The Honey Siege by Gil Buhet (London, United Kingdom)

A ‘previous concept’ post.

Someplace else, people are rushing past each other with that awful dog-eat-dog cadence of Waterloo Station. In Hyde Park, tourists snap photographs of Peter Pan’s statue, and only a couple of children run around and irreverently stand on the plaque. London is basking in the May sunshine, gently slurping at it, and you can feel the pleasure of its drunkenness.

Gloucester Road is bustling with people headed to the museums, children in tow. Only a little bit further down the road, Slightly Foxed lies in plain sight, undisturbed, better than a museum, books overflowing onto the sidewalk.

As I walk in, I think of a world where it’d be just as dangerous to leave books unsupervised as it would be to do so with diamonds. It’s intimate and hot inside, the sun refusing to be kept out.  A “More books downstairs” sign points to a dark and cavernous basement. I love those signs – they remind me of books clamouring for attention, eager to not be overlooked, to be given a chance.

I failed this appeal, though. I went for an upstairs book, since that’s where most of the second-hand ones are. My choice this time was The Honey Siege, by Gil Buhet. I wish I could have found it in French, but the blurb was irresistible. And luckily so – later, an Internet search revealed that detailed information about the book or the author, in either language, was lacking. A fortunate find, and a reminder that there are literary worlds out there to pick out for ourselves.

I remember that a few years ago, paraphrasing Gandalf, I declared that I had been meddling in the affairs of adults. Now, in retrospect, at the time, that meddling really was only that – a peripheral incursion, a slight stirring with the finger of the pot of things that come with being a “grown-up”. Spending days and days of accomplishing utterly reasonable things, as I am undoubtedly supposed to know, makes the world go round, and saps the strength of those intolerable beasts called idleness and nonsense.

The Honey Siege is the story of six boys in the imaginary French town of Casteilcorbon. There’s Pierrot Daranluz, the popular leader who brightens everyone’s day (the original French title of the book is Le Chevalier Pierrot) and whose parents own the town’s inn; Gustave (Tatave) Grosbelhomme, who lives with his widowed herbalist mother; Riquet Martelot, the inventive son of the blacksmith; Francisco Guartorella, who often accompanies his Spanish father on poaching forays; Victorin Muche, the older (and apparently not too bright) son of the mayor; and Georget Grillon, the teacher’s son. The drama unfolds precisely around M. Grillon’s beloved bees. One day, he discovers the hives ransacked, the honey stolen, and the bees in starved distress. But when he decides to punish the stubbornly unconfessing boys by giving them an extra weekend class, oh, how they rebel. The historic fortress of Casteilcorbon is chosen as the perfect place to teach adults a lesson of honour and solidarity and just what offended children can accomplish. Portcullis drawn in and some fouaces stolen, the knights even take a prisoner and welcome a noteworthy guest.

Reading The Honey Siege is like being stuck in that specific moment when you suddenly discover that the childhood spirit has been packing its bags for quite some time in the spare room you hardly ever visit. There’s that shadowy age period when escapades and irresponsibility are still well within the realm of the possible, but when it comes right down to it, acting like a child – well, it’s just inappropriate. It could be the fatigue, the weary familiarity of this world, a simple overabundance of the past tense. After all, as the book says, “The despair of a child is complete and absolute, for he has no experience by which to measure it.”

The boys’ parents are some of the most interestingly imperfect I have come across in this type of fiction. M. Mouche is a loud and offensive authority figure. The blacksmith often hits Riquet. M. Grillon can’t talk to his son about the death of his mother. Cisco has drunkards for parents, and it is his sister who takes care of the baby. Mme. Grosbelhomme’s love is stifling and over-protective. Pierrot darts between the inn’s customers, a pet mouse in his pocket – still, his parents seem to be the only ones who have, if not necessarily admirable traits, at least no disconcerting ones. And as if that weren’t enough – Tatave’s mother and the teacher are secretly conspiring to marry. What is to be done when faced with such grown-ups? Nothing. “Not for the present. Later on, when they were parents themselves, things would be different; but until that golden age arrived you had to admit the imperfections of existence.” This is the child’s conviction of the power of young imagination, of its rightful dominion that would reign supreme if only it weren’t checked by adult forces. Often this conviction gets lost with the passage of time. Later, the newly acquired freedom might find its expression in indulgence in material things, and the feeling of being freed from powerlessness becomes the duty to take up the well-earned place in the ranks of the status quo.

The Honey Siege offers a consolation of sorts, though. If children, the masters of unravelling the mysteries of so many things, are helpless before that indomitable rock called adulthood, then the following conclusion can be drawn – adults themselves are way too unreasonable to be deemed reasonable. You can test this – stick your (well-washed!) fingers in the honey jar, lick them over well, and no doubt – you’ll get a stern look from a grown-up. That ridiculous consternation in itself is silliness. So, maybe there’s still hope that what makes us children, curious, naughty, nonsensical children, is also what makes us people, a whole lifetime over.

P.S. A registered recurrence: my love for Billy Collins’s poems, once mentioned, will be indulged in again.

(Note, 15 April 2018: At the start of 2016, Slightly Foxed had to close its Gloucester Road premises. Currently, the bookshop resides at 53 Hoxton Square in Shoreditch.)

The Natural History of Unicorns by Chris Lavers (London, United Kingdom)

The London Review of Books has its own bookshop, and this revelation hit me en route to the British Museum. I had stepped out of Holborn tube station, right into an area which I inevitably associate with the Inns of Court and a somewhat Dickensian atmosphere. Still, I know enough about the Bloomsbury set (let’s not linger on this, though, lest another reading list gap rears its head) to get the tingling feeling of a literary time-traveller once the dome of St Paul’s is out of sight.

The LRB bookshop is of an ordered nature, all pristine books in neat lines of uncracked spines. The entrance area feels somewhat transitory, with wide windows framing the outside world which still feels too close for comfort. Downstairs, it’s a different, hushed, story, where time spent in the company of books is a slow affair.

My choice was largely inspired by the flashbacks which its title and cover brought about. When I was little, I was so fascinated by my father’s veterinary textbooks that I gobbled up whole chunks of what I couldn’t understand – as exemplified by a durable and proclaimed conviction that horses can suffer from amnesia (as opposed to anemia). Then, I started acquiring information about all sorts of animals – the mouflon and Przewalski’s horse being two particular favourites. So when I saw a book titled The Natural History of Unicorns, sporting a drawing of a very un-unicorn looking animal, I had to know.

As it turns out, in order to be a scholar of unicorns – and there is, believe it or not, such a thing as unicorn scholarship – you would have to be of that special kind of people who are willing to pursue chimeras. Thankfully, Chris Lavers, a Lecturer at the University of Nottingham, is one such person. History here is jumbled and hard to follow in a linear manner. It is like swimming in a vast expanse of stories and emerging with a sea shell which carries only a distant echo of the truth.

Ctesias, a Greek physician who lived in the court of the Persian king in fifth century BC, was fascinated by the unknown lands to the East – India. In Indica, a work which survives only in fragments or accounts, he describes a peculiar animal with one horn. It combines so many distinct traits that it could only be a composite of a number of animals. Thus, animals as different from each other as the rhinoceros, the chiru (Tibetan antelope), the kiang, the wild ass, and the yak, could have merged to form Ctesias’ beast.

Much later, when a unicorn pops up in the Bible, it is rather strange that its defining characteristic – namely, unicornity – is not elaborated upon. And here, there is a wonderful story. When the Bible text was translated from Hebrew into Greek, no scholar recognised the animal reem mentioned in the original, but it seemed to vaguely correspond to Ctesias’ descriptions. