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Its summertime at last ! After a winter of rain and long hours of darkness every day, all things internal and external seem joyfully bursting with renewed life and energy again.

But, with all the welcome outside activity my ability to keep adding new stories here, (for as long as interest continues), has unfortunately been curtailed quite radically. As well as being outdoors much of the day, plus have visitors staying with us from abroad, my wife and I will soon enough be off on our own summer holidays. So, the story I've added here today may well be my last opportunity until September.

However, as a kind of literary celebration of summer, the only attractive choice which appeals to me is to throw in a story which is also correspondingly light-hearted and amusing, but true. For that kind of experience I always return to my long-time favourite author, Gerald Durrell, and his accounts of a childhood spent with his family on the Greek island of Corfu in the early 1930s. As a treat I recently bought myself a copy of the second of three books he wrote about his experiences there, and I'm now about two thirds of my way through. I keep trying to mentally apply my 'reading brakes' in order to slow down enough to be able to savour every page as much as I can,... just to prolong my experience of being on that lovely, sun-drenched island for as long as is humanly possible.

With no further ado, heres a chapter from Gerald Durrells wonderful book, "Birds, Beasts and Relatives" :



Cuttlefish and Crabs

Each morning when I awoke, the bedroom would be tiger-striped by the sun peering through the shutters. As usual I would find that the dogs had managed to crawl on to the bed without my realising it and would now be occupying more than their fair share, sleeping deeply and peacefully. Ulysses would be sitting by the window, staring at the bars of golden sunlight, his eyes slit into malevolent disapproval. Outside one could hear the hoarse, jeering crow of a cockerel and the soft murmuring of the hens (a sound soothing as bubbling porridge) as they fed under the orange and lemon trees, the distant clonk of goat bells, sharp chittering of sparrows in the eaves and sudden outburst of wheezing, imploring cries that showed one of the parent swallows had brought a mouthful of food to their brood in the nest beneath my window. I would throw back the sheet and turf the dogs out on to the floor, where they would shake and stretch and yawn, their pink tongues curled like exotic leaves, and then I would go over to the window and throw back the shutters. Leaning out over the sill, the morning sun warm on my naked body, I would scratch thoughtfully at the little pink seals the dogs' fleas had left on my skin, while I got my eyes adjusted to the light. Then I would peer down over the silver olive tops to the beach and the blue sea which lay half a mile away. It was on this beach that, periodically, the fishermen would pull in their nets and when they did so this was always a special occasion for me, since the net dragged to shore from the depths of the blue bay would contain a host of fascinating sea life which was otherwise beyond my reach.

If I saw the little fishing-boars bobbing on the water I would get dressed hurriedly and, taking my collecting gear, would run through the olive trees down to the road and along it until I reached the beach. I knew most of the fishermen by name, but there was one who was my special friend, a tall powerful young man with a mop of auburn hair. Inevitably, he was called Spiro after Saint Spiridion, so in order to distinguish him from all the other Spiros I knew, I called him Kokino, or red. Kokino took a great delight in obtaining specimens for me and, although he was not a bit interested in the creatures himself, he got much pleasure from my obvious delight.

One day I went down to the beach when the net was half-way in. The fishermen, brown as walnuts, were hauling on the dripping lines, their toes spreading wide in the sand as they pulled the massive bag of the net nearer and nearer to the shore.

'Your health, kyrie Gerry.' Kokino cried to me, waving a large freckled hand in greeting, his mop of hair glinting in the sun like a bonfire. 'Today, we should get some fine animals for you, for we put the net down in a new place.

I squatted on the sand and waited patiently while the fishermen, chattering and joking, hauled away steadily. Presently the top of the net was visible in the shallow waters and as it broke surface you could see the glitter and wink of the trapped fish inside it. Hauled out on to the sand it seemed as though the net was alive, pulsating with the fish inside it, and there was the steady, staccato purring noise of their tails, flapping futilely against each other. The baskets were fetched and the fish picked out of the net and cast into them. Red fish, white fish, fish with wine-coloured stripes, scorpion fish like flamboyant tapestries. Sometimes there would be an octopus or a cuttlefish leering up from inside the net with a look of alarm in its human eyes. Once all the edible contents of the net had been safely stowed away in the baskets, it was my turn.

In the bottom of the net would be a great heap of stones and sea-weed and it was among this that my trophies lay. Once I found a round flat stone from which grew a perfect coraline tree, pure white. It looked like a young beech tree in winter, its branches bare of leaves and covered with a layer of snow. Sometimes there would be cushion star fish, as thick as a sponge cake and almost as large, the edges not forming pointed arms as with normal star fish, but rounded scallops. These star fish would be of pale fawn with a bright pattern of scarlet blotches. Once I got two incredible crabs whose pincers and legs when pulled in tight fitted with immaculate precision the sides of their oval shells. These crabs were white with a rusty red pattern on the back which looked not unlike an Oriental face. It was hardly what I would call protective colouration and I imagine they must have had few enemies to be able to move about the sea bed wearing such a conspicuous livery.

On this particular morning, I was picking over a great pile of weed when Kokino, having stowed away the last of the fish in the baskets, came over to help me. There were the usual assortment of squids the size of a match box, pipe fish, spider crabs and a variety of tiny fish which, in spite of their size, had been unable to escape through the mesh of the net. Suddenly Kokino gave a little grunt half surprise and half amusement, picked something out of a tangled skein of sea-weed and held it out to me on the calloused palm of his hand. I could hardly believe my eyes, for it was a sea horse. Browny green, carefully jointed, looking like some weird chess man, it lay on Kokinos hand, its strange protruding mouth gasping and its tail coiling and uncoiling frantically. Hurriedly I snatched it from him and plunged it into a jar full of sea water, uttering a mental prayer to Saint Spiridion that I would be in time to save it. To my delight it righted itself, then hung suspended in the jar, the tiny fins on each side of its horse's head fluttering themselves into a blur. Pausing only to make sure that it really was all right, I scrabbled through the rest of the weed with the fervour of a gold prospector panning a river bed where he had found a nugget. My diligence was rewarded for in a few minutes I had six sea horses of various sizes hanging suspended in the jar. Enraptured by my good luck, I bid Kokino and the other fishermen a hasty farewell and raced back to the villa.

Here I unceremoniously foreclosed on fourteen slow worms and usurped their aquarium to house my new catches. I knew that the oxygen in the jar in which the sea horses were imprisoned would not last for long and if I wanted to keep them alive I would have to move quickly. Carrying the aquarium I raced down to the sea again, washed it out carefully, filled the bottom with sand and dashed back to the villa with it; then I had to run down to the sea again three times with buckets to fill it up with the required amount of water. By the time I had poured the last bucket into it, I was so hot and sweaty I began to wonder whether the sea horses were worth it. But as soon as I tipped them into the aquarium I knew that they were. I had placed a small twiggy dead olive branch in the aquarium which I had anchored to the sand and as the sea horses plopped out of the jar they righted themselves and then, like a group of ponies freshly released in a field, they sped round and round the aquarium, their fins moving so fast that you could not see them and each one gave the appearance of being driven by some small internal motor. Having, as it were, galloped round their new territory, they all made for the olive branch, entwined their tails round it lovingly and stood there gravely at attention.

The sea horses were an instant success. They were about the only animal that I had introduced to the villa that earned the family's unanimous approval. Even Larry used to pay furtive visits to my study in order to watch them zooming and bobbing to and fro in their tank. They took up a considerable amount of my time, for I found that the sea water soon grew rancid and in order to keep it clear and fresh I had to go down to the sea with buckets four or five times a day. This was an exhausting process, but I was glad that I kept it up for otherwise I would not have witnessed a very extraordinary sight.

One of the sea horses, who was obviously an old specimen since he was nearly black, had a very well-developed paunch. This I merely attributed to age; then I noticed one morning there was a line along the paunch, almost as though it had been slit with a razor blade. I was watching this and wondering whether the sea horses had been fighting and if so what they used as a weapon (for they seemed so defenceless) when to my complete and utter astonishment the slit opened a little wider and out swam a minute and fragile replica of the sea horse. I could hardly believe my eyes, but as soon as the first baby was clear of the pouch and hanging in the clear water, another one joined it and then another and another until there were twenty microscopic sea horses floating round their giant parent like a little cloud of smoke. Terrified lest the other adult sea horses eat the babies, I hurriedly set up another aquarium and placed what I fondly imagined to be the mother and her offspring in it. Keeping two aquariums going with fresh water was an even more Herculean task and I began to feel like a pit-pony, but I was determined to continue until Thursday, when Theodore came to tea, so that I could show him my acquisitions.

'Aha,' he said, peering into the tanks with professional zeal, these are really most interesting. Sea horses are, of course, according to the books, supposed to be found here, but I myself have er , you know , never seen them previously.'

I showed Theodore the mother with her swarm of tiny babies.

'No, no,' said Theodore. 'That's not the mother, that's the father.'

At first I thought that Theodore was pulling my leg, but he went on to explain that, when the female laid the eggs and they had been fertilized by the male, they were taken into this special brood pouch by the male and there they matured and hatched. What I had thought was a proud mother was in reality a proud father.

Soon the strain of keeping my stable of sea horses with a supply of microscopic sea food and fresh water became too great and so with the utmost reluctance I had to take them down to the sea and release them.

It was Kokino who, as well as contributing specimens from his nets to my collection, showed me one of the most novel fishing methods I had ever come across.

I met him one day down by the shore putting a kerosene tin full of sea water into his rickety little boat. Reposing in the bottom of the tin was a large and soulful looking cuttlefish. Kokino had tied a string round it where the head met the great egg-shaped body. I asked him where he was going and he said he was going to fish for cuttlefish. I was puzzled because his boat did not contain any lines or nets or even a trident. How then did he propose to catch cuttlefish ?

'With love,' said Kokino mysteriously.

I felt it was my duty, as a naturalist, to investigate every method of capturing animals, so I asked Kokino whether it was possible for me to accompany him. 'We rowed the boat out into the blue bay until she hung over a couple of fathoms of crystal dear water. Here Kokino took the end of the long string that was attached to the cuttlefish and tied it carefully round his big toe. Then he picked up the cuttlefish and dropped it over the side of the boat. It floated in the water for a brief moment, looking up at us with what seemed to be an incredulous expression, and then, squirting out jets of water, shot off in a series of jerks, trailing the string behind it and soon disappeared into the blue depths. The string trailed gradually over the side of the boat then tautened against Kokino's toe. He lit a cigarette and rumpled his flaming hair.

'Now, he said, grinning at me, 'we will see what love can do.'

He bent to his oars and rowed the boat slowly and gently along the surface of the bay, with frequent pauses during which he stared with intense concentration at the string fastened to his toe. Suddenly he gave a little grunt, let the oars fold to the side of the boat like the wings of a moth and, grasping the line, started to pull it in. I leant over the side staring down into the clear water, my eyes straining towards the end of the taut black line. Presently in the depths, a dim blur appeared as Kokino hauled more quickly on the line and the cuttlefish came into sight. As it got closer, I saw, to my astonishment, it was not one cuttlefish but two, locked together in a passionate embrace. Swiftly Kokino hauled them alongside and with a quick flip of the line landed them in the bottom of the boat. So engrossed was the male cuttlefish with his lady love that not even the sudden transition from his watery home to the open air seemed to worry him in the slightest. He was clasping the female so tightly that it took Kokino some time to prise him loose and drop him into the tin of sea water.

The novelty of this form of fishing greatly appealed to me, although I had the sneaking feeling that perhaps it was a little unsporting. It was rather like catching dogs by walking around with a bitch in season on the end of a long leash. Within an hour we had caught five male cuttlefish in a comparatively small area of the bay. It amazed me that there should be so dense a population, for they were a creature that you rarely saw unless you went fishing at night. The female cuttlefish, throughout this time, played her part with a sort of stoical indifference, but even so I felt that she should be rewarded, so I prevailed upon Kokino to let her go, which he did with obvious reluctance.

I asked him how he knew that the female was ready to attract the males, and he shrugged.

'It is the time,' he said.

Could you then at this time, I enquired, put any female on the end of a string and obtain results ?

'Yes,' said Kokino. 'But of course, some females, like some women, are more attractive than others and so you get better results with those.'

My mind boggled at the thought of having to work our the comparative merits of two female cuttlefish. I felt it was a great pity that this method could not be employed with other creatures. The idea, for example, of dropping a female sea horse over the side on a length of cotton and then pulling her up in a tangled entourage of passionate males was very appealing. Kokino was, as far as I knew, the only exponent of this peculiar brand of fishing for I never saw any other fisherman employ it and, indeed, the ones I mentioned it to had never even heard of it and were inclined to treat my story with raucous disbelief.

This tattered coastline near the villa was particularly rich in sea life and, as the water was comparatively shallow, it made it easier for me to capture things. I had succeeded in inveigling
Leslie into making me a boat which greatly facilitated my investigations. This craft, almost circular, flat-bottomed and with a heavy list to starboard, had been christened the Bootlebumtrinket and, next to my donkey, was my most cherished possession. Filling the bottom with jars, tins and nets and taking a large parcel of food with me, I would set sail in the Bootlebumtrinket accompanied by my crew of Widdle, Puke, Roger and, occasionally, Ulysses my owl, should he feel so inclined. We would spend the hot, breathless days exploring remote little bays and rocky and weed-encrusted archipelagos. We had many curious adventures on these expeditions of ours. Once we found a whole acre of sea-bed covered with a great swarm of sea hares, their royal purple, egg-shaped bodies with a neat pleated frill along the edge and two strange protuberances on the head which did in fact look extraordinarily like the long ears of a hare. There were hundreds of them gliding over the rocks and across the sand, all heading towards the south of the island. They did not touch or display any interest in each other, so I assumed it was not a mating gathering, but some form of migration.

On another occasion, a group of languid, portly and good-natured dolphins discovered us riding at anchor in a small bay, and, presumably attracted by the friendly colour scheme of orange and white in which the Bootlebumtrinket was painted, disported themselves around us, leaping and splashing, coming up alongside the boat with their grinning faces and breathing deep, passionate sighs at us from their blow holes. A young one, more daring than the adults, even dived under the boat and we felt his back scrape along the Bootlebumtrinket's fat bottom. My attention was equally divided between enjoying this delightful sight and try1ng to quell mutiny on the part of my crew who had all reacted to the arrival of the dolphins in their individual ways. Widdle, never a staunch warrior, had lived up to his name copiously and then crouched shivering in the bows, whining to himself. Puke had decided that the only way to save his life, was to abandon ship and swim for the shore and had to be restrained forcibly, as did Roger who was convinced that, if he was only allowed to jump into the sea with the dolphins, he would be able to kill them all, single-handed, in a matter of moments.

It was during one of these expeditions that I came across a magnificent trophy which was, indirectly, to be responsible for leading Leslie into court. The family had all gone into town, with the exception of Leslie who was recovering from a very severe attack of dysentery. It was his first day's convalescence and he lay on the sofa in the drawing-room as weak as a kitten, sipping iced tea and reading a large manual on ballistics. He had informed me, in no uncertain terms, that he did not want me hanging around making a nuisance of myself and so, as I did not want to go into the town, I had taken the dogs out in Bootlebumtrinket.

As I rowed along, I discerned on the smooth waters of the bay what I took to be a large patch of yellow sea-weed. Sea-weed was always worth investigating as it invariably contained a host of small life and sometimes, if you were lucky, quite large creatures, so I rowed towards it. But as I got closer, I saw that it was nor sea-weed, but what appeared to be a yellowish-coloured rock. Bur what sort of rock could it be that floated in some twenty feet of water ? As I looked closer, I saw, to my incredulous delight, that it was a fairly large turtle. Shipping the oars and urging the dogs to silence I poised myself in the bows and waited, tense with excitement as the Bootlebumtrinket drifted closer and closer. The turtle, outspread, appeared to be floating on the surface of the sea, soundly asleep. My problem was to capture him before he woke up. The nets and various other equipment I had in the boat had not been designed for the capture of a turtle measuring some three feet in length, so the only way I felt I could achieve success was by diving in, grabbing him and somehow getting him into the boat before he woke up. In my excitement it never occurred to me that the strength possessed by a turtle of this size was considerable and it was unlikely that he was going to give up without a struggle. When the boat was some six feet away I held my breath and dived. I decided to dive under him so as to cut off his retreat, as it were, and as I plunged into the lukewarm water I uttered a brief prayer that the splash I made would not awaken him and that, even if it did, he would be too dozy to execute a rapid retreat. I had dived deep and now I turned on my back and there, suspended above me like an enormous golden guinea, was the turtle. I shot up under him and grabbed him firmly by his front flippers which curved like horny sickles from out of his shell. To my surprise even this action did not wake him and when I rose, gasping, to the surface, still retaining my grasp on his flippers, and shook the water from my eyes, I discovered the reason. The turtle had been dead for a fair length of time, as my nose and the host of tiny fish nibbling at his scaly limbs told me.

Disappointing though this was, a dead turtle was better than no turtle at all and so I laboriously towed his body alongside the Bootlebumtrinket and made it fast by one flipper to the side of the boat. The dogs were greatly intrigued, under the impression that this was some exotic and edible delicacy I had procured for their special benefit. The Bootlebumtrinket, owing to her shape, had never been the easiest of craft to steer, and now, with the dead weight of the turtle lashed to one side of her, she showed a tendency to turn in circles. However, after an hour's strenuous rowing, we arrived safely at the jetty and having tied the boat up I hauled the turtle's carcass up on to the shore where I could examine it. It was a Hawksbill turtle, the kind whose shell is used for the manufacture of spectacle frames and whose stuffed carcass you occasionally see in opticians' windows. His head was massive, with a great wrinkled jowl of yellow skin and a swooping beak of a nose that did give him an extraordinarily hawk-like look. The shell was battered in places, presumably by ocean storms or by the snap of a passing shark, and here and there it was decorated with little snow-white clusters of baby barnacles. His underside of pale daffodil-yellow was soft and pliable like thick damp cardboard.

I had recently conducted a long and fascinating dissection of a dead terrapin that I had found and I felt this would be an ideal opportunity to compare the turtle's internal anatomy with that of his fresh-water brother, so I went up the hill, borrowed the gardener's wheel-barrow, transported my prize up to the house and laid it out in state on the front veranda.

I knew there would be repercussions if I performed my dissection of the turtle inside the house, but I felt that nobody in their right mind would object to the dissection on the front veranda. With my note book at the ready and my rows of saws, scalpels and razor blades neatly laid out as though in an operating theatre, I set to work.

I found that the soft yellow plastern came away quite easily, compared with the underside of the terrapin which had taken me three-quarters of an hour to saw through. When the plastern was free, I lifted it off like a cover off a dish and there, underneath, were all the delicious mysteries of the turtle's internal organs displayed, multi-coloured and odoriferous to a degree. So consumed with curiosity was I that I did not even notice the smell. The dogs, however, who normally considered fresh cow dung to be the ideal scent to add piquancy to their love life, disappeared in a disapproving body, sneezing violently. I discovered, to my delight, that the turtle was a female and had a large quantity of half-formed eggs in her. They were about the size of ping-pong balls, soft, round and as orange as a nasturtium. There were fourteen of them and I removed them carefully and laid them in a gleaming, glutinous row on the flagstones. The turtle appeared to have a prodigious quantity of gut, and I decided that I should enter the exact length of this astonishing apparatus in my already blood- stained note book. With the aid of a scalpel I detached the gut from the rear exit of the turtle and then proceeded to pull it out. It seemed never-ending, but before long I had it all laid out carefully across the veranda in a series of loops and twists, like a drunken railway line. One section of it was composed of the stomach, a hideous greyish bag like a water-filled balloon. This obviously was full of the turtles last meal and I felt, in the interest of science, that I ought to check on what it had been eating just prior to its demise. I stuck a scalpel in the grey wobbling mound and slashed experimentally. Immediately the whole stomach bag deflated with a ghastly sighing noise and a stench arose from its interior which made all the other smells pale into insignificance. Even I, fascinated as I was by my investigations, reeled back and had to retreat coughing to wait for the smell to subside.

I knew I could get the veranda cleaned up before the family got back from town, but in my excitement, I had completely overlooked the fact that Leslie was convalescing in the drawing-room. The scent of the turtle's interior, so pungent that it seemed almost solid, floated in through the french windows and enveloped the couch on which he lay. My first intimation of this catastrophe was a blood-curdling roar from inside the drawing-room. Before I could do anything sensible, Leslie, swathed in blankets appeared in the french windows'

''What's that bloody awful stink?' he enquired throatily. Then, as his glance fell upon the dismembered turtle and its prettily arranged internal organs spread across the flagstones, his eyes bulged and his face took on a heliotrope tinge' 'What the hell's that ?'

I explained, somewhat diffidently, that it was a turtle that I was dissecting. It was a female, I went on hurriedly, hoping to distract Leslie by detail. Here he could see the fascinating eggs that I had extracted from her interior.

'Damn her eggs,' shouted Leslie, making it sound like some strange mediaeval oath. 'Get the bloody thing away from here. It's stinking the place out.'

I said that I had almost reached the end of my dissection and that I had then planned to bury all the soft parts and merely keep the skeleton and shell to add to my collection.

'You're doing nothing of the sort,' shouted Leslie. 'You're to take the whole bloody thing and bury it. Then you can come back and scrub the veranda.'

Lugaretzia, our cook, attracted by the uproar, appeared in the french window next to Leslie. She opened her mouth to enquire into the nature of this family quarrel when she was struck amidships by the smell of the turtle. Lugaretzia always had fifteen or sixteen ailments worrying her at any given moment, which she cherished with the loving care that other people devote to window-boxes or a Pekinese. At this particular time it was her stomach that was causing her the most trouble. In consequence she gasped two or three times feebly, like a fish, uttered a strangled 'Saint Spiridion ! and fell into Leslies arms in a well-simulated faint.

Just at that moment, to my horror, the car containing the rest of the-family swept up the drive and came to a halt below the veranda.

'Hello, dear,' said Mother, getting out of the car and coming up to the steps. 'Did you have a nice morning ?

Before I could say anything, the turtle, as it were, got in before me. Mother uttered a couple of strange hiccupping cries, pulled our her handkerchief and clapped it to her nose.

''What,' she demanded indistinctly, is that terrible smell ?

'It's that bloody boy,' roared Leslie from the french windows, making ineffectual attempts to prop the moaning Lugaretzia against the doorjamb.

Larry and Margo had now followed Mother up the steps and caught sight of the butchered turtle.

'What . . . ?' began Larry and then he too was seized with a convulsive fit of coughing.

'It's that damned boy,' he said gasping.

'Yes, dear,' said Mother through her handkerchief, Leslies just told me.'

'It's disgusting- wailed Margo, fanning herself with her handkerchief. 'It looks like a railway accident.

'What is it, dear ?' Mother asked me.

I explained that it was an exceedingly interesting Hawksbill turtle, female, containing eggs.

'Surely you don't have to chop it up on the veranda ? said Mother.

The boys mad, said Larry with conviction. The whole place smells like a bloody whaling ship.

I really think youll have to take it somewhere else, dear, said Mother. We cant have this smell on the front veranda.

'Tell him to bury the damned thing,' said Leslie clasping his blankets more firmly about him.

'Why don't you get him adopted by a family of Eskimos ?' enquired Larry. 'They like eating blubber and maggots and things.'

'Larry, don't be disgusting,' said Margo. 'They can't
Eat anything like this. The very thought of it makes me feel sick.'

'I think we ought to go inside,' said Mother faintly. 'Perhaps it won't smell as much in there.'

If anything, it smells worse in here,' shouted Leslie from the french windows.

'Gerry, dear, you must clean this up,' said Mother as she picked her way delicately over the turtle's entrails, 'and disinfect the flagstones.'

The family went inside and I set about the task of clearing up the turtle from the front veranda. Their voices arguing ferociously drifted out to me.

'Bloody menace,' said Leslie. 'Lying here peacefully reading, and I was suddenly seized by the throat.'

'Disgusting,' said Margo. 'I don't wonder Lugaretzia fainted.

'High time he had another tutor,' said Larry. 'You leave the house for five minutes and come back and find him disembowelling Moby Dick on the front porch.'

'I'm sure he didn't mean any harm, said Mother soothingly, 'but it was rather silly of him to do it on the veranda.

'Silly !' said Larry caustically. 'We'll be blundering round the house with gas masks for the next six months.

I piled the remains of the turtle into the wheel-barrow and took it up to the top of the hill behind the villa. Here I dug a hole, buried all the soft parts and then placed the shell and the bone structure near the nest of some friendly ants who had, on previous occasions, helped me considerably by picking skeletons clean. The most they had ever tackled had been a very large green lizard, so I was interested to see what they would make of the turtle. They ran towards it, their antennae waving eagerly, stopped, thought about it for a bit, held a little consultation and then retreated in a body. Apparently even the ants were against me. I returned dispiritedly to the villa.

Here I found that a thin, whining little man, obviously made belligerent by wine, was arguing with Lugaretzia on the still odoriferous veranda. I enquired what the man wanted.

'He says,' said Lugaretzia, with fine scorn, that Roger has been killing his chickens.

'Turkeys,' corrected the man. Turkeys.

Well, turkeys then,' said Lugaretzia, conceding the point.

My heart sank. One calamity was being succeeded by another. Roger, we knew, had the most reprehensible habit of killing chickens. He derived a lot of innocent amusement in the spring and summer by chasing swallows. They would drive him into an apoplectic frenzy by zooming past his nose and then flying along the ground just ahead of him while he chased them, bristling with rage, uttering roars of fury. The peasant chickens used to hide in the myrtle bushes and then, just as Roger was passing, they would leap out with a great flutter of wings and insane hysterical cackling right into his path. Roger, I was sure, was convinced that these chickens were a sort of ungainly swallow that he could get to grips with and so, in spite of yells of protest on our part, he would leap on them and kill them with one swift bite, all his hatred of the teasing summer swallows showing in his action. No punishment had any effect on him. He was normally an extremely obedient do, except about this one thing. All we could do was pay recompense to the owners, but only on condition that the corpse of the chicken was produced as evidence.

Reluctantly I went in to tell the family that Roger had been at it again.

'Christ !' said Leslie, getting laboriously to his feet. You and your sodding animals.

'Now, now, dear,' said Mother placatingly. 'Gerry can't help it if Roger kills chickens.'

'Turkeys,' said Leslie. 'I bet he'll want a hell of a lot for those.'

'Have you cleared up the veranda, dear ?' enquired Mother.

Larry removed a large handkerchief, drenched in eau-de-Cologne, which he had spread over his face. 'Does it smell as though he's cleaned up the veranda ?' he enquired.

I said hastily that I was just about to do it and followed Leslie to see the outcome of his conversation with the turkey owner.

'Well,' said Leslie belligerently, striding out on to the veranda, 'what do you want ?'

The man cringed, humble, servile and altogether repulsive.

'Be happy, kyrie, be happy,' he greeted Leslie.

'Be happy,' Leslie replied gruffly, in the tone of voice that implied that he hoped the man would be anything but. ''What do you wish to see me about ?'

'My turkeys, kyrie,' said the man deprecatingly. 'I apologise for troubling you, but your dog, you see, he's been killing my turkeys.'

''Well,' said Leslie, 'how many has he killed ?'

'Five, kyrie,' said the man, shaking his head sorrowfully. 'Five of my best turkeys. I am a poor man, kyrie, otherwise I wouldn't have dreamt . . .'

'Five!' said Leslie startled, and turned an enquiring eye on me.

I said I thought it was quite possible. If five hysterical turkeys had leapt out of a myrtle bush I could well believe that Roger would have killed them all. For such a benign and friendly dog, he was a ruthless killer when he got started.

'Roger is a good dog,' said Lugaretzia belligerently.

She had joined us on the veranda and she obviously viewed the turkey owner with the same dislike as myself. Apart from this, in her eyes Roger could do no wrong.

Well, said Leslie, making the best of a bad job, if hes killed five turkeys, hes killed five turkeys. Such is life. Where are the bodies ?'

There was a moment of silence.

'The bodies, kyrie ?' queried the turkey owner tentatively.

'The bodics, the bodics, said Leslic imapiently. You know the bodies of the turkeys. You know we cant pay until you produce the bodies.

'But thats not possible, said the turkey owner nervously.

What do you mean, not possible ? enquired Leslie.

Well, its not possible to bring the bodies, kyrie, said the turkey owner with a flash of inspiration, because your dog has eaten them.'

The explosion that this statement provoked was considerable. We all knew that Roger was, if anything, slightly overfed, and that he was of a most fastidious nature. Though he would kill a chicken, nothing would induce him to feed upon the carcass.

'Lies ! Lies!' shrilled Lugaretzia, her eyes swimming with tears of emotion. 'He's a good dog.

'He's never eaten anything in his life that hes killed, shouted Leslie. 'Never.

'But five of my turkeys ! said the little man. Five of them he's eaten !'

'When did he kill them ?' roared Leslie.

This morning, kyrie, this morning said the man, crossing himself, 'I saw it myself, and he ate them all.

I interrupted to say that Roger had been out that morning in the Bootlebumtrinket with me and, intelligent dog though he was, I did not see how he could be consuming the prodigious quantity of five turkeys on this mans farm and out in the boat with me at the same time.

Leslie had had a trying morning. All he had wanted was to lie peacefully on the sofa with his manual of ballistics, but first he had been almost asphyxiated by my investigations into the internal anatomy of the turtle and now he was being faced by a drunken little man, trying to swindle us out of the price of five turkeys. His temper, never under the best of control, bubbled over.

'You're a two-faced liar and a cheat,' he snarled. The little man backed away and his face went white.

'You are the liar and the cheat,' he said with drunken belligerence. 'You are the liar and the cheat. You let your dog kill everybody's chickens and turkeys and then when they come to you for payment, you refuse. You are the liar and the cheat.'

Even at that stage, I think that sanity could have prevailed, but the little man made a fatal mistake. He spat copiously and wetly at Leslie's feet. Lugaretzia uttered a shrill wail of horror and grabbed hold of Leslie's arm. Knowing his temper, I grabbed hold of the other one. The little man, appalled into a moment of sobriety, backed away. Leslie quivered like a volcano and Lugaretzia and I hung on like grim death.

'Excreta of a pig,' roared Leslie. 'Illegitimate son of a diseased whore . . .'

The fine Greek oaths rolled out, rich, vulgar and biological, and the little man turned from white to pink and from pink to red. He had obviously been unaware of the fact that Leslie had such a command over the fruitier of the Greek insults.

'Youll be sorry,' he quavered. 'You'll be sorry.'

He spat once more with a pathetic sort of defiance and then turned and scuttled down the drive.

It took the combined efforts of the family and Lugaretzia three-quarters of an hour to calm Leslie down, with the aid of several large brandies.

'Don't you worry about him, kyrie Leslie,' was Lugaretzia's final summing up. 'He's well known in the village as a bad character. Don't you worry about him.'

But we were forced to worry about him, for the next thing we knew, he had sued Leslie for not paying his debts and for defamation of character.

Spiro, when told the news was furious.

'Gollys, Mrs Durrells, he said, his eyes red with wrath. Why don'ts yous lets Masters Leslies shoot the son of a bitch ?'

'I don't think that would really solve anything, Spiro,, said Mother. ''What we want to know now is whether this man has any chance of winning his case.

Winnings !' said Spiro with fine scorn. That bastard wont wins anything. You just leaves it to me. Ill fixes it.

Now, don't so and do anything rash, Spiro, said Mother. 'It'll only make matters worse.

'I won'ts do anythings rash, Mrs Durrells. But Ill fixes that bastard.'

For several days he went about with an air of conspiratorial gloom, his bushy eyebrows tangled in a frown of immense concentration, only answering our questions monosyllabically. Then, one day, a fortnight or so before the case was due to be heard, we were all in town on a shopping spree. Eventually, weighed down by our purchases, we made our way to the broad, tree-lined Esplanade and sat there having , a drink an passing the time of day with our numerous acquaintances who passed. Presently, Spiro, who had been glaring furtively about him with the air of a man who had many enemies, suddenly stiffened. He hitched his great belly up and leant across the table.

'Master Leslies, you sees that mans over there, that one with the white hair ?'

He pointed a sausage-like finger at a small neat little man who was placidly sipping a cup of coffee under the trees.

'Well, what about him ? enquired Leslie.

'Hes the judges,' said Spiro.

What judge ?' said Leslie bewildered.

The judges who is going to tries your case, said Spiro. I wants you go to over there and talks to him.

'Do you think thats wise ?, said Larry. He might think you're trying to muck about with the course of justice and give you ten years in prison or something.'

'Gollys, nos,' said Spiro aghast at such a thought. 'He wouldn't puts Master Leslies in prison. He knows betters thens to do thats while I ams here.'

'But even so, Spiro, don't you think he'll think it a little funny if Leslie suddenly starts talking to him ?' asked Mother worriedly.

'Gollys nos,' said Spiro. He glanced about him to make sure that we weren't overheard, leant forward and whispered. 'He collects stamps.'

The family looked bewildered.

'You mean he's a philatelist ?' said Larry at length.

'No, no, Master Larrys,' said Spiro. 'He's not one of them. He's a married man and he's gots two childrens.'

The whole conversation seemed to be getting even more involved than the normal ones that we had with Spiro.

''What,' said Leslie patiently, 'has his collecting stamps got to do with it ?'

'I will takes you over there,' said Spiro, laying bare for the first time the Machiavellian intricacies of his plot, 'and yous tells hims that you will get him some stamps from England.'

'But that's bribery,' said Margo shocked.

'It isn't bribery, Misses Margos,' said Spiro, 'he collects stamps. He wants stamps.'

'I should think if you tried to bribe him with stamps he'd give you about five hundred years penal servitude,' said Larry to Leslie, judiciously.

I asked eagerly whether, if Leslie was condemned, he would be sent to Vido, the convict settlement on a small island that lay in the sparkling sea half a mile or so away from the town.

'No, no, dear,' said Mother, getting increasingly flustered. 'Leslie won't be sent to Vido.'

I felt this was rather a pity. I already had one convict friend, serving a sentence for the murder of his wife, who lived on Vido. He was a 'trusty' and so had been allowed to build his own boat and row home for the weekends. He had given me a monstrous black-backed gull which tyrannized all my pets and the family. I felt that, exciting though it was to have a real murderer as a friend, it would have been better to have Leslie incarcerated on Vido so that he too could come home for the weekends. To have a convict brother would, I felt, be rather exotic.

'I don't see that if I just go and talk to him it can do any harm,' said Leslie.

'I wouldn't,' said Margo. 'Remember, theres many a slip without a stitch.'

'I do think you ought to be careful, dear,' said Mother.

'I can see it all,' said Larry with relish. Leslie with a ball and chain; Spiro too, probably, as an accessory. Margo knitting them warm socks for the winter, Mother sending them food parcels and anti-lice ointment.'

Oh, do stop it, Larry, said Mother crossly. This is no laughing matter.'

'All you've gots to dos is to talks to him, Master Leslies, said Spiro earnestly. 'Honest to Gods you've got to, otherwise I can't fixes it.'

Spiro had, prior to this, never let us down. His advice had always been sound and, even if it hadn't been legal, we had never so far, come to grief.

'All right,' said Leslie, 'let's give it a bash.

'Do be careful, dear,' said Mother as Leslie and Spiro rose and walked over to where the judge was sitting.

The judge greeted them charmingly and for half an hour Leslie and Spiro sat at his table sipping coffee while Leslie talked to him in voluble, but inaccurate Greek. Presently the judge rose and left them with much hand-shaking and bowing. They returned to our table where we waited agog for the news.

'Charming old boy,' said Leslie. 'Couldn't have been nicer. I promised to get him some stamps. Who do we know in England who collects them ?'

'Well, your father used to,' said Mother. 'He was a very keen philatelist when he was alive.'

'Gollys, don't says that, Mrs Durrells,' said Spiro, in genuine anguish.

A short pause ensued while the family explained to him the meaning of the word philatelist.

'I still don't see how this is going to help the case,' said Larry. 'Even if you inundate him with penny blacks.'

'Never yous minds, Masters Larrys,' said Spiro, -darkly' 'I said I'd fixes it and I will. You just leaves it to me"

For the next few days Leslie, convinced that Spiro could obstruct the course of justice, wrote to everybody he could think of in England and demanded stamps. The result was that our mail increased three-fold and practically every free space in the villa was taken up by piles of stamps which, whenever a wind blew, would drift like autumn leaves across the room to the vociferous, snarling delight of the dogs. Many of the stamps began to look slightly the worse for wear.

'You're not going to give him those are you ?' said Larry disdainfully surveying a pile of mangled, semi-masticated stamps that Leslie had rescued from the jaws of Roger half an hour previously.

''Well, stamps are supposed to be old, aren't they ?' said Leslie belligerently.

'Old, perhaps, said Larry, 'but surely not covered with enough spittle to give him hydrophobia.'

'Well, if you can think of a better bloody plan, why don't you suggest it ?' enquired Leslie.

'My dear fellow, I don't mind,' said Larry. ''When the judge is running around biting all his colleagues and you are languishing in a Greek prison, don't blame me.'

'All I ask is that you mind your own bloody business,' said Leslie loudly.

'Now, now, dear, Larry's only trying to be helpful,' said Mother.

'Helpful, snarled Leslie, making a grab at a group of stamps that were being blown off the table. 'He's just interfering as usual.'

''Well, dear,' said Mother adjusting her spectacles, I do think he may be right, you know. After all, some of those stamps do look a little, well, you know, second-hand.'

He wants stamps and he's bloody well going to get stamps,' said Leslie.

And stamps the poor judge got, in a bewildering variety of sizes, shapes, colours and stages of disintegration.

Then another thing happened that increased Leslie's confidence in winning the case one hundredfold. We discovered that the turkey man, whom Larry constantly referred to as
Crippenopoulos, had been unwise enough to subpoena Lugaretzia, as a witness for the prosecution . Lugaretzia, furious, wanted to refuse until it was explained to her that she could not.

'Imagine that man calling me as a witness to help him,' she said. ''Well, don't you worry, kyrie Leslie, I'll tell the court how he forced you to swear at him and call him . . .'

The family rose in a body and vociferously informed Lugaretzia that she was not to do anything of the sort. It took us half an hour to impress upon her what she should and should not say. At the end of it, since Lugaretzia, like most Corfiots, was not very strong on logic, we felt somewhat jaded.

''Well, with her as witness for the prosecution,' said Larry, 'I should think you'll probably get the death sentence.'

'Larry, dear, don't say things like that,' said Mother. 'It's not funny even in a joke.'

'I'm not joking,' said Larry.

'Rubbish,' said Leslie uneasily. 'I'm sure she'll be all right.'

'I think it would be much safer to disguise Margo as Lugaretzia,' said Larry, judicially. ''With her sweeping command over the Greek language she would probably do you considerably less harm.'

'Yes,' said Margo excitedly, struck for the first time by Larry's perspicacity, 'Why can't I be a witness ?'

'Don't be damned silly,' said Leslie. You weren't there. How can you be a witness ?'

'I was almost there,' said Margo. 'I was in the kitchen.'

'That's all you need,' said Larry to Leslie. 'Margo and Lugaretzia in the witness box and you won't even need a judge. You'll probably be lynched by the mob.'

When the day of the case dawned, Mother rallied the family.

'It's ridiculous for us all to go,' said Larry. 'If Leslie wants to get himself into prison, that's his affair. I don't see why we should be dragged into it. Besides, I wanted to do some writing this morning.

'It's our duty to go,' said Mother firmly. ''We must put on a bold front. After all, I don't want people to think that I'm rearing a family of gaol birds.'

So we all put on our best clothes and sat waiting patiently until Spiro came to collect us.

'Now, don'ts yous worries, Master Leslies,' he scowled, with the air of a warder in the condemned cell. 'Everything's going to be O.K.s.'

But in spite of this prophecy, Larry insisted on reciting The Ballad of Reading Gaol as we drove into town, much to Leslie's annoyance.

The court-room was a bustle of uncoordinated activity. People sipped little cups of coffee, other people shuffled through piles of papers in an aimless but dedicated way and there was lots of chatter and laughter. Crippenopoulos was there in his best suit, but avoided our eye. Lugaretzia, for some reason best known to herself was dad entirely in black. It was, as Larry pointed out, a premature move. Surely she should have reserved her mourning for after the trial.

'Now, Master Leslies,' said Spiro, you stands there, and I stands there and translates for you.

'What for ?' enquired Leslie,' bewildered.

Because you don'ts speaks Greeks, said Spiro.

'Really, Spiro,' protested Larry, l admit his Greek is not Homeric, but it is surely perfectly adequate ?'

'Masters Larrys,' said' Spiro scowling earnestly, Master Leslies mustn'ts speaks Greeks.'

Before we could enquire more deeply into this, there was a general scuffling and the judge came in. He took his seat and his eyes roved round the court and then, catching sight of Leslie, he beamed and bowed.

Hanging judges always smile like that,' said Larry.

'Larry, dear, do stop it,' said Mother. you're making me nervous.'

There was a long pause while what was presumably the Clerk of the Court read our the indictment. Then Crippenopoulos was called to give his evidence. He put on a lovely performance, at once servile and indignant, placating but indignant. The judge was obviously impressed and I began to get quite excited. Perhaps I would have a convict for a brother after all. Then it was Leslies turn.

'You are accused,' said the judge, Of having used defamatory and insulting language to this man and endeavouring to deprive him of rightful payment for the loss of five turkeys, killed by your dog.'

Leslie stared blank-faced at the judge.

Whats he say ?' he enquired of Spiro.

Spiro hitched his stomach up.

'He says, Masters Leslies,' and his voice was so pitched that it rumbled through the court-room like thunder, 'He says that you insults this mans and that you tries to swindle him out of moneys for his turkeys.'

'That's ridiculous,' said Leslie firmly.

He was about to go on when Spiro held up a hand like a ham and stopped him. He turned to the judge.

'The kyrios denies the charge,' he said. 'It would be impossible for him to be guilty anyway, because he doesn't speak Greek.'

'Christ !' groaned Larry sepulchrally. 'I hope Spiro knows what he's doing.'

''What's he saying ? What's he doing ?' said Mother nervously.

'As far as I can see, putting a noose round Leslie's neck,' said Larry.

The judge, who had had so many coffees with Leslie, who had received so many stamps from him, and who had had so many conversations in Greek with him, stared at Leslie impassively. Even if the judge had not known Leslie personally it would have been impossible for him not to know that Leslie had some command over the Greek language. Nothing anyone did in Corfu was sacrosanct and if you were a foreigner, of course, the interest in and the knowledge of your private affairs was that much greater. We waited with bated breath for the judge's reactions. Spiro had his massive head slightly lowered like a bull about to charge.

'I see,' said the judge dryly.

He shuffled some papers aimlessly for a moment and then glanced up.

'I understand,' he said, 'that the prosecution have a witness. I suppose we had better hear her.'

It was Lugaretzia's big moment. She rose to her feet, folded her arms and stared majestically at the judge, her normally pale face pink with excitement, her soulful eyes glowing.

'You are Lugaretzia Condos, and you are employed by these people as a cook?' enquired the judge.

'Yes,' said Lugaretzia, 'and a kinder, more generous family you could not wish to meet. Why, only the other day they gave me a frock for myself and for my daughter and it was only a month or two ago that I asked the kyrios . . .,

'Yes,' interrupted the judge, 'I see. Well, this has not got much relevance to the case. I understand that you were there when this man called to see about his turkeys. Now tell me in your own words what happened.'

Larry groaned.

'If she tells him in her own words, they'll get Leslie for sure,' he said.

'Well, said Lugaretzia, glancing round the court to make sure she had everybody's attention, 'The kyrios had been very ill, very ill indeed. At times we despaired for his life. I kept suggesting cupping to his mother, but she wouldn't hear of it...'

Would you mind getting to the point?' said the judge.

'Well,' said Lugaretzia reluctantly abandoning the subject of illness, which was always a favourite topic with her, it was the kyrios's first day up and he was very weak. Then this man, she said, pointing a scornful finger at Crippenopoulos, arrived dead drunk and said that their dog had killed five of his turkeys. Now the dog wouldn't do that, kyrie judge. A sweeter, kinder, nobler dog was never seen in Corfu.'

'The dog is not on trial,' said the judge.

Well,' said Lugaretzia, 'when the kyrios said, quite rightly, that he would have to see the corpses before he paid the man, the man said he couldn't show them because the dog had eaten them. This is ridiculous, as you can well imagine, kyrie judge,
as no dog could eat five turkeys.'

'You are supposed to be a witness for the prosecution, arent you ?' said the judge. 'I ask only because your story doesnt tally with the complainants.'

'Him,' said Lugaretzia, 'you don't want to trust him. Hes a drunkard and a liar and it is well known in the village that he has got two wives.

'So you are telling me,' said the judge, endeavouring to sort out this confusion, 'that the kyrios didn't swear at him in Greek and refuse payment for the turkeys.'

'Of course he didn't,' said Lugaretzia.' A kinder, finer, more upstanding kyrios...'

'Yes, yes, all right,' said the judge.

He sat pondering for some time while we all waited in suspense, then he glanced up and looked at Crippenopoulos.

'I can see no evidence,' he said, 'that the Englishman has behaved in the way you have suggested. Firstly he does not speak Greek.'

'He does speak Greek,' shouted Crippenopoulos wrathfully. 'He called me a ...'

'Will you be quiet,' said the judge coldly. 'Firstly, as I was saying he does not speak Greek. Secondly, your own witness denies all knowledge of the incident. It seems to me clear that you endeavoured to extract payment for turkeys which had not, in fact, been killed and eaten by the defendant's dog.
However, you are not on trial here for that, so I will merely find the defendant not guilty, and you will have to pay the costs.'

Immediately pandemonium reigned. Crippenopoulos was on his feet, purple with rage, shouting at the top of his voice and calling on Saint Spiridion's aid. Spiro, bellowing like a bull, embraced Leslie, kissed him on both cheeks and was followed by the weeping Lugaretzia who did likewise. It was some time before we managed to extricate ourselves from the court and jubilantly we went down to the Esplanade and sat at a table under the trees to celebrate.

Presently the judge came past and we rose in a body to thank him and invite him to sit and have a drink with us. He refused the drink shyly and then fixed Leslie with a penetrating eye.
'I wouldn't like you to think,' he said, 'that justice in Corfu is always dispensed like that, but I had a long conversation with Spiro about the case and after some deliberation I decided that your crime was not as bad as the man's. I hoped it might teach him not to swindle foreigners in future.'

Well, I really am most grateful to you,' said Leslie.

The judge gave a little bow. He glanced at his watch.

Well, I must be going,' he said. By the way, thank you so much tor those stamps you sent me yesterday. Among them were two quite rare ones which were new to my collection.

Raising his hat he trotted off across the Esplanade.


Edited by ThisLife
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Despite what I wrote as a preamble to the last story I left here, even though summers most welcome outdoor activities and visiting friends have soaked up most of my free time, I decided to grab whatever free moments I could get and endeavour to squeeze in one more tale. My motivation is simply the surprising number of people who seem to find these stories as interesting as I do. As a practical means of showing appreciation, Ive added below another of John Blofelds rare accounts of his Taoist experiences in China during the 1930s since, understandably, on this site they seem to garner the most interested responses.


Due to a shortage of free time Ive taken the following chapter on popular Taoism from his book The Secret and Sublime : Taoist Mysteries and Magic, and split it into two sections. The remaining section Ill add later when the fun of summer once again starts its gradual slide into autumn.








Demons, Fox-Spirits and the Realm of Magic:


Popular Taoism






According to an ancient and once widespread tradition, the founder of Taoism was not Lao-tzu, but the Yellow Emperor who is believed to have reigned more than four-and-a-half millenia ago ! Taoism's magical practices and, above all, its more exotic yogas were largely attributed to him and he was therefore venerated as much as Lao-tzu. In any case, by the third century B.C., it is certain that strange beliefs and practices already antique when Lao-tzu was born, had become co-mingled with that sage's teaching and that the reigning Emperor Shih Huang-ti was an ardent devotee of magic. That Taoism later became an organized religion with monasteries, temples, images, liturgies, rites and other features of the kind is, however, attributed in particular to the efforts of one Chang Tao-ling, known to posterity as the Heavenly Teacher. In the province of Kiangsi, amidst a landscape on which nature has lavished her finest brush-work and mastery of soft colours, stands the Dragon-Tiger Mountain on which Chang Tao-ling was born in the first or second century A.D. Tradition has it that the Venerable Sage Lao-tzu, appearing to him in spirit form, enjoined him to discover the formula for compounding the elixir of immortality. To all appearances, Chang was successful in that task, for he is credited with having ridden heavenwards on a tiger's back in his hundred-and-twenty-third year and with preserving his identity thereafter by successively reincarnating in the bodies of one after another of his own descendants. Each of his specially favoured progeny succeeded in turn to the name Chang Tao-ling, the process continuing until well into the present century. In the eighth century A.D., the Emperor Hsuan Tsung officially proclaimed Heavenly Teacher Chang's jurisdiction over 'all Taoist temples in the world'; and, though in fact there was never a time when that dignitary was accepted, by all the Taoist monastic communities, his sect remained the largest and most popular up to the virtual end of Taoism's existence as an organised religion some twenty years ago.


Alas, the Heavenly Teacher is no more ! Yet it scarcely seems possible that a line of pontiffs could endure for close on two thousand years, vanish in our lifetime without trace and, in so doing, cause not a ripple. True, from the founding of the Chinese Republic in 1911, the pontiffs power had waned from year to year; nevertheless, he had thousands upon thousands of devotees until the last. Exactly when and where he vanished are matters still disputed. Several authorities give different dates and varying accounts of the matter. According to one story, Chiang Kai-sheks government banished him prior to the nineteen-fifties and one Chinese writer claims that the former Heavenly Teacher is now living in-Portuguese Macao where he solaces himself, dragon-wise, amidst dense, rolling clouds - of opium ! No one seems to know for sure what has befallen. Personally I would like to think that the Heavenly Teacher managed to follow the rather disconcerting custom attributed to Taoists of vanishing without trace or, better still, that he was successfully transmogrified.


How colourful was the empire ruled by this spiritual potentate - a world of alchemy, divination, magic nostrums, conjurers, oracles, miraculously endowed swordsmen, masters of rain-making, and exorcists skilled in the humbling of fierce demons ! To my lasting regret, I had no opportunity to visit Dragon-Tiger Mountain and pay my respects to that extraordinary figure before he and his mysterious realm had passed beyond human ken. Even so, I was privileged to see many pockets of that realm at a time when most parts of China, especially in the centre and the south, were thickly sprinkled with shrines and temples whose devotees practised the ancient arts, and acknowledged Chang Tao-lings supremacy. Today only the merest traces of those arts linger, even on the outermost fringes of the Chinese world - such as Taiwan Island (to an insignificant extent) and the overseas Chinese settlements in south-east Asia.



Scholars, both Chinese and Western, have long regarded Taoism either as a down-to-earth philosophy aimed at living to a ripe old age in comfortable harmony with one's surroundings or, alternatively, as an exalted form of mysticism. Such people are eager to deny - sometimes quite heatedly - that popular Taoism has more than the most tenuous connections with the teachings of its founder sages, Lao and Chuang. Readers who share this view are invited to skip the rest of this chapter lest they grow indignant at my failure to pour scorn on practices often castigated as 'a medley of charlatanism and gross superstition'. For, with sincere apologies to the partisans of 'pure Taoism', I propose to deal kindly and at some length with the so-called aberrations of the Heavenly Teacher's sect. My purpose is to describe Taoism, not in an idealized form but exactly as I found it during what may well prove to have been the last few decades of its corporate existence. The very antiquity of its magical doctrines is a sufficient reason for according them some respect. Then, again, it happens that I generally encountered Taoism in its more popular forms long before being granted any real understanding of its higher mysteries. Besides, I must confess that I thoroughly enjoyed the colourfulness and occasional grimness of its 'magical' aspects. I hope that many readers, whether or not I can persuade them to believe in demons and fox-spirits, will find the stories of them entertaining.


Whereas the mountain hermitages of Taoist quietists and philosophers were mostly small, the monasteries containing temples dedicated to the popular divinities of that faith were often large and splendid, though generally located in remote spots chosen for their natural beauty. Once I travelled up a river flowing swiftly, but broad enough for the water to seem almost still. Its rugged banks rose steeply, sometimes forming the base of hills or mountains. Close to the top of one of them grew dense thickets of bamboo with fronds so intensely green that the curving roofs of the monastery, except when sunlight was reflected by their emerald tiles, could barely be distinguished even by an observer eagerly scanning the hilltops from the prow of an approaching junk. From a wooden jetty built for the use of pilgrims, a path lid upwards, curving round folds of the hills in a manner so contrived that, each time its steepness began to seem unbearable, I came upon a level stretch long enough to allow me to regain my breath. In less than three hours a man in his twenties (or an old one, if he had acquired the effortless gait that comes with Taoist training) could reach the monastery's outermost gateway. This was solitary, elaborately roofed arch standing athwart the path with no walls to bar my progress. If for some reason I had chosen to walk around instead of through it, there would have been no obstacle. Its function was to inform pilgrims that they were now to set foot on sacred ground. Attached to its roof was a horizontal gilded tablet some three feet long which bore the words : 'Portal to Heavens Southern Region, (Nan T'ien Men). Beyond this gateway, the wilderness of trees and undergrowth gave place to thickets of feathery bamboo that had doubtless been planted to give the monastery's green-roofed buildings a suitably Taoistic air of not being quite surely where one would expect to find them, or perhaps not anywhere at all. A sudden turn and there, with its back close against the mountain, stood the monastery, looking quite solid and stationary after all, though on other occasions I was to see it present the aspect of a fairy palace floating in a sea of clouds. Unlike a Buddhist monastery, it had been deliberately made asymmetrical. Its outer wall, topped with glazed green tiles, rose and fell with dragon-like undulations to accord with the natural contours of the mountain-side. Beyond the gatehouse rose the roofs of many buildings, some small, some very large, arranged in what struck me as picturesque disorder until I perceived how cunningly a subtle orderliness underlay their seeming disarray. Between the gatehouse and the first of these buildings lay a rock-garden simulating natural scenery; this had counterparts in several of the inner courtyards, but each was constructed in a style so individual as to come as a surprise. By way of contrast, most of the larger courtyards contained somewhat formal arrangements of curiously gnarled trees or flowers and shrubs in porcelain containers. The various residential quarters consisted of rather squat buildings dwarfed by overhanging roofs, whereas the main shrine-hall and the great library beyond were so tall that even the shrine-hall's triple roof with its widespread, fantastically contoured eaves seemed to sit lightly on its walls and pillars. The only displeasing feature was the brightness of the gold and crimson lacquer adorning that huge building (doubtless in imitation of the richly ornamented shrine-halls of Buddhist monasteries, whose splendour was more pleasing to the eye because a strict symmetry and certain other features lent them the appearance of imperial palaces; whereas, in a Taoist setting, magnificence seemed out of place). However, all the other buildings, including the hall which housed the library, had a subdued charm that was all the more noticeable on account of that single imperfection.


I need not describe the general appearance of the inhabitants of the Abode of Mysterious Origination or the welcome they accorded me, for all over China Taoist recluses had in common the high-piled hair, curious headgear, long robes and courtly manners of those I had encountered on Mount Nan Yeo. Instead, I shall plunge straight into an account of my first meeting with the Abbot, a fine-looking man with penetrating gaze, silky white beard and cheeks as red as apple-blossom.


After prostrating myself as courtesy demanded, I chose a chair standing close to the door of his cell and affected overwhelming diffidence when he invited me to come closer.


'Your Immortality, I would not dare. I am quite unworthy.'


Smiling his pleasure at beholding a barbarian grounded in at least the rudiments of civilized behaviour, he disconcerted me by a backward leap on to his bed, drawing up his legs so swiftly as to produce the effect of an illusion. It was extraordinary. One moment he was standing indolently upright; the next, despite his considerable bulk, he was restfully seated cross-legged and poised. Ignoring my surprise, he began to make dignified weaving motions with a horse-tail fly-whisk. No doubt this display had been intended to impress me not so much with his personal prowess as with the remarkable efficacy of Taoist training.


At that time, I knew almost nothing of Taoism as a formal religion, for Pien Tao-shih and the hermit of the Western Hills had scarcely mentioned the subject; so I decided to begin to repair my ignorance.


'I have noticed, Your Immortality, that your esteemed monastery has a magnificent shrine-hall containing three great images. To what deities is it dedicated ?'


'The Three Pure Ones ! Enthroned in the centre is the Jade Emperor, embodiment of the First Principle, that is to say of the formless Tao Itself. On one side is a sacred being known as Heaven's Marvellously Responsive Jewel, who represents the harmonious working of the Tao's positive and negative components. On the other side you surely recognized a representation of the Venerable Sage Lao-tzu. You must understand that poorly educated people, unable to comprehend the formless, prefer to pay respect to easily recognizable forms. It is but right to express mysteries in a way they can grasp without too much exertion, otherwise they would fail to pay homage to the Sacred Source and its endless manifestations. Naturally they cannot appreciate the subtle teachings of our great sages; nevertheless, they venerate Lao-tzu for other reasons, such as his having been born white-bearded and deeply wrinkled as a consequence of passing eighty-two years in his mother's womb, or his success in attaining to an immeasurable age. Even though the truth of these matters is disputable, such beliefs help such people to see him as a very mysterious and miraculous person, which is exactly what he was; so they arrive at the inner core of truth despite their unfortunate ignorance. We followers of Chang Tao-ling use methods to suit all kinds of men. If you stay here long enough, you will see for yourself.'


Raising a teacup to his lips, the Abbot thus indicated that my first audience was at an end, presumably because there were duties requiring his attention. His reference to Chang Tao-ling told me that the Abode of Mysterious Origination was likely to house some sorcerers or men believed to wrestle with authentic demons. Perhaps I should witness examples of conjuring and exorcism. This prospect proved so fascinating that I promptly abandoned my new-found interest in Taoist religious iconography; for I had read that the Taoist Trinity, like the shrine-halls, liturgies and rites, had been introduced mainly to enable the monasteries to compete with their Buddhist counterparts; whereas magic and demonology were, in a certain sense, authentic components of the ancient Taoist tradition. So it happens that to this day, even my knowledge of the Western Royal Mother is largely confined to that one small detail of her biography which tells us that a thousand youths yielded up their lives to provide her with the means to immortality by expending upon her lovely body their entire stock of vital energy. I suppose, that, like Niang Niang (another Taoist Goddess) and Kuan Yin (a Buddhist Bodhisattva depicted in China as female), she was really a form of the Mother Goddess worshipped under many names throughout the ancient world until, it the West, she was supplanted by - or transmuted into - the Virgin Mary. Depictions of divinity in female form are surely a response to a deep, though sometimes unperceived, human longing.


At the time of my first visit to the Abode of Mysterious Origination, my attitude to Taoist magic and demonology was one of frank scepticism coupled with a whimsical half-desire to believe. It was only gradually that certain awe-inspiring occurrences convinced me that benign and evil psychic forces really do exist, though not necessarily in the anthropomorphic forms in which they are generally depicted; and that it is possible, if highly inadvisable, to enter into wary relations with them. Some of the stories that follow are meant not merely to entertain but also to demonstrate that Taoist recluses did manage to penetrate to an eerie realm beyond the confines of most modern people's experience.



