A bit of high-level intellectual colloquy

‘Fire away,’ I said to Augustus Sly.

‘Montenegro,’ he said. ‘Ah, Montenegro.’

We were in London.

‘Or Crna Gora, as the locals have it,’ he said. His pronunciation was just so.

‘Montenegro,’ I said, ‘since you are interviewing me on the subject, is a boost to creativity. Of course, as a country, you shouldn’t judge it by February. It was cold and it rained. It reminded me of the west of Ireland from the days when I used to go there. In Ireland it rained and the cold got you deep down. Ireland and Montenegro both, you would hunch in front of some electric fan heater so that your face burned and your feet still felt like ice. It couldn’t be as cold as it felt, to judge by the temperature gauge in the hired Corsa: I suppose that it was the damp that got into the house and your bones and could only be dispelled by living there.

‘The difference between Montenegro and Ireland,’ I said, ‘is twofold: the music and the gossip. In Ireland there is always music: furious music through an open door, as Mike Scott says.’

‘Waterboys,’ said Augustus Sly.

‘Just so. Room to Roam. In Montenegro, there’s also always music, but it’s Europop…’

‘Kurd Maverick?’ said Augustus Sly.

‘At best.

‘And in Ireland,’ I said, ‘there are always stories. There’s gossip about the people who live there. So and so has become a lesbian. So and so has become a potter. So and so was JFK’s real father, still alive, by God. Such and such a church is the oldest in Europe, celebrated in poems and songs now lost. In that valley they still talk Latin – away from the incomers and the tourists, of course. In Montenegro there are probably stories too, but they’re lost on me, not having the Serbo-Croatian. So I’m driven to making them up.’

‘Kurd Maverick?’ said Augustus Sly.

‘He’s real, actually – but I have made him do things that he didn’t really do. He’s cool with it. No, I was thinking of Apa’tman, the great Sixteenth Century warlord who put his enemies to the sword and then subdued the nation with the benign aid of kefir, but would not survive a Google search.’

‘Apa’tman,’ said Augustus Sly, ‘is not a happy creation. With respect.’

‘Please don’t say ‘with respect’,’ I said. ‘It nearly always comes across as either rude or smug.’

‘In my case?’


‘Apa’tman is wholly unbelievable,’ Augustus Sly said. ‘Like Dame Jenni ™ Murray, another of your obviously made-up characters that you lay on with a trowel.’

‘Do you think,’ I said, ‘that there is a danger of making the whole thing more self-referential that it already is if we continue in this vein?’

‘Were you planning to record our conversations?’



‘Post them?’

‘Of course.’

‘That was the plan: if your questions were sufficiently amusing. My readers like nothing more than a bit of high-level intellectual colloquy.’

Augustus Sly studied the end of his pencil. He was on his mettle now.

‘Great Secret Miss,’ he said.

‘Ah. Tricky, that.’

‘Where is it, do you think?’

‘I can’t of course say exactly where it is or it would be inundated by my thousands of Followers, which would spoil its peculiar ambience. Soho, I suppose, with The Kingdom further up towards the Euston Road. It has certain Magic Toyshop qualities, though, hovering between real life and the world of dreams. You may not be able easily to see it from the street.’

‘And Uncle Edgerton…’

‘Everyone hates Uncle Edgerton.’

‘No. No. The whole zombie thing. Fascinating. In a way…’

‘What I felt, I’d been very brave. Credit was due.’

Augustus Sly ignored that.

‘The whole zombie thing,’ I said, ‘as you call it. What’s your take on that, then?’

‘Oh,’ said Augustus Sly. ‘Post-ironic anomie. That whole thing. It’s a rather important element of my thesis, actually. Won’t say any more if you’re, you know…’

‘… posting. Of course. Internet piracy. You wouldn’t want anyone else stealing a march.’

‘I’ve been burned before,’ said Augustus Sly. ‘Peer review! Ha! Peer theft more like.’

‘Not on your alablague research?’

‘No. No. A thing on Barthes. Barthes: Roland or Simpson? Peer theft more like.’

‘I’m sorry to hear it. If I do a post about this do you want me to take out the bit about post-ironic anomie?’

‘Yes please,’ said Augustus Sly.

He stared at the end of his pencil again.

‘What will you call it?’ I said. ‘Your thesis?’

‘Before the colon or after?’


‘All titles of theses are split about a colon. Pilate Jests: Truth and Lies in the Alablague Blog. Barthes: Roland or Simpson? . That sort of thing.’

