Professor Humperdink III
Fatty responds by throwing a policeman through a baker’s shop window, then, after grabbing éclairs, assorted pastries, trifles and everything else he can lay his hands on, Fatty throws his weight against the against the raging throng, and, stuffing a savarin trifle into his mouth and balancing a Charlotte russe on his belly, he forges a path through the crowd, kicking random strangers, elbowing people out of the way, shouting that he’s not rioting, he’s protesting against the riot. Escaping the crowds, we head back to the airport, and, as it’s on the way, we drop into the Agency club for a quick pint.
We find George, Albert and Juan in the lounge bar. George is painting a picture of a heron. I tell George that his heron looks very nice, but it’s a bit static. George tells me that it’s deliberately static because herons spend most of their time standing still. I remind him that great grand aunt Euphemia Humperdink taught herons to dance, but, I remember, she found that taking a troupe of dancing herons to Japan was a mistake. In the pools in the gardens that surrounded the palace, the emperor kept a large stock of rare carp. When Ophelia was introduced to the emperor he gave her a gift of a pearl necklace, in return, she presented him with the troupe of herons. To demonstrate their talents she had them dance around a pool while she played the
Twelve hours, and many rounds, later, Albert is still burbling on about his theory, nobody cares, but, too befuddled to speak, we can’t tell him to shut up, and he just goes on and on as we slowly blank out. Eventually, Albert winds up with a flourish, throws up on Jenkins, the club cat, looks at us as if we are meant to say something intelligent, and falls off his chair. I pat Albert on the head and tell him that it’s very nice theory. Juan orders another round and asks me if I know what Albert is talking about, I tell Juan that I think Albert is trying to tell us that nothing goes faster than light, but I can’t imagine why that matters to anyone. Juan says it doesn’t matter to anyone and it’s stupid. Albert, crawling back on to his chair, says it does matter and it’s not stupid, Juan says it doesn’t matter because it’s stupid and it’s stupid because it’s wrong. Albert looks cross, picks up a glass and waves it around in excitement, splashing ale in all directions, and challenges Juan to come up with a better theory.
Juan can’t think of a theory of anything, he says theories are rubbish, either something works or it don’t. I tell Juan that his English is terrible and remind him that you can’t say ‘something works or it don’t’, it’s not correct, but I’m on uncertain ground and, when Juan shouts that even though it’s wrong, it’s true, so it is correct, I duck out of the conversation and order more beer.
Fatty asks me what Juan is shouting about. I explain that Juan can’t think of anything that goes faster than light, which means that Albert is right about something, although I can’t remember what. Juan knocks back a pint and yells that he can think of thousands of things that travel faster than light, he was just choosing one. Albert spits, sneers, and starts telling me that Juan is very like an ape when Juan interrupts him by kicking him in the knee and asking what happened at the beginning of the universe. This sets Albert off again, we ignore him, order another round and argue about cars, tell lies about women and sympathise with news about a friend of ours, the Reverend Tam MacTavish, a vicar who, before every Christening, always took his pet piranhas out of the font, until, one day, he was sick, another vicar performed the service at short notice and, obviously, he didn’t check the font for piranhas. The Christening didn’t go well, Tam, we hear, has been defrocked, and is trying to join another, more forgiving, church. At this point, we hear Albert saying something about a Big Bang at the beginning of time, when there was nothing. Juan says that if the Big Bang started from nothing it started small, so it was a little bang, and if there was no air, sound waves couldn’t travel anywhere, and, anyway, there was nobody to hear it, it didn’t bang; so, because it was small and quiet, calling it the Big Bang is stupid, besides, there’s the light to consider. However, he loses the thread of his argument and calls for more beer. Albert, contemplating Juan’s idiocy, shakes his head in despair, flicking drops of vomit from the ends of his moustache.
After the beers arrive, Albert continues, relentlessly, to explain why nothing can travel faster than light. I don’t understand why anybody would want to think about this stuff, and, wondering at the strange fact that Albert is considered to be a genius when, actually, he’s as mad as a basket of skinks, I quietly doze off, contentedly gazing at the sign on the wall, a copy of which graces every one of aunt Humperdink’s properties, and which, somehow, puts everything in perspective.
