As a Matter of Interest

by Theodore Dalrymple (February 2013)

For those of us – the great majority – who are not scholars singlemindedly pursuing a particular subject, what we read is largely a matter of chance. No doubt we select among the books we come across according to some guiding principle or other, but which we come across in the first place is in the lap of the gods. It is almost as if books sought us out as much as we seek them out.

Yesterday, for example, I was in a second-hand bookshop in a small town in England with a beautiful ancient abbey, a famous school and a good Indian restaurant. The bookshop was in a low-ceilinged mediaeval building and I sneezed as soon as I entered.

‘The dust,’ I said to the owner, a lady in her late forties dressed with genteel shabbiness.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I moved a book on a shelf yesterday.’   

She was the kind of bookseller – very common among that endangered species – who acquired books faster than she sold them, with the result that there were piles behind her, piles in front of her, piles beside her. Indeed, she was in some danger of burial by books. My eye, practiced I have to admit, alighted at once on a volume in burgundy buckram, 1920s I guessed from its style of binding and lettering. I knew that it was destined for me.

The book was Malay Poisons and Charm Cures by John D. Gimlette, ‘formerly surgeon-magistrate, Selinsing, Pahang,’ published in 1929. Oddly enough it was the third edition of this highly technical work, which I suppose implied small previous print runs rather than high demand. There was something irresistible about its opening statement: ‘Malays, like other Eastern people, are skilled in the art of poisoning’; though this was later qualified as follows:

Malays are not a timid people, and, although in India secret poisoning became one of the most prominent, if not the most prevalent, of court atrocities under Mussulman rule, the Muhammadan Malay, as a general rule, attempts vengeance by means of poison when he is bearing a grudge and brooding, and when violent or other measures appear to him to be too dangerous or too uncertain. Very often, when jealousy or malice inspires him, the intention is rather to cause annoyance or injury less serious than death.

I was taken back, mentally, to the time at school when a friend and I plotted to put phenolphthalein in the tea of a master whom we disliked. Phenolphthalein, of which there was a plentiful supply in the chemistry laboratory, is a powerful laxative. I am glad to say that the pleasure of plotting, and of imagining the outcome, was so great that it we deemed it unnecessary to proceed to action.

With books in existence such as Malay Poisons who can possibly be bored? It seems unfair that death should put an inevitable end to the delight of such unexpected discovery; but perhaps if there were no end to it, there would be no delight in the first place. 

In addition to technical accounts of the poisons found by Malays in frogs and toads, fish, beetles, moths and caterpillars, jungle plants and cultivated vegetables (to say nothing of arsenic, the employment of which may apparently be suspected by the inhibition of the growth of maggots in the corpse), are many fascinating anecdotes in Malay Poisons:

In April, 1896, a Malay was charged at Kuala Lipis, Pahang, with causing hurt by means of poison. He pleaded not guilty; but, although the motive of his crime was never actually discovered, he was eventually convicted of having mixed kechubong seeds in a curry, thereby stupefying a Malay constable, the constable’s wife, his niece, and a girl friend, as well as two men, who all partook of the same dish. The symptoms in each case were similar, namely, attacks of giddiness, passing into unconsciousness for  few hours, followed by complete recovery. This group of cases is of interest owing to the fact that one of my colleagues, the District Surgeon, Pahang, who appeared for the prosecution, was able to give evidence of a very practical kind. A sample of seeds in powder which had been found in the handkerchief of the accused was sent to the District Surgeon for identification. I am indebted to my colleague for the following notes in a persona experiment. He says: “I took pinch doses of the sample, which consisted of the bruised seeds, and had the following experience: I felt flushed, dry about the mouth and throat, and became hoarse. When I tried to walk, I staggered about like a drunken man and got very excited. I then took an emetic of zinc, and slept for about five or six hours.” He was also observed in a delirious state, rolling on the floor and uttering inarticulate cries like the mewing of a kitten.

A friend of mine, a professor of pharmacology, was recently responsible for a brilliant piece of detective work involving eastern vegetable poisons. A woman of Indian descent poisoned her husband or lover (I forget which, but probably the husband, since the husbands of poisoners usually have to go first) by putting something in his curry. Clinically, it appeared to be aconite, the poison in the common plant Aconitum napellus, but no aconitine was found in the curry on chemical analysis. My friend suggested that the poisoning might have been by pseudo-aconitine instead, clinically indistinguishable in its effects from aconitine, but chemically different, and found in the close Indian relative of Aconitum napellus, Aconitum ferox. And so, on analysis, it proved, and the poisoner was convicted.

Let me conclude this paean to Malay Poisons and Charm Cures by quoting its final paragraph:

A blinding powder, that is to say, a powder used by thieves to disconcert their pursuers, obtained in 1913 from the Ulu Kesial district in Kelantan, was found by Dr. Dent, Government Analyst, Straits Settlements, to consist of pounded glass and sand containing grains of alluvial tin ore (bijeh). Another blinding powder used by Malays for the same purpose is composed of quicklime and ground pepper.