‘Is that it? There’s no Pilate in my blog.’

‘No it isn’t the title. That’s a secret. Of course there isn’t Pilate actually in your blog. That would be too blatant a channeling of Master and Marguerite even for you. ‘

Augustus Sly flipped his fingers into aerial quotation marks when he said ‘channeling’.

‘But ‘alablague’’, he went on, ‘ – ‘in jest’ in French; Canadian French anyway – is an obvious reference to jesting Pilate.’

‘Bollocks,’ I said. ‘It’s my surname.’

‘My daughter,’ I said, ‘like you an aspiring PhD, likes to drape her thesis titles around a semi-colon, incidentally, rather than the colon as more generally found.’

‘Bollocks,’ said Augustus Sly.

‘I suppose you’re not telling me the title because of the post-ironic anomie business.’

‘Bollocks,’ said Augustus Sly.

‘I’ll get it out of you.’

He fell silent and ruminated for a moment – figuratively, of course, on account of having only one stomach.

Or so I assume: our acquaintance is still too young for confidences of that nature.

Clearly he was working up to something.

‘Big one,’ he said.

I realised at once that he was not attempting to flatter me by using the vocative case. He meant, ‘This is the big one.’ It was usage I had come across before.

‘Mm?’ I said.

‘Who is Amy?’ said Augustus Sly.


Of Ducks and Drugs

“I am reading,” Amy said, “a very good book about a duck. In English; this book not translated for Chinese.”

Since she discovered that Anthony Powell was a writer she has become a keen reader of English fiction.

“About a duck?”

“It is a big duck, very dignity, and sometimes he changes into another person, very bad, have a good time. Then he is a duck again.”

“A duck: an aquatic bird found often on farms and also, once dead, in the windows of restaurants in Gerrard Street?”

“Not bird.” She laughed shortly. “Big big man. Very important man. Downton Abbey. Duck Ellington.”

“Oh, ‘duke’,” I said. “But I still don’t know a book about a duke who turns into another man. It sounds like Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde. But he was a doctor not a duke.”

“Yes, yes. Doctor Jekyll. Not Duck Jekyll. Doctor very important people.”

“In Edinburgh, certainly.”

I wondered what she was making of Anthony Powell. He is famous after all for dissecting the relations between the English classes. Although his novels are not unsympathetic to the natural world – his cast of characters includes for example Sultan, Eleanor Walpole-Wilson’s dog, and Maisky, the monkey that kills the butler, Smith – there is little investigation of the social relations between species: unless Maisky’s killing Smith counts.

Amy’s confusion, I reflected, merited further thought. Of course her pronouncing ‘duke’ as ‘duck’ was amusing but neither here nor there: she knew what she meant. Muddling doctors with dukes was a different matter.

I’m not sure that I have actually read Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, but, like most English people I feel as if I have. To Amy, on the other hand, coming from south-east China by way, possibly, of Kettering, it was entirely fresh. She wasn’t to know that late-Nineteenth-Century Edinburgh had a ruling caste which included doctors but didn’t include dukes. The nabobs of Edinburgh were Scots; dukes were to be found further North, in the grouse-infected Highlands, and they were English.

Doctor Jekyll transforms himself into Mr Hyde by means of an elixir, a drug of his own devising. I have a vague memory of Spencer Tracy in a film version wrestling with retorts and pipettes as the effects get to him. Was hair on the back of the hand involved, or was that werewolves? Amy also wasn’t to know that dukes do not prepare their own elixirs. Persons on lower grades of the peerage might. Anthony Powell in A Dance to the Music of Time has an Earl of Warminster living at about the same time as Dr Jekyll who is known as ‘the Chemist Earl’, and he was no doubt a dab hand at both retorts and pipettes. But earls are earls and they are not dukes. If a duke wants an elixir he rings for it.

Amy is much more knowledgeable than I am about many things, but one of them is her own elixir, kefir, as regards which she is currently presiding over a curious see-saw effect involving me and my double, the assassin Alfredo. I have recorded that Amy’s kefir is the real stuff. The sheepskins within which the intestinal flora of sheep were first combined with dairy products to create the original Culture from which Amy’s product is grown were first beaten, so as to advance the fermentation process, by camp followers of the Sixteenth Century Montenegrin warlord Apa’tman, and in more recent times by Kurd Maverick and his Valkyries as they carried the Culture across the sea. Amy’s kefir bears as much relation to that purchasable in little Eastern European corner shops as a forty-year-old Ardbeg does to a bottle of Old Tartan Trews Blended, purchasable for £7 from the same sort of shop. For one thing, it is much stronger.

