SATURDAY’S CHILD: Once upon a pastime
I SUPPOSE I should begin this with “Once upon a time . . .” but if that opening phrase preferred by story-tellers like Aesop and Hans Christian Anderson were mandatory, almost every political speech or news release would begin with the same words, “Once upon a time.”
As we come to the end of the year 2016 and move into 2017, as we look back in time and forward in hope, as one year merges into the next, we realise that we never step into the same river twice or currents of time more than once.
Once upon a time, many years ago, a very wise king who had started as a page to a fearsome knight, Sir Most Dread, reputedly more dread than Mordred, and who had worked his way up until his marriage to the royal princess led to his taking over as king, was fed up with having to make speeches. By and large, round and about, far and wide, long and short, he was a good and sagacious king.
When a witch conjured up a giant set of yellow fingers that terrorised the kingdom, shutting it off from the neighbouring territories, the king came up with a plan. The brave but foolhardy knights, all seeking glory and the king’s favour, were crushed by the dreaded yellow fingers before they were halfway over the drawbridge and then flung into the monster-infested moat. So he sent two brave young pages to slay the witch, cautioning them to sneak quietly out of the castle without drawing any attention to themselves. They left upon a midnight clear and were able to cross the drawbridge and slay the witch. The king boasted, quite justifiably, “It is what I have always said. Let your pages do the walking through the yellow fingers.”
Unlike today’s politicians, this royal personage, call him King Obsolete of the family Anachron, absolutely hated formal events where he had to “say a few words”. He complained to his wife, “Darling, one more after-dinner speech and I will throw up.”
This remark by King Obsolete actually presaged a famous Groucho Marx joke. Groucho was the featured speaker at a prestigious formal dinner and the master of ceremonies, in welcoming Groucho to the podium, tried his own brand of humour by saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, our guest is an old hand at this business. Just pop a dinner into his mouth and out comes a speech”. When it was Groucho’s turn, he duly thanked the man for his kind introduction then added, “He is just the opposite of me. Pop a speech into his mouth and out comes your dinner.”
King Obsolete also hated having to dictate various forms of correspondence to his many scribes such as notices for increased taxation, “beware of dragon” scrolls, announcements about tourneys and jousts, summonses to court, and correspondence with neighbouring sovereigns and monarchs trying to pick a fight so they could have an excuse to invade his kingdom. (“Dear King Benedict”, he wrote, “I am a king and a king is a sovereign, so why do you want to bet me that a king is worth less than a sovereign?”). He figured there must be something that could be done about all the writing and the speaking.
His mind made up, King Obsolete summoned all the wise men and women of his kingdom and even sent out notices (“This is the last announcement I shall ever dictate,” he announced grandly) to wise men everywhere offering a huge reward of a thousand golden sovereigns (“Not to be confused with kings,” he added in his notice) to whoever would come up with one message that he could use for every occasion, whether spoken, written, sung, mumbled, jumbled or stuttered.
At the beginning there were many suggestions based generally on making whatever he said the last words the king would ever utter. He was advised if he said, “He’s probably just hibernating” or “That witch doctor is an old con artist?” or “So, you’re a cannibal?” he might never have to utter any more words. Other suggestions along the same line were, “The odds of that happening have to be a million to one!” or “These are the good kind of mushrooms” and “I’m sure it is not loaded.” One that was virtually guaranteed especially if his castle was being besieged by enemies with catapults was, “You said duck but I don’t see any.”
These did not quite hit the spot with him and he wished the yellow fingers were still around so he could send some wise men on a witch-hunt. Then one of his best advisors suggested a type of form letter with “Dear Sir/Madam”, “Ladies and Gentlemen”, “My Fellow Monarchs”, “Hear Ye! Hear Ye!” and “My Dear Wife” from which he would select one option and then move on to “I am glad to be here”, “Regarding our previous correspondence”, “It has come to my attention”, “Meet me in the Royal Bedchamber” and “Please note the following”. He declined all the options.
Finally, one night in the royal bedchamber as he disported with the queen, she said prophetically, drinking in the scene, “This too shall pass away.” The king almost fainted from pure joy. Had he known Archimedes, or were the queen doused in perfume, he would have shouted “Eureka!” As it was, he yelled, “That’s it. That’s it.” And so it was. And so it is. 2016 or 2017, Trump or Putin, victory or defeat, oil wealth or poor relatives, hard times and good times, these too shall pass away.
• Tony Deyal was last seen thinking of the wise queen who was nostalgic about the early days when she met her future husband. “Once a king always a king,” she said. “But once a knight is enough.”