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My first Carr

On my personal discovery of eccentric English novelist (and teacher, and artist, and airman, and footballer) JL Carr, the night before what would have been his 108th birthday.

For The Critic


In the United States only one about one building in three thousand is even nominally fire-proof.

The Nelson Evening Mail, Thursday, March 14 1907

Ellis Paz has become the first man in history to be awarded a doctorate by the University of Oxford while wearing just his pants.

Matthew Perry once entered a Vanilla Ice lookalike competition and came fourth.

There is no single recognised word for ‘gay’ in Pashto.

Trypophobia is an aversion to the sight of irregular patterns or clusters of small holes or bumps.

Air India have bespoke a special plane in order to transport the sacred Parsee flame.

There are few bears in Edinburgh.

There is an emoji oversight board.

Emma Bunton “wouldn’t know where to start” in trying to come up with a vaccine for Covid-19.

BMX has been breaking ground in Nigeria.

‘Eelam’ is the Tamil name for spurge, for toddy and also for gold.

Readers of books on nature are expected to be interested in poetry in a way that readers of literary biography are not necessarily expected to be interested in willow warbler migration.

Mussolini didn’t diet.

Even an Oxford man cannot summon knowledge out of the ether.

Aguê the Sinister, also called Azizan

Among the Ewe people of Togo (formerly Togoland), the village of Bé lies at the foot of the Tokoin plateau, between a stagnant lagoon and a sacred wood, the meagre remnant of an ancient equatorial forest that once covered the south of the country in its entirety. Here, the animist bokonon priests and priestesses of the python cult worship the forces of nature, and maintain pre-monotheistic, pre-modern traditions in their sanctuaries.

In his Précis d’histoire, the Rev. Père Kwakume records that Aja tribal refugees from Dahomey, who once populated the village, passed three ordinances: against loud talking, firing rifles, and dancing to tom-toms — and so the place came to be known as Badépé or Badékpa (‘enclosure of the quiet voices’) or simply Bé (‘the hiding place’).

In recent times the villagers have forbidden the introduction of electricity within their boundaries, or the building of roads towards it from the nearby capital of Lomé (over which they still claim spiritual authority). Access to the village is prohibited to all non-Aja ethnicities, and the wood is guarded against unauthorised entry by camouflaged female watchers, who communicate through ululation and the throwing of voices. This, in combination with strange groans and cries emanating from the forest (as well as the shrieks of actual birds), serves to deter all but the most courageous and/or desperate supplicants. But the native anthropologist Kpomassie (An African in Greenland, Paris 1981; transl. Kirkup) narrates that the inquisitive children from neighbouring towns are kept away by fear of meeting a sinister creature called, in the Min or Mina or Gen dialect/language, Aguê* (and also ‘Azizan’):

a fabulous creature of the bush who has only one eye in the middle of its forehead and only one arm; it has only one leg, on which, we are warned, it can hop around with the greatest of ease and speed, ceaselessly patrolling all the forest paths. Its foot is back to front — that is, with the heel turned forward, the toes backward — so that its footprints deceive. Whenever it meets an intruder it has only to look him straight in the eye to scramble his memory. Then the intruder can’t find his way back and wanders in circles until the medicine men come for him.

The only purported defence against this treatment is to strip off all one’s close and dance naked before the Aguê. This amuses it, and so it loses its grip. Nonetheless, Kpomassie writes, what is certain is that ‘there were people who had entered that sacred forest and never been seen again.’ To this day, Togo bears the unfortunate reputation of being the saddest country in the world.

* a name curiously similar to Aglé, son of the hunter Djitri, founder of Lomé

Two thoughts – for Robert Twigger

‘A man on a straight path never got lost.’

— Idries Shah

‘The trouble with the straight and the narrow
..Is it’s so thin, I keep sliding off to the side.’

— Jason Spaceman

Strength and honour

A love letter to 20 years of watching Gladiator.

