Christopher’s Christmas Cracker
Finally, an answer to the question: what would a review of the year be like if it was written by an idiot?
In 1793, the celebrated cartoonist James Gillray published A new map of England & France, at a time when Britain seemed to be in danger of the ‘French Invasion’ of the work’s subtitle. The image is best known, however, by its sub-subtitle — John Bull, bombarding the Bum-Boats — because it depicts George III, in the shape of England and Wales, deflecting the French navy by releasing a fleet of turds from his anus (Portsmouth).
I mention this now because there will be other reviews of the shower of faeces that was 2022, but they will be serious-minded attempts to analyse what we have lived through, and perhaps trace the sources of our predicament. This one will not. Because, 229 years on, cloaca continues to emerge from Britain’s figurative arsehole at speed and volume, but that feculence is now being directed, not at France, but all over this once green and pleasant land itself. Others can attempt to understand the autocoprophiliac nation we have apparently become. I am here to distract.
Here, for example, is a poem:
It seems fitting.
Still, 2022 hasn’t been all bad. I discovered, for example, that The Museum of Bad Art exists, and features this touching portrait of a cat:
…which reminds me of the Santuario de Misericordia’s Monkey Jesus.
There’s this, too.
Which is, indeed, horrific, and not what you might call seasonal, but I’m afraid it makes me laugh like a child, so there it is. Also, it’s apparently entitled Although the new painting was clearly quite awful, we still made the best of a bad situation, which only enhances the matter for me.
And without so much as leaving the theme of the animal kingdom, I also (thank you, Nicholas Lezard) learned how Alexander Selkirk, the marooned sailor who inspired Robinson Crusoe, spent some of the four years and four months in which he was cast away on Más a Tierra.
He fucked goats.
Well, yes, I suppose I could put that more delicately. Let’s turn to a respectable literary source: Diana Souhami’s biography Selkirk’s Island.
Fucking goats was perhaps less satisfying than the buggery and prostitution of shipboard life, the black misses of heathen ports. It lacked fraternal exchange. But Selkirk was an abandoned man.
By all accounts, mind you, he richly deserved his abandonment. Before he went to sea, he had beaten up one of his brothers, starting a family dispute in which he also assaulted his father, another brother, and a sister-in-law.
At sea, while a good navigator, he was a hot-headed shipmate, who fell out with his captain and asked to be left on the island. He didn’t think the ship was seaworthy, and expected others to join him. When they didn’t, he tried to get back on board, but the captain was having none of it. (Some time later, the ship sank, drowning many of the crew, proving Selkirk right, but affording him little opportunity to say “Nur nur na nur nur, I told you so”.)
He ate an estimated 500 goats while on his island, but I confess I haven’t read the original sources in enough detail to know whether these were the same specimens of which he had carnal knowledge, or whether he divided the goats from the goats — on the basis, perhaps, of whether he deemed them too pretty to eat.
One of the people who rescued him wrote:
He ran with wonderful Swiftness thro the Woods and up the Rocks and Hills. We had a Bull-Dog, which we sent with several of our nimblest Runners, to help him in catching goats; but he distanc’d and tir’d both the Dog and the Men.
Yes, I can imagine he did. No shenanigans made it into the pages of Defoe’s novel. If they had, it might not have been the literary phenomenon it was, and Más a Tierra might never have been renamed Robinson Crusoe Island, as it inevitably was in 1966.
Here is a picture of Selkirk which I came across during my research into this Important Matter.
This animal has seen some things.
Anyway, perhaps you don’t feel this has quite the moral tone required to elevate us above the debased nature of 2022. Well, how about some improving culture? Let us contemplate the earthenware of the Moche people of 2–3,000 years ago.
I mean, obviously, the white rat has just surprised his brown friend with a gift of a peanut, yes? Well, let’s take a look at the Boston Museum of Fine Art’s label…
Thankfully, not all museum exhibits make a person Think Dirty. Sometimes, they’re proof of the uncanny.
As the original tweeter from whom I ‘sourced’ these images, Madeline Claire Horwath, said: The piece on the left is from the Shang Dynasty (1600–1050 BCE) and the one on the right from the Han Dynasty (202 BCE- 220 AD). “This proves Shrek isn’t just a movie, it’s a prophecy.”