Like all drugs there comes a point at which it stops working. Kefir is a benign drug and the solution is not to take more but to stop and rest for a week or two. That is what I am doing, but the traces still surge through my blood and where they would formerly have stimulated my dreams now they just keep me awake, and, as I have recorded, they coat daytime life with a baleful veneer. And even though I have stopped taking the drug, I still wake up, having finally achieved some sleep, with the true kefir headache, what Goethe, bless him, called Kefirs Katzenjammer.

At the same time Alfredo is in the joyful opening sequence. He cannot get enough of it. For a few nights now he has not come back to our flat at all. He stays at Great Secret Miss nearly all the time. Sometime you see him in the lobby reading a couple of the magazines that he likes to buy at the international newsagent on the corner, but usually he is in one of the back rooms. Amy has assigned three of her girls exclusively to help him and they work round the clock, eight hours each. She is rather proud of their progress.

“He has many bad things. He process them in dreams.”

“And he processes them so that the dreams themselves are not bad?”

“Yes, kefir dreams benign. Vivid but benign. Even with Putin.”

She spat.

“Sometimes there are very large snakes, but not usually. Depend on person. Putin,” she said, “obviously not processing very bad things. Has kefir every night, so we are told, but goes on doing them. Probably low-grade supermarket product.”

One of the girls gave me to understand that the details of Alfredo’s ‘many bad things’ were hair-raising. But of course discretion is the absolute priority and I shall never know what Alfredo doesn’t tell me himself.

“Like Dr Jekyll,” I said, drawing a parallel. “He has the elixir, becomes his evil self and emerges purified.”

Amy gave me to understand that his was an absurdly sentimental interpretation of a rather hard-headed book. Not, as I say, having read it I didn’t argue.

Apotheosis Now

I am still rather vague, I said to Amy, about the second half of the Great Secret Miss Slumber Party.

Like all good parties. If you remember it, you not there.

Yes, they said that about the Sixties, but look at all the volumes of reminiscences hitting the bookshops in time for Christmas. And most good parties provide incidents to remember, if not a narrative. I don’t remember much at all. There was the better half leaving with the Dawn Chorus of the Unattached. She told me that they had already drunk the kefir and that they soon peeled off, most of them, some of them taking refuge in late-night bars and others finding benches to sleep on. I remember Parrot’s awful snores: not much more. Did you stay awake?

Oh yes. For a time.

So what else happened?

Tell me first about Thumper.

Ah, Thumper…

We had had a few days of Mariah Carey cover versions: different songs but you know how with Mariah Carey they all sound the same. They were always phoned through early in the morning. The better half was usually still dozing. Never a word introduced them; and no word afterwards: only the snap of Lycra replaced and the quiet breaking of the connection. Then there were a couple of days when there was no call, as if something major was in the offing. I guessed as much, and I told the better half to be prepared to record the next communication when it came.

It was just as well. He performed I Will Always Love You as recorded by Whitney Houston, but with a reckless coloratura that even she would have envied. It must have torn him apart: his anal sphincter if not his whole sensitive being.

I Will Always Love You that song with Harrison Ford as robot? said Amy.

Not Harrison Ford, not robot. He bodyguard, he Kevin Costner. Different film altogether. Harrison Ford robot in Blade Runner. No singing I Will Always Love You in Blade Runner.

In moments of stress I tended to take on her vocal mannerisms.


She reflected.

With sax solo?

The lot.

He brave man. He arse bleeding tatters.

And since then nothing, I said. It must have been the climax. But what a song to end on. Eat your heart out Mariah Carey!

Why Mariah Carey eat own heart?

Not really. It’s just a saying.

Not really…

Like ‘Dui niu tan qin’.

Dui niu tan qin’ in Mandarin?



But maybe it is not the end. Kurd Maverick was round the following evening and I played the better half’s recording to him. He said that he was gob-smacked. Actually, since he has lived in Germany for so long, his adjective was not ‘gob-smacked’ but something teutonically anal: not to be reproduced here but probably appropriate in the circumstances. Anyway, he made his own copy and said that he intended to sample it.

It’s astonishing, he said. That’ll be that. He won’t top it. You’ll hear no more from him.

Chance would be a fine thing, I said.

Of course, said Kurd Maverick, he may have pre-recorded it, stitched it together. But even so. That aching dying fall at the end! How does he do it! What genius! What muscle control!