Following my courtesy call upon the Abbot, whose abrupt dismissal still rankled slightly, I began wandering about the monastery to survey its courtyards and buildings, most of which had features at once charming and fantastic. Unexpectedly I came upon a sight that, by contrast, struck me as utterly revolting. In a deserted corner of the precincts not far from the elegant main gatehouse stood a building which, since it was too large to be a recluses dwelling, must surely be put to some public use, in which case no one would mind if I walked in without permission, just to see what it contained. The picturesquely latticed windows were of painted wood spread with translucent rice-paper, so that I could not peer inside; the door was secured from without by a heavy wooden bar that could easily be removed; so, looking round half-guiltily to make sure that I was not observed, or alternatively to see if there was anyone from whom I could ask leave to enter, I slipped the bar from its sockets and laid it quietly on the ground. The heavy brass-hinged door consisted of two leaves which opened inward; as neither yielded to a gentle exploratory pressure, I pushed one of them rather hard, causing it to revolve on its hinges with a dreadfully loud groan, precipitating me all too abruptly into the gloomy interior. For gloomy it was, and in more senses than one. As my eyes became accustomed to the dim light, I realized that my curiosity had plunged me into a veritable chamber of horrors - three of its four walls were fronted with life-sized plaster demons of baleful aspect, busily engaged in punishing the ghosts of errant humans. The tongues of former scandal-mongers had been lanced and split with metal prongs; other delinquents, guilty during their lifetime of crimes specified on labels tied to their ghostly necks, were being sawn in half, pressed against metal spikes, tossed into a lake of fire, forced to sit naked on needle-sharp icicles, or subjected to one or several similarly ingenious tortures, most of them recognizably related to the nature of the poor wretches' crimes. Enthroned in the place of honour opposite the doorway loomed Yen Lo Wang, the dark-visaged Lord of Death, of whom the only kind thing that could be said was that he was not leering like the demons but performing his task as judge with an expression of stern impartiality. Whether the shivering, naked ghost before him had accumulated a stock of virtue that did or did not outweigh its former sins was a matter for mathematical investigation. Calm-faced, rather handsome accountants were seated on either side, totting up the credits and debits, and hell's ferocious, red-eyed lictors stood opposite, ready to pounce upon each ghost found wanting in virtue. The whole scene looked like a grim parody of proceedings in an old-style Chinese courtroom in the days when successive Sons of Heaven ruled the empire from their Purple Palace in Peking in accordance with a code of laws specifying the exact penalty to be attached to each offence. Standing in that murky chamber surrounded by such gruesome reminders of man's devilish inventiveness in devising means of inflicting pain, I found myself temporarily in sympathy with those scholars in whose breasts the Heavenly Teacher's followers aroused feelings of scorn; but, upon reflection, I recalled that Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, and even Buddhists, were wont to depict hell in guises just as revolting, though seldom by means of life-sized statues. Thoughtfully, I walked back towards the pale-gold ray of sunlight sweeping in through the open doorway.


I had just slammed the bar back into place when an elderly recluse, whose small head and thin neck brought to mind a tortoise, bore down as if to scold me for my prying.


'That place is better kept locked,' he remarked. 'It might give our honoured guest nightmares.'


'No fear of that, Your Reverence. All the same, permit me to say that I did find the place out of harmony with what little I have heard of your exalted faith.'


This seemed to please him, for a radiant smile lit his wrinkled face. 'Quite right,' he said. 'But then, you see, the pilgrims expect that sort of thing, and it is an efficient way of teaching them which offences are especially grave. If you study the figures carefully, you will see that some offences not listed as crimes in this world, such as malevolent gossip, acquisitiveness, arrogance and so forth are rated as being more serious than mere thefts of property. So there is a certain logic in it. Still, we do not like that place and keep it shut except during festivals when the pilgrims come. You may suppose that the bar is there to keep the demons in; in fact the door is secured because we do not like to be reminded of such a blemish to the beauty of our monastery.'


'But you do believe in hell?'


'Do we?' he answered. 'Yes, I suppose we do, officially. Our faith has inherited a good number of ancient beliefs. Those of us who speak out against the more absurd ones are unpopular with the pilgrims. They love to come to this building, you see. Most people have a high opinion of their own merits, don't you think, and can provide a whole list of extenuations to excuse their faults; so the sight of those torments, far from making them shiver, gives them the same sort of pleasure that a man seated beside a charcoal brazier in winter gets from contemplating his good fortune in being safe from the blizzard raging outside. You can scarcely imagine a man so conscious of his own shortcomings that he expects to go to hell. Such objectivity would be unnatural.'


Feeling more kindly towards the Taoists, I thanked the old man for his explanation and strolled into a courtyard where two elderly recluses were sitting in the sunshine playing a kind of chess for which three hundred and sixty black and white pebbles are required. Coming as it were straight from hell, I was reminded of those Taoist paintings which depict two bearded ancients engaged in playing chess with human lives; each time white secures an advantage, a life is saved; when black retaliates, some other life is lost. One of the joys of staying in a Taoist monastery was that one could see so many sights identical with what human eyes beheld over a thousand years ago - the same architecture, hair-dos, garments, gestures, manners, occupations and amusements.


Among the recluses living permanently at the Abode of Mysterious Origination were two exorcists who, even before I had been told the nature of their dark profession, made me feel ill-at-ease in their presence. Both were men of commanding appearance with preternaturally bright eyes, whose gaze was discomforting and whose complexion was unprepossessingly pallid. They were said to spend much of their time in meditation and to regard the calls upon their special skill as exorcists as a tiresome inconvenience to which they submitted largely out of compassion for their patients. Moreover, the monastery's revenue and public image depended to some extent on displays of marvels. Whether truly high-minded or not, these two strange men were admired by the other recluses, who described them as 'freely expending great measures of their vital energy to relieve the sufferings of demon-tormented beings.' Mastering my instinctive distaste, I went out of my way to ingratiate myself with them in the hope of being allowed to observe the symptoms allegedly caused by demonic possession and to witness the rite of exorcism. This second object proved unattainable, for I learnt that an exorcist has to be left alone with his writhing patient, but those grim recluses did promise to let me see the next patient before one of them drove the demon forth. While waiting for this promise to be fulfilled, I was fortunate enough to hear from the lips of a pilgrim from Canton the nearest approach to an eye-witness account of exorcism that could be expected under the circumstances. This Mr Lee, though a canny trader, struck me as an upright person unlikely to tell tall stories just to create an effect. Cut down to its essentials, his tale was as follows :


'On Mount Lo-fu in my native province of Kwangtung, there is a famous Immortal known as the Cloud Wanderer. Not very long ago, the youngest daughter of my cousin, who is, by the way, a tea-merchant, fell victim to a malady that caused violent seizures. She sickened only months prior to the date fixed for her marriage to a wealthy Hong Kong lawyer, and so her parents naturally concealed her misfortune as far as possible, hoping to have her cured in time for the wedding. In vain they summoned practitioners of western medicine and doctors skilled in our Chinese healing art. Two months were wasted before an intimate friend thought to call in the Cloud Wanderer, who instantly and with good reason diagnosed possession by a member of that particularly vicious type of demon which seeks to prolong its existence by battening on the bodies of healthy youths and maids. Thus they destroy their victims one after another. It is pitiful.


' "Be calm," the Immortal told her parents. Illness might have had a lingering aftermath, whereas when I have compelled this demon to leave her she will be strong and well - unless fatal inroads have already been made on her stock of vital energy. You would have done well to summon me before.


'You know perhaps that exorcists are rather intimidating in appearance, but the Cloud Wanderer did not look the sort of person to cause a young lady to lose her wits on catching sight of him. Very well. I shall tell you. In between her fits, my cousins daughter showed no symptoms of illness beyond a severe lassitude, and she had been reasonably well for several days when the Immortal came to diagnose her complaint. No sooner did her parents bring him to her chamber than a fit came upon her. Writhing like a girl put to torture, she screamed foul abuse, shouting words that no well-raised girl would know, much less employ.


' "Oh, so it's you again !" exclaimed the Immortal sternly. This caused some astonishment for he had never before set eyes on the girl, but in truth the remark was addressed to the demon, whom he had once had occasion to drive from the body of a young boy of the Auyang family in Tungshan.


"'How dare you claim acquaintance with me !" replied the demon haughtily. "Go and --- yourself in that ruin of a monastery. It's the only love you'll get, you idle Taoist bone !"


'Offended by such undignified abuse, the Immortal said sternly: "Unless King Yen Lo takes you back to his murky kingdom, I shall destroy you, you weak-minded devil !" So saying, he interlocked his fingers in a sign of great power, whereupon the poor girl shrieked as though stricken and lay cowering back against the wall. Turning to the parents, the Immortal remarked : "You will find there is nothing difficult about his case. In one night I can subdue this paltry demon and make him fly for his life. If by noon tomorrow it is still troubling her, I shall take even sterner measures but remit the fee for my services."


'Well knowing that malevolent demon's vindictiveness, he ordered a room to be cleared of furniture and adornments, commanding the servants to sweep it thoroughly so that, if the girl should happen to be dragged along the ground, her clothes would not be soiled. The following evening, having fasted a full day, he returned and set up an altar to his patron deity. Then, advising my cousin to shut his daughter in a room as far away as possible, lest the demon, hearing the sound of the preliminaries, should torment her with redoubled fury, he lit candles and incense in utensils of heavy pewter and performed the introductory rites behind closed doors. Alas, the clash of his cymbals penetrated to the furthest corners of the house, driving the afflicted girl into a frenzy; the women attending her had to bind her arms for fear she destroy herself. An hour before dawn, the Immortal called for a fine young cockerel and, beheading the bird, scattered its blood about the room as an offering to the spirits he had summoned to assist him. As for the flesh, it was intended to tempt the demon into allowing itself to be ejected from the maidens body. When all was ready, the shrieking girl, whose arms the Immortal now caused to be unbound, was pushed into the room and the door locked behind her.


'What happened next can be imagined, though the Immortal never speaks of his art and one learns of what occurs only from what the patient's household make known when they come to the temple to give thanks to the gods. Hour after hour the frightened parents had to endure listening to the clash of cymbals, heavy footfalls, the clang of metal ritual objects being hurled about the room, laughter, screams and imprecations, and, at last, a struggling and panting as of strong men locked in combat. And the voices ! The Immortal's, loud and challenging; the girls harsh and pitiful by turn; the demon's, now ferociously defiant, now wailing like a wandering ghost's. The mother, believing her daughter was being tortured, was beside herself and tried to break her way into the locked room; her husband had to have her forcibly removed to a neighbour's house.


'Long before noon, the door was flung open and the Immortal, panting and shockingly dishevelled, cried, It is done! When the father and his servants ran in, they found a shambles. Twisted and broken remnants of the pewter incense-burner and candlesticks lay among the splintered fragments of the marble-topped, black-wood altar. The floor, ritually sprinkled with chickens blood, had been fouled with the bones and feathers of the bird, besides lumps of candle-wax and a quantity of ash from the overturned incense-burner. The chicken bones had, of course, been sucked clean of every particle of flesh and marrow. After flinging open the door, the Immortal leant weakly against the wall, fatigued beyond all bearing. As for the poor girl, she lay slumped in a corner, unconscious and scarcely breathing. Tenderly she was carried to a bedroom where a careful examination by the women-folk disclosed no sign of violence. Her pale skin was neither scratched nor bruised, except for wounds where her own nails had torn at her cheeks. Her hair and garments were scarcely more disarranged than they had been at the time when she was pushed into the Immortal's presence. Clearly the main struggle had taken place after the Immortal had conjured the demon forth from her body. Later, the Immortal informed her parents that he could have vanquished the demon within less than an hour if the girls weak state had not made it essential to coax it away from her before resorting to violence. When at last it had responded to his spells, the demon, spying the carcass of the chicken, had promised to go its way in peace; but no sooner had it devoured the bird than, with strength renewed, it made a treacherous attack that nearly cost the Immortal's life !


'The Immortal, having bathed, donned fresh garments and eaten a great breakfast, pocketed his fee without so much as glancing at the money and departed, saying to the parents: "You have nothing more to fear from the demon, but your honourable daughter's vitality has been drained almost to the point of death. Nourish her well."


'The girl, on regaining consciousness, recalled nothing of what had occurred. She had no more fits, and behaved to her parents with sweet docility, but her strength had been sucked away prior to the Immortal's coming; she was scarcely able to stroll in the garden, supported by the shoulders of her serving maids. Two months later, she fell into a coma and died. So you see, unlike most of the Cloud Wanderer's exploits, the story has a tragic ending, but it constitutes a classic case of exorcism free from abnormal or unlooked-for features.'


About a week after hearing Mr Lee's story, I was summoned to the cell occupied by Shen Tao-shih, the younger of the two exorcists residing at the Abode of Mysterious Origination. Motioning me to follow, he led the way to a courtyard surrounded by pilgrim dormitories which were rarely occupied at that time of year. In one of them a lonely figure lay upon a sleeping-platform - a middle-aged peasant woman who seemed to be in a daze, for she paid us no attention but kept pulling idly at her disordered hair and emitting bleating noises.


'She is fortunate enough to be possessed by nothing worse than a water-sprite. It seems that, while she was washing clothes at the margin of the river, it lodged itself in her body. Such sprites are really dangerous only when deep water lies nearby. Her husband brought her up here after spending three sleepless nights preventing her from running off towards the river. Apparently the sprite sleeps throughout most of the day, for the patient seldom shows signs of acute distress until evening approaches.'


'And how do you propose to cure her?' I asked, longing for an invitation to be present at the rite.


With fire, naturally, since fire and water are the elements most often at variance with each other.'


'With fire !' I repeated. 'Will not the patient be hurt ?'


'That is like asking me if I know my job as a doctor,' he answered with slight asperity. 'What you suggest is most improbable. Look !' He struck a match and, though it was broad daylight, the sight of the puny flame drew a piercing shriek from the woman, who sprang up and huddled back against the head of her bed moaning pitifully.


'You see how easily water-sprites are intimidated. Tonight, the creature will be taught to leave humans well alone.'


Though I pleaded earnestly to be allowed to watch, Shen Tao-shih was adamant. That night, while getting ready for bed in my little guest-cell on the opposite side of the monastery, I heard a distant clash of cymbals that continued for perhaps an hour. That was all. In the morning while I and two or three other guests were breakfasting off rice gruel flavoured with salted river-shrimps, the exorcist strode in with a beaming smile to invite me to see the woman before she left. Putting down my chopsticks, I followed him to where she was standing just outside the guest-refectory door. Her long hair was now neatly arranged in a bun and, though she looked tired and wan, it was obvious that she was altogether in much better shape than when I had seen her last. On being suddenly confronted by a barbarian from the Western Ocean, she instinctively made as if to run; but that, in a Chinese peasant woman, was a normal reaction and quite the reverse of her previous listlessness. By and large, I felt disappointed. I was strongly inclined to suspect that the wily exorcist had diagnosed some minor ailment and, having sought to impress me by alleging a case of possession, administered a suitable remedy before leaving her to get a good night's sleep. And yet ? There had been her horrified shrinking from a match-flame and the noise of cymbals during the night. Casually I produced a cigarette and lit it, watching the woman for signs of fear, but her rather stolid expression did not change. The incident, if not impressive, had certainly been peculiar.


In the nineteen-thirties, Taoist exorcism was still widely practised and apparently with success; for, whether the patients were actually possessed by demons or were simply what we should call schizophrenics, there were reliable stories of successful cures being wrought. On the other hand, the more dangerous art of evoking spirits (other than as invisible presences speaking through the mouths of human oracles) had become extremely rare, so that, during my several visits to the Abode of Mysterious Origination, I tried in vain to obtain authentic information about evocation rites. The recluses took it for granted that demon evocation was well within the bounds of possibility, for they had heard or read a great many accounts of this mystery as practised by Taoists, in days gone by; but none could quote a recent case supported by reliable testimony. At length a rather fat, good-natured recluse born in the neighbourhood of Peking, whose powers as a musician were much esteemed, decided to satisfy my curiosity by relating a story concerning a Mongol shaman who, so he assured me, had conjured up a demon in circumstances that pointed to a method similar to Taoist-style evocation.


'The story goes back some years, my friend, say ten or twelve years after the founding of the Republic, when Sun Yat-sen was still the people's idol - a tiresome, demagogic ranter, we Taoists thought him. At that time, I was a serving-lad in the Tung Yu Temple in Peking and knew several members of the family concerned. The chief protagonist was a skin-merchant named Chang I-lo, whose mother and third uncle had long been at loggerheads about a piece of landed property in Pao-ting Fu, their native home. The old lady happened to die rather suddenly of a mysterious ailment and Chang I-lo, convinced that his uncle had poisoned her, indiscreetly voiced this charge to all and sundry. The uncle was certainly an evil-hearted person besides belonging to the cult - a cult whose name it is unwise to mention even among trusted friends. Its followers perform abominable rites that have been illegal for centuries. Dangerous men ! As a boy I kept out of the way of Chang's sinister relative each time he visited our temple.


'As a skin-merchant, Chang I-lo had to travel to Kalgan annually to buy furs and hides from Mongolian trappers who would call at his inn with their goods. In the year his mother died, when he was preparing to visit that city, an assistant working in the medicine-shop near the Tung An market went to see him as if on business and persuaded him to visit a certain Mongol shaman residing in Kalgan, a man renowned for conjuring up the spirits of the dead. By conversing with his departed mother, Chang could discover whether and how his uncle had poisoned her.


'"A man may not live beneath the same heaven as the slayer of his parent" remarked the seller of medicines. "If your suspicions are confirmed by so reliable a source, no honourable man will blame you for making away with your uncle. The Law is the Law, of course, and Sun Yat-sen's people have turned it topsy-turvy; so the authorities might take a harsh view of such an act, but people in general will esteem you as a filial son."


'When Chang I-lo reached Kalgan, he learnt that the shaman dwelt in a small yurt (felt tent) pitched near the top of an escarpment a few miles north of the city wall. There was no road, so he hired a young lad to run beside his horse and show him the way. When they had topped a rise which brought them in sight of the yurt, the lad asked for his money, declaring he was afraid to approach it more closely; so Chang paid him off, perhaps glad that it was still early enough for him to be safely back within the city walls before sundown.


'At the entrance to the yurt - a wooden door set in the canvas - he met a smutty-faced Mongol child who motioned him to go straight in. It was dark inside but not too dark to see. On the further side of the stove sat an elderly Mongol lolling back on a pile of old rugs. No less grimy than the boy, he was clad in a tattered yellow ochre robe covered with grease-stains - he probably wiped his chopsticks on it after every meal. The whole place smelled offensively. To the odours of dirt and poverty was added that of rancid butter emanating from some silver lamps burning before the usual sort of Buddhist wall-shrine. Chang felt thoroughly upset. Surely a successful demon-conjurer would be able to afford surroundings of greater elegance ? As it was, there was nothing in the room besides the shrine, the pile of old rugs and a battered bronze tea-kettle bubbling on the stove.


'The shaman greeted him in Mongol, a language all Peking skin-merchants have to know for business reasons. Chang spoke it fluently, whereas the shaman could probably speak very little Chinese, if any. His next words gave Chang a shock.


' "You have come on a grave affair and would speak with your mother."


'Who could remain calm in the face of such prescience? And Chang, I remember, was a rather timid man. But then, it was encouraging to discover that the shaman really did possess unusual powers.


' "Ten silver dollars," was the next pronouncement. My friend, if you know our thrifty Peking merchants, you will understand the working of Chang's mind. Had the Mongol been clad in silks and his yurt furnished with fine rugs and other luxuries, he might easily have extorted forty or even fifty dollars. As it was, observing signs of poverty all around him, Chang foolishly decide d to give him less than had been demanded. Calmly he laid just five silver dollars on the edge of the pile of carpets, shamefacedly adding a sixth when he saw the shaman's look of anger. Such miserliness would have set anyone against him, but it cannot have made any real difference. Later on, the Mongol punished him cruelly, but one can scarcely suppose that petty meanness was the real cause. In my humble opinion, Chang would have needed a very large sum indeed to escape what was in store for him.


'Placing the miserable fee in his sleeve, the Mongol folded his legs as for meditation, carefully tucking in the skirts of his gown to keep his feet from the draught. Chang said later that this surprised him, for the tent was so stuffy that he himself was sweating. Next, the Mongol picked up a hand-drum with metal pellets attached to it by thongs and, twirling it with such strength that the sound resembled hail pelting on a thinly tiled root began to chant.


"'Durra-durra-drrrrh ! " went the -drum. "Ooooah aieyee yaaauu" intoned the Mongol in a deep bass voice. You know the sort of thing. Presently his body began to jerk and sway, arms flailing, and now and then his gestures were so menacing that Chang, who was seated on the floor, slid hastily backwards, almost singeing his back against the stove. Suddenly there came a rush of wind. The Mongol emitted piercing yells and the canvas walls of the yurt began straining and trembling - yet the sunlit rents in the material remained as bright as ever and Chang was aware that, though a cold wind raged within the yurt, the steppe outside remained as windless and peaceful as before ! Soon he noticed that the darkness inside had increased; for, though he could still make out the Mongol's violent movements, such details as the grease-stains on his robe were no longer visible. True merchant that he was, Chang's first thought was that an attempt would soon be made to rob him !


'Noise, noise, noise, then mind-shattering silence ! The wind died as abruptly as the rattling of the drum. No sound to be heard but the tea-kettle's gentle hiss. A long, long silence. So this was the moment ! His departed mother's shade was about to manifest itself. He would hear her voice, perhaps even see her well-loved features ! Holding his breath he grew tense. Tears started to his eyes.


' "Incestuous turtle ! Sister-raping dog ! Stinking lump of human dung ! How dare you impugn the crime of murder to your honoured uncle, impious Chang I-lo !"


'Chang shrank back appalled. How could the unseen owner of that high-pitched, metallic, sneering voice know his name or the accusations he had made in far-away Peking? It was not the voice of anyone known to him, whether now alive or dead, and most certainly not his mother's. Nor could it be the Mongol's, for the abuse had been delivered in impeccable Chinese, the very accents of his home-town, Pao-ting Fu. What manner of person could read his inmost thoughts and parody his intonation? To save his sanity, he seized upon the notion that the foul abuse had after all been hurled at him by the shaman, who had somewhere acquired a perfect knowledge of Chinese. It was all a plot aimed at securing the bag of silver he carried beneath his robe. That was it ! Fear gave way to rage and he was about to set about the tricksters, when a renewed bout of terror intervened; for now he discerned a second and taller figure seated upon the pile of rugs in such a manner that parts of the shaman's face and body should have been hidden. But they were not ! Two figures overlapping and yet both entirely visible ? How could that be ? His mind must be afflicted by an illusion due to the poor light. Whatever comfort he drew from this conclusion did not last long, for he soon saw the hitherto shadowy form acquire the more solid aspect of a burly fellow seated cross-legged, the white soles of his felt Chinese slippers glimmering against the dark material of his robe. Chang's belief that he was the victim of hallucination had already begun to waver when some pieces of ill-cured charcoal in the stove behind him burst into flame, causing a lurid light to shine upon the stranger's face. No comforting doubts remained. Such horribly ill-favoured features set in an expression of such inhuman malevolence could belong only to a fiend !


'The shaman had performed his task so well that our filial skin-merchant ran shrieking from the yurt, stumbled upon the door-sill and crashed face-down on the dusty earth outside. Scrambling to his feet, he heard amidst bursts of high-pitched laughter the awful words: "No man flees his shadow. No matter where he goes, it follows!" Flinging himself astride his horse, he dug his heels into its flanks before remembering to unhitch the rein from the tethering post. The hateful Mongol child's laughter was now added to the fiend's.


'One can well imagine poor Chang I-lo urging his horse to gallop ever faster, blinding the passers-by with clouds of sand. A day or two later, back in Peking with his load of hides and furs, he poured out the story to his family, including a young cousin from whose lips we were soon to hear it in the Tung Yu Temple. In a way it was laughable; not so, the sequel. Everyone tried to comfort Chang by insisting that he had been deceived in some cruel way for his meanness to the shaman; but Chang I-lo, obsessed by the words "No man flees his shadow", could talk of nothing but arrangements for his funeral. A few days later he fell ill; the physician diagnosed a preponderance of the fire element in the region of his liver, but it is doubtful if he properly understood the nature of the malady. Presently it became known that Chang's wife no longer dared to pass the nights with him, for she would wake up time and time again to find her husband talking loudly to himself between fits of weeping and laughter. What frightened her most was that he seemed to have two voices, one that argued, wept and pleaded in familiar tones; another that shouted threats and obscenities or laughed and murmured in high- pitched accents that seemed to belong to a stranger !


'Advised to summon a Taoist exorcist, the lady obstinately refused, declaring that Taoists gave people nothing but worthless paper charms in return for good money. On this account, Chang I-lo soon passed away, but not as a result of illness. Early one morning, his wife and servant, coming in to attend to him as usual, found the bed-clothes soaked in blood which had gushed from what the authorities were to describe as self-inflicted knife wounds. You can guess the truth of it. At the funeral there was, of course, much talk of demonic possession until his sinister third uncle, looking decorously mournful, put a stop to it by declaring such superstitious nonsense a disgrace.'


On reaching this point, my chubby Taoist friend fell silent, foreseeing no need for further explanation. When I pressed for one, he looked surprised, but complied in his usual genial way.


'Naturally the uncle was at the bottom of all that happened. On learning that I-lo quite rightly suspected him of murder, he must have hastened to Kalgan by train and paid the shaman handsomely to evoke a demon powerful enough to destroy his nephew. The seller of medicines may have been bribed or innocently led into directing Chang I-lo to visit the shaman.'


'But why choose so bizarre and complicated a means of silencing poor Chang?'


'What better alternative had he ? To have poisoned two members of his family within the space of a year would have been dangerous, don't you think? Whereas, since our modern laws take no cognizance of demons, his method was flawless. Chang's family might persuade some individual police-constables to accept the truth, but the police would have been laughed out of court had they attempted to base a murder case on demonic possession !'


'How true ! Thank you for the story, but I do wish you had one about specifically Taoist methods of demon-conjuring.'


'Dear friend, dear friend', exclaimed the recluse amidst hearty laughter, 'you surely do not believe there can be several ways of evoking demons ! Shaman or Taoist, what difference can it make ?'


'But you have not told me how the shaman went about it.'


'Ah,' he replied, shaking his head. 'I wish I knew. Yes, I very much wish I had studied that fascinating art, but where in these days would one find a teacher ! All I can tell you is that some demons are self-existing entities that must be summoned by means of spells and cajolery, whereas others are mental creations of the one who sends them forth. The latter are the more dangerous unless an intended victim, recognizing his tormentor for a mere phantom, boldly slashes at it with a weapon of iron or steel; for then its power departs and the victor is left with a mangled paper doll no longer animated by the magician's psychic breath. Such phantoms are especially dangerous because, unlike natural demons, they cannot be bought off by promises of succulent corpses, jars of fresh blood or similar delicacies. No one would take the trouble to create a phantom by power of mind unless to wreak harm on somebody and, since it draws its existence from its creator, it has no purpose, no aim except to destroy its destined victim. If Chang I-lo's wife had called in a competent Taoist, the type of demon afflicting him would have been determined and suitable measures taken. One does not like to destroy genuine demons except as a last resort. They love their lives as much as we do and have the same rights to existence. Only in the case of a mentally created phantom would a Taoist use violence without giving it the option of departing in peace, for a demon of that class has no life to lose, being a mere extension of the magician's mind; it may therefore be destroyed without compunction, but the sword-stroke must be powerful, swift and effective; were one merely to wound such a phantom, it might rush back and avenge itself by destroying its creator. You may say that the Mongol shaman deserved to die, but to my way of thinking that would have been an unjustifiably drastic punishment' Probably he bore Chang l-lo no ill will, but created the phantom merely to oblige Chang's uncle, just as a swordsmith would forge you a good sword if you paid him well enough. No one punishes the swordsmith for a murder committed with a weapon he was paid to fashion.


'In the case of demons which draw life from the emanations of putrefying corpses, mouldering brooms, rotting rope and so-on, it is enough to destroy the objects from which they took their being, whereupon such demons vanish. There are also, of course, were-tigers and vampire-demons that are so destructive of human life and so greedy for the tender flesh of children that people consider it necessary to destroy them. Even so I feel less drastic measures would meet the case, such as confining them in sealed caves. There are several well-authenticated accounts of were-tigers in the form of women making devoted wives and mothers when they have, for one reason or another, married human husbands. When their true identity is discovered, as is bound to happen sooner or later in the course of a long marriage, they usually slip away into some forest or mountain fastness to escape being slaughtered, without having to resort to devouring their husbands and children as a means of keeping matters secret from the neighbours.


'Men, animals, ghosts, demons - all deserve sympathetic consideration. Formed from the great Tao, Matrix of the Universe, all are equally necessary to nature's Purposes. If we destroy any being without good cause, how can we expect our fellows to treat us less belligerently ? Let live, leave well alone, abstain from exaggerated reactions and one may be sure of remaining on good terms with all the hosts of heaven, earth and hell. Even corpse-devouring demons are capable of gratitude. In my youth, I befriended such a fiend who at that time inhabited a dry well in the Tung Yu Temple. Ever since, it has constituted itself my protector. Now and then it goes astray and devours somebody's chickens, but its sense of loyalty is too strong for it to permit its fellow demons to molest me or my friends. Once when I was passing the night in a bower close to the mountain peak where I sometimes go to gather medicinal herbs, a famished tree-spirit pressed upon me and began to suck my vital energy. Fascinated by its burning gaze, I could make no movement to save myself. The creature would have drained me of blood, breath and semen, leaving me dead, had not my guardian fiend intervened by recounting my poor little virtues in such terms that the tree-spirit, greatly abashed, begged my pardon and went off to hide its shame.'




(to be continued)

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Demons, Fox-Spirits and the Realm of Magic:

Popular Taoism



These tales of demons and fox-spirits, however far-fetched they may seem, well illustrate the atmosphere prevailing in many a Taoist monastery. The recluses and their followers accepted the reality of the spirits much as we Westerners accept the menace of the millions of invisible germs filling the earth's atmosphere. In those days, I believed that such tales must have at their core some relatively unusual occurrences which the over-credulous Taoists misinterpreted as being of a supernatural character. Since then, I have come to revise that estimate, partly as a result of seeing with my own eyes - if not the forms of devils or fox-spirits, then other manifestations just as inexplicable except in terms of supernatural forces. For example, it was difficult to dismiss the visible exploits of some Taoist adepts in making themselves invulnerable to flame and steel. Throughout the history of China and neighbouring countries there have been many accounts of this art, starting with those Chinese master-swordsmen, who by the use of Taoist charms, made themselves invulnerable in conflict. It is true that during the Boxer uprising of 1900, hundreds of peasants supposedly rendered invulnerable by the power of a minor deity, the monkey-god, were mown down by the guns of foreign soldiers, but they were ignorant men who depended for their invulnerability solely on magical incantations instead of seeking surer methods of attaining it.

During the great annual fair at the Abode of Mysterious Origination, when such hosts of pilgrims streamed up the mountain-side that the large dormitories could accommodate only a fraction of their number, leaving hundreds to make use of sleeping-mats spread out on the courtyard flagstones, the recluses put on many demonstrations of abnormal powers for their visitors' benefit, such as almost bloodless piercing of the flesh, and fire-walking, to say nothing of divination, seemingly miraculous healing, and so forth. As to the genuineness of the flesh-piercing and fire-walking, there could be no doubt. After watching what went forward, I came to credit the devotees with the attainment of at least a limited degree of invulnerability. Two possibilities presented themselves: first, temporary invulnerability acquired during a state of trance, perhaps to be explained as the result of an entranced person's being able to make swiftly co-ordinated muscular movements and to take right decisions instantaneously; second, invulnerability acquired by yogic practices leading to an advanced state of consciousness in which the mind assumes direct control over normally involuntary physical activities such as breathing, blood-flow and the self-healing processes with which nature has endowed us.

Clearly adepts may be mistaken as to the extent of their attainment, but it does not follow that no such attainments are possible, as my experience during the annual fair at the Abode of Mysterious Origination will show. Like all large temple-fairs in China, this one provided a delightfully varied and colourful scene. Incense-smoke rose in clouds before the altars of the gods whose gilded images and jewelled robes gleamed with the reflected light of innumerable candles, as pilgrim followed pilgrim into the great shrine-hall. In the score or so of courtyards, large and small, altars to less exalted but highly popular deities had been set up, and each was so crowded with worshippers as to leave them no space to prostrate themselves in the customary fashion. Not all these visitors, whether men or women, wore the blue cotton jacket and trousers of peasants; there was a fair sprinkling of people whose silken gowns or Western-style clothes indicated that the monastery had numerous supporters among the educated classes. There were, besides, scarlet-clad layfolk weighed down with heavy chains who had toiled up the mountain thus handicapped in fulfilment of penitential vows generally made for the benefit of sick parents or children. These penitents had progressed from the landing-stage below, prostrating themselves after every three paces. No less to be wondered at were the elderly ladies with tiny golden lilies (feet stunted to a mere three inches in length by being rigidly encased in sodden bandages since early childhood); with slow and faltering steps, they had accomplished the long, steep climb unaided and undaunted.

Imagine the disappointment of those old ladies if some scholarly sage had met them at the temple gateway, crying: 'You'll get no exhibitions of vulgar marvels here, for we are true followers of Lao-tzu and have no truck with superstition !' Happily, nothing of the sort happened; the pilgrims were able to feast their eyes on many, many wonders. There was, for example, a pond containing a small island where sat three recluses so rapt in meditation that they were not seen to stir during the festival's three days and two nights; there were displays of fantastic strength and agility by elderly recluses whose feats drew roars of delighted astonishment; and, of course, the two exorcists had been requested to put on a display. This last took the form of a pantomime in which, by means of incantations, a shrieking woman was delivered of a tall black demon with lolling tongue and eyes that shone with living flame, who, leaping menacingly towards the crowd, had to be driven back with ghost-swords fashioned out of ancient copper coins. Though well aware that this was a purely symbolic representation of demon-fighting, the pilgrims were impressed, for they did not doubt that the gaunt exorcists were capable of dealing just as effectually with real demons. In fact, one youth went into convulsions and those grim men, after making some show of curing him on the spot with menacing cries and gestures, carried him off to their quarters, from which he emerged a few hours later apparently in the best of health. Whether that, too, was part of the symbolic performance will appear later.

The fire-walking was scheduled to take place in the great courtyard fronting the shrine-hall on the second morning of the fair, and so the score or so of recluses and laymen destined to participate spent the night performing a special ritual to the music of flutes and drums. The pilgrims (husband, wife and little daughter) whom I had invited to unroll their sleeping-mats on the floor of my cell slept peacefully through this preparatory rite, whereas I lay awake for hours enraptured by that infinitely sweet, though disturbingly eerie music. Neither before nor since have I heard its like; the piercingly high notes conjured forth my soul or, to use a more modern expression, sent me on a fabulously joyful trip. Starting up from the deep sleep which had overwhelmed me a little before dawn, I found that the Abbot had sent over a plate of hot sesame-seed-topped buns with a savoury meat stuffing - no doubt a pious offering he had received from one of the pilgrims. Licking the last grains of sesame from my lips, I ran to where, being tall, I could see over the heads of the spectators crowded ten deep around three sides of the courtyard fronting the shrine-hall, the doors of which were closed.

As a prelude to an account of matters hard to credit, permit me to quote a passage from the article on fire-walking in the 1965 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica: 'While injuries do occur, they seem on the whole to be much less frequent than would be expected . . . especially as the devotees do not apply any artificial preparation before the ordeal to protect their bodies.' Moreover, in countries such as Malaysia with large Chinese communities, fire-walking can occasionally be witnessed to this day during the annual or triennial displays put on by some of the Chinese temples. As to its purpose, whereas the priests or recluses concerned may justifiably be suspected of giving some thought to the temple revenues, the lay participants, being for the most part devotees of the deity invoked, are prompted to undergo the ordeal by eagerness for self-purification in a manner that will spectacularly demonstrate the sacred being's power.

As I have said, the rite that took place at the Abode of Mysterious Origination was witnessed from the courtyard fronting the terrace, where stood the shrine-hall flaunting in the early morning sunlight the splendour of its gilt and scarlet pillars, elaborately painted roof-beams, upward-curving eaves and green porcelain roof-tiles. For the first time, I saw it not as a gaudy building out of place in those surroundings, but as one possessing a certain magnificence. A flight of marble steps led down to where a wide space had been cleared by good-naturedly driving back the pilgrim throng. Presently a flock of serving lads appeared carrying iron buckets with long bamboo handles. Bandying excited chatter with the crowd, they ladled red-hot coals on to the ground, thus forming a glowing bed that extended from the bottom step across six or seven yards of flagstones. No sooner had the last coal fallen into place and the boys run off to join the spectators than a thunderous roll issued from a gigantic drum within the shrine-hall; the lacquered doors flew open and a score of barefoot devotees, clad in white garments, appeared on the terrace chanting a refrain to an accompaniment of cymbals and drums. With but a moment's pause, they leapt down the steps straight on to the wide bed of coals; these they traversed at a jog-trot, their feet descending on the glowing mass a dozen times or more. Their pace was neither slow nor yet unduly hurried, as it surely would have been had their flesh been normally sensitive to heat; nor did they look down or pick their way from one to another of those coals whose blackness indicated some slight abatement of temperature. On reaching the bare flagstones beyond, they came to a ragged halt and sat down, lest the pilgrims topple them in their eagerness to examine their unblemished feet. Two or three of them displayed small patches of lightly scorched skin; the rest, supported by the sacred rites and the intensity of their faith, had come through the ordeal unscathed. Any wavering of their minds would have resulted in terrible burns and perhaps disaster; distraught by the fiery agony, they might have fallen on to the live coals. While most of the spectators were marvelling at the devotees' miraculously unscathed flesh, two cynics bent down with knowing smiles to test the heat of the coals. Their sharp ejaculations drew a good deal of laughter, for they had paid for their cynicism by painfully scorched fingers !

Soon after the pilgrims had departed, I called upon one of the Assistant Abbots, a fairly young and erudite recluse surnamed Wu, who had often sought my company and seemed to enjoy our long discussions. On this occasion, after the inevitable exchanges of bows and compliments, we drank tea together in his cell, meanwhile gradually relaxing to the point where we could put aside formality and talk as friends. Asked for an explanation of the feats performed during the fair, he said :

'You see, dear friend from the Western Ocean, mind is all ! Eliminate thought and the mind is no longer to be differentiated from the formless Tao, in which all things and processes originate, however ordinary or extraordinary. By meditating at a level transcending the duality of subject and object, and by cultivating an inflow of vital energy, a devotee can acquire many unusual powers.'

He went on to describe what he called the three inferior categories of power. The lowest of all embraced feats attainable by what Westerners would call normal means, though arbitrary distinctions between normal and supernormal are apt to blur in a yogic milieu which tends to encourage recognition of the fact that many apparently supernormal powers - telepathy, for example - are rare only in a society that has allowed some of the human body's latent powers to atrophy. What the Assistant Abbot had to say about purely physical accomplishments was destined to afford me an insight into the Taoist origin of several arts cultivated by the Japanese, such as the smashing of bricks and boards with the naked hand; the ability to withstand extremes of temperature which, for example, enables adepts to stand meditating beneath waterfalls in the depth of winter; and, of course, those methods of combat such as judo and kendo which accord with the principle of utilizing an opponent's strength in such away that the weak effortlessly overcome the strong - a basic Taoist principle.

'Dearest Englishman,' continued my friend (who was fond of using such affectionate expressions, no doubt because he felt that the antiquated and over-elaborate compliments customarily paid by Taoist recluses to their guests had become too stylized to convey genuine warmth of feeling, especially to a foreigner), 'you must know that the lowest of the six categories of power can be attained by all those willing to undergo the severe training involved, without their having to immerse themselves in the mystical contemplation and mental exercises required for the higher yogas. However, you would be right to complain that some of these feats are a waste of time and energy, being only one step removed from vulgar demonstrations of ability to consume more jars of wine, eggs, chickens or roast sucking pigs at a sitting than one's neighbours.

'Next come the second lowest powers, such as those displayed during our recent festival. They, too, are of no real importance. I place them above the lowest category only because the role played by mind is somewhat more obvious. One whose mind is disturbed or wholly occupied by trivialities cannot successfully command his flesh to withstand the effects of fire or metal. Also in this category are the attainment of true invulnerability to sudden death or physical injury, the art of healing oneself or others by thought or touch, and such rare but relatively useless powers as levitation. None of them causes astonishment in one who has grasped the truth that mind is the only reality. All physical processes and objects have their being in mind, which can naturally modify their nature, suspend their action or cause them to vanish, just as a novice who has learnt to be aware that he is dreaming can control the content of his dreams at will.

'The highest of the three inferior categories of power is that of successfully establishing contact with gods and demons, but I doubt if you believe in such things; so it would be useless to elaborate.'

His assumption was more or less correct, though my disbelief could no longer be described as adamant. 'Your Reverence,' I remarked at length, 'permit me to ask two questions. First, why do so many of your educated countrymen make mock of what they call Taoist superstition and hocus-pocus, in spite of being aware of the explanation you have so lucidly put forward ? Second, what are the superior three categories of power ?'

He smiled. 'The Tao-chia of old accused us recluses of cherishing beliefs and practices but tenuously connected with the teachings of the ancient sages they admired, whereas scholars with a background of modern education charge us with perpetrating frauds in the guise of magic as a means of augmenting the monastic revenues. The former charge does not stand up to scrutiny. The ancient sages planted seeds of knowledge which have grown into trees with a luxuriant array of branches, thereby according with the nature of healthy, potent seed. If Taoism had not developed innumerable branches, it would be said of the sages that the seed they planted was of poor quality. But look to the trunk and follow it down to the roots. Here, in this centre of strange rites and practices, you will find a strong, unbroken connection with the mystical illumination of our patron Chuang-tzu. There has been no separation from our roots, only luxuriance of growth. It is true that hocus-pocus is often perpetrated by unscrupulous persons who, pretending to possess certain power, batten on the purses of the ignorant. But, while the so-called magical feats of avaricious cheats and frauds are mere trickery from start to finish, genuine feats are not uncommon. I tell you frankly, dear guest from a mysterious region, the truth generally lies in the middle.'

Shaking with mirth, he sustained my puzzled gaze.

'Put it this way, my friend. You have observed how it was at our great annual festival. What did you see? A vast deal of showmanship, for after all even Taoist communities have to eat; those of us who reach the stage of living upon nourishment drawn from the air are few ! You saw, too, a number of staged effects call them hocus-pocus if you will - which were necessary because our lay-supporters expect to behold marvels, being ignorant of the truth that genuine marvels occur only in response to actual need. For instance, since they brought us no patients possessed by demons, our exorcists had no opportunity to demonstrate their skill and, in any case, the cures must be performed in private, whereas what the pilgrims required was some sort of spectacle. That is why we arranged for a youth to simulate possession during the charade and went through the motions of curing him in public. Yet, because a show was expected of us and we gave it, that does not mean that our remedies for demonic possession and other ills are fraudulent. On the contrary, hundreds of once-sick people in this neighbourhood can testify to the rarely-failing efficacy of those remedies in curing all sorts of maladies, including demon-possession. Dearest guest, did you not also see genuine marvels? Admit then that, of the charges you mentioned, one is untenable and the second true of our monastery only in a sense that is excusable.'

I nodded, more or less convinced, and repeated my question about the superior categories of power.

'The superior powers are the fruits of three graduated stages. First comes the ability to prolong life and vigour to the extent of living to a healthy old age, sometimes well beyond the normal life-span. Of this, I have heard you speak before, so I know you are conversant with the general principles. Next comes the achievement of immortality, whatever that is taken to mean. Members of the sect represented by this monastery interpret it as meaning rebirth of the hun-soul in a spiritual body able to exist for aeons; privately, many of us are inclined to doubt that other possibility, fleshly transmutation, although deference to those sages of old who are said to have been transmogrified compels us to discretion in the matter. The highest power is of course, that of keeping the mind perpetually immersed in the Tao so that at death, the finite being merges with its source, thereby gaining the only true immortality.'

'Immortality as an individual?' I asked.

'How can that be? All entities, both physical and subtle, arc subject to growth and decay. At most one can prolong one's existence by a few millenia. Can that be called immortality? Measured against time's immensity, aeons are but fleeting moments. Who would wish to cling to his individuality even as a god, if he knew the bliss of losing it in the Tao? The answer to your question is that total loss is the only lasting gain. The masters of all other achievements are doomed to watch them fade and vanish, whereas the total loser wins forever.'

The implications of this philosophy, which as yet I understood but dimly, must be left to a later chapter. In reporting my conversation with the Assistant Abbot Wu, I have willy-nilly strayed from the realm of popular Taoism; or to use my friend's own metaphor, his teaching was beginning to lead me from the branches to the trunk and down towards the roots. Before according with that centrifugal movement, I must describe an important psychic manifestation belonging to what the Assistant Abbot called the uppermost of the three inferior categories of power.

In another book, I have described the performance of one of those spirit-possessed mediums still employed as oracles in most overseas Chinese communities. At the Abode of Mysterious Origination, it was customary to consult the spirit-oracle only at times when important decisions had to be made regarding the community's welfare. As I never chanced to be present on such an occasion, I have based the following account on what I was told by the Assistant Abbot Wu. One day a letter from the district magistrate within whose jurisdiction the monastery lay was brought to the Abbot by special messenger. It contained a courteously worded demand that accommodation be prepared for a whole company of Nationalist soldiers who were to form part of a force soon to be dispatched against a recalcitrant provincial army which had advanced its headquarters eastward to a town only about thirty miles up-river from the monastery and sent the government-appointed officials fleeing for their lives. Naturally the letter caused consternation, for Taoists have ever regarded soldiers as the most tragically misguided of human beings and the recluses were aware that the district authorities held much the same opinion of Taoists ! To yield would be disastrous; soldiers were quite capable of stabling their horses in the shrine-hall or the Abbot's private quarters and of driving the recluses with blows to perform military tasks that contravened their principles. On the other hand, not to yield would be to risk the community's dissolution on some such charge as giving passive assistance to the rebels ! Clearly this was a moment to seek oracular advice.

The resident spirit-oracle was an unremarkable-looking, rather timid man in his middle thirties whose mediumistic powers had been discovered early and thenceforth assiduously nurtured. I had often seen him about and had put him down as a mild, unobtrusive recluse with no particular standing in the community until Wu revealed his identity. However, from the moment it became known that a consultation was to take place, the oracle emerged into temporary prominence. During the three days of rites that marked the preliminary stage of invoking the irascible deity Kuan Ti to enter the poor fellow's body, even the Abbot bowed to the ground before him as though the dread War God had already taken up his lowly habitation. That fierce divinity - a former general deified by posterity on account of his loyalty, sagacity and brilliant military career - had been selected from among the hosts of heaven as the being most likely to provide a strategy for countering the impiety and generally gross behaviour of soldiers ! Day and night, incense and tall red candles burnt before the crimson-cheeked, green-robed, more than life-sized image, whose handsome beard adorned powerful features set in an expression so forbidding that no Roman emperor or Prussian junker can ever have looked half so intimidating. When the time came for the final rite of invocation, the entire community assembled to perform obeisance; no doubt most of them found it hard to conceal their trepidation, for oracles possessed by the War God had been known to run amok and slaughter several bystanders, whether because their demeanour had inadvertently caused the deity to take umbrage, or, as Wu Tao-shih was more inclined to suppose, because the rapport between deity and oracle-recluse had been marred by some unguessable imperfection.

The oracle was ceremoniously led forth in procession and ensconced upon a throne that stood in the great courtyard, with its back to the marble steps leading down from the shrine-hall. To one side, but as far removed from the throne as was consonant with their being within earshot, scribes sat at a table, moistening their brushes and arranging sheets of absorbent rice-paper. Wu Tao-shih remarked that the scholarly recluses chosen for this task were usually so frightened that their calligraphy was apt to be appalling. Flanking the throne at closer range were two wooden racks containing a whole armoury of medieval weapons, these being part of the insignia of imperial generals and also handy in case the War God decided to make an example of the impertinent mortals who had summoned him from the pleasures of his heavenly existence. Wu drew an amusing picture of the mild-eyed oracle who, though clad in the full panoply of a general of old and sitting in an arrogant attitude with booted feet planted wide apart, could hardly bring himself to hold the mighty saw-toothed spear which an attendant had just thrust into his trembling grasp. Next, the unhappy man's glance fell shudderingly upon the array of swords, spears and axes flanking his throne; the very sight of such pain-dealing implements must have filled him with shame and misgiving.

Wu himself officiated. Clad in a sombre robe embroidered with protective symbols, expression no doubt guardedly solemn, he stood to one side of the oracle, head politely inclined, hands folded and modestly concealed by his sleeves, stance motionless as an idol's except when he gave the signal for the awesome rite to begin.

In response to his high-pitched command, the assembly bowed to the ground, whereat a great tempest of sound swept from the shrine-hall where the temple musicians could be seen through the open doorways frenziedly clashing giant cymbals, thwacking gongs and drums, or blowing at their clarinets as though their cheeks would burst. Wu told me that on such occasions the noise rivalled the din of embattled gods and titans; yet the serried rows of recluses stood like deaf-mutes, not so much as glancing towards the source of that boisterous assault upon their ears. All were staring fixedly at the oracle, whose features now bore too grim and martial an expression to be recognizable as those of their gentle colleague. Even his stature had filled out, giving him the air of a muscular, battle-hardened veteran of a hundred wars. His face and body had begun to twitch, his limbs to jerk; these spasmodic movements, slight at first, rapidly gained momentum, and, leaping to his feet, the terrible figure pranced about, menacingly twirling his saw-toothed spear. Suddenly he clanged its iron butt against his breastplate, whereat the thunderous music ceased abruptly and the musicians faced about, craning their necks as though listening intently.

The medium, lost in tranced oblivion, had assumed a look of such malevolent ferocity that the recluses quailed before his dreadful gestures and grimaces, even though his eyes appeared to be focused upon some inner vision; at times only the whites were visible, the pupils having vanished beneath the lids. Presently, with a clash of accoutrements, the dreadful figure resumed its throne, where he crouched with the seeming indolence of a tiger ready to spring. Warily the officiant advanced towards him, timing his steps to the slow, sad melody that now issued from the terrace, where stood a youth bowed gracefully over a slender bamboo flute.

As the melody died away, the officiant, employing the theatrical diction proper to ceremonial usage, uttered a question couched in the language which courtiers and the more scholarly military officials were presumed to have spoken on formal occasions a thousand years ago. The oracle, though motionless and attentive, sat with lips drawn back in a smile of such cruel scorn that Wu almost committed the discourtesy of stammering; indeed, having posed his question, he leapt unceremoniously backwards, for the menacing figure had sprung to its feet as though infuriated beyond measure at the temerity of a mere mortal's venturing to approach him. However, instead of plunging his weapon into the offender's breast, he clashed its great blade against his own armour with a prodigious force that snapped the steel as though it had been a shoddy toy. Then, throwing down the haft and seizing a heavy broad-sword in its place, he poured forth a flood of speech in a voice so harsh and grating as to be scarcely recognizable as human. The brushes of the cowering scribes flew over the sheets of paper; to ensure that not a syllable was lost, the one embarked upon a new phrase while his fellow was still completing the phrase just uttered. In two minds as to whether to stick to their task or flee, they nevertheless managed to do as required, though in calligraphy so shaky that, afterwards, not even they could decipher every word.

The oracle's torrent of speech broke off, and again the officiant advanced in time to that slow, soft melody. His second question unleashed a further flood of barely intelligible eloquence; but already it was apparent that the divine Kuan Ti's vehicle was close to fainting; the voice had weakened and the gestures had lost much of their ferocity. The answer to the third question tailed off in mid-speech; the oracle slumped backwards against the cushioned throne, head lolling to one side, tears and saliva dribbling from eyes and lips. The strenuous efforts to revive him before the deity left his body having proved unavailing, some attendants ran forward with a couch on which they laid him like a corpse; but, presently emerging from his trance, the poor wretch sucked eagerly at the spout of a teapot someone pressed between his teeth. The strong, hot tea revived him so that he was able to sit up and languidly reach for a second teapot, which he drained at a gulp. Apart from some facial twitching and an air of near-exhaustion, he had resumed his normal appearance and seemed not too much the worse for his harrowing experience. That mild, kindly, rather shrinking soul had after all survived the ordeal of sharing its body with the spirit of the tempestuous War God !

When Wu reached the end of his story, I exclaimed breathlessly: 'How I should love to see the record of your enquiries and the answers delivered by the divinely inspired oracle !'

A glare of mock severity escaped the Assistant Abbot before he composed his features into the slow, warm smile I liked so well.

'Dearest barbarian, one would have thought that even you would be sufficiently acquainted with the decorum that governs these grave matters not to demand what cannot with propriety be given. My questions, prepared beforehand in conclave with our Venerable Abbot, have, as you surmised, been recorded for posterity together with the divine Kuan Ti's answers, and the interpretations placed upon them by the Monastery Council. If you wish to view the contents of the book which contains the oracular pronouncements of the last five hundred years, you must stay with us long enough to be offered a place on the Council yourself; for would it not be unwise to make public matters so closely affecting our community's welfare? Nevertheless, I can inform you in rather general terms of what transpired, for an announcement was made to the assembled recluses as soon as the interpretation of the oracle had been agreed upon. Rest assured, most dear and highly esteemed layman, that the divine Kuan Ti's answer was both favourable and in accordance with the events that followed. His advice was to accept the district magistrate's demand to station troops within our sacred precincts with every appearance of patriotic fervour, since it was certain that very few troops, if any, would actually be sent here and that they could easily be induced to remain on their best behaviour for the short duration of their stay. A week or so later - it was, by the way, towards the middle of the Tenth Month last year - a detachment of less than twenty foot-soldiers under the command of a battle-scarred lieutenant arrived. Their appearance was far from reassuring. Neither the officer nor his men looked at all the sort of people to make themselves agreeable to civilians or respect our religious calling. Nevertheless, we easily persuaded that hard-faced officer to enjoin upon his subordinates the strictest accord with our monastic regulations, on pain of being severely disciplined.' Again came the slow, warm smile as he added: 'You know how we Taoists admire that weak and yielding element which placidly reaches its goal despite all obstacles?'

'Certainly, but flint is not to be eroded in a day.'

'Just so. Therefore water finds its way round.' He made a scarcely perceptible gesture which perhaps signified that the soldiers' good behaviour and swift departure had been bought at a mutually agreeable price .

'Good ! I exclaimed, 'But what if other soldiers come?'

'They will not,' he answered with assurance. 'At least, not in the near future. The oracle's communication on that point was straightforward.' His smile faded as he remarked more pensively : 'Regarding the more distant future, say three or four years hence, the oracles pronouncements offered no such comfort. Savage armies will drive the people from their homes along the river and we shall flee with them.'

'Chinese armies ?'

'The oracle vouchsafed no indication of their nationality. Nor was that necessary. Already Japan has swallowed up our Manchurian provinces and encroached upon territory at no great distance from Peking. A tiger waits only to digest its meal before setting off to hunt new prey. War will break out within a year or so, but the enemy will not reach this part of the country until long afterwards.'

'Is that your own estimate of Japan's intentions, or did the divine Kuan Ti inform you of them in detail ?'

'A little of both,' he answered gravely. 'Oracles must, of course, be interpreted in the light of prevailing circumstances. They are seldom altogether clear. Even gods are handicapped when we compel them to speak through the mouths of mortals. That accounts for their alarming response to our invocations. As you will have gathered, even their most favourable prognostications are delivered in a manner likely to discourage those who might otherwise invoke them more often than need be. A medium, unless his powers are rarely used, seldom lasts ten years. Our oracle, for example, is resigned to an early death. Each séance cuts a decade off his life. We honour him deeply for his selfless dedication.'

Struck by his use of the word 'compel', I asked: 'Do you mean that a god - a great and powerful divinity like Kuan Ti - can be compelled to enter the medium's body and submit to questioning?'

'Most certainly ! Why else should deities trouble themselves with our affairs? Do not ask me how the compulsion is exerted. That pertains to the most secret part of the preliminary rites.'

'And are ordinary ghosts and spirits equally refactory ?'

'Ghosts !' he answered contemptuously. 'Most of them are delighted to answer a summons. Often enough they come unbidden. But who believes what they say? As with human beings, there are pranksters, liars and fools among them. Summon a ghost who once bore the surname Li and the malevolent or prankish wraith of some departed Wang may arrive in his stead, answering to the name of Li for the sheer pleasure of sowing confusion. As like as not, they were enemies on earth or else have quarrelled in the spirit world, so one can understand how each would enjoy bringing discredit on the other. No oracle in a monastery of good standing depends upon information supplied by common ghosts. Only deities can be looked to for genuine revelations, but they are generally so incensed by our presumption that they make everything as difficult and dangerous as possible. Then again what deity could be expected to relish having to voice his august ideas through a puny mortal ? Imagine yourself trying to communicate with me through the mouth of a toad or butterfly !'

This conversation struck me at the time as merely fanciful, for experiences of accurate revelations being delivered by mediums who could not possibly have known my circumstances or even my identity were yet to come. My present belief that, unless the often stupid-looking and illiterate spirit-oracles are in fact amazingly telepathic, they must really be the vehicles of invisible powers is reinforced by what I have read of Tibetan oracle-mediums. Several writers have observed that, during possession, their whole appearance changes - not merely their facial expressions but the very lineaments of their bodies undergo transformations which no actor could counterfeit, sometimes taking on physical proportions quite unlike their own. Such terrifying changes transform them into strangers, so that photographs taken before and during possession resemble those of wholly dissimilar persons. Then again, possession generally confers superhuman strength, enabling the possessed to crumble or snap metal objects which, normally, he could not so much as lift or bend. These fantastic occurrences, recently recorded by dependable witnesses in such places as Kalimpong and Sikkim, continue to this day; the facts are beyond dispute, leaving only their explanation open to argument. Among the possible alternatives to spirit-possession so far put forward, there is none that accounts satisfactorily for all the facts; those who have actually witnessed the workings of spirit-oracles are inclined to recognize them, however reluctantly, as awesome manifestations of occult power.

Probably there are fraudulent cases, though it is difficult to imagine how spirit-possession of this sort can be counterfeited convincingly. If is just possible that genuine spirit-oracles or their sponsors now and then resort to subterfuge in order to avoid fiascos when their invocations fail at embarrassing moments. Even so, evidence of fraud in some cases is scarcely ground for the assumption that all cases of possession are fraudulent; at most, proven charlatanism serves to thicken the fog of uncertainty that scientists, disregarding the limitation of their competence, have brought down upon the entire range of paranormal occurrences' It has of course to be accepted that the invocation of gods and spirits is extraneous to the essential requirements of Taoism or any other mystical religion. It seems that induced possession pertains to a whole cluster of beliefs and practices surviving from an era that antedates all recognized religions by two thousand years and more. The same can be said of many components of popular Taoism; far from being comparatively recent accretions upon the teaching of Lao and Chuang, as the scholars would have it, they possess even greater antiquity than the works of those 'founder sages'.

Though Taoism offered the world many precious teachings that were but mediocrely exemplified at the Abode of Mysterious Origination, I cherish affectionate memories of such monasteries. There was a spaciousness about the life there, the recluses being, as far as I could judge, completely free to believe and practise what seemed best to each. They could, if they wished, devote themselves to religious rites and to psychic or magic arts, or to acquiring the various categories of life-prolonging and healing powers; but equally they could become immersed in painting, poetry, music or defensive combat, or else in philosophic speculation, in mystical contemplation leading directly to man's highest goal, or in any combination of those diverse pursuits. Though chastity was admired and encouraged, those who found it hard to bear or thought it undesirable were free to return home to wives and sweethearts at certain seasons. There were no dietary restrictions, nor was wine despised, though I never saw it abused. The chief moral enjoinment upon the community was that its members be courteous, tolerant, peace-loving and relatively abstemious. Such rules as governed their lives were of a kind without which few communities could function smoothly - the Abbot or Monastery Council would direct what administrative or other chores must devolve upon the individuals concerned. The one overriding consideration was the preservation of harmony and decorum.