Juan throws beer into my face, to wake me up, and asks me to tell him what Albert is saying. As Albert is speaking in German, I tell Juan to stop asking me to translate; Juan speaks in every dialect of German known to man, added to which, he claims that German women are the most beautiful women in the world, and he’s familiar with every nook and cranny of the country. But Juan says that Albert is slurring and he isn’t sure if he said that he fancied the waitress, or if he said that the world of the physical phenomena which was briefly called ‘world’ by Minkowski is naturally four-dimensional in the space-time sense. For it is composed of individual events, each of which is described by four numbers, namely, three space co-ordinates x, y, z, and a time co-ordinate, the time-value t. The ‘world’ is in this sense also a continuum; for to every event there are as many ‘neighbouring’ events, (realized or at least thinkable) as we care to choose.’ I tell Juan that that is probably what Albert meant to say, even if all he actually did was drool and mumble into his beer, but I tell Juan not to ask me what ‘thinkables’ are, because I don’t have a clue.
Juan shouts that he knows what ‘thinkables’ are, they’re an excuse for talking nonsense as everything is thinkable, so you can say anything you want and then claim that it’s true just because you can think it, and anyway, he yells, Albert didn’t answer the question about where the light from what he stupidly calls the Big Bang went to. Albert responds by hurling a glass at Juan, yelling that nobody asked him about light, but any half-wit would know that the light went out into the darkness. Juan orders another round and tells Albert that the light was travelling through darkness because the darkness was already there, it had got there first, so dark, he says, must be quicker than light. If light had travelled faster than darkness, wherever it arrived, it would already be there, so there would be no place to go that wasn’t already lit, which proves it. Albert yells that it proves nothing, dark is a constant, he says, there’s no such thing as the speed of dark. Juan says that the speed of light, according to Albert, is also constant, but, Juan crows, it’s obviously constantly slower than dark, he adds that Albert is too pedantic, and that’s probably because he is German. I point out that gossip is another thing that travels faster than light and tell Juan that, even if he is incomprehensible, Albert is probably right, because everyone says he is a genius. Juan says that Albert can’t even win at chess, so he can’t be a genius.
Fatty agrees and holds up a diagram that shows how to fold a serviette into the shape of a chess piece, a bishop; Fatty says he’ll fold one and give it to Albert, to remind him that he didn’t win one single game of chess against Juan. I say that this is a thoughtful gift, if a little harsh. Fatty says that there has to be truth in art, and a serviette that doesn’t express itself with candour should never have been folded in the first place. A serviette folded without integrity makes a lie of every crease; to unfold such a mischievous serviette will subtly inform the diner of a lack of care, which will lower their opinion of the food. Albert’s theories may be stupid but, at least, they aren’t as mind-numbingly tedious as Fatty’s lectures about serviette folding, however, Fatty, disregarding the fact that, to block him out, we have put our hands over our ears and we’re rocking backwards and forwards, humming and making animal noises, continues to explain that, although a carelessly folded serviette can destroy a banquet, a smart looking serviette that has been folded with care will convey a message of capability and attention to detail which will reflect wonderfully on the diner’s perception of even the most modest meal. And remember, he says, a serviette is often used to conceal something particularly inedible. The experience of removing an unchewable piece of gristle or an unwanted sheep’s eye and secreting it in a serviette is not pleasant but, he says, if the serviette is beautifully folded, it can add quality to an otherwise distasteful act. Of course, Fatty continues, oblivious to our obvious misery, there are famous serviette folders whose serviettes are held in serviette museums and private collections; there are wonderfully talented serviette folding artists creating sublime serviette folding designs, but that, Fatty says, doesn’t mean that the art is for professionals only, any amateur with a serviette and a servant can have their serviettes folded into any shape they want. All they have to do, Fatty declaims, is to tell the servant to fold the serviettes and the servant will do it, so there’s no excuse. Looking at the diagram, I point out that nobody needs a servant to fold the serviette, it’s so simple and quick to fold that anybody can do it for themselves, and I demonstrate. Ten hours later and my serviette doesn’t look anything like a bishop and it’s apparent that the diagram is completely wrong, Fatty swiftly folds a perfect bishop and says that there’s nothing wrong with the diagram, it’s just that I need more practise. This is irritating, so I remind Fatty that there are more important things to consider, not least of which is the fact that we are humdudgeonishly behind schedule and have to leave for
Juan cheers, reminds everyone that Indian women are the most beautiful women in the world, orders another round and breaks out a barrel of his Special Reserve, to celebrate. We offer toast after toast to Albert’s insane theories, Fatty and his amazing folding skills and George’s wonderful heron then, cheering and clapping and singing wild
Professor Humperdink’s Diary
I tell Fatty that I definitely do not want to practise folding serviettes, I would rather disembowel myself, and, anyway, the serviettes only become unfolded when people use them, so folding them is a waste of time. Fatty says that we fold our clothes up when we’re not using them, and unfold them to put them on, and we don’t have a problem with that, so the same should apply to serviettes. Juan looks surprised and says that he didn’t know that clothes could be folded.