He ask Dolly Parton permission? said Amy, sticking to the point and now prepared to acknowledge that she was familiar with the song. She write I Will Always Love You, not Whitney Houston.

He’s in touch with Universal Music, the publishers. They will administer the rights.

I wasn’t prepared to put up with Amy’s showing off.


(‘Dui niu tan qin’, by the way, literally means ‘to play music to a cow’, which is an expression that Chinese people sometimes use as we might say ‘to cast pearls before swine’. It was probably not an apt comparison but my command of colloquial Mandarin is sketchy at best.)

Anyway, enough of Thumper and his farts; tell me about the second half of the Great Secret Miss Slumber Party.

You seen The Porridge Man since then?

I hadn’t.

I think he gone for good too.

That’s sad. I like The Porridge Man.

Sad and not sad. I like The Porridge Man too. I tell you what happen.

Everyone took the kefir, but The Porridge Man didn’t. He held back. Amy too held back for half an hour, and then took hers. Everyone else dropped off to sleep, and soon to dream.

You dream! You legs twitch like you bloody sick dog on Dornoch bloody Firth!

Dreamily, when everyone else had gone to sleep and Amy was succumbing fast, he helped himself from the bowl. He helped himself liberally. The kefir ran down his ample chin. Contented gurgles came from within him. His face, formerly bland and wheaty, became softer. His voice became creamier. His limbs became indistinct.

I said, You imagined it. You were half asleep and half dreaming.

Possibly I imagine. But when I wake up – and I wake up first – he absolutely gone. Instead, two things. One, many bowls warm creamy porridge, but not sickly rich creamy porridge but sweet and sour creamy porridge, made with kefir. Delicious. Two, address of supply and pro forma order form.

He gave his life…

Maybe, maybe not. The Porridge Man never quite like us.

It’s a great idea: start the day the way you mean to end it.

Pft, said Amy. Anyway, Great Secret Miss now sell The Porridge Man kefir porridge.

And those were the two apotheoses.

The Great Secret Miss Slumber Party

I miss the Court of Appeal judge, said Amy.

It was a quiet moment at the Great Secret Miss Slumber Party. At least it seemed like a quiet moment at the time, but it got quieter later. A slumber party follows an entirely different arc from a normal party, which starts quietly, gets noisy and finally gets quiet again just before people go home. A slumber party has long stretches when absolutely nothing appears to happen, and those are often the best bits.

Anyway, this was a blip on the early part of the arc of the Great Secret Miss Slumber Party. In general it was still getting noisier but in particular there was a lull, Amy’s attention was not for the time being required elsewhere and there was time for a chat.

So do I, I said, but it was different for me. Our professional relationship as lawyers was inescapable. I had to treat him with a certain deference.

Even at my place?

(The judge had died before it had become known as Great Secret Miss.)

Less than anywhere else at your place, but still a bit. If I met him at a garden party I’d probably call him Sir.

If at garden party he not hanging on my tit, spilling kefir on Garrick tie.


The death and unintended relocation by private plane of the body of the Court of Appeal judge, clad like a modest Muslim woman in a jibjab, to Novosibirsk seemed to have passed off as unobtrusively as could be hoped. There were notices in the broadsheet newspapers which were vague as to the circumstances of his death, a memorial service in the Temple church but no mention of a funeral. The Dawn Chorus of the Unattached had come up with increasingly paranoid and outrageous theories about what had ‘really happened’, but no one took much notice of them at the best of times. Of course I told nothing. Our dear friend P had a theory linking it all personally and malignantly to Mr Putin, but then most of her theories did.

He always want have sex with me, said Amy. I say no: you married people from Hampshire, I married people from Kettering: no sex.

The judge had been devoted to her and had followed her from Mr Lee’s opium den, which, despite all the benefits of kefir, must have been a wrench for him as it certainly had been for Mr Lee and his stakeholders. It may also have been the occasion of opium withdrawal symptoms on the judge’s part and, in consequence, questionable legal reasoning on the Bench.

I recalled as regards the question of sex, the judge and Amy a rare confidence that he had imparted to me once, as we sat on the divan together drinking green tea.

“Little Chinese girl. Got a hand into her knickers. Great success. She shouted, ‘Oh! Excuse me! I come!’”

Maybe he meant one of Amy’s girls rather than Amy herself. Maybe it was a story from his remoter past. Maybe he simply made it up.