Naturally the monastery had to remain solvent, yet those concerned with augmenting the income derived from fast-shrinking endowments of landed property seemed not to attach undue importance to that task, as was the case with the demon-exorcists, who greatly preferred sitting in meditation to the practice of their lucrative art. Rent from endowments apart, the chief sources of revenue were offerings brought by pilgrims, the voluntary donations with which guests like myself repaid the recluses' generous hospitality, and payments in cash or kind for specific services, whether spiritual, medical or otherwise. For example, obsequies for the dead could at the request of the bereaved family be made both colourful and elaborate.

But where, cry the scholars, did the sages Lao and Chuang come into all this ? Assuming that such communities lived as admirably as you say, why did they usurp the name Taoist? Had they chosen some other name for their so-called religion, we should have no quarrel with them.

Well, in my view, the principles enunciated by Lao and Chuang formed the very warp and woof of the monastic fabric. The recluses were men who lived apart from the world of politics and commerce, seeking neither power nor personal wealth. The wild and lonely setting of the monasteries was ideal for the contemplation of nature's rhythms and transformations. Those recluses who were capable of appreciating the subtle philosophy of the Tao Te Ching made much of it; quotations from its pages and stories from Chuang-tz0 were forever in their mouths. Even those of lower intellectual calibre were relatively well informed about the essentials of Taoist philosophy; the very serving-boys were familiar with the meaning of the Taoist symbols carved or painted on buildings, gateways and garden walls. The humblest kitchen-lad must have been more or less clearly aware of the significance of the Tao as the formless womb of forms, the changeless origin of nature's limitless transformations, and the passive source of all energy and activity, for these were matters proclaimed on every hand, whether by symbols, paintings, liturgies, sermons or informal conversations. Who, finding the word Tao on everybody's lips, could have failed to gain some conception of its meaning ?

If this favourable account of popular Taoism causes me to forfeit what small measure of esteem my Buddhist works may have brought me in the world of scholars, I shall shed no tears. The fact is that a real or fabled entity called Lao-tzu has long existed in people's minds as the father of magic as well as of philosophy. This Lao-tzu, who will continue to be of some importance for as long as a belief persists in his having been both magician and philosopher, is anyway closer to being a living force than that other Lao-tzu whose very bones have vanished. The teachings ascribed to him have shaped men's minds and produced results, some picturesque, some salubrious in other ways, and most of them morally uplifting. What difference would it make if it were finally proved that he never existed or that he had no truck with magic ! Faced with such 'proof', I should, like Chuang-tzu at his spouse's funeral, beat my drum and laugh !



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It was an absolutely lovely summer this year, the weather could hardly have been better, all my family and friends are still alive and well,… and so I can slide into autumn without too many regrets for summer’s passing. Autumn has a beauty all its own, (it’s only the thought of what comes next that often makes it a bittersweet pill.)

Anyway, as a celebration of a new season with all the mob down at Tao, I thought I would add one final story about the colourful childhood adventures that came with growing up in Corfu, Greece, in the 1930’s, by my much-loved author Gerald Durrell. It’s still just too warm and lovely outside right now for me to be able to turn my mind towards more serious spiritual beliefs. For anyone who may be wondering why I’ve added yet another piece by this author, for me it’s Durrell’s ability to experience, then transfer into words the sheer joy of living, that has kept me reading and re-reading his books for over forty years now. Perhaps, in bringing some of his most charming pieces here to this forum, that joy might well continue to spread to like-minded souls via this amazing 21st century tool of the internet.


The Talking Head

(Extracted from ‘Birds, Beasts, and Relatives’)


Summer gaped upon the island like the mouth of a great oven. Even in the shade of the olive groves it was not cool and the incessant, penetrating cries of the cicadas seemed to swell and become more insistent with each hot, blue noon. The water in the ponds and ditches shrank and the mud at the edges became jigsawed, cracked and curled by the sun. The sea lay as breathless and still as a bale of silk, the shallow waters too warm to be refreshing. You had to row the boat out into deep water, you and your reflection the only moving things, and dive over the side to get cool. It was like diving into the sky.

Now was the time for butterflies and moths. In the day, on the hillsides where it seemed sucked free of every drop of moisture by the beating sun, you would get the great languid Swallow Tails, flapping elegantly and erratically from bush to bush; Fritillaries, glowing almost as hot and angry as a live coal, skittered quickly and efficiently from flower to flower; Cabbage Whites; Clouded Yellows and the lemon-yellow and orange Brimstones bumbled to and fro on untidy wings. Among the grasses the skippers, like little brown furry aeroplanes, would skim and purr and on glittering slabs of gypsum the Red Admirals, as flamboyant as a cluster of Woolworth’s jewellery, would sit opening and closing their wings as though expiring from the heat. At night the lamps would become a teeming metropolis of moths, and the pink geckos on the ceiling, big-eyed and splay-footed, would gorge until they could hardly move. Oleander Hawk Moths, green and silver, would zoom into the room from nowhere, and, in a frenzy of love, dive at the lamp, hitting it with such force that the glass shattered. Death’s Head Hawk Moths, mottled ginger and black, with the macabre skull and crossbones embroidered on the plush fur of their thoraxes, would come tumbling down the chimney to lie fluttering and twitching in the grate, squeaking like mice.

Up on the hillsides where the great beds of heather were burnt crisp and warm by the sun, the tortoises, lizards and snakes would prowl and the praying mantis would hang amongst the green leaves of the myrtle, swaying slowly and evilly from side to side. The afternoon was the best time to investigate life on the hills, but it was also the hottest. The sun played a tattoo on your skull, and the baked ground was as hot as a griddle under your sandaled feet. Widdle and Puke were cowards about the sun and would never accompany me in the afternoons, but Roger, that indefatigable student of natural history, would always be with me, panting vigorously, swallowing his drooling saliva in great gulps.

Together we shared many adventures. There was the time when we watched, entranced, two hedgehogs, drunk as lords on the fallen and semi-fermented grapes they had eaten from under the vines, staggering in circles, snapping at each other belligerently, uttering high-pitched screams and hiccups. There was a time we watched a fox cub, red as an autumn leaf, discover his first tortoise amongst the heather. The tortoise, in the phlegmatic way that they have, folded himself up in his shell, tightly closed as a portmanteau. But the fox had seen a movement and, prick-eared, it moved around him cautiously. Then, for it was still only a puppy, it dabbed quickly at the tortoise's shell with its paw and jumped away, expecting retaliation. Then it lay down and examined the tortoise for several minutes, its head between its paws. Finally it went forward rather gingerly and after several unsuccessful attempts managed to pick the tortoise up with its jaws and, with head held high, trotted off proudly through the heather. It was on these hills that we watched the baby tortoises hatching out of
Their papery-shelled eggs, each one looking as wizened and as crinkled as though it were a thousand years old at the moment of birth, and it was here that I witnessed for the first time the mating dance of the snakes.

Roger and I were sitting under a large clump of myrtles which offered a small patch of shade and some concealment. We had disturbed a hawk in a cypress tree nearby and were waiting patiently for him to return so that we could identify him. Suddenly, some ten feet from where we crouched, I saw two snakes weaving their way out of a brown web of heather stalks. Roger, who was frightened of snakes, uttered an uneasy little whine and put his ears back. I shushed him violently and watched to see what the snakes would do. One appeared to be following close on the heels of the other. Was he, I wondered, perhaps in pursuit of it in order to eat it ? They slid out of the heather and into some clumps of sun-whitened grass and I lost sight of them. Cursing my luck, I was just about to shift my position in the hopes of seeing them again when they reappeared on a comparatively open piece of ground.

Here the one that was leading paused and the one that had been following slid alongside. They lay like this for a moment or so and. then the pursuer started to nose tentatively at the other one's head. I decided that the first snake was a female and that her follower was her mate. He continued butting his head at her throat until eventually he had raised her head and neck slightly off the ground. She froze in that position and the male, backing away a few inches, raised his head also. They stayed like that, immobile, staring at each other for some considerable time. Then, slowly, the male slid forward and twined himself round the female's body and they both rose as high as they could without overbalancing, entwined like a convolvulus. Again they remained motionless for a time and then started to sway, like two wrestlers pushing against each other in the ring, their tails curling and grasping at the grass roots around them to give themselves better purchase. Suddenly they flopped sideways, the hinder ends of their bodies met and they mated lying there in the sun, as entangled as streamers at a carnival.

At this moment Roger, who had viewed with increasing distress my interest in the snakes, got to his feet and shook himself before I could stop him, indicating that, as far as he was concerned, it would be far better if we moved on. The snakes unfortunately saw his movement. They convulsed in a tangled heap for a moment, their skins gleaming in the sun, and then the female disentangled herself and sped rapidly towards the sanctuary of the heather, dragging the male, still fastened to her, helplessly behind her. Roger looked at me, gave a small sneeze of pleasure and wagged his stumpy tail. But I was annoyed with him and told him so in no uncertain terms. After all, as I pointed out to him, on the numerous occasions when he was latched to a bitch how would he like to be overtaken by some danger and dragged so ignominiously from the field of love ?

With the summer came the bands of gypsies to the island to help harvest the crops and steal what they could while they were there. Sloe-eyed, their dusky skins burnt almost black by the sun, their hair unkempt and their clothing in rags, you would see them moving in family groups along the white, dusty roads, riding on donkeys or on lithe little ponies, shiny as chestnuts. Their encampments were always a squalid enchantment, with a dozen pots bubbling with different ingredients over the fires, the old women squatting in the shadow of their grubby lean-tos with the heads of the younger children in their laps, carefully searching them for lice, while the older children, tattered as dandelion leaves, rolled and screamed and played in the dust. Those of the men who had a side-line would be busy with it. One would be twisting and tying multi-coloured balloons together, so that they screeched in protest, making strange animal shapes. Another, perhaps, who was the proud possessor of a Karaghiozi shadow show, would be refurbishing the highly coloured cut-our figures and practising some of Karaghiozi's vulgarities and innuendos to the giggling delight of the handsome young women who stirred the cooking-pots, or knitted in the shade.

I had always wanted to get on intimate terms with the gypsies, but they were a shy and hostile people, barely tolerating the Greeks. My mop of hair, bleached almost white by the sun, and my blue eyes, made me automatically suspect and although they would allow me to visit their camps, they were never forthcoming, in the way that the peasants were, in telling me about their private lives and their aspirations. It was, nevertheless, the gypsies who were indirectly responsible for an uproar in the family. For once I was entirely innocent.

It was the tail-end of an exceptionally hot summer's afternoon. Roger and I had been having an exhausting time pursuing a large and indignant king snake along a length of dry stone wall. No sooner had we dismantled one section of it than the snake would ease himself fluidly along into the next section, and by the time we had re-built the section we had pulled down, it would take half an hour or so to locate him again in the jigsaw of rocks. Finally we had to concede defeat and were now making our way home to tea, thirsty, sweating and covered with dust. As we rounded an elbow of the road, I glanced into a small valley, and saw what, at first glance, I took to be a man with an exceptionally large dog. A closer look, however, and I realised, incredulously, that it was a man with a bear. I was so astonished that I cried our involuntarily. The bear stood up on its hind legs and turned to look up at me, as did the man. They stared at me for a moment and then the man waved his hand in casual greeting and turned back to the task of spreading his belongings under the olive tree, while the bear got down again on its haunches and squatted, watching him with interest. I made my way hurriedly down the hillside, filled with excitement. I had heard that there were dancing bears in Greece, but I had never actually seen one. This was an opportunity too good to be missed. As I drew near, I called a greeting to the man and he turned from his jumble of possessions and replied courteously enough. I saw that he was indeed a gypsy, with the dark, wild eyes and the blue-black hair, but he was infinitely more prosperous looking than most of them, for his suit was in good repair and he wore shoes, a mark of distinction, in those days, even among the landed peasantry of the island.

I asked whether it was safe to approach, for the bear, although wearing a leather muzzle, was untethered.

'Yes, come,' called the man. 'Pavlo won't hurt you, but leave your dog.'

I turned to Roger and I could see that, brave though he was, he did not like the look of the bear and was only staying by me out of a sense of duty. When I told him to go home, he gave me a grateful look and trotted off up the hillside, trying to pretend that he was ignorant of the whole scene. In spite of the man's assurances that Pavlo was harmless, I approached with caution for, although it was only a youngster, the bear, when it reared on to its hind legs, was a good foot or so taller than I was and possessed on each broad, furry paw a formidable and very serviceable array of glittering claws. It squatted on its haunches and peered at me out of tiny, twinkling brown eyes, panting gently. It looked like a large pile of animated, unkempt seaweed. To me it was the most desirable animal I had ever set eyes on and I walked round it, viewing its excellence from every possible vantage point.

I plied the man with eager questions. How old was it? Where did he get it ? What was he doing with it ?

'He dances for his and my living,' said the man, obviously amused by my enthusiasm. 'Here, I'll show you"

He picked up a stick with a small hook at the end and slid it into-a ring set into the leather muzzle the bear wore'

'Come, dance with Your papa.'

In one swift movement the bear rose on to its hind legs. The man clicked his fingers and whistled a plaintive tune, starting to shuffle his feet in time to the music and the bear followed suit. Together they shuffled in a slow, stately minuet among the electric blue thistles and the dried asphodel stalks. I could have watched them for ever. When the man reached the end of his tune, the bear, as of habit, got down on all fours again and sneezed.

'Bravo !' said the man softly. 'Bravo !'

I clapped enthusiastically. Never, I said earnestly, had I seen such a fine dance, nor such an accomplished performer as Pavlo. Could I, perhaps, pat him ?

'You can do what you like with him,' said the man, chuckling, as he unhooked his stick from the bear's muzzle. 'He’s a fool, this one. He wouldn't even hurt a bandit who was robbing him of his food.'

To prove it he started scratching the bear's back and the bear, pointing its head up into the sky, uttered throaty wheezy murmurings of pleasure and sank gradually down on to the ground in ecstasy, until he was spread out looking almost, I thought, like a bear-skin rug.

'He likes to be tickled,' said the man. 'Come and tickle him.'

The next half hour was pure delight for me. I tickled the bear while he crooned with delight. I examined his great claws and his ears and his tiny bright eyes and he lay there and suffered me as though he were asleep. Then I leant against his warm bulk and talked to his owner. A plan was forming in my mind. The bear, I decided, had got to become mine. The dogs and my other animals would soon get used to it and together we could go waltzing over the hillsides. I convinced myself that the family would be overjoyed at my acquisition of such an intelligent pet. Bur first I had to get the man into a suitable frame of mind for bargaining. 'With the peasants, bargaining was a loud, protracted and difficult business. But this man was a gypsy and what they did not know about bargaining would fit conveniently into an acorn cup. The man seemed much less taciturn and reticent than the other gypsies I had come into contact with and I took this as a good sign. I asked him where he had come from.

'Way beyond, way beyond,' he said, covering his possessions with a shabby tarpaulin and shaking out some threadbare blankets which were obviously going to serve as his bed. 'Landed at Lefkimi last night and we've been walking ever since, Pavlo, the Head and I. You see, they wouldn't take Pavlo on the buses; they were frightened of him. So we got no sleep last night, but tonight we'll sleep here and then tomorrow we'll reach the town.'

Intrigued, I asked him what he meant by 'he, Pavlo, and the Head' walking up from Lefkimi.

'My Head, of course,' he said. 'My little talking Head.' And he picked up the bear stick and slapped it on a pile of goods under the tarpaulin, grinning at me.

I had unearthed the battered remains of a bar of chocolate from the pocket of my shorts and I was busy feeding this to the bear, who received each fragment with great moans and slobberings of satisfaction. I said to the man that I did not understand what he was talking about. He squatted on his haunches in front of me and lit a cigarette, peering at me out of dark eyes, as inimical as a lizard's.

'I have a Head,' he said jerking his thumb towards his pile of belongings, 'a living Head. It talks and answers questions. It is without doubt the most remarkable thing in the world.'

I was puzzled. Did he mean, I asked, a head without a body ?

'Of course without a body. Just a Head,' and he cupped his hands in front of him, as though holding a coconut. 'It sits on a little stick and talks to you. Nothing like it has ever been seen in the world.'

But how, I enquired, if the head were a disembodied head, could it live ?

'Magic,' said the man solemnly. 'Magic that my great-great-grandfather passed down to me.'

I felt sure that he was pulling my leg, but, intriguing though the discussion on talking heads was, I felt we were wandering away from the main objective, which was to acquire the immediate freehold of Pavlo, now sucking in through his muzzle, with wheezy sighs of satisfaction, my last bit of chocolate. I studied the man carefully as he squatted dreamy-eyed, his head enveloped in a cloud of smoke. I decided that with him the bold approach was the best. I asked him bluntly whether he would consider selling the bear and for how much ?

'Sell Pavlo ?' he said. 'Never ! He's like my own son.'

Surely, I said, if he went to a good home ? Somewhere where he was loved and allowed to dance, surely then he might be tempted to sell ? The man looked at me meditatively puffing on his cigarette.

'Twenty million drachmas ?' he enquired, and then laughed at my look of consternation. 'Men who have fields must have donkeys to work them,' he said. 'They don't part with them easily. Pavlo is my donkey. He dances for his living and he dances for mine, and until he is too old to dance, I will not part with him.'

I was bitterly disappointed, but I could see that he was adamant. I rose from my recumbent position on the broad, warm, faintly snoring back of Pavlo and dusted myself down. Well, I said, there was nothing more I could do. I understood his wanting to keep the bear, but if he changed his mind, would he get in touch with me? He nodded gravely. And if he was performing in town, could he possibly let me know where, so that I could attend ?

'Of course,' he said, 'but I think people will tell you where I am, for my Head is extraordinary.'

I nodded and shook his hand. Pavlo got to his feet and I patted his head.

When I reached the top of the valley I looked back. They were both standing side by side. The man waved briefly and Pavlo, swaying on his hind legs, had his muzzle in the air, questing after me with his nose. I liked to feel it was a gesture of farewell.

I walked slowly home thinking about the man and his talking Head and the wonderful Pavlo. Would it be possible, I wondered, for me to get a bear cub from somewhere and rear it ? Perhaps if I advertised in a newspaper in Athens it might bring results ?

The family were in the drawing-room having tea and I decided to put my problem to them. As I entered the room, however, a startling change came over what had been a placid scene. Margo uttered a piercing scream, Larry dropped a cup full of tea into his lap and then leapt up and took refuge behind the table, while Leslie picked up a chair and Mother gaped at me with a look of horror on her face. I had never known my presence to provoke quite such a positive reaction on the part of the family.

'Get it out of here,' roared Larry.

'Yes, get the bloody thing out,' said Leslie.

'It'll kill us all !' screamed Margo.

'Get a gun,' said Mother faintly. 'Get a gun and save Gerry.'

I couldn't, for the life of me, think what was the matter with them. They were all staring at something behind me. I turned and looked and there, standing in the doorway, sniffing hopefully towards the tea table, was Pavlo. I went up to him and caught hold of his muzzle. He nuzzled at me affectionately. I explained to the family that it was only Pavlo.

'I am not having it,' said Larry throatily. 'I am not having it. Birds and dogs and hedgehogs all over the house and now a bear. What does he think this is, for Christ's sake? A bloody Roman arena ?'

'Gerry, dear, do be careful,' said Mother quaveringly. 'It looks rather fierce.'

'It will kill us all,' quavered Margo with conviction.

‘I can't get past it to get to my guns,' said Leslie.

'You are not going to have it. I forbid it’, said Larry. ‘I will not have the place turned into a bear pit.’

'Where did you get it, dear ?’ asked Mother.

'I don't care where he got it,' said Larry. ‘He’s to take it back this instant, quickly, before it rips us to pieces. The boy's got no sense of responsibility. I am not going to be turned into an early Christian martyr at my time of life.'

Pavlo got up on to his hind legs and uttered a long wheezing moan which I took to mean that he desired to join us in whatever delicacies were on the tea table. The family interpreted it differently.

'Ow !' screeched Margo, as though she had been bitten. 'It's attacking.'

'Gerry, do be careful,' said Mother.

'I’ll not be responsible for what I do to that boy,' said Larry.

'If you survive,' said Leslie. 'Do shut up Margo, you’re only making matters worse. You’ll provoke the bloody thing.'

'I can scream if I want to,’ said Margo indignantly.

So raucous in their fear were the family that they had not given me a chance to explain. Now I attempted to. I said that, first of all, Pavlo was not mine, and, secondly he was as tame as a dog and would not hurt a fly.

'Two statements I refuse to believe,’ said Larry. ‘You
pinched it from some faming circus. Not only are we to be disembowelled, but arrested for harbouring stolen goods as well.'

‘Now, now, dear,' said Mother, ‘let Gerry explain.’

'Explain ?' said Larry. Explain ? How do you explain a bloody great bear in the drawing-room ?’

I said that the bear belonged to a gypsy who had a talking Head.

'What do you mean, a talking head ?’ asked Margo.

I said that it was a disembodied head that talked.

‘The boy's mad,’ said Larry with conviction. ‘The sooner we have him certified the better.’

The family had now all backed away to the farthest corner of the room in a trembling group. I said, indignantly, that my story was perfectly true and that, to prove it, I'd make Pavlo dance. I seized a piece of cake from the table, hooked my finger into the ring on his muzzle and uttered the same commands as his master had done. His eyes fixed greedily on the cake, Pavlo reared up and danced with me.

'Oo, look!' said Margo. 'Look! It's dancing!'

'I don't care if it's behaving like a whole corps de ballet,' said Larry. 'I want the damn' thing out of here.'

I shovelled the cake in through Pavlo’s muzzle and he sucked it down greedily.

‘He really is rather sweet,’ said Mother, adjusting her spectacles and staring at him with interest. ‘I remember my brother had a bear in India once. She was a very nice pet.’

'No !' said Larry and Leslie simultaneously. 'He's not having it.’

I said I could not have it any way, because the man did not want to sell it.

'A jolly good thing too,' said Larry.

'Why don’t you now return it to him, if you have quite finished doing a cabaret act all over the tea table ?'

Getting another slice of cake as a bribe, I hooked my finger once more in the ring on Pavlo's muzzle and led him out of the house. Half way back to the olive grove, I met the distraught owner.

'There he is ! There he is ! The wicked one. I couldn't think where he had got to. He never leaves my side normally, that's why I don't keep him tied up. He must have taken a great fancy to you.'

Honesty made me admit that I thought the only reason Pavlo had followed me was because he viewed me in the light of a purveyor of chocolates.

'Phew !' said the man. 'It is a relief to me. I thought he might have gone down to the village and that would have got me into trouble with the police.'

Reluctantly, I handed Pavlo over to his owner and watched them make their way back to their camp under the trees. And then, in some trepidation, I went back to face the family. Although it had not been my fault that Pavlo had followed me, my activities in the past stood against me and the family took a lot of convincing that, on this occasion, the guilt was not mine.

The following morning, my head still filled with thoughts of Pavlo, I dutifully went into town - as I did every morning - to the house of my tutor, Richard Kralefsky. Kralefsky was a little gnome of a man with a slightly humped back and great, earnest amber eyes who suffered from real tortures in his unsuccessful attempts to educate me. He had two most endearing qualities; one, a deep love for natural history (the whole attic of his house was devoted to an enormous variety of canaries and other birds), the other that, for at least apart, of the time, he lived in a dream world where he was always the hero. These adventures he would relate to me. He was inevitably accompanied in them by a heroine who was never named, but known simply as 'a Lady'.

The first half of the morning was devoted to mathematics and, with my head full of thoughts of Pavlo, I proved to be even duller than usual, to the consternation of Kralefsky who had hitherto been under the impression that he had plumbed the depths of my ignorance.

'My dear boy, you simply aren't concentrating this morning,' he said earnestly. 'You don't seem able to grasp the simplest fact. Perhaps you are a trifle overtired ? We’ll have a short rest from it, shall we ?'

Kralefsky enjoyed these short rests as much as I did. He would potter out into the kitchen and bring back two cups of coffee and some biscuits, and we would sit companionably while he told me highly coloured stories of his imaginary adventures.

But this particular morning he did not get a chance. As soon as we were sitting comfortably, sipping our coffee, I told him all about Pavlo and the man with the talking Head and the bear.

'Quite extraordinary !' he said. 'Not the sort of thing that one expects to find in an olive grove. It must have surprised you, I'll be bound ?'

Then his eyes glazed and he fell into a reverie, staring at the ceiling, tipping his cup of coffee so that it slopped into the saucer. It was obvious that my interest in the bear had set off a train of thought in his mind. It was several days since I had had an instalment of his memoirs and I waited eagerly to see what the result would be.

'When I was a young man,' began Kralefsky, glancing at me earnestly to see whether I was listening. 'When I was a young man I'm afraid I was a bit of a harum scarum. Always getting into trouble, you know.'

He chuckled reminiscently and brushed a few biscuit crumbs from his waistcoat. With his delicately manicured hands and his large, gentle eyes it was difficult to imagine him as a harum scarum, but I tried dutifully.

'I thought at one time I would even join a circus,' he said, with the air of one confessing to infanticide. 'I remember a large circus came to the village where we were living and I attended every performance. Every single performance. I got to know the circus folk quite well, and they even taught me some of their tricks. They said I was excellent on the trapeze.’ He glanced at me, shyly, to see how I would take this. I nodded seriously, as though there was nothing ludicrous in the thought of Kralefsky, in a pair of spangled tights, on a trapeze.

'Have another biscuit ?' he enquired. 'Yes ? That's the ticket ! I think I'll have one, too.'

Munching my biscuit, I waited patiently for him to resume.

'Well,' he continued, 'the week simply flew past and the evening came for the final performance. I wouldn't have missed it for the world. I was accompanied by a Lady, a young friend of mine, who was desirous of seeing the performance. How she laughed at the clowns ! And she admired the horses. She little knew of the horror that was soon to strike.’

He took out his delicately scented handkerchief and patted his moist brow with it. He always tended to get a trifle over-excited as he reached the climax of a story.

'The final act,' he said, 'was the lion tamer. He paused so that the full portent of this statement could sink in. 'Five beasts he had. Huge Nubian lions with black manes, fresh from the jungle so he told me. The Lady and I were sitting in the front
row where we could obtain the best possible view of the ring. You know the sort of cage affair that they put up in the ring for the lion act ? Well, in the middle of the act, one of the sections, which had not been securely bolted, fell inwards. To our horror, we saw it fall on the lion tamer, knocking him unconscious.' He paused, took a nervous sip of coffee, and wiped his brow once more.

''What was to be done ?' he enquired, rhetorically. ‘There were five huge, snarling lions and I had a Lady by my side. My thoughts worked fast. If the Lady was to be saved, there was only one thing I could do. Seizing my walking stick, I leapt into the ring and marched into the cage.’

I made just audible sounds, indicative of admiration.

'During the week when I had been visiting the circus, I had studied the lion tamer's method with great care, and now I thanked my lucky stars for it. The snarling beasts on their pedestals towered over me, but I looked them straight in the eye. The human eye, you know, has great power over the animal world. Slowly, fixing them with a piercing gaze and pointing my walking-stick at them, I got them under control and drove them inch by inch out of the ring and back into their cage. A dreadful tragedy had been averted.’

I said that the Lady must have been grateful to him.

'She was indeed. She was indeed,’ said Kralefsky, pleasedly.

'She even went so far as to say that I gave a better performance than the lion tamer himself.'

Had he, I wondered, during his circus days, ever had anything to do with dancing bears ?

'All sorts of animals,' said Kralefsky lavishly. 'Elephants, seals, performing dogs, bears. They were all there.'

In that case, I said tentatively, would he not like to come and see the dancing bear. It was only just down the road and, although it was not exactly a circus, I felt it might interest him.

'By Jove, that's an idea,' said Kralefsky. He pulled his watch out of his waistcoat pocket and consulted it. 'Ten minutes, eh ? It'll help blow the cobwebs away.'

He got his hat and stick and together we made our way eagerly through the narrow, crowded streets of the town, redolent with the smell of fruit and vegetables, drains and freshly baked bread. By dint of questioning several small boys, we discovered where Pavlo's owner was holding his show. It was a large, dim barn at the back of a shop in the centre of
town. On the way there I borrowed some money off Kralefsky and purchased a bar of sticky nougat, for I felt I could not go to see Pavlo without taking him a present.

'Ah, Pavlo's friend ! 'Welcome,' said the gypsy as we appeared in the doorway of the barn.

To my delight, Pavlo recognised me and came shuffling forward, uttering little grunts, and then reared up on his hind legs in front of me. Kralefsky backed away, rather hurriedly, I thought, for one of his circus training, and took a firmer grip on his stick.

'Do be careful, my boy,' he said.

I fed the nougat to Pavlo and when finally he had squelched the last sticky lump off his back teeth and swallowed it, he gave a contented sigh and lay down with his head between his paws.

'Do you want to see the Head ?' asked the gypsy. He gestured towards the back of the barn where there was a plain deal table on which was a square box, apparently made out of cloth.

"Wait,' he said, 'and I'll light the candles.'

He had a dozen or so large candles soldered to the top of a box in their own wax, and these he now lit so that they flickered and quivered and made the shadows dance. Then he went forward to the table and rapped on it with his bear stick.

'Head, are you ready ?' he asked.

I waited with a delicate prickle of apprehension in my spine. Then from the interior of the cloth box a clear treble voice said, ‘Yes, I'm ready.'

The man lifted the cloth at one side of the box and I saw that the box was formed of slender lathes on which thin cloth had been loosely tacked. The box was about three feet square. In the centre of it was a small pedestal with a fattened top and on it, looking macabre in the flickering light of the candles, was the head of a seven-year-old boy.

'By Jove !' said Kralefsky in admiration. 'That is clever !'

What astonished me was that the head was alive. It was obviously the head of a young gypsy lad, made up rather crudely with black grease paint to look like a Negro. It stared at us and blinked its eyes.

'Are you ready to answer questions now ?' said the gypsy, looking, with obvious satisfaction, at the entranced Kralefsky. The Head licked its lips and then said, 'Yes, I am ready.'

'How old are you?' asked the gypsy.

‘Over a thousand years old,' said the Head.

'Where do you come from ?'

'I come from Africa and my name is Ngo.'

The gypsy droned on with his questions and the Head answered them, but I was not interested in that. What I wanted to know was how the trick was done. When he at first told me about the Head, I had expected something carved out of wood or plaster which, by ventriloquism, could be made to speak, but this was a living head perched on a little wooden pedestal, the circumference of a candle. I had no doubt that the Head was alive for its eyes wandered to and fro as it answered the questions automatically, and once, when Pavlo got up and
shook himself, a look of apprehension came over its face.

‘There,' said the gypsy proudly, when he had finished his questioning. 'I told you, didn't I ? It's the most remarkable thing in the world.'

I asked him whether I could examine the whole thing more closely. I had suddenly remembered that Theodore had told me of a similar illusion which was created with the aid of mirrors. I did not see where it was possible to conceal the body that obviously belonged to the Head, but I felt that the table and the box needed investigation.

'Certainly,' said the gypsy, somewhat to my surprise. 'Here, take my stick. But all I ask is that you don't touch the Head itself.'

Carefully, with the aid of the stick I poked all round the pedestal to see if there were any concealed mirrors or wires, and the Head watched me with a slightly amused expression in its black eyes. The sides of the box were definitely only of cloth and the floor of the box was, in fact, the top of the table on which it stood. I walked round the back of it and I could see nothing. I even crawled under the table, but there was nothing there and certainly no room to conceal a body. I was completely mystified.

'Ah,' said the gypsy in triumph. 'You didn't expect that, did you ? You thought I had a boy concealed in there, didn't you ?'

I admitted the charge humbly and begged him to tell me how it was done.

'Oh, no. I can't tell you,' he said. 'It's magic. If I told you, the Head would disappear in a puff of smoke.'

I examined both the box and the table for a second time, but, even bringing a candle closer to aid my investigations, I still could not see how it was possible.

'Come,' said the gypsy. 'Enough of the Head. Come and dance with Pavlo.'

He hooked the stick into the bear's muzzle and Pavlo rose on to his hind legs. The gypsy handed the stick to me and then picked up a small wooden flute and starred to play and Pavlo and I did a solemn dance together.


'Excellent, by Jove! Excellent !' said Kralefsky, clapping his hands with enthusiasm. I suggested that he might like to dance with Pavlo too, since he had such vast circus experience.

''Well, now,' said Kralefsky. 'I wonder whether it would be altogether wise ? The animal, you see, is not familiar with me.'

'Oh, he'll be all right,' said the gypsy. 'He's tame with anyone.

''Well,' said Kralefsky reluctantly, 'if you’re sure. If you insist.'

He took the bear stick gingerly from me and stood facing Pavlo, looking extremely apprehensive.

'And now,' said the gypsy, 'you will dance.'

And he started to play a lilting little tune on his pipe.

I stood enchanted by the sight. The yellow, flickering light of the candles showing the shadows of Kralefsky's little hump-backed figure and the-shaggy form of the bear on the wall as they pirouetted round and round and, squatting on its pedestal in the box, the Head watched them, grinning and chuckling to itself.




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One year during the early 70’s I had the opportunity to follow any study courses that caught my interest. So I basically picked five topics that I knew almost nothing about, and imagined that by enrolling it might help me to stitch over a few more of those many blank spaces in my education. One of the courses I took was Anthropology. I’d always loved the sound of the word, but other than that it was the study of mankind,… knew nothing else.


It turned out that our teacher was extremely keen and dedicated to his subject, and I very much enjoyed where he led the class over that space of eight months. The specific area where he had done all his PhD research was South American Indian tribes, and, in what I soon came to regard as a very curious choice of ‘required reading text’, he had asked all his students to buy the following book as part of his course material.


Forty years later I can recall only two things about the entire course, but one of them was this most extraordinary book. I still have my copy from all those years ago, since it made such a strong impression on me at the time that I tenaciously kept hold of it throughout all the moves and life changes since those times. The book is called “Wizard of the Upper Amazon: The story of Manuel Cordova-Rios”, by F. Bruce Lamb. It’s the factual account of a young Brazilian boy who took work looking after the camp of a rubber prospecting crew who were subsequently attacked and murdered in the forest by an Indian tribe living in the area where they were prospecting.


Here I’ll stop, because the author and his protagonist tell the story far too well for me to carry on spoiling it any further. But I should let readers know that : {a} I have included both the Introduction by Andrew Weil and a Prologue by the author, as fascinating background material. {b} I have only given you three out of the sixteen chapters in the book. So, you will undoubtedly notice obvious gaps of missing narrative. But one has to draw the limits somewhere, and the reason these chapters were chosen will become obvious after reading the Introduction and the Prologue, and finally, {c} When I tried to place the story here, the editing tool told me that it was too long. So I'll have to divide this story into two parts.


However, for anyone stimulated by this brief selection,… I can tell you that the rest of the book is every bit as much part of literature's truly extraordinary tales !










In 1971 when I was writing The Natural Mind a friend gave me a copy of Wizard, of the Upper Amazon, then just published. I read it through in one sitting, quoted excerpts from it in my own book, and recommended it to many people. Two years later, on returning from a long expedition to South America, I met the author, Bruce Lamb, in New York City. Over lunch at a Brazilian restaurant we reminisced about our adventures in the south, and I learned to my dismay that Wizard was out of print and unavailable in the United States. I felt strongly that the book should be re-issued because it contained so much valuable information about the potentials of the human mind.



Wizard of the Upper Amazon is an extraordinary document of life among a tribe of South American Indians at the beginning of the century. For many readers the most compelling sections of the book will be the descriptions of the use of Banisteriopsis caapi, the yage or ayahuasca of the Amazon forests. This powerful hallucinogen has long been credited with the ability to transport human beings to realms of experience where telepathy and clairvoyance are commonplace. When German scientists first isolated harmaline, an active principle of ayahuasca, they named it "telepathine" because of this association.


Manuel Cordova, the narrator of these adventures that have been recorded for us by Bruce Lamb, is now an old man, well-known as a healer in Peru. He attributes his powers to his time as a captive among the Amahuaca Indians, in particular to intensive training sessions conducted under the influence of ayahuasca. In a matter-of-fact tone Cordova tells how he learned the lore of the forest and the Amahuaca directly from the visions that followed upon the drinking of ayahuasca extract. He also describes vividly his repeated experiences of shared consciousness with his captors: group vision sessions in which all participants see the same visions simultaneously.


These passages are the high points of the narrative. They leave us awed at the reality of an experience that seems infinitely worthwhile. The desire to transcend one's own ego boundaries, to share completely, if even for a moment, the consciousness of another person, must be a universal longing. It motivates many of our activities, from taking drugs to making love, and lies behind the search for new ways of getting close to one another that is so intense in our society today. But with all of our psychological sophistication we usually find ourselves insulated from other minds in some fundamental way no matter how close we get our bodies or our conscious thoughts. To read of “primitive" Indians achieving what we cannot is both frustrating and exhilarating.


Manuel Cordova's experiences suggest that there is hope for the rest of us. He learned to participate in collective visions with the Indians. Therefore, the ability to share consciousness through the medium of the visual imagination must be a capacity of the human nervous system. All of us have the necessary neural circuitry whether we use it or not.







When I arrived in Lima, Peru in 1962 on my way to the Peruvian Amazon to undertake a forest survey of the area drained by several upper Amazon tributaries, already I began to hear of a man by the name of Manuel Cordova who could be of assistance to me in my timber survey. As the project of its own momentum moved ahead from a base at Iquitos on the Amazon, I found the reputation of Cordova taking on the aura of a living legend. And on my arrival in Iquitos it turned out that the local company assisting in my survey retained Cordova because of his knowledge of the medicinal properties of the Amazon flora. He produced for his employers commercial quality pharmaceutical extracts from jungle plants for export. These included curare, the deadly Indian blowgun dart poison now used in modern medicine as a muscle relaxant.


Cordova, because of his knowledge of the forest, was proposed as a member of my survey party. And for this I consider myself vastly fortunate. Before leaving Iquitos to undertake field work I heard that Cordova was a healer and there were hints of strange jungle adventures during his past life in the forest. Casual mention was also made of his use of the vision-producing extract from the jungle liana ayahuasca, the soul or vision vine. And this involvement was soon verified as our examination of the forests got underway in the area of the Rio Tigre.


One day, coming out of the forest at a small riverbank clearing, we found two Indian men talking in front of a small palm-thatched tambito. After greeting us briefly in Spanish they resumed conversation in a strange tongue, and shortly, to their amazement, Cordova joined in. Soon the Indians stepped into a canoe and disappeared up a small creek. Cordova told me one of the men had come down from up river to visit his friend and try to see what he could do for a siege of bad backaches afflicting him. They had gone now to the forest to find the ayahuasca vine and yage leaves. Tonight they would drink the extract of these plants and have a session of visions to find a cure for the backaches.


Cordova expressed interest in participating, saying he had had some experience in this sort of thing, so we decided to wait. It was not long before the men returned with sections of the ayahuasca vine. These they sent across the river to a village to be prepared, and then left again to find the yage leaves.


After a while we took the launch, our floating operations base, over to the village. Cordova wanted to see how they were making the ayahuasca extract. After a brief visit in one of the houses he came out, boarded the launch and said abruptly "No need to wait. Let's go.”


When we were underway he explained with disgust that we had been wasting our time. Preparations for the vision session were completely inadequate, with the boiling down of the vine taking place in a dirty, battered old aluminium pot tended only by a small boy. Drinking such a carelessly prepared extract would only cause violent vomiting, acute intestinal cramps and diarrhoea, he said, and went on to tell me that ayahuasca must be handled with care and reverence, simmered slowly in a special earthenware pot over a low fire under constant, proper attention. To take ayahuasca extracted in any other way, he said, was dangerous.


It was not until much later that I learned Cordova's full background for making such a critical judgment, but the story began to come out when, one day going along a faint forest trail without the usual machete cutting, I noticed Cordova breaking over the tip of an undergrowth forest plant at waist height every fifty feet or so. That evening back on the launch I mentioned that the only other time I had seen this trail-marking method used was while working with the Apiaca Indians on the headwaters of the Rio Tapajos in Mato Grosso, Brazil. Cordova replied that he had learned this easy way of marking a jungle trail from the Amahuaca Indians. This led to an exchange of Indian stories in which I found myself doing most of the listening.


As the days of our collaboration stretched into months of joint effort to gather the detailed information needed on the composition of the Amazon jungle, I learned not only the details of Cordova's ayahuasca experience but also became aware of his desire to alleviate human suffering and his frustrated urge to perpetuate the use of his exotic knowledge. Daily incidents of our work would stimulate him to comment on the adventures of his youth in the forest. In what follows, then, I have brought together in narrative form what I was able to capture of those fascinating, random bits and pieces of Manuel Cordova's recollections of his early life.


F. Bruce Lamb


New York City




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Caucho Camp


Late one afternoon we pulled up to a small clearing in the riverbank jungle occupied by a group of palm thatched huts at the mouth of a tributary of the Rio Tigre called the Pavoyacu.


We had our evening meal early and were sitting on deck talking in the gathering dusk when off in the forest nearby a panguana or tinamou (tropical jungle partridge) sounded its mournful four-note call for a sleeping mate. It was soon answered by another, and their calls echoed back and forth.


Our conversation came to a halt and I noticed a faraway look come into Cordova's expressive eyes.


Hear that panguana calling? It reminds me of a time in my youth over fifty years ago when I was alone in a caucho rubber camp on the upper Rio Jurua. Then too a haunting melancholy cry of a forest tinamou floated on the evening air from nearby and was answered so faintly from off in the depths of the jungle that it could hardly be heard. A vague but persistent feeling of foreboding lingered in my thoughts as I tended a fragrant stew bubbling in an iron pot over an open fire. Darkness was approaching and my companions should have returned ravenous with hunger by mid-afternoon. They had gone off in the forest at dawn to tap newly located latex-producing caucho trees. It had been my turn to cook, so I had been left to tend camp and prepare a meal for their return.


Now, as I added a couple of sticks to the fire, I remembered the warning of a trader at the last outpost on the Jurua River as we travelled through a corner of Brazil toward this isolated section of Peru. My companions had scoffed at the warning - those soft Brazilian seringeiros might be worried about Indians, but not tough Peruvian caucheros !


We had come to this totally isolated area on the advice of an old cauchero who had tapped rubber here during an earlier rubber boom. Our camp was on a small tributary of the upper Rio Jurua. There was a small palm-thatched cooking shack and, adjoining it, a larger shelter with supplies stored in the back and our sleeping hammocks hung in the front. And all of this set in a small jungle clearing, to let in some sunlight.


In the fading light of a setting sun a noisy flock of parrots flew over in pairs on their way to a roosting tree, and the sundown cicada buzzed loudly in a nearby tree. The momentary twilight of the tropics was quickly fading into the dark of night. I tried to piece together the plans for the day that my companions had revealed in their conversation before departing this morning. Roqui and Encarnacion had planned to fell and tap caucho trees already located some distance from camp. Toribio and Domingo intended to explore for more distant trees. It was possible they might still come in, but more likely now that they would sleep in the forest. I knew they didn't like to travel this trackless forest after dark.


I was only fifteen years old, impatient and hungry, and decided not to wait any longer but to eat my portion of the stew. I watched the fire and the flickering shadows it cast in our small forest clearing. Night sounds were replacing those of the day. A raucous tree frog started cur-awking up in the crotch of a tree. He was soon answered by another. Two tahuayos (tropical whippoorwills) carried on a melodious dialogue. Once I thought I heard the men coming, but no one appeared. The fire died down and I decided to cover it with dirt and ashes to hold it till morning.


Frustrated, I went to my hammock and covered myself to avoid the mosquitoes. But sleep would not come. The familiar sound of crickets and other insects provided a continuous pulsating background hum for other intermittent sounds of the night. There was a forest partridge nearby that sang out periodically with a clear flutelike call. A trumpeter bird also floated his call on the heavy night air, and a nocturnal monkey repeated his plaintive piping note over and over in an accelerating sequence. The trumpeter calls seemed to alternate from different directions around the camp, and there were many calls and sounds I had not heard before and could not identify. This increased my uneasiness and I felt for the rifle under my hammock for reassurance.


It had rained in the late afternoon, and now a rotten branch of a big tree came crashing down nearby. This brought me sitting straight up in my hammock. To calm my nerves, I thought to myself, That's the reason for our camp clearing - so none can fall on us.


Settling back into my hammock, I went over the events that had brought me here to the depths of the forest. In Iquitos I had lived with my father and mother and completed as much schooling as was available. Steamships coming up the Amazon from the Atlantic Ocean to this most inland port brought the news of a rubber boom, and Iquitos merchants began outfitting groups of men to organize rubber-production camps in the forest. Having finished school and with some forest experience already, I persuaded my family to let me go upriver to the town of Iberia. Here my sister's husband was active in rubber trading, and I would have a chance for a start in this growing business. When I arrived at Iberia, Lino agreed to let me go with four of his caucho cutters who were preparing to move into new territory.


We travelled east by canoe on a narrow canal, "sacarita Iberia" which connected the Rio Ucayalli with the Rio Tapiche at high water. Going north down the sluggish black-water Tapiche, we came to the mouth of the Rio Blanco. From there we travelled up the Blanco to a small tributary, Lobo. Then, selling our canoe, we packed two days overland to the headwaters of the Rio Ipixuna. Here, in Brazil, we went down the Ipixuna to the Jurua and then up the Jurua until we were back in Peru – or thought we were. No boundaries had yet been marked between the two countries, so it was impossible to be sure. We had established our camp, and the first few days of locating caucho trees around the camp gave us reason to expect this should be a profitable location. The trip made with four seasoned caucheros had been a challenge and an education for me. My confidence, at fifteen, was unlimited.


Another tropical downpour with thunder and lightning passed over the camp. The cool air caused me to wrap up in my blanket and I dozed off into a troubled sleep.


With the first light of dawn a group of toucans awakened me with their raucous calling from a nearby treetop. I took the shotgun with the idea of getting one for breakfast, but the partridge I had heard the night before made the mistake of showing himself first, and he was soon in my hands. As I turned to go back, a sudden impression of not being alone in the forest startled me and the hair on my neck bristled. I paused to look around. The tall trees were festooned with vines and lianas, some attached to the tree trunks, others hanging free from the upper branches. Small trees and underbrush made it impossible to see very far even though the undergrowth was not thick in this forest of big trees. I could neither see nor hear anything but the jungle and its usual sounds, and I returned to camp with my partridge.


There I stirred up the fire and prepared a spit on which to roast the bird, then went to the stream for fresh water. The creek was slow and clear. By then the sun was sending shafts of sunlight to the forest floor. A dragonfly hovered and darted in and out of the sunlight over the water. I saw the flash of the silvery side of a big sabalo fish in the depths of a pool and thought of catching him later. As I dipped the bucket for water, a slight movement and sound caught my attention.


Turning my head, I found myself surrounded by a group of naked Indians. They had fantastic designs painted in black on their brown bodies. Each had either a wicked lance or a bow and arrow aimed at me. We were thus frozen for a moment without movement or sound. Then one of them stepped forward and took first the hunting knife from my belt and then the bucket from my hand. He was immediately followed by two others, who tied my hands behind my back.


It was all done so quickly, as if by plan, that there was no chance for a struggle - and to what purpose even if I had tried, with the odds at least fifteen to one?


On a command which I could not understand, we all returned to the camp. There, while two stood guard beside me, the others took the camp apart. It was all directed by one man and was well organized.



Everything useful was quickly arranged into pack loads. The half-roasted partridge I had put over the fire was portioned out and gulped down quickly. I was given some and I forced myself to eat it, against an unknown future. Our camp shelters went up in flames.


During all this my mind was a hurricane of thoughts, trying to understand what was happening while at the same time searching for something I could do. At one moment I thought surely my companions would return and let go with a fusillade of rifle shots at these savages and set me free. But then I realized all of our firearms were accounted for in the equipment being collected into pack loads. Where were my friends ? Had the Indians kept them from coming in last night? What had been done to them ? And what were the plans for my future ? We had heard stories of cannibals in this area. What chance of escape might there be ?


I looked around at the Indians and noticed that my guards were intently watching every move I made, even a turning of my head. All of these men, though not large, seemed well built, muscular. Their movements were smooth and purposeful. Each one was naked except for a belt or band at the waist.


Now my captors formed a single line with me in the middle, the men immediately in front and behind me obviously responsible for my actions. Then we were off through the forest, leaving the camp a smouldering ruin.


As we left and during the first few hours I kept track of the direction of travel. The sun was over my left shoulder, so it was southwest we were going. There was no sign of a trail that I could see, but the pace was fast. The Indians seemed to glide through the forest without effort, while vines and thorns were constantly pulling at me. It was especially difficult for me with my hands tied. I needed them for balance. But from the first moment my instinct had been to show no sign of weakness or emotion, and I kept up somehow.


We maintained a south-westerly direction up and down hills through rolling country. I tried to keep track of the small streams we crossed, as landmarks, but with the exertion of our pace I soon lost track. In the forest the sunlight seldom reached the ground, so it was cool, but with the high humidity and the exertion of trying to keep up I was constantly in a running sweat.


As the pace of travel kept on without let-up I became less and less aware of the details of my surroundings. By mid-afternoon I was exhausted and, even with extreme effort, was stumbling as I walked.


We stopped by a small stream and my hands were untied. By example they indicated that I should wash and rinse my mouth. But when I gulped the water instead of rinsing my mouth, they led me away from the stream. I was dying of thirst, but they would let me have no more water. Pieces of smoked meat were passed around. Mine was so dry I could hardly swallow it, but I knew I had to eat to survive and forced it down.




After only a short time my hands were tied again and we were off. The food helped, and strength to go on came from some reserve, perhaps in the mind. This time it was for all night. As dusk deepened into darkness the pace slowed somewhat to accommodate my difficulties, but we did not stop until daylight.


Stopping again at a small stream, I followed gestured instructions, rinsing my mouth out and swallowing only a small amount of water in spite of the desire to gulp it down. They allowed me to bathe. My body was covered with scratches from a thousand thorns along the way and my clothes were in tatters. The pause was only a brief one, and we were soon walking again at the forced pace of the day before. This we kept up for another day and another night !


I was near the point of collapse from exhaustion after these two days and two nights of almost continuous forced march. For the last few hours before dawn on the third day I was barely staggering forward. As it was getting light we came up a small hill and stopped. Here my captors opened a well-hidden deposit of supplies. I collapsed on the ground in an agony of fatigue. Even breathing seemed an effort beyond my power. I was in fact barely conscious, my mind able to develop only the most fragmented bits of thought: Where ?... How ?...Why ?...


After several hours of tortured rest and fitful sleep I was prodded into eating and was given a small clay dish of thick sour liquid to drink. This proved to be refreshing and stimulating, and I felt as if I were coming painfully back to life.


Late in the afternoon two Indians came into camp from the direction of our arrival and seemed to report, with many gestures, to the leader. This must have been a rear guard who had been checking to see if we had been followed. I knew that we had not been, for even if one or more of my companions had escaped and gone for help, it would take days to reach the nearest settlement. And the possibility of their survival seemed very unlikely. The Indians also must have been satisfied, because we rested on through the night, but they did not build a fire.


Before dark one of my guards rubbed crushed leaves of a small shrub on my scratches and cuts, which relieved the itching and pain and also stopped the bleeding. This was done without any show of favour or feeling.


As soon as the sun went down, moisture from the high humidity in the air began to condense on the leaves and was soon dripping from the treetops with a constant patter that continued all night. For protection against this cold dripping dew, the Indians put up individual palm-leaf shelters on stick frames. They were only large enough to sit in, and mine was surrounded by others - with no avenue of escape. It was a night of cold, misery, pain and fear that I will never forget. My whole body ached from unbelievable exertion and I was emotionally shattered by events. My thoughts were still fragmentary and disconnected - mostly of the past. But what of the future ? A formless void to be filled by events still undreamed of. I had heard plenty of Indian stories in the villages and camps we had visited on the way to the Jurua. Storytelling was a pastime. But reality in all that I had heard was unclear.


I was prodded from a troubled sleep at dawn. All evidence of our camp was scattered before we set out again. We stopped at the first stream for a bath, and then the march was on again – still southwest, but at a more moderate pace now. The Indians seemed released from the first pressure of escape from the area of their attack.


I tried to keep track of the days, and I tried to observe the country. I knew that the Rio Jurua was to our right, for we had crossed no major river. It was up and down hills, over fallen trees, through swamps and small streams. Compared to the gruelling pace of the first two days and nights, this part of the journey was mild. We stopped every night to rest and travelled only from dawn to dusk.


One day it was cloudy and rainy all day. The forest was eerie, shrouded in whitish mist. The rain was filtered through the foliage starting at 150 feet above our heads. The air was heavy, completely saturated with moisture. Every leaf and twig discharged its load of accumulated moisture if touched. This was the kind of day when caucheros stayed in camp, mended their clothes, ate and talked.


On what by my count was the ninth day of travel, I noticed about noon one of the Indians rejoining the line with a small forest deer slung over his shoulder. Later another appeared with two game birds. This was the first hunting I had noticed on the trip. The feeling among the Indians this morning had been different somehow - faces less severe and some conversation back and forth. The pace had definitely picked up again.


About mid-afternoon I saw off to the left a momentary break in the forest, a whole big patch of blue sky. Soon after we passed by what was obviously a cultivated patch of yucca.


We must be nearing a village, I thought; What would the end of the journey bring ? Why had these Indians not already killed me ? I was quite sure they had killed one, if not all, of my cauchero companions.


The way now led up a long hill. Suddenly there was a loud squawking of macaws and almost immediately we stepped into a village clearing filled with naked Indians - men, women and children. They crowded around and pushed one another for a better view. There was an immediate hubbub of chattering that stopped abruptly when a thin, ancient, long-haired old man stepped calmly through the throng. He came up to where I stood, my hands still tied behind my back, and deliberately looked me over.


I looked back at him just as deliberately. I saw a very old man with a distinct Oriental cast to his face. A feathered headband held back a shock of reddish-brown hair that came to the middle of his back. A few long yellowish whiskers on his upper lip and chin added to the Oriental look. And whereas every other Indian in sight was naked, he wore a simple sleeveless garment of coarse white cotton that came almost to his bony knees. This, I knew, must be the chief.


I was determined not to move an eyelash or to show a sign of emotion or fear. The noise soon started up again: children squealed; men and women grimaced at one another and shouted; the macaws were squawking again.


The chief stepped close, carefully unbound my arms and instructed my captors to remove the tattered remnants of my clothes. More people were joining the jostling crowd of what must have been over a hundred. A group of very old women came up to look me over. They tested my solid flesh and cackled. But one old woman was of a different mood. She came up with a heavy palm club in her hand and began to mutter angrily as she glared at me. Suddenly, with a wailing screech, she brought up the club and came at me in a frenzy.


The old chief, still at my side, gave a sharp command. The leader of my captors brusquely grabbed the club from the old woman and with a single, deft swing of it knocked her to the ground with a crushing, killing blow. A gasping sigh passed through the crowd as the club was tossed onto the body and, at a command from the chief, the other old women dragged the corpse away.


Another command from the chief, and two of my captors led me behind the old man into the largest of a group of conical houses. The roof and walls were one and came clear to the ground. Inside it was dark and smoky.







After perhaps six months with the Huni Kui, (meaning the Chosen people or the True, Gentle People), I had become accustomed to living in the nude, to eating their unsalted diet of jungle game, the few products of their primitive agriculture and wild fruit. And I understood a few words of their strange vocabulary.


Now it became evident that something new was in the offing. My diet was changed drastically and was carefully controlled by the old women who were my constant custodians. Instead of being given the mixed fare of the daily take from the jungle, which consisted of roasted, smoked or boiled portions of nearly any one of the jungle animals and birds, along with vegetables and fruits in various forms, the restrictions became pronounced. For several days my food was limited to the carefully roasted white breast of the jungle partridge, of which there were several varieties, roasted yucca, and a mushy liquid concoction of cooked and mashed bananas or sweet potatoes. In addition to this diet, every two or three days I was obliged to drink an herbal preparation of jarring odd flavours which produced unexpected reactions. These drinks were given to me firmly but with assurance that they would not harm me. One caused violent vomiting; another was a laxative; and still another caused accelerated heartbeat, fever and copious sweating. I was given baths and massages and felt exhilarated afterward.


After perhaps ten days of this treatment, during which everyone - including the chief, who personally supervised the affair - showed solicitude for my well-being and expectation of favourable reaction, it came to an end with a day of fasting and face painting. A group of ten men had special intricate designs painted on their faces in red paint made of achote. Late in the afternoon, perhaps an hour before sunset, the group, which I recognized by this time as consisting of the important individuals in the tribe, gathered at the chief's dwelling. After a short consultation, in which I naturally had no part, we formed in a single file and with a soft rhythmic chant marched slowly off into the jungle with the whole village silently looking on.


(My description of what is to come is based largely on later repetitions of these events, when I had attained sufficient understanding of my strange environment to interpret what was seen and heard or emerged from unknown recesses of the mind.)


An almost imperceptible trail led us gently downward along a forest-covered hillside through a stand of tremendous trees of great variety in shape and form. After a half hour's slow walk we arrived at a small clearing in the undergrowth, a jungle glade with a small creek running through it.


Here the large fluted columns of the giant trees were even more imposing, because the undergrowth had been cleared out, giving the impression of a great vaulted cathedral. Shafts of sunlight brilliantly illuminated occasional isolated spots. At sunset the birds of the jungle repeat momentarily the strange cacophony of calls heard at sunrise. Nearby the plaintive flutelike call of the tinamou was answered by another in the distance. A far-off raucous cry of the jungle falcon echoed through the forest, and on the distant sound horizon rose briefly the roar of a band of howler monkeys getting set for the night, huddled together in some giant tree crown.


In our secluded jungle glade the calm of sunset deepened. One of the Indians imitated several bird calls and from the depths of the jungle these were answered from several directions. The chief showed satisfaction with this indication that we were well guarded and need not fear unwanted intrusion. Our group (myself excluded), knowing what to expect, went calmly about strange preparations. Four of the ten men withdrew slightly and took up guard positions on four sides of the clearing. In the centre a small fire was being kindled from a glowing coal brought from the village in a small clay pot. Several feet from the fire were low wooden stools set in a circle with the legs firmly in the ground.


The soft chanting continued intermittently, but I was unable to understand any of it. Finally the participants took positions at their stools as directed by the chief. My place was beside him.


A large bundle of dried leaves was brought and laid beside the fire by one of the guards, who then silently withdrew. The chief, chanting a different sequence from that I had heard before and softly accompanied by the others, approached the bundle of leaves and broke off some small bunches. The chanting pace quickened and the mood changed. A branch of leaves was placed on the fire and a cloud of thick pungent white smoke rose slowly from the fire. Not a breath of air now moved in the intensely silent jungle. With a large scoop-shaped fan made of brilliant feathers, the chief now carried great volumes of the fragrant smoke to each of the participants, taking special pains to see that I was well enveloped in this incense. With this came another chant, the meaning of which I learned later. The intensity of feeling, the chants and fragrant smoke seemed to create a trance-like atmosphere within the group. Every movement and action was made with the greatest calm and deliberation.


