Flann O’Brien was a pen name of Brian O’Nolan, an Irish author who is most famous for three novels, At Swim Two Birds, The Third Policeman and the Dalkey Archive.
He also wrote a column for the Irish Times from 1940 to 1966 full of wild imaginings.
I once read an anthology of his Irish Times pieces and one thing I have never forgotten is his proposal for a service which he called “Book Handling”. Even in this electronic age it could still be useful. Here are some extracts to show his thinking:
A visit that I paid to the house of a newly-married friend the other day set me thinking. My friend is a man of great wealth and vulgarity. When he had set about buying bedsteads, tables, chairs and what-not, it occurred to him to buy also a library. Whether he can read or not, I do not know, but some savage faculty for observation told him that most respectable and estimable people usually had a lot of books in their houses. So he bought several book-cases and paid some rascally middleman to stuff them with all manner of new books, some of them very costly volumes on the subject of French landscape painting. I noticed on my visit that not one of them had ever been opened or touched, and remarked the fact. ’When I get settled down properly,’ said the fool, ‘I’ll have to catch up on my reading.’ This is what set me thinking. Why should a wealthy person like this be put to the trouble of pretending to read at all? Why not a professional book-handler to go in and suitably maul his library for so-much per shelf? Such a person, if properly qualified, could make a fortune.
Recently, I chanced upon a page in Wikipedia entitled “At sign”. It contains a long list of the names which @ has in various languages. It is quite amazing that one sign can have been interpreted in so many different ways. Here is a selection (some of the names listed are not reported as the most common ones):
In Finnish it is a cat’s tail, kissanhäntä, or a miaow-miaow, miukumauku.
Russians prefer calling it a dog, собака (sobaka).
In Kyrgyz it’s a doggy, собачка (sobachka).
In Armenian a puppy, shnik. One of various names for it in Ukrainian is little dog, песик (pesyk). And in Kazakh it is sometimes a dog’s head, ит басы.
In Greek it is a duckling,παπάκι (papaki),
Another name for it in Ukrainian it is an ear, вухо (vukho).
In Kazakh the official name (dog’s head is unofficial) is the beautiful айқұлақ moon’s ear.
In Denmark, Sweden and sometimes in Norway it is snabel-A (elephant trunk A). In Faroese the same but written snápil-a. Read more…
In our universe, Genoa ceded the island of Corsica to France in 1768. Napoleone Buonaparte was thus born in 1769 as a subject of the King of France. (Later he changed his name to Napoleon Bonaparte to make it sound more French). Napoleon was sent to a French military academy, graduated as an artillery officer and then became a general, a consul and an emperor. He won many battles. But perhaps Napoleon’s most lasting legacy was the Code Napoléon, the French code of civil law, one of the few documents, it has been said, which has influenced the whole world.
In a parallel universe, Genoa never ceded Corsica to France.
Thus Napoleone Buonaparte, as a citizen of Genoa, never changed his name. He didn’t go to a military academy but studied cookery in Genoa.
He began his career as a pastry chef. It was immediately obvious to those around him that he was phenomenally talented. Determined to make a name for himself, he toured Northern Italy (in what he later called his “Italian Campaign”) exhibiting his cakes and distributing free slices. He seems to have invented a new cake in every place he visited, often breaking with the most hallowed traditions. Those which achieved lasting fame were probably his lemon-flavoured Marengo Cake (Torta Marengo in Italian) and the Lodi Cake (Torta Lodi – cherries and walnuts). Read more…
In early winter every year
the starlings in their hundred thousands
come to Rome.
They populate the branches of the trees
from where their shit rains down
in abundance and unceasingly.
Umbrellas must be opened
as you rush across the road,
weathering their excremental storm.
They whistle, grate and screech hysterically.
I’ve always wondered whether
it is the overwhelming thrill of being a horde
which causes them to shed
so many city-stopping droppings or whether,
conversely, it’s the collective defecation
which drives them to this state of frenzied ecstasy.
But then, at once and all together, they
take off. They fly as if
a giant hand were stirring up the sky
and they were swirling foam upon it.
Great swarms arching
at breakneck speed
across the air
splitting and recombining,
in balls, bursts, spirals and abrupt
Birds flying in all directions inside
one greater common course
so that it would not be hard to believe
that skiddily those flocks are shaping,
too swiftly for our earthly eyes,
the secret letters
of a text of revelation
high above our heads.