I reflected not for the first time on the difficulties consequent on the absence among the Chinese and Russians, and to a large extent the English upper classes, of definite and indefinite articles. If he had said ‘the little Chinese girl’ or ‘a little Chinese girl’ the story would have been clearer even if still untrue. And now we would never know, as I certainly would never ask Amy directly.

Anyway, at that point she was called away. The moment had arrived for the unveiling of the new kefir: that made with The Culture.

I knew that there had been trial runs and that Amy was very excited about them, but this was the first time that the new kefir was to be made available to anyone outside a small circle of intimates, which excluded me.

People gathered round.

A number of familiar faces were there.

The better half was explaining in Russian some of the subtleties to the Dawn Chorus of the Unattached, who were responding with expressions of cynical disbelief.

The son had returned to the South China Sea, daughter one could not have brought my grandchildren and daughter three was in the North, but daughter two was there, Parrot on her shoulder. Parrot was enjoying a succes d’estime. His sampled speech on Kurd Maverick’s latest release Pieces of Eight had attracted the attentions of the music press and his articulations generally, unusual for an otter, particularly when overlying what the son strenuously maintained was semantic bedrock, had attracted the attentions of the scientific press. His photo graced the cover of the latest editions of both Q Magazine and Nature: a first, I believe – certainly for an otter.

Daughter two had become Parrot’s representative with the press and was making the most of it. Kurd Maverick, irritated as a composer that Parrot had stolen his musical thunder – the cries of ‘Pieces of Eight!’ were after all intended as no more than a witty embellishment to the master’s electronic concepts – and infuriated as a lover of dairy products that even Nature referred to the beast as ‘Parrot’ and not as ‘Rick Otter’, was sulking and had returned to Montenegro where he was properly appreciated.

No Kurd, I said to daughter two, stirring it. He would have loved to be at the conclusion of the story of The Culture, in which he played such a part.

Daughter two responded obscenely.

An American graduate had been dispatched, either at the behest or merely with the approval (stories differed) of Professor Chomsky to find out whether Parrot’s little brain was hard-wired with the great man’s Universal Grammar. This person hovered with a tape recorder a step behind daughter two, on whose shoulder Parrot sat looking as pleased with himself as might have been expected.

I caught the eye of Aubergine Small. He had abandoned his habitual disguise as an Edwardian washerwoman and was dressed as a rear admiral. Possibly, on reflection, that was his uniform on The Jolly Thought. He grinned and held up a sign:


A new friend was The Porridge Man, who had been introduced to me recently by my friend Céleste. His interest in dairy products was, he frankly admitted, not disinterested. As The Porridge Man, he said, my passion is relationships. Porridge and dairy products. Dairy products and porridge. But I believe, he said, that we’re in for something special today.

Amy uncovered a brimming china bowl and clapped her hands.

I don’t tell you, she said, about Apa’tman, great Golden Age Montenegrin warlord. I don’t tell you about Kurd Maverick, his great voyage and his great rescue by the ketch Scintilla. There are rumours about these. Rumours are best that way. I don’t tell you about this kefir, except one thing. It’s the best. It’s better than Mr Lee opium (and Pft, incidentally, to Mr Lee’s stakeholders). It’s better than chasing best of all possible dragons or sipping tastiest gin and tonic.

It’s even better than green tea.

It’s kefir at Great Secret Miss.

Have some!

Thumping Unnecessary

Of course, said Amy, thumping The Culture quite unnecessary. Cultures already thumped. Thumping necessary later when milk added.

True, I said, but it helped Kurd Maverick. It was an excuse for him to have the Valkyrie on board and later thumping helped him ease the guilt at losing The Culture overboard. You shouldn’t overlook the human angle. What happened to Kurd Maverick by the way?

I had paid him the agreed fee for the voyage. The son had agreed a tidy sum with the insurance company for the salvage and had been good enough to promise me a 10% introducer’s commission. He had also secured the long-term services of the elder Valkyrie. She was the only non-philosopher in the crew but she had turned out to be a navigational genius, including dead reckoning when that became necessary. The son told me tales of luxury motor yachts, owned or chartered by the sleazier type of investment bankers, emerging from a spot of sea mist to find the Scintilla or The Jolly Thought right alongside, the crew armed and implacable.

The other Valkyrie had slipped away – to Europe, or somewhere.

Kurd Maverick had been back in Germany, said Amy. But he return. He want sample Parrot. Pieces of eight, and so on.

Sample Parrot for his music?