A slight change of mood and intonation came when a tedium-sized clay vessel, highly decorated with incised motifs, was placed beside the fire. A small dipper was plunged into the vessel and six small palm-nut cups were filled with a dark-green liquid. Each of us around the fire was given one of these cups by the chief, who brought mine last. Giving it to me, he held up his own in front and indicated that we should drink.


Momentarily I hesitated and thought of refusing, but already I was in a semi-trance, and in such a calm but intense situation the impulse passed, and l drank the liquid down in a gulp, as did the others. It was a bland concoction that tasted rather like boiled green corn. After taking the potion everyone calmly sat down on his low stool around the small fire. The chanting continued but became more animated and moved into a high falsetto of a florid, tremulous character with each participant adding his own harmonious obbligato, coming together in unison with the chief on certain key words for continuity. The sequence of what happened next has always been beyond recall, but from many other such ceremonies continuing over a period of years I have reconstructed this first experience.


A high pulsating whine started softly in my ears and increased with intensity until a violent shock passed through my entire nervous system. A feeling of great nausea overcame me, followed by fleeting sensations of intense erotic stimulation, then utter confusion of sense perceptions. Chaotic visions of various coloured lights and forms dominated my visual senses. Blue and green shades predominated, interspersed with intense flashes of other colours. Emotional involvements of indefinable content accompanied the colour visions. Many other confused elements entered the visions after the pure colours and abstract shapes. These included jungle animals and natural forms, but it was not until many months and séances later that I established enough control of the vision progression and content to attempt to describe or explain these sequences.


Eventually, with no real sense of time, I drifted into complete lethargy that progressed gradually to deep but troubled sleep.


I awoke with a shaft of sunlight stabbing through the forest canopy to strike me in the face. I felt lost and completely disoriented, unable to distinguish clearly the shapes and forms of my surroundings. My first conscious thread of reality was the animated morning chorus of several jungle birds. My companions, aware of my return to consciousness, calmly encouraged me by gesture and word to enter again the rational world.


The men sat around in conversation, apparently exchanging impressions of the night and commenting on my reactions. By noon we were back in the village, but I was far from the same as when I had left it. Food helped restore my equilibrium, but for some time, especially when I was asleep at night, snatches of visions returned.


After spending the night in the forest sharing strange visions with my captors, it became noticeably easier for me to understand the meaning of their previously unintelligible language. It was still many months before I learned to speak with any fluency, but I began to understand most of what was said to me after our first séance in the forest.


Soon afterward I was taken to a secluded camp in the forest to learn how the vision-producing extract was made. Early one morning I was instructed to leave the village with one of the old men whom they called Nixi Xuma Waki (Maker of the Vine Extract). For a while we were accompanied by a small group of well-armed younger men, but these Indians soon disappeared into the forest. Late in the afternoon, after a leisurely day on a meandering forest trail, we came to a small clearing beside a small creek. There were a few large stones around a fireplace and a small palm-thatched shelter on a framework of poles. An assortment of clay pots, dippers and a pile of firewood were also present.


We set about preparing for the night. A fire was kindled; we hung small hammocks under the shelter and ate a small portion of smoked meat and drank fruit mush from one of the clay pots. Nixi (the Vine, for short) exchanged birdcalls with some unseen phantoms in the forest. This happened at intervals during the night, and it was evident that we were well guarded to counteract any thought of escape on my part or unwanted intrusion by others. A soft unintelligible chant was also sung by Nixi Xuma off and on during the night as he fed the fire.


At dawn I was awakened by the repeated call of a forest dove and the rapid trip-hammer pounding of a woodpecker on a hollow tree. The chill and dampness of the night air still hung on the camp and a light mist drifted in the treetops as the sunlight slanted in through the upper crowns. A group of toucans started a raucous exchange and soon the forest was alive with the daylight sounds that were so different from those of the night.


As I raised my head from the hammock and sat up, old. Nixi glanced from the fire he tended and nodded a greeting. Again he exchanged bird calls with our unseen guards in the forest. We ate some food and arranged the various large and small earthen pots around the fireplace before Nixi signalled for me to follow him into the forest. He took a stone axe and his bamboo knife.


This was the first time I had been more or less free in the jungle since my capture, but I knew the two of us were not alone. Attempted escape passed through my mind, but I rejected the idea as impossible.


My companion moved through the tangled forest undergrowth with ease and stealth, hardly disturbing leaf or branch. I found it difficult to keep up. Every thorn and vine seemed to grab me. At one place I disturbed a bush that Nixi had just passed, and a swarm of stinging wasps were at me from a small papery nest hanging on the underside of a large leaf. In a half dozen places I had burning welts on my naked body as I rushed away out of range. In a few moments I was given an antidote in the form of leaves to chew and place on the stings, and the pain disappeared at once.


After this we went at a more deliberate pace that gave me a chance to observe how Nixi flowed through the underbrush. Eventually, as all of my senses became attuned to conditions in the forest, I could make my own way under the worst conditions and keep up with anyone in the tribe.


After an hour or so we came to a huge buttressed tree with several strands of a vine the size of my wrist hanging from the top branches. The vine was examined in every visible detail - the bark, the strands themselves, their thickness, the roots and the soil, an examination that was accompanied by a chant. Finally old Nixi tested one stem by pulling it with the whole weight of his body. When it did not yield he went up it easily and quickly, hand over hand, to the tree crown above. Here he cut loose one of the stems, which came tumbling down with a crash. Returning to the ground, he began to cut with the stone axe, and with my help, this length of vine into three-foot pieces, and we carried as many as we could lift back to camp.


Then we went off into the forest in another direction until we found a small shrub with large leaves that attracted my companion's attention. He pointed out to me the strangely marked bark of the main stem and the shape of the leaves as distinguishing characteristics. The bark had odd-shaped varicoloured markings similar to those on a boa's skin. The leaves were lance-shaped and had peculiar vein markings that conformed to the lance shape of the leaf itself. Several dozen leaves were carefully selected, picked and taken back to our camp.


There the serious preparations started, accompanied by almost continuous chanting. First the vine was cut into one-foot pieces with the stone axe and pounded on a flat stone with a large wooden mallet until it was well mashed.


The old man chanted:


“Nixi honi,(Vine whose extract produces visions)

boding spirit of the forest

origin of our understanding

give up your magic power

to our potion

illuminate our mind

bring us foresight

show us the designs

of our enemies

expand our knowledge

expand our understanding

of our forest”


A layer of mashed vine pieces was then carefully arranged in the bottom of a large new clay pot. On top of this was laid a layer of the leaves in the shape of a fan. And as he did this Nixi chanted:


“Bush with markings of the serpent

give us your leaves

for our potion

bring us favour

of the boa

source of good fortune”


Then alternating layers of mashed vine and leaves were put in place until the pot was more than half full. Clear water from the stream was then added until the plant material was well covered.


A slow fire was started under the pot and the cooking was maintained at a very low simmer for many hours until the liquid was reduced to less than half.


When the cooking process was completed the fire was removed and, after cooling, the plant material was withdrawn from the liquid. After several hours of further cooling and settling, the clear green liquid was carefully dipped off into small clay pots, each fitted with a tight cover.


The entire process took three days, being done with utter calmness and deliberation. The interminable chants accompanied each step, invoking the spirits of the vine, the shrub and the other forest spirits.


This carefully and reverently prepared extract provided the potion for many subsequent ayahuasca sessions in the peaceful and secluded forest glade, sessions that progressed to incredible vision fantasies.


A few days after returning from the forest with Nixi the Honi Maker, with a number of small pots containing the potent green liquid, one of the hunters came to the chief. It was early in the evening as we sat around the small fire in the centre of the chief's house. Xurikaya (Coloured Bird) came in quietly and sat down. It seemed almost as though his coming was expected. The conversation led to the subject of hunting, and soon Xuri (the Bird) was telling a long melancholy story of bad luck in his hunting.


"The last time I came upon the large herd of wild pigs that usually ranged in my assigned hunting territory I approached by misjudgement too near the head of the band. The old sow leader saw me and gave the grunt of alarm before I could loose an arrow. The whole band disappeared as if by magic. Now they seem to have abandoned my hunting ground. At least they no longer follow their usual feeding circuit. They leave no trace.


"The other evening I was calling a tinamou. When it finally came after much too long a time of calling back and forth I shot it and found it full of worms from a previous wound - almost eaten up.


“The band of howler monkeys in my area manage to piss and crap on me from the treetops but somehow avoid my arrows. The forest deer sense my movements from afar and avoid me by leaving confusing tracks. The fruit trees that produce the favourite food of the forest animals this year seem to bear nothing but leaves.


"My family is being fed by others, which brings me great shame and leaves me with obligations that I will never be able to pay off unless my luck changes."


Finally the chief said, "Come back tomorrow night and we will look at it again, with others. Bring your hunting equipment with you."


Xumu sent word by his old women to a small select group of the best hunters. They came to sit around his fire the next evening, and the palaver went on and on for half the night.


Xurikaya brought all of his hunting gear. It consisted of snares made of strong twine of various thicknesses treated with beeswax; a large open basket woven of palm fronds of a type used to catch the small jungle partridges that sleep together on the ground at night; several lances for night hunting; a large bow with a dozen arrows of various types; and finally his bamboo knife, which was worn on a string around his neck.


These were passed around the group and all were examined minutely and the defects pointed out and commented on. The snares had not been properly treated with herbs to eliminate the smell of man, hence no animals would approach them. The partridge basket was just a little too big to handle easily in the undergrowth and catch birds. The lances had surely been affected by iuxibo (evil spirits). The painted designs on the bow and arrows could be improved in many details to attract favourable assistance from the forest spirits.


After the equipment had been examined, Xuri was questioned closely about his preparations for the hunt: his use of herbal baths to bring good luck and to remove body odours; special diets for getting ready to hunt certain animals; the use of charms for finding favourite game animals.


Then came a minute dissection and discussion of Xurikaya's recent hunting experiences and failures. Finally, about midnight, it was agreed all around the fire that a honi-drinking and vision session in the forest sanctuary was needed to solve Xuri's problem.


On the following day the chief called the same group together again and prescribed in great detail the diet and purges to be used in preparation for this coming session.


When several days of obeying these instructions had passed, there was the face-painting ritual and then the slow late-afternoon trip to the isolated forest meeting place just as before. Xumu led the way, followed by Xurikaya and myself and the expert hunters.


This time I understood much more of what was said among them and was more clearly aware of my surroundings and of course knew something of what to expect, as we followed the same route through the forest of giant trees to the hidden jungle glade. We got there about sunset, and the upper crowns and branches of the great trees were illuminated in brilliant sunlight, but only an occasional deflected shaft of sunlight broke the gloom on the forest floor.


Again the four guards took their places at the edges of the clearing, withdrawn from the participants. A small fire was kindled and the ancient and fragile chief, chanting an invocation to the spirits of the forest, placed dried leaves on the fire. After a crackling sound, a cloud of fragrant smoke billowed up. Each of us was again bathed in the smoke and its fragrant tranquillity.


This time it was extract I had helped to make that was passed around in the small palm cups, and I was determined to control myself and participate more fully in the sequence of visions.


Each of us drank his cupful of. Honi xuma, the vision extract. The chanting gradually took on the high falsetto quality, with each one in the circle adding his tremulous obbligato to the chief’s chant, again coming together on key words which gave emphasis and continuity to the flow of sound. As before, in a few minutes a pulsating hum dominated my consciousness, followed by a violent muscle spasm as soon as the pulsations merged to a continuous sound. Nausea did not appear this time, but a flow of other sensations progressed through my consciousness, their content impossible to describe in terms of the rational world. Exotic sensations, erotic in nature, produced indescribable feelings of pleasure and exhilaration. And I had the impression of being free of my body, capable of actions, sensations and knowledge completely divorced from my physical being.


The sense of time disappeared completely and perhaps the impressions felt were very fleeting with relation to normal consciousness. Coloured visions began to dominate the scene, and the chanting seemed to intrude and take over control of the progression of visions. After unorganized visions developed, of coloured forms and abstract shapes dominated by intense blues, natural objects of the forest began to appear - in vague, imprecise outline at first, but soon in unimaginable detail.


With the chant of the boa, a giant constrictor appeared slowly gliding through the forest. Blue lights intensified an intricate design of scroll configurations that seemed to float along the boa's spine. Light flashed from his eyes and tongue. The bold patterns on the snake's skin glowed with intense and varied colours.


I was to learn later that the boa was greatly admired by these Indians for his ability to move silently through the forest and capture other animals. To handle a boa and pass a finger over the outlines of the patterns on his skin brought good luck in hunting. The boa visions, brought on by a special chant, therefore came at the start of all auspicious séances dealing with the hunt. Other snakes followed the great boa - a giant bushmaster, a fer-de-lance, and many more.


Next came the birds, in particular members of the hawk family, which is thought to be the source of knowledge about the forest. With the special hawk chant there came first into the visions an enormous harpy eagle in flight, darting in and out through jungle vegetation on lightning-quick manoeuvres. Finally he alighted, spread his giant wings, displaying his creamy white breast and striped wings, then a jet-black back. Turning his head and raising the neck feathers into a magnificent crest, the eagle flashed enormous baleful yellow eyes at us and snapped his hooked scimitar of a beak.


A snake-eating hawk, the forest sentinel who when disturbed gives the alarm with a shrill far-carrying call, alighted and hopped around with wings spread downward, as when attacking a snake. He was followed by a parade of birds that served as sources of food. Each one repeated its various calls and displayed some characteristic of its habitat that would be helpful in the hunt.


Next came the animals, large and small, each with its own chant. The procession took all night and would be impossible for me to describe; much of it I no longer recall, since the knowledge did not originate from my consciousness or experience.


In the morning, jungle sounds and an occasional shaft of sunlight penetrated the depths of the forest to awaken the lethargic phantom-viewers from their troubled dreams. The usual unfermented fruit gruel was passed around to drink. After exchanging impressions of the night, the chief questioned Xurikaya.


"You saw the action, heard the calls, talked with the spirits. Can you dominate them now?"


"Great chief, Xumu Nawa, Dominator of all the Spirits, leader of the Huni Kui, my understanding is renewed, increased. The forest will provide for all my needs now," he answered.


The chief turned to me. "The honi xuma penetrated deeper this time. We will try again soon.”


All I could do, in my still confused state, was nod.


Soon we were all on our way back to the village, where an inquisitive group awaited our arrival. I could tell from the remarks and glances in my direction that my progress was watched with satisfaction.


Again my understanding of the language and' activities of the village increased rapidly. After this second session of visions, the role I was expected to play in this strange world began to unfold out of the pattern of incidents in the flow of daily tribal life.


I found the people pleasant and friendly but undemonstrative and reserved as individuals. Separate from the group or tribe, they had no private point of view. Individually they expressed little if any emotion, and habitually their faces were unrevealing stolid masks showing nothing of inner feelings. The children were treated with kindness and understanding. The only punishment came occasionally from older children of the same family.


They all bathed several times a day in the small creek near the village. Body hair was eliminated by applying a tree resin to the skin. Only the chief let his hair and whiskers grow. The men wore their hair in a short bobbed style. The women had bangs across their foreheads, their hair hanging shoulder length in the back. They were a strong, vigorous and industrious people.


In the principal house of the village, Chief Xumu had a section separated off from the other families also using the house. From the first day I was a part of this special enclave. And as the days passed, it became obvious that I was neither a slave nor destined to be eaten. As my understanding and participation increased, it also became apparent that the chief observed, controlled and directed everything that involved me, including diet. From my privileged position I gradually became aware also of how Xumu held his tribe together. The activities of the entire group were to a degree under his control and supervision. Hunting territories and planting areas were assigned. The results were observed and adjustments made when necessary.


Conditions for hunting were especially good during the early part of the dry season, before preparations for planting could start. In order not to kill off all game near the village, small hunting camps were set up at this time of the year at a distance of several days' travel into the forest. These were located and organized under directions from the chief.


Xumu's knowledge of the forest for several days' journey in all directions from the village was phenomenal. This came from his own experience when he was younger and could travel and from the daily reports brought back by the hunters, who all reported to him on the territorial movement of several bands of wild pigs and monkeys. These bands were relatively easy to keep track of because of their group habits and organization. Animals that had more tenuous contact among their own kind required greater intuition and skill to bag.







After the raid, since the enemy invading our territory had apparently withdrawn, life in the village settled down. Although the routine of daily life still seemed strange to me, it was a known pattern for the Indians. The tension was gone; the women went back to work in their little cleared and planted plots in the forest; the men again took up organized hunting. The chief kept a close watch over all these activities, giving the necessary directions to keep things moving according to his wishes and plans.


My own position had noticeably improved after I took part in the defence of the village against the invasion threat. And my ability to shoot the rifle without flinching from the awesome noise of thunder exploding when I pulled the trigger gave me a special status among the Indians, to whom the rifle was a strange and awesome thing.


I soon found that the chief’s program for my training was far from finished. He prepared now a series of combined herbal purges, baths and diet that had subtle effects on my feelings and bodily functions. I cooperated without hesitation now, since the recent events made me sure that I was in a secure position within the tribe. Before my life among these Indians had begun I had heard the usual rumours of Indian medicine and witch-doctor activities. There had always been a certain fascination in this for me, so now I was determined to observe and learn all that I could.


After several days of preparation in which every detail was closely supervised by old Xumu, we began a series of incredible sessions with the extract of the vision vine, nixi honi xuma.


A small shelter was built especially for the two of us at a spot slightly removed from the village. It was just within the edge of the forest that surrounded our small settlement. There was only room to swing two hammocks with a small fire between. Outside there was also a small clear space in which to swing hammocks among the trees. Here we were well guarded from intrusion of any kind. Food was brought only on signal from the chief and always by the same o1d woman. Sounds from the village did not reach us.


The chief and I went to this secluded site alone one morning. On the way I remember wondering how old this man might be. Actually, his physical features did not give the usual signs of age. His skin was not unusually wrinkled and the flesh did not sag on his bones. Nevertheless, he gave the impression of being ancient, and it was evident that reverence and admiration dominated the feelings of the tribe toward their headman. He maintained a calm, distant aloofness from the people and their activities, yet gave the feeling of complete awareness of present, past and future events. And one felt that their awe of him was justified.


He led the way toward the forest at his usual slow, deliberate walk, which also gave the impression of great age. He seemed to choose each step with care. On the way he started a low chant, seemingly to himself :


"Spirits of the forest

revealed to us by honi xuma

bring us knowledge of the realm

assist in the guidance of our people

give us the stealth of the boa

penetrating sight of the hawk and the owl

acute hearing of the deer

brute endurance of the tapir

grace and strength of the jaguar

knowledge and tranquillity of the moon

kindred spirits, guide our way"


It was a clear, still day of the early dry season. A few isolated cotton puffs of clouds drifted in an azure sky as we stepped from the village clearing into the mottled shade of the cool forest. Preparations had been made for our arrival, but no one was present. The old man sounded a birdcall that was answered from somewhere out of sight.


I looked around. A tiny, newly kindled fire glowed in the centre of a small opening in the forest undergrowth. Beside it was a bunch of the leaves used for the fragrant ceremonial smoke. The small clearing revealed the massive buttresses to the columns that supported the leafy roof of the forest a hundred feet above our heads. These columns, draped in vines and hanging plants, were also visible in the diffuse filtered light that was occasionally broken by a brilliant shaft of direct sunlight. Details otherwise unnoticed would stand out momentarily in vivid clarity in these illuminating shafts of light from above.


At a motion from the chief, I sat down comfortably in a hammock swung low outside the shelter. Chanting, the old man deliberately put a bunch of leaves on the fire. Billowing clouds of fragrant smoke filled the still air.


"O most powerful spirit

of the bush with the fragrant leaves

we are here again to seek wisdom

give us tranquillity and guidance

to understand the mysteries of the forest

the knowledge of our ancestors"


We savoured the fragrant tranquillity of the scene as the smoke drifted around us and up into the vaulted structure of the forest. Every immediate sound and movement seemed suspended by the magic smoke. Before the enchanted spell drifted away with the smoke, Xumu poured a single large gourd cupful of honi xuma from a pot and began another low chant:


"Phantom revealing spirit of the vine

we seek your guidance now

to translate the past into the future

to understand every detail of our milieu

to improve our life

reveal the secrets that we need"


He came over to me and said: “You drink alone this time. I will be present to guide you. All is well. Your preparations have been completed. Every reaction is favourable. Drink it all at once, without hurry and without fear, and prepare for visions. Pleasant and profound visions will come to you."


He took back the empty cup, calmly sat down opposite me in the other hammock and said, "The diets and purges have prepared you well. No unpleasant reactions will appear this time. With care, we can direct the flow of visions into desired channels. I will not leave your side. I have done this times without number. When prepared with care, it comes out well."


We both lay back in our hammocks. Imperceptibly a feeling of euphoria entered my consciousness. I heard a brief pulsating hum in one ear, which seemed to float off, up into the treetops. My eyes tried to follow it, and as my glance wandered in the treetops I became aware of undreamed beauty in the details of the textures of leaves, stems and branches. Every leaf, as my attention settled on it, seemed to glow with a greenish golden light. Unimaginable detail of structure showed. A nearby birdsong - the irregular arpeggios of the siete cantos (seven songs) - floated down. Exquisite and shimmering, the song was almost visible. Time seemed suspended; there was only now and now was infinite. I could separate the individual notes of the bird song and savour each in its turn. As the notes of the song were repeated, I floated in a sensation that seemed somewhere between smelling an elusive intoxicating fragrance and tasting a delicate ambrosia. A breath of cool air drifting in from the forest created an ecstasy of sensations as it cooled my exposed skin. Sensations of a pleasant aroma again seemed involved.


The chief spoke in a low, pleasant tone, "Visions begin." He had completely captured my attention with two words of magic. I instantly felt a melting away of any barrier between us; we were as one. The mere glance of an eye had infinite meaning. The slightest change of expression conveyed full intent. We had complete rapport at all levels of understanding. I knew his thought as he knew mine. Did this telepathic facility come from some primitive recess of the mind used before ancestral man communicated in formal language ?


Xumu said, “From the hunting camp we find there is much of the forest that you do not see and understand. We will change this. You must have complete knowledge of the forest to lead the men in vision ceremonies to improve their hunting. Thus they can eat well and be content." A few simple words and slight gestures transmitted the full intent of his message.


{Cordova stopped his story and explained to me at this point: "You must realize, my friend, that the deeper we go into this, both written and spoken words of formal language become less and less adequate as a medium of expression. If I could arrange it we would have a session of visions ourselves and then you would understand. But that would take time. Meanwhile we will continue with indifferent words and inflexible modes of expression.}


The chief said, "Let us start with the birds. You know the medium-sized tinamou, the partridge that gives the plaintive call at sunset because he does not like to sleep alone on the ground. Visualize one for me there on the ground between the trees in the alternating light and shadow."


There he was ! I saw him in infinite detail with his rounded tailless rump, plumage olive gray, washed and barred with shades of cinnamon, chestnut and dusky brown, colours that blended imperceptibly with the light and shadows on the leafy forest floor. My visual perception seemed unlimited. Never had I perceived visual images in such detail before.


“Yes, Chief, I see him," was my response, mentally if not aloud.


“He will move around now. Watch closely.”


A few shy, furtive movements and the bird was in another pattern of light and shadow where he was much more difficult to see. But I had followed him there and could pick out every detail still. The chief then brought a female, and the male went through his mating dance. I heard all of the songs, calls and other sounds. Their variety was beyond anything I had known. Finally a simple saucer-shaped nest appeared on the ground between the birds, with two pale-blue eggs in it. The male then sat on the nest, to my surprise. “Yes, he raises the children," said the chief.


We went from the various tinamous to the trumpeter, the curassows and other important game birds, all seen in the same infinite and minute detail.


Then the chief said, "Close your eyes now and let the visions flow before we go on to other things."


I do not know how much time had passed – time had lost its meaning for me. As I closed my eyes vague traceries of light and shade developed, gradually taking on a bluish green colour as the patterns changed. They seemed like living, changing arabesques, moving in rhythm over a geometric background, with infinite variety of form. Sometimes they slightly resembled familiar patterns of spider webs or butterfly wings. A moving current of air with a barely perceptible fragrance translated itself on this visual screen of my mind as a faint violet wash over the moving arabesques. A birdcall or buzz of cicada - a brilliant flash of colour or a subtle rippling of waves, depending on its character.


All the senses seemed to be intensely acute and integrated into a single system. A stimulant to one was immediately translated to the others. The imagery gradually faded away, and the chief was aware of this.


He spoke, and I roused myself. It was late afternoon.


"We have night work to do," he said. "It will take another cup of honi xuma to make it effective. You will find this second cup even more illuminating. Listen for my instructions and have no fear.”


He built up the smouldering fire so there was a dancing flame in the gathering dusk. Then he handed me another large cupful of the clear green liquid, which I drank without hesitation.


There was an almost immediate reaction. As the darkness deepened I became aware of an acute depth of visual perception far beyond anything known to me before. The mighty trees around us took on a deep spiritual quality of obedient benevolence that set the character of the whole scene. As the fire died back down to a glowing coal, the darkness settled over everything. At the same time my visual powers were so augmented that I could see things that in other circumstances would have been totally invisible to me. This explained how the Indians could travel with ease through the forest and even hunt at night.


A passing firefly lit up the scene with a brilliance that seemed to approach the light of day. My sense of hearing was also much more acute. I could separate the night sounds far and near. When a cricket buzzed nearby I could see him in the dark on a stem rubbing his legs against the sound box of his body. A group of small yellow frogs up in a nearby tree started an alternating exchange of a bell-like call, "chill-ing, chill-ing," echoing back and forth with the exquisite clarity of a small silver bell. From the treetops there drifted down on a descending air current the heavy musky fragrance of a night-blooming orchid. In my state of heightened sense perception, this was almost overwhelming in its intensity and it overflowed into indescribable sensations of taste.


The call of an owl, “whooo whooo," floated on the still night air and was answered in the darkness.


"You will learn to see and hear at night as clearly as the owl," was the chief's comment. And I felt that it was true.


With chants and the calls of the various animals, the chief evoked in my visions vivid episodes in the lives of the nocturnal forest animals. The chants, the calls and the visions they brought were all to become part of my own repertory.


The morning sunlight breaking through the forest canopy awakened me from a strange sleep that I could not remember falling into. Orientation with time and space returned, but only slowly. I felt as though I were coming back from a distant journey to unknown and unremembered places.


The chief offered me a calabash of thick fruit gruel to drink, which helped my senses return to reality. We soon walked, at Xumu's usual measured, deliberate pace, back to the village.


I was still kept on a strict diet, and it turned out that this was to be a period of intensive training for me. Once every eight days I would have a session of visions with the chief. These included examination of plants and their various uses both as food and as medicine, as well as further study of the animals. During the time between sessions I was taken often to the forest on both day and night trips with small groups of hunters. On these excursions I found to my delight that the intensified sense of perception and increased awareness of my surroundings originating in the sessions with the chief stayed with me. In the forest my companions would point out origins of sound and smell and continually test my progress in becoming completely one with the forest environment.


After each series of four sessions with the chief eight days apart, I would have an equivalent period to work with and absorb the new experience and knowledge. A strict diet was still kept up, and then another series of vision sessions would begin. At times during all this, which went on for months, I became nervous, high-strung and afraid of going insane. The chief and the old women noticed this. They took pains to explain and reassure me that as long as I followed the diets and instructions every- thing would come out well.


During my training I became aware of subtle changes in my mental process and modes of thought. I noticed a mental acceleration and a certain clairvoyance in anticipating events and the reactions of the tribe. By focusing my attention on a single individual I could divine his reactions and purposes and anticipate what he would do or what he planned to do. This was all important to the way Xumu governed the tribe, and I began to see what lay under the surface in his management of their community life. The old man said my power to anticipate and know future events would improve and grow, also that I would be able to locate and identify objects from a great distance. All this, he told me, would help protect and control the tribe.


As the training process went on I began to sense a vague feeling of urgency on the part of the chief to impart his fund of knowledge and experience to me adequately. In actuality, I believe you could say that he was transmitting the accumulated tribal knowledge of, perhaps, centuries. The tribe could stand no rivalries in the chieftainship and it became clear that I was being prepared.


During the rest period between the vision sessions, in addition to going out with the hunters, Xumu himself often took me on short excursions to the nearby forest. There he would take great pains to show me and to explain the use of the plants, many of which we also saw in the visions. He would explain to me the secrets of their preparation for use and repeat the chants that should accompany both preparation and application. It was strongly believed among them that the chants helped in bringing about the desired effect of the treatment.



Edited by ThisLife
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Since this collection of stories is still being visited by readers, I thought perhaps it was time that I added a direct account of that ‘Holy Grail’ of all seekers,…. a modern-day, (still alive) Westerner’s account of his experience of spiritual Awakening.


I’m aware that there are at least two major difficulties regarding this subject for most seekers. One is that, although we all desire this experience ourselves, its nature is completely beyond our conception until we, ourselves, experience it directly. Even in the hands of the most skillful user of our seemingly powerful tool of language, words can at best only point us in a certain direction. After that it is our imagination, on its own, which must try to connect us to our mind’s desire. And as everyone knows, for even the most fluid and creative of imaginations, a menu description of a meal cannot ever be the same experience as the meal itself.


The second obvious problem is that many, many people claim to have had these experiences. And for a wide variety of reasons. Who is telling the truth, who is deluded by wishful thinking, who is a spiritual con-man, who has only partly glimpsed the truth, etc,…. the answers to all these questions are unknowable by us.


So, bearing these two caveats in mind I’ll nevertheless persevere with adding this story. Purely because it has long had a very strong effect on my own spiritual searching. To me, the author seems honest and for whatever reasons, his description stimulated me in an extremely thought-provoking way. That’s all I can say.


It is taken from a wonderful book called, “I Hope You Die Soon”, by Richard Sylvester. He has a rather unusual style of writing in that there are no chapters in the book, (just periodic sub-titles). And he separates certain areas of his ‘related-but-different’ thoughts, by using a blank page. To approximate this style here I have used large, bold font for his sub-titles, and three * symbols to represent his page dividers.


If his story happens to stimulate any reader's interest to see more closely what the author is like, at the end I have provided a video link to an interview he gave on his book. I have also provided a second link to another interview on the same program, but one made several years later,... of a man for whom a completely different set of circumstances triggered what seems to be a remarkably similar experience. For him, (an American GI), the trigger was being blown up by a hand grenade in the Viet Nam war in the late Sixties. Two experiences seemingly world's apart, yet they nevertheless seem to meet in exactly the same place :



I Hope You Die Soon”,


(by Richard Sylvester)






Seeing There is No One


It begins with Saturday afternoons in Hampstead, listening to discussions about non-duality held by Tony Parsons. I do not understand a lot of what is said but something keeps drawing me there. And I like the jokes and the conversation and the drinking afterwards so I go back again and again.


Then at a central London station on a warm summer evening the person, the sense of self, suddenly completely disappears. Everything remains as it is - people, trains, platforms, other objects – yet everything is seen for the first time without a person mediating or interpreting it. There are no flashing lights, no fireworks, none of the whirligig phenomena of LSD or hallucinogenic mushrooms. But this is the real 'wow', seeing an ordinary railway station for the first time without any sense of self. Here is the ordinary seen as the extraordinary, arising in oneness with no one experiencing it.


In that instant it is seen that there is no one. The sense of there being a person has been a constant up to this point and given meaning to this life. For so many years it has never been questioned. It has been so thoroughly taken for granted as me, my centre and location, that it has not even been noticed. Now it is seen as a complete redundancy. Suddenly it is known that I never had a life because there never was an 'I'. In a split second of eternity it is known that without an 'I' everything is being seen for the first time simply as it is. I do not live, I am lived. I do not act, but actions happen through me, the divine puppet.


Every concern of this small but so important apparent life falls away in an instant.


Within a second, the self returns saying "What the hell was that ?" But that split-second of no one brings about irrevocable changes to the internal landscape. For seeing this can blow your mind.


The past becomes two-dimensional. Before this, the past was a three dimensional landscape which I visited frequently. I rushed about in it, jumping from place to place; every scene had energy and reality to it. That energy appeared as feelings and thoughts, mostly about regret and guilt, with themes of "What if..." and "If only..." endlessly playing. The past was consequently tilled and re-tilled, different possibilities uselessly played out as if obsessive revisiting could somehow change the geography, bring back a lost lover or erase some offence given or received. Now, after that split second of no one, although the person has come back, the past is like a flat painting. All the scenes are still there - this is not Alzheimer's - but they have no energy, no reality, and there is little impulse to visit any of them anymore. Occasionally one scene or another from the past flickers into life for a while but then it dies away again. Regret and guilt loosen their grip.


Issues and problems still arise but they cannot hang around for as long as they used to do. The rock face which gave toe holds for them to clamber up and grab me by the throat is starting to crumble. The internal landscape has become slippery. As Nisargadatta says, the world is full of hoops, the hooks are all ours. Now the hooks are dissolving. However, during the next year the self frantically tries to reassert itself, sometimes apparently very successfully as issues manage to re-emerge, as boredom, despair, emotional pain somehow still have to be experienced.


One thing that is immediately seen is the nature of all the apparent spiritual experiences that arose during the years of searching and following false paths and gurus. Suddenly they are seen for what they really are, emotional and psychological experiences happening to an unreal person and no more significant than putting on a shoe or having a cup of coffee.


Spiritual experiences are not difficult to evoke. Meditate intensively, chant for long periods, take certain drugs, go without food or sleep, put yourself in extreme situations. That will probably do it. I had done all of these things and there had been many spiritual experiences. I had chanted for hours and meditated to the beating of mighty Tibetan gongs. I had seen the guru, sitting on a dais in impressive robes, dissolve into golden light before my eyes. Personal identity had refined and dissolved in transcendental bliss. The universe had breathed me as my awareness expanded to fill everything.


So what?


There had always been someone there, having the spiritual experience. A person, no matter how refined, had always been present. These events had all happened to 'me'. None of them had anything more or less to do with liberation than stroking a cat.


And anyway "You can't stay in God's world for very long. There are no restaurants or toilets there."


Liberation is not personal and has nothing to do with any psychological, emotional or 'spiritual' experience, no matter how refined it may be. A spiritual or psychological experience is just a personal experience. Once it is seen that I am nothing, it is also seen that any experience arises only for an apparent person and falls away again in oneness with no significance at all. There is no real person in whom the experience arises and no possibility that it could have any meaning.


And liberation has nothing to do with the absence or presence of problems or issues, which may or may not continue to arise.


Liberation does not bring unending bliss. For that, try heroin, Prozac or a lobotomy.


What a relief. Liberation does not require you to be any particular way.


Liberation does not require 'you' to be at all. A person is not writing these words. Oneness is writing these words. And oneness is reading them.




Within the story, the period of awakening lasts for one year. During this time, the person reasserts itself, sometimes strongly, drops away again and returns. For a while there is a desert where personal pain is as intense as before but all the old comforts and mechanisms for dealing with it have lost their meaning. A particular comfort had been the belief that pain was meaningful, necessary to my spiritual evolution. "There's no gain without pain." Now that thought simply appears ridiculous. I am beginning to understand that this awakening is ruthless, stripping away every belief that I have ever held and ever clung to. Now there are no life rafts left, not even a piece of driftwood.


It is sometimes said that this ruins your life. Well, it ruins what you thought was your life. And there is a saying I remember at this point. "Why do you want liberation? How do you know you'd like it?"


My God. Things have got worse, not better. For previously there was hope.






Seeing 'I' am Everything



Within the story, a year after awakening, I am standing in a shop in an ordinary country town. Suddenly but with great gentleness the ordinary is displaced by the extraordinary. The person again disappears completely and now it is seen clearly that awareness is everywhere and everything. The localised sense of self is revealed to be just an appearance. There is no location, no here or there. There is only oneness appearing as everything and this is what 'I' really am. 'I' am the shop, the people, the counter, the walls and the space in which everything appears. When the self disappears, and awareness is seen as everything, then this is seen for what it is, a wonderful hologram sustained by love.


At a certain time as a child, awareness appears to coagulate into a discrete space, becoming solid and separate from everything else. This is what creates the sense of 'me' with its hopes and fears and loves and burdensome responsibilities. The thoughts and feelings and sensory phenomena, which really simply arise in awareness, are now owned by someone,… are now felt to belong to 'me'. And so the drama of being a person starts.


There is no locality to awareness other than 'everywhere'. There is only liberation. But in liberation the sense that 'I' am not liberated can and does arise. It manifests as the sense of separation, of being located over here rather than over there, separate from all other people and things. It brings fear, longing and hope, and it is highly addictive. It cannot see through itself and it may simply continue for seventy or eighty years until it ends at death. Or it may end sooner, anywhere, at any time.




Liberation is freedom from the burden of being a person who apparently has to make choices and decisions; choices and decisions which have consequences. What a wonderful relief it is to see that there is no choice, no person, no separation. Nothing you have ever done has ever led to anything because you have never done anything. No one has ever done anything although it appears that things have been done.


Isn't it wonderful that you have never made a choice in your life ? There is nothing to regret, nothing to feel guilty about. Nothing could ever have been any different, nothing could ever have been any other way. Isn't that a relief ? Nothing matters. There is nowhere to go. There is nothing that has to be done. There is no meaning and no morality. There is no help and no hope. You can let it all go, you can release all the tension. You can begin to enjoy the wonder of hopelessness and the gift of meaninglessness. You can begin to enjoy your complete helplessness.


In liberation it is seen that nothing has any meaning, it is simply what it is. The story does not stop. The story continues but now it is seen that it is just a story. All the passions of your apparent life are just stuff happening. The conflicts, the loves, the struggles for control and power, the victories and defeats are simply phenomena arising in oneness and falling away again with no meaning at all.


Nothing has any more significance than anything else or could ever be greater or lesser. The Trojan war and a glass of beer are equal.


Except, of course, to the mind.




You cannot earn liberation. I have not earned liberation. No one will ever earn liberation. You cannot become good enough or work hard enough or be sincere enough to deserve it. Liberation has not happened to me and it will not happen to you. Yet there is liberation. There is only ever liberation. Perfection is already here. What you are is already divine.


Searching will not get you anywhere, but there is nothing wrong with searching. In this apparent process it may be heard that searching is meaningless but searching cannot be given up until it stops. Then it is over and it is seen that what you were searching for has always been with you, in fact it has always been what you are. But to suggest that you give up searching in order to find is pointless. It does not matter whether you get drunk, meditate, read the paper, sit with the guru or go to the races. None of these will make liberation any more or any less likely. Searching or nor searching, meditating or not meditating, misses the point. For there is no one who can choose to do any of these things. If meditation happens, it happens and it will go on happening until it does not. It is the same for getting drunk. You may as well give up the belief that you can choose anything.


Except that you cannot do that either.


Until it happens.




Liberation is what is left when the self is gone.


But the self is simply liberation arising as the self.


Liberation is what is happening while you search

for liberation.


Inside, you already know this.





Being Awake and Being Asleep are the Same - Unless You are Asleep



When liberation is seen, it is known that being awake in liberation is no different from being asleep. They are both seen simply as oneness, manifesting as sleep or awakeness. In liberation all the mystification of enlightenment is stripped away and its absolute ordinariness is revealed. Mountains are seen simply as mountains.


But to the seeker who is still asleep, and in their sleep is searching restlessly for an end to the sense of separation, there appears to be a chasm between that state and liberation. Liberation seems like a marvelous prize to be attained, promising blissful feelings, freedom from pain and suffering, an end to all problems, perhaps magical powers and of course the jealous admiration of your friends. This is why the search for liberation can be so desperate and the question "Will I get it ?" so powerful.


All that prevents the seeing of liberation is the thought "I am not liberated". So some say that what you must do to see liberation is to drop this thought. But there is no one who can choose to do this. The thought that this is not liberation, (which is the same as the thought "I am separate" or "I am searching"), continues until it drops away. The apparent self can do nothing to discover that it is itself an illusion – since an appearance cannot discover reality.


Liberation is seen either while the body-mind is still functioning or at the death of the body-mind and it does not matter which, except in the story. "At death there is only liberation. It is just more chic to see liberation when you are alive."


In liberation it is seen that there never was anything to seek. What you seek has always been with you, what you are has always been what you are. When this is seen all searching ends.




I Hope You Die Soon



Once upon a time I was a busy seeker, meditating sincerely being careful with my karma, receiving shaktipat, having my chakras opened and cleansed by blessed gurus, thinking I was going somewhere.


Then catastrophe struck. I met Tony Parsons. And that was the end of what I thought had been my life. Tony, who hugged me at the end of one of his meetings and said to me "I hope you die soon." Tony, to whom I feel the most profound gratitude, even though there is no one.


There is no more appropriate way to end this. Let me simply pass on the blessing I was given and say to you "I hope you die soon."









(1) Richard Sylvester's Link :





(2) Bart Marshall (Viet Nam War vet)

Edited by ThisLife

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The following extract was taken from one of my very favourite books. Published in a very different environment in Canada during the early 1960’s, it tells the story of a young author’s first job after graduating from university as a Biologist. The Canadian Wildlife Service at the time was extremely concerned about the rapidly dwindling caribou population, (a species which once migrated in such vast numbers that it took days, or even weeks, for the entire herd to pass.) It was then the almost universal belief that the cause was most likely increased predation by growing number of wolf packs. Thus, as a scientific precursor to a systematic culling and possible eradication of wolves from the Canadian Arctic, the author, (Farley Mowat), was sent into the remote, frozen tundra, to do a several year study of the 'wolf – caribou' relationship.


However, after two years of closely observing a family of wolves in the wild, he came to realise that mankind’s age-old fear and hatred of wolves had created a myth that no longer bore much relation to reality. And that this myth was never challenged. It was simply passed down from generation to generation, unquestioned.


Mowat’s findings in the report he wrote was not welcomed by his employers, and it not only cost him his job but also any hopes of a further career as a Biologist working for the government. The positive side was that, as a result, he felt pushed to make his startling discoveries available to the wider public in this book, “Never Cry Wolf.” The effect at the time was like a literary bombshell. It remains to this day one of the most widely-loved books ever published in Canada, and the resulting change in public opinion almost single-handedly caused an outcry which stopped the government’s planned eradication of wolves.


I’ll leave this introduction here with a section taken from the preface to the 1963 first edition which includes a press statement by the author,… and my fullest recommendation that, if you enjoy reading this short extract, you find a copy of his recently re-published book and read for yourself this rare and wonderful account of a deeply noble animal that has been unjustly maligned by man from our earliest days as cave dwellers. It is a true gem of literature.




Never Cry Wolf “is one of the brilliant narratives on the myth and magical world of wild wolves and man's true place among the creatures of nature. "We have doomed the wolf not for what it is, but for what we deliberately and mistakenly perceive it to be -- the mythological epitome of a savage, ruthless killer -- which is, in reality, no more than the reflected image of ourself."




NOTE : The author gave names to the wolf family he studied which you will come across without lead-up, (since this extract is taken from chapters near the middle of the book). The mother he calls Angeline, the father, George, and an unattached male wolf living with them, Uncle Albert.






Farley Mowat Writes :




Chapter 10



After some weeks of study I still seemed to be as far as ever from solving the salient problem of how the wolves made a living. This was a vital problem, since solving it in a way satisfactory to my employers was the reason for my expedition.


Caribou are the only large herbivores to be found in any numbers in the arctic Barren Lands. Although once as numerous as the plains buffalo, they had shown a catastrophic decrease during the three or four decades preceding my trip to the Barrens. Evidence obtained by various Government agencies from hunters, trappers and traders seemed to prove that the plunge of the caribou toward extinction was primarily due to the depredations of the wolf. It therefore must have seemed a safe bet, to the politicians-cum-scientists who had employed me, that a research study of wolf-caribou relationships in the Barrens would uncover incontrovertible proof with which to damn the wolf wherever he might be found, and provide a more than sufficient excuse for the adoption of a general campaign for his extirpation.


I did my duty, but although I had searched diligently for evidence which would please my superiors, I had so far found none. Nor did it appear I was likely to.


Toward the end of June, the last of the migrating caribou herds had passed Wolf House Bay heading for the high Barrens some two or three hundred miles to the north, where they would spend the summer.


Whatever my wolves were going to eat during those long months, and whatever they were going to feed their hungry pups, it would not be caribou, for the caribou were gone. But if not caribou, what was it to be?


I canvassed all the other possibilities I could think of, but there seemed to be no source of food available which would be adequate to satisfy the appetites of three adult and four young wolves. Apart from myself (and the thought recurred several times) there was hardly an animal left in the country which could be considered suitable prey for a wolf. Arctic hares were present; but they were very scarce and so fleet of foot that a wolf could not hope to catch one unless he was extremely lucky. Ptarmigan and other birds were numerous; but they could fly, and the wolves could not. Lake trout, arctic grayling and whitefish filled the lakes and rivers; but wolves are not otters.


The days passed and the mystery deepened. To make the problem even more inscrutable, the wolves seemed reasonably well fed; and to baffle me to the point of near insanity, the two male wolves went off hunting every night and returned every morning, but never appeared to bring anything home.


As far as I could tell, the whole lot of them seemed to be existing on a diet of air and water. Once, moved by a growing concern for their well-being, I went back to the cabin and baked five loaves of bread, which I then took to Wolf House Bay and left beside one of the hunting paths. My gift was rejected. It was even scorned. Or perhaps Uncle Albert, who discovered them, simply thought the loaves were some new sort of boundary posts which I had erected, and that they were to be treated accordingly.





About this time I began having trouble with mice. The vast expanses of spongy sphagnum bog provided an ideal milieu for several species of small rodents who could burrow and nest-build to their hearts' content in the ready-made mattress of moss.


They did other things too, and they must have done them with great frequency, for as June waned into July the country seemed to become alive with little rodents. The most numerous species were the lemmings, which are famed in literature for their reputedly suicidal instincts, but which, instead, ought to be hymned for their unbelievable reproductive capabilities. Red-backed mice and meadow mice began invading Mike's cabin in such numbers that it looked as if I would soon be starving unless I could thwart their appetites for my supplies. They did not scorn my bread. They did not scorn my bed, either;

and when I awoke one morning to find that a meadow mouse had given birth to eleven naked offspring inside the pillow of my sleeping bag, I began to know how Pharaoh must have felt when he antagonized the God of the Israelites.


I suppose it was only because my own wolf indoctrination had been so complete, and of such a staggeringly inaccurate nature, that it took me so long to account for the healthy state of the wolves in the apparent absence of any game worthy of their reputation and physical abilities. The idea of wolves not only eating, but actually thriving and raising their families on a diet of mice was so at odds with the character of the mythical wolf that it was really too ludicrous to consider. And yet, it was the answer to the problem of how my wolves were keeping the larder full.


Angeline tipped me off.


Late one afternoon, while the male wolves were still resting in preparation for the night's labours, she emerged from the den and nuzzled Uncle Albert until he yawned, stretched and got laboriously to his feet. Then she left the den site at a trot, heading directly for me across a broad expanse of grassy muskeg, and leaving Albert to entertain the pups as best he could.


There was nothing particularly new in this. I had several times seen her conscript Albert (and on rare occasions even George) to do duty as a babysitter while she went down to the bay for a drink or, as I mistakenly thought, simply went for a walk to stretch her legs. Usually her peregrinations took her to the point of the bay farthest from my tent where she was hidden from sight by a low gravel ridge; but this time she came my way in full view and so I swung my telescope to keep an eye on her.


She went directly to the rocky foreshore, waded out until the icy water was up to her shoulders, and had a long drink. As she was doing so, a small flock of Old Squaw ducks flew around the point of the Bay and pitched only a hundred yards or so away from her. She raised her head and eyed them speculatively for a moment, then waded back to shore, where she proceeded to act as if she had suddenly become demented.


Yipping like a puppy, she began to chase her tail; to roll over and over among the rocks; to lie on her back; to wave all four feet furiously in the air; and in general to behave as if she were clean out of her mind.


I swung the glasses back to where Albert was sitting amidst a gaggle of pups to see if he, too, had observed this mad display, and, if so, what his reaction to it was. He had seen it all right, in fact he was watching Angeline with keen interest but without the slightest indication of alarm.


By this time Angeline appeared to be in the throes of a manic paroxysm, leaping wildly into the air and snapping at nothing, the while uttering shrill squeals. It was an awe-inspiring sight, and I realized that Albert and I were not the only ones who were watching it with fascination. The ducks seemed hypnotized by curiosity. So interested were they that they swam in for a closer view of this apparition on the shore. Closer and closer they came, necks out-stretched, and gabbling incredulously among themselves. And the closer they came, the crazier grew Angeline's behaviour.


When the leading duck was not more than fifteen feet from shore, Angeline gave one gigantic leap towards it. There was a vast splash, a panic-stricken whacking of wings, and then all the ducks were up and away. Angeline had missed a dinner by no more than inches.


This incident was an eye-opener since it suggested a versatility at food-getting which I would hardly have credited to a human being, let alone to a mere wolf. However, Angeline soon demonstrated that the charming of ducks was a mere side line.


Having dried herself with a series of energetic shakes which momentarily hid her in a blue mist of water droplets, she padded back across the grassy swale. But now her movements were quite different from what they had been when she passed through the swale on the way to the bay.


Angeline was of a rangy build, anyway, but by stretching herself so that she literally seemed to be walking on tiptoe, and by elevating her neck like a camel, she seemed to gain several inches in height. She began to move infinitely slowly upwind across the swale, and I had the impression that both ears were cocked for the faintest sound, while I could see her nose wrinkling as she sifted the breeze for the most ephemeral scents.


Suddenly she pounced. Flinging herself up on her hind legs like a horse trying to throw its rider, she came down again with driving force, both forelegs held stiffly out in front of her. Instantly her head dropped; she snapped once, swallowed, and returned to her peculiar mincing ballet across the swale. Six times in ten minutes she repeated the straight-armed pounce, and six times she swallowed - without my having caught a glimpse of what it was that she had eaten. The seventh time she missed her aim, spun around, and began snapping frenziedly in a tangle of cotton grasses. This time when she raised her head I saw, quite unmistakably, the tail and hind quarters of a mouse quivering in her jaws. One gulp, and it too was gone.


Although I was much entertained by the spectacle of one of this continent's most powerful carnivores hunting mice, I did not really take it seriously. I thought Angeline was only having fun; snacking, as it were. But when she had eaten some twenty-three mice I began to wonder. Mice are small, but twenty-three of them add up to a fair-sized meal, even for a wolf.


It was only later, by putting two and two together, that I was able to bring myself to an acceptance of the obvious. The wolves of Wolf House Bay, and, by inference at least, all the Barren Land wolves who were raising families outside the summer caribou range, were living largely, if not almost entirely, on mice.




Only one point remained obscure, and. that was how they transported the catch of mice (which in the course of an entire night must have amounted to a formidable number of individuals) back to the dens to feed the pups. I never did solve this problem until I met some of Mike’s relations. One of them, a charming fellow named Ootek, who became a close friend (and who was a first-rate, if untrained, naturalist), explained the mystery.


Since it was impossible for the wolves to carry the mice home externally, they did the next best thing and brought them home in their bellies. I had already noticed that when either George or Albert returned from a hunt they went straight to the den and crawled into it. Though I did not suspect it at the time, they were regurgitating the day's rations, already partially digested.


Later in the summer, when the pups had abandoned the den in the esker, I several times saw one of the adult wolves regurgitating a meal for them. However, if I had not known what they were doing I probably would have misconstrued the action and still been no whit the wiser as to how the wolves carried home their spoils.


The discovery that mice constituted the major item in the wolves' diet gave me a new interest in the mice themselves. I at once began a mouse-survey. The preliminary operation consisted of setting some hundred and fifty mousetraps in a nearby bog in order to obtain a representative sample of the mouse population in terms of sex, age, density and species. I chose an area of bog not far from my tent, on the theory that it would be typical of one of the bogs hunted over by the wolves, and also because it was close at hand and would therefore allow me to tend my traps frequently. This choice was a mistake. The second day my trap line was set, George happened in that direction.


I saw him coming and was undecided what to do. Since we were still scrupulously observing our mutual boundaries, I did not feel like dashing outside my enclave in an effort to head him off. On the other hand, I had no idea how he would react when he discovered that I had been poaching on his preserves.


When he reached the edge of the bog he snuffed about for a while, then cast a suspicious glance in my direction. Obviously he knew I had been trespassing but was at a loss to understand why. Making no attempt to hunt, he began walking through the cotton grass at the edge of the bog and I saw, to my horror, that he was heading straight for a cluster of ten traps set near the burrows of a lemming colony.


I had an instant flash of foreknowledge of what was

going to happen, and without thought I leaped to my

feet and yelled at the top of my voice:


"George! For God's sake HOLD IT !"


It was too late. My shout only startled him and he broke into a trot. He went about ten paces on the level and then he began climbing an unseen ladder to the skies.


When, sometime later, I went over to examine the site, I found he had scored six traps out of the possible ten. They could have done him no real harm, of course, but the shock and pain of having a number of his toes nipped simultaneously by an unknown antagonist must have been considerable. For the first and only time that I knew him, George lost his dignity. Yipping like a dog who has caught his tail in a door, he streaked for home, shedding mouse-traps like confetti as he went.


I felt very badly about the incident. It might easily have resulted in a serious rupture in our relations. That it did not do so I can only attribute to the fact that George's sense of humour, which was well developed, led him to accept the affair as a crude practical joke - of the kind to be expected from a human being.



Chapter 11



The realization that the wolves' summer diet consisted chiefly of mice did not conclude my work in the field of dietetics. I knew that the mouse-wolf relationship was a revolutionary one to science and would be treated with suspicion, and possibly with ridicule, unless it could be so thoroughly substantiated that there would be no room to doubt its validity.


I had already established two major points:


1. That wolves caught and ate mice.


2. That the small rodents were sufficiently numerous to support the wolf population.


There remained, however, a third point vital to the proof of my contention. This concerned the nutritional value of mice. It was imperative for me to prove that a diet of small rodents would suffice to maintain a large carnivore in good condition.


I recognized that this was not going to be an easy task. Only a controlled experiment would do, and since I could not exert the necessary control over the wolves, I was at a loss how to proceed. Had Mike still been in the vicinity I might have borrowed two of his Huskies and, by feeding one of them on mice alone and the other on caribou meat (if and when this became obtainable), and then subjecting both dogs to similar tests, I would have been able to adduce the proof for or against the validity of the mouse-wolf concept. But Mike was gone, and I had no idea when he might return.


For some days I pondered the problem, and then one morning, while I was preparing some lemmings and meadow mice as specimens, inspiration struck me. Despite the fact that man is not wholly carnivorous, I could see no valid reason why I should not use myself as a test subject. It was true that there was only one of me; but the difficulty this posed could be met by setting up two timed intervals, during one of which I would confine myself to a mouse diet while during a second period of equal length I would eat canned meat and fresh fish. At the end of each period I would run a series of physiological tests upon myself and finally compare the two sets of results. While not absolutely conclusive as far as wolves were concerned, evidence that my metabolic functions remained unimpaired under a mouse regimen would strongly indicate that wolves, too, could survive and function normally on the same diet.




There being no time like the present, I resolved to begin the experiment at once, Having cleaned the basinful of small corpses which remained from my morning session of mouse skinning, I placed them in a pot and hung it over my primus stove. The pot gave off a most delicate and delicious odour as the water boiled, and I was in excellent appetite by the time the stew was done.


Eating these small mammals presented something of a problem at first because of the numerous minute bones; however, I found that the bones could be chewed and swallowed without much difficulty. The taste of the mice - a purely subjective factor and not in the least relevant to the experiment - was pleasing, if rather bland. As the experiment progressed, this blandness led to a degree of boredom and a consequent loss of appetite and I was forced to seek variety in my methods of preparation.


Of the several recipes which I developed, the finest by far was Creamed Mouse, and in the event that any of my readers may be interested in personally exploiting this hitherto overlooked source of excellent animal protein, I give the recipe in full.


Souris A La Crème




One dozen fat mice

One cup white four

One piece sowbelly


Salt and pepper


Ethyl alcohol


[i should perhaps note that sowbelly is normally only available in the arctic, but ordinary salt pork can be substituted.]


Skin and gut the mice, but do not remove the heads; wash, then place in a pot with enough alcohol to cover the carcasses. Allow to marinate for about two hours. Cut sowbelly into small cubes and fry slowly until most of the fat has been rendered. Now remove the carcasses from the alcohol and roll them in a mixture of salt, pepper and flour; then place in frying pan and sauté for about five minutes (being careful not to allow the pan to get too hot, or the delicate meat will dry out and become tough and stringy). Now add a cup of alcohol and six or eight cloves. Cover the pan and allow to simmer slowly for fifteen minutes. The cream sauce can be made according to any standard recipe. When the sauce is ready, drench the carcasses with it, cover and allow to rest in a warm place for ten minutes before serving.


During the first week of the mouse diet I found that my vigour remained unimpaired, and that I suffered no apparent ill effects. However, I did begin to develop a craving for fats. It was this which made me realize that my experiment, up to this point, had been rendered partly invalid by an oversight – and one, moreover, which did my scientific training no credit. The wolves, as I should have remembered, ate the whole mouse; and my dissections had shown that these small rodents stored most of their fat in the abdominal cavity, adhering to the intestinal mesenteries, rather than subcutaneously or in the muscular tissue. It was an inexcusable error I had made, and I hastened to rectify it. From this time to the end of the experimental period I too ate the whole mouse, without the skin of course, and I found that my fat craving was considerably eased.


It was during the final stages of my mouse diet that Mike returned to his cabin. He brought with him a cousin of his, the young Eskimo, Ootek, who was to become my boon companion and who was to prove invaluable to me in my wolf researches. However, on my first encounter with Ootek I found him almost as reserved and difficult of approach as Mike had been, and in fact still remained.


I had made a trip back to the cabin to fetch some additional supplies and the sight of smoke rising from the chimney cheered me greatly, for, to tell the truth, there had been times when I would have enjoyed a little human companionship. When I entered the cabin Mike was frying a panful of venison steak, while Ootek looked on. They had been lucky enough to kill a stray animal some sixty miles to the north. After a somewhat awkward few minutes, during which Mike seemed to be hopefully trying to ignore my existence, I managed to break the ice and achieve an introduction to Ootek, who responded by sidling around to the other side of the table and putting as much distance between us as possible. These two then sat down to their dinner, and Mike eventually offered me a plate of fried steak too.


I would have enjoyed eating it, but I was still conducting my experiment, and so I had to refuse, after having first explained my reasons to Mike. He accepted my excuses with the inscrutable silence of his Eskimo ancestors, but he evidently passed on my explanation to Ootek, who, whatever he may have thought about it and me, reacted in a typical Eskimoan way. Late that evening when I was about to return to my observation tent, Ootek waylaid me outside the cabin. With a shy but charming smile he held out a small parcel wrapped in deerskin. Graciously I undid the sinew binding and examined the present; for such it was. It consisted of a clutch of five small blue eggs, undoubtedly belonging to one of the thrush species, though I could not be certain of the identification.


Grateful, but at a loss to understand the implications of the gift, I returned to the cabin and asked Mike.


"Eskimo thinks if man eat mice his parts get small like mice," he explained reluctantly. “But if man eat eggs everything comes out all right. Ootek scared for you."


I was in no position - lacking sufficient evidence - to know whether or not this was a mere superstition, but there is never any harm in taking precautions. Reasoning that the eggs (which weighed less than an ounce in toto) could not affect the validity of my mouse experiment, I broke them into a frying pan and made a minute omelette. The nesting season was well advanced by this time, and so were the eggs, but I ate them anyway and, since Ootek was watching keenly, I showed every evidence of relishing them.


