full of
arty-farty types, poets and painters and all sorts of aesthetic
johnnies. How don’t get me wrong. I
appreciate a good
piece of art as well as anyone, in fact we’ve got some first
class paintings at Fosswick, though we had to sell some for
Hildebrand’s death duties, and I suppose more will have to go
when I do, but the sort of art these modern chappies go for, all
squares and squiggles and poems that don’t rhyme and
seem to have any meaning at all, well … Once tried to read
bilge by some foul excrescence called Ralston McTodd.
Couldn’t make head or tail of it. Across the pale parabola
of Joy, forsooth! What does it mean?*³
However, there were some damn pretty gals there too, so I
thought, What ho! At
least there are some compensations for being
cooped up here. I got into conversation with one
or two of
‘em, but, as soon as they found I’d been out east,
you’d have thought I had the plague or something.
Started off all right. “Oh, Mr L’Estrange, you
must have had some exciting adventures.”
says I, and I told them about that tigress that took two or three
villagers just outside Oudh, and how I’d spent three nights
tree, with a goat tethered below, before I got her.
the poor little goat! How cruel!” said
they. Not a word about the poor Indians that the brute got,
including a little girl of ten. And what are the dashed goats
anyway? If the tiger hadn’t got it, it would have
in the cooking pot, but there you are.
So I told them about a crocodile that got a taste for human
and started munching his way through the village children until I
bagged him After all, I though, no-one in her right mind is
to start shedding bitter tears for a dashed crocodile. Well,
maybe not, but I hadn’t seen this blasted poet lurking in the
background. Mowbray, his name was, Vernon Aloysius Mowbray,
author of half a dozen sweet little books of putrid bilge.
“Seems our friend, Strange, enjoys killing
he drawled in that damned affected way these poets used to
“I’ve never thought it’s really fair to
go out with a
couple of dozen elephants slaughtering driven gazelles, and as for
pig-sticking, well, my dears, one prefers not to imagine it.”
Well, the gals all tittered like anything, and one of them
“Oh, Mr Mowbray, won’t you read us some of your
verse?” and of course that set him off, so I beetled off and
for a mooch round the local woods.
Now, you may think I exaggerate when I describe
bilge as putrid. If anything I do the bally fellow a
kindness. As it happens we’ve got a couple of his
the library, so I dug one out, and, opening it a random, this is what I
methods making watch
cloths changing secret energies
bitterly you know.
needs my second silk,
that with a wing
fingers, (clumsy, good),
So there you are. Total, meaningless bilge, and yet
thousands of otherwise normal, rational human beings paid good money to
buy the damned stuff.
Anyway this Vernon Aloysius Mowbray made himself the darling
the gals, simply by flaunting his self-vaunted aesthetic and poetic
doesn’t Mr Mowbray have a beautiful
nature?” they would coo. “So much
more refined than
certain men who like nothing better than killing innocent little
Well, I’d borrowed m’brother
two-seater – had to promise to return her with a full tank
pay for any repairs needed – so I wasn’t confined
premises. As I drove around I found a jolly fine picnic spot,
there was one little filly in particular I had my eye on. Her
name was Ann. She didn’t seem quite so besotted
Mowbray as the others, she hadn’t said anything about the
little goat, and she was a dashed good-looker with a bit of a sense of
humour, so I decided to ask her to come out for a drive with
Well, I thought, if I can just get her on her own, away from the dashed
coterie of poets, I might be able to have a sensible sort of talk.
I had a word with the butler about asking cook to prepare a
sandwiches, but what I didn’t know was that Vernon Aloysius
Mowbray was lurking in the shadows listening. Well the upshot
by the time I’d found the gal she’d already agreed
out for a drive with Mowbray in his great big, snorting, luxurious
car. I must say, when I thought it over, she looked as if she
genuinely disappointed, and if I hadn’t been such a shy and
diffident young fellow what I ought to have done is asked her out for
the next day. But there you are. I had become used
gals preferring Mowbray and the other poetic twerps, so I just said,
“Oh,” and left it at that.
The next day wasn’t just fine, it was one of those
summer days that make England the best place to be in the whole blasted
world, or it would have been if I’d been driving along on the
open road with Ann by m’side and a picnic basket in the
rear. Well, even so, it was too good a day to waste just
around listening to a swarm of silly gals tittering at the feeble wit
of a pack of bally poets, and I’d ordered a picnic, so I
well thought I might as well enjoy it.
I loaded the picnic into the two-seater and set off, and I
hadn’t gone further then four or five miles when I came upon
car pulled up at the side of the road with steam gushing out of its
radiator, and the poet Mowbray flapping around like a dashed ballet
dancer, and a damned fat one too. Aha, thought I, perhaps
there’s a chance here to carry off the damsel in distress, so
stopped next to them and called out, “Having a spot of
there? Can I give anyone a lift?”
Well, you’d scarcely credit it, but, as soon as the
were out of m’mouth, Mowbray came puffing over, the sweat
off his fat porcine features, and started climbing in to
“Hang on a minute, Mowbray,” says
“Ladies first and all that sort of thing, you know.”
“We’ll send a chauffeur to pick her
gasped. “She doesn’t feel the heat like I
“Well, you’ve got a point there, old
I. Too much of the old embonpoint,
what? But even so,
and all that sort of thing don’t you know?”
“She’ll be all right,” he
“She can sit in the car and wait for the chauffeur.”
At this I just picked the fellow up by his collar and the
his trousers – and deuced heavy he was too – and
round so that his own weight propelled him gently into the
Then I held out m’hand to the gal and guided her into
“Hope you don’t think I was too rough
with that poet chappy,” says I.
She just laughed and said she wished the ditch had been full,
I hopped round to the off-side, climbed in and put the old jalopy in
gear, and … well you know the rest of the story.
We had a
picnic together, decided we were made for each other, were married
before the end of m’leave, and there she is, the Memsahib
herself, just cutting that pork pie.
As for Mowbray, we left him there bleating like a dashed goat
tethered to a tree. “You can’t leave me
here, not in
this heat. I shall expire, I shall die.”
“We’ll send a chauffeur to pick you up
when we get home,” I called.
“But I shall melt in this heat.
“I shall just simply melt.”
“Well,” shouted I as we drove off,
“melt-on, Mowbray!” *4
Now Sir Simon Knuckleweed, KGF, MA, DSem., Professor of Vestiary
Semiotics at the University of Auksford and Fellow of Transfiguration
College. Back to text.
BrigadierGeneral Sir Harry Paget Flashman, VC, KCB, KCIE, (1822-1915),
hero of just about every possible imperial conflict. His
surprisingly full and frank memoirs, edited by George MacDonald Fraser,
attribute his exploits to mischance and a combination of his own
cowardice and sexual appetites. Sir Hannibal must have been
of this revision of Flashman’s status, but, as he never in
got around to telling me about his youthful encounter with the old
rogue, I am unable to say what his opinion of him was.
given the context in which he mentions Flashman, and the fact that he
refers to him as “General Flashman”, we may perhaps
that he retained some sympathy with him. Back to text.
Ralston McTodd, early 20th century Canadian poet known as the
“Singer of Saskatoon”, said (by the Montreal Star)
“plumb the depths of human emotion and strike a new
note”. P.G. Wodehouse records his visit to England
or 1924, when this same line from his Songs of Squalor,
“Across the pale parabola of Joy,” proved
particularly perplexing to R. Psmith. Back to text.
*4 Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire, England, is the home of the best pork pies. Back to text.
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