So, having successfully put Filth behind us, let us move on to
Alex Pheby’s Mordew is glorious stuff. It’s tempting, when you get to the end of a several-hundred-page novel and discover it’s the first part of a trilogy, to think, “Christ, there’s more?”, but not with this. I am positively slavering for the sequel. Here’s a sample sentence from vol.1:
When he bent, the fabric on his arse stretched so tight that it looked as if two bald priests were sharing the same felt cap.
But, if Alex will forgive me, I think the most joyous literary discovery of my 2022 was this, in my local Oxfam shop:
Yes, that really is a book called Cotswold Privies by Archers actress Mollie Harris and photographer Sue Chapman, and it really does exist in the world, having been published by Hogarth Press in 1984. It represents perhaps the most rewarding £1.99 I have spent in many years, and you can find copies on abebooks for not much more.
Much of the content of this 70-page masterwork does, inevitably, concern The Brick Shithouses of the Cotswolds, but there is history along the way. There’s a function room at New College, Oxford, for example, known as the Long Room. Here it is.
Looks quite inviting, doesn’t it? Not many windows, but pleasant enough, and with a decent-sized piano at one end. Available for “meetings, receptions, parties, rehearsals and much more”.
It does possess a slightly… subterranean air, though, does it not? Well, yes. This building, you see, housed New College’s latrines. That is, they were on the storey above. The Long Room, directly below the latrines, gradually, and for many hundreds of years, filled up. Let’s let Mollie tell the tale:
Thankfully, toileting technology has moved on. For example, there was, Mollie tells us, an “International Exhibition of Hygiene at South Kensington in 1884”, at which “there was a competition for the best water closet”. The test was that
Into each pan were placed ten small potatoes, some sponge and four sheets of thin paper, and it was necessary that all should be removed at one flushing. Only three passed the test successfully.
It is, of course, the ten small potatoes which amuse me the most. Not only does this test clearly predate the Bristol stool scale, it must also have been devised without reference to anyone who’s ever been a parent and received the call to unblock a toilet into which a child has deposited something which must be stared at with bewildered awe for several seconds before it can be tackled (while muttering under one’s breath “Bloody hell, kid. That’s the size of one of your own legs”).
My favourite bit of the book, though, comes in the introduction. No, it’s not this image (although it comes close)
(Here, by the way, is that three-holer:
William Morris rented Kelmscott Manor from 1871 to 1896, apparently, so “the father of the Arts and Crafts movement” may have carried out movements of his own on this very spot.)
No, my favourite bit is the one that talks about Mollie and Sue’s efforts to keep their literary endeavour under wraps until its grand unveiling:
There were two Les Liaisons Dangereuses films, after all, and two films about volcanoes erupting in the middle of Los Angeles, and two about asteroids hitting the Earth, so it’s quite possible that there were numerous gangs of women in tweeds and stout shoes marauding about the Oxfordshire countryside in the early 1980s trying to write histories of end-of-garden bogs. I can picture them now, the Cotswold Privy Front and the Front for Cotswold Privies, bellowing FUCKING SPLITTER at each other across Chipping Norton town square.
The tone seems to have become lowered again.
(That sentence was written in the same voice that certain politicians have used this year to point out that ‘mistakes were made’: the tone was lowered, and we’re all trying to find the guy who did this.)
So, let’s progress to the section called
Absolutely vital knowledge
One picks things up as one moves through life, you see. Here are some of the diamonds I have plucked from the rough in 2022.
Did you know that Clement Attlee was once in a dodgem with Swedish Prime Minister Tage Erlanger? Here they are at Malmö Folkets Park, with Tage’s wife Aina and Olaf Palme in the dodgem to their left.
Mind you, given that — at a New Year party of David Frost’s in the late 1960s — Peter Cook was but two dodgems away from Mary Whitehouse, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised.
Did you also know that Australian author Patrick White said Somerset Maugham’s nephew Robin (also a writer) had “a face like a wizened cow’s twat”?
…that Monty Norman’s James Bond theme was a recycled tune from a proposed musical based on V S Naipaul’s A House for Mr Biswas?
…that Elaine Page smells (or at least once smelt) of chips?
That’s from Syd Little’s autobiography Little Goes a Long Way, incidentally. (He wrote another, called Little by Little.)