Delight and relief were written large upon the broad and now smiling face of the Eskimo, who was probably convinced that he had saved me from a fate worse than death.




Though I never did manage to make Mike understand the importance and nature of my scientific work, I had no such difficulty with Ootek. Or rather, perhaps I should say that though he may not have understood it, he seemed from the first to share my conviction that it was important. Much later I discovered that Ootek was a minor shaman, or magic priest, in his own tribe; and he had assumed, from the tales told him by Mike and from what he saw with his own eyes, that I must be a shaman too: if of a somewhat unfamiliar variety. From his point of view this assumption provided an adequate explanation for most of my otherwise inexplicable activities, and it is just possible - though I hesitate to attribute any such selfish motives to Ootek - that by associating with me he hoped to enlarge his own knowledge of the esoteric practices of his vocation.


In any event, Ootek decided to attach himself to me; and the very next day he appeared at the wolf observation tent bringing with him his sleeping robe, and obviously prepared for a long visit. My fears that he would prove to be an encumbrance and a nuisance were soon dispelled. Ootek had been taught a few words of English by Mike, and his perceptivity was so excellent that we were soon able to establish rudimentary communications. He showed no surprise when he understood that I was devoting my time to studying wolves. In fact, he conveyed to me the

information that he too was keenly interested in wolves, partly because his personal totem, or helping spirit, was Amarok, the Wolf Being.


Ootek turned out to be a tremendous help. He had none of the misconceptions about wolves which, taken en masse, comprise the body of accepted writ in our society. In fact he was so close to the beasts that he considered them his actual relations. Later, when I had learned some of his language and he had improved in his knowledge of mine, he told me that as a child of about five years he had been taken to a wolf den by his father, a shaman of repute, and had been left there for twenty-four hours, during which time he made friends with and played on terms of equality with the wolf pups, and was sniffed at but otherwise unmolested by the adult wolves.


It would have been unscientific for me to have accepted all the things he told me about wolves without auxiliary proof, but I found that when such proof was obtainable he was invariably right.



Chapter 12



Ootek’s acceptance of me had an ameliorating effect upon Mike's attitude. Although Mike continued to harbour a deep-rooted suspicion that I was not quite right in the head and might yet prove dangerous unless closely watched, he loosened up as much as his taciturn nature would permit and tried to be co-operative. This was a great boon to me, for I was able to enlist his aid as an interpreter between Ootek and myself.


Ootek had a great deal to add to my knowledge of wolves' food habits. Having confirmed what I had already discovered about the role mice played in their diet, he told me that wolves also ate great numbers of ground squirrels and at times even seemed to prefer them to caribou.


These ground squirrels are abundant throughout most of the arctic, although Wolf House Bay lies just south of their range. They are close relatives of the common gopher of the western plains, but unlike the gopher they have a very poor sense of self-preservation. Consequently they fall easy prey to wolves and foxes. In summer, when they are well fed and fat, they may weigh as much as two pounds, so that a wolf can often kill enough of them to make a good meal with only a fraction of the energy expenditure involved in hunting caribou.


I had assumed that fishes could hardly enter largely into the wolves' diet, but Ootek assured me I was wrong. He told me he had several times watched wolves fishing for jackfish or Northern pike. At spawning time in the spring these big fish, which sometimes weigh as much as forty pounds, invade the intricate network of narrow channels in boggy marshes along the lake shores.


When a wolf decides to go after them he jumps into one of the larger channels and wades upstream, splashing mightily as he goes, and driving the pike ahead of him into progressively narrower and shallower channels. Eventually the fish realizes its danger and turns to make a dash for open water; but the wolf stands in its way and one quick chop of those great jaws is enough to break the back of even the largest pike. Ootek told me he once watched a wolf catch seven large pike in less than an hour.


Wolves also caught suckers when these sluggish fish were making their spawning runs up the tundra streams, he said; but the wolf’s technique in this case was to crouch on a rock in a shallow section of the stream and snatch up the suckers as they passed - a method rather similar to that employed by bears when they are catching salmon.


Another although minor source of food consisted of arctic sculpins: small fishes which lurk under rocks in shoal water. The wolves caught these by wading along the shore and turning over the rocks with paws or nose, snapping up the exposed sculpins before they could escape.


Later in the summer I was able to confirm Ootek’s account of the sculpin fishery when I watched Uncle Albert spend part of an afternoon engaged in it. Unfortunately, I never did see wolves catch pike; but, having heard how they did it from Ootek, I tried it myself with considerable success, imitating the reported actions of the wolves in all respects, except that I used a short spear, instead of my teeth, with which to administer the coup de grace.


These sidelights on the lupine character were fascinating, but it was when we came to a discussion of the role played by caribou in the life of the wolf that Ootek really opened my eyes.


The wolf and the caribou were so closely linked, he told me, that they were almost a single entity. He explained what he meant by telling me a story which sounded a little like something out of the Old Testament; but which, so Mike assured me, was a part of the semi-religious folklore of the inland Eskimos, who, alas for their immortal souls, were still happily heathen.


Here, paraphrased, is Ootek s tale.


"In the beginning there was a Woman and a Man, and nothing else walked or swam or flew in the world until one day the Woman dug a great hole in the ground and began fishing in it. One by one she pulled out all the animals, and the last one she pulled out of the hole was the caribou. Then Kaila, who is the God of the Sky, told the woman the caribou was the greatest gift of all, for the caribou would be the sustenance of man.


"The Woman set the caribou free and ordered it to go out over the land and multiply, and the caribou did as the Woman said; and in time the land was filled with caribou, so the sons of the Woman hunted well, and they were fed and clothed and had good skin tents to live in, all from the caribou.


"The sons of the Woman hunted only the big, fat caribou, for they had no wish to kill the weak and the small and the sick, since these were no good to eat, nor were their skins much good. And, after a time, it happened that the sick and the weak came to outnumber the fat and the strong, and when the sons saw this they were dismayed and they complained to the Woman.


"Then the Woman made magic and spoke to Kaila and said: 'Your work is no good, for the caribou grow weak and sick, and if we eat them we must grow weak and sick also.'


"Kaila heard, and he said 'My work is good. I shall tell Amorak [the spirit of the Wolf], and he shall tell his children, and they will eat the sick and the weak and the small caribou, so that the land will be left for the fat and the good ones.'


"And this is what happened, and this is why the caribou and the wolf are one; for the caribou feeds the wolf, but it is the wolf who keeps the caribou strong."




I was slightly stunned by this story, for I was not prepared to have an unlettered and untutored Eskimo give me a lecture, even in parable form, illustrating the theory of survival of the fittest through the agency of natural selection. In any event, I was sceptical about the happy relationship which Ootek postulated as existing between caribou and wolf. Although I had already been disabused of the truth of a good many scientifically established beliefs about wolves by my own recent experiences, I could hardly believe that the all-powerful and intelligent wolf would limit his predation on the caribou herds to culling the sick and the infirm when he could, presumably, take his choice of the fattest and most succulent individuals. Furthermore, I had what I thought was excellent ammunition with which to demolish Ootek's thesis.


“Ask him then," I told Mike, “how come there are so many skeletons of big and evidently healthy caribou scattered around the cabin and all over the tundra for miles to the north of here."


"Don't need to ask him that," Mike replied with unabashed candour. "It was me killed those deer. I got fourteen dogs to feed and it takes maybe two, three caribou a week for that. I got to feed myself too. And then, I got to kill lots of deer everywhere all over the trapping country. I set four, five traps around each deer like that and get plenty foxes when they come to feed. It is no use for me to shoot skinny caribou. What I got to have is the big fat ones.”


I was staggered. "How many do you think you kill in a year?" I asked.


Mike grinned proudly. “I’m pretty damn good shot. Kill maybe two, three hundred, maybe more.”


When I had partially recovered from that one, I asked him if this was the usual thing for trappers.


"Every trapper got to do the same,” he said. “Indians, white men, all the way down south far as caribou go in the wintertime, they got to kill lots of them or they can't trap no good. Of course they not all the time lucky to get enough caribou; then they got to feed the dogs on fish. But dogs can’t work good on fish - get weak and sick and can’t haul no loads. Caribou is better."


I knew from having studied the files at Ottawa that there were eighteen hundred trappers in those portions of Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and southern Keewatin which composed the winter range of the Keewatin caribou herd. I also knew that many of these trappers had been polled by Ottawa, through the agency of the fur trading companies, for information which might help explain the rapid decline in the size of the Keewatin caribou herd. I had read the results of this poll. To a man, the trappers and traders denied that they killed more than one or two caribou a year; and to a man they had insisted that wolves slaughtered the deer in untold thousands.


Although mathematics has never been my strong point, I tried to work out some totals from the information at hand. Being a naturally conservative fellow, I cut the number of trappers in half, and then cut Mike's annual caribou kill in half, before multiplying the two. No matter how many times I multiplied, I kept coming up with the fantastic figure of 112,ooo animals killed by trappers in this area every year.


I realized it was not a figure I could use in my reports - not unless I wished to be posted to the Galapagos Islands to conduct a ten-year study on tortoise ticks.


In any event, what Mike and Ootek had told me was largely hearsay evidence, and this was not what I was employed to gather. Resolutely I put these disturbing revelations out of mind, and went back to learning the truth the hard way.



Chapter 13



Ootek had many singular attributes as a naturalist, not the least of which was his apparent ability to understand wolf language.


Before I met Ootek I had already noted that the variety and range of the vocal noises made by George, Angeline and Uncle Albert far surpassed the ability of any other animals I knew about save man alone. In my notebooks I had recorded the following categories of sounds: Howls, wails, quavers, whines, grunts, growls, yips and barks. Within each of these categories I had recognized, but had been unable adequately to describe, innumerable variations. I was also aware that canines in general are able to hear, and presumably to make, noises both above and below the range of human registry; the so-called

"soundless" dog-whistle which is commercially available being a case in point. I knew too that individual wolves from my family group appeared to react in an intelligent manner to sounds made by other wolves; although I had no certain evidence that these sounds were anything more than simple signals.


My real education in lupine linguistics began a few days after Ootek's arrival. The two of us had been observing the wolf den for several hours without seeing anything of note. It was a dead-calm day, so that the flies had reached plague proportions, and Angeline and the pups had retired to the den to escape while both males, exhausted after a hunt which had lasted into mid-morning, were sleeping nearby. I was getting bored and sleepy myself when

Ootek suddenly cupped his hands to his ears and began to listen intently.


I could hear nothing, and I had no idea what had caught his attention until he said: "Listen, the wolves are talking !" and pointed toward a range of hills some five miles to the north of us. *


[*During the two-year period that I knew Ootek, his English improved considerably, and I learned quite a lot of Eskimo, so that we were able to converse freely. I have therefore converted our earlier conversations, which tended to be complicated, into a form more understandable to the reader.]


I listened, but if a wolf was broadcasting from those hills he was not on my wavelength. I heard nothing except the baleful buzzing of mosquitoes; but George, who had been sleeping on the crest of the esker, suddenly sat up, cocked his ears forward and pointed his long muzzle toward the north. After a minute or two he threw back his head and howled; a long, quavering howl which started low and ended on the highest note my ears would register.


Ootek grabbed my arm and broke into a delighted grin. "Caribou are coming; the wolf says so!"


I got the gist of this, but not much more than the gist, and it was not until we returned to the cabin and I again had Mike's services as an interpreter that I learned the full story.


According to Ootek, a wolf living in the next territory to the north had not only informed our wolves that the long-awaited caribou had started to move south, but had even indicated where they were at the moment. To make the story even more improbable, this wolf had not actually seen the caribou himself, but had simply been passing on a report received from a still more distant wolf. George, having heard and understood, had then passed on the good news in his turn.


I am incredulous by nature and by training, and I made no secret of my amusement at the naïveté of Ootek's attempt to impress me with this fantastic yarn. But if I was incredulous, Mike was not. Without more ado he began packing up for a hunting trip.


I was not surprised at his anxiety to kill a deer, for I had learned one truth by now, that he, as well as every other human being on the Barrens, was a meat eater who lived almost exclusively on caribou when they were available; but I was amazed that he should be willing to make a two- or three-day hike over the tundra on evidence as wild as that which Ootek offered. I said as much, but Mike went taciturn and left without another word.


Three days later, when I saw him again, he offered me a haunch of venison and a pot of caribou tongues. He also told me he had found the caribou exactly where Ootek, interpreting the wolf message, had said they would be - on the shores of a lake called Kooiak some forty miles northeast of the cabin.


I knew this had to be coincidence. But being curious as to how far Mike would go, to pull my leg, I feigned conversion and asked him to tell me more about Ootek's uncanny skill.


Mike obliged. He explained that the wolves not only possessed the ability to communicate over great distances but, so he insisted, could "talk" almost as well as we could. He admitted that he himself could neither hear all the sounds they made, not understand most of them, but he said some Eskimos, and Ootek in particular, could hear and understand so well that they could quite literally converse with wolves.


I mulled this information over for a while and concluded that anything this pair told me from then on would have to be recorded with a heavy sprinkling of question marks.


However, the niggling idea kept recurring that there just might be something in it all, so I asked Mike to tell Ootek to keep track of what our wolves said in future, and, through Mike, to keep me informed.




The next morning when we arrived at the den there was no sign of either of the male wolves. Angeline and the pups were up and about, but Angeline seemed ill at ease. She kept making short trips to the crest of the den ridge, where she stood in a listening attitude for a few minutes before returning to the pups. Time passed, and George and Uncle Albert were considerably overdue. Then, on her fifth trip to the ridge, Angeline appeared to hear something. So did Ootek. Once more he went through his theatrical performance of cupping both ears. After listening a moment he proceeded to try to give me an explanation of what was going on. Alas, we were not yet sufficiently en rapport, and this time I did not even get the gist of what he was saying.


I went back to my observing routine, while Ootek crawled into the tent for a sleep. I noted in my log that George and Uncle Albert arrived back at the den together, obviously exhausted, at 12:17 P.M. About 2:00 P.M. Ootek woke up and made amends for his dereliction of duty by brewing me a pot of tea.


The next time we encountered Mike I recalled him to his promise and he began to interrogate Ootek.


"Yesterday," he told me, "Ootek says that wolf you call George, he send a message to his wife. Ootek hear it good. He tell his wife the hunting is pretty bad and he going to stay out longer. Maybe not get home until the middle of the day."


I remembered that Ootek could not have known at what time the male wolves returned home, for he was then fast asleep inside the tent. And 12:27 is close enough to the middle of the day for any practical purpose.


Nevertheless, for two more days my scepticism ruled - until the afternoon when once again George appeared on the crest and cocked his ears toward the north. Whatever he heard, if he heard anything, did not seem to interest him much this time, for he did not howl, but went off to the den to sniff noses with Angeline.


Ootek, on the other hand, was definitely interested. Excitement filled his face. He fairly gabbled at me, but I caught only a few words. Innuit (Eskimos) and kiyai (come) were repeated several times, as he tried passionately to make me understand. When I still looked dense he gave me an exasperated glance and, without so much as a by-your-leave, headed off across the tundra in a direction which would have taken him to the northwest of Mike’s cabin.


I was a little annoyed by his cavalier departure, but I soon forgot about it, for it was now late afternoon and all the wolves were becoming restless as the time approached for the males to set off on the evening hunt.


There was a definite ritual about these preparations. George usually began them by making a visit to the den. If Angeline and the pups were inside, his visit brought them out. If they were already outside, Angeline’s behaviour changed from that of domestic boredom to one of excitement. She would begin to romp; leaping in front of George, charging him with her shoulder, and embracing him with her forelegs. George seemed at his most amiable during these playful moments, and would sometimes respond by engaging in a mock battle with his mate. From where I sat these battles looked rather ferocious, but the steadily wagging tails of both wolves showed it was all well meant.


No doubt alerted by the sounds of play, Uncle Albert would appear on the scene and join the group. He often chose to sleep away the daylight hours some distance from the den site, perhaps in order to reduce the possibility of being dragooned into the role of babysitter at too frequent intervals.


With his arrival, all three adult wolves would stand in a circle, sniff noses, wag their tails hard, and make noises. "Make noises" is not very descriptive, but it is the best I can do. I was too far off to hear more than the louder sounds, and these appeared to be more like grunts than anything else. Their meaning was obscure to me, but they were certainly connected with a general feeling of good will, anticipation and high spirits.


After anywhere from twenty minutes to an hour of conviviality (in which the pups took part, getting under everyone's feet and nipping promiscuously at any adult tail they might encounter) the three adults would adjourn to the crest of the den, usually led by Angeline. Once more they would form a circle and then, lifting their heads high, would "sing" for a few minutes.


This was one of the high points of their day, and it was certainly the high point of mine. The first few times the three wolves sang, the old ingrained fear set my back hairs tingling, and I cannot claim to having really enjoyed the chorus. However, with the passage of sufficient time I not only came to enjoy it, but to anticipate it with acute pleasure. And yet I find it almost impossible to describe, for the only terms at my disposal are those relating to human music and these are inadequate if not actually misleading. The best I can do is to say that this full-throated and great-hearted chorus moved me as I have very occasionally been moved by the bowel- shaking throb and thunder of a superb organ played by a man who had transcended his mere manhood.


The impassionata never lasted long enough for me. In three or four minutes it would come to an end and the circle would break up; once more with much tail wagging, nose sniffing and general evidence of good will and high content. Then, reluctantly, Angeline would move toward the den, often looking back to watch as George and Albert trotted off along one of the hunting trails. She made it clear that she wished desperately to join them; but in the end she would rejoin the pups instead, and once more submit to their ebullient demands, either for dinner or for play.


On this particular night the male wolves made a break from their usual routine. Instead of taking one of the trails leading north, or northwest, they headed off toward the east, in the opposite direction from Mike's cabin and me.


I thought no more about this variation until sometime later when a human shout made me turn around.

Ootek had returned - but he was not alone. With him were three bashful friends, all grinning, and all shy at this first meeting with the strange kablunak who was interested in wolves.


The arrival of such a mob made further observations that night likely to be unproductive, so I joined the four Eskimos in the trek to the cabin. Mike was home, and greeted the new visitors as old friends. Eventually I found a chance to ask him a few questions.


Yes, he told me, Ootek had indeed known that these men were on their way, and would soon arrive.


How did he know?



A foolish question. He knew because he had heard the wolf on the Five Mile Hills reporting the passage of the Eskimos through his territory. He had tried to tell me about it; but then, when I failed to understand, he had felt obliged to leave me in order to intercept and greet his friends.


And that was that.



Edited by ThisLife
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For those who love reading there’s a joy that sometimes arrives 'out-of-the-blue, when you unexpectedly come across a previously unknown gem on the book shelves of a Charity Shop. After a recent experience of that two weeks ago I suddenly realised that I hadn't felt that particular glow for quite a long time now, whereas a few years ago the ‘thrill of the hunt’ used to happen quite frequently. On wondering why, I decided that it was probably down to one of those unforeseen losses which arose out of our modern-day ease in finding virtually any book we want on the internet, via Amazon.


Anyway, we can’t turn back the clock, and shelf-loads of that experience still lie free and waiting for any ‘Oxfam explorer’ on a rainy Saturday afternoon.


This time, as good luck would have it, the unexpected gem, (both book AND author), was a fascinating autobiography called “Here Comes Trouble : Stories From My Life”, by Michael Moore.


Of course I had heard of him previously. His extraordinary courage in single-handedly taking on some of the most powerful ‘demons’ in today’s American society are almost legendary. Moore’s written and cinematic works criticize globalization, large corporations, assault weapon ownership, U.S. presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, the Iraq War, the American health care system, and capitalism.


The extract below is taken from the story of his life. I found it fascinating to read how all the interweaving events of his childhood could so closely parallel my own in time and venue,… yet produce a modern-day hero in his case, versus a mere ‘book worm’ in my own. But man – can this guy tell a story !! Without further ado, I’ll let the man entertain you himself :






Michael Moore wrote :


Chapter 8 : The Exorcism



"Kick out the jams, motherfuckers !" I shouted up the stairwell. O'Malley, my bully of a roommate, slapped me hard across the face.


"Shut the fuck up! Father Waczeski is right there !"


I turned quickly around to see if the priest had heard me, but there was no priest anywhere to be found. O'Malley, who was a year older than me, just wanted to slap me. He laughed his usual sinister laugh, and hit me again.


"Stop it," I said. "I was just singing that new MC5 song."


"Then sing the clean version, the one they play on the radio - 'Kick out the jams, brothers and sisters."'


What the fuck did he care about a "clean" version? O'Malley was the opposite of anything clean. He was more a version of every mother's nightmare. What was a thug like him doing at the seminary ?


When I was fourteen I decided it was time to leave home. Mostly bored with school since the first grade, but politely biding my time to keep everybody happy, I realized I could do more good for myself and the world (wherever that was) if I became a Catholic priest. I'm not sure of the day when I got "the calling," but I can guarantee you there was no vision or voice from above, no burning bush or Virgin sighting. Most likely I was just watching the news, probably saw one or both of the Berrigan brothers, the radical Catholic priests, breaking into a draft office and destroying the records of young men who were to be sent to Vietnam, and I said to myself, "Now, that's what I wanna do when I grow up !" I liked the idea of the Action Hero Priest, and I thought I could do that. I liked seeing priests marching with Rev. King and getting arrested. I liked priests helping Cesar Chavez organize the farmworkers. I wasn't completely sure what it all meant; it just seemed like a decent thing to do. It was pretty basic: you had a responsibility to help those worse off than you. I was never going to play for the Pistons or the Red Wings, so the priesthood seemed like a good second choice.


But first I had to convince my parents to let me leave home. They did not like this idea. These were the people who wouldn't let me skip first grade, and they were definitely less inclined to let me skip town. But I told them I had "a calling," and if you were a devout Catholic in those days and your kid told you he had "a calling," you had better not risk getting in between the Holy Spirit and your only begotten son. They consented, reluctantly.


The seminary training would take twelve years before I could be ordained a priest. Four years of high school, four years of college, and four years of theological training. The high school part was optional, but for those who had the calling, there were two seminaries in Michigan for high school students: Sacred Heart in Detroit and St. Paul's in Saginaw. It was less than a year after the Detroit riots, so Sacred Heart was out of the question for my parents. St. Paul's it was.




On the first night after my mother and father dropped me off at the seminary in September 1968, I instantly began to question the wisdom of my decision. My doubts were not driven by the strict rules I had to follow: Up at 5:00 a.m. for prayers, long periods of enforced silence, barred from your room from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., difficult studies (nine weeks spent dissecting just one Shakespeare play), hard labour and chores, and severe punishment for violating any of the rules. Freshmen were prohibited from watching any television or listening to the radio for an entire year. You were strictly confined to the campus - with the exception of 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. on Saturdays, during which time you could walk two miles to the strip mall, grab a Whopper, and rush back.


But I was OK with all of that. My trouble was not with the system (at least not at first). It was with the two roommates I had been assigned to share a room with. Mickey Bader and Dickie O'Malley. Mickey and Dickie. "The Ickies," as I called them (but only to myself). The problem with them being there at the seminary was that neither of them wanted to be a priest. No way. They were into girls, and partying, and smoking and sneaking off campus whenever they could. And pushing me around. They were what the adults referred to as ‘juvenile delinquents.’ They were rich kids, the sons of important men in their communities, and it seemed as if at least Dickie had already had a number of run-ins with the law. Their parents decided that perhaps the seminary could straighten them out, and how they got through the intense interview process I had to go through to get into this place was beyond me. I came to the realization that their fathers had probably bought their way in, and the priests were obviously in need of any ‘charity,’ wherever they could find it.



Discovering that this was both a seminary and a reform school did not sit well with me, and it was clear to me that I was going to have to endure the constant harassment of Mickey and Dickie if I wanted to be a priest. When they found out I really believed in all this ‘religion crap’, they were relentless in mocking me as I said my prayers, did my chores, practiced my Latin. They smeared applesauce over my sheets, placed Playboy centrefolds in the toilet bowl, and entertained themselves by seeing if a pair of scissors could alter the length of my pants. Although I was bigger than them, I did not want to resort to violence in order to have some peace and quiet, so I kept my distance from them.


There were two rules I decided early on that I just couldn't follow at the seminary, and I knew God would forgive me. In October 1968, the Detroit Tigers were headed to the world Series, and as part of our penance for being freshmen, we were not allowed to watch or listen to the games. I was convinced that this edict did nor come from the Almighty, and so I snuck a transistor radio into my room and hid it inside my pillowcase. At night I would lie in bed and listen to the games, muffled as they were, through the pillow’s duck feathers. The day games I missed.


The other rule was that you could not have any food in your room. As they were more interested in feeding our souls than our bodies, I decided to take care of the latter. That year, science had invented the Frosted Pop-Tart (“Proof of God's existence,” I would say). I smuggled in boxes of these heavenly items and I would toast them by placing a sheet of paper on top of my lamp and sitting the Pop-Tart on it. I was eventually discovered by a priest who caught a whiff of burnt strawberry out in the hallway. I was given extra kitchen duties for a week and lost my Saturday afternoon escape privileges for a month.


The other thing I enjoyed doing was hanging out with the senior boys. They had a knack for coming up with ingenious pranks that they loved to play on the holy hierarchy. My contribution to this club was to concoct a powder that replaced the chapel's incense. It was called a "stink bomb," and when the altar boy put a scoop of this "incense" onto the hot coal in the censer, it let off the most god-awful stench, a combination of rotten egg odour and a locker room fungus. It cleared the church within minutes.


The other prank, for which I became legendary (but only as "Anonymous," as I was never discovered), involved an "entry" of mine in the school's annual science fair. Of course, I had no interest in science (unless science could make a chocolate fudge Pop-Tart, which it eventually did), but I did have an interest in pulling off the best stunt ever.


About an hour before the doors to the seminary's science fair were to be opened to the public, I quietly entered the exhibit hall and placed my "science project" on one of the tables. It was a simple, plain test tube that contained a clear liquid (in reality, cooking oil). I set it on its stand and placed a placard in front of it. It read:





It was five minutes before the opening, and I hid nearby so I could watch people's expressions when they saw the test tube of danger. At that moment, the science teacher, a short nun with thick glasses and in her seventies, came in to make a final pass through the fair to make sure everything was in place and all set to go. She came upon my addition to the fair and was surprised to see something on the table that she hadn't placed there. She took her glasses off and cleaned them, not exactly sure what this was she was looking at. As she bent over to read the card, she let out a scream and quickly waddled over to the fire alarm box, broke the glass, and pulled the lever.


I was mortified. [* Yes, in the more violent future that lay ahead of us, this sort of thing would have resulted in my expulsion and jail time. But in 1969, it was just funny.] This had gone too far. I got out of there as fast as I could, and as the fire trucks arrived I watched the firemen go inside and retrieve the tube which they could tell was not nitroglycerine. The nuns and the priests apologized - and issued a fatwa on whoever was responsible for this. They never caught the culprit.



There are two types of fear: normal fears that are primal (fear of pain, fear of death), and then there is the fear of Father Ogg.


Ogg taught Latin and German at the seminary. The Church had also christened him with special powers, and he was the only one at the seminary to hold these powers. One night, he gathered together a few of us boys and asked us if we would like to see how these powers could be used. We were already scared of Father Ogg, but no one was going to admit that, and so we all agreed to let him show us. He took us down into the "catacombs" of the seminary (a series of tunnels under the building) to perform a ceremony only he was allowed to perform. It was called the Rite of Exorcism.


Father Ogg was an exorcist.


It would be another three years before Hollywood would make Linda Blair's head spin in the William Friedkin film, so all we knew of exorcism was that it was a series of prayers and rituals performed over the body of someone whom Satan had possessed. The devil would be cast out and the victim would be saved. We were told by Father Ogg that he had a "one thousand percent batting average" when confronting Lucifer.


"I always win," he said.


He told us that he would show us the ceremony but it would only be "pretend," as none of us had shown any signs of being consumed by evil.


Yes, but wouldn't this be better, I thought, if there were someone here at St. Paul's who actually was evil ? Of course it would! And of course there was.


"Father," I said with fake sincerity, "before you start, I think Dickie O'Malley is going to be really upset that we left him out of this. He keeps saying he doesn't believe you're an exorcist and that he'd like to see you try it out on him: Can I go get him ?"


"Sure," Ogg said, somewhat miffed that anyone would question his devil-disappearing powers. "But make it quick."


I ran back upstairs and found Dickie where I thought he would be - outside the gym door having a smoke.


"Dickie !"


"Yeah, fuckface, whaddaya want?"


"Father Ogg says he wants you right now!"


"Yeah, well, tell him you couldn't find me."


"He said he saw you come out here to smoke, and that if you came now he wouldn't turn you in."


Dickie considered the offer of leniency carefully, took his last couple of drags, gave me a tap across the face, and followed me inside and down into the catacombs.


"Welcome, Dickie," Father Ogg said with a sly grin. "Thank you for volunteering."


Dickie looked at him with smug-filled puzzlement, but sensing that he was not going to be in trouble if he went along, he stepped forward, unaware of what was to happen next. I could only hope that in about twenty minutes from now there was going to be a new Dickie.


Father Ogg had brought an ominous black duffel bag with a red coat of arms on it and words embossed in Latin that I didn't understand. He reached down in it and pulled out a shaker filled with holy water, some holy oil, about a half-dozen dried-out olive branches and, um, a leather rope.


"Now, normally, Dickie, I would tie you down so you wouldn't be able to hurt me," Father Ogg said to the snickers of those present.


"I ain't gonna hurt you, Father !" Dickie protested. “And you ain't gonna tie me up. I was only smoking."


"Yes, sometimes smoke comes out of the possessed," Ogg said. "A few have caught on fire. But I don't think you have to worry about that tonight."


The exorcist then launched into a bunch of mumbo-jumbo, words and language I had never heard. To see this jabber coming out of his mouth a mile a minute gave me goosebumps. This was the real deal ! It scared Dickie, too, and he stood there dumbfounded at what he was witnessing.


"Exorcizo te, omnis spiritus immunde, in nomine Dei Patris onmipotentis, et in nomine Jesu Christi Fitili ejus, Domini et Judicis nostri, et in virtute Spiritus Sancti, ut descedas ab hoc plasmate Dei Dickie O’Malley, quod Dominus noster ad templum, sanctum suum vocare dignatus est !” FatherOgg continued, spraying holy water all over Dickie. Dickie did not like that.


"C'mon, Father ! What is this ?!”


"Be still. I am casting Satan out of you!”


I thought, with that, Dickie would bolt. Priest or no priest, he was not going to stand there in front of a bunch of other students and be humiliated. Or have it implied he was in cahoots with the devil.


Instead, Dickie didn't move. He was intrigued with the possibility that his accomplice was the mother of all hoodlums, Beelzebub himself A sinister smile came across his face.


Father Ogg took the cap off the holy oil and smeared it on Dickie's forehead, cheeks, chin. He then took Dickie’s head and placed it between his two hands and pressed it like he was in a vice.


"Oowww!" Dickie screamed. “That hurts.”


It was nice to see Dickie hurt.


"Silence !" shouted Ogg in a voice that I swear wasn’t human.


"Ephpheta, quod est, Adaperire. In odorem suavitatis. Tu autem effugare, diabole; appropinquabit enim judicium Dei !” he continued in some ancient tongue, or perhaps no tongue at all. I'm not even supposed to be sharing this with you, and to commit these words to paper makes me want to go and check the lock on my door (I’ll be right back).



It was time for the olive branches. We were each given one and told to hold them out over Dickie - but not to touch him. Ogg then took his branch and started to wail on poor Dickie, careful not to whip him anywhere that might hurt.


"Christo Sancti !" Ogg yelled, causing Dickie to turn to me - the one who brought him into this - and scream, "Fuckin' moron ! I'm gonna kill you!"


"Don't make me have to tie you down !" Ogg shouted. “Abrenuntias Satanae ? Et omnibus operibus ejus ?"


And at this moment, Dickie started to cry. Father Ogg, a bit surprised, stopped.


"Hey, hey, it's OK," the exorcist said in a comforting tone. "This isn't real. It was just a demonstration. You don't have the devil in you."


At least not now, I thought. I prayed that this exorcism, albeit a "practice" one, would have a real effect on this miserable bully.


But, alas, such was not the case. The next day I found my transistor radio in the toilet and my underwear all gone. One of the nuns would find them later that night in her own drawer, with the words, in magic marker, on each waistband: PROPERTY OF MICHAEL MOORE. I did not want to take the punishment for finking on Dickie, so I took the extra week of garbage duty instead and said nothing. Frankly, it was worth it just to have the extra time to myself so I could replay in my head Dickie being whacked with an olive branch, olive oil dripping from his face, and the Devil departing his miserable body.


Not all the time at the seminary was spent on my knees or observing strange rituals or playing pranks. I actually had one of the best and most challenging years of education I would ever have. The priests and nuns loved to teach literature and history and foreign languages. The class I had the toughest time with was Religion. I had a lot of questions.


"Why don't we let women be priests ?" I asked one day, one of the many times that everyone in the class would turn around and stare at me as if I were some freak.


"You don't see any women among the apostles, do you ?" Father Jenkins would respond.


"Well, it looks like there were always women around - Mary Magdalene, Mary, Jesus's mother, and his cousin what's-her-name."


"It's just not allowed !" was the end-of-discussion answer he would give to most of my questions-which included:


* Jesus never said he was here to start the 'Catholic Church’, but rather that his job was to bring Judaism into a new era. So where did we get the idea of the Catholic Church?"


* "The only time Jesus loses his temper is when he sees all these guys loaning money in the Temple and he smashes up their operation. What lesson are we to draw from this ?"


* "Do you think Jesus would send soldiers to Vietnam if he were here right now?"


* "In the Bible, there's no mention of Jesus from age twelve to age thirty. Where do you think he went ? I have some theories..."


On the first day of English Lit class, Father Ferrer announced that we would spend nine weeks dissecting Romeo and Juliet, word by word, line by line-and he promised us that by the end of it, we would understand the structure and language of Shakespeare so well that for the rest of our lives we would be able to enjoy the genius of all his works (a promise that turned out to be true).


I have to say that, in retrospect, the choice of a heterosexual love story with characters who were our age and who were having sex was a bold move by this good priest. Or it was sadism. Because if we were to become priests, there would be no Juliet (or Romeo) allowed in our lives.


I devoured every line of Romeo and Juliet, and it spun my head and hormones into a wondrous web of excitement. Unfortunately, I had not read the rulebook before signing up for the seminary, and here's what it said:





Now, had I read that in eighth grade, I'm not sure I would have understood all the ramifications of agreeing to this prohibition. By the time it was explained to me in ninth grade at the seminary, something seemed oddly wrong with this rule.

Call me crazy, but I kept hearing voices in my head:


Mmmmmm . . . girls . . . gooooood . . . penis . . . haaaaappy.


The voices intensified on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. That was when they bused the few of us seminarians who played a musical instrument into the Catholic high school in nearby Bay City to play with their school band. There were not enough of us to make up our own orchestra at the seminary, and the priests, who enjoyed culture and the arts and would often sit around and have conversations with each other in Italian, did not want those of us who were musically inclined to miss our "other callings."


I was placed in the clarinet section next to a girl named Lynn. Did I mention she was a girl? At the seminary I spent 1,676 hours of every week around only boys. But for these two glorious hours, I was in the vicinity of the other gender. Lynn's long, deft fingers that she used on her clarinet were a beauty to behold (as were her breasts and legs and smile - but I only wrote smile just in case one of the priests is still alive and reads this story because, truth be told, while her smile was pleasant, I have no recollection of it as it was obscured by her breasts and legs and anything else that didn't resemble a seminarian). Being in a co-ed Catholic high school band literally drove me insane.


I tried my best to think about The Rule and to offer up this desire as penance for even wondering what might exist under her Catholic schoolgirl uniform. But there is just so much penance a now fifteen-year-old can do, and one day I asked one of the other seminarians on the band bus "Who the hell made up this rule ?!" He said he didn't know and that "it was probably God." Right.


One weekend, I reread all four gospels and nowhere – nowhere ! - did it say that the apostles couldn't have sex, or get married, or be happy with their penises. As my after-school job was working as an assistant in the library, I did my own research. And here's what I found: The priests of the Catholic Church for the first one thousand years were married ! They had sex ! Peter, chosen by Jesus to be the first Pope, was married, as were most of the apostles. As were thirty-nine Popes !


But then some Pope in the eleventh century got it in his head that sex sucked and wives sucked worse, and so he banned priests from marrying or having sex. It makes you wonder how all the other great twisted ideas throughout history got their start (like who came up with the card game Bridge?). They might as well have made it a sin to scratch when you have an itch.


I began spending a lot of time on the job in the library going into the basement level where all the old magazines were stored. The cultured priests subscribed to Paris Match, and let's just say that in France in 1969, women were inclined to "stay cool" in the summertime. All my first loves could be found right there, in the periodical archives of St. Paul's Seminary.


As we drew near to the end of our study of Romeo and Juliet, Father Ferrer announced that there was a new movie in the theatres based on the play and that we would be taking a field trip to see it. This version was by the Italian director Franco Zefferelli, and little did the priest know (or did he?) that his group of fifteen-year-old boys would be exposed for the first time to fifteen-year-old breasts, namely those on the body of the actress playing Juliet, Olivia Hussey.


That night, after seeing Romeo and Juliet, the freshmen moaning up and down the hallway sounded like a cross between a lost coyote and a choir trying to tune itself. I will only say that I became on that night a grateful fan of Miss Hussey's - and a former seminarian to the Catholic priesthood. Thank you, Shakespeare. Thank you, Father Ferrer.


To Dickie's and Mickey's credit, they had no interest in using Shakespeare to inspire their male hormones as they were already "in country." They had little interest in wasting their seed on a cheap seminary bedsheet. Not when there were so many available girls in the greater Tri-City area.


I'm not sure when they began sneaking out at night, or when they found time to sneak the girls in, but these two Montagues obviously were in much demand. On the upside, this did give me the room to myself on a number of occasions. On the downside, once the priests were on to them, they thought I, too, was in on the sex ring. How little they knew me ! I was far too busy trying to keep my focus on Vespers and Vietnam rather than Lynn the clarinet player, who was doing just fine in an imaginary state with me, the two of us, frolicking, on the Cote d'Azur.


On this particular night, I decided to take the suggestion of fellow seminarian Fred Orr and try some Noxzema Original Deep Cleansing Cream to help get rid of a few teenage zits. I rubbed the white cream all over my face and went to sleep facing the wall, not wanting Mickey and Dickie to ever catch me with this girl-stuff on my face.


"WAKE UP ! I SAID, WAKE UP !!" Father Jenkins shouted, forcing me to tell Lynn in my dream that I'd be right back. I awakened from this pleasant sleep and saw two priests, Father Jenkins and Father Shank, shining police-size flashlights directly into my eyes.




Obviously it was a raid, a surprise assault on the two active and public penises on my floor.


I looked over at their beds and saw that they were made up to look like someone was sleeping in them. Clearly, neither of the Ickies was home.


“Uh, I dunno," I replied, trying to sound awake.



"When did they leave?" Father Shank asked.


"How long have they been gone ?" Father Jenkins added.


"I dunno," I repeated.


“Are you sure ?" Jenkins asked pointedly. "There's no good that can come from you covering for them."


"The last thing I would do would be to cover for those two punks," I said, surprised at my un-Christian-like language.


"You've never left here with them?" Jenkins continued with his interrogation.


"No. I don't do what they do. I'm guessing they don't go to Burger King."


"How many times would you say they've done this?"


"Father, I don't mean to be disrespectful, but if you're only busting in here tonight for the first time, you clearly have no idea what's been going on."


"I don't like your tone," Jenkins replied.


"I'm sorry. It's my middle-of-the-night tone."


"What in God's name is that stuff on your face ?"


Oh. Damn. “Just something the nurse told me to try."


"Where do you think they are ?" Father Jenkins asked.


"You can follow their scent to the nearest place where girls are known to exist."


Giving the priests this much lip was not wise, but I didn't care. I, too, had discovered girls, and there was now a part of me that admired Mickey and Dickie for acting on their very normal feelings. Though I did feel sorry for whatever girls they were with.


By this time they had turned their flashlights off- and that one act would end up doing the Ickies in. Not able to see from the outside hallway that I had visitors, the boys quietly opened the door to our room - and were instantly startled, not just by the sight of the priests, but by the mass of white goo covering my entire face. They tried to run, but the priests quickly grabbed them and dragged them down the hall and out of my life forever.


The next morning the parents of my two roommates came to my room and cleaned out their sons' belongings. When I returned that evening I had the privilege that only a senior had - my own room ! There was only a month left in the school year, but it was sublime. I held parties. I began to grow my hair longer for the first time. I acquired a peace sign and put it on my door. I had made the decision that the seminary wasn't for me, although I had learned much that would remain with me for a long while.


Three days before the semester ended, I made an appointment with my class dean, Father Duewicke, so I could go in and tell him of my decision to not pursue the priesthood.


I walked in and sat down in a chair in front of his desk.


"Soooo," Father Duewicke said in a strange, sarcastic tone. "Michael Moore. I have some unpleasant news for you. We have decided to ask you not to return for your sophomore year."


Excuse me ? Did he just say what I thought he said ? Did he just say they were ... kicking me out ?!


"Wait a minute," I said, agitated and upset. "I came in here to tell you that I was quitting !"


"Well, good," he said with a smarmy tone. "Then we're in agreement."


"You can't kick me out of here ! I quit ! That's why I wanted to talk to you."


"Well, either way, you won't be gracing us with your presence in the fall."


"I don't understand," I said, still hurting from the rug being pulled out from under me. "Why would you ask me not to come back? I've gotten straight A's, I do all my work, I haven’t been in any serious trouble, and I’ve been forced to endure living in the juvie room with those two delinquents for most of this year. What grounds do you have to expel me ?"


"Oh, that's simple," Father Duewicke said. "We don't want you here because you upset the other boys by asking too many questions."


"Too many questions about what ? What does that mean ? How can you say such a thing ?"


"That's three questions right there in less than five seconds, thus proving my point," he said, while giving a mock look at his nonexistent watch. "You do not accept the rules or the teachings of our institution on the basis of faith. You always have a question. Why's that ? What's that for ? Who Said ? After a while, Mr. Moore, it gets tiring. You either have to accept things, or not. There's no in-between."


"So, you're saying - and, sorry, I'm asking another question, but I don't know any other way to phrase this - that I'm somehow a nuisance just because I want to know something?"


"Michael, listen-this is never going to work for you, being a priest..."


"I don't want to be a priest."


"Well, if you did want to be a priest, you would cause a lot of trouble for both yourself and for whatever church you'd be assigned to. We have ways of doing things that go back two thousand years. And we don't have to answer to anybody

about anything, certainly not to you."


I sat and glared at him. I felt indignant and deeply hurt. This must be what it feels like to be excommunicated, I thought. Abandoned by the very people who are here on earth representing Jesus Christ and telling me that Jesus would want nothing to do with me. Because I asked some stupid questions ? Like the one that was passing through my head, supplanting the fleeting thought of choking the smug out of Father Duewicke.


"You mean like why does this institution hate women and not let them be priests ?"


"Yeeeesss !" Father Duewicke said with a knife of a smile. "Like that one! Good day, Mr. Moore. I wish you well with whatever you do with your life, and I pray for those who have to endure you."


He got up, and I got up, and I turned around and walked the long walk back to my room. I shut the door, lay down, and thought about my life - and when that became pointless I reached under the bed and consoled myself for the next hour with the latest issue of Paris Match.



Edited by ThisLife

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The story below has been extracted from the first three chapters of an absolute ‘gem’ of a book. It was first published in 1957 and has so continuously charmed readers that this simple, straight-forward telling of a magical life experience, has rarely been out of print ever since. Rather than go on about it too much, this time I’ll simply try to encourage you to immerse yourself in this author’s world by providing the Introduction taken from the original dust jacket, plus, a well-written Review from Amazon’s description of their latest re-print. With Christmas rapidly approaching, there’s many a reader who would appreciate receiving a rare, little-known ‘jewel’ like this once all the excesses of our biggest annual Bacchanalian romp finally begin to die down.




Introduction :


“Take my camel, dear, said my Aunt.'' These, the opening words of Miss Macaulay's "The Towers of Trebizond," are already in a fair way to becoming a classic, and this fictional aunt a classic aunt. But Miss Farre's Aunt Miriam was a real aunt. She had saved enough money as a country school teacher in England to bring her in an income of £75 a year, bought a croft in Sutherland, and went there to live with her niece Rowena, then aged ten. True to the timelessness of the Highlands, Miss Farre does not tell us how long ago this was: not very long, one deduces. It will come as a shock to many to discover how remote and how simply it is still possible to live on this island. Once a fortnight in summer they drove in a pony-trap to an unnamed town to buy supplies; their only neighbours, (and they distant), were a shepherd and a crofter and his wife. Yet far from being alone they had their two pet squirrels, their two pet otters, their pet rat, other occasional or ephemeral birds and beasts, and above all Lora the Common Seal. Yet Lora was Common only in the nomenclature of the naturalist.


This is a book of real and rare enchantment, simply written about simple and primitive things – a withdrawal from civilisation into nature, but without any touch of affectation.




Amazon Review :


If you have enjoyed Gavin Maxwell's "Ring of Bright Water" you will enjoy this book!

I first read “Seal Morning” as a child and have read it since as an adult. It is one of the most perfect "small" Scottish books; the setting is the living wilderness landscape of the north-west of Scotland, evoked by prose that is sparse and highly effective. Rowena and her aunt leave the Home Counties to live in Sutherland in a remote croft with their assorted pets and, of course, Lora the seal who could (after a fashion) play the xylophone, the mouth organ and even sing. The book tells of their lives (human, furred and feathered), joys and inevitable hardships while living there.





SEAL MORNING by Rowena Farre








The county of Sutherland is composed for the greater of moor, bog, and water. Trees are a rarity; birch and pine scatter the moors singly or in small groups. Outcrops of rock, often weathered to strange shapes, are strewn over the landscape. When a storm is approaching, or in the half-light, the effect of this boulder-strewn landscape is eerie and to some people even frightening.


After twenty years as a teacher in one of the Home Counties my Aunt Miriam, with whom I lived, decided to give up her career and return to her native Scotland. Her original plan had been to buy a small house near Inverness, where she had lived as a girl, but on hearing of a croft for sale at a moderate price in a particularly remote and barren part of Sutherland her pioneering spirit got the better of her, and, against the advice of friends and relations, she bought the place.


The croft possessed no conveniences ancient or modern. Lighting was by paraffin lamps. Water had to be carried in buckets from a stream. There was, of course, no telephone. To get medical aid entailed a journey on foot or by trap to the nearest clachan, or village, some nine miles away, to put through a call to a township, for no doctor or nurse lived in the clachan. A path, little better than a sheep-track, wound from our door over the moors. It gradually merged into an unsurfaced road and for the last four miles, before entering the clachan, there was actually a coating of tarmac on it. During winter, stretches of this road would be covered in deep snowdrifts making travel along it impossible for weeks at a time. In late autumn we would get in a good supply of stores to tide us over the bad patches when we were snowbound.


Behind us we left a countryside of trim fields and tall elms under which drowsed placid cattle, and we installed ourselves in an area where to ignore the white heads of cottongrass which sway over the bogs, or to fail to take one's bearings in an oncoming mist, could mean death.


The move to our new abode took three weeks to accomplish. Every stick of furniture and piece of baggage, including an upright piano, had to be transported over the last six miles in a farm wagon. Besides the baggage and furniture, we also brought with us two grey squirrels and a weakly specimen of rattus norvegicus, i.e. a common brown rat. This latter had been presented to Aunt Miriam just before we left our snug, orchard-bound cottage by one of her former pupils.


"I do hope you won't take his gift the wrong way, Miss Farre. He knows you are very fond of animals," the anxious father of the donator had thought well to explain. Aunt accepted Rodney in the spirit in which he was given, and passed him on to me.


Of all the animals I have reared I can think of none which has given me more trouble than this ratling. His mouth being too tiny for the insertion of an old-fashioned pen-dipper, I was compelled to administer milk at all hours of the day and night by means of a piece of screwed up cottonwool, making sure that in his efforts to suck out the milk he did not swallow any of the wool. By the time we had settled into the croft his health, somewhat to my pride, was less precarious, and the natural energy and inquisitiveness possessed to a greater or lesser degree by all healthy animals were beginning to animate his behaviour. He soon became adept at climbing the parlour curtains and showed much interest in going over the contents of the sewing basket. Indeed, Rodney came near to being a full day's work.


An ardent lover in any sphere of life cannot go long undetected, and within a week of arriving at the croft we received a visit from our nearest neighbour - a shepherd who lived four miles away. He carried in his arms a pair of otter cubs as a present for Aunt. The news had already reached him that she was 'fond of animals'.


As well as the feeding of ourselves, which we found quite a problem at first in these remote parts, we also had to satisfy the voracious appetites of the animals. It was almost frightening to watch the otter cubs race through their meal of homemade brown bread and milk laced with oil, and, having licked clean the plate, look round for more. Rodney too, having started life with a negligible appetite, began to develop an alarming one for so small a creature. His main dish consisted of the same fare as the otters without the addition of oil, but fruit, vegetables, cakes, chocolates and biscuits went down equally well. To stave off the pangs of hunger between meals he took to climbing into the wastepaper basket and chewing up old envelopes. Fortunately for us, as they grew older all our animals became largely self-supporting where food was concerned the otters catching fish in the numerous streams and the nearby lochan (small loch).


Our days began to run to a pattern of rising tending the animals, breakfast, my lessons - I was ten when I went to live in the croft - carrying in the day's supply of water, cooking, walks over the magnificent countryside during summer, a trip to the clachan once a fortnight to collect provisions in the small pony trap we had bought, and in the evenings strumming on the piano and reading. When I first came to these wild parts there was one thing which impressed itself most forcibly on my consciousness, and which still remains my most potent memory of them. That was the silence. It was a permanent, living silence. Thunder, driving rain, and keening wind were sounds which seemed to emanate from it and fade back into it. Sometimes, particularly on a hot summer's day, it could be sensed in its profundity for the space of a few seconds, unbroken by so much as a crepitation or stirring of wind. At other moments the sudden bark of a deer or cry of a whaup only served to emphasise its depth. It was a vast, unseen but ever present reality.


The croft consisted of a kitchen-cum-parlour, a small bedroom apiece, and a tiny room which was used as a workroom, or a guest room when we had visitors. All the rooms were on the ground floor, there being no upper storey. Outside, within a few yards of the croft, was a partitioned byre. One side was the pony's quarters and the other was used for storing drums of paraffin, bins of grain, tinned food, and the animals' biscuits and fodder. Strangely enough, one of the things we had to do without during the first months of our arrival was fresh milk. The shepherd, Mr. McNairn, kept a cow and would have been willing to sell us a measure of milk each day, but to walk eight miles a day for a can of milk seemed a somewhat extravagant waste of time, so we made do with skimmed and condensed. Later on two goats were added to the livestock and thenceforth we did not lack for fresh milk. Though when we first acquired them, inexpert milker that I was, it struck me not infrequently that perhaps after all it would have been quicker to walk to our neighbour's croft to collect it. Gradually we and the animals began to adapt ourselves to the new surroundings.


It had seemed likely that, with streams and the lochan so close, the otter cubs on growing older would quickly return to their natural life. We made it a rule not to keep an animal if it wished to leave us, unless it had received some injury or was sickly. Otters are great wanderers and travel for miles over the countryside, swimming and on foot. They prefer, though, to travel long distances at night. Hansel and Gretel, however, as I had inappropriately named them, seldom wandered far from the croft that first summer, and always returned dutifully each evening. At nights they slept in a straw-lined box in the parlour.


The squirrels, Cuthbert and Sara, took quite a while to adapt themselves to this strange wilderness to which we had brought them. The sight of the wide open spaces filled them with alarm and sent them bolting through the door and into their wicker cage on the slightest provocation. Gradually they became bolder and took to climbing on to the thatched roof of the croft, which soon became their favourite playground. Here they were often joined by Rodney. Cuthbert, the male squirrel, developed an unfortunate habit of sitting on the chimney. We kept a fire in the range day and night, winter and summer. As he peered down the hole or warmed himself in chill weather on the heated bricks he would become drugged by the smoke, topple over, and come hurtling on to the range. Although he singed his coat badly on two occasions and sustained minor shocks, it took an even bitterer experience than these before he lived and learnt to avoid the chimney. On this third occasion he landed slap into a saucepan of porridge which, though hot, had luckily not come to the boil. He was a sorry mess when I plucked him out and my ministrations on his behalf in the form of a bath and brisk rub-down were not appreciated. But after that tumble he left the chimney severely alone.


The first winter in our new home was a particularly exhausting one. For days at a time we were unable to leave the croft because of the heavy falls of snow. Then the fuel ran out and for close on a week we had no fires or hot meals. The snow was succeeded by fierce winds and heavy downpours. The hours of daylight were brief. Often the darkness extended past noon and we were cooking the lunch by lamplight. By half-past four it was growing dark again.


In June of the following year I left to spend a holiday with friends on the isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. The weather throughout my stay was very rough. Walking along the beach one morning to collect pieces of driftwood, I saw a fisherman coming towards me carrying an oddly shaped creature in his arms. He told me it was a young seal which had probably got washed off its rock during the night by the gale and separated from its mother. Many young seals are lost in this manner. What was a little unusual was the fact that it was a Common Seal, a species more often found on the East Coast, the Hebrides being the breeding ground of the larger, less intelligent Atlantic Seal. Although my knowledge of seal upbringing was of the scantiest, I promptly asked the fisherman if I might have it, and, greatly to my joy, he placed the seal in my arms. A bottle was presented to me by a kindly woman and I was instructed how to fill it with warmed milk mixed with a little oil. Seals' milk is very rich, containing almost ten times more fat than cows' milk. Lora, as I had named her, took to the bottle without fuss and showed every prospect of thriving. She became very tame almost from the start and enjoyed being handled and stroked.


Animal lover though I knew Aunt Miriam to be, I decided after some thought not to inform her in my letter that I had become the owner of a young Common Seal, but to take my pet back unannounced as a 'surprise', trusting that Lora's affectionate nature would win Aunt over to the realisation that a home without a seal lacks a vital member of the family party.


A fortnight later I set off on the two days' journey home with Lora, a somewhat bulky parcel weighing over thirty-eight pounds, wrapped up in a tartan rug.









"There are few eyes in the orbits of men and women which suggest more pleasantly the ancient thought of their being windows of the soul. The lids of the eyes are fringed with long, perfect lashes. The mothers' eyes are large, lustrous, blue-blackish and are humid and soft with the tenderest expressions. . . In the case of the adult males, the light framework of the skull supports an expressive pair of large, bluish-hazel eyes; alternately burning with revengeful passionate light, then suddenly changing to the tones of tenderness and good nature."


This piece of flattery was not penned in admiration of the eyes of a section of the human race, as might be supposed, but in admiration of those of the seal tribe, and was written by a 19th century American naturalist, Henry Wood Elliott, who was a great lover of seals and devoted most of his life to their study. That short extract is typical of his writing much of which is devoted to extolling the seals' virtues. It is a fact that seals have most beautiful and expressive eyes. Even as a pup Lora learnt to use hers with telling effect. A look from her was enough to send me running to fill her bottle or make me aware that she wished to be picked up. Aunt Miriam too, having stated categorically on my arrival home that the pup must be taken back to the sea directly she was able to fend for herself, was won over by Lora in a few days, and much to my relief the subject of her eventual departure from our midst was not mentioned again. But already, though we were unaware of it then, we had left her return to her natural element too late to be accomplished satisfactorily, even had we wished it, for seals, when adopted and reared by hand, become devoted to their human owners and more affectionate than dogs. If taken out to sea in a boat and dropped over the side a seal will follow the vessel or, if the owners manage to make a getaway unnoticed, the deserted creature, in spite of its slow gait, will often travel miles overland in an attempt to find its old home.


Bringing up a seal was no light task, as I was soon to discover. Left on her own for a while Lora would start the curious baaing sound that young seals make, and should no one hasten to her this would change to plaintive whining interspersed with angry barks, which would be kept up until she was given attention. As a pup she had a bottle four times a day. My first mistake in seal upbringing was to allow her to have it on my lap. This privilege once accorded she had no intention of relinquishing it without a tussle. Even when fully grown, measuring some three-and-a-half feet and tipping the scales at over three hundredweight she would still try and scramble up on to a stranger's lap should he or she be weak enough to allow her to do so. Once on my return from a walk I went into the parlour to find Lora entrenched on a breathless and terrified lady visitor.


"She started to bark each time I tried to make her get down and . . . I wasn't sure if seals bit, so I didn't push her too hard," I was informed. I promptly ordered a reluctant Lora on to the floor.


Allowing her to sleep at the bottom of my bed was another mistake. A seal pup on one's feet is one thing but a fully-grown seal quite another. It took me several weeks to train her to lie on a low bamboo couch at nights and to refrain from surreptitiously trying to clamber back on to the bed.


When on dry land seals move by pulling themselves along on their flippers. No sooner was she past infancy than Lora started to waddle after me round the croft and trail me over to the byre. If I set out on a walk her wails of protest at being left behind would pursue me into the distance. I decided that I must train her to become more independent and capable of amusing herself. We possessed a small rowboat which was kept in a sheltered inlet of the lochan. One day, seeing that the weather was not likely to turn squally I took her out in it and dropped her over the side. In a moment, she was swimming vigorously, diving twisting, and circling the boat with incredible swiftness. From a slow-moving awkward creature she had turned into one of the utmost grace and speed. Each day henceforth she spent many hours swimming with the otters in the lochan. Should we want her, a call from us would usually bring her to the shore. Seals have no ear conches yet they possess very acute hearing.


Now that she had discovered her true element and was growing older our food problem was eased considerably, for she hunted her own fish. The natural diet of seals is crustaceans and fish. But, like most domesticated animals, Lora's taste ranged beyond the natural and she was not averse to a raw carrot, porridge, and, as an occasional treat, a spoonful of oil from a sardine tin. At nights she had a supper consisting of dog biscuits soaked in milk and oil.


Training animals who live in one’s own home is somewhat akin to training children; each individual must learn to fit into the life of the household, scope must be given for particular talents to develop, and allowances made for varying degrees of intelligence. In the case of a highly intelligent animal like the Common Seal elementary training is quick and easy. Lora soon learnt that her mackintosh was kept on a lower shelf of the dresser and that when she came in from the lochan she must sit on it. When still a pup she would bark for one of us to lay it out for her. As she grew older she taught herself to pull it off the shelf and to spread it out fairly adequately on the floor. As seals have stiff, shiny hairs most of the water pours off them directly they emerge and the drying process is comparatively short. Obedient in many ways and quick to learn, Lora's inquisitive nature got her into trouble more than once. Anything a little strange or new had to be investigated. Thus she would pull at the tablecloth and bring down a shower of cutlery and glasses. The squirrel's cage had eventually to be hung up out of her reach, for she was always pushing her nose through the small door, which was kept tied back, and the squirrels until they had got used to her presence, would be driven into a frenzy of alarm. During a particularly good relay of an opera she knocked over the battery wireless set, and before Aunt Miriam could reach it a knob was almost torn from its socket. This meant five weeks for us without a set. These sort of misdeeds had to be stopped. We tried to steer her avid curiosity into more fruitful channels.


