old-pretender

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P R A E S I D I U M

A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

15.1 (Winter 2015)

 

Fiction & Humor

eton

 

The Old Pretender
David Z. Crookes

Theodore Baldock, the elder son of humble parents, was an academic fantast.

After taking his degree he hovered around the university for six months, and worked as a part-time preacher. When he found employment in a local grammar school, he refused to cut the umbilical cord that connected him with high scholarship. For the thirty-eight years of his teaching career he contrived to appear in the university’s refectory by day, and in its library by night.

At the age of twenty-four, realizing that a belief in the Bible would win him few friends in the academic world, Baldock stopped believing in it. Two years later he joined an exceedingly high church whose angelic choristers nourished the spiritual side of his being. He felt that his weekly attendance at church conferred a genuine privilege upon the nebulous intellectual god in whom he now deigned to believe. It is a fact of life that Satan rewards his own followers before they die. In due time Baldock was asked to sit on the church vestry along with three professors, two lecturers, and the Esquire Bedell of the university. My cup runneth over, he told himself proudly.

The man was a successful and versatile bluffer. (Even his forename was a lie, for he had been christened Thomas.) He played no sport, but eventually became vice-president of the city’s rugby and cricket clubs. On Saturdays he would appear at local pitches in order to shout insults at deficient players. He pretended to be an expert on Caravaggio. Although he was not a musician of any species, he would talk learnedly about sonata form to those who knew less than himself. He even sat on the committee of a local art-and-music festival along with Henry Poole, a music lecturer who was one of his best friends.

Baldock hated ‘early’ music, believing it to be primitive. He regarded Eine kleine Nachtmusik as the supreme achievement of European culture, and he approved in a patronizing way of Alfred W Ketèlbey. Two of Poole’s colleagues had never been introduced to Baldock. One was Charles Hartwell, the incisive professor of music. The other was Hartwell’s friend Arthur Trench, a brutal dictator who ran the early music consort. Anyone who works in a university is acquainted by sight with a miscellaneous multitude of human marginalia. Hartwell and Trench saw Baldock as a foolish man overwhelmed by the weight of his own importance. For his part the foolish man regarded Hartwell and Trench as potential threats to his very existence.

Theodore Baldock took the place of a mathematician. He regularly attacked what he called ‘Hogbenism’, imagined that Cartesian coordinates were first devised in a place called Cartois, believed that Tribonacci was an individual person, and had once pronounced 117 to be a prime number. His geography was a dream-world of confusion. He fancied that the two principal rivers of India were the Gandhis and the Kamasutra. At the age of thirty-one Baldock had learned to distinguish Bologna from Boulogne, but he still equated Bratislava with Breslau, Lublin with Ljublana, and Potsdam with Poznan. His history was little better: for example, he thought that Lord Novgorod the Great was an individual person, and he associated Alfred the Great with Bannockburn. What the exact difference was between Ford Madox Ford and Ford Madox Brown the foolish man never learned.

Until he was twenty-three Baldock used the word lamasery to mean ‘the hustle and bustle of a Lammas fair’; thereafter, having read the first three pages of a book on Tibet, he took the word to denote an enormous set of llama-stalls, something like King Solomon’s stables at Megiddo. He thought that an Ovate received an ovation, and that spindrift was an alternative form of spendthrift. On one occasion he listened to a conversation between two lecturers from the English department. They were talking about Gerald Manley Hopkins. Baldock noted the word ‘inscape’, and deduced that certain poets were at pains to escape into their own verse. Two days later he overheard the professor of jurisprudence talking about ‘letters of marque’, and deduced that St Mark had written a number of epistles which for some reason were not represented in the New Testament.