Did you further know that Edward Heath said General de Gaulle “was a man who was never rude by mistake”? (This was in Heath’s memoir, which went by the magnificently pompous — and therefore entirely on brand — title The Course of My Life.)
Or, indeed, that an 80-year-old pensioner named Bert Hodges, “appearing in June 1972 in a senior citizens’ away-day talent contest in Bognor Regis” recited the following poem?
The show’s organiser, a Mrs Ethel Helmes, did not think this was suitable material for a holiday audience, and said so. Bert, “who had once been on the halls” protested that “the verse is well known in theatrical circles”.
(Lord alone knows where that story came from, because William Donaldson’s Brewer’s Rogues, Villains & Eccentrics, where I read it, is not footnoted — but it is glorious, and worth tracking down.)
And finally (under this heading), were you aware that the warder escorting Michael Caine to his release from prison at the start of The Italian Job is Frank Kelly, aka Father Jack from Father Ted? Apparently, it was shot in Kilmainham Jail in Dublin.
It’s amazing what one can discover on Twitter. Which brings me to:
I began last year’s Cracker with the story, apparently from the Edinburgh Evening News, of a mugger inadvertently done in with an artificial leg.
This was hilarious, obviously. Well, unless you’re this prick:
But, tragically, it’s also complete balls. A Welsh journalist called Ian Skidmore made the story up in 1987 for his regular ‘wry look at life’ column.
Very disappointing, but on the same ridiculous website this year I also discovered this picture:
As you can imagine, as soon as I saw it (in May), it was imperative to find the answer to the obvious question: why does a photograph of Likely Lad Rodney Bewes in an apparently home-made costume, which suggests something of the naval about it, but incorporates no trousers, and has shiny fishes attached to the hat, exist?
Does it mean something? Can anything explain it? Reverse image searches were bugger all use, and I began to despair, but one day, I posted it, and the hive mind came to the rescue. It is, indeed, handmade, but in a rather specific, well-funded way. It’s from the really quite special Jane Asher’s Costume Book of 1991.
This magnificent work includes Rodney Bewes again
…Martin Shaw, looking about as happy as you’d expect him to be, given that he’s dressed as a sandwich:
…and best of all (for me, at least), Terry Jones.
Rodney Bewes is a submarine commander in the original image. Obviously.
He and Terry Jones are not the most unhinged people I’ve read about this year, though, due to
The advancing years
For with middle age comes the at least occasional urge to turn for one’s reading pleasure to military history. Not just any military history, though. No, Happy Odyssey, the memoirs of Lieutenant-General Sir Adrian Paul Ghislain Carton de Wiart, a man who, during the course of his long career, was shot in the ankle, ear, face, head, hip, leg, and stomach, lost an eye, survived two plane crashes, and escaped from a prisoner-of-war camp.
He also lost part of a hand, although not entirely due to enemy action. He’d been shot through said hand, and two fingers were hanging off, so
I asked the doctor to take my fingers off; he refused, so I pulled them off myself and felt absolutely no pain in doing it.
The only effect he reported of being shot in the back of the head was that whenever he had a haircut after that, his scalp tickled. He wore a glass eye just once — to a medical board to prove his fitness for service — and hurled it from the window of a taxi immediately afterwards. Mind you, one of his friends, who had a pet lion cub, lost a leg in WWII, came round from his anaesthetic and said “I hope they have given my leg to the lion”, so Carton de Wiart may not have been unique in his insouciant attitude to injury and potential death.
Sir Adrian’s finest hour, though, came during WWI, when — recovering from one of his many wounds — he happened to be in his London club one afternoon when someone asked him to be a second in a duel over a woman: “I agreed at once”. Well, of course he did.
He went to see the opponent and suggested that he leave the woman alone, because “my man was a tremendous fire-eater with only one object in view, to kill his opponent”, but the rival refused to back down, perhaps not taking this threat to life and limb seriously. The only thing he was worried about was getting into trouble, what with duelling having been outlawed about a century earlier. Carton de Wiart replied that:
the war was on, everyone [was] too busy to be interested, and … it would be simple to go to some secluded spot like Ashdown Forest with a can of petrol and cremate the remains of whichever was killed … He promptly sat down and wrote an affidavit not to see the lady again.
Do you know, I think there might be a reason why it was a British writer who came up with James Bond, rather than one of any other nationality.