For The Critic


One’s past is what one is. It is the only way by which people should be judged.

The Nelson Evening Mail, Wednesday, August 29 1906

Globalisation is going into reverse.

The (great) auk became extinct because he forgot how to fly.

Your underpants contain cellulose.

In the medieval period, walking through a labyrinth or maze was seen as a mystical alternative to the laborious completion of a pilgrimage to, say, Jerusalem.

To get a full stop on a European keyboard, you need to use the Shift key.

There are no seal-hunters left in K’akartoq.

Five-card Charlie pays 5 to 1.

Jeff Bezos is on track to become the world’s first trillionaire.

The Bible is written over Herodotus, and the Koran over that.

Diamonds are easy to steal.

There is more genetic diversity within Africa than there is in the rest of the world put together.

The Marquis of C made sacks in Botany Bay.

None of us knows how long fear takes to decay.

May Day, May Day…

A lockdown letter from Colombo.

For The Critic


A banker’s license in the United Kingdom costs £30 per annum.

The Nelson Evening Mail, Friday, July 17 1908

Sri Lanka has only 500 cases of the Coronavirus.

Germany has no elite universities.

There are a lot of porno videos featuring Scarlett Johansson’s face.

Mexico City is a good place to be an ankle-specialist.

The Spectator is the only magazine in history to print 10,000 issues.

Geoffrey Chaucer never earned a penny from his writing.

In the Maldives, they think all white men are the US military.

Søren Kierkegaard is the third-most-famous Dane, after Hamlet and Scooby-Doo.

Internet Explorer is an unsupported browser.

Simone Biles will not compete in the 2020 Olympics.

Boys are feeling much better.

Eleven Muslims have been into space.

There are potatoes in the Great Khan’s cellar.

The Pelican

Or; Some Further Notes Towards the Bestiary

To the researches of the antiquary and scholar Jorge Luis ‘Vintage’ Borges, a few points offer further context on that most peripatetic of birds in this, our present century.

Learned reports come from South Asia, where the spotted-bill Filipino pelican (phillipensis) is found, with no small irony, only in Cambodia, the Indian peninsular, and in Sri Lanka (or the contemporary Ceylon). Here they are known to congregate by the Beira Lake, ‘an urban oasis’ in the capital city of Colombo, whereat they feed upon raw sewage, single-use plastics, and the flesh of those who commit crimes against the state. Herefrom they derive their green hue, as in former legendary illustrations.

In the Americas, along the Gulf Coast of the northern continent, at La Nouvelle-Orléans, the pelicans play a game named ’basketball’ by ornithologists, in which they catch a round ball within their bucket-like beaks (the Hebrew word kavas meaning both ‘cup’ and ‘pelican’), attempting to deposit it one to the other, but are not allowed then to transport it thus, which is termed ‘travelling’, as one might think befits the wanderous nature of the species.¹

And within Europe the fabulist Dahl has transmitted at least one account in which a pelican was found to be running a window-cleaning business in collaboration with a giraffe, a monkey, and a small child (the child’s right to employment and/or fitness as regards working with wildlife having thus far not been ascertained). This incident fell out, it is averred, in England, where the pelican is held in certain high regard, not least in aristocratic and heraldic circles - vide ‘Hampshire House’. The Royal Park of St James is particularly noted for their population, and in the age of the automobile it has become necessary for a pelican crossing to be erected, enabling the animal to venture to and from St James’s Palace safely, across the modern thoroughfares.

Though not know to the British (or at any rate witnessed by them) for many centuries, in recent times the sceptre’d isle has hastened to catch up, the venerable Corpus Christi College, Oxford, to take just one example, having of course the pelican as its emblem, also inaugurating as a new ‘tradition’ a college anthem - as accompaniment to their ancient and sacred reverse-pelican-walk - on a theme of Thomas Aquinas: ’Bye, bye, Mrs Pelicane Pie’. They then partake of a huge banquet.