It is magnificent.
It is, it is.
A pity then that these displays,
at some point have to end;
the starlings all regain their trees
and at that very instant,
if you are thereabouts,
a sudden truth descends:
shit – it strikes you –
sometimes outdoes magnificence
Picture taken in May 2017 and processed with Prisma
I love Naples and the Neapolitan language. Walking around Naples in May 2017, I came across this street where nothing appeared to be at the same angle. It seemed to me to depict, not just physically, one of the characteristics of Naples which make it such an interesting place. So I took this photo, which I processed with Prisma, an app which turns photos into drawings, to try in order to emphasise all the loudly disparate angles.
Some time ago I heard a theorist called Aubrey de Grey predict that starting within the next twenty years it would be possible to begin a process to extend people’s lives to the epic figure of 900 years or so.
Apart from the obvious issue of where all these people are going to fit if they are still going to have children, there are a few other considerations.
First of all, I’m not sure how beneficial this would be, since it is widely observed that time runs faster once you stop having new experiences as you age, so by the time you are in your six or seven hundreds, a century will probably feel like a year at a younger age.
In addition to this, how fogeyish are these long-lived people going to become? As you age, you really have to make a commitment to avoid turning into someone who shouts at all the habits and fashions and ideas of young people disparagingly. Natural pressure however is always pushing you to think that your generation was the only one which had things right, despite all the available evidence. Old people today only have the opportunity to complain about two generations. But think of how unpleasant someone who feels acerbic about thirty generations would be.
My final objection is called Stalin. Stalin died in 1953 at the age of 74. If Stalin had been granted the kind of extended life suggested, he would have gone on to somewhere around the year 2780 and so would Stalinism perhaps. Many tyrants, Franco, Salazar, Mao Zedong, just to name a few, have only been removed only by senility or death. Spain and Portugal only became democratic after their dictators died. Dictators are very good at hanging onto power. I think that a capable dictator could hang on to power for 900 years quite easily. Is this what we want? Even in democratic countries, I can think of a number of people I dislike who could have gone on and on winning elections if they hadn’t had to get old. Old age and death is also a kind of insurance policy for society.
On my last day in Mexico,
Mexico City bade farewell to me
before I had had time to pack my bags.
I looked for water late at night
and every road performed
a drum-roll down each side—
clanging, just for me—
Goodbye, good luck and most of all good night.
At last, inside a little lane,
under a string of
dangling, dismal, wind-blown bulbs
I found a stall
still open for
some paltry scraps of business.
A plastic tub kept
a few bottles
cool and bobbing.
Behind it sat a lady,
one of those women
whose chairs seem to have
grown from out beneath them,
with which they have attained
a state of stability
ever to relinquish.
She made no move to serve me
but with a languid flick
of just one finger
beckoned a child
crouching by the kerb.
“She likes to do the selling,” she said.
The girl came over chuckling
at her appointment
to a grown-up task.
She was so small, I
wasn’t even sure that
she could speak.
Never had I bought
anything from one
In the age when the world was as yet new when early humans lacked experience, without the shrewdness of the present day, beneath a lofty mountain, with a peak that seemed to touch the sky, a people, whose name I do not know, lived on the valley floor who watching oftentimes the changing moon, now full now hollow, with or without horns, travel her natural course across the skies, thinking that from the summit of the mount it would be possible for them to reach her and discover how she waxed and waned, began, some carrying baskets, others sacks, to scurry up the mountain slopes racing each other in their urge to have her first. Then, seeing she remained forever far, exhausted they collapsed upon the ground, wishing in vain they had remained below. Those on the lower hills, viewing them so high, believing they could see them touching her, went chasing after them with hurried strides. This mountain is the wheel of Fortune on top of which, the unenlightened crowd believe that all is peace, and yet there’s none.
Translation Phillip Hill 2017
This is a section of the 3rd Satire by Lodovico Ariosto (1474-1533), which is generally known as “The Fable of the Moon”. (For the original Italian click here) Anybody who knows something about Ariosto, hearing a mention of the moon, will probably think of his wonderful and very funny epic poem, L’Orlando Furioso, where the moon is presented as the place where all lost things end up. (It would have been wonderful if the Apollo missions had come across a cache of odd socks). When the eponymous hero Orlando goes mad for love, another knight called Astolfo flies to the moon to recover Orlando’s lost wits.