On the subject of literary endeavour, let us turn to a section I will call
To begin with, here are some books which I heard about this year, whose existence I was delighted to discover, but which I know for a fact I shall never read.
Flush is — well, obviously — Virginia Woolf’s biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel.
Or how about this book of sensible life advice?
Yes, it does, indeed, appear to have been stamped by the Bodleian Library. Apparently, it’s an allegory about two rats named Toryana and Radicalia, and an old cat called Poverty. That’s not necessarily to say that it’s readable, though. Still, have a look for yourself if you like.
Or you could try the ‘poetry’ of former TGWU general secretary Ron Todd, still available from the TUC 17 years after his death:
Here, courtesy of a tweet which has since been deleted, is an extract:
I know what you’re thinking, of course: it’s easy to mock, Coates (and yes, I’m afraid it is. Very) but could you do better? Well, only this year, in fact, I wrote this fine ode:
And I believe it is work of this calibre which will see me become the next Poet Laureate.
Also, I am not only here to mock other writers — even if they do, in some cases, clearly deserve it. No, I celebrate, too. I re-read Nights at the Circus this year, and Angela Carter is just as glorious as I remember her being when I was a wide-eyed twentysomething who had previously raised himself on almost exclusively male authors.
At one point, she describes an automaton orchestra:
They had the authentically priceless glamour of objects intended only for pleasure, the impure allure of the absolutely functionless.
Or how about?
We must all make do with what rags of love we find flapping on the scarecrow of humanity.
I mean. Blimey.
I also read Bernard Wasserstein’s The Secret Lives of Trebitsch Lincoln, about a serial fantasist and conman whose life story proves beyond doubt that there are, indeed, things Stranger Than Fiction. Here’s a sample sentence:
The flight of Hess and the round-up of the mystics ensured that Trebitsch would be given no opportunity to conjure three wise men out of the wall for the benefit of Hitler.
I think it’s better if I don’t try to explain it. We’d be here all day, and it would ruin the mystery.
And I read the online preview of a book by a friend of my sister’s, thinking patronisingly to myself, “Well, I’ll have a look, and probably find it’s fine, but not for me”. Reader, I ordered a copy immediately. Calling WPC Crockford is a fictionalised account of the career of author Ruth d’Alessandro’s mum, a pioneering 1950s police officer, and it’s one of those things you can’t put down, and which makes you feel throughout that you’re in good company. Here she is, for example, meeting a lifelong friend in their boarding house.
On the subject of food which is not quite to one’s taste, I also discovered this year that the bones of a small dinosaur were once discovered in a hollow in the ground where a brachiosaurus had vomited. This was a mystery, because these vast sauropods were herbivores, so there would be no reason for small bones to appear in its disgorged stomach contents. Anthony Martin, however, in his work Dinosaurs Without Bones, came at the question from a different angle, asking: with how much force did a brachiosaurus vomit?
He assumes, for the sake of argument, that the creature in question will hurl about 50kg of regurgitant, from a height of 14 metres. If one were a diminutive dinosaur, and not paying much attention to the gastric wellness of a larger creature nearby, one might not get out of the way in time, and it turns out that a package of that size, arriving with the force of 68,600 newtons, wouldn’t be terribly good for you.
(1 newton is the force of Earth’s gravity on a mass of about 102g.)
So, there’s a thing you know now. You’re welcome.
And that’s pretty much it. But, to round things off: a seasonal tale I learned this year.
Spike Milligan used to claim that he rang the porter’s lodge at Jesus College, Cambridge, every year on December 25th, and — when they picked up the phone and simply uttered the word “Jesus” — sang Happy Birthday.
It turns out to be sadly apocryphal, but Milligan fans often try to recreate the joke. The porters of Jesus, however — accustomed to undergraduate-level japes — are way ahead of them, and alter their greeting for one day a year. According to a page on the Jesus website, callers
are hugely disappointed when our porters answer each call with our rarely used full title: The College of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint John the Evangelist and the glorious Virgin Saint Radegund, near Cambridge
Are they dreadful spoilsports? Or are they correct in thinking that if prank calls are not of Victor Lewis-Smith standard, they operate at the level once perpetrated by Noel Edmonds — and that these are at the less welcome end of the scale?
I’m afraid you must answer this question for yourself. In the meantime: I hope 2023 brings you something nice.