“On a Notebook” by Hilaire Belloc
A dear friend of mine (John Abdullah Capricorn, to give him his full name) was commandeered by a publisher last year to write a book for £10. The work was far advanced when an editor offered him £15 and his expenses to visit the more desperate parts of the Sahara Desert, to which spots he at once proceeded upon a roving commission. Whether he will return or no is now doubtful, though in March we had the best hopes. With the month of May life becomes hard for Europeans south of the Atlas, and when my poor dear friend was last heard of he was chancing his popularity with a tribe of Touaregs about two hundred miles south of Touggourt.
Under these circumstances I was asked to look through his notebook and see what could be done; and I confess to a pleased surprise…. It would have been a very entertaining book had it been published. It will be a very entertaining book if it is published.
Capricorn seems to have prepared a hotchpotch of information of human follies, of contrasts, and of blunt stupidities of which he intended to make a very entertaining series of pages. I have not his talent for bringing such things together, but it may amuse the reader if I merely put in their order one or two of the notes which most struck me.
I find first, cut out of a newspaper and pasted into the book (many of his notes are in this form), the following really jovial paragraph:
“Archdeacon Blunderbuss (Blunderbuss is not the real name; I suppress that lest Capricorn’s widow should lose her two or three pounds, in case the poor fellow has really been eaten). Archdeacon Blunderbuss was more distinguished as a scholar than as a Divine. He was a very poor preacher and never managed to identify himself with any party. Nevertheless, in 1895 the Prime Minister appointed him to a stall in Shoreham Cathedral as a recognition of his great learning and good work at Durham. Two years later the rectory of St. Vacuums becoming vacant and it being within the gift of Archdeacon Blunderbuss, he excited general amazement and much scandal by presenting himself to the living.”
There the paragraph ends. It came in an ordinary society paper. It bore no marks of ill-will. It came in the midst of a column of the usual silly adulation of everybody and everything; how it got there is of no importance. There it stood and the keen eye of Capricorn noted it and treasured it for years.
I will make no comment upon this paragraph. It may be read slowly or quickly, according to the taste of the reader; it is equally delicious either way.
The next excerpt I find in the notebook is as follows:
“More than 15,000,000 visits are paid annually to London pawnbrokers.
“Jupiter is 1387 times as big as the earth, but only 300 times as heavy.
“The world’s coal mines yield 400,000,000 tons of coal a year.
“The value of the pictures in the National Gallery is about £1,250,000.”
This tickled Capricorn—I don’t know why. Perhaps he thought the style disjointed or perhaps he had got it into his head that when this information had been absorbed by the vulgar they would stand much where they stood before, and be no nearer the end of man nor the accomplishment of any Divine purpose in their creation. Anyhow he kept it, and I think he was wise to keep it. One cannot keep everything of that kind that is printed, so it is well to keep a specimen. Capricorn had, moreover, intended to perpetuate that specimen for ever in his immortal prose—pray Heaven he may return to do so!
I next find the following excerpt from an evening paper:
“No more gallant gentleman lives on the broad acres of his native England than Brigadier-General Sir Hammerthrust Honeybubble, who is one of the few survivors of the great charge at Tamulpuco, a feat of arms now half forgotten, but with which England rang during the Brazilian War. Brigadier-General, or, as he then was, plain Captain Hammerthrust Honeybubble, passed through five Brazilian batteries unharmed, and came back so terribly hacked that his head was almost severed from his body. Hardly able to keep his seat and continually wiping the blood from his left eye, he rode back to his troop at a walk, and, in spite of pursuit, finally completed his escape. Sir Hammerthrust, we are glad to learn, is still hale and hearty in his ninety-third year, and we hope he may see many more returns of the day upon his patrimonial estate in the Orkneys.”
To this excerpt I find only one marginal note in Capricorn’s delicate and beautiful handwriting: “What day?” But whether this referred to some appointment of his own I was unable to discover.
I next find a certain number of cuttings which I think cannot have been intended for the book at all, but must have been designed for poor Capricorn’s “Oxford Anthology of Bad Verse,” which, just before he left England, he was in process of preparing for the University Press. Capricorn had a very fine sense of bad taste in verse, and the authorities could have chosen no one better suited for the duty of editing such a volume. I must not give the reader too much of these lines, but the following quatrain deserves recognition and a permanent memory:
Napoleon hoped that all the world would fall beneath his sway. He failed in this ambition; and where is he to-day? Neither the nations of the East nor the nations of the West Have thought the thing Napoleon thought was to their interest.