Yes. One problem. Kurd Maverick passion for dairy product. More than music. He want credit Parrot as Rick Otter. Dairy product theme pun. Daughter two say no, he no Rick Otter, he Parrot.

I’d never thought of that, I said. I’m sure they can sort the credit out.

Amy persisted.

Pun good in German too. Otter same word.


Fischotter better for sea otter like Parrot but otter OK. Still good joke.


Otter mean snake too, in German.

That’s not funny though.

One more problem. Grant authority demand grant back unless Parrot finish language course. So son send linguistic philosopher ashore to Southampton.

Parrot’s a busy otter, what with creating musical masterpieces and learning to talk English. He’s also treasure-hunting on dives with daughter two. She says he has a real nose for an artefact. And of course they have become close friends. He’s moved in with her. I’m not sure what her boyfriend thinks about it.

Maybe, I thought, if Kurd Maverick samples Parrot that will be just the sort of evidence the grant authority would be impressed by. There’s a word for it that the son told me.

Your face funny, said Amy, changing the subject.

I’d just come from the dentist.

I had a root canal operation, I said, but an hour in he found that the tooth was far worse than he thought. I can save it, the dentist said, but not without risking the life of the host.

The host? I had said to him. Me? Save the host. Bugger the tooth.

He had winced. I had injured his professional pride.

Thank God he wasn’t a Catholic, I said.

We will thank Allah when there are no Catholics at all any more.

It was The Jibjab Woman, sitting in the corner. I hadn’t noticed her.

Hello, Jibjab Woman.


I heard her smile disturbing the cloth of the jibjab where it covered her mouth.

You can call me Jib, she said.

And You Can Call Me Al.

Amy sniggered. Once again I was amazed by what she knows of Western culture and what she doesn’t. She’d looked absolutely blank, for instance, when I mentioned Apa’tman, the great Golden Age Montenegrin warlord, to her. The Jibjab Woman would not of course be familiar, for many reasons, with the songs of Paul Simon.

Does it hurt? Amy said.

I used a coarse expression indicating assent.

She disappeared into a back room and returned with some dark liquid in a glass.

Drink up – but don’t go cycling after.

I thanked her and took the glass, with two hands, bowing slightly, in accordance with good manners. I said that I had always regarded Lance Armstrong as in a league of his own as regards chemical relief from this life’s challenges and hurts.

But back to The Culture, I said. Is it what you hoped for?

At first salty. Not surprising. Still salty, a little. Not too salty now. Very powerful. Very good dreams. Much better than the other kefir in London. Much better than Mr Lee’s tired old opium. Up yours for Mr Lee’s stakeholders.

Are you selling it yet?

Not yet. Soon. We have launch party. With celebrities. No more hiding. Great Secret Miss Slumber Party.

Impact, it’s called, I said, what the grant authorities like. It means cross-disciplinary; not narrow focus. And nothing’s as cross-disciplinary as our Parrot.

Sorry, I said, for interrupting.

Are you interested in Great Secret Miss Slumber Party or not?

Of course. I’ll be there.

With celebrity?

Dame Jenni™ Murray?


Aaargh, said Kurd Maverick.

Or its equivalent in Kurdish.

Now read on…

When the great wave hit the boat three things happened in quick succession.

With the first impact of the wave The Culture became detached from the bow and disappeared into the murk.

With the second the mast snapped and the boat assumed a quaint and unnatural position in the water. The Valkyrie struggled panicking to the deck, where they joined Kurd Maverick. At the same time the great wave seemed to have exhausted the violence of the storm. The sea flattened, and the rain became heavy.

The third was that a black shape slid out of the darkness. It was a ship. A voice came from above them – an English voice.

Ahoy there! Kurd Maverick! This is Captain Alablague of the ketch Scintilla, attached to Her Majesty’s Letter of Marque The Jolly Thought.

It was the son, though neither Kurd Maverick nor the Valkyrie were to know that.

Come aboard! I’m putting down a ladder. You’ll not be able to climb the side in these conditions. My men will secure your wreck.

Captain Alablague made good his promise and soon Kurd Maverick and the women were on the bridge of the ketch. Some of the philosophers among the crew eyed the latter appraisingly. If the women had ever been ship-shape they were no longer. The older had a look of Raquel Welch in One Million Years BC, with scraps of material ensuring her modesty in trying conditions – not fur, but then not dinosaurs.

How did you…

Kurd Maverick, out of breath, gasped the question.

We’ve been following you, of course.

But I didn’t see you…

The son looked at him pityingly.

No, of course you didn’t.

