Tag Archives: Augustus Sly

You Couldn’t Make It Up

Whilst telling the truth is important when other people are relying on you to do so, it has always seemed to me to amount to a failure of imagination when they aren’t. Keen followers of this blog will have spotted that some of the scenes are not true. There is, for instance, no such person in real life as Aubergine Small, the immense but benign deaf-mute who from time to time helps me and my friends when we are in the soup. He comes partly from my head but mainly he’s stolen from Ben Hur. Amy mocks Augustus Sly, my amanuensis, for thinking that she is a metaphor, but who knows which of them is right?

I have always been attracted to people who reinvent themselves. There are the women in history who impersonated men and joined the all-male armed forces, remaining undetected in spite of communal sleeping and washing. Then there are the people who made new identities for themselves, or maintained more than one identity at once, such as the Victorian men who had two households – both of apparent respectability, each ignorant of the other – and scuttled between them on Christmas Day. In at least one instance this has happened in my time, and to people that I know.

And then there’s Kim, Calamity Jane and Nurse Betty.

Often this was purely deceitful, or at any rate tactical, but in many cases the people in question were not motivated by gain or personal advancement but, for private reasons and in the argot of today, ‘identified as’ something that they weren’t. And this brings us to Ms Rachel Dolezal.

Ms Dolezal, as I understand it, was born of white parents and brought up alongside black step-siblings. She identified strongly with black people, who she thought were treated badly in the United States, and she became active in racial politics through the NAACP. So far, as everyone would agree, so good. But she took it a step further. She maintained that she was herself black, and took steps to look as if she were. She laid claim to a slice of the victimhood points earned by being part of a racial minority. When her parents appeared on television to say that she was, in fact, white, she said that this was beside the point because she ‘identified as’ black.

That seems to me to be entirely understandable, and I can imagine circumstances in which it might have been admirable. The problem is the messy interaction of the personal and the political. As the story has unravelled in view of the entire World, the emphasis has been on her ‘personal issues’, and she has appeared to be mad. That has not done any favours for the political cause that she has championed.

It is a complex thing to bring off, at all levels. One thinks of Philip Roth’s unreadably smug novel, The Human Stain, where the same thing happens in reverse – a black man claims to be white – and we are nagged with the philosophical implications over nearly four hundred pages. She has failed to bring it off, and every further bit of jargon that she offers on television (the whole drama has been performed on television) the worse it gets. If we hadn’t got ourselves to a point where it is unacceptable to talk about race except in pieties, it might have been easier.

However much the whole thing has turned to shit, however, one cannot help thinking that deep down, if she wanted to be black, why shouldn’t she?

And that in turn brings us to the far less attractive story of Ms Emma Sulkowicz. Ms Sulkowicz, also an American, said that she had been raped by a man called Nungesser. She attempted to get him hounded out of her university. It then turned out that he hadn’t raped her at all: the whole thing was a fiction. Ms Sulkowicz’s response was, if I understand it right, that she identified as having been raped, so that her vindictive actions against Mr Nungesser were justified irrespective of the facts. In order to support her argument, she then made a short film of herself having sex with a tubby actor with a pixilated head. She said that this was Art and she challenged its viewers not to ‘objectify’ her as she heaved away.

It is currently rather fashionable to ‘identify’ with being raped whilst remaining untouched. One of the more hysterical pieces about the transsexual Ms Caitlyn Jenner (I forget the name of the writer but it was an American woman) was to the effect that Ms Jenner was not entitled to any part of the aggregate share of victimhood allowed to women – and God knows there is only so much victimhood to go round; it is an increasingly crowded market – for a number of reasons: including menstruation of course and also that, unlike Ms Jenner, the writer customarily walked down the street (one in New York, I believe) thinking that she might be raped.

In other words, being entitled to the considerable share of victimhood available for victims of rape has nothing to do with actually being violated, so long as you feel violated. That in turn explains the strange idea advanced by some that, unlike all other crimes, no rape is worse than another: all rapes are the same because they all partake of the same Platonic ideal irrespective of the harm done. And now, you don’t even need an actual rape at all. Identify as having been raped and you can get the victimhood points just the same.

Do I object to Ms Sulkowicz’s identifying as having been raped? Of course not, if it amuses her. But she should leave Mr Nungesser alone, and probably avoid making pornographic films without proper training. And whereas it has been a prudent rule since all this silliness started to avoid sex with Americans, there should now be a new one:

Don’t Even Think About Sex With Americans.

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Your Arse

I was walking with Bella, the dog, to West Ham Park for our daily constitutional. We passed a house from which we could clearly hear Fairytale of New York. This was not the recorded version. There were two voices, a man’s and a woman’s, exchanging the insults crafted all those years ago by Shane MacGowan when he wrote the song. They were accompanied by a piano. Their voices were live. From the street they sounded as if they might have originated in the Indian Subcontinent.

You scumbag, you maggot
You cheap lousy faggot
Happy Christmas your arse
I pray God it’s our last

they sang.

Then there was the peremptory sound of someone tapping on a hard surface to attract the singers’ attention, so that they stopped singing, and then there was the sound of a third voice, also I would guess from the Indian Subcontinent, possibly the pianist’s:

“Not ‘Happy Christmas your arse’. Not ‘your arse’. ‘Yer arse.’ ‘Yer’. Again!”

As we passed on up the street, Bella and I, and out of range, I could hear improvement, a distinct MacGowanesque sneer. I wondered in what context the finished performance would take place. Would we be allowed to hear it?

I told the story to our neighbour Maria. I had dropped in on my way home from the park to apologise that Augustus Sly, who had been despatched to Vienna to investigate possible links between her bottom and that of the model who sat (‘sat’ is of course is absolutely the wrong word for what she did in this instance, but there is no other one) for Egon Schiele, seemed to have disappeared. He had not reported to me and he was no longer picking up calls to his mobile. In fact I was rather worried, and also cross, since I had paid for him to go to Vienna in the first place.

“Has he got your credit card details, there in Vienna?”