On Anglican feast days more widely, church choirs sing in honour of the ‘soft, self-wounding pelican’ (Finzi, 1946) ’whose breast weeps Balm for wounded man’ – this strange image arising, as Borges notes, from St Jerome’s commentary on Psalm 102 (‘I am like unto the pelican in the wilderness’), in turn commented upon by the inquisitorial S Roberto Bellarmino SJ, wherein ‘as the pelican wages constant war on noxious animals, [and] especially on serpents, so the Anchorets constantly do combat with the demons’. That doctor of the church cites Mary Magdalen, Mary of Egypt, Paul the first hermit, Anthony, Hilarion and others in his analogy.

This is susceptible to two conjoined interpretations.

The first is that the pelican connotes the solipsistic tendencies of our age: self-loathing, body-dysmorphia disorder, psychological perturbances, and so on. It may be for this reason that the pelican is still found engraved upon cilices. (Compare also, the ‘pelican daughters’ of King Lear with the earlier, and the more overtly Christological implications in King Leir.)

More charitable interpretations might well be put forward for a bird that – according to one Spanish fable – would rather set itself on fire than lose its fledglings (a gloomy and inverted version of the phoenix myth) – whence the popular legend of the stork (considered the same bird by the ancients) delivering a baby. The unreliable Horapollo (Hieroglyphica), however, speaks of a creature noted for its blindness or imprudence, because they nest needlessly upon the ground and are thus vulnerable to traps:

Though like other birds, it can lay its eggs in the highest places, it does not. But rather it hollows out a place in the ground, and there places its young. When men observe this, they surround  the spot with dry cow-dung to which they set fire. When the pelican sees the smoke, it wishes to put out the fire with its wings, but on the contrary only fans the flames with its motion. When its wings are burned, it is very easily caught by the hunters. For this reason, priests are not supposed to eat of it, since it died solely to save its children. But the other Egyptians eat it, saying that the pelican does not do this because of intelligence, as the vulpanser, but from heedlessness. (transl. Jean Martin)

In the Hieroglyphica, it is the vulture which allows its young to drink its blood. Either legend might well stem from a translation error; but Joseph Hall, in his Meditations, takes Horapollo’s conception of the pelican as a caution against meddling - ’the flame of discension’ - in church doctrinal matters, to one’s own destruction.

Modern Egyptians, meanwhile, do also sometime eat the pelican, which they call gemmal al bahr, or ‘the camel of the river’. But the meat thereof is coarse and strong and greasy, for which reasons it had been proscribed among the Israelites (Levit. xi. 18). And at this season, our thoughts turn likewise to the tribulations of Capt. Robert Falcon Scott and crew (the Terra Nova expedition, 1911) who subsisted, for as long as they did – according to his own handwritten journals, in the British Library - on a diet of ground pelican and biscuits, this meal named for the ancient belief that the pelican can store a weeks’ supply of food in its beak. More evidence of the nutritional value of this sustenance would have been afforded by their safe return, and welcomed, no doubt, by later generations of polar explorers. Alas, though, they did not survive their great endeavour.

There remain, quite inexplicable, the events surrounding General Guise, who, while ‘marching up to Carthagena’ (c.1754), was apparently fired upon by artillery pieces stuffed with pelicans, from which he scoffed that he would make a pie. A commentary in The Spectator notes politely that the General was perhaps ‘a little cracked’.

¹ The legal historian Grisham relates a 1992 case in which two Supreme Court Justices, Rosenberg and Jensen, were assassinated on the orders of an oil tycoon wishing to drill on nearby marshland which is home to this endangered species. The Justices in question had a history of environmental rulings.

‘Beauty retire’ – or; Some notes on a portrait of Samuel Pepys

The odd (and possibly inconsequential) story of Pepys’s portrait, his song, and his relationship with Mrs Knepp.

For The Critic