Wednesday, 6 June 2012

A Poultice for a Poet by Leonard Barras

A Poultice For A Poet
Last night, I thought of Herbert Mangle's aphorism, 'When life copies art, we talk at cross purposes.'  He was writing his epic poem, Desideratum, when he came out with it, having paused between verses to rub his leg.
'I've got this aphorism,' he said to his sister.
'Would you like a poultice?' she inquired.  She didn't care for Desideratum, or for his aphorism, but she made poultices for the cycling club and always had a spare one in her reticule.

Mangle shrugged off his troubled leg and went back to his thirteenth verse and the aphorism lay unheeded until his death, when his sister found it in an old hat.
'Mangle's Quatrain to Mildred Grant at her Bath is unforgettable,' my Uncle Hal once remarked to Jas Hunkers, the right-wing Wallsend family butcher.
'It was Olivia Harris,' Hunkers responded.
'Was it?' said Uncle Hal.  'How did it go again?'
How the first verse of Desideratum went was:

Suppose my typewriter decided to write
An ode or a sonnet instead of me,
It probably could and it very well might
Make much better use of the '2/3' key.

Mangle was a sensitive man with one ear shorter than the other, and he made a striking figure as he rode about Wallsend on his sister's bicycle with his much-patched knickerbockers and dilated nose.  He had his differences with Jas Hunkers, himself an inferior poetaster:

Try our sausage; it's unique
Our Christmas Club's two pence per week.

This misunderstanding was not unconnected with Mangle's love for the butcher's daughter, to whom he dedicated his To My Lady's Knees, which he laughingly claimed he would much rather rub than his own leg.

He had never intended to be a poet.  He had begun as a coalman in Backworth, but was allergic to his horse, which brought him out in a purple rash.
'I feel there should be something else for me,' he said one morning to his sister over breakfast.
'I could give you devilled kidneys,' she offered.
'Pardon?' he said.
'It's just that you've always had grilled gammon,' she complained.
He stared at his plate. 'It won't do,' he said.
She delved in her reticule for a poultice.
'That's no good for a purple rash,' he said.
'I was thinking of your dilated nose,' she said.
'I'm perfectly happy with grilled gammon,' he said.
'I wish you'd make up your mind,' she muttered.

On a visit to London for the Coal-Calling Championships, he was in the National Gallery one day, sheltering from the sun, when he stepped back from And When Did You Last See Your Father? and fell over Augustus John, who was painting in a alcove.
'How I wish,' Mangle remarked, 'that I could carry away that wonderful colour.'
'No reason why not,' said John.  'You're sitting on my brush.'
'I'll say this,' said Mangle. 'You're making a good job of this alcove.'  He came eighty-fourth in the coal-calling, but his purple rash drew a round of applause.
'I'm going to take up poetry,' he told his sister when he got back home, 'like this fellow John'.
'Close your nose,' she said, 'when you're eating you breakfast.'
'He's very nice when you get to know him,' he said.  'He lent me his hat.'
'John who?' she demanded.
'The sun was in my eyes,' he explained.  'Did I say poetry? I meant painting.'
'I got those kidneys you were on about,' his sister said.

He abandoned his horse and his coal-calling and painted for twenty-one years, but although he pleased his friends, because he had had a very loud voice, critical success eluded him.  'Who is this fool with a short ear and much patched knickerbockers?' reviewers asked.
He had spent a great deal of that time on a painting called And When Did You Last See Jas Hunkers, Family Butcher?
'It may seem a bit derivative,' he said anxiously to his sister.
'Well, the sun was in your eyes,' she said, not unkindly, and offered him her bicycle for every second Tuesday, the day she stayed at home, polishing he reticule.
She and her bicycle were growing old together and she hardly noticed when he abruptly abandoned his canvas.  'Jas Hunkers has gone to Leeds,' he explained.  'Anyway, I meant poetry after all, and besides, when life copies art, we talk at cross purposes.'
'Are you sitting on my poultice?' she asked.  With advancing age, she was beginning to mislay her poultices. 
'You'll notice I'm taking up aphorisms,' he said.  'That was one just now.'
But she was not herself, having had to resign from the cycling club after poulticing the club captain on the wrong leg.  'I was only one out,' she said sourly.

Mangle was soon contributing to the Wallsend Weekly Buffoon his 'Random Aphorisms Composed by a Dilettante Vegatarian Cyclist In and Around The Purlieus of Wallsend,' for which he was paid by the word.  This time, there was acknowledgement of sorts.  'Who is that fool with the short ear, the dilated nose and the devilled kidneys on his knickerbockers?' asked Myrna Bambridge, the cookery correspondent.  But he remained unaffected, except that he renovated the bicycle; there was not much he could do about his sister.

His rondeau To My Lady's Knees, beginning 'O gorgeous joints…' caused a furore in the butcher's shop, for Mangle was making simultaneous advances to the greengrocer's niece and the two ginger barmaids at the Dun Cow.  'I love them all in different ways,' he protested.  Jas Hunkers, back from Leeds, said that as far as he knew there was only one way, but he had led a sheltered life, for a butcher.

Mangle lived to be eighty-two, at which age he wrote his chef d'oeuvre, 'Rhapsody to My Sister's Bicycle', in spite of leaving his rhyming dictionary in Mildred Grant's bath:

O bike! - had I but golden tongue to name
The myriad glories of thy gorgeous frame:
Thy pump, thy handlebars, thy spokes, thy seat,
Thy tyres with balmy Wallsend wind replete.

He proved allergic to the bicycle and in 1965 died of a purple rash, leaving £73 to his sister for kidneys.
'There's a hat as well,' she told the executor, 'with and aphorism in it.  It belongs to John.'
'John who?' asked the executor.
'I'm not going into all that again,' she said.