“No, he hasn’t, and anyway I trust him to that extent, but he’s quite capable of getting bored with your bottom and going off on a wild goose chase. When I first met him, as a matter of fact, he had taken himself to Montenegro to travel the length and breadth of that country, tracing the tracks – so he told me at the time: the forced marches, the triumphal processions – of the great Sixteenth Century Balkan warlord Apa’tman. We met by coincidence when I was uploading a post to my blog from a café in Montenegro that had WiFi.”

“Ah, Apa’tman. He is my country too,” said Maria.

“Apa’tman was in Romania too?”

“Great bloodshed.”

“A great man, I think, in the end.”

“Great bloodshed.”

Actually I know little of the detail of the career of the great Sixteenth Century Balkan warlord Apa’tman, so I changed the subject and told her, as I have related, the story of the performance, overheard from the street, of Fairytale of New York.

“’Yer arse!’”, she exclaimed.

“That’s what I call multiculturalism,” I said, “a song about America, written and recorded by Irish people living in London and now being redone by Indian people living in London. What a great city we live in!”

“No, that’s not multiculturalism,” said Maria, frowning. “Multiculturalism is when people say that because I am Romanian I am prostitute and a thief and I can complain about this, which is hate crime. I am told this by a person from the Council.”

“Multiculturalism has different aspects,” I said. “It is a subtle business, this multiculturalism.”

“I am not prostitute and a thief.”

“It never occurred to me that you were.”

“My good friend Lavinia is both, but I am not prostitute and a thief.”

I wondered whether to return conversationally to Apa’tman or to call it a day, and decided on the latter.

“I’ll be on my way. I just thought that you might be curious about what Augustus Sly might have discovered about a link between you and the woman in the Schiele picture.”

She drew the different conversational strands together:

Yer want to see my arse?”

We escaped.

“Aren’t people difficult?” I said to Bella.

Obviously, being a dog, she neither understood nor replied, but I suspect that she sympathises. When we are in West Ham Park she avoids the company of other dogs. I believe that she regards this as a sensible precaution since she was bitten there by a liver-coloured bitch, but I don’t think that she warms to other dogs in principle. People too she will accept if we introduce them to her but they are of no interest otherwise. When we stand outside food shops, which the better half enters alone since Bella would be a health and safety issue, and people come up to us and try to engage her attention, she regards them with contempt.

“Does he bite?” they say, shivering deliciously and prodding at her from arm’s length.

“Seldom,” I say, wondering yet again why cynophobes are usually so incapable of sexing the objects of their fear.

Augustus Sly has sometimes accused me of having imaginary friends. He believes that Amy is a metaphor and has often said so, though not to her face. Bella certainly has imaginary friends. Her favourite is Dead Rabbit, a constant bed-fellow and companion whom she always gathers up into her mouth at times of excitement. He has a limp and vestigial physical existence but his friendship is entirely imaginary.

Lest this sound cute, she then shakes him vigorously so as to break his neck, again. She is a terrier, after all.

Some people have said recently that the Jesus and the Rabbit sequence, on the restricted access part of this blog, is rather running out of steam. Perhaps I should introduce Dead Rabbit into it. That would beef it up as bit.

Actually if I am going to do that I should continue this whole discussion on the restricted access section. I’ll do that now, if you’ll excuse me.

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Inly

Thou, Who didst come to bring
On Thy redeeming wing
Healing and sight,
Health to the sick in mind,
Sight to the inly blind,
Oh, now to all mankind
Let there be light!

we sang. It is a hymn. Thirty or so of us stood in the Norman church, mufflered against the draughts. I would like to record that we were accompanied by a wheezing organ, but unfortunately, so I was told, its action ceases to be reliable below freezing, so it was a piano instead. During the summer months the piano is wheeled out of the way into an aisle or transept but in the winter it is always there just in case.

We are in Yorkshire, spending a week with my mother. Her house overlooks the village graveyard. On the other side is the church, Norman but a different one from that just mentioned. The snow has not fallen here but it is freezing. In the morning the graveyard is white with frost and the path through it is too slippery to be attempted; people walk on the grass beside it instead. When the sun gets going, strips of green appear amid the white depending on the shadows cast by the cypress trees.

The graveyard is always full of people: many of them living. They come to pay their respects more than happens in the South. Half the gravestones are attended by recently bought flowers. There is also work being done on the church roof. Either the lead is being systematically stripped or it is being replaced having recently been systematically stripped. Since it is done in broad daylight and the men have orange jackets and scaffolding I suspect the latter, but you can’t be sure. They leave lights on at night to stop people – who might come up to the graveyard in the dark to place one last flower or steal a kiss together – damaging themselves.

The first night we were here I had quite a turn. At the edge of the church at ground level there were shapes dancing slowly in the breeze. They could be seen by means of the workmen’s light. The shapes were round and indistinct and changed colour as they moved. It was mildly horrifying, and it held the seeds of becoming seriously horrifying when I was able to decipher what was going on.

The better half dismissed my fears.

“It’s balloons for a child’s grave.”

The reality was almost as upsetting. That corner of the graveyard is for children. Not surprisingly it is even more attentively looked after than the rest of the cemetery, with flowers and toys too. This was the grave of a child who had died in infancy and would recently have turned thirteen. There were flowers, toys, damp cards, and balloons bearing the legend ‘13 today!’. It was these that had bobbed around so sepulchrally in the workmen’s light.

Since the night we arrived the balloons have slowly lost their helium, and last night the sole survivor could no longer rise above the ground. I was however sufficiently brushed by the transcendental to attend the nearby church, where we sang, as I say, the hymn Let There be Light.

It’s impossible to concentrate on anything for long in church. Hillaire Belloc (or, as always, possibly G K Chesterton) once said that the longest that one could concentrate on spiritual matters was twelve minutes, which was by happy coincidence (or, as always, possibly divine intervention) the length of a properly disciplined mass. My mind went back to my schooldays, when I had first worried about the ‘inly’ bit of the hymn:

Sight to the inly blind

‘Inly’ is clearly an adverb. ‘In’ is a useful word, but it is a preposition, and you can’t make an adverb out of a preposition by adding ‘-ly’ to it. Its meaning is less obvious. Even metaphorically, one is either blind or not blind, I would have thought. And presumably the blindness is metaphorical, since is to be sorted by a ‘redeeming wing’. I have no idea what that is, even metaphorically.