Baldock made it a a matter of honour never to look anything up. He thought vaguely of The Lusiads as scripts for a 1960s television show that were based on poems by Wordsworth. Whenever he heard Bazzini’s Ronde des Lutins ( = Dance of the Goblins), he was content to construe the French title as ‘Round the Lupins’. One tiny cell of his mind, which was close to death from despair, knew that he was wrong in each case. A more capacious cell of Baldock’s mind was home to hundreds of unspeakable notions: Roderick Usher was an archbishop, General Oglethorpe was a voyeur, Pincher Martin was a kleptomaniac, the Welsh rabbit was chased by a Glebe Terrier, Sibelius liked tapioca, incunabula were night-demons, the scalene triangle was squamous, the Ember Weeks comprised the last four months of the year, Gingembre was January in the French revolutionary calendar, Cuspidor was one of the later months, Baudelaire was the author of Vice Versa, the word ‘congress’ originally denoted a female eel, the mythical Romanian character Baba Dochia was Jean-Claude Duvalier, and there were exactly one hundred Chilterns.

Reckoning himself to be what Tennyson called a ‘lord of language’, Baldock judged the beauty and usefulness of an English word in accordance with one simple rule: bigger was better. Thus he perceived contestation to be better than contest, and allegoresis to be better than allegory. Sometimes, in the manner of the sorcerer’s apprentice, he used a word without knowing its meaning. After eating a soft mint with his after-dinner coffee, for example, he would declare genially, ‘I am in a glorious state of embonpoint.’

Baldock qualified particular nouns with hackneyed adjectives: his explorers were ‘intrepid’, his Orientals were ‘inscrutable’, and his solicitors were ‘dessicated’. He would insist on saying ‘an historical novel’, and then go on to speak of ‘a hysterical reaction’. He always referred to Wales as ‘the Principality’. He used the words inquorate and Lucasian with insane frequency. And like hundreds of other halfwits, he described any medical man as ‘the good doctor’. While Baldock called himself both a classicist and a modern linguist, he could neither read a Horace ode, recite the Greek alphabet, crib his way through one page of a French novel, nor ask his way to the station in German. Some rogue had once told him, and he often repeated, that in Swahili bang meant a revolver, bang-bang a double-barrelled shotgun, and bang-bang-bang-bang-bang-bang a machine-gun. Occasionally Baldock posed in the library with a volume of Spanish literature, holding the book at an angle so that passing readers could see its title. In truth he disliked literature, and knew no Spanish, so he sublimated occasional words into clouds of fantastical gas, construing enjoyar ( = to bejewel) as ‘one who enjoys’, and orate ( = madman) as ‘declaim’. Baldock genuinely hated the professor of Spanish, who had more than once called him ‘a wicked deceiver’ to his face: but his hatred of France and America, like his love of sixth-form ‘gels’, was a mere affectation.

On his twenty-eighth birthday Baldock met a duke. Two weeks later the foolish man transformed himself into a lordly one. He taught himself to speak with eyes nearly closed, brows raised, and head held back. He cultivated a sing-song, slightly effeminate delivery, along with what he reckoned to be an upper-class drawl. He started to tell people, and soon came to believe, that he had been to Eton. If ever the chance arose he addressed a dog as ‘sirrah’. He distorted three vowels hideously: after his niece Alva conducted her school band he would always say, Elvaw’s bend was a heat. By importunity and pertinacity he became in his own small world a kind of public speaker. Life is a funny business. While Baldock’s grotesque accent caused his mostly stupid listeners to accept him as a fine orator, it also encouraged a few Connoisseurs of the Frightful to make, copy, and circulate clandestine recordings of his thirty-minute philippics. One mischievous lady even compiled a lexicon of Baldockian pronunciations: breetle, bress bend, creeteek, deemweet, eeneveetablaaaayyyy (the final syllable of a full-dress Baldock adverb always lasted for two seconds), eentrest, Frence, greduallaaaayyyy, kempeeng, kerrots, leffeeng guess, peenk, reedle, Spenneesh, theenkeeng, wreth, and many others including proper nouns like Effreecaw and Meerendaw.

Theodore Baldock automatically said about everything, ‘No one seems to realize thet the whole metter ees quite seemple, and all one hes to do ees…..’, even when the matter was not simple and there was no one thing that one might do. His political notions were devoid of complexity. Had they been put into practice, several thousand persons would have been hanged every week.