We can’t move from here. The Culture…

Of course, said Captain Alablague again. It’s for The Culture that we’re shadowing you, not for your own safety. My men are out in dinghies already. It’s unlikely to have sunk, and the sheepskin should protect it from the elements, but only for so long.

And for the salvage, he added, under his breath.

Indeed, the remains of the yacht were already lashed to the stern of the Scintilla, a sorry sight, and in the darkness around the ship could be seen lanterns, though not the small boats to which they were attached.

Kurd Maverick was briefly overcome with emotion.

Thank God, he said, for the British Navy!

Indeed, sir, said my son. The British Navy is a fine outfit, but I, sir, am a privateer.

A pirate!


The son sighed.

Privateers are different. I’ll explain later. Go below. There is fresh and dry clothing. I commend the latter to you and especially to your companions. The men have been at sea now for months and have not seen a woman until today. They will of course behave with propriety but it will be well not to inflame their passions. A randy philosopher is a philosopher prone to solecism.

All of this the son and Kurd Maverick related to me some weeks later. The Scintilla had remained at sea, restlessly scouring the Channel for prey, but all concerned had transferred to The Jolly Thought, of which the son had resumed command. Actually, almost all had transferred to The Jolly Thought. The elder of the two Valkyrie, the one resembling Raquel Welch, had remained on the Scintilla. It had soon become apparent that she had a flair for navigation beyond that of the philosophical incumbent. The son had made landfall at Southampton and I had taken the train down to meet him. Amy, though vitally interested in the result of the quest, had remained at Great Secret Miss. We were in a seamen’s pub, near the docks. Daughter two, who works in Southampton as a diver, was to join us. It may be remembered that she had assisted me in an exorcism in 1934 and had lost her sea-bird Parrot in the process. She had been nagging me in a friendly way ever since to replace it.

So, I said. Did you get The Culture?

The son removed a vile plug of tobacco from his mouth. Whatever trick this was intended to do it clearly didn’t. He needed to rinse the remains out with a great draught of Badger ale. Then a paroxysm of coughing distorted his grim weather-beaten features.

We searched all night, he said, eventually. No joy. I was sure that when dawn came we would see The Culture, but with the first light the sea was flat, the rain had stopped – not a trace. I sent a young logician up to the crow’s nest. Still no sign. I never thought it would sink, but my only conclusion could be that it must have.

There was only one shot left in my locker.

A group of us who are concerned with linguistics have been teaching language to some otters.

Sea otters? I said.

Of course.

When the logician in the crow’s nest drew a blank I had them brought up from the hold. We had had a spoonful of yoghurt each for breakfast, on our porridge. I put some on my finger and gave it to each of the otters to sniff.

Fetch, I instructed, guiding them over the side.

They’ll choose freedom, said the ethicist first mate, who is one of nature’s Eeyores; we’ll not see them again. So much for the research. And we’ll have to return the grant.

Well, one did make a bid for freedom. But another did the business. Straight over the side, straight down and a minute later he was back at the ship’s rail, The Culture, still in its sheepskin, gently held in his teeth.

This little fellow, it was. Rick, we call him.

I hadn’t noticed the sea creature at his feet. In pubs of that sort, at the seamier end of Southampton, most of the customers have a sea creature of some sort at their feet.

Kurd Maverick, said the son, who was overcome with guilt, thumped The Culture without ceasing until we sighted land; and I’m glad to report that it’s fine. We made some kefir – just to test it. My God it’s good. I was thinking about Fermat’s last theorem when I went to sleep, and when I woke up I’d solved it, all over again!

Kurd Maverick smiled shyly.

Rick the otter smiled shyly.

At that moment the door opened. There was high wind outside and the draft blew some Wanted posters around – some pirate or other. Daughter two strode in. She was on her way from work and still in her diving gear. She walked to our table making little puddles with every step. Under one arm she held the enormous brass helmet.

Then she saw Rick the otter, and a familial greeting died on her lips. It was love at first sight.

Parrot, she said.

No, said the son, for whom precision of language is both his profession and his passion. Rick. Otter.

Parrot, she said.

As if in a trance Rick the otter crossed the floor, jumped onto a table and thence to her shoulder, where he took up residence.

Parrot, she said.

Pieces of eight, said Parrot.