At the time I was studying Greek classics with a view to being awarded an A Level. My hero was E von Willemovitz Üllendorff. When faced with a bit of Greek that was clearly nonsense, or rude, he would assert that the original had been misunderstood by some intermediate scribe – possibly an Irish monk living on Skellig Michael in the middle of the Atlantic and the Dark Ages, diligently preserving civilisation for the rest of us and having only the basics of the language – and substitute what he preferred.

(I write of E von Willemovitz Üllendorff from memory, incidentally. I can’t find him with Google. Memory plays tricks, but surely I can’t have made him up?)

Anyway my working theory all those years ago was that ‘inly’ was a mistranscription. Recently my amanuensis, Augustus Sly, has shyly confided that when I am in full creative flight, he prefers to guess at an indistinct word rather than interrupt my flow. Thus one Irish monk declaiming Aeschylus to another. Thus perhaps the first editor of Hymns Ancient & Modern, whom I imagine as a Victorian gentleman, bewhiskered and clutching penwiper and pen against the hour. Hymnodists would burst into his office, pregnant with new devotional masterpieces, which they would declaim, accompanying themselves with occasional thumps on the harmonium that he kept in the corner of the room for just that purpose.

“Inly?” he would mouth, but they would ignore him, cranking themselves up into the full apocalyptic last verse.

I declined the sacrament of lukewarm milky coffee and returned to my mother’s house. She is a little hard of hearing and she uses the ‘subtitle’ function on her television, often with the sound off.

When I came in, Mr Cameron was on the screen, wearing his compassionate face. He leant forward confidingly.

“Lobster reunification sir,” he said, or is recorded as having said.

Plus ça change, I thought.

Inky?

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Class for Powellites

“Did you win?”

“Win what?”

“Your Anthony Powell Lady Molly prize.”

“How do you know about that?”

“Augustus Sly told me.”

Augustus Sly told her. That was a turn-up. I thought that he thought that she was a metaphor and refused to talk to her.

“And when is he going to tell me about the bottoms in Vienna that I sent him to investigate?”

“Things carry on without your participation, you know. So, did you win?”

“No,” I said.

“Oh, I thought that Lady Molly as a gentleman detective was a winner. Who did, then?”

“That Robin Bynoe. I didn’t get even an honourable mention.”

“Oh, him. Was his any good?”

“Not bad. A bit wan. It entirely lacked the rousing finale that I had provided in mine, when Lady M cries, ‘One of you in this room is the murderer and tonight the member of the House of Lords leaving us is …’”

“Did you go to the presentation?”

“And the subtle interplay between Lady Molly and Brandreth, her chronicler, who is vain and stupid and doesn’t really understand what’s going on.”

“An original touch. So, did you go to the presentation?”

“I was in New York anyway,” I lied, “and I thought that they might change their minds at the last minute. Robin Bynoe read his winning story out loud in a modest voice and a badly-fitting suit.”

“Did you volunteer a few words of your own, causing outrage and a non-fatal medical incident on the part of the host?”

I looked at her sharply.

“Widmerpool, Le Bas,” she said.

“I know, I know,” I said. “Never apologise, never explain. No, I didn’t.”

She considered this.

“If you had volunteered a few words of your own, what would you have said?”

That was cunning. I was so impressed by her use of the conditional mood, which I believe does not come naturally to a Mandarin-speaker, whose verbs behave in a much more straightforward manner than ours, that I considered her question seriously.

“Any discussion about Lady Molly,” I said, “involves questions of class. She is a dowager marchioness, formerly gracing the pinnacles of the English social world, now living in a middling part of London with a barely middle-class second husband. They keep an open house, blind to social distinctions or those of dress, intellectual achievement or even species. The Anthony Powell Society has an online discussion list. It has contributors from around the world, and they occasionally alight on Lady Molly and wrestle with questions of class in England in the 1930s.”

Amy interrupted. “I write to that discussion list. I pretend to be Australian.”

She guffawed. I ignored her.

“Sometimes it seems to me that, in spite of the subtle insights the contributors to the online discussion list bring to most of the subjects they discuss, their approach to class can be heavy-handed. There is not a monolithic set of rules; Powell would have been the last to think that there was. I mused randomly about quite different class indicators – not whether class distinctions can be justified, just how they work – and I thought of four. Of course, there are many more.

“The most obvious is what we might call the Mitford one: the erection of subtle but irrational verbal rules that those inside comply with and outsiders fail: ‘looking glass’ not ‘mirror’, and so on. Lady Molly sails through this test instinctively: compliant but without judging.

“Two and three: on the one occasion that I met Prince Charles I couldn’t help noticing his shoes. They were well-made black oxfords, old beyond the point that anyone else would have thrown them out, but burnished to that sort of shine possible only for those with extensive availability of staff. Even the shreds of old leather hanging off them were shining. What class, I thought, what dandyism! And as I stared at them, royal platitudes playing about my ears, I couldn’t help thinking of Don Simpson…”

“Yellow man. Television…”

“No, Amy, Don: Hollywood royalty; he produced Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop with Jerry Bruckheimer in the Eighties. Mr Bruckheimer is still with us but Don Simpson sadly died in the early Nineties of a surfeit of cocaine and mullets. The reason I thought of him was that after he became Hollywood royalty he developed a dress style of his own. He would wear no trousers but Levi’s, and he would never wear a pair of Levi’s twice. At the end of the day he would throw them out, unless his staff could find a homeless person with sufficiently stocky legs on whom to bestow them. He undoubtedly thought that this was classy, and I agree that it was dandyism of a high order: the opposite of Prince Charles’s.

“And lastly, at something of a tangent, I thought of the Nobility of Failure, the concept whereby melancholy paralysis was traditionally prized among the Japanese upper classes. A samurai warrior would sit impassively in his tent, throwing away a winning position and gaining respect as a result – often of course posthumously.

“The samurai test of class would have had little appeal for Lady Molly. There were failures in South Kensington but not heroic ones. Curiously, though, it has a resonance for Stringham and Moreland, both of whom I think passed through the door there.