This is enormous. As philosophy, as history, as rhetoric, as metre, as rhythm, as politics, it is positively enormous. The whole poem is a wonderful poem, and I wish I had space for it here. It is patriotic and it is written about as badly as a poem could conceivably be written. It is a mournful pleasure to think that my dear friend had his last days in the Old Country illuminated by such a treasure. It is but one of many, but I think it is the best.
Another extract which catches my eye is drawn from the works of one in a distant and foreign land. Yet it was worth preserving. This personage, Tindersturm by name, issued a pamphlet which fell under the regulations, the very strict regulations, of the Prussian Government, by which any one of its subjects who says or prints anything calculated to stir up religious or racial strife within the State is subject to severe penalties. Now those severe penalties had fallen upon Tindersturm and he had been imprisoned for some years according to the paragraph that followed the extract I am about to give. That the aforesaid Tindersturm did indeed tend to “stir up religious and racial strife,” nay, went somewhat out of his way to do it, will be clear enough when you read the following lines from his little broadsheet:
“It is time for us to go for this caddish alien sect. If on your way home from the theatre you meet the blue-eyed, tow-haired, lolloping gang, whether they be youths or ladies, go right up to them and give them a smart smack, left and right, a blow in the eye; and lift your foot and give the tow-headed ones a kick. In this way must we begin the business. My Fatherland, wake up!”
To this extract poor Capricorn has added the word “Excellent,” and the same comment he makes upon the following conclusion to a letter written to a religious paper and dealing with some politician or other who had done something which the correspondent did not like:
“That his eyes may be opened while he lives is the prayer of
“AN EARNEST MEMBER OF THE FOLD”
From such a series it is a recreation to turn to the little social paragraphs which gave Capricorn such acute and such continual joy; as, for instance, this:
“Mrs. Harry Bacon wishes it to be known that she has ceased to have any connection whatsoever with the Boudoir for Lost Dogs. Her address is still Hermione House, Bourton-on-the-Water Fenton Marsh, Worcester.”
There is much more in the notebook with which I could while away the reader’s time did space permit of it. I find among the very last entries, for instance, this:
“It was a strenuous and thrilling contest. Some terrible blows were exchanged. In the last round, however, Schmidt landed his opponent a very nasty one under the chin, stretching him out lifeless and breaking his elbow; whereupon the prize was awarded him.”
To this joyous gem Capricorn has added a whole foison of annotations. He asks at the end: “Which was ‘him’? Important.” And he underlines in red ink the word “however,” perhaps as mysterious a copulative as has ever appeared in British prose. I should add that Capricorn himself was an ardent sportsman and very rarely missed any of the first-class events of the ring, though personally he did not box, and on the few occasions when I have seen the exercise forced upon him in the public streets he showed the greatest distaste to this form of athletics.
Lastly, I find this note with which I must close: it is taken from the verbatim report of a great case in the courts, now half forgotten, but ten years ago the talk of London:
“The witness then said that he had been promised an independence for life if he could discover the defendant in the act of enclosing any part of the land, or any document or order of his involving such an enclosure. He therefore watched the defendant regularly from June, 1896, to the middle of July, 1900. He also watched the defendant’s father and mother, three boys, married daughter, grandmother and grandfather, his two married sisters, his brother, his agent, and his agent’s wife—but he had discovered nothing.”
That such a sentence should have been printed in the English language and delivered by an English mouth in an English witness-box was enough for Capricorn. Give him that alone for intellectual food in his desert lodge and he was happy.
Shall I tempt Providence by any further extracts? … It is difficult to tear oneself away from such a feast. So let me put in this very last, really the last, by way of savoury. There it is in black and white and no one can undo it: not all her piety, nor all her wit. It dates from the year 1904, when, Heaven knows, the internal combustion engine and its possibilities were not exactly new, and I give it word for word:
“The Duchess is, moreover, a pioneer in the use of the motor-car. She finds it an agreeable and speedy means of conveyance from her country seat to her town house, and also a very practical way of getting to see her friends at week-ends. She has been heard to complain, however, that a substitute for the pneumatic tyre less liable to puncture than it is would be a priceless boon.”
There! There! May they all rest in peace! They have added to the gaiety of mankind.