Monday, July 30, 2007


My alter ego Harry Caldecot, in Kingsley Amis's comic novel The Folks That Live on the Hill, has a brother Freddie, a poet, on whose behalf Harry has concocted a writing regimen to gain Freddie some respite from his oppressive wife Désirée. Freddie and Désirée have come to dinner with Harry and Clare, their sister, who lives with Harry:
He became conscious that Désirée was sort of staring at him. He smiled encouragingly, instead of asking her what she bloody wanted.
      "It's a little bizarre, isn't it?" she said, smiling with the ends of her mouth close together. "He writes. He mustn't talk. I mustn't ask. He can ask me for nothing. I can tell you nothing. It's like a solemn game. Rather outré. Imagine trying to explain it to a sympathetic friend. What does Clare say?"
      "You mean it's a bloody scream," said Harry to himself. "And so it is. But it's going on as long as it gives that poor little bugger any escape from you." Aloud, he said jolly thrillingly, and it was a solid blessing that Désirée was ultimately to be overawed and overwhelmed with bullshit—not even all that ultimately, perhaps—"No more words. We've said what we've said. Enough."
      "Is there some possible way I could get a drink" asked Freddie.
      "Clare need any help?" asked Désirée.
      "All under control," said Harry...
      ...Then Freddie mentioned oysters, and Désirée looked up, and Harry was aware of the faintest of premonitory flutters, like the string tremolo heralding the onset of the storm in Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony.
      "Nothing to compare with a dozen fat natives with plenty of lemon-juice," said Freddie. "And don't give me any of your tabasco or chili vinegar," he warned Clare. "Ruin the whole thing, you know."
      "Of course, there's a lot of folk-lore about oysters going back centuries, you know," said Désirée.
      "They were very cheap till quite recently," said Harry. "Dr. Johnson's cat—"
      "People used to think they put lead in your pencil," said Désirée.
      Freddie blinked and looked quite disapproving. "What? Used to think they what?"
      "Can I help anyone to any more?" asked Clare.
      "Used to think?" said Freddie. "I don't know about used to think. I was chatting to a fellow driving my minicab the other day, I told you, didn't I, darling, and I happened to mention I'd had a dozen of the large for lunch at Law's a while back, and he said, hooh, he said, bet the wife went through it that night. Eh? Bet the wife went through it. Urhh!"
      "All folk-lore. Because of what they look like. I mean, I ask you, what do they look like for God's sake?" When nobody answered her, Désirée went on, "Not that our young Freddie needs anything in the way of oysters or bananas or hard-boiled eggs or strychnine or Brazil nuts—oh yes, I've made quite a study of this fascinating little backwater. No, as I was saying to Harry t'other day in the pub—you were off getting drinks, darling—since his recent operation"—she mouthed this in the way she had—"young Freddie's become a positive menace. Not just a matter of the wife going through it this or that night, but—"
      "My darling, I really don't think Harry and, and, and, and, and Clare want to, want to hear about this. Really and truly I don't."
      "Oh, don't be so stuffy, Freddie, why should we hide these things away at our time of life, and it's not as if we're on the air, it's all, come on, we're in the family circle now, for God's sake, aren't we? Yes, well, okay." Désirée made concessive movements with her head and hands. "A joke's a joke. Old lover-boy here and me, we're obviously not in our first youth. Things ain't what they used to be—what's the matter, Harry? All right? Yes, but a little bit of do you know what he calls it, a little bit of num-num—num on a Sunday morning, then a cup of tea and a glance through the Observer, and then perhaps, depending on how we feel...That's actually our best time, Sunday morning. You can imagine."
      "Well, I expect I could if I were to put my mind to it," said Harry. [pp. 83-86]

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