“As to the Prince Charles or Don Simpson question, obviously Lady Molly’s sympathies would have been with the Prince, but I don’t think that dandyism did much for her in principle. My point is that the Simpson model, which seems to be the default position for many commentators, possibly because it’s simple, works for some aristocrats, English and American alike, but it doesn’t work for Lady Molly. It doesn’t work for lots of people. It’s all more complicated than that. Of course this is why we need Anthony Powell to demonstrate it for us.”

“You could have said that to them. It’s in whole sentences and not abusive as regards any group of people.”

“Yes.”

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He’s Only Half Way There

“I think,” I said to Amy, “that I have got that Mr Putin half way up my chimney. Or as he would regard it, half way down.”

I couldn’t help regretting that there was no way to share my predicament instead with Augustus Sly, but he is in Vienna following up my neighbour Maria’s bottom. He would probably have had something sensible to offer whereas Amy was always more likely to shout.

“You got in your chimney how? I saw him at G20, on television.”

I started to tell her about my night terror and my fateful and clumsy use of the yulification ‘app’, which had had the effect of making a bad situation much worse.

“I know. I read this. But how you know it’s Putin?”

“I don’t, of course, and of course I saw him at the G20 too. That may have been a double. He wouldn’t have wanted to have a full and frank exchange of views with Angela Merkel himself – who would? – or with our own Mr Cameron, bless him, so he may have sent a stooge. Lenin would do that, expose someone else instead when there was any risk to his personal safety. It’s certainly someone Russian. I twisted the Cossack foot. From the depths of the chimney breast I heard a faint cry. They said, ‘Horse potty!’.”

“’Horse potty’?”

“It’s a mild but characteristic Russian ejaculation. Like ‘Goodness!’.”

“Did it sound like a little dictator, to judge by the vocal quality?”

“It was too faint to tell.”

“What say the better half? Her bedroom too.”

“She’s keen to put it to political advantage. She shouted up the chimney – and she has a penetrating voice. She said, ‘Withdraw your troops from Ukraine and we’ll let you out!’.”

“What he say?”

“He said ‘Chto?’.”

“’Chto?’?”

“What? It means ‘What?’. He was indicating that he couldn’t hear.”

“Cunning bastard.”

“Being a cunning bastard is one cornerstone of his successful career.”

Amy thought about this.

“I wouldn’t just say leave Ukraine. I’d say: free press, free elections, no more murders, no more lies and a substantial contribution to your extraction expenses taken from the budget for his enormous new dacha near Sochi.”

“It’s hard to ask for anything complicated if all he says is ‘Chto?’. The better half thought that if we did something unpleasant to a toe it might make him hear better.”

“Or,” said Amy with the subtlety for which the Chinese are famous, “you could tickle his sole.”

“I thought of that – but I don’t think I could bear to touch him. Also, I’m not sure that I want to descend to his level, even to help the people of Ukraine.”

There’s an issue,” said Amy. “Ends and means. We can debate this.”

“My friend Theo says,” I said, “that he is a strong leader holding his country together and that without him Russia would become dangerously balkanised.”

“Bollocks,” said Amy. “They said that about Chairman Mao and the Gang of Four. Anyway, he is not holding anything together now. He’s in your chimney. Maybe we leave him there and see if Russia balkanised.”

“I wish it was that simple, Amy. Unfortunately he’s started to leak. He’s dribbling into the grate. It smells bad. The better half doesn’t like it. Even Bella turns her nose up, after some initial interest. We could go to the spare bedroom until either he empties or Russia balkanises itself, but that’s only a temporary solution.”

What would you have done? We decided to think it over.

Half an hour later Amy sent me a text:

PUTIN/SANTA HE GOT SACK AND PRESENTS IN CHIMNEY?

It was a pertinent question but one for which I had no answer. I couldn’t see and I couldn’t ask.

A few days went by. Russia didn’t get noticeably balkanised. Someone who looked like Putin continued to appear on state television and point out the hypocrisy of the West. They accuse Russia of political murder, he said, but what about the Northern Line? Who are you to point the finger? The leakage eventually fell away but the smell became appalling. The better half said, “You’ve got to do something.”

“What about independent Ukraine?” I said.

“Geopolitics is immensely complex,” she said, “and I want my bedroom back.”

I put a handkerchief round my hands and tugged at the leg. Nothing moved. There was another cry of ‘Horse Potty!’, but far weaker this time. Whoever was up there, Putin or not, ensacked or not, they were alive: but this was a condition whose continuation indefinitely could not be relied on.

I called round to see Aubergine Small. Strength and resourcefulness seemed to be called for. It crossed my mind to find out if The Jibjab Woman would help, but I didn’t know where she stood on a resurgent Russia and I didn’t want to offend her. Aubergine Small assessed the situation. He also twisted the leg, but could get no purchase. All he got was another weak cry of ‘Horse potty!’. Muttering to himself (or what would be muttering if he had the wherewithal; Aubergine Small is dumb and converses by the use of pre-printed cards), he took himself off and the next thing was that I heard him on the roof. He was prodding a bit of wire into the chimney from above. This time there was silence. He returned to the bedroom.

He produced a card:

SILENCE!

“What does that tell you?”

He demanded paper. This was a circumstance without a well-known phrase or saying.

IT IS THE DICTATOR WHO DIDN’T CRY ‘HORSE POTTY’ IN THE NIGHT.

Without his cards he can be quite prolix.

“You mean…”

YES. HE HAS A SACK AND IT’S ABOVE HIM. THIS IS MORE SERIOUS THAN I FEARED.

Aubergine Small threw himself at Mr Putin’s leg with a passion. For thirty minutes he tugged, but to no avail. Sweat on his brow, he faced me.

A. SMALL FAILS!

THERE’S ONLY ONE OPTION

“?”

He seized the pad.

NEWHAM COUNCIL!

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Ruminating on the Titanic

Season of mist and mellow fruitfulness,” said Augustus Sly.

“Don’t you start,” I said.

“Well, why the rendezvous in West Ham Park? Do you have a concern that we might be overheard?”