I am against teaching animals tricks, but I see no reason why domestic animals should not be taught to be useful in ways which do not go contrary to their natures. I began teaching Lora to fetch and carry different objects and to take the mail from the postman. The post was delivered twice a week. There was a box set on a short pole about two miles on the track from us. Here we were supposed to collect it, but the postman being a sociable soul, as are most in these parts, generally walked the odd two miles to the croft for a chat and a cup of tea. It was not long before Lora learnt to know on what days he arrived and at approximately what time. Directly she caught sight of his figure coming up the hill she would start towards him. On meeting, he would place the letters in her mouth and she would follow after in his wake. Delivery was apt to be a little tardy over the last lap. There was one unfortunate occasion when, busy over the teacups we did not notice her progress, and halfway to the croft, she decided to go for a swim in the lochan taking the mail with her. Needless to mention, that bundle of letters was lost for ever and aye.


What gave her especial delight was to be allowed to unpack the shopping basket when we returned from a trip to the clachan or township. Tins would be lifted out carefully and if round, rolled across the floor; exciting looking packages would be shaken hard. Even such mundane objects as dusters and washing-up mops would be sniffed and closely inspected. The basket emptied at last, she would carry it to its place by the kitchen cupboard.


The croft stood in a little oasis of emerald grass. This greenery extended for about five yards in front before meeting with the heather. To the rear of the croft was a clearing of earth for the growing of a few vegetables, and this was ringed with the grass which acted as a slight barrier against the moorland. Stones seemed to grow like weeds in this tiny patch of ground wrested from the wilderness. Every so often we went over it with hoe and spade to clear it of yet more stones. In the 'garden' we started to grow quite a variety of vegetables; radishes, lettuce, spinach, cabbages and leeks. Potatoes did not do well, seldom reaching a worthwhile size and remaining green. Perhaps the earth did not go deep enough for them. So we gave up planting these. They became a subsidiary item of our meals, bread and oats being our mainstay. A kindly and valiant friend came to stay with us for a week bringing with her a quantity of roots and herb cuttings, together with a stack of heavy flower pots to plant them in. Unfortunately there was no earth to spare from the garden so we had to dig for it on the moors. Hard labour with a vengeance. When there was a tidy

mound, the earth was sieved through a coarse sieve to get rid of the ubiquitous stones. The cuttings meanwhile were being kept alive - we hoped - in a bowl of water. When there was a sufficient quantity of sieved earth we potted them and trusted they would 'take'. Surprisingly enough, several sprigs and roots did take, and later on we were able to vary our somewhat monotonous diet by adding herbs and herb sauces. In winter we brought the pots in and ranged them against the sill. No matter what the weather might get up to outside we could still pick parsley to make a savoury porridge, and a sprig of thyme and leaf or two of lemon verbena for an oatmeal sweet.


During our first summer we began to collect large stones in order to make a wall round the garden to act as a break from the winds and as an obstruction to the rabbits. We piled the stones one on top of another until the wall was about three feet in height and two feet thick. Inside this barricade we fixed wire-netting as an additional protection against the rabbits. We soon found that the wall itself, which completely enclosed the garden was no good at all as a means of keeping the pests at bay. Apart from their burrowing skill, the rabbits were also expert climbers and would have made worthy members of the Alpine Club. They thought nothing of scrambling up the loosely laid wall and springing down to the other side. When we had the netting fixed we believed that that would foil them, as it was cunningly placed several feet away from the wall, leaving a gap of no man's land in between. Any rabbit which jumped down now would find itself in the run, cut off from the vegetables, or so we thought. But a few worthy members of the rabbit tribe managed to prove us wrong.


One morning we were nonplussed on seeing a rabbit devouring a young lettuce. We gave chase at once but our quarry escaped through the back door, which we had thoughtlessly left open, and out via the front. A thorough search revealed no holes under the wire and despairingly we reached the conclusion that as well as scaling the wall it must have scaled the wire too. That being so we agreed it would be as well not to waste our energy planting vegetables, but to admit that the rabbits had beaten us.


The following morning on getting up I happened to glance through my window and I noticed one sitting on the wall. I began watching it in the hope of discovering how it set about clearing the last fence. And that was literally what it did do. For a moment it seemed to be measuring with its eye the distance between the wall and the netting. Then, with a leap, it was across and had landed in the garden. In the past my only close acquaintanceship with rabbits had been with a couple of pet angoras whose intelligence had always struck me as being singularly low. But these Sutherland bunnies, I realised, were of a superior order, and not to be compared with the nitwitted, woolly angoras. As I watched the little all-round sportsman take a preliminary nibble at a radish leaf I felt almost willing to let him continue the feast. Then I remembered the many days of hard labour I had spent digging up stones and sowing rows of seeds, and I decided otherwise. Having summoned Aunt Miriam, we once more gave chase, this time with the back door closed. Many minutes of running and jumping over the vegetables - now beginning to look as though a sirocco had blown over them - left us exhausted and angry but the rabbit unconcerned, with its vitality apparently unimpaired. Whilst we debated the next move it sat cleaning its face by a cabbage.


"Fetch the landing net," said Aunt Miriam curtly.


This net was used by us to land fish but I supposed there was no reason why it should not land a rabbit as well. More minutes followed of hectic running and jumping. Eventually the rabbit was cornered and bolted into the net. What now?


"I can't kill him," said Aunt promptly.


Certainly, I could not. We rarely ate meat in spite of being surrounded by game, and a rabbit hot-pot would have been welcome. But not, I believe, a hot-pot made from this rabbit. Even had we been able to bring ourselves to put an end to its life it would have been unlikely that either of us would have relished eating so worthy a foe. Yet it seemed ridiculous to free him after all the trouble he had given us, and allow him the opportunity to make a return visit to the garden. But that is what we did do, tipping him over the wall whence he disappeared into the heather. As we were both too squeamish to twist his neck there seemed nothing else to be done.


Mr. McNairn called later on in the day, and our confession that we had given the rabbit his freedom made him slap his hand on the table with anger.


"A wee twist of its neck or a tap on the head would hae done it - let him loose! If only I'd arrived a while sooner. It's a dog you are wanting, Miss Farre. Rabbits smell a dog same as mice smell a cat and keep away."


"No," said Aunt firmly, "we can't have any more animals. As it is -"


"There's no point in wearing yourselves out over a patch of garden unless you hae a dog to keep the varmints from snitching the greens, is there now ? You make him sleep over in the byre and never let him put a foot in the croft. Kept like that he'll be nae trouble to ye.”


In due course a yellow mongrel pup, called Ben, arrived. He stood low on the ground, had flop ears, and was barrel chested. But in spite of a somewhat heavy and ungainly build he was fleet of foot. For minutes at a time he would sit on the wall watching for a slight movement in the heather, at which he would spring off and investigate. He proved an excellent deterrent to the rabbits. After his arrival we began to have rabbit on the menu frequently, for whenever he caught one he would bring it back, dead but never badly mauled, and in return for one of its paws and a biscuit he would give up the booty. As well as catching rabbits he became adept at catching the vicious little weasels, and once he returned home with a stoat. His love of the chase eventually proved his undoing. Having no dog companion, Ben took up with the otters who were about the same size as himself. His habits became quite aquatic. He would swim considerable distances after them in the lochan, and when I threw the ball out to them from the boat, he would try to reach it before they did.


As a cat and dog will learn to live peaceably together in a house so will other species of animals. After a week over in the byre Ben had managed without much difficulty, to become a permanent member of the croft, sleeping at nights on the matting in front of the range. During the evenings there would be quite a gathering in the parlour. The larger animals, Lora, Ben and the otters, would put up with the smaller fry with fairly good grace. But during the day, when out in the open, Rodney and the squirrels had to look sharp when the otters or Ben were around. The sight of a rat or squirrel streaking past the croft invariably proved too big a temptation for them to resist, and in spite of our admonishments we were never able to train them not to chase these small creatures.


We had not been long at the croft before I had an experience which made me wary in future of the burns after there had been heavy falls of rain. To the west of us was the mountainous district of the Ben Armine range, dominated by the peak of Ben Armine. To the east were the Knockfin Heights and Cnoc Coirena Fearna. Large tracts of the Ben Armine country and the country to the north consist of deer forest. A forest up here does not mean an area covered by trees, but uncultivated, usually hilly or mountainous country, given over to deer and other game. Rivers and burns criss-cross this countryside. Through the Ben Armine area run the rivers Skinsdale and Blackwater and their many tributaries. To the north the Borrabal Forest is watered by the River Free. Farther north again is a string of lochs, including the beautiful Loch a'Chlair and Baddanloch. A glance at a map of this area will show that the only names here are those of loch, river and hill; it is completely devoid of name of township or clachan. The rain had fallen steadily throughout the night and the following morning.


After lunch the sky cleared and it looked as if the weather had set in for a few hours sunshine. I decided to go fishing for trout in one of the burns. Brown trout were plentiful round here. Taking Ben with me, I started off westwards, climbing steadily. The burn for which I was making was only a yard or so wide and the water, a deep russet through running over peat hags, barely reached my knees. On past occasions I had been fortunate in that more than once a trout had flipped into the landing net. I have never fished for 'sport', only for food, and this being so I had no qualms about using the net instead of the rod and line favoured by sportsmen. The burn when I reached it looked the same as usual. Removing my shoes, I stood in the water, the net held out hopefully. Ben, momentarily tired of hunting was lying on the bank. Fishing gives ample time for reflection, and my thoughts as I stood there were soon concerned with other matters than the possibility of a catch.


Perhaps ten minutes passed then glancing up at the heights I saw to my astonishment and terror a great mass of water, like a brown avalanche, coming towards me. In an instant, before there was a chance of getting out of its course, I was knocked down and hurtled forwards. The sky was blotted out and I was tossed and buffeted as though I were a twig. Suddenly I was flung up against a flat rock with a tremendous bump which knocked the little remaining air from my lungs. But my hands instinctively gripped the top of the rock and I began pulling myself upwards. When I had recovered somewhat I stared below at the raging torrent which a moment or two ago had been a gently flowing burn. I looked round for Ben but could not see him and I presumed he must have been drowned in the flood. Over to one side of the rock was high ground, and I managed to jump across the waters to it and reach safety. On the way homewards Ben caught up with me, panting and much excited, his coat wet from the ducking. Somehow he too had got clear of the deluge and reached safety. Apart from the loss of the net and a severe bruising I had got off lightly.


Soon after this incident I began keeping a small book in which I wrote down words which held a definite meaning for various members of our animal fraternity. I excluded only the goats and the pony. Under the heading 'Rodney' I find six words; basket, out, raisins, nuts, roof, and Rodney. When any of these words were spoken to him he would, if in the right mood act in a definite manner. 'Basket !' for instance, would send him, generally at a snail's pace, into his box filled with dry grass. 'Nuts !', however, would send him running towards the left-hand side of the dresser in which was kept a tin of nuts. 'Raisins!' would have him running eagerly over to the right-hand side in which was kept the tin of raisins. Although the words 'nuts' and 'raisins' sent the squirrels scampering to the dresser in anticipation they were never able to distinguish, as could Rodney, between the two words. On either being spoken they would keep up a brisk scamper, back and forth in front of the dresser, squeaking excitedly, until duly rewarded. So under the separate headings of Cuthbert and Sara the two words are tied and counted as one. Looking through the booklet I find that Lora, as was usual in little tests of this kind, comes off best by a very long way. The total number of words under her column is thirty-five. Here are a few of them: basket (her own bamboo couch); in; out; here; Lora; aunt; Rowena; Ben; Hansel; Gretel; Mr. Dobbie (the postman); boat; swim (this word had the same effect on her as 'walk' has on most dogs and had to be used with discretion); ball; sing; mouth organ; trumpet; stick (a drumstick with which she used to play the xylophone); biscuits; plate, (her own plate); mackintosh. Of course, as with the other animals too, there were several words and phrases which held a vague meaning for her and to which she sometimes reacted, but these I did not list. Here are the totals of the rest in order of merit; Gretel, the female otter-eighteen words. Hansel, the male otter - sixteen. Ben-twelve. Cuthbert and Sara - five apiece.


Amongst other things that Lora learnt in her early days was never to leave the boat till told she might do so, for there was a danger of its being overturned, unless Aunt Miriam or I were sitting in the right spot to counter-balance her dive. And she also learnt never to touch the boat whilst swimming under it for the same reason. Before this lesson was firmly instilled, though, she had overturned the boat twice, on both occasions fortunately on a hot summer's day when I was wearing a bathing costume. The lochan was relatively free of weeds but neither Aunt nor I ever swam in it unless the other one was in the boat ready to row over should the swimmer find herself in difficulties.


Sometimes Lora would surface holding a stone in her mouth. Gradually she came to learn that when I said 'Stone!' and pointed with a finger down at the water she was expected to dive for one. Unlike Ben with the rabbits, and regrettably where our larder was concerned, Lora never brought back any fish she had caught. All her catches were gulped down on the spot or else taken on to the shore and eaten there. Not once was I able to extract a fish from her in exchange for a biscuit.









Since ancient times it has been known that seals are attracted by music and singing and this fact has been woven into many a legend. And Man has known too of the Common Seal's ability to learn to play different instruments. I have in my possession an eighteenth century book in which there is an engraving of a Common Seal playing the bagpipes.


Lora's musical talent came out early. Whenever Aunt Miriam or I struck up on the piano the other animals would take no notice. Not so Lora. She would wriggle over to the instrument, lean against it or (more inconveniently) the player's legs, and listen with an expression of intense concentration and joy which was quite flattering, swaying now and then with her whole body to the music. When the music stopped she would sit quietly for several minutes, still under its spell. Her reactions to my singing however, can only be described as humiliating.


A relation had sent me a mouth organ and book of songs for a birthday present. Thumbing through the book, I decided that I would do a little singing practice each day. For the first session I chose a time when Aunt was out picking wild raspberries and there was not an animal within sight. After a preliminary scale or two, I started off on 'Men of Harlech'. To my annoyance, I heard a loud groan beside me. Looking down, I saw Lora and continued singing. Whereupon she broke into a roar. Seals have perhaps the largest vocal range among mammals. Their repertoire includes grunts, snorts, barks, peculiar mewing, hisses, and a wail which often rises from a deep bass to a treble. The roar turned to a hiss. I still took no notice but my reedy efforts were soon outclassed. Then I had the idea of letting her sing on her own to my accompaniment. During the practice sessions which followed when I played a simple tune at a fairly slow pace with bars of steadily ascending and descending notes, she made valiant efforts to follow the music in a tuneless wail. A sudden high or low note, or a piece played too quickly plainly annoyed her, for she would start to grunt and beat about with her fore-flippers - a habit of hers when angry. Within a week she was able to get through 'Baa - baa Black Sheep' and 'Danny Boy' without a break, and was beginning to learn, 'Where my Caravan has Rested'.


She began to pester me for the mouth organ. I was playing it outside the croft one afternoon and, growing weary of the grunts and whines and a heavily whiskered nose pressed against my face every so often as she attempted to wrest it from me, I finally acknowledged defeat and placed it in her mouth. From that moment she considered the mouth organ to be hers. Having gained possession of it, she found to her annoyance that it emitted no sound in spite of being gnawed with vigour. So she started tossing it up into the air and catching it as though it were the ball, and then, her annoyance increasing, rolling on it. All to no effect. Taking the instrument in her mouth once again she gave a loud sigh of desperation. This produced a blast of noise from the mouth organ and galvanised Lora to fresh efforts. I set off for a walk. When I returned in about an hour there were most curious sounds coming from the rear of the croft. Lora had learnt the blow-suck method and there she was, blowing and sucking feebly, in a state of almost complete exhaustion, for she had been doing this, apparently, ever since I had left her. She made no protest when I took the mouth organ from her. From that day onwards it became her favourite toy replacing in her affections the rubber ball which she shared with the dog and otters. I do not think Mr. Larry Adler would have approved of her playing, but it certainly gave her a great deal of pleasure.


I happened to mention in a letter to an elderly relation of mine that Lora was developing into a remarkable seal and could sing and play the mouth organ. Aunt Felicity was a staunch defender of all animals, wild and domesticated, and sat on numerous committees which saw to their protection and well-being. The merest suspicion in her mind that an animal was being badly treated roused her fighting spirit. Her letter in reply to my own left me in no doubt that she considered I was committing heinous crimes against the hapless Lora.


"Dear Rowena, I was shocked and ashamed to learn from your letter that you of all people, whom I have always considered to be a lover of animals, should be capable of mistreating one so," she began. Then her, anger increasing, she continued - "Zoos are an abomination, circuses are worse. . . yet by keeping that seal confined to a croft and only allowing it brief swims in a small loch you prove yourself to be no better than a zoo keeper; and by training it in such unnatural antics as singing and playing on a mouth organ you have sunk to the level of an animal trainer at a circus . . . Don't go telling me in your next letter that you teach the creature by kindness as I know for a fact that only long hours of forced practice could make it perform such tricks."


I did not mention Lora in my next letter, writing only about such safe subjects as the weather - variable as ever up in these parts - and our amateur attempts at making raspberry jam. Aunt Felicity, though facts were against me no doubt, was quite wide of the mark where Lora's freedom and musical practice were concerned.


At nights Lora slept on her couch in my room. The door of the bedroom was left ajar and the front door was also kept open during the summer so that an animal could get out should it wish to. Most mornings, when breakfast had been eaten and cleared away, and the other animals had long since been out and about, Lora, a late riser, was still dozing on the couch. So it was a surprise when I was woken up very early one morning - it could not have been much later than half-past five-by her flopping off the couch and going into the parlour. The silence was shattered a moment later by hideous blow-suck noises. Her mouth organ had been left on the carpet the night before and it seemed she had decided to put in a little practice on it. Snarls and growls from Ben and the otters proved that they were finding early morning music as uncongenial as I was.


"Take that thing away from her at once!" shouted Aunt Miriam.


I did as I was bidden and placed the mouth organ on the mantelpiece. The whines which followed at having her plaything taken from her were almost as aggravating as the previous cacophony. Eventually she took herself off to the lochan. By then it was time to get up anyway.


A young friend of mine, after visiting us, sent her a toy trumpet. Lora soon learnt to render ear-splitting blasts on this when it was held for her. Another admirer sent her a small xylophone complete with beater. She would hold the beater in her front teeth and bang any note to which I pointed. Her self-imposed practising on these various instruments drove us almost to distraction at times. It became necessary to put them out of her reach and allow her to play them only for short periods in the evenings. An unfortunate result of the singing lessons I had given her was that now, whenever Aunt or I began to play the piano, Lora, were she in the vicinity, would immediately lift her head and wail fortissimo. It is well nigh impossible to struggle through a Brahms' sonata with a seal singing at the top of its voice. So most of our playing had to be done when she was in the lochan.


Pessimistic friends and relations had all predicted that our stay at the croft would be a short one. "Mind you come and see us directly you get back to civilisation" was the tone of the letters we received on arrival at the croft. When a year had passed and it became evident that we were in no hurry to return to civilisation the tone of the letters changed, and many a harried, town-dwelling friend wrote saying she envied us the peace and quiet of our lives. Peace we had certainly found, but a musical seal, two boisterous otters and other fauna do not make for the quietest of lives even in remote Sutherland.


Birds are comparatively tame up here, though not so numerous or varied in species as in the coastal areas. Among those which visited the vicinity of the croft were ring ouzels, stonechats, blackbirds, thrushes, twites, and meadow-pipits. Close by the byre grew a rowan tree and two silver birches and this tiny glade drew a number of temporary and semi-permanent bird visitors. A cuckoo was a regular visitor during the summer months. We missed its haunting two-note song when it migrated. This bird grew so tame that it would perch on an out-stretched arm and fly on to our shoulders when we were working in the garden.


However isolated the area in which one lives there is always the chance of rats eventually catching up with one, particularly when livestock is kept so that grain and fodder have to be stored. Rats were the cause of thirty people, the entire population of North Rona, starving to death on that island in 1686. They came ashore off a wreck and ate up the barley which was the inhabitants' chief food supply. When visiting the township we used to be in half a mind whether to acquire a kitten in order to ward off this possible menace. But the knowledge that a kitten would also be a deterrent to the birds decided us against getting one. Rodney apart, we were fortunate in never being troubled by rats whilst at the croft. More and more birds came to haunt our patch of land and old friends returned year after year, the cuckoo amongst them. There was one species of bird whose absence we would have welcomed, and that was the hoodie crow, perhaps the worst pest of the highlands. It does enormous damage to crops, sucks the eggs of other birds, including the grouse, thus earning the opprobrium of game-keepers, and it attempts to drive other birds away from its vicinity. Our problem was how to drive off the hoodies without scaring away the more welcome visitors. Whenever we found a maimed bird or animal, or - during the winter - one suffering from the effects of a severe spell of weather, we would bring it in and attempt to heal or revive it. Aunt Miriam was an amateur, though not inconsiderable, vet. Our first victim up here chanced to be one of these hoodies. I found it in a dip of the moors with a badly torn wing. It was put into a wire cage and its injury attended to. When it had fully recovered it was released.


For those who genuinely love birds and animals it is no easy task deciding where to draw the line between rank sentimentalism and unnecessary slaughter. The word "vermin" as used by some would include every creature which deprived mankind of the merest jot of his own foodstuffs. At the other extreme are those who say we have no right to take any creature's life and are erring when we imbibe a glass of milk - milk belonging, according to their lights, solely to the calf. But these extremists have been unforthcoming in putting forward suggestions as to how they would solve the rat and hoodie problem, among others. Animals are killed for their leather as well as for meat, but the most saintly vegetarian seems to think nothing of wearing leather shoes and carrying a leather wallet, while he is ever ready to shout with disgust - “dead flesh !" - when confronted with the meat-eating fraternity. Having written a little on what seem to me flaws in the ethics of others where bird, beast and fish are concerned, let me expose an anomaly in my own ethics, if I have not already done so. Of recent years I have brought myself to kill any creature whose malady or injuries I have felt uncertain of being able to heal reasonably quickly and painlessly, even though the act of killing invariably fills me with repulsion. I take home any ailing creature which I believe I shall be able to heal, whether it be rat or hoodie, and try to do what I can for it. Yet I would not hesitate to kill rats which invaded my premises, nor to join with those who say the numbers of certain species, including the beautiful red deer, should be kept within definite limits. Red deer can be a real menace to the croft dweller, as we were later to discover. But all killing, I believe, should be as swift and painless as possible, and those who have to kill should make sure that they use methods which are so.


A person who has the inborn quality of being able to attract wild creatures is a rarity - these days, at any rate. I have known only two people who possess this faculty, one of whom was Aunt Miriam. Her mother noticed when she was quite a small child that if she were left alone in the garden birds would hop round her and flit on to her shoulders. At the approach of anyone else they would fly off. For a long while Aunt was unaware that this attraction birds felt for her was in any way unusual. Animals were drawn to her too. She never had any fear of them. For a number of years I believed that wild creatures perhaps sensed in her a lack of the urge to kill and this partially accounted for their behaviour towards her. Later, when I met an elderly Eskimo trapper in Iceland who also had this unusual gift I was compelled to discount such a theory. I have seen this man sitting in open country with as many as five rabbits cropping the grass round him. And he was able to pick one up and fondle it as though it were a pet without the rabbit evincing the slightest alarm. Yet had he felt inclined for a rabbit supper he would not have hesitated to wring its neck. Needless to say, this man had been a highly successful trapper and had seldom lacked for meat. If he walked through a spinney of birch scrub a whistle would bring birds fluttering to him. Though he never scrupled to use his power over wild creatures to his own advantage, this Eskimo would carry a small leather pochet on his person filled with grain and bits of fat to feed the birds, which flew to him as if to a magnet. Like Aunt, he could offer no explanation as to why he should possess this rare gift except that his father had likewise possessed it, and his grandfather also. So it seems probable that it can be inherited. In Aunt Miriam’s case this was not so; neither of her parents was gifted in this way.


Although I did not have the good fortune to possess the gift either, I did discover a very useful means whereby I could hold the attention of wild seals - and a tame one - when I came to study them later. It also had the effect of largely dispelling their fear of my person. Man is and ever has been the seal's greatest enemy.


At my school down south I had made and learnt to play a simple bamboo finger pipe. The tone was pleasant, but the range of notes only extended an octave so the number of tunes which could be played on it was limited. We had been at the croft well over a year before I troubled to unpack it. On hearing the sound of pipe music Lora - who was sitting outside shaking a tin which a thoughtful guest had filled with pebbles for her - came in, dropped the tin on the floor, and sat herself in front of me. Though I have no knowledge of séances, it appeared to me that she went into a light trance; her eyes had a far-away look and she seemed quite oblivious of everything except the music. As long as I continued to play she sat there, still and absorbed, never attempting to sing. And this was the way pipe music always affected her. Again, as with the piano, it made no impression on the other animals.


Whenever I took one of her instruments from her Lora would start a rumpus of whining and barking which could be sorely trying to the nerves. Having seen the effect piping had on her I began to use subtler methods. While Lora was going over the National Anthem for the umpteenth time on the xylophone, whacking each note with verve if not always with accuracy, I would start playing the pipe. She would glance up, the beater would drop from her mouth, and in a moment she would be spellbound, sitting quietly with her eyes half closed. Still playing, with never a let up, I would sneak away her toy and place it on a shelf. When the music stopped and she opened her eyes and gazed about her, she would look mildly surprised at finding her plaything gone but on these occasions she never whined for its return. The piping had fulfilled its purpose - for ten minutes or so at any rate.


Visitors to the croft could never understand why we would not let Lora play and sing for hours on end, which she would have been perfectly happy to do if given the chance. Although they would tell us in their letters that they were looking forward immensely to the quiet of the wilderness, the rude shattering of this quiet by Lora in one of her recitals did not appear to worry them in the least. On the contrary, they enjoyed every minute of them and were as disappointed as she was when they were brought to an abrupt close by Aunt or myself. But a week of listening to Lora running through her repertoire was not the same thing as hearing it month after month and eventually, year after year.


After a time we were forced to the rather humiliating conclusion that friends came on visits mainly to get acquainted with Lora; our company, peace and quiet, the beauties of the countryside were little more than sidelights.


"'Where is she ?" a guest would ask, the moment he had dumped down his suitcase and gulped a cup of tea to revive himself after the rigours of the journey.


"Out in the lochan."


The guest would take a quick look at the rolling sea of hills, rocks and pockets of water stretching in every direction to the far horizon, and then - "Well … can't she be got in ?"


We would stroll down to the lochan, the guest carrying the trumpet in readiness, and we would stare across the sheet of water, devoid of any sign of animal life. I would call and presently we would see the small, dark speck of her head coming towards us, with perhaps a smaller one nearby belonging to an otter. In less than a minute she would be ashore and, the trumpet pressed against her mouth, giving a rendering of 'Danny Boy'. Her boisterous good nature and love of showing off before visitors made her ever ready to play.


A certain uncle of mine took a great fancy to her. At his home outside Aberdeen he used to hold monthly ceilidhs (musical evenings) at which local talent used to perform. Uncle Andrew became obsessed with the idea that Lora should be a guest at one of these ceilidhs. He felt sure his musical friends would appreciate her gifts and delight in a performance from her. Ever one to make light of difficulties, he assured Aunt Miriam that the lengthy journey to Aberdeen with a seal could be easily accomplished. Shortly after he had visited us he arrived one evening in his brake to collect Lora and me. We set off early the following morning. I had packed two suitcases, one containing my belongings, the other Lora's instruments and her mackintosh. Uncle informed me that he had got in a large supply of fish, biscuits and oil. When he had left home his wife had been busy catching the goldfish in their pond and putting them into a wooden rain butt. Any that refused to be caught would have to take a chance with Lora. The pond was hers for the duration of our visit. As Uncle had predicted, the journey was accomplished without mishap. The brake bounced over the track and several times came perilously rear to sliding down a hillside. Lora took the bumps and jolts calmly and appeared to enjoy the ride.


On the evening of the ceilidh I led her into the drawing room where it was to be held. My feelings about the forthcoming proceedings were dubious. A well known singer of mouth music (unaccompanied singing) was coming and had consented to start the evening with a song. A melodeon player was to take the platform next, followed by Lora giving an exhibition of xylophone playing. That was to comprise the first half of the evening.


There would be a break for supper. During the second half, amongst other attractions, Lora was to sing to my piano accompaniment. So far so good.


The guests started to arrive. Lora, the most sociable and extroverted of creatures, greeted them warmly. I suggested to Uncle, as the first artist took her place at the far end of the room, that I should shut Lora into his study until it was her turn to perform. But he and several of the guests vetoed this suggestion at once. She must stay. The singer smiled charmingly and started off with the assurance of a professional. She managed to sing a few notes of an old Hebridean air before the inevitable happened; Lora raised her head and roared her way from a deep bass to a seal top C. Even a full Covent Garden chorus would not have been able to compete with that, and the singer wisely gave up there and then. The audience were hysterical with laughter. They had not heard anything as good as that for a long while. When a certain amount of calm had been restored someone suggested that Lora be allowed to perform first and the human faction later; thus she would get her little act off her chest and be willing to listen to others. It was blatantly apparent that he had no knowledge of seals whatsoever, but by then she was out of my hands and being stage-managed by others. She was lifted bodily on to the top of the piano by two stalwart males so that the audience would get a good view of her, and the xylophone was placed before her. I stood by her side ready to point to the notes in case she should be overcome by a sudden fit of nerves at the sight of so large an audience and momentarily forget her piece. My presence proved unnecessary. She took the beater from me and started off with aplomb on 'Baa-baa Black Sheep'. The audience strained forward. I caught murmurs of - "Yes, I recognised that bit."


"Quite incredible . . ." and "Isn't she playing 'Danny Boy' now ?"


"No, I'm sure she isn't. Oh, perhaps she might be …"


Loud applause greeted the final slither of the beater along the length of the instrument which denoted the end of 'Danny Boy' and was followed by vociferous calls for an encore.


"Carry on," said Uncle, beaming at me.


I thought the front row, consisting of the other prospective performers looked a trifle discouraged at the way things were going. I announced 'Where my Caravan has Rested'.


"I used to sing that as a subaltern in the First World War," a charming grey-haired gentleman confessed to the room at large. “My wife always ...."


We never heard what. Lora got off to a speedy start, whacking notes left, right and centre. The caravan had apparently got loose from its moorings and was rushing towards a head-on collision. There was a loud crash as the xylophone fell to the floor, pushed off by Lora's exuberant playing. The audience rose to its feet. After a short pause in which to recover their breath, people uttered more fulsome exclamations of delight: "Marvellous, isn't she ?"


"Yes, brilliant. I didn't happen to know the tune myself but I'm sure she played it superbly - encore!"


The turn ended somewhat more soberly with a rendering of the National Anthem.


The melodeon player got up. He did not appear too happy at having to follow such a popular performer. I began to realise why professional actors so heartily dislike children and animals taking part in a play; when they are around nobody else gets a look in. His misgivings proved to be correct. He failed as lamentably to make an impression in competition with the loudly singing Lora as had the first performer. With great good humour he walked back to his seat defeated and Lora again took the platform, this time to play the mouth organ.


After supper I made up my mind to take things in hand a little. For my part, I very much wanted to hear the melodeon player in action, but if the second half of the evening followed the trend of the first that pleasure seemed unlikely to be fulfilled. While the rest were busy eating and talking I managed to inveigle Lora into Uncle Andrew's study and close the door on her. The study most unfortunately was not soundproof and when the music started her piteous wails at being excluded from the proceedings drew the attention of the guests. Someone went along at once to let her out.


In a final attempt to keep order I made her sit by my side and told her severely to be quiet. The result was no less disastrous. Seals have free-flowing tear ducts and the patch of skin immediately below the eyes is continually moist. Lora, overcome with frustration at not being allowed to take part, sat with tears pouring down her face. Whereupon the sympathetic guests pleaded on her behalf and the other performers generously allowed her to take the platform yet again. The evening finished with a singsong in which, I need hardly say, Lora out-sang the rest of us. But I was assured by Uncle that the ceilidh had been a great success.



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I couldn't resist adding another story by Michael Moore. I can’t say that I've ever read anything before quite like the anecdotes of his life written up in his fascinating autobiography, "Here Comes Trouble". Even though I grew up in an age of widespread political awareness and protest, I'm ashamed to admit that I never actually stirred my stumps enough to get involved in any of them myself. Reading his accounts of the way he decided to “act” when he felt outraged by some of the social injustices he encountered, really drove home to me how much our society needs gadflies like him in order to have any hope at all of remaining sane and healthy. The story he tells below I found as an almost perfect example of just how much good can develop from one person having the courage to stand up and publicly say,….”You do NOT have any right whatsoever, to treat other people in this way !”


I’ll let him tell his tale, in his own unsurpassable way :




Boys’ State


I had no idea why the principal was sending me to Boys State. I had broken no rules and was not a disciplinary problem of any sort. Although I was a high school junior, it was only my second year in a public high school after nine years of Catholic education, and not having nuns or priests to direct me still took some getting used to. But I thought I had adjusted quite well to Davison High School. On the very first day of my sophomore year, Russell Boone, a big, good ol' boy who would become one of my best friends, took his fist and knocked the books out of my hands while I was walking down the hall between fourth- and fifth-hour classes.


"That's not how you hold 'em," he shouted at me. "You're holdin' 'em like a girl."


I picked up the three or four books and looked around to see if anyone had stopped to laugh at the boy who carried his books like a girl. The coast seemed clear.


"How'm I supposed to carry 'em ?" I asked.


Boone took the books from me and held them in the cup of his hand with his arm fully extended toward the floor, letting the books hang by his side.


"Like this," he said while walking a manly walk down the hallway.


"How was I holding 'em ?" I asked.


"Like this," he barked as he mocked me, holding my books up to the centre of his chest like he was caressing breasts.


"That's how girls do it ?" I asked, mortified that for the first half of my first day in public school, everyone had seen me walking around like a pansy.


"Yes. Don't do it again. You'll never survive here."


Check. So, half a day impersonating a girl. What else had I done to deserve Boys State ?


Well, there was that time a few months later on the band bus. Boone had fallen asleep with his socks and shoes off. Honestly I can't say he had socks. But there he was, barefoot, his leg propped up on the armrest of the seat in front of him. Larry Kopasz had his cigarettes with him and it was decided that in order to solve the riddle "How long does a cigarette take to burn all the way down if being smoked by a foot ?" he lit one and placed it between Boone's toes to find out. (Answer: seven and a half minutes.) Boone let out quite a yell when the hot cinder of the Lucky Strike reached his toes, and he didn't miss a beat from dreamland to wrestling Kopasz to the floor of the bus, which caught the attention of the driver. (In those days, as most adults and bus drivers smoked all the time, student smoking often went undetected because their smoke simply went into the same smoky air we were all breathing.) Somehow I got implicated in this brawl, as Boone held us all collectively responsible. (On that same overnight band trip, we snuck into Boone's room to run another science experiment: "Does placing one's hand while asleep in a warm bowl of water make one piss himself?" Answer: yes. And this time we took a Polaroid so we'd have proof to hold against him should Boone, the bedwetting tuba player, turn us in.)


But that was it. Seriously. I got good grades, was on the debate team, never skipped school and other than a skit I wrote for Comedy Week about the principal living a secret life as Pickles the Clown, I had not a smirch on my record.


As it turned out, Boys State was not a summer reformatory school for hoodlums and malcontents. It was a special honour to be selected to attend. Each June, after school ended, every high school in the state sent two to four boys to the state capital to "play government" for a week. You were chosen if you had shown leadership and good citizenship. I had shown the ability to come up with some very funny pranks to play on Boone.


Michigan's Boys State was held three miles from the Capitol Building on the campus of Michigan State University (the girls held a similar event called Girls State on the other side of the campus). Two thousand boys were assembled to elect our own pretend governor of Michigan, a fake state legislature, and a made-up state supreme court. The idea was for us boys to break down into parties and run for various offices in order to learn the beauties of campaigning and governing. If you were already one of those kids who ran for class office and loved being on student council, this place was your crack house.


But after campaigning for "Nixon-the-peace-candidate" as a freshman, I had developed an early allergy to politicians, and the last thing I wanted was to be one. I arrived at the Michigan State dormitories, was assigned my room and, after one "governmental meeting," where a boy named Ralston talked my ear off about why he should be state treasurer, I decided that my best course of action was to hole up in my room for the week and never come out except at feeding times.


I was given a small single room that belonged to that floor's resident advisor. He apparently had not moved all of his stuff out. I found a record player and some record albums sitting near the windowsill. I had a few books with me, plus a writing tablet and a pen. It was all I needed to make it through the week. So I essentially deserted Boys State and found refuge in this well-stocked fifth-floor room in the Kellogg Dorms. The album collection in my room included James Taylor's Sweet Baby James, The Beatles' Let It Be, the Guess Who's American Woman, and something by Sly and the Family Stone. There was a big coin-operated snack machine down at the end of the hall, so I had everything I needed for the week.


In between listening to the records and writing poems to amuse myself (I called them "song lyrics" to make them seem like a worthwhile endeavour), I became enamoured with a new brand of potato chip that I heretofore had not encountered. The snack machine offered bags of something called "Ruffles" potato chips. I was amazed at how they were able to put hills and valleys into a single chip. For some reason, these "hills" (they called 'em "ridges") gave me the impression that I was getting more chip per chip than your regular potato chip. I liked that a lot.


On the fourth day inside my NO POLITICS ALLOWED / FIRE AND RAIN bunker, I had completely run out of Ruffles and made a run down the hall for more. Above the snack machine was a bulletin board, and when I got there I noticed someone had stuck a flyer on it. It read:




on the life of


Write a speech on the life of Abe Lincoln

and win a PRIZE !

Contest sponsored by the



I stood and stared at this flyer for some time. I forgot about my Ruffles. I just couldn't get over what I was reading.


The previous month, my dad had gone to the local Elks Club to join. They had a golf course just a few miles from where we lived, and he and his line mates from the factory loved to golf. Golf, the sport of the wealthier class, was not normally played by the working class in places like Flint. But the GM honchos had long ago figured out ways to lull the restless workers into believing that the American Dream was theirs, too. They understood after a while that you couldn't just crush unions - people would always try to start unions simply because of the oppressive nature of their work. So the GM execs who ran Flint knew that the best way to quell rebellion was to let the proles have a few of the accoutrements of wealth - make them think that they were living the life of Riley, make them believe that through hard work they, too, could be rich some day !


So they built public golf courses in and around the factories of Flint. If you worked at AC Spark Plug, you played the I.M.A. or Pierce golf courses. If you worked at Buick you headed over to the Kearsley course. If you worked at the Hammerberg Road plant, you played at Swartz Creek. If you worked in "The Hole," you played the Mott course.


When the factory whistle blew at 2:30 p.m. every day, our dads grabbed their bags from the car and started whacking balls around (they’d play nine holes and be home for dinner by five). They loved it. Soon working class became "middle class." There was time and money for month-long family vacations, homes in the suburbs, a college fund for the kids. Consequently, as the years went on, the monthly union hall meetings became sparsely attended. When the company started asking the union for givebacks and concessions, and when the company asked the workers to build inferior cars that the public would soon no longer want, the company found they had a willing partner in their demise.


But back in 1970, thoughts like that would get you locked up in the loony bin. Those were the salad days (though I'm certain it was illegal to offer a salad anywhere within a fifty mile radius of Flint). And the guys in the factory grew to believe that golf was their game.


The Elks Club owned a beautiful course that was not as crowded as the Flint public courses, but you had to be a member. So it was with some disappointment when my dad went out to the Elks Club to join that he was confronted with a line printed at the top of the application:




Being a Caucasian, this should not have been a problem for Frank Moore. Being a man of some conscience, though, it gave him pause. He brought the form home and showed me.



"What do you think about this?" he asked me.


I read the Caucasian line and had two thoughts:


1. Are we down South ? (How much more north can get than Michigan?)


2. Isn't this illegal ?



My dad was clearly confused about the situation. "Well, I don't think I can sign this piece of paper," he said.


"No, you can't," I said. "Don't worry. We can still golf at the I.M.A."


He would occasionally go back to the Elks course if invited by friends, but he would not join. He was not a civil rights activist. He generally didn't vote because he didn't want to be called for jury duty. He had all the misguided racial "worries" white people of his generation had. But he also had a very basic sense of right and wrong and of setting an example for his children. And because the union had insisted on integrating the factories as early as the 1940s, he worked alongside men and women of all races and, as is the outcome of such social engineering, he grew to see all people as the same (or at least "the same" as in "all the same in God's eyes").


Now, here I was, standing there in front of this Elks Club poster next to the vending machine. The best way to describe my feelings at that moment is that I was seventeen. What do you do at seventeen when you observe hypocrisy or encounter an injustice? What if they are the same thing? Whether it's the local ladies' club refusing to let a black lady join, or a segregated men's club like the Elks that has the audacity to sponsor a contest on the life of the Great Emancipator, when you're seventeen you have no tolerance for this kind of crime. Hell hath no indignation like that of a teenager who has forgotten his main mission was to retrieve a bag of Ruffles potato chips.


"They want a speech ?" I thought, a goofy smile now making its way across my face. "I think I'm gonna go write me a speech."


I hurried back to my room, sans the bag of Ruffles, got out my pad of paper, my trusty Bic pen, and all the fury I could muster.


"How dare the Elks Club besmirch the fine name of Abraham Lincoln by sponsoring a contest like this!" I began, thinking I would lead with subtlety and save the good stuff for later. "Have they no shame? How is it that an organization that will not allow black people into their club is a part of Boys State, spreading their bigotry under the guise of doing something good? What kind of example is being set for the youth here? Who even allowed them in here ? If Boys State is to endorse any form of segregation, then by all means, let it be the segregation that separates these racists from the rest of us who believe in the American Way ! How dare they even enter these grounds !"


I went on to tell the story of my dad going to join the Elks and refusing to do so. I quoted Lincoln (my mother's continual stops at Gettysburg whenever we drove to New York would now pay off). And I closed by saying, "It is my sincere hope that the Elks change their segregationist policies - and that Boys State never, ever invites them back here again."


I skipped dinner, putting the final touches on the speech, rewriting it a couple times on the pad of paper, and then fell asleep listening to Sly Stone.


The next morning, all speech contestants were instructed to show up in a School of Social Work classroom and give their speech. There were fewer than a dozen of us in the room and, much to my surprise (and relief), there was no one present from the Elks Club. Instead, the speeches were to be judged by a lone high school forensics teacher from Lansing. I took a seat in the back of the room and listened to the boys who went before me. They spoke in laudatory tones of Lincoln's accomplishments and his humanity, but mostly how he won the Civil War. It was the type of stuff the mayor might say at a town's Fourth of July picnic. Sweet. Simple. Noncontroversial.


Few in the room were prepared for the barrage of insults about to be hurled at the Elks Club. Take William Jennings Bryan, add some Jimmy Stewart, and throw in a healthy dose of Don Rickles, and I'm guessing that's what it must've sounded like to the assembled as I unleashed my invective disguised as a speech.


About halfway through my rant, I looked over toward the teacher/judge. He sat there without expression or emotion. I felt my heart skip a beat, as I was not used to being in trouble - and the last thing I wanted was for my parents to have to drive down to East Lansing and haul me home. I occasionally glanced at the other Boys Staters in the room to see how this was going down. Some looked at me in fear, others had that "boy-is-he-gonna-get-it" look on their faces - and the black kid in the room.. . well, what can I say, he was the only black kid in the room. He was trying to cover the smile on his face with his hand.


When the speeches were over, the teacher/judge went to the head of the class to issue his verdict. I slunk down in my seat, hoping that he would simply announce the winner and not issue any rebukes.



"Thank you, all of you, for your well-thought-out and well-written speeches," he began. "I was impressed with each and every one of you. The winner of this year's Elks Club Boys State Speech Contest is...Michael Moore ! Congratulations, Michael. That was a courageous thing to do. And you're right. Thank you."


I didn't realize it, but he was already shaking my hand, as were about a third of the other boys.


"Thank you," I said somewhat sheepishly. "But I really didn't wanna win anything. I just wanted to say something."


"Well, you sure said something," the teacher replied. "You'll receive your award tomorrow at the closing ceremonies with all two thousand boys in attendance.


"Oh - and you'll have to give the speech to them."


What ? Give what to whom ?


"It's the tradition. The winner of the Elks Club speech gives his speech at the closing assembly, where they announce the election results and hand out all the awards."


"Um, no, I don't really wanna do that," I said, distressed, hoping he would take pity on me. "You don't really want me to give that speech, do you ?"


"Oh, yes I do. But it's not up to me, anyway. You have to give it. That's the rule."


He also told me that for my own good, he wasn't going to mention to anyone the content of the speech before tomorrow. Oh, yes, that's much better, I thought. Let them all be hit with it fresh, like a big surprise, the kind which has the speaker being chased from the great hall, his prize in one hand, his life in the other.


After winning the speech contest, my night went something like this: "Fire and Rain," bathroom. “Across the Universe," bathroom. "Hot Fun in the Summertime," bathroom. And when you're seventeen and you don't have a car and you aren't prone to walking long distances - and you live in a state where mass transit is outlawed - there is a sense of imprisonment. That's it - I was in Boys State Prison ! By morning, I had said my final prayers and made a promise to myself that if I got out of this alive, I'd never cause trouble like this again.


The time came and thousands of Boys Staters were ushered into the university hall. On the stage sat various officials, including, I believe, the real governor of Michigan. I took a seat near the front, on the side, and quickly scanned the place for guys who enjoyed being white. There was virtually no long hair here in 1971, and way too many of them had that clean-cut, disciplined, aggressive look that would probably serve them well after a year or two in the Hanoi Hilton, if not the U.S. Congress.


You will have to forgive me for the order of what came next because the event became a blur. My basic survival instincts had kicked in, and that was all that mattered. Someone was elected lieutenant governor or attorney general or Most Likely to Be Caught in the Senate Bathroom Someday. Somewhere in the middle of those announcements I heard my name. I lifted myself out of the chair (against the better advice of my excretory system) and made my way to the stage. The few boys I made eye contact with had that bored "Oh, shit another speech" look on their faces. For an instant I felt like I was soon going to be doing them a huge favour. This was certainly not going to sound like anything they were used to in third-hour civics class. That much I knew.


I ascended to the stage and walked past the dignitaries settled in their comfortable chairs. As I looked at them one by one, I noticed a man who was wearing antlers. A hat with antlers. It was not Bullwinkle and this was not Halloween. This man was the Chief Elk, the head of all Elks, and he held in his lap the Elks Club Boys State speech trophy. He had a big, wide smile, a smile more appropriate for a Kiwanis or a Rotarian, with more teeth than I thought humanly possible, and he was so proud to see me take the podium. Oh, man, I thought, this guy is about to have a very bad day. I hope they did a patdown.


Unrolling my pages of paper, I peered out at the mass of newly minted testosterone. Sixteen and seventeen-year-olds who should have been doing anything right now – shooting hoops, kissing girls, gutting trout - anything but sitting here listening to me. I took a deep breath and began the speech.


"How dare the Elks Club..." I remember it was somewhere around that point when I could feel a whoosh of tension in the room, hundreds murmuring, snickering under their breath. Please God, I thought, could some responsible adult come up to the podium immediately and put an end to this !


No one did. I motored onward, and near the end I could hear the cadence in my voice and I thought this wouldn't be half bad if I were singing it in a rock band. I finished with my plea that the Elks change their ways and, as I turned my head to see the crimson tide that was now the face of the Chief Elk, his teeth resembling two chainsaws ready to shred my sorry self I blurted out, "And you can keep your stinkin' trophy !"


The place went insane. Nearly two thousand boys leapt to their feet and whooped and hollered and cheered me. The hollering wouldn't stop and order had to be restored. I jumped off the stage and tried to get out of there, my escape route having been pre-planned. But too many of the Boys Staters wanted to shake my hand or slap my back locker-room style, and this slowed me down. A reporter began to make his way toward me, notebook in hand. He introduced himself and said that he was astonished at what he had just seen and was going to write something and put it over the wire. He asked me a few questions about where I was from and other things that I didn't want to answer. I broke away and headed quickly out a side door. Keeping my head down and avoiding the main campus path, I made it back to the Kellogg Dorms, checked the vending machine for Ruffles, rushed to my room and bolted the door.


The machine was out of Ruffles, but there was the Guess Who, and I turned it up so I could have some time to figure out what in hell's name I'd just done.


At least two hours passed, and it seemed like I was in the clear. No authorities had come to take me away, no Elks militia had arrived seeking revenge. All seemed to be back to normal.


Until the knock on the door.


"Hey,” the anonymous voice barked. "There's a call for you."


The dorm rooms had no phones.


"Where's the phone?" I asked without opening the door.


"Down at the end of the hall."


Ugh. That was a long walk. But I needed Ruffles, and maybe they had restocked the machine. I opened the door and headed down the long hallway to the one public phone. The receiver hung dangling by its cord, like a dead man swinging from the gallows. What I didn't know was that on the other end of the line was the rest of my life.


"Hello?" I answered nervously, wondering who would even know where I was or how to reach me.


"Hello, is this Michael Moore ?" the voice on the line asked.




"I'm a producer here at the CBS Evening News with

Walter Cronkite in New York. We got this story that came over the wire about what you did today, and we'd like to send a crew over to interview you for tonight's newscast."


"Huh ?" What was he talking about ?


"We're doing a story on your speech exposing the Elks Club and their racial policies. We want you to come on TV."


Come on TV ? There wasn't enough Clearasil in the world to get me to do that.


"Uh, no thank you. I have to get back to my room. Bye."


I hung up and ran back to the room and locked the door again. But it didn't matter. This became my first-ever media lesson: I don't get to decide what goes in the morning paper or on the nightly news. That night, I was introduced to the world.


"And today in Lansing, Michigan, a seventeen-year-old boy gave a speech that took on the Elks Club and their segregationist practices, shedding light on the fact that it is still legal for private clubs in this country to discriminate on the basis of race …"


The next day the dorm phone rang off the hook, even as I was packing up to leave. I didn't answer any of the calls, but I heard from the other boys that there were reporters phoning from the Associated Press, two TV networks, the NAACP, a paper in New York and another in Chicago. Unless it involved them offering me free food or an introduction to a girl who might like me, I did not want to be bothered.


My parents were waiting outside in the car to take me back home. This much I'll say: my parents were not unhappy with my actions.


When I got home, the phone continued to ring. Finally, a call came from the office of Michigan senator Phil Hart. He wanted to talk to me about coming to Washington. The aide said it was something about a bill that would be introduced, a bill to outlaw discrimination by private entities. A congressman would be calling me about testifying in front of a congressional committee. Would I be willing to do that ?


No!! Why were they bothering me? Hadn't I done enough ? I didn't mean to cause such a ruckus.


I thanked him and said I would discuss it with my parents (though I never told them; they would have wanted me to go!). I went outside to mow the lawn. We lived on Main Street, on a corner, across the street from the town fire station and kitty-corner from the town bowling alley. Over the din of the mower's engine I could faintly hear the honk of a horn.


"Hey, Mike !" shouted Jan Kittel from the car that had just pulled up to the curb. With her was another girl from our class. I had known Jan since fifth grade in Catholic school. In the past year she and I were partners on the debate team. I loved her. She was smart and pretty and very funny. I waved.


"Hey, c'mere ! We heard about what you did at Boys State !" she said excitedly. "Man, that was something ! You rocked it ! I'm so proud of you."


I was ill equipped to handle the range of feelings and body temperature I was experiencing. I had absolutely no clue where to go with this other than to stutter out a "thanks." They got out of the car and she made me tell them the whole story, complete with the near riot I caused, which resulted in a lot of "right-ons !" and "far outs !" - and, yes, a big hug for my efforts. They were running an errand and had to get going, but not before she said she hoped to see me again that summer.


"You and I will kick ass in debate this year," she offered, as I glanced in relief at the EMS unit parked in front of the fire station. "It'll be fun."


They drove off and I finished the lawn. It dawned on me that doing something political had brought me both a lot of grief and a girl who stopped by to see me. Maybe I was too harsh on the class officer types who populated Boys State with their geek-like love of all things political. Maybe they knew a certain secret. Or maybe they would all just grow up to populate Congress with their slick, smarmy selves, selling the rest of us out at the drop of a dime. Maybe.


The following year was not a good one for the Elks Clubs of America. Many states denied them their liquor licenses (the unkindest cut of all). Grants and funds became scarce. Various bills in Congress to stop them and other private clubs were debated. And then the federal courts in D.C. dealt them a death blow by taking away their tax exempt status. Facing total collapse and the scorn of the majority of the nation, the Elks Club voted to drop their Caucasians Only policy. Other private clubs followed suit. The ripple effect of this was that now racial discrimination everywhere in America, be it public or private, was prohibited.


My speech was occasionally cited as a spark for this march forward in racial fixing in the great American experiment, but there were other speeches far more eloquent than mine. Most important for me, I learned a valuable lesson: That change can occur, and it can occur anywhere, with even the simplest of people and craziest of intentions, and that creating change didn't always require having to devote your every waking hour to it with mass meetings and organizations and protests and TV appearances with Walter Cronkite.


Sometimes change can occur because all you wanted was a bag of potato chips.



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I sense that my continuing to add stories to this rather ad hoc collection may well be coming to end soon. I still wait until over a hundred people have read a new entry before I add another. But as soon as that reading stops, I stop as well. I simply notice that the interest is falling away, as anyone would normally expect once the novelty wears off.


But for today anyway, there’s a new one. I’m actually still in the process of reading this particular book. It’s by an actress that I've seen a number of times on television, (but was never particularly impressed by one way or the other), called Rebecca Front. But her familiar face on the book’s cover attracted my curiosity, and aptly enough, it’s a collection of anecdotes of her life entitled, “Curious.”


In the extract below she weaves together an intriguing television interview of Maggie Thatcher that she saw, (a Youtube link to which I've added after the end of this excerpt) – along with some unusual and insightful ideas on peer pressure,… plus a number of incidents from her own life. All these ingredients the author blends together with such finesse that in the end, I think the final result is absolutely irresistible.





The End of the Peer Show



When Margaret Thatcher died, amid all the eulogising and demonising, a small curiosity began doing the rounds of the social networking sites. It was a video clip from an interview the Baroness had given, after her retirement from public office, to a Scandinavian broadcaster. The journalist conducting the interview, having come to the end of the serious stuff, was left with just the quirky, off-the-wall, ‘And finally … ' question, meant to lighten the mood and show a softer, more cuddly side to her subjects.


‘All the people that I interview,' she began in her nearly flawless English, 'I ask them to do something for me.' And you could tell from the awkward, beseeching lean towards Mrs Thatcher that she knew this was going to be a long shot.


'It's a kind of gimmick on my show and it's ... to make a jump ... just to stand up and make a jump up in the air.'


Before she could elaborate any further on this concept, the Iron Lady was bringing down the shutter.


'I shouldn't dream of doing that,' she replied.


The interviewer gamely pressed on, laughing an increasingly high-pitched, nervous laugh at every one of Mrs Thatcher's flat refusals, while admitting that they'd had a bet in the office beforehand and she'd told them this was never going to happen. The former Prime Minister was adamant, immoveable, true to her formidable reputation. She said it was silly, puerile. Why on earth would she do it ?


'Gorbachev did it,' the journalist ventured. It was a brave attempt, but a stupid one. Mrs Thatcher gave her a withering look.


'You amaze me,' she said, bristling with schoolmistressy disapproval.


'I wonder what he thought of the politics of a free society if that's what they ask you to do.'


The interviewer gave it one last go, explaining that many people found it fun, a chance to show a different side of themselves.


'I'll tell you what it shows: it shows that you want to be thought to be normal or popular,' countered Mrs Thatcher. And that, unmistakeably, was that.


I think the reason so many people liked this little snippet was that it reinforced the lack of humour they had long suspected of their erstwhile leader. A jump, a little jump. What possible harm could it do? Some people really need to lighten up.


The problem for me watching it, as someone who resolutely disliked what Mrs Thatcher stood for, was that I couldn't help applauding what in this instance she wouldn't stand for, what she was never in a million years going to stand for - to leap around in an asinine manner on a chat show. The very intransigence that I'd always found so alarming, so mystifying, so unsympathetic, was in this instance something I could only respect. A jump is not a chance to show a different side to yourself; it's a chance for a TV producer to show that they've got one over on you. 'Even once-mighty people will jump when I tell them to,' the producer can declare, 'for I am Oz the great and powerful and nobody wants to look like a party pooper on camera.'



When my children were small, I spent a great deal of time and energy warning them about peer pressure. It seemed to me that the roots of many of life's problems lay here – in the desire to fit in. So l would diligently explain to them that nobody could make you do a dare, for instance, or try a cigarette or take drugs, and that being different wasn't the same as being unpopular. In my own childhood, I had seen how the need to fit in had made people do things they were uncomfortable about, even ashamed of. It seemed to me then, and it still does, that you could place most of the ills that afflict young people (bullying, gangs, the sexualisation of young girls to name just a few) squarely at the door of our pathetic desire to be accepted. So surely, if we could tackle that at its source, if one of the first things we taught our kids was not just to say 'no’, but to say it forcefully and with a smile on their faces - 'no, that's a stupid idea, why on earth would anyone do that ?' - then perhaps a whole lot of misery could be avoided.


But of course it's not that simple. Peer pressure is endemic in our culture. Take the Mexican wave, for example. Come on, indulge me a little. I know where I'm going with this. When my son was about seven, I took him to see his favourite band play at a huge arena. In the hiatus between the support group finishing and the main act arriving on stage, somebody on the other side of this cavernous space decided that we, the audience, should become one. We had to bond, we had to abandon our individuality, break down the invisible barriers between us, and become a cheering, stomping, amorphous, music-loving mass. One by one, then row by row, block by block, thousands of once-proud, inhibited, easily embarrassed English people leapt to their feet, arched their backs, threw up their arms in a near-orgasmic gesture of submission and shouted 'Woah'. I saw it coming towards us with a threatening and unstoppable momentum, and so did my son.


'Oh cool,' he exclaimed.


'Oh shit,' I muttered.


'Can we join in?' he asked, delightedly.


'We'll probably have to,' I replied, grimly, and then not wanting to sound like a killjoy, I added unconvincingly 'which is great.'


For me, the Mexican wave was a symbol of oppression, a metaphor for the mindless subservience of the herd, the very definition of a futile gesture. Here was my chance to make a point, to put the case for individuality. Right here, right now, I could teach my son that we all speak with our own voice; that even if the rest of your gang are racist or sexist or homophobic or smoking crack, it's OK to go against the tide, to sit down and be counted. You are not just part of a greater 'Them', you are and always will be 'You', my son.


He, however, was poised on the edge of his seat, desperate to join in with something greater than he had ever known. He wanted to be part of the machine, and worse, he badly wanted me to be too. The wave was, by now, hurtling towards us. What would I do ?


I joined in. Of course I did. I'm not a total arse. It was, after all, a Mexican wave, not the Cultural Revolution. The only lesson my refusal would realistically have taught him was that his mother took herself too seriously. He was happy, I was momentarily embarrassed - neither of us lost our identity. But the Mexican wave was just the beginning. At the other side of the auditorium, the crowd had started doing the moves to 'YMCA’.


People will do the most ludicrous things if they think it'll be more embarrassing not to. Go up to one person in that audience on their own and ask them to leap to their feet and shout 'Whoa', and I guarantee they wouldn't do it. We don't mind being a bit 'crazy' as long as everybody else is being 'crazy’, because then it doesn't seem ... well, crazy. In fact it would be crazier not to. A Mexican wave is as harmless as it is pointless, of course, but it is in its way a mass movement, and like all mass movements, to join in with it is an abdication of both responsibility and power. Because, there are only two ways you can have power in this scenario - if you're the one who starts the movement or if you're the one who stops it. Most people, as Mrs Thatcher said, will join in in order to be thought 'normal and popular'.


