Sir F. Chook, Inventor of Leopard Oil

Likeness captured upon a daguerrotype machine in Japan, July 1891

Lettres

Wherein the Author reflects upon certain topical & personal issues of the Day.

Summer in the West End

Penned upon the 13th of January, 2013

A dense and smothering heat had settled over the city. By the second day, noted barristers were seen soaking their wigs in ice-water before appearing before the courts. After five days, the national passion for talking about the weather had receded almost to nothing. At the end of the first week, it was reported that a town-breeder’s hen had laid a hard-boiled egg, and the general grumbling high and low was that something really ought to be done about it. In certain quarters, though, the atmosphere that was generally stifling instead had a stimulating effect, and certain fashionably intellectual suburbs in the West End were demonstrating that sort of fractious energy usually associated with funfairs or peasant uprisings.

Some of this excitation was purely administration. While the Braedon Arts Club were largely abroad, indulging in plein air excursions or less productive pastimes, their opposite neighbours – the Philistines Gallery – were involving in preparing their annual Great Purge (not to be confused with the Emetic Exhibition of their Continental rival, the Cabaret Calomel.) This popular event would see the opening of the Gallery’s large collection, representing a number of modernist schools – given by artists in default of bills, or seized by landlords in their reclamation of garrets and cellars whose rents, though modest, had nonetheless fallen arrears. Year by year, the stolid public were brought in to witness this display of painting and sculpture, and, should any patron observe, for instance, that their five-year-old child could have done a better job, they were invited to produce the infant and demonstrate the proof of their claims. If successful, parent and child together were awarded the original artwork, solemnly congratulated by the Chief Curator, and then kicked down the front stairs.

Not far away, a modest suite of offices leased by the Society for Farcical Research was buzzing with fresh discoveries. Years of research into the power of mind over matter had borne fruit. Dr Celia Flappevöte had, under controlled laboratory conditions, mentally envisaged a given action – in this case, the decanting of a bowl of peaches into an iron kettle – and then, using only the muscles and other tissues connected by the nervous system to the brain, succeeded in translating this notion into physical reality. This breakthrough – published alongside reports from Berlin that mental communication or “telecognition” had been achieved by method of inscribing the intended message on paper with a stick of graphite, and then passing its reflection through the recipient’s optic nerve – was thought to confirm absolutely the fundamental unity of the intellectual and phenomenal spheres, and, incidentally, to have quite exploded Professor DeRinje’s theory of sweet/savoury dualism and his maxim to “act according to the custard of perception, for the noumenal soup acts only upon itself.”

Far beneath the feet of these worthy luminaries, less virtuous interests were finding the weather suited their purposes. “Areaway” Cole relied on warm evenings – and the open windows and general lethargy they brought – for his career of burglary and cellar-pepping. This dishonourable practice involved gaining access to the below-stairs of a house and making off with the staff’s jewellery and petty cash. This was a step down in the world for Cole – once he had run for the Tite Street Boys, marking or “salting” these same cellars to the gang to use as entry-points for raids. The world had moved about him, though, until he only had himself to rely upon, reduced to stuffing his pockets with trinkets for the pawnbroker and the rag-and-bone merchant, and he was lucky if he could afford one manicure a month. Still, he thought himself thankful that he could earn a dishonest living, when so many of his compatriots had turned to cocoa, prayer, and charitable works.

But, of course, these examples were very much the exceptions, and, further, the exceptions to the rule of exceptions proving the rule. As a whole, the city lolled, languished, and demanded ice-lollies, and waited for the mud and noise and welcome misery of the cooler months to return.


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