I hesitated for a moment. The real reason for meeting outdoors was that, of the two most obvious indoor locations, my house was ruled out because the better half had taken to being vocally critical – in my view over-critical – of Augustus Sly’s dress sense, and the last time I had visited his flat it had been hard to talk, as the sound of the South African mouse in his wainscoting had become much worse: both as to the volume and as to the self-pity.

“It’s a lovely day,” I said. “And Bella needs an airing.”

It certainly was lovely. It was quite early in the morning and the sun shone on the dew that covered the grass. Indian women jogged past heavily encumbered by their saris. Pensioners with dogs called to each other and, with time, coalesced into quite large wagon trains that progressed in a stately fashion from one side of the park to another. At weekends the activity is more organised. There is running, with signposts and sponsored water, and groups of five or six women toning their muscles together; but this was a weekday and activity, such as there was, was individual. In the distance a man gestured with his arms. It might be tai chi; it might be insanity; at my distance it was impossible to tell.

“I love the Park,” I said. “I like the fact that everyone has their own little projects and everyone progresses at their own speed, and we can watch them in a detached way.”

“Like God,” said Augustus Sly.

“That’s true, I suppose. I was thinking, more like the opening sequence of the film Titanic. You remember that we see as if from an anachronistic helicopter the passengers promenading around the deck, each up to their own little schemes – all to be resolved in the course of the film – through the magic of recently invented CGI techniques. Unfortunately the CGI techniques were then so primitive that everyone walks at exactly the same speed, with their arms coordinated like soldiers’; in years to come we will all laugh at it for being so clumsy.

“I always wondered,” I said, “why the painter Carel Weight didn’t paint more pictures of people in parks. He often painted people progressing at their own speeds, up to their own little schemes, but rarely when he painted parks.”

“Were your wonderings crowned with a conclusion?”

“No. And he denied it. There’s a thesis for you: Social Interaction and Avoidance in Parks.”

“Where’s the colon in that? There has to be a colon if it’s a thesis.”

Parklife: Social interaction and Avoidance in Urban Recreation Space.”

“Anyway, I don’t need a thesis, I’ve got one: you,” said Augustus Sly. (Augustus Sly’s ongoing doctoral thesis is about this blog.) “And what have you been up to? You’ve been rather quiet.”

“Ah,” I said. “Two things. One was what I wanted to speak to you about.”

“Tell me the other one,” said Augustus Sly.

“First.”

“OK.”

“It’s the Anthony Powell Society,” I said. “They have a competition. You have to write about Lady Molly’s secret life. I’m planning to submit.”

“I suspect she had none.”

“I suspect that’s the point. But I’m thinking along the lines of Lady Molly as gentleman detective.”

“Good idea,” said Augustus Sly. “Very golden age. She had the advantage that at any given time she could bring everyone in her drawing room to order and say, ‘And one of you is the murderer,’ and have a good chance of being right.

“And who will be her Dr Watson? Jenkins?”

“Too obvious. I’m toying with Brandreth.”

“Brandreth?”

“Whenever there is a doctor in the novel it usually turns out to be Brandreth, who, indeed, was at School with the narrator.”

“I hope that you are not planning to put anything about it on your blog. Few of your readers know who Lady Molly is, let alone Dr Brandreth.”

“Of course not. Well, possibly just in the restricted access part.”

“And what’s the other thing?”

I produced my iPad with a flourish and showed him the two bottoms: Schiele’s and the photograph of Maria.

“Ah,” said Augustus Sly, scrutinising them. “Austro-Hungarian, obviously. Who is the painter?”

“Schiele.”

“Of course. Hang on. There was no colour photography in Schiele’s day. The painting must be a modern forgery.”

“Wrong way round. The photo and the painting are kosher. It’s different women.”

Augustus Sly looked more closely.

“I find it impossible to believe that. It’s the same bottom. I’d…”

“You’d put money on it?”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” said Augustus Sly. “But it’s a staggering likeness.”

“The painting is in the Courtauld. I know nothing about the sitter. The photo is of my neighbour. I’m convinced there’s a connection. I want you to investigate it. Can you?”

“Intriguing. I’d probably need to go to Vienna.”

“You have a student card, don’t you?”

“Mm.

“Do you have an information pack?”

“I thought you’d ask,” I said, producing it from my pocket.

“And does your neighbour want to find herself linked to some demi-mondaine of the Viennese Secession?”

“She made it clear that notoriety would not be entirely unwelcome.”

Augustus Sly looked through the information pack, which had been painstakingly assembled.

“Elementary, my dear Brandreth,” he said with a smirk.

“No,” I said.

“No,” he said.

Unexpectedly a cloudburst started, and I regretted being out of doors. Even Augustus Sly’s sordid flat would have been better.

“How is your South African mouse? The one in the wainscoting?”

“Suddenly gone quiet,” said Augustus Sly. “No more self-pity, no more of his ramblings on about the toilet. Nothing at all. I rather miss it. He seems to have been removed elsewhere.”

“I think it shows a proper sense of shame,” I said.

“I wouldn’t go that far,” said Augustus Sly.

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Bloy-oy-oy-oynggg

“I had Transient Global Amnesia,” I said to Augustus Sly.

This was in answer to his question: “What are you doing in this dump again?”

The dump to which he referred was Shallow Assets, the former country seat of my relation Sir Featherington a la Blague and his daughter Alicia and currently a care facility for the mentally frail. I have been sent back here.

“It’s not so bad,” I said, vaguely.

“Give me details of your Transient Global Amnesia,” he said. “First and foremost, tell me, was there the sound referred to by the great Paul Jennings:

“The moment they actually see the great framework, they hear in their heads the sound that is always associated in films with attacks of amnesia – a kind of bloy-oy-oy-oynggg in a rising scale…” [Oddly Bodlikins: Paul Jennings: published Max Reinhardt: 1953: p 31]…

“Was there the kind of bloy-oy-oy-oynggg in a rising scale?”

“Don’t be persistent,” I said, “and I will try and tell you all, as it happened.

“One minute I was in Hammersmith,” I said, “and it was lunchtime. The next I was in University College Hospital and it was time for supper. This turned out to be fish and chips. Fish tasty: chips on the limp side. As I learned later, someone had turned me in to the police in the Tottenham Court Road, and the police had delivered me to University College Hospital.”