Audience participation relies on just this sort of peer pressure, which is why I hate it so much. I've seen it from both sides: as a performer - demanding, expecting, relying on audience members to behave in a certain way - and as a punter desperately hoping not to be picked on. So I understand how the dynamic works. The performer is 99 per cent confident that whoever they select will do what they want them to do, just for the sake of a quiet life and not falling foul of the herd. But trust me, if you decide not to join in, you are the one with the power.


Now I admit, it sounds pathetic even to think of it in those terms, but when you sit in an audience, you very often don't want to be singled out. And yet when you are, it can feel like you have no choice but to go along with it. Picking on members of the audience - however amusingly and inventively done - is ultimately the recourse of someone short of ideas. I apologise to my comedian friends for saying that, especially since some of them are quite spectacularly good at this spontaneous interaction - and if the audience members involved are happy with that, then great. But the performers need you more than you need them, and if you refuse to join in, you expose this. It's a mean trick, sure, but then so is dragging some poor sucker up on stage and humiliating them.


I discovered this during a comedy show at the Edinburgh Festival. I'd just come off stage from my own show and was tired and hungry, so not in the most receptive of moods. But I'd heard great things about this particular comedian, so I thought I should try to catch him. A short while into his act, he announced that for the next section he was going to need a member of the audience. I desperately didn't want to be picked - after all, I'd done my performing for the night, going back on stage would have been something of a busman's holiday. So I lowered my head and tried to avoid eye contact as the comedian went from table to table weighing up his prey. Finally, of course, he picked on me.


'You’ll do,' he said, and I knew I was supposed to give a weary look of resignation and follow him onto the stage. But I really didn't want to, so I smiled and shook my head.


'Come on, on your feet,' he said.


It seemed a fait accompli. The audience was already applauding me. And that, I realised, is what makes people do it: your whole peer group, relieved that it's you and not them, is willing you to obey orders, partly so that the show can go on, but also to make damn sure he doesn't change his mind and pick on them. I knew it would be easier to play along, but the more pressurised I felt, the less inclined I was to do it. I'd come to watch a show not to be in one. With as charming a tone as I could muster, I said, ‘No thanks. You'd better ask someone else.' But he wouldn't move on. It had become a power struggle between us. I hadn't sought it, but I certainly wasn't going to cave in.


He had one more tactic up his sleeve. My shoulder bag was strung over the back of my seat, and he suddenly grabbed it and ran up to the stage. He threw it towards the curtain at the back and then, returning to centre-stage, said triumphantly:


'That'll get her up here.’


It had an odd effect on the audience, some laughing and applauding, but others audibly gasping, tutting and siding with me. He was right, though. I had to go up on stage now. So I did. I walked past the comic, retrieved my bag and went to sit back down with it. But as I passed him he tried to get it off me again. We tussled in this undignified fashion for longer than we should have done. I think we'd sort of forgotten about the show; we were now just two strangers having a fight in public. Eventually, and without really knowing what I was doing, I whacked him hard on the arm with my bag. He looked genuinely stunned, let go of the strap and I walked back to my seat to a round of applause. It was a pyrrhic victory. I'd ended up part of the show after all, looking far more ridiculous than I would have done if I'd just played along. But his refusal to let me just sit and watch had become a kind of bullying, and my not giving way felt pathetically like a win.


The odd thing about this whole episode is that I'm someone who obeys rules. I don't have a rebellious nature. But I have to believe that the rules are there for a purpose, that they've been imposed by someone who broadly has my best interests at heart. To do something I'm told to do purely because it will make me look like an idiot offends even my eagerness to comply.


It's the Mexican wave problem all over again - a seemingly harmless bit of nonsense with faintly sinister overtones. I can't be the only who worries about these things, and it makes me wonder if we shouldn't all routinely refuse to do stuff that society tells us to do, just for the practice. I'm not suggesting we break laws; heaven forbid. Little acts of rebellion – wearing odd socks, red wine with fish, milky Earl Grey - might just be enough one day to save us from tyranny.


Take it too far though, and you risk cutting off your nose to spite your face. I could give you a long list of things I have refused to experience - plays I've deliberately missed, films I've eschewed, books I've spurned and on and on - for no better reason than that everyone else was reading it, watching it, doing it, banging on about it, and I refused to bow to the pressure. It includes seeing Les Miserables, taking drugs, skiing, eating bacon sandwiches, buying a motorbike, having sex on a first date, reading The Lord of The Rings, listening to Van Morrison and squash (the game, not the fruit drink).


It was this very resistance to peer pressure that stopped me getting my ears pierced as a teenager … well, that and a faint suspicion that making holes in bits of flesh that didn't originally have them was a flawed idea. For years and years, I proudly flaunted my unmutilated lobes, preferring instead to suffer all day from the unique dragging pain caused by clip-ons. But then, when my daughter - as a result of peer pressure, I might point out - got her ears pierced without any fuss at all, I decided to give it a go. I was forty-five and it made me feel young again. It's a toss-up now what I'll try next - sex on a first date is tricky when you're married, but more appealing than reading The Lord of The Rings. Maybe I'll opt for squash.


Refusing to go with the majority for the sake of being different can be every bit as mindless as following with ovine conformity. Somewhere between Mrs Thatcher's refusal to be 'normal' and jumping off a cliff because your friends tell you to, there's probably a healthy attitude. In an ideal world, we would all take decisions for ourselves, based on the best available information, and without feeling the need either to join in or stand alone. This is not, alas, an ideal world.


I recently went for a walk in the country with my family. It had been unseasonably rainy, so the route was muddy and, in places, impassable. I was following along at the back of the group, whistling a little tune to myself in the manner of Winnie-the-Pooh, when we reached a swamp where there had previously been a field. My son weighed up the situation and decided on the best place for us to cross.


'It's not too deep here, but I'd do it fast if I were you" he called over his shoulder, and bounded, gazelle-like across the deep mud. Phil followed, perhaps more stag-like than gazelle, but still pretty impressive. Then my daughter, dancing across like a young Leslie Caron. I stopped and looked around me. I had a feeling this might not be the best place. It looked pretty deep to me, and we'd passed somewhere further back that seemed altogether more sensible. But they'd all done it and I didn't want to seem like a wuss. I stepped gingerly across, too slowly, allowing my weight to settle into the bog, contrary to my son's advice. By the time I reached the other side, my boots were squelching with a thick internal coating of mud and my trousers were soaked to the thigh.


We carried on a little further and this time had to cross a stream. I was quite some way behind by now, not least because I was carrying within my footwear copious quantities of turf, but since Phil and the kids were in the distance, I could please myself. I decided I wasn't going to succumb to peer pressure. I'd failed to follow my instincts first time around, and look where it had got me. I found a place where I would be comfortable crossing, and carefully picked my way across the stream, feeling the water seeping through into my mud-filled boots. True, my trousers got wet all over again, but I didn't fall in and I felt pretty pleased with myself. I'd chosen an independent course and followed it.


I caught up with the others. My daughter turned round and looked at my sodden legs.


'What happened?' she asked.


It was then that I noticed her trousers were completely dry.


'There was a bridge just up to the right,' she explained.


A bridge ? Why didn't somebody tell me ?'


'We just assumed you'd do what we were doing,' she said. 'You know, like a normal person would.'




Link to Swedish Interview :


Edited by ThisLife
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I've been saving this story for several weeks now, until all the agitated energies of Christmas, New Year’s, the family gatherings and mini-feuds,… have all had a chance to subside. I've always found that in contrast, the space which reveals itself after all this ‘social dust’ has settled is a much quieter, clearer, more introspective place to be in. It’s mid January, the deepest part of winter. Everything in nature, all the plant world and most of our fellow animal inhabitants … are all conserving energy in slow, ‘tick-over’ mode.


So, often my mind gets attracted to a different style of story – like the one below.


It too, is slower. It was written at a time when the people’s view of the world and of human and societal relationships, were radically different than they are today. “A Pattern of Islands” was written almost exactly a hundred years ago, just before the First World War – the war which ended forever a world where half a dozen European imperialist countries battled each other to carve up virtually every country in the world into one of their empires.


Today, few people are able to look back on that era without experiencing a 'slightly guilty' sense of shame. Yet from another, more detached, purely historical point of view, it was simply another phase of history no different than the Greek, Roman, Persian, or Ottoman Empires. Not intrinsically any more or less interesting than the times of Genghis Khan, or the settling of the American West or Australia, (both of which processes depended on first overpowering, then destroying, the native cultures which had lived in those areas for millenia beforehand).


Nevertheless, despite the shocking cultural genocide our ancestors so freely engaged in, undeniably there was exactly the same range of people and personality types in those times as there are now. There were equally as many kind and highly admirable human beings out walking in the streets as there are now. They just happened to be born at a time when, one hundred years later, a future generation would heartily disapprove of them. Yet, can we who by chance find ourselves alive now in this ever-moving window of time, truly imagine ourselves to be free from the possibility of being held in a similar, (or even worse) regard by those who will be looking back at us a century further on ?


Anyway, this an autobiographical story written by an exceptionally kind-hearted young man who happened to be born in the very last days of empire, and who went off to serve his country and fellow men in a post that turned out to be almost the embodiment of many people’s dreams: a cluster of remote, tropical, Polynesian islands.


The book that these few opening chapters are taken from, I feel is an absolute gem. Simply by decoding the record left behind by Arthur Grimble’s words on paper, we are able to transport ourselves to a romantic world and time vastly different from our own – yet one which is seen through the eyes of a person who is surprisingly, not very far removed from our own nature. He too, was a fellow lover of humanity.









I was nominated to a cadetship in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Protectorate at the end of 1913. The cult of the great god Jingo was as yet far from dead. Most English households of the day took it for granted that nobody could be always right, or ever quite right, except an Englishman. The Almighty was beyond doubt Anglo-Saxon, and the popular conception of Empire resultantly simple. Dominion over palm and pine (or whatever else happened to be noticeably far-flung) was the heaven-conferred privilege of the Bulldog Breed. Kipling had said so. The colonial possessions, as everyone so frankly called them, were properties to be administered, first and last, for the prestige of the little lazy isle where the trumpet-orchids blew. Kindly administered, naturally - nobody but the most frightful bounder could possibly question our sincerity about that - but firmly too, my boy, firmly too, lest the school-children of Empire forgot who were the prefects and who the fags. Your uncles – meaning every man Jack of your father's generation, uncle or not, who cared to take you by the ear - all said you'd never be a leader if you weakened on that point. It was terrifying, the way they put it, for Stalky represented their ideal of dauntless youth, and you loathed Stalky with his Company as much as you feared him; but you were a docile young man, and, as his devotees talked, you felt the seeds of your unworthiness sprouting into shameful view through every crack in your character.


The Colonial Office spoke more guardedly than your uncles. It began by saying that, as a cadet officer, you were going to be on probation for three years. To win confirmation as a member of the permanent administrative staff, you would have to pass within that time certain field-examinations in law and native language. This seemed plain and fair enough, but then came the rider. I forget how it was conveyed, whether in print or by word of mouth; but the gist of it was that you could hardly hope to be taken on as a permanent officer unless, over and above getting through your examinations, you could manage to convince your official chiefs overseas that you possessed qualities of leadership. The abysmal question left haunting you was - did the Colonial Office mean leadership in the same sense as Kipling and your uncles? If it did, and if you were anything like me, you were scuppered.


I was a tallish, pinkish, long-nosed young man, fantastically thin-legged and dolefully mild of manner. Nobody could conceivably have looked, sounded or felt less like a leader of any sort than I did at the age of twenty-five. Apart from my dislike of the genus Stalky, I think the only positive things about me were a consuming hunger for sea-travel and a disastrous determination to write sonnets. The sonnet-writing had been encouraged by Arthur Christopher Benson at Cambridge; the wanderlust had started to gnaw at my vitals at school, when I read that essay of Froude's, “England's Forgotten Worthies" - especially the part of it that pictured how Humphrey Gilbert met his end in the ten-ton "frigate" Squirrel, sitting abaft with a book in his hand, "giving signs of joy" to his fellow-adventurers in the Golden Hinde and roaring at them through the wild Atlantic gale that engulfed him, "We are as near heaven by sea as by land", so often as they approached within hearing. I tried at Cambridge to cram some of my feelings about that, and the sea's lure in general, into a sonnet of dubious form:


She called them with the voices of far lands

And with the flute-like whispering of reeds,

With scents of coral where the tide recedes,

With thunderous echoes of deserted strands.


She babbled the barbaric lilt of tongues

Heard brokenly in dreams; she strung the light

Of swarthy-smouldering gems across the night;

She wrung their hearts with haunting of strange songs.


She witched them with her ancient sorceries

And lo! they knew the terrible joy of ships

Gone questing where the moon's last footstep is,


And stars hold passionless converse overhead

While mariners are drawn with writhen lips

Down, down, deep down, among her voiceless dead.


Arthur Benson was pained at the rhyme-pattern of the octave, but said the thing sounded sincere and showed promise. I was unwise enough to bring his kindly letter to the notice of some of my uncles. They only said he ought to have known better; after all, he had had every chance, dammit, as the son of an Archbishop ! So, Benson, as a moral prop, was out. But I had acquired at school and Cambridge some kind of competence at cricket and other sports, which kept them always hoping for the best. When I became, first secretary, and then, in the normal course, captain of my college cricket XI, they began to believe I really might be on my way to vertebrate life. But they could not have been more deeply mistaken. As secretary, I invariably took orders from the captain; as captain, I invariably took orders from the secretary, while the team invariably played the game as if neither of us was there. The worst of it was, I loved it. If ever I had previously entertained a notion that I might enjoy ordering people around, that experience certainly disabused me of it.


The fear of being packed home from the Gilbert and Ellice Islands in disgrace, after three years of probation, for having failed to become the kind of leader my uncles wanted me to be, began to give me nightmares. A moment came when I felt that the instant sack for some honest admission of my own ineptitude would be easier to bear than that long-drawn-out ignominy. In any case, I decided, someone at the top ought to be warned of my desperate resolve never to become like Stalky. It sounded rather fine, and lonely, and stubborn, put like that; but I fear I didn't live up to the height of it. I did, indeed, secure an interview at the Colonial Office, but my nearest approach to stubbornness with the quiet old gentleman who received me there was to confess, with a gulp in my throat, that the imaginary picture of myself in the act of meting out imperial kindness-but-firmness to anybody, anywhere in the world, made me sweat with shame.


The quiet old gentleman was Mr. Johnson, a Chief Clerk in the department which handled the affairs of Fiji and the Western Pacific High Commission. That discreet title of his (abandoned today in favour of Principal and Secretary) gave no hint of the enormous penetrating Power of his official word. In the Western and Central Pacific alone, his modest whisper from behind the throne of authority had power to affect the destinies of scores of races in hundreds of islands scattered over millions of square miles of ocean. I was led to him on a bleak afternoon of February 1914, high up in the gloomy Downing Street warren that housed the whole Colonial Office staff of those days. The air of his cavernous room enfolded me with the chill of a mortuary as I entered. He was a spare little man with a tenuous sandy beard and heavily tufted eyebrows of the same colour. He stood before the fire, slightly bent in the middle like a monkey-nut, combing his beard with one fragile hand and elevating the tails of his cut-away coat with the other, as he listened to my story. I can see him still, considering me over his glasses with the owlish yet not unkindly stare of an undertaker considering a corpse. (Senior officials in the Colonial Office don't wear beards today, but they still cultivate that way of looking at you.) When I was done, he went on staring a bit; then he heaved a quiet sigh, ambled over to a bookcase, pottered there breathing hard for a long while (I think now he must have been laughing), and eventually hauled out a big atlas, which he carried to his desk.


"Let us see, now," he murmured, settling into his chair, "let us see .. . yes . . . let us go on a voyage of discovery together. Where . . . precisely . . . are the Gilbert and Ellice Islands ? If you will believe me, I have often been curious to know."


He started whipping over the pages of the atlas; I could do nothing but goggle at him while he pursued his humiliating research.


"Ah !" he chirruped at last, "here we have them: five hundred miles of islands lost in the wide Pacific. Remote . . . I forbear, in tenderness for your feelings, from saying anything so Kiplingesque as far-flung. Do we agree to say remote and not far-flung ?" He cocked his wicked little eye at me.


I made sounds in my throat, and he went on at once, "Remote . . . yes . . . and romantic . . . romantic ! Eastwards as far as ship can sail . . . up against the gateways of the dawn . . . coconut- palms, but of course ,not pines, ha-ha ! . . . the lagoon islands, the Line Islands, Stevenson's islands ! Do we accept palms, not pines ? Do we stake our lives on Stevenson, not Kipling? Do we insist upon the dominion of romance, not the romance of dominion ? I should appreciate your answer."


I joyfully accepted Stevenson and ruled Kipling out (except, of course, for Puck of Pook's Hill and Kim, and the Long Trail, and others too numerous to mention) ; but my callowness squirmed shamefully at romance. He became suddenly acid at that: "Come, come! You owe perhaps more to your romanticism than you imagine - your appointment as a cadet, for example." The truth was, according to him, that I had been the only candidate to ask for the job in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands. But for that . . . if, in fact, I had been up against the least competition . . . well . . . who could say ? As I, for one, could not, he leaned back in his chair and fired a final question at me: "I may take it, may I not, that, despite certain doubts which you entertain about the imperialism of Mr. Kipling and . . . hm. . . a great many of your betters, you still nurse your laudable wish to go to the Central Pacific ?"


I replied yes, sir, certainly, sir, but how was I going to tackle this thing about leadership, sir.


He peered at me incredulously, rose at once, and lifted his coat-tails again at the fire, as if I had chilled whatever it was. "I had imagined," he confided in a thin voice to the ceiling, "that I had already - and with considerable finesse - managed to put all that in its right perspective for this queer young man."


"However," he continued, after a long and, to me, frightful silence, "let us dot our i's and cross our t's. The deplorable thing about your romanticism is that you display it as a halo around your own head. You seem to think that, when you arrive in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, the entire population will forthwith stop work to stand with bated breath awaiting your apotheosis as a leader among them."


The blend of venomous truth and ghastly unfairness in this bit deep into my young soul; I opened my mouth to protest, but he overrode me: "You permit me to proceed ? Thank you. Now, believe me, your egocentric surmise is grotesquely incorrect. You will encounter out there a number of busy men interested primarily in only one thing about you, namely, your ability to learn and obey orders. These will severely deplore any premature motion of your own to order them - or, in fact, anybody else - about. They will expect you to do as you are told – neither more nor less - and to do it intelligently. In the process of learning how to obey orders with intelligence and good cheer, you may, we hope, succeed in picking up some first, crude notions about the true nature of leadership. I say 'we hope' because that is the gamble we, in the Colonial Office, have taken on you. Kindly do your best to justify it."


Though his tone had been as cutting as his words, the flicker of a smile had escaped once or twice, as if by permission, through his beard. I got the notion that the smiles meant, “You incredible young ass ! Can’t you see, this is the way round to put it to your uncles ?" But when I gave him back a timid grin, he asked me sharply why. I answered sheepishly that he had eased my mind, because truly, truly I didn't want to go ordering anybody round any more than he wanted me to.


At that, his manner changed again to one of sprightly good humour. He began to tell me a whole lot of things about a cadet’s training in the field (or, at least, the training he thought I was destined to get in the Central Pacific) that nobody else had ever hinted at. As I understood the burden of it, it was that I would spend my first year or so of probation on Ocean Island, the administrative capital of the protectorate, where I would be passed from department to department of the public service to learn in successive order, from a series of rugged but benevolent Heads (all. of whom quite possibly harboured a hidden passion for the writings of R.L.S.), the basic functions of the Secretariat, the Treasury, the Magistrate's Court, the Customs, the Works Department, the Police, the post Office, and the prisons organization. I don't know what magic he used - he certainly never spoke above a chirp ; but he managed to make that arid list of departmental names roll from his lips like the shouting of golden trumpets upon my ear. I had a vision as he spoke: the halo he had mentioned burst into sudden glory around my head. . . .


. . . It was dawn. I was hurrying, loaded with papers of the utmost import, through the corridors of a vast white office building set on an eminence above a sapphire ocean. I had been toiling all night with the Chief Secretary, the Treasurer, the Magistrate, the Collector of Customs, the Commissioner of Works, the Chief of Police, the Postmaster General, and the Keeper of the Prison. The job was done ! I had pulled them all through. Just in time ! There in the bay below lay a ship with steam up, waiting for final orders. I opened a door. A man with a face like a sword - my beloved Chief, the Resident Commissioner himself—sat tense and stern-eyed at his desk. His features softened swiftly as he saw me: "Ah . . . you, Grimble . . . at last !" He eagerly scanned my papers: "Good man . . . good man! It's all there. I knew I could trust you. 'Where shall I sign ? … God, how tired I am !" "Sign here, sir. . . I'll see to everything else … leave it all to me.'' My voice was very quiet, quiet but firm . . .


… and remember this,"-broke in the voice of Mr. Johnson, "a cadet is a nonentity." The vision fled. The reedy voice persisted: "A cadet washes bottles for those who are themselves merely junior bottle-washers. Or so he should assess his own importance, pending his confirmation as a permanent officer."


He must have seen something die in my face, for he added at once, "Not that this should unduly discourage you. All Civil Servants, of whatever seniority, are bottle-washers of one degree or another. They have to learn humility. Omar Khayyam doubtless had some over-ambitious official of his own epoch chiefly in mind when he wrote 'and think that, while thou art, thou art but what thou shalt be, NOTHING: thou shalt not be less.' Sane advice, especially for cadets ! Nevertheless, you would do well to behave, in the presence of your seniors, with considerably less contempt for high office than Omar seems to have felt. Your approach to your Resident Commissioner, for example, should preferably suggest the attitude of one who humbly aspires to 'pluck down, proud clod, the neck of God'."


Who was I, to question the rightness of this advice? I certainly felt no disposition to do so then (I don't remember having felt any since) and, as he showed no further wish to pursue the topic, I passed to another that had been on my mind. A marriage had been arranged. My pay as a cadet would be £3oo a year, plus free furnished quarters. Did he think a young married couple could live passably well on that at Ocean Island ? I pulled out a written list of questions about the local cost of living. At the word "marriage" he started forward with a charming smile, light-stepping as a faun, whisked the paper from my hand, laid it on the mantelpiece, and turned back to face me: "Ah …romance . . . romance again," he breathed, "a young couple … hull-down on the trail of rapture . . . the islands of desire . . ' but there is method, too . . . let us look before we leap . . . the cost of living ! A businesslike approach. Very proper. Well. . . now. . . hmm . . . yes . . . my personal conjecture is that you should find the emoluments adequate for your needs, provided always, of course, that you neither jointly nor severally acquire the habit of consuming vast daily quantities of champagne and caviar. Remember, for the rest . . . in your wilderness . . . how the ravens fed Elijah . . . or was it Elisha ?"


And that was that about the cost of living. I was too timid to recover my list from the mantelpiece.


Thus finally primed in the Colonial Office for exploding as a bottle-washer upon the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, I sailed with Olivia from England on March 6th, 1914.





We reached Australia in a liner designed for the delight of passengers; we wallowed out of Sydney harbour, towards the end of April, in a craft of more romantic dedication. She was Burns, Philp and Company's steamship Moresby, a typical Pacific tramp of those days - 1,3oo tons register, thirty-three years old, but still A1 at Lloyd's and still game to plug her stinking way at the rate of six knots through any weather to any palm-green shore where pearl-shell or beche-de-mer, shark-fins or copra were to be picked up. By the time we met her, her battered hull, surviving god-knows-how-many hurricanes at sea and casualties by reef or shoal, had puffed with unconquerable patience across three-quarters of a million miles of empty ocean (by the captain's reckoning) and pushed its grimy nose through every remotest archipelago of the Pacific. The captain, a minute Cockney as way-worn but steadfast as his ship, would talk to us for hours about her achievements, his brown eyes tender with love; but the chief of all her virtues for him was her iron hull.


"Look at those lovely plates!" he would exclaim, pointing to the incredibly buckled decks, "all bent to hell, but not a leak in 'em anywhere! Because why? They're beautiful soft iron, not this-here cheap steel. She can knock her way into lagoons through horse's heads-and coral mushrooms . . . crack-crack, like that, port and starboard, the dear old what-not, just taking a few more dunts in her old bottom but never springing a blanky leak anywhere." A sweet old lady she was, he always finished up, a sweet old lady. She must have been, in her fashion, for the memory of her still tugs somehow at my heart; but she had not been designed for the comfort of landlubbers like us, nor had her business occasions sweetened the smell of her for our kind of noses. She reeked of dead shark, putrid oyster and rancid copra from stem to stern of her aged body, and the ruinous wooden hutch on the forward well-deck where we tried to sleep was undoubtedly the chief concentrating-point of all her odours. Then, too, there were the cockroaches.


Those three-and-a-half-inch monsters, fattened on the oily refuse that clotted every crevice of the holds, swarmed up at night into our bunks, looking for a change of diet. Pacific cockroaches eat feet. They would willingly devour any other exposed part of the human body, for that matter, if one let them; but the tickle of a dozen or so on a hand or face usually wakes a sleeper before they can get down to a meal. A foot, though, is a different proposition; the thick skin on the sole is insensitive, and the victim feels nothing until they have gnawed that down to the quick. When he does wake, the ball and heel have been stripped pink, and he hobbles for the next week or so, to the exquisite enjoyment of all true sailormen and shell-backs. I know, because it happened to me in the Moresby. It was then that I heard for the first time that side-splitting joke, so gloatingly reiterated by shell-backs for the comfort of greenhorns: "Take it easy, son: it's only the first ten years in the islands that's hell !"


We did learn later to accept cockroaches as domestic pets (or almost) for, in the Gilbert Islands, whenever foul weather threatened, whole rustling clouds of them would come flying into the house for refuge. Once lodged, they stayed for weeks; so we decided at last to count them in as an essential ingredient of Pacific romance - it was either that, or die of daily horror – and our only incurable pedantry about them in the long run was to keep them, if or when possible, out of the soup. It was fortunate, nevertheless, that we did not reach this stage of civilization in the Moresby, because, but for our first maniac terror of the brutes, we might never have slept on deck. The captain had strong ideas about the propriety of such a thing for a young woman. Nothing but our most haggard entreaties persuaded him to let us, at last, drag our mattresses up to the boat-deck amidships. Once we were there, however, he gave us a tarpaulin sheet for extra cover against rain squalls. We needed it a lot at first, but the weather cleared as we slid past the Santa Cruz group; and then we found out what it was to lie at night overleaned by nothing but a firmament of flaming stars - for the tropic stars did fame for us, just as the travel books had promised. The nights were amethyst clear and cool. Eddies of warm air, loaded with earth scents and jungle dreams from islands beyond sight, enmeshed us and were gone again. The swing of the old ship was so quiet, she seemed to be poised moveless while the stars themselves were rocking to the croon of the bow-wave, back and forth above her mastheads, as we lay tranced with watching.


There were Gilbertese deck-hands in the crew, copper-skinned boys, thick muscled and short in the leg but as active as cats in the rigging. They were shy with strangers, stern-featured and remote-looking when they worked alone. We thought them dour folk until we saw them get together. That was somewhere on the edge of the tropics, when the trousers and jerseys that had veiled the glorious moulding of their bodies had been discarded for the belted waist-cloths, trimmed to the knee, of ordinary island wear. They had been called to the forecastle-head to heave an anchor inboard for cleaning. We saw them cluster in silence, a group of bronze statues by the cat-heads, while the boatswain's mate, an Ocean Islander, interpreted the first mate's talk. There was hardly a move and never the hint of a smile among them until the officer walked away. We wondered why he had left them standing so unresponsive there; but "you watch 'em" said the captain. Magically, as he spoke, the tough masks relaxed and were turned with grins towards one man of their number - not their official leader, the boatswain's mate, but a massive, towering fellow, who still stood utterly smileless. The captain said he was their licensed wag: it was up to him and nobody else on board to start things humming. He had his joke all ready cooked up behind those brooding eyes. It was a crack, as we heard later, of the most joyous ribaldry about the ancestry of anchors; he delivered himself of it in a high feminine shriek, tottering towards the side in perfect simulation of senility. The air suddenly rang with answering laughter; the crew leapt alive; the anchor came aboard in no time to the accompaniment of hoots and horse-play. When the job was finished, they stood around holding hands and chattering for a while, to look at what they had done, like satisfied children or artists well pleased with their handiwork. Then, one by one, they drifted off to their separate tasks, each wrapped again in the cloak of his austere silence.


One evening, we heard them singing on the forecastle-head. We could make out, from where we listened, a circle of sitting shapes, their torsos stippled in black against the night sky. Their heads and shoulders were bowed, their voices muted; the queer inflections of their chant were cadenced, even for our alien ears, with grief beyond bearing. We knew it could not be one of the ancient island sagas of war or wonder-voyage that we had read about. We were to hear many of those later, triumphally intoned, in the packed meeting-houses of the Gilberts; but this was a new song and a sad song made by one of the crew for love of his cruel lady. I got the words of it from Teburea, the boatswain's mate, before we left the ship. He wrote them down for me and I still have the paper; here is the ungarnished translation of them:


I am sore-hearted for you,

Do not make me kill myself

How great is my frustration

Because you give me no reward!


I am sad, I am sad,

But I can hide my sadness from you,

If you will only say that one day

Perhaps I shall have my reward.


Teburea told me that the suffering poet could not, for shame of seeming boastful, himself join in the singing. His part was to teach his song to friends who loved him, and sit weeping in their circle while they sang it for him. They too wept as they sang, Teburea said, because they knew their tears would make their friend a little happy, and because the words were very beautiful, and because all of them were sick for their own sweethearts, over there across the sea to eastward. Or perhaps, if they were not sick for sweethearts, they wanted to see their father and mother again. "Me sick, too, for my old man," Teburea finished simply (I know now that he meant his adoptive grandfather), "he love me too much; me love him too much, too," and walked away.


It began to dawn on me then that, beyond the teeming romance that lies in the differences between men - the diversity of their homes, the multitude of their ways of life, the dividing strangeness of their faces and tongues, the thousand-fold mysteries of their origins - there lies the still profounder romance of their kinship with each other, a kinship that springs from the immutable constancy of man's need to share laughter and friendship, poetry and love in common. A man may travel a long road, and suffer much loneliness, before he makes that discovery. Some, groping along dark byways, never have the good fortune to stumble upon it. But I was luckier than most. The islands I had chosen blindly, for the only reason that they were romantically remote, were peopled by a race who, despite the old savagery of their wars and the grimness born of their endless battle with the sea, were princes in laughter and friendship, poetry and love. Something in the simple way Teburea had spoken of that love song and the singing of it gave me a sudden inkling of things to come. I felt in my bones I was going to a place that, for all its remoteness, would prove to be no strange land for me.







We raised Ocean Island, via Solomon Island ports, on the morning of our seventeenth day out of Sydney. It was one of those burning days of the doldrums, when the sea is glassy but not still. The solemn swells that came pulsing up out of the south were unruffled by any breath of wind, but the huge heave of them told of storms far away. The ship swung dizzily from valley to burnished mountain-crest and back again to shining valley as she laboured her way up to the island. We heard the boom of the breakers from miles offshore as they crashed upon the reef. It was a sound new to our ears, a note of majesty once heard, forever remembered. It seemed unbelievable that the sweep of that thunderous attack could fail to engulf the tiny lump of land - not 2,ooo acres of it in all - so forlornly crouched between the vastitudes of sky and sea.


The shudder of Ocean Island's narrow reef to the shock of the surf is familiar to people who live there. The old fishermen who used to dwell in the waterside villages would whisper to each other, when they felt it, "Behold, Tabakea moves a little !" Tabakea was the great turtle at the bottom of the sea, who balanced on his back the thin column of rock that carried their home like a coral mushroom-head on its top. One day, they believed, Tabakea would move too much, and Baanaba (The Rock-Land - that was their name for it) would topple over and be engulfed in the roaring waters. But the thought did not trouble them mightily, for they knew that their hero ancestor, the far-voyager, the all-conquering warrior and lover, Au-of-the-Rising-Sun, who had pinned Tabakea down when his people had made the place their home, would see them safely through the end. Every new dawn was his repeated guarantee of that. So, when someone whispered, "Tabakea moves a little", it was enough to answer, "The Sun rises !" for everyone to be comforted again. And, awaiting the end, they treated the imprisoned giant as a friend and helper, as was only proper, because he too was an ancestor; the Turtle had been the god of the men whom the People of Au had overwhelmed, and so also the god of their widows and daughters. These had been taken to wife by the womanless invading horde for the raising of a new stock on Baanaba. But their subjection had not made them false to the faith of their fathers; their constancy saw to it that the children they bore to the invaders should inherit the cult of the Turtle not less than the cult of the conquering Sun-hero. Though Au remained the triumphant Lord of Heaven (Tau-karawa, the Holder-of-the-Skies), Tabakea sidled his way through the nurseries at sea-level, so to speak, into the daily life of the people. He became Tau-marawa, the Holder-of-the-Ocean. It was to him that the new generation turned to Pray for good fishing, and, above all, for safe goings and comings through the dangers of Baanaba's terrible reef.


The fishermen's notion that the land was perched on a column of rock was not so very wide of the truth. Ocean Island is nothing but the tip of a vast pinnacle upthrust out of the depths. At two cables' lengths out from the reef in Home Bay, there is a little ledge a hundred fathoms down, over which ships can- tie up in fine weather to colossal buoys that carry the world's deepest moorings. Only a bare half-dozen cables' lengths farther to seaward, the bottom has plunged to nearly two thousand fathoms. In other words, the hundred-fathom mooring-ground is a mere niche by the pinnacle's crest, chipped out of a two-mile precipice that soars almost sheer from the ocean's abysses. It may be not even a niche, but a cornice of reef-coral overhanging the black deeps. If that be so, it follows that the island's cliffs have slipped six hundred feet lower today than once they stood, for the polyp that builds reef-coral is a creature of the light - its extreme living depth is within one hundred and twenty feet of the surface. It is sure, it any case, that the towering pinnacle has been the plaything of vast movements in the ocean's depths.


Aeons ago, its crest must have lain under water, yet just near enough to the top for the reef-building polyps to live there, for it was capped in that age with a platform of coral rock. Perhaps, when the reef broke surface after countless centuries of growth, the grinding of the surf for countless further centuries of disintegration formed a bank of coral sand upon it; or perhaps there was simply a sudden upheaval of the peak to tremendous heights above the sea. Whichever it was, that solitary perch in the midst of the mighty waters became the sanctuary of unnumbered sea birds. There were so many of them, and they stayed for so long, that their droppings covered the coral platform with a bed of guano forty feet deep and tens of millions of tons heavy.


That was the age of birds; it was ended by a subsidence; the island disappeared, and the age of fishes began. One relic that remains for man out of the era of engulfment is the fossil tooth of a shark so enormous that a motor lorry could be driven through its reconstructed jaws. The heaped bird-droppings, overlaid by the rich refuse of the depths, suffered a sea-change from guano into phosphate of lime. Then again the ocean's bed was convulsed, and the coral platform with its load of precious phosphate was pushed three hundred feet above the water. It did not sink again. Now generations of polyps got to work to build a cornice of reef around the island's foot; birds flew in from places afar bearing seeds in their feathers; the land was covered in scrub that rotted, and grew, and rotted again, to form a topsoil of black earth; a forest of great calophyllum trees appeared on the heights.


Maybe it was not so very many millions of years after the last upheaval that seafaring men - the People of Tabakea, the People of Au, and who knows what other land-hungry swarms before them - arrived and built their villages above the south-west facing bay. Only a few score centuries more were to pass from then until the Pacific Islands Trading Company, scouring the archipelagos for cargoes of guano, chanced upon the vast deposit saved on Ocean Island out of the gulfs of time.


The Company, never a very rich concern, was tottering towards financial collapse in the late eighteen-nineties. Its old ship, the Ocean Queen, sailing out of Melbourne, Australia, had helped to rake all the known guano-islands of the Western Pacific clean of their deposits by that time; persistent search had failed to discover any worthwhile new sources; a day came when the directors knew that a single speculative voyage would probably land them in the bankruptcy court. They decided to go out of business before worse happened. It was a bleak look-out for everyone at the table. They called in young Albert Ellis, the super-cargo of the Ocean Queen, and broke the gloomy news to him.


But Albert had a bright bee in his bonnet. Their sad looks only made it buzz the louder. "'Wait a minute ... wait a minute !" he shouted, dashed out of the room and returned at a run carrying in his hand a queer-looking chunk of putty-coloured rock. Everyone recognized it. He had used it for several years to prop open the door of his office. "This," he said, "was given me by a friend, who picked it up at Ocean Island. I believe. . . ."


"Yes, yes," they cut him short wearily, "you needn't go on." He had said the same thing before, a dozen, a hundred times. He believed the rock might have phosphate of lime in it. But they believed otherwise. They were so certain he was wrong, nobody had ever even thought of having the thing analysed. They scoffed at his plea for an analysis now, at the eleventh hour. "Fortune doesn't play fairy-godmother tricks these days, boy," they said: "Now drop it and hop it."


But he was not to be put off this time. He could ill afford to pay for an analysis himself, but he rode his hunch and took the rock to an expert.


A week or so later, he stalked into the directors' room again and reported what he had done. "I'm not asking for a refund of the fee," he told the astonished board, "because I think you're going to raise my pay quite soon."


"My poor boy," answered the fatherly managing director, "you shall certainly have your money back. Foolish as you were, you acted in our interests and you shan't lose by it. But we can't raise your pay. The firm is closing down."


"Oh-no-it's-not!" shouted the irrepressible Albert. "You just take a look at this report," and slapped the paper on the table. The analyst had recorded a ninety per cent phosphoric acid reaction to his tests. The rock was made of the purest phosphate of lime yet discovered in a natural state by man.


On the strength of that report, a Melbourne bank granted an overdraft that enabled the Company to send the Ocean Queen prospecting up to Ocean Island. She returned, her holds crammed with the putty-coloured rock, bought piecemeal from the Baanabans in exchange for tobacco, beads, knives, prints, and calico. The profits from this first yield paid for a better-fitted second voyage; and so on; the business never looked back. The Pacific Islands Trading Company became the millionaire Pacific Phosphate Company; this, in its turn, was converted into the British Phosphate Company, which again, a few years later, became the British Phosphate Commissioners, a nationalized industry owned jointly by the governments of Britain, Australia and New Zealand. Albert Ellis finished his career as Sir Albert, a Knight of the Order of the British Empire and Phosphate Commissioner for New Zealand.


The romance of the Company, however, was far from being the first point to strike us as the old Moresby brought us lurching into Home Bay. What stood out initially was a dreadful, corrugated-iron factory building above the water-front, from which enormous clouds of dust were being thrown sky-high. It was the crushing-mill of the Company, busy pulverizing its daily quota of a thousand tom of phosphate rock for the export market. The dust it flung up drifted heavily down the still air, to load all the greenery of the island's flank with a grey pall. Its belchings seemed to us as grossly out of place as a series of eructations in the face of the infinite. Yet the major impertinence was ours; the unmannerly monster we saw before us was helping to keep a million acres of pasture-land green in Australia and New Zealand; and, but for its disfiguring industry on Ocean Island, there would have been little enough revenue to maintain services for the thirty thousand Gilbertese and Ellice folk who lived by their bright lagoons in the atolls to east and south. But, though the first shock of our disappointment was tempered by no such mature reflections, we did not have to stand nursing our peevishness for long; a boat was riding the mighty procession of swells a mile offshore, awaiting our arrival. The ship swung to give it a lee, and Methven came aboard.


Stuartson Collard Methven was the Officer-in-Charge of Police, Ocean Island. It was not his business, as such, to board ships for the Customs, or the Post Office, or anybody else. But there were Ellice Islanders in the police force, and no race in that ocean of sea-princes ever produced a more superb breed of surf-riders than theirs. So it was a hand-picked crew of Ellice Island policemen who manned the Government's boat for every purpose, and where they went Methven went too, in whatever weather. That is the sort of man he really was; he and his wife Ruby were to be our very dear friends a little later; but he was not actually bursting with bonhomie that day. The mails from the Moresby were, of course, worth coming our for, but the idea of hoiking ashore a curio called a cadet – a phenomenon until then most happily unknown in the Central Pacific - and his wife (heaven pity her whoever she might be), and their frightful luggage scratching the boat's beautiful paintwork to hell . . . well, I ask you, he said. We know he said it, because Ruby told us so in due course, and anyhow, we saw it sticking out of every angular Scottish inch of his six-foot-three, as he walked up to us like a one-man procession in resplendent ducks.


"I am Methven," he opened, and added after a pause, "the Police Officer," with the courteous grimness of an executioner announcing his functions. "If you are the new What's-It from England, I'm to take you ashore, Will you please introduce me to your wife, . . . Thank you. . . . And is that your dunnage down there?"


When I explained that there was still a big box to come from the baggage room, he exclaimed, "Oh, my God !" in a high, shaken whisper, and walked away to give some orders. On his return, he said, "I suppose you've seen to the Way Bill," and when I asked what the Way Bill was, he whispered "Oh, my God !" again, falsetto, but allowed me to gather that the thing was a kind of receipt for the mails, which I should have saved him the trouble of signing. So I went and did it at once, and that was my very first official gesture in the service of His Majesty overseas. I felt the job had been done with considerable éclat until Methven asked me if I had counted the mail-bags I had signed for. When I said I hadn't, he exclaimed "Oh, my God !" yet again, but this time on a bass note strangled with suffering.


The top end of a Jacob's ladder hung over a ship's side is the only part of it made fast to anything. It follows that, when the ship rolls towards that side, the bottom end swings gaily out over the depths, only to crash back against the plates when the roll is reversed. The terror of the landsman at the bottom end is the greater or less in proportion to the extravagance of the rolling. Olivia was near the bottom when the prize-winning outward swing happened. The accompanying downward plunge caused an uprush of air beneath her skirts which lifted them over her head. Skirts were worn voluminous in those days; Olivia's got so firmly entangled with her hat that the downward draught caused by the following upward rush failed to dislodge them. She groped her way blind after that, through a series of sick swings and crashes, until her questing feet found no more steps to step upon, and she was left dangling in the void by her hands only, for somebody to do something about. It was Methven who did it. He grabbed at one of her wild legs as they swung out at him, and gave a good strong jerk. She came apart from the ladder like plucked fruit, and hurtled down upon him. I saw him crumple under the impact and collapse beneath her in the stern sheets. His only remark when I got into the boat was that women ought to be careful to wear bloomers for occasions of that sort in the Pacific. I agreed with him cravenly. Olivia either did not hear him or was past caring, for she was being sick into the deep blue waters.


The swells got steeper where the bottom rose towards the reef. As their racing slopes snatched up our stern and tossed it high, the oarsmen fought to keep pace with the forward 'scend of them, and the boat drove on, impossibly tilted, into valleys that forever fed away from under the plunging bows. But the bronze giant at the steer-oar stood easily poised on the tiny locker-deck behind us. His bare feet braced against the gunwales, he swung in lovely rhythm to the heave and thrust of the seas upon his oar, and sang aloud for the joy of his mastery as he brought the boat swooping like a gull towards the boat harbour. His voice cut across the crashing diapason of the surf with the gay challenge of a clarion. When we came to the very edge of the reef - so near it seemed nothing could stop our onrush into the maelstrom - he called of a sudden, "Easy !" The crew lay on their oars and waited. The passage into the boat harbour, a narrow channel blasted through the reef was a few lengths ahead, its entrance wide open to the giant seas. The lesser surfs were breaking short of the entrance, and the back-suck from the brimming basin - we could hear it snarling - fought their furious invasion to make a hell's cauldron of the passage. No boat could live in that raging battle of waters. The only safe way in was to ride on the crest of a wave so big that it would sweep the boat well down the passage before being undercut by the back-suck. We lay rearing and plunging while the steersman picked his wave. It came, house-high: "Pull !" he yelled as its forefoot lifted the stern. 'We shot forward; the crest swung us towering; the crew spent their last ounce of strength to hold it; we held it – we were riding Leviathan - we were flying - we were halfway down the passage. The crest began to topple and foam overside. The wave hollowed itself for breaking, and the boat's nose was pushed out into the void over its forefoot. There was a sizzling downward rush through ruin as it collapsed; the sea came boiling in over the gunwales ; the life went out of the boat; we were labouring, half waterlogged. But we were safe in the still water of the boat harbour.


Methven had sat bolt upright through all this, with a look of petrified correctitude upon his countenance. It somehow emanated from his total silence that the people of his clan regarded the demeanour of a royal mummy as the only proper one to adopt in the presence of the sea's contemptible nonsenses. Nevertheless, we supposed he actually had noticed something a bit out of the ordinary that day, because he did turn to the happily smiling steersman and murmur, "Nice work, Sergeant Kaipati, very nice indeed !" before we tottered up the steps of the boat jetty.


From the boat jetty we climbed again, up the steep incline of a narrow-gauge cable-way which handled all the Company's imports in those times. The first terrace in the island's westward slopes was at the top. There stood the Company's trade-store and office. Strung out farther to the left, above the curve of Home Bay, were the electric power house, the machine shop, the crushing mills, the drying plant, the cold storage works, and the locations of the thousand or so Gilbert Islanders, Ellice Islanders and Japanese who worked under indenture as mechanics or boatmen, carpenters or miners for the Company. The bungalows of the European staff -forty or fifty of them maybe - straggled up the hillside above, pleasantly scattered among trees. But along the fragrant quarter-mile of factory buildings and workshops, hardly a green thing was to be seen.


We passed through the brazen heat and clamour of it ridiculously perched upon minute flat-cars furnished with benches far too high for safety. These were pushed by poles in the manner of punts - but at breakneck speed - along a narrow-gauge railway line. The benches were built to suit the length of Methven's legs, but not ours. He was propelled ahead of us alone, sitting purchased by his heels, whatsoever the angle or velocity of his car, as firm and majestic as a monument of Caledonia. We rocketed after him together, legs flying, and clutching at each other despairingly for lack of any other hold. Fat, apricot-coloured children near the line laughed with delight as we went whizzing by. I mention the journey because it was the occasion of my first considered resolve upon a matter of dignity in the service of His Majesty. I decided that, if it was given me to survive, I would have the height of at least one bench lowered, so as to accommodate it to the length of my own particular legs, not Methven's.


But the pace slowed as we took the slight gradient beyond the locations; suddenly, too, we were out of the torrid glare and running in the latticed shade of palms. The din of machinery was magically snuffed out as we rounded a bend; the dwellings of a Baanaban village over-arched by palms came in sight on the seaward slopes below us. We caught glimpses, through twined shadow and sunlight, of crimson and cream hibiscus, of thatches raised on corner-posts, of neatly matted floors beneath them, of bronze bodies in brightly coloured loin-cloths. We heard the chatter of laughing women and the shouts of children across a murmur of surf that rose muted through the trees. Scents of gardenia and frangipani floated up to us mixed with savours of cooking. The grim civilisation of Home Bay lay forgotten, as though a thousand miles away. The village was gone again in half a minute, but its spell stayed with us. We felt we had passed, in that flash of time, through a miraculous gateway opened for us into the real, the homely heart of the Pacific.


We reached the government siding and got down from our cars. A hundred yards up-hill from there, we came upon a squalid-looking wooden bungalow, without side-verandahs, perched among rocks. The rear edge of its floor squatted up against the hillside; the front edge was propped, visibly sagging, on concrete stilts. Part of the space between the stilts had been boxed in, and the hutch so formed, said Methven, was the Post Office. On the top side of the floor were all the other offices of the Headquarters Administration of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Protectorate, a total of three rooms. A typewriter had been installed in one of them. Nobody yet knew how to use it. It awaited introduction to me, but the pleasure would have to be delayed until Monday, as this was Saturday afternoon.


So this was the vast white office building with corridors, etcetera, of my vision in London. But no - Methven must be pulling my leg. How could all those departments that Mr. Johnson had reeled off -the Secretariat, the Magistracy, the Treasury, the Customs, the Public Works, the Police Administration, the Prisons organization, not to speak of the Resident Commissioner's personal group of Secretaries and so forth – I mean to say, I said how could so many senior officers with their senior assistants, their junior assistants and all their respective clerical staff possibly be crowded together into three little rooms ?


It clearly pleased Methven to answer that one. This wasn't a rabbit-warren like the Colonial Office, he explained. People worked here. There was first the Old Man (in other words, the Resident Commissioner) who operated as his own Chief Secretary, Private Secretary, District Officer and Magistrate, except, of course, when his wife interfered. The Secretariat, as I had called it, consisted of a Clerk. Presumably, when I spoke of the Treasurer, I meant the Accountant, who comprised the entire financial personnel, besides being the Postmaster General, the Collector of Customs, the staff of Landing Waiters, the Immigration Officer, and what-not-else of the kind. That made three Europeans, then came himself: he, as Police Officer, was in charge of the Prisons too, and, as the prisons supplied a labour force, it followed that he also functioned as Superintendent of Public Works, Chief Sanitary Inspector, Conservator of the Water Supply, and manager of about a million other things that pertained to the upkeep and welfare of the government station. Fifth, there was myself who (as everybody hoped) would be fairly divided between all of them from the word go, and not merely collared as a private slave by the Old Man.


I gathered from his tone that there was a good deal of local feeling about that.


We learned, further, as we trudged past the Police Barracks and Prison, up the steep mile to the Residency, that the rest of the Protectorate's European staff consisted of a doctor employed on Ocean Island by the Company, but subsidized by the Government for public health duties; another doctor in charge of a government hospital in Tarawa, 25o miles to eastward; and four District Officers scattered singly, at distances ranging from three to five hundred miles away from us, up and down the chain of the Gilbert and Ellice groups. It came to me then that, however else we might be maintaining dominion over palm and pine in this particular corner of the Empire, we certainly were not doing it by weight of numbers. This, in some strange way, easily compensated for the loss of my dream-office teeming with busy bureaucrats. And, besides, there was the music of the lovely island-names that had rolled from Methven's tongue -Butaritari, Tarawa, Abemama, Funafuti - Abemama above all, where Stevenson had lived a while and written. I mentioned his piece on the Gilbert Islands to Methven; "Never seen it," he replied (Oh, sprightly shade of Mr. Johnson !). "Here's the cricket field and there's the Residency straight ahead."


'We had reached an open plateau overlooking the tremendous emptiness of the ocean to South and West. The northern edge of the cricket ground lay cool beneath a green bank fringed with coconut-palms. Behind the palms stood the Residency, a pleasant white bungalow, backed by a towering forest of calophyllum trees. A slim white-clad figure was waiting for us at the top of the broad front steps.


"That's the Old Man," said Methven: "he won't ask you to tea. Come and have some with us when he's finished with you."


His voice was warm of a sudden, but he left us to go forward alone.







Edward Carlyon Eliot, the Resident Commissioner, was struggling at the time of our arrival to improve the conditions that governed the mining of phosphate on Ocean Island. His aims were to secure for the Baanaban villagers an increase of the tonnage-royalties paid into a trust fund for their phosphate and to set up guards against the premature encroachment of the diggings upon their villages. He won his fight eventually in the teeth of much official misunderstanding. Fifteen years later, as Resident Commissioner myself, I was called to add a little to the foundations he had laid, and others added more after me. But it was mainly due to his courage and foresight between 1913 and 1920 that the Baanabans of 1945 found themselves in a position to buy an exquisite new home for themselves in the Fiji group and to migrate there in their own good time. I was greatly fortunate to have him as my first chief, for he was a personification of the protective spirit which did inspire the best servants of autocracy with benevolence in the field, whatever may be said today about the system of their allegiance.


He was healthy for me in another way, too, though the pleasure of it was at the time not so obvious. The prospect of having a cadet to lick into shape did not entrance him. There were reasons for this. His parents had not been rich and, as a youth, he had been obliged to forgo for the sake of a brilliant elder brother in the Diplomatic Service a number of things that it hurt him to miss, including his hope of a university education. I never heard him complain of it, but the handicaps he had suffered and the very success with which he had overcome them had affected his attitude towards beginners. He had started his own official career, while still in his teens, as a clerk of the fifth grade in the civil service of a Caribbean colony. From that "back-stairs entrance to the Colonial Administrative Service," as he bitterly chose to call it, he had fought his way up by the time he was forty-one to be Resident Commissioner of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands. His achievement had shown him that a university degree was by no means an essential preliminary to getting on in his profession, which was all to the good; but it had also left him with a basic contempt for beginnings less difficult than his own. His generosity, so ready in other directions, was not predisposed in favour of young men like myself, who came out from Downing Street (so he said) with reach-me-down official futures all ready packed in our suitcases.


Another neat thing he used to shoot off about my species was that we thought we had been despatched across the starlit foam with special warrants in our pockets to dispense celestial wisdom direct from the Colonial Office to the benighted inhabitants of the Empire. As a matter of fact, there was a good deal more in this than an ironic twist of phrase. We were not at that time sent out trained in advance for liaison-work in the field, as cadets are trained today. Nor were the senior administrative officers in the Colonies who had themselves started as cadets always careful to bludgeon us into habits of co-operation with other departments. On the contrary. The result was the spread of a poisonous kind of snobbery throughout the administrative branch, which encouraged its members, young and old, to regard themselves as unquestionably superior, clay for clay, to the members of other branches. The internal frictions engendered by this attitude militated heavily against the effectiveness of inter-departmental collaboration in the field, often to the incalculable cost of colonial populations. A good many years were to pass before a system of pre-service training designed to avoid these evils came into being. But pending that kind of improvement from the Downing Street end, my Resident Commissioner was certainly taking no chances with the likes of me. He did not, of course, cram everything down my throat at our first talk; nor, as far as I know, had he any prepared series of deflationary utterances laid up in pickle for my education over the weeks and months to come. He proceeded, rather, by the catastrophic method. His most instructive sallies - I mean the ones that sank in deepest - always leapt out of him impromptu under the goad of my many stupidities. Nevertheless, he did give me quite an insight into his feelings on the day of our arrival.


While Mrs. Eliot talked to Olivia on the front verandah, he took me into his office and sat me before his desk. He was a neat, slim man of medium height with the very black hair and rather Phoenician features one sometimes sees in Cornwall. His slightly close-set dark eyes, overhung by thick, straight brows that almost met above the narrow nose, were as watchful and veiled as a poker player's. He had a habit of twitching his toothbrush moustache and sniffing twice, staccato, from time to time as he examined people or things. Going with his saturnine looks, it always struck me as strangely sinister.


I remember he asked me first if I played cricket. When I said I liked it, he replied, "'Well, that's one good thing, anyhow !" in a way that left me wondering what next. I did not have to conjecture long. He went on, with irritation in his voice, "You know, Grimble, you ought not to have been sent here really. This isn't the sort of place for a cadet. I didn't ask the Colonial Office for one. I asked for an experienced man - someone who knew about men and affairs."


There wasn't much I could say to that. I sat sweating while he gave me his ideas about the right man for the job. What he wanted was someone who had knocked around . . . not an official . . . preferably a fellow who had done a bit of trading and planting somewhere. A sahib, naturally . . . right kind of breeding, right kind of school . . . all that. But definitely not a cub from a university. Above all, not a heaven-born selection from the Colonial Office.


I forget what I replied to this (if anything), but I recollect asking him if I could get lessons in Gilbertese from someone on the island, and the request seemed to brighten him for a little. He said the Government would pay the official interpreter to teach me. He turned gloomy again, though, in the course of wondering how the Colonial Office thought he was going to train me in other ways. He supposed he would have to take me to sessions of the Magistrate's Court and the Native Court, for one thing; and then I could learn a bit about correspondence from the clerk at head office, and book-keeping from the accountant, and police and prisons stuff from Methven, and so forth and so on. They could doubtless teach me a few odds and ends not yet revealed to either Cambridge or the Colonial Office; and outside the Government staff there were, of course, plenty of other people on the island aching to teach me what was truly what.


I remember that his last words gave me another of those sudden visions I used to get. It was not as sanguine as the one I had had with Mr. Johnson. I saw myself standing (for some peculiar reason) on the sun-smitten railway line above the crushing mills, hemmed in by a circle of Company's men with hairy forearms and noble looks enhanced by the walrus moustaches of my uncles. They held themselves erect in silence, arms folded, looking at me with contempt in their eyes for my gross ignorance of everything a real man should know.


As a matter of fact, I could not have been more mistaken about the Company's staff. Olivia and I were to find out almost at once that our ignorance could not have fallen among friendlier neighbours; only the vision was depressing in its moment. But for all that, there was a lot of comfort, too, in what Mr. Eliot had said. He obviously had no ambition to collar me as his private slave; I wasn't to suffer the strain of continuous proximity to the deity, and there wasn't going to be any fighting over my body. What with the relief of this thought, plus the fulfilment of Mr. Johnson's promise that I would start off as a washer of bottles for bottle-washers, plus the happy spell our first sight of a Baanaban village had laid upon both of us, I left the Residency reflectively, perhaps, and somehow not game to tell Olivia quite all the Old Man had said, or the way he had said it, but by and large a reasonably happy young man.



Edited by ThisLife
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The following excerpt is from a novel, the likes of which I had never come across before or have again since. It truly is like one of those extraordinarily wonderful meals that someone creates out of the most unlikely ingredients imaginable. And yet, somehow,… it works !


The book is by one of England’s currently most popular writers, Nick Hornby, and it is entitled “A Long Way Down.” In this case, the author’s implausible ingredients are firstly, his choice of central issue around which the improbable plot revolves, (an analysis of the decisions reached by four people, unknown to each other, who independently decide to commit suicide by jumping off a tall building. Only they unwittingly all choose the same venue, and the same time - New Year's Eve.) Secondly, there's his choice of characters. (I can’t imagine any reader identifying with, or even liking, a single one of them. Similarly, each of them initially struggles to see even a shred of anything worthwhile in any of the others.) And finally, even more bizarrely, the bonding agent that against all odds deftly manages to hold the entire story together – is an absolutely wicked sense of humour !


As the story unfolds it takes the reader along into such strange places and unfamiliar ‘thought trains’, that when all the seemingly unconnected, disparate ends have finally been woven together … the pattern that was finally revealed left me feeling an incredible sense of gratitude for Mr. Hornby’s extraordinary kindness. By slapping down the price equivalent of merely an average, small-sized pizza, he had allowed me to share his insights through a truly worthwhile reading experience.


Check out the few pages below. Maybe you’ll decide to forgo the pizza and take a chance on a literary ride into the unknown and the unexpected. It'll be quite a remarkable journey, I assure you.




{ NOTE 1: } Perhaps here I should list a few English slang terms that are quite important to the development of the book, but which are largely unknown outside this country. (1) a “tower block” is a tall apartment block (2) to “top oneself” is an expression for committing suicide, and hence (3) “Topper’s House” is a tall apartment block from which many people have thrown themselves off.




{ NOTE 2 : } When I tried to print the story, a message came up saying it was too long. So I'll separate out this introduction and try again with the main body of the text to follow.




Edited by ThisLife

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{ NOTE 3 : }


Another message informing me that the text is still too long. So looks like this story will have to be in three parts. Apologies for the dis-jointedness.






Can I explain why I wanted to jump off the top of a tower-block ? Of course I can explain why I wanted to jump off the top of a tower-block. I'm not a bloody idiot. I can explain it because it wasn't inexplicable: it was a logical decision, the product of proper thought. It wasn't even a very serious thought, either. I don't mean it was whimsical - I just meant that it wasn't terribly complicated, or agonized. Put it this way: say you were, I don't know, an assistant bank manager, in Guildford. And you'd been thinking of emigrating, and then you were offered the job of managing a bank in Sydney. Well, even though it's a pretty straightforward decision, you'd still have to think for a bit, wouldn't you? You'd at least have to work out whether you could bear to move, whether you could leave your friends and colleagues behind, whether you could uproot your wife and kids. You might sit down with a bit of paper and draw up a list of pros and cons. You know:


CONS - aged parents, friends, golf club.