In a forty-minute retirement speech which ended with the words Floreat Etona, Baldock made a uniquely disgraceful exhibition of his own silliness, and promised to work full-time in the university. He kept the promise impeccably. He attended the funerals of staff and students. On Saturday he continued to abuse players of rugby and cricket for showing ‘no kerrickter’. He devoted most of Sunday to his sister Ethel, who often said, ‘Thomas has been a very good brother to me.’ Every weekday he spent six hours in the library, and three in the refectory (an hour each for morning coffee, lunch, and afternoon tea). On Wednesday afternoon he allowed himself a thirty-minute stroll round the university grounds. On Thursday night he attended extramural classes with his brother. Within six months of his retirement he had become a fairly harmless piece of human furniture.

Baldock was happy. Most of the students, and some of the staff, assumed that he was a retired professor. In his study hours he collected heterogenous bits and pieces, for he specialized in several different areas. Then, in his times of refreshment, he would often contrive to furnish a fellow-diner with some hot fact from the latest periodical. It was here that Baldock was noble, helpful, and good. But he was a bluffer in essence, and so he could be dangerous. If you spoke to him about a writer, composer, or painter of whom he had never heard, and sought his opinion, he would cannibalize any such information as came from yourself, and skilfully blend it in his answer with a credible fiction of his own. At his worst, he really was a wicked deceiver.

Baldock employed a number of devices to intimidate the simple-minded. One of his more successful tricks deserves to be recorded. First, he would attack a hard-working scholar called, let us say, Oscar Otwell. He would go on to suggest – merely by referring with lofty contempt to ‘Otwellism’ – that Otwell had given his name to a pitiably facile doctrine. Then he would attack Otwellism as ‘a superficial darling of the Workers’ Educational Association’. (If Baldock was talking about literature, he would pick on Arthur Waley. If he was talking about music, he would pick on Annie Warburton. If he was talking about art, he would pick on Aby Warburg.) By denouncing ‘Waleyism’, ‘Warburtonism’, and ‘Warburgism’, Baldock wantonly led his listeners to avoid a number of valuable books. Being a man who worked hard only at his own image, he found it easy to insult a solidly excellent British institution. Like many another fantast, Baldock was a vulgar snob. He felt no shame in his working-class origins, for the invincible reason that he had long ago ceased to believe in them.

Today Baldock was taking tea with his friend Henry Poole in the refectory. Poole had received bad news from a publisher, and he looked as if he wanted to cry. In spite of his misfortune, or perhaps because of it, the forty-year-old Poole looked today like a much younger man. He made Baldock think of a captain dropped from the school team on the eve of a final.

‘It would have been my first book, Theodore. Hartwell has written four books, and Trench has written three, but I’ve never wanted to rush into print.’

‘No. I’ve always been afraid of thet. Ez Lord Pemmerston used to say, eet’s easier to get eento preent then out of eet.’ Baldock looked up. ‘Oh, hello, Prof. Utamaro. I thoroughlaay enjoyed your article een Mutande. Eet’s time for us to uneeversellize Dantay, eesn’t eet?’

‘Yes! Yes! Thank you! Thank you!’ The professor of Italian passed by.

‘If I send it somewhere else,’ Poole resumed, ‘the editors are bound to ask me who has seen it already. Then I’ll be obliged to tell them, and they’ll think there must be something wrong with it.’

Baldock felt in the upper left pocket of his waistcoat. ‘Take theece card weeth you,’ he said. ‘One of the lesser-known universeetaay presses. Perfectlaay respectable. They weell almost certainlaay publeesh you, but they may esk you for a substential subvention.’

‘I suppose that’s the best I can hope for now,’ said Poole. ‘Thanks, Theodore. I’m glad I came in here.’ He pocketed the card, rose to his feet, and went out.

Baldock closed his eyes, gave a Gioconda smile, and shook his head slowly from side to side. After a minute he decided to join Prof. N S P Vanes, who was taking tea with a colleague only three tables away. The professor of philosophy was known in his own world as ‘No Serious Publications’, so Baldock and he were firm friends.

A polymath who is scarcely less versed in gentlemanly sport and the fine arts than in classic literature, David Crookes resides in Northern Ireland.  The subject of this ironic profile is a bird he has often observed in his native woods.

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