“The Tottenham Court Road!”

“I must I suppose have been acting strangely. It may not of course have been the Tottenham Court Road itself; it may have been some shop or other place on or indeed off the Tottenham Court Road. It is distressing to think that I may have been wandering vaguely in the traffic like Yvette Mimieux in Where the Boys Are [MGM 1960]. The policeman had gone long before I recovered my wits and of whoever delivered me to him there is no record.

“I had tubes in my arm, and they were asking me searching questions, like, ‘Who is the Prime Minister?’.”

“But was there a kind of bloy-oy-oy-oynggg in a rising scale?”

Augustus Sly was taking notes. There might be a chapter in this, in his thesis.

“No,” I said. “There was no bloy-oy-oy-oynggg, rising or falling. There was no moment of coming to. There was no seeing the great framework. It was as if I had known everything all along, except of course that I hadn’t, because I’d forgotten it. Finding myself in the hospital did not feel exceptional.

“It’s the same, I read once in some magazine of popular science, with Black Holes. When you pass the event horizon on your way into a Black Hole you don’t notice what is happening to you; it doesn’t feel like encountering a Black Hole; you think that everything is exactly as it always has been, but it isn’t – you’ll never get out.”

“Except,” said Augustus Sly, “into another universe, if the theories of some physicists of the Heisenbergian persuasion are to be relied on. And in that case the same would apply as regards the event horizon, going out – leaving the Black Hole – just as you say but even more so.”

“Mm.”

“Yvette Mimieux. Black Holes. Would you say that you are trying to prove to yourself that there is no long-term damage to your memory?”

“Pft,” I said. “Paul Jennings, yourself.

“So they did some tests,” I said, “with the tubes in my arm and some scans. They said that I hadn’t had a stroke, that I probably wasn’t epileptic and that it was all perfectly normal. They asked me if I was stressed in the Tottenham Court Road. Then they tried to check my identification of the Prime Minister, using Google, but unfortunately their connection was down. Finally they released me into the Community at four o’ clock in the morning, accompanied by my excellent son. The better half has become agitated ever since whenever I go anywhere near the Tottenham Court Road, and finally decided that I’d be safer in here.”

“No wonder,” said Augustus Sly, “that you haven’t written much on your blog recently.”

“What blog?”

He looked at me sharply.

“Only joking.”

“Changing the subject,” said Augustus Sly, “what happened about that DJ who touched you inappropriately the last time you were in here?”

“Curiously,” I said, “as regards my transient global amnesia , everyone is much more concerned about me than I am. Either they encountered me when I was asking who I was, which must have been upsetting for them, or they weren’t actually there but imagine the bloy-oy-oy-oynggg, having seen the appropriate Hitchcock films. I on the other hand can’t remember a thing about it.”

“But is it Hitchcock that Paul Jennings is thinking of?” said Augustus Sly. “Oddly Bodlikins was published in 1953. Didn’t Hitchcock’s great films come later?”

“Not Spellbound,” I said. “That’s 1945: surprisingly. Whether Spellbound features the bloy-oy-oy-oynggg I can’t remember.”

I paused for a moment thinking of the different rates at which our world’s cultural assets decay: Hitchcock films in rude health; Paul Jennings’ books readily available second hand; older nameless films in which the bloy-oy-oy-oynggg first appeared – once so commonly as to become a by-word for a certain mental condition – now lost for ever except to men (usually men) in the British Film Institute wearing white gloves to avoid damaging brittle celluloid; Where the Boys Are now hopelessly dated but a lovely sentimental memory to those of us of a certain age, principally it must be said because of Connie Francis’ title song…

Augustus Sly reminded me:

“The DJ with the wandering fingers…”

“I remember it all quite well,” I said. “The DJ didn’t have wandering fingers; it was mine that he wanted to wander, if ‘wander’ is quite the right word: he wanted me to move straight to the point, as I remember it. Actually, that’s a worrying story. It should concern all of us who aspire to reach out to the mentally frail.”

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Shallow Assets: the Night of the Three Revenants

What I could not work out in my mind was why I was here, drugged and deprived of both trousers and credit cards. It had only been pneumonia after all. I knew that my mother had made the phone calls that had ensured my admittance and I knew that the better half could have got me out at any time, simply by writing a chitty. When I had asked her she had simply replied that she was very busy. Did they think, the two of them, that this was for my own good? Indeed, was it for my own good? It was a mystery, and one that nagged painfully, especially in the last half hour before the medication was renewed.

I had however worked out why the Edwardian washerwoman struck a chord with me. It was the disguise adopted by the Toad in Wind in the Willows, and in turn, by way of homage, by Aubergine Small when on the run from HMRC after he had cut the tax inspector in half. The man had been bisected from head to crotch, which had convinced the authorities that, simply in order to apply the necessary force, there must have been an accomplice. For a while things had looked bad for the son, in whose piratical enterprise Aubergine Small often worked, but he had a solid alibi, pursuing treasure ships off the coast of Muslim North Africa.

Perhaps Augustus Sly had contacted Aubergine Small and asked him to cause mayhem at Shallow Assets for some purpose beneficial to me. I resolved to wait and see.

Possibly as a result of my mentioning the story of the ghost to the receptionists, it had spread among the staff and the clients (as we are called). In the Community Space you would hear of little else.

“Oh, Mr Alablague, do you think that that wronged woman will return and walk again? I don’t think that I could bear it.”

“There is nothing more likely to encourage a ghost to walk again,” I said, “than to speculate that it is going to do so. Mum’s the best policy, in my book. Mind you, you can never tell.”

I received a text, unnecessarily arch I thought, from Augustus Sly:

The ‘ghost’ will ‘walk’ tonight. Do exactly as Small says. Unable to be with you as last train will already have departed and as a student I have no car. Bonne chance and regards, Augustus Sly.

A possible problem, I thought, was that Aubergine Small, having had his tongue torn out, during a passage served as a slave along with my good friend Amy in the South China Sea and before being rescued by my son, was unable to ‘say’ anything. He used to resort to pre-printed cards which he kept about his person, but that might take too long if there were a crisis.