PROS –more money, better quality of life (house with pool, barbecue, etc.), sea, sunshine, no left-wing councils banning 'Baa-Baa Black Sheep', no EEC directives banning British sausages, etc.


It's no contest, is it ? The golf club ! Give me a break. Obviously your aged parents give you pause for thought, but that's all it is - a pause, and a brief one, too. You'd be on the phone to the travel agents within ten minutes.


Well, that was me. There simply weren't enough regrets, and lots and lots of reasons to jump. The only things in my 'cons' list were the kids, but I couldn't imagine Cindy letting me see them again anyway. I haven’t got any aged parents, and I don’t play golf. Suicide was my Sydney. And I say that with no offence to the good people of Sydney intended.





I told him I was going to a New Year’s Eve party. I told him in October. I don't know whether people send our invitations to New Year's Eve parties in October or not. Probably not. (How would I know ? I haven't been to one since 1984. June and Brian across the road had one, just before they moved. And even then I only nipped in for an hour or so, after he'd gone to sleep.) But I couldn’t wait any longer. I'd been thinking about it since May or June, and l was itching to tell him. Stupid, really. He doesn't understand, I'm sure he doesn't. They tell me to keep talking to him, but you can see that nothing goes in. And what a thing to be itching about anyway ! It just goes to show what I had to look forward to, doesn’t it ?


The moment I told him, I wanted to go straight to confession. Well, I'd lied, hadn't I ? I'd lied to my own son. Oh, it was only a tiny, silly lie: I'd told him months in advance that I was going to a party, a party I'd made up. I'd made it up properly, too. I told him whose parry it was, and why I'd been invited, and why I wanted to go, and who else would be there. (It was Bridgid’s party, Bridgid from the church. And I'd been invited because her sister was coming over from Cork, and her sister had asked after me in a couple of letters. And I wanted to go because Bridgid's sister had taken her mother-in-law to Lourdes, and I wanted to find out all about it, with a view to taking Matty one day.) But confession wasn’t possible, because I knew I would have to repeat the sin, the lie, over and over as the year came to an end. Not only to Matty, but to the people at the nursing home, and . . . Well, there isn’t anyone else, really. Maybe someone at the church, or someone in a shop. It's almost comical, when you think about it. If you spend day and night looking after a sick child, there's very little room for sin, and I hadn't done anything worth confessing for donkey's years. And I went from that, to sinning so terribly that I couldn't even talk to the priest, because I was going to go on sinning and sinning until the day I died, when I would commit the biggest sin of all. (And why is it the biggest sin of all ? All your life you're told that you'll be going to this marvellous place when you pass on. And the one thing you can do to get you there a bit quicker is something that stops you getting there at all. Oh, I can see that it's a kind of queue-jumping. But if someone jumps the queue at the Post Office, people tut. Or sometimes they say, 'Excuse me, I was here first.' They don't say, 'You will be consumed by hellfire for all eternity.' That would be a bit strong.) It didn't stop me from going to the church. But I only kept going because people would think there was something wrong if I stopped.


As we got closer and closer to the date, I kept passing on little tidbits of information that I told him I'd picked up. Every Sunday I pretended as though I'd learned something new, because Sundays were when I saw Bridgid. 'Bridgid says there'll be dancing.' 'Bridgid's worried that not everyone likes wine and beer, so she'll be providing spirits.' 'Bridgid doesn't know how many people will have eaten already.' If Matty had been able to understand anything, he'd have decided that this Bridgid woman was a lunatic, worrying like that about a little get-together. I blushed every time I saw her at the church. And of course I wanted to know what she actually was doing on New Year's Eve, but I never asked. If she was planning to have a party, she might've felt that she had to invite me.


I'm ashamed, thinking back. Not about the lies - I'm used to lying now. No, I'm ashamed of how pathetic it all was. One Sunday I found myself telling Matty about where Bridgid was going to buy the ham for the sandwiches. But it was on my mind, New Year's Eve, of course it was, and it was a way of talking about it, without actually saying anything. And I suppose I came to believe in the party a little bit myself, in the way that you come to believe the story in a book. Every now and again I imagined what I'd wear, how much I'd drink, what time I'd leave. Whether I'd come home in a taxi. That sort of thing. In the end it was as if I'd actually been. Even in my imagination, though, I couldn't see myself talking to anyone at the party. I was always quite happy to leave it.





I was at a party downstairs in the squat. It was a shit party, full of all these ancient crusties sitting on the floor drinking cider and smoking huge spliffs and listening to weirdo space-out reggae. At midnight, one of them clapped sarcastically, and a couple of others laughed, and that was it - Happy New Year to you too. You could have turned up to that party as the happiest person in London, and you'd still have wanted up to jump off the roof by five past twelve. And I wasn't the happiest person in London anyway. Obviously.


I only went because someone at college told me Chas would be there, but he wasn't. I tried his mobile for the one zillionth time, but it wasn't on. When we first split up, he called me a stalker, but that's like an emotive word, 'stalker’, isn't it ? I don't think you can call it stalking when it’s just phone calls and letters and emails and knocking on the door. And I only turned up at his work twice. Three times, if you count his Christmas party, which I don't, because he said he was going to take me to that anyway. Stalking is when you follow them to the shops and on holiday and all that, isn't it ? Well, I never went near any shops. And anyway, I didn’t think it was stalking when someone owed you an explanation. Being owed an explanation is like being owed money, and not just a fiver, either. Five or six hundred quid minimum, more like. If you were owed five or six hundred quid minimum and the person who owed it to you was avoiding you, then you're bound to knock on his door late at night, when you know he's going to be in. People get serious about that sort of money. They call in debt collectors, and break people's legs, but I never went that far. I showed some restraint.


So even though I could see straight away that he wasn't at this party, I stayed for a while. Where else was I going to go ? I was feeling sorry for myself. How can you be eighteen and not have anywhere to go on New Year's Eve, apart from some shit party in some shit squat where you don't know anybody ? Well, I managed it. I seem to manage it every year. I make friends easily enough, but then I piss them off, I know that much, even if I'm not sure why or how. And so people and parties disappear.


I pissed Jen off, I'm sure of that. She disappeared, like everyone else.






I'd spent the previous couple of months looking up suicide inquests on the Internet, just out of curiosity. And nearly every single time, the coroner says the same thing: 'He took his own life while the balance of his mind was disturbed.' And then you read the story about the poor bastard: his wife was sleeping with his best friend, he'd lost his job, his daughter had been killed in a road accident some months before . . . Hello, Mr Coroner ? Anyone at home ? I'm sorry, but there's no disturbed mental balance here, my friend. I'd say he got it just right. Bad thing upon bad thing upon bad thing until you can't take any more, and then it's off to the nearest multi-storey car park in the family hatchback with a length of rubber tubing. Surely that's fair enough ? Surely the coroner's inquest should read, 'He took his own life after sober and careful contemplation of the fucking shambles it had become' ?


Not once did I read a newspaper report which convinced me that the deceased was off the old trolley. You know: 'The Manchester United forward, who was engaged to the current Miss Sweden, had recently achieved a unique Double: he is the only man ever to have won the FA Cup and an Oscar for Best Actor in the same year. The rights to his first novel had just been bought for an undisclosed sum by Steven Spielberg. He was found hanging from a beam in his stables by a member of his staff.' Now, I've never seen a coroner's report like that, but if there were cases in which happy, successful, talented people took their own lives, one could safely come to the conclusion that the old balance was indeed wonky. And I'm not saying that being engaged to Miss Sweden, playing for Manchester United and winning Oscars inoculates you against depression - I'm sure it doesn't. I'm just saying that these things help. Look at the statistics. You're more likely to top yourself if you've just gone through a divorce. Or if you're anorexic. Or if you’re unemployed. Or if you're a prostitute. Or if you've fought in a war, or if you've been raped, or if you've lost somebody … There are lots and lots of factors that push people over the edge; none of these factors are likely to make you feel anything but fucking miserable.


Two years ago Martin Sharp would not have found himself sitting on a tiny concrete ledge in the middle of the night, looking a hundred feet down at a concrete walkway and wondering whether he'd hear the noise that his bones made when they shattered into tiny pieces. But two years ago Martin Sharp was a different person. I still had my job. I still had a wife. I hadn't slept with a fifteen-year- old. I hadn't been to prison. I hadn't had to talk to my young daughters about a front-page tabloid newspaper article, an article headlined with the word 'SLEAZEBAG !’ and illustrated with a picture of me lying on the pavement outside a well-known London nightspot. (What would the headline have been if I had gone over ? 'SLEAZY DOES IT !' perhaps. Or maybe 'SHARP END !')There was, it is fair to say, less reason for ledge-sitting before all that happened. So don't tell me that the balance of my mind was disturbed, because it really didn't feel that way. (What does it mean, anyway, that stuff about 'the balance of the mind' ? Is it strictly scientific ? Does the mind really wobble up and down in the head like some sort of fish-scale, according to how loopy you are ?) Wanting to kill myself was an appropriate and reasonable response to a whole series of unfortunate events that had rendered life unliveable. Oh, yes, I know the shrinks would say that they could have helped, but that’s half the trouble with this bloody country, isn't it? No one's willing to face their responsibilities. It's always someone else's fault. Boo-hoo-hoo. Well, I happen to be one of those rare individuals who believe that what went on with Mummy and Daddy had nothing to do with me screwing a fifteen-year-old. I happen to believe that I would have slept with her regardless of whether I'd been breast-fed or not, and it was time to face up to what I'd done.


And what I’d done is, I'd pissed my life away. Literally. Well, OK, not literally literally. I hadn't, you know, turned my life into urine and stored it in my bladder and so on and so forth. But I felt as if I'd pissed my life away in the same way that you can piss money away. I'd had a life, full of kids and wives and jobs and all the usual stuff, and I'd somehow managed to mislay it. No, you see, that's not right. I knew where my life was, just as you know where money goes when you piss it away. I hadn't mislaid it at all. I'd spent it. I'd spent my kids and my job and my wife on teenage girls and nightclubs: these things all come at a price, and I'd happily paid it, and suddenly my life wasn't there any more. What would I be leaving behind ? On New Year's Eve, it felt as though I'd be saying goodbye to a dim form of consciousness and a semi-functioning digestive system - all the indications of a life, certainly, but none of the content. I didn't even feel sad, particularly. I just felt very stupid, and very angry.


I'm not sitting here now because I suddenly saw sense. The reason I'm sitting here now is because that night turned into as much of a mess as everything else. I couldn't even jump off a fucking tower-block without fucking it up.






On New Year's Eve the nursing home sent their ambulance round for him. You had to pay extra for that, but I didn't mind. How could I ? In the end, Matty was going to cost them a lot more than they were costing me. I was only paying for a night, and they were going to pay for the rest of his life.


I thought about hiding some of Matty's stuff, in case they thought it was odd, but no one had to know it was his. I could have had loads of kids, as far as they knew, so I left it there. They came around six, and these two young fellas wheeled him out. I couldn't cry when he went, because then the young fellas would know something was wrong; as far as they knew, I was coming to fetch him at eleven the next morning. I just kissed him on the top of his head and told him to be good at the home, and I held it all in until I'd seen them leave. Then I wept and wept, for about an hour. He’d ruined my life, but he was still my son, and I was never going to see him again, and I couldn’t even say goodbye properly. I watched the television for a while, and I did have one or two glasses of sherry, because I knew it would be cold out.


I waited at the bus stop for ten minutes, but then I decided to walk. Knowing that you want to die makes you less scared. I wouldn't have dreamed of walking all that way late at night, especially when the streets are full of drunks, but what did it matter now ? Although then, of course, I found myself worrying about being attacked but not murdered - left for dead without actually dying. Because then I'd be taken to hospital, and they’d find out who I was, and they'd find out about Matty, and all those months of planning would have been a complete waste of time, and I’d come out of hospital owing the home thousands of pounds, and where was I going to find that ? But no one attacked me. A couple of people wished me a Happy New year, but that was about all. There isn't so much to be afraid of, out there. I can remember thinking it was a funny time to find that out, on the last night of my life; I'd spent the rest of it being afraid of everything.


I'd never been to Toppers' House before. I'd just been past it on the bus once or twice. I didn't even know for sure that you could get on to the roof any more, but the door was open, and I just walked up the stairs until I couldn't walk any further. I don't know why it didn't occur to me that you couldn't just jump off whenever you felt like it, but the moment I saw it I realized that they wouldn’t let you do that. They'd put this wire up, way up high, and there were curved railings with spikes on the top . . . well, that’s when I began to panic. I'm not tall, and I'm not very strong, and I’m not as young as I was. I couldn't see how I was going to get over the top of it all, and it had to be that night, because of Matty being in the home and everything. And I started to go through all the other options, but none of them were any good. I didn't want to do it in my own front room, where someone I knew would find me. I wanted to be found by a stranger. And I didn't want to jump in front of a train, because I'd seen a programme on the television about the poor drivers and how suicides upset them. And I didn't have a car, so I couldn't drive off to a quiet spot and breathe in the exhaust fumes ...


And then I saw Martin, right over the other side of the roof. I hid in the shadows and watched him. I could see he'd done things properly: he'd brought a little stepladder, and some wire-cutters, and he'd managed to climb over the top like that. And he was just sitting on the ledge, dangling his feet, looking down, taking nips out of a little hip flask, smoking, thinking, while I waited. And he smoked and he smoked and I waited and waited until in the end I couldn't wait any more. I know it was his stepladder, but I needed it. It wasn't going to be much use to him.


I never tried to push him. I'm not beefy enough to push a grown man off a ledge. And I wouldn't have tried anyway. It wouldn't have been right; it was up to him whether he jumped or not. I just went up to him and put my hand through the wire and tapped him on the shoulder. I only wanted to ask him if he was going to be long.






Before I got to the squat, I never had any intention of going on to the roof. Honestly. I'd forgotten about the whole Toppers' House thing until I started speaking to this guy. I think he fancied me, which isn't really saying much, seeing as I was about the only female under thirty who could still stand up. He gave me a fag, and he told me his name was Bong, and when I asked him why he was called Bong he said it was because he always smoked his weed out of a bong. And I went, Does that mean everyone else here is called Spliff ? But he was just, like, No, that bloke over there is called Mental Mike. And that one over there is called Puddle. And that one over there is Nicky Turd. And so on, until he'd been through everyone in the room he knew.


But the ten minutes I spent talking to Bong made history. Well, not history like 55 BC or 1939. Not historical history, unless one of us goes on to invent a time machine or stops Britain from being invaded by Al-Qaida or something. But who knows what would have happened to us if Bong hadn't fancied me ? Because before he started chatting me up I was just about to go home, and Maureen and Martin would be dead now, probably, and . . . well, everything would have been different.


When Bong had finished going through his list, he looked at me and he went, You're not thinking of going up on the roof, are you ? And I thought, Not with you, stoner-brain. And he went, Because I can see the pain and desperation in your eyes. I was well pissed by that time, so looking back on it, I'm pretty sure that what he could see in my eyes were seven Bacardi Breezers and two cans of Special Brew. I just went, Oh, really ? And he went, Yeah, see, I've been put on suicide watch, to look out for people who've only come here because they want to go upstairs. And I was like, What happens upstairs ? And he laughed, and went, You're joking, aren't you ? This is Toppers' House, man. This is where people kill themselves. And I would never have thought of it if he hadn't said that. Everything suddenly made sense. Because even though I'd been about to go home, I couldn't imagine what I'd do when I got there, and I couldn't imagine waking up in the morning. I wanted Chas, and he didn't want me, and I suddenly realized that easily the best thing to do was make my life as short as I possibly could. I almost laughed, it was so neat: I wanted to make my life short, and I was at a party in Toppers' House, and the coincidence was too much. It was like a message from God. OK, it was disappointing that all God had to say to me was, like, Jump off a roof but I didn't blame him. What else was he supposed to tell me ?


I could feel the weight of everything then - the weight of loneliness, of everything that had gone wrong. I felt heroic, going up those last few flights to the top of the building, dragging that weight along with me. Jumping felt like the only way to get rid of it, the only way to make it work for me instead of against me; I felt so heavy that I knew I'd hit the street in no time. I'd beat the world record for falling off a tower-block.



Edited by ThisLife

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If she hadn't tried to kill me, I'd be dead, no question. But we've all got a preservation instinct, haven't we ? Even if we're trying to kill ourselves when it kicks in. All I know is that I felt this thump on my back, and I turned round and grabbed the railings behind me, and I started yelling. I was drunk by then. I'd been taking nips out of the old hip-flask for a while, and I'd had a skinful before I came out, as well. (I know, I know, I shouldn't have driven. But I wasn't going to take the fucking stepladder on the bus.) So, yes, I probably did let rip with a bit of vocabulary. If I'd known it was Maureen, if I'd known what Maureen was like, then I would have toned it down a bit, probably, but I didn't; I think I might even have used the c- word, for which I've apologized. But you'd have to admit it was a unique situation.


I stood up and turned round carefully, because I didn't want to fall off until I chose to, and I started yelling at her, and she just stared.


'I know you,' she said.


'How ?' I was being slow. People come up to me in restaurants and shops and theatres and garages and urinals all over Britain and say, 'I know you,' and they invariably mean precisely the opposite; they mean, 'I don't know you. But I've seen you on the telly.' And they want an autograph, or a chat about what Penny Chambers is really like, in real life. But that night, I just wasn't expecting it. It all seemed a bit beside the point, that side of life.


'From the television.'


'Oh, for Christ's sake. I was about to kill myself, but never mind, there's always time for an autograph. Have you got a pen? Or a bit of paper ? And before you ask, she's a right bitch who will snort anything and fuck anybody. What are you doing up here anyway ?'


'I was . . . I was going to jump too. I wanted to borrow your ladder.'


That's what everything comes down to: ladders. Well, not ladders literally; the Middle East peace process doesn't come down to ladders, and nor do the money markets. But one thing I know from interviewing people on the show is that you can reduce the most enormous topics down to the tiniest parts, as if life were an Airfix model. I've heard a religious leader attribute his faith to a faulty catch on a garden shed (he got locked in for a night when he was a kid, and God guided him through the darkness); I've heard a hostage describe how he survived because one of his captors was fascinated by the London zoo family discount card he kept in his wallet. You want to talk about big things, but it's the catches on the garden sheds and the London Zoo cards that give you the footholds; without them you wouldn’t know where to start. Not if you’re hosting Rise and Shine with Penny and Martin you don't, anyway. Maureen and I couldn't talk about why we were so unhappy that we wanted our brains to spill out onto the concrete like a McDonald's milk shake, so we talked about the ladder instead.


'Be my guest.'


'I'll wait until . . . Well, I'll wait.'


'So you're just going to stand there and watch ?'


'No. Of course not. You'll be wanting to do it on your own, I'd imagine.'


'You'd imagine right.'


I’ll go over there.’ She gestured to the other side of the roof.


'I'll give you a shout on the way down.'


I laughed, but she didn't.


'Come on. That wasn't a bad gag. In the circumstances.’


'I suppose I'm not in the mood, Mr Sharp.’


I don't think she was trying to be funny, but what she said made me laugh even more. Maureen went to the other side of the roof, and sat down with her back against the far wall. I turned around and lowered myself back on to the ledge. But I couldn't concentrate. The moment had gone. You're probably thinking, How much concentration does a man need to throw himself off the top of a high building? Well, you'd be surprised. Before Maureen arrived I'd been in the zone; I was in a place where it would have been easy to push myself off. I was entirely focused on all the reasons I was up there in the first place; I understood with a horrible clarity the impossibility of attempting to resume life down on the ground. But the conversation with her had distracted me, pulled me back out into the world, into the cold and the wind and the noise of the thumping bass seven floors below. I couldn't get the mood back; it was as if one of the kids had woken up just as Cindy and I were starting to make love. I hadn't changed my mind, and I still knew that I'd have to do it some time. It's just that I knew I wasn't going to be able to do it in the next five minutes. I shouted at Maureen.


'Oi ! Do you want to swap places ? See how you get on ?' And I laughed again. I was, I felt, on a comedy roll, drunk enough - and, I suppose, deranged enough - to feel that just about anything I said would be hilarious.


Maureen came out of the shadows and approached the breach in the wire fence cautiously.


'I want to be on my own, too,' she said.


'You will be. You've got twenty minutes. Then I want my spot back.'


'How are you going to get back over this side ?'


I hadn't thought of that. The stepladder really only worked one way: there wasn't enough room on my side of the railings to open it out.


'You'll have to hold it.'


'What do you mean ?'


'You hand it over the top to me. I'll put it flush against the railings. You hold it steady from that side.'


'I'd never be able to keep it in place. You're too heavy.'


And she was too light. She was small, but she carried no weight at all; I wondered whether she wanted to kill herself because she didn't want to die a long and painful death from some disease or other.


'So you'll have to put up with me being here.'


I wasn't sure that I wanted to climb over to the other side anyway. The railings marked out a boundary now: you could get to the stairs from the roof, and the street from the stairs, and from the street you could get to Cindy, and the kids, and Danielle, and her dad, and everything else that had blown me up here as if I were a crisp packet in a gale. The ledge felt safe. There was no humiliation and shame there - beyond the humiliation and shame you'd expect to feel if you were sitting on a ledge, on your own, on New Year's Eve.


'Why can't you shuffle round to the other side of the roof ?'


'Why can't you ? It's my ladder.'


'You're not much of a gentleman.'


'No, I'm fucking not. That's one of the reasons I'm up here, in fact. Don't you read the papers ?'


'I look at the local one sometimes.'


'So what do you know about me ?'


'You used to be on the TV.'


'That's it ?'


'I think so.' She thought for a moment. 'Were you married to someone in Abba ?'




'Or another singer ?'




'Oh. And you like mushrooms, I know that.'


'Mushrooms ?'


'You said. I remember. There was one of those chef fellas in the studio, and he gave you something to taste, and you said, "Mmmm, I love mushrooms. I could eat them all day." Was that you ?'


'It might have been. But that's all you can dredge up ?'




'So why do you think I want to kill myself ?'


'I've no idea.'


'You're pissing me around.'


'Would you mind watching your language ? I find it offensive.'


'I'm sorry.'


But I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe I'd found someone who didn't know. Before I went to prison, I used to wake up in the morning and the tabloid scum were waiting outside the front door. I had crisis meetings with agents and managers and TV executives. It seemed impossible that there was anyone in Britain uninterested in what I had done, mostly because I lived in a world where it was the only thing that seemed to matter. Maybe Maureen lived on the roof, I thought. It would be easy to lose touch up there.


'What about your belt ?' She nodded at my waist. As far as Maureen was concerned, these were her last few moments on earth. She didn't want to spend them talking about my passion for mushrooms (a passion which, I fear, may have been manufactured for the camera anyway). She wanted to get on with things.


'What about it ?'


'Take your belt off and put it round the ladder. Buckle it your side of the railings.'


I saw what she meant, and saw that it would work, and for the next couple of minutes we worked in a companionable silence; she passed the ladder over the fence, and I took my belt off, passed it around both ladder and railings, pulled it tight, buckled it up, gave it a shake to check it would hold. I really didn't want to die falling backwards. I climbed back over, we unbuckled the belt, placed the ladder in its original position.


And I was just about to let Maureen jump in peace when this fucking lunatic came roaring at us.






I shouldn't have made the noise. That was my mistake. I mean, that was my mistake if the idea was to kill myself. I could have just walked, quickly and quietly and calmly, to the place where Martin had cut through the wire, climbed the ladder and then jumped. But I didn't. I yelled something like, 'Out of the way, losers !' and made this Red Indian war-whoop noise, as if it were all a game - which it was, at that point, to me, anyway - and Martin rugby-tackled me before I got halfway there. And then he sort of kneeled on me and ground my face into that sort of gritty fake-Tarmac stuff they put on the tops of buildings. Then I really did want to be dead.


I didn't know it was Martin. I never saw anything, really, until he was rubbing my nose in the dirt, and then I just saw dirt. But I knew what the two of them were doing up there the moment I got to the roof. You didn't have to be like a genius to work that out. So when he was sitting on me I went, So how come you two are allowed to kill yourselves and I'm not ? And he goes, You're too young. We've fucked our lives up. You haven't, yet. And I said, How do you know that ? And he goes, No one's fucked their lives up at your age. And I was like, What if I've murdered ten people ? Including my parents and, I don't know, my baby twins ? And he went, Well have you ? And I said, Yeah, I have. (Even though I hadn't. I just wanted to see what he'd say.) And he went' Well, if you're up here, you've got away with it, haven't you ? I'd get on a plane to Brazil if I were you. And I said, What if I want to pay for what I’ve done with my life ? And he said, Shut up.






My first thought, after I’d brought Jess crashing to the ground, was that I didn't want Maureen sneaking off on her own. It was nothing to do with trying to save her life; it would simply have pissed me off if she'd taken advantage of my distraction and jumped. Oh, none of it makes much sense; two minutes before, I'd been practically ushering her over. But I didn't see why Jess should be my responsibility and not hers, and I didn't see why she should be the one to use the ladder when I'd carted it all the way up there. So my motives were essentially selfish; nothing new there' as Cindy would tell you.


After Jess and I had had our idiotic conversation about how she’d killed lots of people, I shouted at Maureen to come and help me. She looked frightened, and then dawdled her way over to us.


'Get a bloody move on.’


'What do you want me to do ?'


'Sit on her.'


Maureen sat on Jess's arse, and I knelt on her arms.


Just let me go, you old bastard pervert. You're getting a thrill out of this, aren't you ?'


Well, obviously that stung a bit, given recent events. I thought for a moment Jess might have known who I was, but even I'm not that paranoid. If you were rugby-tackled in the middle of the night just as you were about to hurl yourself off the top of a tower-block, you probably wouldn't be thinking about breakfast television presenters. (This would come as a shock to breakfast television presenters, of course, most of whom firmly believe that people think about nothing else but breakfast, lunch and dinner.) I was mature enough to rise above Jess's taunts, even though I felt like breaking her arms.


'If we let go, are you going to behave ?'




So Maureen stood up, and with wearying predictability Jess scrambled for the ladder, and I had to bring her crashing down again.


'Now what ?' said Maureen, as if I were a veteran of countless similar situations, and would therefore know the ropes.


'I don't bloody know.'


Why it didn't occur to any of us that a well-known suicide spot would be like Piccadilly Circus on New Year's Eve I have no idea, but at that point in the proceedings I had accepted the reality of our situation: we were in the process of turning a solemn and private moment into a farce with a cast of thousands.


And at that precise moment of acceptance, we three became four. There was a polite cough, and when we turned round to look, we saw a tall, good-looking, long-haired man, maybe ten years younger than me, holding a crash helmet under one arm and one of those big insulated bags in the other.


'Any of you guys order a pizza ?' he said.






I'd never met an American before, I don't think. I wasn't at all sure he was one, either, until the others said something. You don't expect Americans to be delivering pizzas, do you ? Well, I don't, but perhaps I'm just out of touch. I don't order pizzas very often, but every time I have, they've been delivered by someone who doesn't speak English. Americans don't deliver things, do they ? Or serve you in shops, or take your money on the bus. I suppose they must do in America, but they don't here. Indians and West Indians, lots of Australians in the hospital where they see Matty, but no Americans. So we probably thought he was a bit mad at first. That was the only explanation for him. He looked a bit mad, with that hair. And he thought that we'd ordered pizzas while we were standing on the roof of Toppers' House.


'How would we have ordered pizzas ?' Jess asked him. We were still sitting on her, so her voice sounded funny.


'On a cell,' he said.


'What's a cell ?'Jess asked.


'OK, a mobile, whatever.'


Fair play to him, we could have done that.


'Are you American ?' Jess asked him.




'What are you doing delivering pizzas ?'


'What are you guys doing sitting on her head ?'


'They're sitting on my head because this isn't a free country,' Jess said. 'You can't do what you want to.'


'What did you wanna do ?'


She didn't say anything.


'She was going to jump,' Martin said.


'So were you !'


He ignored her.


'You were all gonna jump ?' the pizza man asked us.


We didn't say anything.


'The f - ?' he said.


'The f - ?' said Jess. 'The f – what ?'


'It's an American abbreviation,' said Martin. "'The f - ?" means "What the f--?" In America, they're so busy that they don't have time to say the "what".'


'Would you watch your language, please ?' I said to them. 'We weren't all brought up in a pigsty.'


The pizza man just sat down on the roof and shook his head. I thought he was feeling sorry for us, but later he told us it wasn't that at all.


'OK,' he said after a while. 'Let her go.'


We didn't move.


'Hey, you. You f - listening to me ? Am I gonna have to come over and make you listen ?' He stood up and walked towards us.


'I think she's OK, now, Maureen,' Martin said, as if he was deciding to stand up of his own accord, and not because the American man might punch him. He stood up, and I stood up, and Jess stood up and brushed herself down and swore a lot. Then she stared at Martin.


'You're that bloke,' she said. 'The breakfast TV bloke. The one who slept with the fifteen-year-old. Martin Sharp. F - ! Martin Sharp was sitting on my head. You old pervert.'


Well, of course I didn't have a clue about any fifteen-year-old. I don't look at that sort of newspaper, unless I'm in the hairdresser's, or someone's left one on the bus.


'You kidding me ?' said the pizza man.'The guy who went to prison ? I read about him.'


Martin made a groaning noise. 'Does everyone in America know, too ?' he said.


'Sure,' the pizza man said. 'I read about it in the New York Times.'


'Oh, God,' said Martin, but you could tell he was pleased.


'I was just kidding,' said the pizza man. 'You used to present a breakfast TV show in England. No one in the US has ever heard of you. Get real.'


'Give us some pizza, then,' said Jess. 'What flavours have you got?'


'I don't know,' said the pizza man.


'Let me have a look, then,' said Jess.


'No, I mean . . . They're not my pizzas, you know ?'


'Oh, don't be such a pussy, said Jess. (Really. That's what she said. I don't know why.) She leaned over, grabbed his bag and took out the pizza boxes. Then she opened the boxes and started poking the pizzas.


'This one's pepperoni. I don't know what that is though. Vegetables.'


'Vegetarian,' said the pizza man.


'Whatever,' said Jess. 'Who wants what?'


I asked for vegetarian. The pepperoni sounded like something that wouldn't agree with me.






I told a couple people about that night, and the weird thing is that they get the suicide part, but they don't get the pizza part. Most people get suicide, I guess; most people, even if it's hidden deep down inside somewhere, can remember a time in their lives when they thought about whether they really wanted to wake up the next day. Wanting to die seems like it might be a part of being alive. So anyway, I tell people the story of that New Year's Eve, and none of them are like, 'Whaaaaat ? You were gonna kill yourself ?' It's more, you know, 'Oh, OK, your band was fucked up, you were at the end of the line with your music which was all you wanted to do your whole life, PLUS you broke up with your girl, who was the only reason you were in this fuckin' country in the first place . . . Sure, I can see why you were up there.’ But then like the very next second, they want to know what a guy like me was doing delivering fucking pizzas.


OK, you don't know me' so you'll have to take my word for it that I'm not stupid. I read the fuck out of every book I can get my hands on. I like Faulkner and Dickens and Vonnegut and Brendan Behan and Dylan Thomas. Earlier that week - Christmas Day, to be precise - I'd finished Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, which is a totally awesome novel. I was actually going to jump with a copy - not only because it would have been kinda cool, and would've added a little mystique to my death, but because it might have been a good way of getting more people to read it. But the way things worked out, I didn't have any preparation time, and I left it at home. I have to say, though, that I wouldn't recommend finishing it on Christmas Day, in like a cold-water bedsit, in a city where you don't really know anybody. It probably didn't help my general sense of well-being, if you know what I mean, because the ending is a real downer.



Anyway, the point is, people jump to the conclusion that anyone driving around North London on a shitty little moped on New Year's Eve for the minimum wage is clearly a loser, and almost certainly one stagione short of the full Quattro. Well, OK, we are losers by definition, because delivering pizzas is a job for losers. But we're not all dumb assholes. In fact, even with the Faulkner and Dickens, I was probably the dumbest out of all the guys at work, or at least the worst educated. We got African doctors, Albanian lawyers, Iraqi chemists . . . I was the only one who didn't have a college degree. (I don't understand how there isn't more pizza-related violence in our society. Just imagine: you're like the top whatever in Zimbabwe, brain surgeon or whatever, and then you have to come to England because the fascist regime wants to nail your ass to a tree, and you end up being patronized at three in the morning by some stoned teenage motherfucker with the munchies . . . I mean, shouldn't you be legally entitled to break his fucking jaw ?) Anyway. There's more than one way to be a loser. There's sure more than one way of losing.


So I could say that I was delivering pizzas because England sucks, and, more specifically, English girls suck, and I couldn't work legit because I'm not an English guy. Or an Italian guy, or a Spanish guy, or even like a fucking Finnish guy or whatever. So I was doing the only work I could find; Ivan, the Lithuanian proprietor of Casa Luigi on Holloway Road, didn't care that I was from Chicago, not Helsinki. And another way of explaining it is to say that shit happens, and there's no space too small, too dark and airless and fucking hopeless, for people to crawl into.


The trouble with my generation is that we all think we're fucking geniuses. Making something isn't good enough for us, and neither is selling something, or teaching something, or even just doing something; we have to be something. It's our inalienable right, as citizens of the twenty-first century. If Christina Aguilera or Britney or some American Idol jerk can be something, then why can't I ? Where's mine, huh ? OK, so my band, we put on the best live shows you could ever see in a bar, and we made two albums, which a lot of critics and not many real people liked. But having talent is never enough to make us happy, is it ? I mean, it should be, because a talent is a gift, and you should thank God for it, but I didn't. It just pissed me off because I wasn't being paid for it, and it didn't get me on the cover of Rolling Stone.


Oscar Wilde once said that one's real life is often the life one does not lead. Well, fucking right on, Oscar. My real life was full of headlining shows at Wembley and Madison Square Garden and platinum records, and Grammies, and that wasn't the life I was leading, which is maybe why it felt like I could throw it away. The life I was leading didn't let me be, I don't know . . . be who I thought I was. It didn't even let me stand up properly. It felt like I'd been walking down a tunnel that was getting narrower and narrower, and darker and darker, and had started to ship water, and I was all hunched up, and there was a wall of rock in front of me and the only tools I had were my fingernails. And maybe everyone feels that way, but that's no reason to stick with it. Anyway, that New Year's Eve, I'd gotten sick of it, finally. My fingernails were all worn away, and the tips of my fingers were shredded up. I couldn't dig any more. With the band gone, the only room I had left for self-expression was in checking out of my unreal life: I was going to fly off that fucking roof like Superman. Except, of course, it didn't work out like that.


Some dead people, people who were too sensitive to live: Sylvia Plath, Van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, Jackson Pollock, Primo Levi, Kurt Cobain, of course. Some alive people: George W. Bush, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Osama Bin Laden. Put a cross next to the people you might want to have a drink with, and then see whether they're on the dead side or the alive side. And, yeah, you could point out that I have stacked the deck, that there are a couple of people missing from my 'alive' list who might fuck up my argument, a few poets and musicians and so on. And you could also point out that Stalin and Hitler weren't so great, and they're no longer with us. But indulge me anyway: you know what I'm talking about. Sensitive people find it harder to stick around.


So it was real shocking to discover that Maureen, Jess and Martin Sharp were about to take the Vincent Van Gogh route out of this world. (And yeah, thank you, I know Vincent didn't jump off the top of a North London apartment building.) A middle-aged woman who looked like someone's cleaning lady, a shrieking adolescent lunatic and a talk-show host with an orange face . . . It didn't add up. Suicide wasn't invented for people like this. It was invented for people like Virginia Woolf and Nick Drake. And me. Suicide was supposed to be cool.


New Year's Eve was a night for sentimental losers. It was my own stupid fault. Of course there'd be a low-rent crowd up there. I should have picked a classier date - like March 28th, when Virginia Woolf took her walk into the river, or Nick Drake November 25th. If anybody had been on the roof on either of those nights, the chances are they would have been like-minded souls, rather than hopeless fuck-ups who had somehow persuaded themselves that the end of a calendar year is in any way significant. It was just that when I got the order to deliver the pizzas to the squat in Toppers' House, the opportunity seemed too good to turn down. My plan was to wander to the top, take a look around to get my bearings, go back down to deliver the pizzas and then Do It.


And suddenly there I was with three potential suicides munching the pizzas I was supposed to deliver and staring at me. They were apparently expecting some kind of Gettysburg address about why their damaged and pointless lives were worth living. It was ironic, really, seeing as I didn't give a fuck whether they jumped or not. I didn't know them from Adam, and none of them looked like they were going to add much to the sum total of human achievement.


'So,' I said. 'Great. Pizza. A small, good thing on a night like this.' Raymond Carver, as you probably know, but it was wasted on these guys.


'Now what ?' said Jess.


'We eat our pizza.'


'Then ?'


Just give it half an hour, OK ? Then we'll see where we're at.' I don't know where that came from. Why half an hour ? And what was supposed to happen then ?


'Everyone needs a little time out. Looks to me like things were getting undignified up here. Thirty minutes ? Is that agreed ?'


One by one they shrugged and then nodded, and we went back to chewing our pizzas in silence. This was the first time I had tried one of Ivan's. It was inedible, maybe even poisonous.


'I'm not fucking sitting here for half an hour looking at your fucking miserable faces,' said Jess.


'That's what you've just this minute agreed to do,' Martin reminded her.


'So what ?'


'What's the point of agreeing to do something and then not doing it ?'


'No point.' Jess was apparently untroubled by the concession.


'Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative,' I said. Wilde again. I couldn't resist.


Jess glared at me.


'He's being nice to you,' said Martin.


'There's no point in anything, though, is there ?'Jess said. 'That's why we're up here.'


See, now this was a pretty interesting philosophical argument. Jess was saying that as long as we were on the rooftop, we were all anarchists. No agreements were binding, no rules applied. We could rape and murder each other and no one would pay any attention.


'To live outside the law you must be honest,' I said.


'What the fucking hell does that mean?' said Jess.


You know, I've never really known what the fuck it means, to tell you the truth. Bob Dylan said it, not me, and I'd always thought it sounded good. But this was the first situation I'd ever been in where I was able to put the idea to the test, and I could see that it didn't work. We were living outside the law, and we could lie through our teeth any time we wanted, and I wasn't sure why we shouldn't.


'Nothing,' I said.


'Shut up, then, Yankee boy.'


And I did. There were approximately twenty-eight minutes of our time out remaining.






A long time ago, when I was eight or nine, I saw this programme on telly about the history of the Beatles. Jen liked the Beatles, so she was the one who made me watch it, but I didn’t mind. (I probably told her I did mind, though. I probably made a fuss and pissed her off.) Anyway, when Ringo joined, you sort of felt this little shiver, because that was it, then, that was the four of them, and they were ready to go off and be the most famous group in history. Well, that's how I felt when JJ turned up on the roof with his pizzas. I know you'll think, Oh, she's just saying that because it sounds good, but I'm not. I knew, honestly. It helped that he looked like a rock star, with his hair and his leather jacket and all that, but my feeling wasn’t anything to do with music; I just mean that I could tell we needed JJ, and so when he appeared it felt right. He wasn't Ringo, though. He was more like Paul. Maureen was Ringo, except she wasn't very funny. I was George, except I wasn’t shy, or spiritual. Martin was John, except he wasn't talented or cool. Thinking about it, maybe we were more like another group with four people in it.


Anyway, it just felt like something might happen, something interesting, and so I couldn't understand why we were just sitting there eating pizza slices. So I was like, Maybe we should talk, and Martin goes, What, share our pain ? And then he made a face, like I'd said something stupid, so I called him a wanker, and then Maureen tutted and asked me whether I said things like that at home (which I do), so I called her a bag lady, and Martin called me a stupid, mean little girl, so I spat at him, which I shouldn’t have done and which also by the way I don't do anywhere near as much nowadays, and so he made out like he was going to throttle me, and so JJ jumped in between us, which was just as well for Martin, because I don't think he would have hit me, whereas I most definitely would have hit and bitten and scratched him. And after that little fluffle of activity we sat there puffing and blowing and hating each other for a bit.


And then when we were all calming down, JJ said something like, I'm nor sure what harm would be done by sharing our experiences, except he said it more American even than that. And Martin was like, Well, who's interested in your experiences ? Your experiences are delivering pizzas. And JJ goes, Well, your experiences, then, not mine. But it was too late, and I could tell from what he'd said about sharing our experiences that he was up here for the same reasons we were. So I went, You came up here to jump, didn't you ? And he didn't say anything, and Martin and Maureen looked at him. And Martin just goes, were you going to jump with the pizzas ? Because someone ordered those. Even though Martin was joking, it was like JJ's professional pride had been dented, because he told us that he was only here on a recce, and he was going downstairs to deliver before coming back up again. And I said, Well, we've eaten them now. And Martin goes, Gosh, you didn't seem like the jumping type, and JJ said, If you guys are the jumping type then I can't say I'm sorry. There was, as you can tell, a lot of, like, badness in the air.


So I tried again. Oh, go on, let's talk, I said. No need for pain-sharing. Just, you know, our names and why we're up here. Because it might be interesting. We might learn something. We might see a way out, kind of thing. And I have to admit I had a sort of plan. My plan was that they'd help me find Chas, and Chas and I would get back together, and I'd feel better.


But they made me wait, because they wanted Maureen to go first.






I think they picked me because I hadn't really said anything, and I hadn't rubbed anyone up the wrong way yet. And also, maybe, because I was more mysterious than the others. Martin everyone seemed to know about from the newspapers. And Jess, God love her . . . We'd only known her for half an hour, but you could tell that this was a girl who had problems. My own feeling about JJ, without knowing anything about him, was that he might have been a gay person, because he had long hair and spoke American. A lot of Americans are gay people, aren't they ? I know they didn't invent gayness, because they say that was the Greeks. But they helped bring it back into fashion. Being gay was a bit like the Olympics: it disappeared in ancient times, and then they brought it back in the twentieth century. Anyway, I didn't know anything about gays, so I just presumed they were all unhappy and wanted to kill themselves. But me . . . You couldn't really tell anything about me from looking at me, so I think they were curious.


I didn't mind talking, because I knew I didn't need to say very much. None of these people would have wanted my life. I doubted whether they'd understand how I'd put up with it for as long as I had. It's always the toilet bit that upsets people. Whenever I've had to moan before - when I need another prescription for my anti-depressants, for example - I always mention the toilet bit, the cleaning up that needs doing most days. It's funny, because it's the bit I've got used to. I can't get used to the idea that my life is finished, pointless, too hard, completely without hope or colour; but the mopping up doesn't really worry me any more. That's always what gets the doctor reaching for his pen, though.


'Oh, yeah,' Jess said when I'd finished. 'That's a no-brainer. Don't change your mind. You'd only regret it.'


'Some people cope,' said Martin.


'Who ?' said Jess.


'We had a woman on the show whose husband had been in a coma for twenty-five years.'


'And that was her reward, was it ? Going on a breakfast TV show ?'


'No. I'm just saying.'


'What are you just saying ?'


'I'm just saying it can be done.'


'You're not saying why, though, are you ?'


'Maybe she loved him.'


They spoke quickly, Martin and Jess and JJ. Like people in a soap opera, bang bang bang. Like people who know what to say. I could never have spoken that quickly, not then, anyway; it made me realize that I'd hardly spoken at all for twenty-odd years. And the person I spoke to most couldn't speak back.


'What was there to love ?' Jess was saying. 'He was a vegetable. Not even an awake vegetable. A vegetable in a coma.'


'He wouldn't be a vegetable if he wasn't in a coma, would he ?' said Martin.


'I love my son,' I said. I didn't want them to think I didn't.


'Yes,' said Martin. 'Of course you do. We didn't mean to imply otherwise.'


'Do you want us to kill him for you ?' said Jess. 'I'll go down there tonight if you want. Before I kill myself. I don't mind. No skin off my nose. And it's not like he's got much to live for, is it ? If he could speak, he'd probably thank me for it, poor sod.'


My eyes filled with tears, and JJ noticed.


'What are you, a f- idiot ?' he said to Jess. 'Look what you've done.’


'So-rry,' said Jess. 'Just an idea.'


But that wasn't why I was crying. I was crying because all I wanted in the world, the only thing that would make me want to live, was for Matty to die. And knowing why I was crying just made me cry more.






Everyone bloody knew everything about me, so I didn't see the point of this lark, and I told them that.


'Oh, come on, man,' said JJ, in his irritating American way. It doesn't take long, I find, to be irritated by Yanks. I know they're our friends and everything, and they respect success over there, unlike the ungrateful natives of this bloody chippy dump, but all that cool-daddio stuff gets on my wick. I mean, you should have seen him. You'd have thought he was on the roof to promote his latest movie. You certainly wouldn't think he'd been puttering around Archway delivering pizzas.


'We just want to hear your side of it,' said Jess.


'There isn't a "my side". I was a bloody idiot and I'm paying the price.'


'So you don't want to defend yourself ? Because you're among friends here,' said JJ.


'She just spat at me,' I pointed out. 'What kind of a friend is that ?'


'Oh, don't be such a baby,' said Jess. 'My friends are always spitting at me. I never take it personally.'


'Maybe you should. Perhaps that's how your friends intend it to be taken.'


Jess snorted. 'If I took it personally, I wouldn't have any friends left.'


We let that one hang in the air.


'So what do you want to know, that you don't know already ?'


'There are two sides to every story,' said Jess. 'We only know the bad side.'


'I didn't know she was fifteen,' I said. 'She told me she was eighteen. She looked eighteen.' That was it. That was the good side of the story.


'So if she'd been, like, six months older you wouldn't be up here ?'


'I don't suppose I would, no. Because I wouldn't have broken the law. Wouldn't have gone to prison. Wouldn't have lost my job, my wife wouldn't have found out . . .'


'So you're saying it was just bad luck.'


'I'd say there was a certain degree of culpability involved.' This was, I need hardly tell you, an attempt at dry understatement; I didn't know then that Jess is at her happiest wallowing in the marshland of the bleeding obvious.


'Just because you've swallowed a fucking dictionary, it doesn't mean you've done nothing wrong,’ said Jess.


'That's what "culpability" . . .'


'Because some married men wouldn't have shagged her no matter how old she was. And you've got kids and all, haven't you ?'


'I have indeed.'


'So bad luck's got nothing to do with it.'


'Oh, for fuck's sake. Why d'you think I've been dangling my feet over the ledge, you moron ? I screwed up. I'm not trying to make excuses for myself. I feel so wretched I want to die.'


'I should hope so.'


'Thanks. And thanks for introducing this exercise, too. Very helpful. Very . . . curative.'


Another polysyllabic word, another dirty look.


'I'm interested in something,' said JJ.


'Go on.'


'Why is it easier to like leap into the void than to face up to what you've done ?'


'This is facing up to what I've done.'


'People are always fucking young girls and leaving their wives and kids. They don't all jump off of buildings, man.'


'No. But like Jess says, maybe they should.'


'Really ? You think anyone who makes a mistake of this kind should die? Woah. That's some heavy shit,' said JJ.


Did I really think that ? Maybe I did. Or maybe I had done. As some of you might know, I’d written things in newspapers which said exactly that, more or less. This was before my fall from grace, naturally. I'd called for the restoration of the death penalty, for example. I'd called for resignations and chemical castrations and prison sentences and public humiliations and penances of every kind. And maybe I had meant it when I'd said that men who couldn't keep their things in their trousers should be . . . Actually, I can't remember what I thought the appropriate punishment was now for philanderers and serial adulterers. I shall have to look up the column in question. But the point is that I was practising what I preached. I hadn't been able to keep my thing in my trousers, so now I had to jump. I was a slave to my own logic. That was the price you had to pay if you were a tabloid columnist who crossed the line you'd drawn.


'Not every mistake, no. But maybe this one.'


'Jesus,' said JJ. 'You're real tough on yourself.'


'It's not just that, anyway. It's the public thing. The humiliation. The enjoyment of the humiliation. The TV show on cable that's watched by three people. Everything. I've . . . I've run out of room. I can't see any way forward or back.'


There was a thoughtful silence, for about ten seconds.


'Right,' said Jess. 'My turn.'






I launched in. I just went, My name's Jess and I'm eighteen years old and, see, I'm here because I had some family problems that I don't need to go into. And then I split up with this guy. Chas. And he owes me an explanation. Because he didn't say anything. He just went. But if he gave me an explanation I'd feel better, I think, because he broke my heart. Except I can't find him. I was at the party downstairs looking for him, and he wasn't there. So I came up here.


And Martin goes, all sarcastic, You're going to kill yourself because Chas didn't turn up at a party ? Jesus.


Well, I never said that, and I told him. So then he was like, OK, you're up here because you're owed an explanation, then. Is that it ?


He was trying to make me sound stupid, and that wasn't fair, because we could all do that to each other. Like, for example, say, Oh, boo hoo hoo, they won't let me be on breakfast television any more. Oh, boo hoo hoo, my son's a vegetable and I don't talk to anyone and I have to clean up his . . . Well, OK, you couldn't make Maureen sound stupid. But it seemed to me that taking the piss wasn't on. You could have taken the piss out of all four of us; you can take the piss out of anyone who's unhappy, if you're cruel enough.


So I go, That wasn't what I said either. I said an explanation might stop me. I didn't say it was why I was up here in the first place, did I ? See, we could handcuff you to those railings, and that would stop you. But you're not up here because no one's handcuffed you to railings, are you ?


That shut him up. I was pleased with that.


JJ was nicer. He could see that I wanted to find Chas, so I was like, Duh, yeah, except I wished I hadn't done the Duh bit because he was being sympathetic and Duh is taking the piss, really, isn't it ? But he ignored the Duh and he asked me where Chas was and I said I didn't know, some party or another, and he said, Well, why don't you go looking for him instead of fucking around up here and I said I'd run out of energy and hope and when I said that I knew it was true.


I don't know you. The only thing I know about you is, you're reading this. I don't know whether you're happy or not; I don't know whether you're young or not. I sort of hope you're young and sad. If you're old and happy, I can imagine that you'll maybe smile to yourself when you hear me going, He broke my heart. You'll remember someone who broke your heart, and you'll think to yourself, Oh, yes, I can remember how that feels. But you can't, you smug old git. Oh, you might remember feeling sort of pleasantly sad. You might remember listening to music and eating chocolates in your room, or walking along the Embankment on your own, wrapped up in a winter coat and feeling lonely and brave. But can you remember how with every mouthful of food it felt like you were biting into your own stomach ? Can you remember the taste of red wine as it came back up and into the toilet bowl? Can you remember dreaming every night that you were still together, that he was talking to you gently and touching you, so that every morning when you woke up you had to go through it all over again ? Can you remember carving his initials in your arm with a kitchen knife ? Can you remember standing too close to the edge of an Underground platform ? No ? Well, fucking shut up then. Stick your smile up your saggy old arse.






I was going to just like splurge, tell 'em everything they needed to know - Big Yellow, Lizzie, the works. There was no need to lie. I guess I felt a little queasy listening to the other guys, because their reasons for being up there seemed pretty solid. Jesus, everyone understood why Maureen's life wasn't worth living. And, sure, Martin had kind of dug his own grave, but even so, that level of humiliation and shame . . . If I'd been him, I doubt if I'd have stuck around as long as he had. And Jess was very unhappy and very nuts. So it wasn't like people were being competitive, exactly, but there was a certain amount of, I don't know what you'd call it . . . marking out territory ? And maybe I felt a little insecure because Martin had pissed all over my patch. I was going to be the shame and humiliation guy, but my shame and humiliation was beginning to look a little pale. He'd been locked up for sleeping with a fifteen-year-old, and fucked over in the tabloids; I'd been dumped by a girl, and my band wasn't going anywhere. Big fucking deal.


Still, I didn't think of lying until I had the trouble with my name. Jess was so fucking aggressive, and I just lost my nerve.


'So,' I said. 'OK. I'm JJ, and . . .'


''Woss that stand for ?'


People always want to know what my initials are for, and I never tell them. I hate my name. What happened was, my dad was one of those self-educated guys, and he had a real, like, reverence for the BBC, so he spent too much time listening to the World Service on his big old short-wave radio in the den, and he was real hung up on this dude who was always on the radio in the sixties, John Julius Norwich, who was like a lord or something, and writes millions of books about like churches and stuff. And that's me. John fucking Julius. Did I become a lord, or a radio anchor, or even an Englishman ? No. Did I drop out of school and form a band ? Yep. Is John Julius a good name for a high-school dropout ? Nope. JJ is OK, though. JJ's cool enough.


'That's my business. Anyway, I'm JJ, and I'm here because . . .'


'I'll find out what your name is.'


'How ?'


'I'll come round your house and ransack it until I find something that tells me. Your passport or bank book or something. And if I can't find anything then I'll just steal something you love and I won't give it back until you've coughed up.'


Jesus Christ. What gives with this girl ?


'You'd rather do that than call me by my initials ?'


'Yeah. Course. I hate not knowing things.'


'I don't know you very well,' said Martin. 'But if you're really troubled by your own ignorance, I'd have thought there should be one or two things higher up the list than JJ's name.'


'What's that supposed to mean?'


'Do you know who the Chancellor of the Exchequer is ? Or who wrote Moby-Dick ?'


'No,' said Jess. 'Course not.' As if anyone who knew stuff like that was a dork. 'But they're not secrets, are they ? I don't like not knowing secrets. I could find that other stuff out any time I felt like it, and I don't feel like it.'


'If he doesn't want to tell us, he doesn't want to tell us. Do your friends call you JJ ?'




'Then that's good enough for us.'


'S'not good enough for me,' said Jess.


Just belt up and let him talk,' said Martin.


But for me, the moment had gone. The moment of truth, anyway, ha ha. I could tell I wasn't going to get a fair hearing; there were waves of hostility coming off Jess and Martin, and these waves were breaking everywhere.


I stared at them all for a minute.


'So ?' said Jess. 'You forgotten why you were going to kill yourself, or what ?'


'Of course I haven't forgotten,' I said.


'Well, fucking spit it out then.'


'I'm dying,' I said.


See, I never thought I'd run into them again. I was pretty sure that sooner or later we'd shake hands, wish each other a happy whatever, and then either trudge back down the stairs or jump off the fucking roof depending on mood, character, scale of problem etcetera. It really never occurred to me that this was going to come back and repeat on me like a pickle in a Big Mac.


'Yeah, well you don't look great,' said Jess. 'What you got ? AIDS ?'


AIDS fitted the bill. Everyone knew you could wander around with it for months; everyone knew it was incurable. And yet . . . I'd had a couple friends who died from it, and it's not the kind of thing you joke about. AIDS I knew I should leave the fuck alone. But then - and this all ran through my head in the thirty seconds after Jess's question - which fatal disease was more appropriate?


Leukemia ? The Ebola virus ? None of them really says, 'No, go on, man, be my guest. I'm only a joke killer disease. I'm not serious enough to offend anyone.'


'I got like this brain thing. It's called CCR.' Which of course is Creedence Clearwater Revival, one of my all-time favourite bands, and a big inspiration to me. I didn't think any of them looked like big Creedence fans. Jess was too young, I really didn't need to worry about Maureen, and Martin was the kind of guy who'd only have smelled a rat if I'd told him I was dying of incurable ABBA.


'It's like Cranial Corno-something.' I was pleased with the 'cranial' part. That sounded about right. The 'corno-' was weak, though, I admit.


'Is there no cure for that ?' Maureen asked.


'Oh, yeah,' said Jess. 'There's a cure. You can take a pill. It's just that he couldn't be arsed. Der.'


'They figure it's from drug abuse. Drugs and alcohol. So it's all my own fuckin' fault.'


'You must feel a bit of a berk, then,' said Jess.


'I do,' I said. 'If "berk" means asshole.'


'Yeah. Anyway, you win.'


Which confirmed to me once and for all that a competitive edge had snuck in.


'Really ?' I was pleased.


'Oh, yeah. Dying ? Fuck. That's, you know. . . Like diamonds or spades or those . . . Trumps ! You've got trumps, man.'


'I'd say that having a fatal disease was only any good in this game,' said Martin. 'The who's-the-most-miserable bastard game. Not much use anywhere else.'


'How long have you got ?' Jess asked.


'I don't know.'


'Roughly. Just like off the top of your head.'


'Shut up, Jess,' said Martin.


'What have I said now? I wanted to know what we were dealing with.'


'We're not dealing with anything,' I said. 'I’m dealing with it.'


'Not very well,’ Jess said.


'Oh, is that right ? And this from the girl who can't deal with being dumped.'


We fell into a hostile silence.


'Well,' said Martin. 'So. Here we all are, then.'


'Now what ?' said Jess.


'You're going home, for a start,' said Martin.


'Like fuck I am. Why should I ?'


'Because we're going to march you there.'


'I'll go home on one condition.'


'Go on.'


'You help me find Chas first.'


'All of us ?'


'Yeah. Or I really will kill myself. And I'm too young to do that. You said.'


'I'm not sure I was right about that, looking back,' said Martin. 'You're wise beyond your years. I can see that, now.'


'So it's OK if I go over ?' She started to walk towards the edge of the roof.


'Come back here,' I said.


'I don't give a fuck, you know,' she said. 'I can jump, or we can look for Chas. Same thing, to me.'


And that's the whole thing, right there, because we believed her. Maybe other people on other nights wouldn't have but the three of us, that night, we had no doubts. It wasn't that we thought she was really suicidal, either; it was just that it felt like she might do whatever she wanted to do, at any given moment, and if she wanted to jump off a building to see what it felt like, then she'd try it. And once you'd worked that out, then it was just a question of how much you cared.


'But you don't need our help,' I said. 'We don't know how to start looking for Chas. You're the only one who can find him.'


'Yeah, but I get weird on my own. Confused. That's sort of how I ended up here.'


'What do you think ?' said Martin to the rest of us.


'I'm not going anywhere,' said Maureen. 'I'm not leaving the roof, and I won't change my mind.'


'Fine. We wouldn't ask you to.'


'Because they'll come looking for me.'


'Who will ?'


'The people in the respite home.'


'So what ?' said Jess. 'What are they going to do if they can't find you ?'


'They’ll put Matty somewhere terrible.'


'This is the Matty who's a vegetable? Does he give a shit where he goes ?'


Maureen looked at Martin helplessly.


'Is it the money ?' said Martin. 'Is that why you have to be dead by the morning ?'


Jess snorted, but I could see why he had asked the question.


'I only paid for one night,' said Maureen.


'Have you got the money for more than one night ?'


'Yes, of course.' The suggestion that she might not seemed to make her a little pissed. Pissed off. Whatever.


'So phone them up and tell them he'll be staying two.'


Maureen looked at him helplessly again. 'Why ?'


'Because,' said Jess. 'Anyway, there's fuck all to do up here, is there ?'


Martin laughed, kind of.


'Well, is there ?' said Jess.


'Nothing I can think of,' said Martin. 'Apart from the obvious.'


'Oh, that,' said Jess. 'Forget it. The moment's gone. I can tell. So we've got to find something else to do.'


'So even if you're right, and the moment has passed,' I said, 'why do we have to do anything together ? Why don't we go home and watch TV ?'


"Cos I get weird on my own. I told you.'


'Why should we care ? We didn't know you half an hour ago. I don't give much of a fuck about how weird you get on your own.'


'So you don't feel like a bond kind of thing because of what we've been through.'




'You will. I can see us still being friends when we're all old.’


There was a silence. This was clearly not a vision shared by all.



Edited by ThisLife

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