Professor Humperdink’s Diary
Fatty says that I’m lucky, because, as it happens, he doesn’t have any pigs’ tongues, and, even if he did, he adds, without bay salt, pickled pig’s tongue would probably be inedible. You can do without the saltpetre, he continues, remorselessly, or, if needs be, use only a small amount of common salt, likewise with the sugar, but, Fatty reminds us, without at least two ounces of bay salt, pickled pigs’ tongues are vile and the diner has to be distracted from their revolting meal by a nicely folded serviette. As if to prove his point, Fatty picks up a serviette and quickly folds it into a nice vase shape. This is irritating. Fatty then explains that aunt Humperdink, impressed by his attention to detail, asked him to command The Lion, one of aunt’s experimental airships. I ask Fatty what happened to The Lion, before Fatty can reply, the submarine performs a cartwheel and Fatty is hurled across the cabin where he crashes into Albert, being thrown in the opposite direction. This breaks Fatty’s chain of thought and stops the conversation. This is a relief.
Juan is also being thrown around the cabin, gamely hanging on to bottle of Vintage Dailluaine Private Reserve, while gazing, longingly, at a magazine containing pictures of beautiful women, all well endowed, I am sure, with intelligence and wit, but not, perhaps, a sense of decorum. I tell Juan that, if he has nothing better to do, he should fix the submarine. Juan ignores me. George, extracting himself from his easel, in which he has become entangled, proudly exclaims that, despite being in a submarine that’s turning somersaults, he has managed to paint a coot. We all admire the painting. In a bucking submarine, I tell George, very few people could paint such a nice coot, or would want to.
Albert claws his way to the control panel, saying that, with study and experimentation, he might, eventually, be able to gain control of the submarine. I point out that, judging by the way the submarine is behaving, it is about to break into tiny pieces, which means that there might be limited time for research. Juan, in a sudden fit of animation, flings himself over to the control panel, knocks Albert out of the way and starts booting levers, hitting switches with his rolled-up magazine and banging buttons with his bottle, shouting that, when in doubt, put everything to maximum, and see what happens.
The result is astonishing; In nine cases out of ten, Juan’s methods result in catastrophe, however, amazingly, the engines stop roaring, the submarine stops gyrating, we float quietly to the surface, then, when we calmly continue upward, my question about what happened to aunt’s experimental airship, The Lion, is answered. The Lion is a multi-purpose craft, I remember, it can function as an airship, a ship, or a submarine. Fatty had not told us, because he assumed we knew, but we are in The Lion, in submarine mode. The helium that is making us screech like mice in a maelstrom is not accidentally leaking into the air, it has been automatically released, to give us buoyancy, and, presumably under the control of an automatic piloting system, we drift serenely to one of Aunt Humperdink’s Air Ports, where we dock by the
This is a wonderful turn of events. To celebrate, Juan breaks out the Vintage Dalmore, Inchgower, Lagavulin, and Glenkinchie Special Reserve, we offer toast after toast to the health of submariners, give thanks for our safety, drink to being out of the water, then, cheering and clapping and saluting Fatty, a remarkable captain of an extraordinary vessel, we inflate out bagpipes and blasting out ‘Hurra for the Highlands’, ‘While Some to Distant Regions Sail’ and the ‘Indian Death Song’, we stamp around in frantically excited circles, as fast as we possibly can.
Professor Humperdink’s Diary
P.S. Pig’s Tongues (Langues de Porc)
Ingredients: 8 or 9 pigs’ tongues. For the pickle: 4 oz. of common salt, 2 oz. of bay salt, 1 oz. of moist sugar, and half an ounce of saltpetre.
Method: Trim the roots of the tongues, rub them well with salt, and let them lie for 24 hours. Mix the ingredients together, rub the mixture well into the tongues, and repeat this process daily for 9 or 10 days. When ready, the tongues should be well washed.
Recipe by Isabella Beeton, 1861