At about 2 am there was a knock on the door. An Edwardian washerwoman came in. Even in the half-light I could see that it was not Aubergine Small. It was however male, as evidenced the fact that he held his dress around his waist with one hand and was manhandling an erection with the other. I recognised the face, whilst unable to recall the name.

“Weren’t you on Top of the Pops?”

“And the rest, sonny. And the rest. And no, I ‘m not a ghost, it’s really Me! I’m in disguise! Now Daddy’s coming over to the bed and we’re going to give Daddy’s willy a lovely little kiss, because this week Daddy loves the mentally frail.”

He lurched towards me, but tripped over his dress and landed heavily on his erection. So far as I was concerned his pain was neither here nor there: all grist to the mill, I thought. I flung open the door and shouted into the darkness the words that have become the catchphrase of our depraved age:

“Help! I am mentally frail and I have been inappropriately touched by a television presenter.”

Pandemonium broke out. This might or might not be a problem for Aubergine Small, who next appeared, also dressed as an Edwardian washerwoman. I had worried about his ability to convey the aural qualities of a ghost and clearly so had he as he carried a sign, which read:

WOOOOO!

He put that away and substituted:

I WILL CARRY YOU ON MY SHOULDERS TO FREEDOM

“Thank you very much,” I said. “I am a little weak. Can you hoist me up?”

ALL SET

Some of the pre-printed cards were made in America.

Just then the tiniest tug could be felt on my leg.

“Hang on a second, Aubergine Small…”

It was a third ghost. This time it was not an Edwardian washerwoman.

“Who the hell are you?” I said.

The voice was so tiny as almost to be inaudible.

“It’s Belkin. I’m Belkin. Belkin the under-footman. She got me in the end, the creature. And now I too am condemned for eternity to wander…”

“I’m terribly sorry to cut you off, but I have a pressing engagement with the real world. I can recommend it, if it isn’t too late.”

Off Aubergine Small plunged, with me on his shoulders. Everyone was shouting, police cars were arriving and no one gave any attention to us. Soon we were out of the grounds. I clung on with one hand, parting the occasional shrubbery with the other. We reached the road. There was the family Mini, with the better half at the wheel and Bella in the back.

“Hurrah,” said the better half.

“Hurrah,” I said.

“Thank you, Aubergine Small, you’re the best,” she said.

He fiddled in his bag.

ALL IN A DAY’S WORK, MA’AM

I shook his hand without a word. He knew that I knew that he was the best. Suddenly he was no more to be seen. I got into the car.

“Trousers,” said the better half, “in the back. Get off, Bella. And now,” turning the wheel in that general direction, “Scotland.”

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Shallow Assets: Cousin Alicia’s Book

I don’t remember much about the next couple of days. Augustus Sly left, saying that he would be in touch. “I’ll text,” he said, tapping the side of his nose significantly. Then the nurse came back in and told me off for shouting. “We could hear you in the Community Space,” he said, shaking his head and giving me pills. I think that they increased the dosage of my medication (I hope that I never get so inured to them that I say my ‘meds’) because, as I say, I don’t remember much of the next couple of days.

Then, as promised, Augustus Sly texted.

I have a plan. Will take a few days. Read [imp. not trans] Cousin Alicia’s book. P 96 et seq. Regs, Augustus Sly. PS Delete this message.

I had no copy of Shallow Assets of my own so I put on my dressing gown and went down to Reception, where two or three volumes were available to be borrowed by those curious about the history of their current place of resort. There is a big, not to say grandiose, sign above the heads of the receptionists, of whom the institution runs unnecessarily to two. Beneath an escutcheon that undoubtedly fails to comply with the rules of the Royal College of Arms it reads:

Shallow Assets
Part of the P- Group
Providing Worldwide Care
For the Mentally Frail

Then, on a separate and rather more chatty bit of board it tells us:

Shallow Assets was the country home of General Sir Featherington à la Blague (1856 – 1921). Sir Featherington was widely famed as a friend of the North African Moslem Community. The unusual name of the house is possibly osier-linked. The mentally frail have been cared for at Shallow Assets since 1957 and it passed into the custodianship of the P- Group in 1999. The P- Group is proud to take its place in an exemplarily fine tradition.

I had been intrigued how Sir Featherington had contrived to befriend the North African Moslem community here in rural Gloucestershire until I read Cousin Alicia’s book, in which she tells us that he was known affectionately in the village as ‘the Hammer of the Fuzzy-Wuzzies’, following some imperial war in that part of the world. That must be what the P- Group had in mind.

I bore the book away.

“Only a few pages, Mr Alablague,” said one of the receptionists. “Don’t tire yourself.”

I assured her that my intended researches were highly specific.

The relevance of the incident to which Augustus Sly drew my attention was not immediately clear. It concerned a washerwoman.

When I was still a child a curious incident occurred regarding a poor unmarried woman of the village, who took in the washing of some of the household’s linen. She was not of an age where one would suspect her to be susceptible to romantic inclinations; nor did the attractions of her features encourage any such thoughts. She was, moreover, big of bone. It was therefore a surprise to us all when it was reported that she had attained a certain condition and was no longer to be seen in the village. Needless to say, these rumours found their way to the Nursery long after they had exhausted their novelty in the Drawing Room, and some of what I have to relate I assembled in my mind long afterwards.

It is still not clear what happened. Months later she reappeared, but not in the way in which she had been accustomed to attend upon the household: modestly and at the back door. It was in the middle of the night, long after all were abed. She was seen striding through the corridors. The butler was sent for but he was found to be so profoundly asleep that by the time he had been awakened and properly dressed for the intended encounter the woman had gone. This happened on more than one occasion.

Dame Rumour, it need not be said, made play. The woman had died, it was conjectured. The more extreme theory among our friends below stairs, to which as I say I became privy only years later, was that the natural course of her condition had reached its conclusion most unnaturally: unaided and fatal. Accordingly, concluded those to whom this version appealed, the woman seen prowling the corridors was her ghost.

Was there a suggestion that the household had failed her in some way and that the revenant was there for the purpose of casting blame?