Happy now? I said

The Boat, The Culture and the Girls

Now that I am back in London with constant Wi Fi I have been able to investigate the real Kurd Maverick further. It turns out that he is a DJ rather than a crooner, although he has occasionally turned his hand (if that is an acceptable use of language) to singing. He is German, of Kurdish origin, and his first name (which like his second he has adopted as a nom de guerre) refers to his ancestry rather than his enthusiasm for dairy products, about which all the sites that I have found are silent. His appearance, to judge by Google Images, is much less fierce than on the posters in Montenegro. Indeed he looks personally quite engaging. The music however sounds a bit nothing to me. He has a site on Myspace (bless!) to promote it. I imagine him habitually hunched over a mixing desk, digitally determining the precise place for one of his little plinking sounds.

John Lennon sang of rock & roll music (and on Rock and Roll Music):

It’s got a back beat, you can’t lose it.

That was then and this is now.

Kurd Maverick (who is a sturdy fellow but not sturdy enough to be imagined in two entirely different roles in addition to his real life, where perhaps he is relaxing in the late autumn sunlight in his dacha outside Hamburg, consuming coffee accompanied by a creamy Kurdish delicacy that brings back to him reminiscences of his youth…


Kurd Maverick trimmed the sails, anticipating the coming storm. One of the girls – he had taken to calling them his Valkyrie – had gone below. The other was in the bow striking The Culture. She was doing so without the enthusiasm that he required, because she was also anticipating the coming storm and was feeling unwell. When he had finished with the sails, he thought, he would give it a bit of a thump himself.

The sky was getting dark, the rain clouds were still darker and the swell was becoming ominous. The Mediterranean was now long past. They had shot the Straits of Messina, handling the strong tidal currents without difficulty, and sailed up the west coast of Italy. The idea had been to bring The Culture ashore in some cove in south-west France and transport it by road to the Channel. That however had not been possible. No sooner were they ashore than some apparatchik with a dark suit and a mayoral chain around his neck had descended on them and demanded in the name of the French Republic the destruction of The Culture. Kurd Maverick had been inclined to suspect one of the Valkyrie of tipping the authorities off, but had learnt, when they had escaped back to the yacht (his internet connection at sea being fortunately independent of oxen), that that the French Coastguard authority was equipped not only with radar but with a long-distance facility to detect dairy products, such was the importance in French culture of maintaining the purity of le fromage français.

As he was to tell me much later, he wasn’t even able to claim EU origin for it, Montenegro’s application for membership being stalled on the thorny issue of eliminating unwanted Moslems.

They had slipped through the Straits of Gibraltar at night, avoiding the searchlights both of the British – so as not to forewarn the agents of the Milk Marketing Board against their eventual arrival – and of the Moroccans, just in case. Portugal they had given a wide berth and they were now addressing themselves to the Bay of Biscay.

It was all, as again he was to tell me later, much more than he had bargained for on that blistering morning on the Mosquito Coast, with the heat haze on the hills and the dead flat deep blue of the sea; the sexual promise of the two Valkyrie, magnificent in their costumes if possibly not entirely ship-shape.

As to the Valkyrie, Kurd Maverick’s Mediterranean memories were all that he could have desired; the future promised less. Retching from one could be heard below and the other, in the bow, had abandoned The Culture and slipped down the steps to the cabins, apparently with similar intent.

Absent-mindedly Kurd Maverick took up the abandoned Culture-thumper and administered a few good ones. If it were as bad as the wind and the still-increasing swell threatened, The Culture would have to fend for itself for an hour or two. He struck the remaining sails and put out the sheet anchor. They were some way out to sea. Land, or at any rate lights, could not be seen, but the wind was strong and westerly. The open sea brought dangers enough without being driven onto an unknown shore.

A wave or two broke over the deck. Kurd Maverick took up a bucket. Of course the bilge was operating as it should but he eased his apprehension by helping it, dumping seawater whence it came. As he did so he scanned the horizon. The black of the sea could still just be distinguished from the lesser dark of the sky – but not for long. It would be a night to remember.

The great wave came from nowhere. He saw it moments before it struck, towering over them in the almost-darkness.

His first thought was coherent:

Why did I never take The Culture below?

It was still standing proud in the bow.

His second was more visceral, as the wave broke over his head.

Aaargh! he told me later that he screamed.

Of course, emotion being recollected in tranquillity, he was helping me out. In that moment of crisis he reverted to his native Kurdish. He shouted no such thing as ‘Aaargh!’. Out there in the ocean, alone and threatened by a sea such as he had never seen, expecting that he would die instantly, he reverted to the language of his childhood.

But I can’t help you with the actual word, so for the time being ‘Aaargh!’ will do.