Monthly Archives: January 2009

Aunt Of Darkness

A few years ago I started writing a version of Heart of Darkness in the style of a PG Wodehouse Jeeves story, inspired by someone more amusing than me gloomily intoning the following brief exchange down the pub one evening:

“The horror, sir, the horror.”

“Really, Jeeves?”

“Indeed, sir, the fascination of the abomination.”

I’m not a fan of Conrad by any stretch and have always found him insufferably boring. Wodehouse, however, I love, and so I thought I could make an amusing story out of rather a grim one if under the influence of The Master. Naturally enough, I soon realised that I really didn’t have the talent or endurance to do anything of the sort and, as with so many pub-induced ideas, gave up on it very soon afterwards. In a spirit of self-indulgence here’s the beginning of it, supplied because, despite everything obviously at fault with it, I do still rather like the psittacine line.

AUNT OF DARKNESS

(A journey to the heart of Woostershire)

i


I was hacking in to a leisurely kipper when Jeeves shimmered in with the salver.

“A telegram, sir,” he remarked, with characteristic what’s-the-word.

“Well read it, Jeeves, read it,” I said with all the vigour of a chap who has enjoyed his full ten alloted hours of nourishing slumber.

“It’s from Mrs. Travers, sir. ‘Tom gone tonto stop. Urgent come Brinkley instanter. Love Travers.’”

“Rum, Jeeves.”

“Yes, sir.”

“The aged relation seems to indicate that my uncle Tom Travers has gone mad.”

“Indeed, sir, I had surmised as much.”

“I mean to say, Jeeves, old Uncle T., despite a certain thingummy – begins with a ‘Q’, Jeeves, you know, ill-humour and all that.”

“Querulousness, sir?”

“That’s the chap. Despite a certain querulousness when pondering the demands of the tax-man or Aunt Dahlia’s for Milady’s Boudoir, Tom Travers has never struck me as the sort of chap liable to go off his onion. I wonder what could have brought this on.”

“I could not say, sir.”

“Jeeves!”

“Sir?”

“You don’t suppose Anatole’s run off again?”

“It is of course a possibility, sir.”

“He is French, Jeeves. The Gallic race is noted for its over-excitability. He could have done a bunk, and Uncle Tom can’t cope without his cooking, we know that much.”

“Indeed, sir.”

“Well then I suppose we should repair to Market Snodsbury with all speed.”

“I shall lay out our houndstooth suit for the journey, sir.”

“Thank you Jeeves.”

ii


I wasn’t exactly expecting to find Uncle Tom champing at the bit and frothing at the mouth, nor indeed lobbing flower pots at the under-gardener, but it was nevertheless a subdued Bertram Wooster who arrived at Brinkley Court that afternoon. Apprehensive, if you know what I mean. Aunt Dahlia’s icy reception to my cordial what-ho-ings only confirmed the worst.

“Don’t you ‘what-ho’ me, you foul young carbuncle,” she roared, with all the ferocity that had made her such a conspicuous presence with the Pytchley and the Quorn in her youth. (There are still occasions when I spy a nasty glint in her eye and expect her to come after me yelping ‘tantivy’ and brandishing a riding-crop. Stentorian, her voice was, as I think Jeeves once remarked with ref. to that other noisy, but decidedly less welcome, blot on the Wooster landscape, the abominable Roderick Spode.)

“What’s all this about Uncle Tom mislaying his marbles? Anatole hasn’t given notice again, surely?”

“It’s much more serious than that, Bertie.”

“More serious?” I goggled. In the grand scheme of things few things could be worse than the great chef chucking in the ladle.

“This isn’t the time for your asinine parrot impersonations, Bertie.”

“Psittacine, aged A.”

“Whatever can you mean?”

“Psittacine, not asinine. Jeeves told me once. Psittacine is the word for parrot-like. Asinine would be asses. At least I think it would.”

“Well don’t be an ass either. Ring for Jeeves at once and kindly keep quiet until he gets here. We need every ounce of that man’s brain-power to help us now, and you won’t help by burbling.”

A gentle cough, like that of a venerable librarian clearing his throat in the reading room of the British Museum after a particularly noisome morning pipe, but aware of the requirement for dignified silence which his position demanded, indicated the man’s presence in the room.

“You rang, madam?”

“Jeeves,” began the old flesh-and-blood, “this is a very delicate matter.”

“Indeed, madam. I can assure you that I have some experience of dealing with many forms of mental aberration.”

