The Number Cruncher

Kilburn. About a decade ago. I was stood in WHSmith, reading the newspapers. It’s what we did before the internet. That or the library. Libraries had more tramps and more of a crusty, fuggy aroma. Smith’s was cleaner, and had multiple copies of papers, so Smith’s was better. Smith’s even had magazines.

I was skimming through The Times, or some such similarly improving broadsheet, when suddenly a copy of The Sun was urgently flapped under my nose. I looked up. A troubled, quizzical face was glaring back at me, as one of its owner’s digits was repeatedly and quickly stabbed at the back page, somewhere in the region of a story about a footballer’s weekly wage.

“You see that number there?”

I did see. I confirmed as much.

“Is that a BIG number?”

It was somewhere in the thousands. I said, yes, it was pretty big, but such things were relative. The face looked momentarily less troubled. Then it shouted at me.

“A million! THAT’s a big number.”

I couldn’t deny it.

“Did you know that the sun is a million times bigger than the Earth?”

I wasn’t sure if anyone could be said to know such a thing but was also aware that an epistemological debate would clearly be neither relevant nor welcome. I told him I didn’t. He smiled proudly. He knew something I didn’t. That was enough for him. Knowledge is power.

The Moons Of Paradise

For many people, one of the great pleasures in buying secondhand books is to find between the covers some evidence of a previous owner. Bookplates and carefully calligraphed names; inscriptions from friends or family; footnotes and angry annotations; opinions on torn pieces of paper hurriedly inserted at a random page or carefully pasted on to the endpapers; tram tickets and cigarette cards; reviews and author obituaries snipped from newspapers or journals; pressed flowers from some languid, long-ago summer afternoon when the book was last loved: such things somehow connect you with another time as well as another reader and offer an insight in to their past or perhaps even your own future in a way unique to this peculiar experience that causes certain book buyers to rhapsodise in similarly florid terms. Personally, I find it rather off-putting and annoying; if I want a book defaced I’ll bloody well do it myself. However, occasionally I will discover something that fills me with joy.

A couple of weeks ago I found a copy of The Moons Of Paradise [1], and I’ve been smirking ever since. It’s a book about breasts. More specifically, as you will quickly deduce from its proper title, ‘The Moons Of Paradise: some reflections on the appearance of the female breast in art…’ by Mervyn Levy (Arthur Barker Ltd., 1962), it is a book about arty breasts, a subject certainly ripe for exploration which, as far as I know, wasn’t tackled by the likes of EH Gombrich. (I could be wrong about that, of course; art historians are a notoriously rum bunch.) I’ve no idea how seriously Levy takes his subject either because I haven’t actually read the book, nor do I think it likely that I ever will. But then, I don’t need to; the previous owner of this copy has read it for me, and read it with a zeal and eye for detail that is little short of astonishing. Despite his obvious enthusiasm for the subject matter and the pains he has clearly taken in his annotations and additions, it seems he may have strayed slightly from the scholarly path on to the well-trodden promenade of seaside smut; but even if his amateur scholarship was academe’s loss (unless there is a secret Benny Hill Chair in Mammarial Studies at Cambridge), it is undoubtedly our gain. I think it best if I take you through the book page by page for a while.

We start with a quotation from Eugenio Coseriu [2], a mystic incantation and a bad French pun on the front endpapers:

sur les seins de l’epouse, on ecrase l’epoux.


le seins-posium

a bra, cad, a bra

Overleaf, the verso grants us further puns based around the word ‘seins’, whilst the recto gains two carefully-drawn papillary dots in each O of the word ‘MOONS’, the reflection that ‘Bust (bosom) is just sublimated bottom’ and the first hand-drawn bosom of many, labelled ‘From Great Divide to Cleavage’. I think you may be beginning to get the picture…

There are 31 further drawings of pairs of breasts on the dedication page (along with the inscription ‘tats for tits’),

and then the fun really begins. From here onward almost every single page of this 140-page book has a newspaper clipping, postcard, or picture inserted, each of which, as you may already have guessed, is… well… is like this:

and this:

and this:

You get the idea. Oh go on then; one more:

Several of the newspaper clippings are from 1970, so it seems fair to date this extraordinary endeavour of thematic archiving to around that point. From our hyper-sexualised vantage here in the early 21st Century, this book’s new contents seem rather innocent. Preserved for the last forty years as a memento mammary (I’m not going to apologise for that; it gets to you, this book), it may seem little more than an oddity, a curious relic of one man’s unusual obsession, but I think that as an historical document (yes, really), this book might have some value. Discuss.

[1] Freudian typo: I originally wrote ‘mons’ instead of ‘moons’. Make of that what you will.
[2] No, me neither. Sorry. Google him.

Chummy, eh?

This glorious letter to some unknown newspaper fell from a book I recently found in Oxfam, having been lovingly clipped and kept at, I’d say, some point in the 1970s. I think it speaks for itself.

“Days of laughter

SIR- As a very old woman, I often think of friends who were always happy, stimulating, joyous, radiant and ever-welcoming. The word which exactly described their spirits was gay and we used it constantly.

Now, alas, one almost shudders to say it. Surely it is not too late for homosexuals (almost unheard of in those days) to give us back our word gay and choose another epithet. I suggest “chummy” or “matey,” and there are many others, all fairly descriptive and quite inoffensive.

If so, I shall die happy and gay.

London, S.W.18.”

Obviously, I think of this:

And if you think this is an interesting thing to find in a book, wait till I tell you about the Moons of Paradise…

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.


(A journey to the heart of Woostershire)


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.”



“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.”


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.