Not many years ago, a taxi driver in Birmingham told me that he always carried cayenne pepper with him, with a dropper attached to a rubber bulb, to squirt into the eyes of his drunken and obstreperous passengers. There’s technical progress for you: no poly-pharmacy, as we doctors call it, but pure cayenne, uncontaminated by ground glass, quicklime or tin ore!

At the same time as this book, I bought another: a first (and perhaps only) edition of Aldous Huxley’s collection of stories, Two or Three Graces, published in 1926. It had been bought in July of that year, presumably new, by Ethel Godfrey, of whom I know nothing. Somehow I doubt it was she – I think it must have been some subsequent owner – who underlined some passages the principle of whose selection is visible as through a glass darkly: You lack the courage of your instincts and Love, after all, is the new invention; promiscuous love geologically old-fashioned. Did these thoughts strike the underliner as new? As true? As false? We shall never know.

The title story is very long, actually a novella rather than a mere short story, as suggested by the subtitle and Other Stories. It is not one of the author’s best known works, but it is a surprisingly subtle and moving exploration of the consequences of sincerity and insincerity, and of mistaking one for the other. But as with impulsive purchase of most books, I bought it because of the first page or two, which I read standing by the shelf. In these pages, Huxley provides a typology of bores:

The word ‘bore’ is of doubtful etymology. Some authorities derive it from the verb meaning to pierce. A bore is a person who drills a hole in your spirit, who tunnels relentlessly through your patience, through all the crusts of voluntary deafness, inattention, rudeness, which you vainly interpose – through and through till he pierces you to the very quick of your being. But there are other authorities, as good or even better, who would derive the word from the French bourrer, to stuff, to satiate. If this etymology be correct, a bore is one who stuffs you with his thick and suffocating discourse, who rams his suety personality, like a dumpling, down your throat. He stuffs you: and you, to use an apposite modern metaphor, are ‘fed up with him.’ I like to think, impossibly, that both these derivations are correct; for bores are both piercers and stuffers. But they are characterized by a further quality, which drills and dough-nuts do not possess; they cling. That is why (though no philologist) I venture to suggest a third derivation, from ‘burr.’ Burr, bourrer, bore – all the sticking, stuffing, piercing qualities of boredom are implicit in those three possible etymologies. Each of the three of them deserves to be correct.

In Huxley’s story two of the characters are bores, though of different types: Herbert Comfrey ‘who attached himself to any one who had the misfortune to come in contact with him… and could not be shaken off,… a burr-bore, a vegetable clinger;’ and John Peddley, his brother-in-law, ‘an active bore, an indefatigable piercer, a relentless stuffer and crammer… with a genius for dullness that caused him unfailingly to take an interest in things which interested nobody else.’ 

This reason that Huxley’s typology struck me so forcefully is that I am always afraid not of boredom, but of being a bore; no, it is worse than that, I often am a bore, and manage to combine all three types – of piercing, stuffing and sticking – in my own single person. Sometimes, for example, when embarked upon a subject in which I am interested but others present are not, I positively pour out statistics to prove my argument (some, but not all, genuine), and continue even after my wife has kicked me, with increasing force, under the table. At other times, when I have nothing to say, I stick to people to make up for it, despite any signals they might have given of a desire to get away. It is unfortunately not true that a bore never knows that he is being boring; he is often only too aware of it, and his persistence is actually only a vain attempt to redeem himself, to prove that he is interesting, to earn the esteem of him whom he has so far bored. But the spiral is always downward, never upward.

It is because I am aware of the agonies of being a bore that my emotions are so engaged by the memory of my wife’s uncle, a man whom I never met. He was, apparently, extremely boring, in the way that I fear that I am often boring. He married at a time when arranged, or at any rate strongly-advised, marriages were still quite frequent among the French bourgeoisie; his bride was a young woman with a lively mind but no economic prospects. The man who asked for her hand was a good prospect, economically, by no means a bad character, and so her parents suggested that she accept him; and she did.

Alas, he was the kind of person, by no means infrequently encountered, whose first reaction to Versailles was to wonder how it was swept; Mozart made no impression on him at the Paris opera, but the problem of cleaning the central chandelier did. Unfortunately, he was unable, or had not enough insight, to keep his banal thoughts to himself. It was so bad that, at home, his wife turned the volume of the radio up to drown out what he was saying, though apparently he never noticed.

My wife’s sympathies were with her poor aunt, but mine were with her uncle. (I suppose, in reality, the two of them were to be pitied, but it is very difficult to be equally sympathetic to both parties of an unhappy couple). I am seized by a heartfelt sorrow at the thought of the good and kind man whose departure from the world meant only that his widow could at last turn off the radio.

In company, I often feel as if everything I say must be sparklingly interesting or I must hold my tongue. This is because, in our egotistical age, we fear to be thought boring far more than we fear to be thought bad. As a result, I veer between inappropriate loquacity and compete silence. That is why I read Huxley’s opening paragraph with a sense of appalled recognition.                  

Theodore Dalrymple's latest book is Farewell Fear.

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