They both glanced briefly in my direction and exchanged what could only be described as a Knowing Look. I can’t be sure of this, for Aunt Dahlia emitted a small squeal or snort at this point.

“During my time in Lord Brancaster’s employ, he once-”

“Never mind all that now, Jeeves,” I said.

“Forgive me, sir, but the tale I was about to relate does have some bearing on the matter in hand. His Lordship suffered some form of nervous collapse following the demise of his favourite parrot, and was thereafter to be found at certain times of the day sitting atop the pianoforte nibbling at a seedcake in a fit of ungovernable distress. All manner of means were attempted in order to induce him to come down and to his senses, but to no avail. Eventually Sir Roderick Glossop, the noted nerve specialist, was called for, and his Lordship was taken away to recuperate.”

“Well we don’t want that, Jeeves,” groaned Aunt Dahlia.

“Indeed not madam.”

“I take it you know all about what has happened then, Jeeves?”

“I’m afraid the talk below stairs is of little else, madam. Mr. Seppings was kind enough to give me a reliable account of recent events, however. A most lamentable occurrence if I may say so. What I would suggest-”

“But dash it, Jeeves!” I ejaculated, unable to stand the suspense any longer. “What has happened? You seem to forget as you go dashing off with your schemes that I’m very much in the dark in re. the actual course of events. What, Jeeves, if you would be kind enough to tell me, has happened? Eh?”

Aunt Dahlia gave him the nod and he explained. “Mr. Travers has recently become involved with a sinister group of men calling themselves the Victoria League Club, in whose possession there rests a valuable silver statuette which Mr. Travers desires for his own collection, sir. In order to gain their confidence in order to encourage them to sell him the item, Mr. Travers was forced to join their society and masquerade as an adherent to their ignoble principles. It would seem that his will is not perhaps as strong as he had at first thought. Mr. Travers has, as I believe modern parlance has it, ‘gone native’. All attempts at communication have thus far been rebuffed. It would seem to me that the only course of action now would be for someone to locate Mr. Travers and bring him home.”

Aunt Dahlia shot me a menacing look. “You, Bertie, are that ‘someone’.”

I felt like some unfortunate young chap who has unexpectedly been biffed about the back of the bonce by a brick lobbed by the Bishop during his confirmation. I was powerless to resist…

I’ve never seen ‘cystitis’ used in an epitaph before

I love inappropriate humour. To me there are few greater pleasures than having to stifle giggles at a time when decorous, ‘adult’ behaviour is demanded. The aftermath of real instances of accidental slapstick, especially the glorious way people attempt to regain their composure immediately after having fallen over (the best instance of which I saw being a pinstriped office-worker slipping in a spilled delivery of strawberry ice cream outside a branch of Baskin-Robbins in Marylebone: I defy anyone not to have roared as he floundered and cursed in a mountain of pink goo on the pavement), young children innocently swearing, or the simple joy of a good, old-fashioned, unseemly remark (e.g. Dr. Graham Chapman’s at Dachau): all are guaranteed to make me laugh.

But it’s very seldom that you find yourself reduced to gales of laughter in a cemetery. In North Sheen (aka Fulham New) Cemetery in SW London there is the most bizarre 20th Century epitaph I’ve seen, one which caused a fit of teary bemusement when I read it. Here it is:

 

Joan Winifred Keats

21.10.28 – 23.6.74

“For cystitis I was treated wrong

For more than three months too long;

Until cancer developed beyond control,

When euthanasia took its toll.”

 

The verse itself is bad, there’s no doubt of that – the last line in iambic tetrameter even recalls Butler’s famed Hudibras, the model of bad verse – but it’s the content that continues to baffle me. That this poor woman seems to have suffered horribly from a misdiagnosed cancer before consenting to a mercy-killing at the age of forty-five is of course no cause for merriment, but what on earth could have possessed her family to have erected this as a monument? It’s just weird. Did she write it herself and demand it be chiselled in to her headstone, an early version of Spike Milligan’s “I told you I was ill”? Is it even jocular? Am I being horribly insensitive in finding any amusement in this at all? Why else, though, would cystitis and euthanasia be mentioned? And such a bad poem being attributed to someone called ‘Keats’ is surely too much of a coincidence, isn’t it? Isn’t it?

Someone please tell me more. There’s a story here and I really want to know it.


 

Regrettably I didn’t have a camera with me at the time of my visit and I can’t remember exactly where the grave is – I think sections 1c 2c 3c are a good place to start but be warned my memory is a little hazy. I’m sure it was around there somewhere.