Papa, when I spoke to him of the matter years later, had a simpler explanation.

“That was no ghost. Stuff and nonsense. She was a healthy one. She’d been seen in the village with Belkin, the under footman. I was pretty sure that he was intimately concerned in the condition in which the woman found herself. No proof of course, but I sent him to the London house till it was all over. It was him she was after, I reckon. Revenge or marriage. One of the two. Probably didn’t know which herself. Or distinguish.”

Those determined for the supernatural explanation pointed out that the doors were all locked at the time of the woman’s visits, more particularly after the first, and that there was no apparent explanation for the means of her entrance and exit.

I returned the book.

“I’ve been reading about the ghost of the washerwoman,” I said.

To my surprise they knew only too well what I meant.

“Oh, she appears every so often,” they said. “Mind you, some of the poor souls here may be over-sensitive to seeing that sort of thing. Begging your own pardon, of course, Mr Alablague.”

I smiled to show that I had taken no offence. It’s safest in a place like this, where they dispense powerful drugs according to whim.

But why, I wondered, had Augustus Sly drawn my attention to the passage? And what was there about Edwardian washerwomen, nagging at the back of my mind?

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Shallow Assets

I have been sent away to recuperate. I have a little room of my own with a trim single bed and a bedside table. On this are the book that I am currently reading and two get-well gestures. Amy had sent some of the little crispy things that taste of rainwater, in an exquisite china bowl. I texted to thank her.

“It’s beautiful. Is it Qin Dynasty?”

She replied: “Qing. Idiot. ”

Ijaz sent me a selfie. He had printed it, framed it cheaply but neatly and consigned it to the post in a bubble-wrapped envelope. He was wearing his green Lands End slipover but a white skull cap, acknowledging Ramadan. I wondered, but without passion, what the position of the Prophet was on selfies. Was not the representation of the human form frowned on?

And Augustus Sly had come to see me. He accepted a mug of milky tea from one of the nurses, waited until he had left the room and said, “What is this appalling place?”

“You’re only saying that because you got lost on the way from the station. I’m very lucky to be here.”

Augustus Sly was about to explain that as a student he couldn’t afford to travel by car, so I forestalled him by telling about the place, appalling or otherwise. There was a family connection, I told him. It had been the country seat of my great-great-great uncle Featherington. It had been sold decades ago but for some reason a family connection had been maintained. It was now a private home for the mentally frail, its fees not modest, but my mother had been able to make some phone calls and get me admitted for a short time.

“Uncle Featherington had a daughter called Alicia,” I said, “and she wrote a book about her early years spent here. It was never published commercially but you can download it from one of those history sites. Shallow Assets: Memories of a Gloucestershire childhood. It’s not very interesting: fêtes, fun at the Harvest, bucolic Christmases, outbreaks of beastliness at the village school, the usual thing.”

Shallow Assets?” said Augustus Sly. “What are they?”

“It’s the name of the house. It’s a joke, apparently. ‘Assets’ comes from the French ‘assez’, meaning enough. ‘Shallow’ suggests not enough. Or some think it could be a corruption of a dialect word for osiers, which were grown here. It’s marshy land: not very healthy.”

Augustus Sly grunted. He hates exhibitions of pedantry by anyone other than himself.

“One day – before I was sick – Bella grunted like that,” I said, “and involuntarily shat herself. Only a nugget, but she was devastated.”

I smiled to myself. How much I miss her.

Augustus Sly ignored this too. He turned over the book on my bedside.

“Crap,” he said.

He fingered the bowl with the little crispy things that taste of rainwater.

“You can have one,” I said, “only. And it’s Qing Dynasty.”

“Well, only an idiot would think it was Qin,” said Augustus Sly.

“And,” he said, why is that man wearing a white skull cap and a Lands End pullover?”

“I know that,” I said, “because the better half sends me texts quite often.”

“How often?”

“Yes, quite often.

“Because it is Ramadan, she tells me, Ijaz goes to the mosque for prayers five times a day. Sometimes he wears the full formal kit but for other times smart casual is acceptable, so long as the white skull cap is also worn.”

“It sounds like Church in our own mellow tradition,” said Augustus Sly. “Tweeds for Matins, but corduroy trousers and a nice woolly quite proper for Evensong.”

“You get to thinking in here,” I said, after a pause.

“Unwise,” said Augustus Sly.

“What are we doing to our planet, Augustus Sly?” I said. “The hottest year on record yet again. Look at the little leaves! Scorched! Is this an English summer, in our own mellow tradition as you say, as we knew them in our youth? My youth, anyway. I don’t think so. Presenters of television programmes sodomising corpses. And the acronyms, the three-letter-acronyms. All this nonsense about KYC, the gas bills everywhere. What will they do when the gas board don’t send bills? They don’t send me bills, only demands from made-up firms of solicitors…”

“I can’t read about KYC,” said Augustus Sly, “without thinking of KY jelly – talking of sodomy.”

“Exactly,” I said, ignoring him. “Faced with a problem – venal money-laundering bankers in this instance – they invent a three-letter-acronym, KYC, put together a hugely complicated and entirely pointless procedure and employ a bureaucracy to administer it. Then they sit back smugly as if they’d done something useful. And look at female genital mutilation. Can you think of anything where the rights and wrongs are less evenly balanced that having your clitoris cut out without any say in the matter? They ignore it for decades, no doubt because Harley Street is doing very nicely out of it, thank you, and when they cannot do that anymore they turn it into a three-latter acronym, FGM, and endlessly discuss the cultural implications on minority television channels….”

“You’re shouting,” said Augustus Sly.

“I’m sorry.”

He wiped my lips with a tissue provided by the establishment.

“Are you restrained here?” he said, “by any chance?”

“They took my trousers and wallet,” I said. “They said it was for reasons of security.”

“Neither,” said Augustus Sly, “is a problem in the great scheme of things. We must get you out of here. It’s not doing you any good. Do you think the better half would give you a chitty?”

“I don’t know. She said that she was very busy.”

“In that case,” said Augustus Sly, “we will resort to subterfuge.”

He took out his mobile phone and searched for a number.

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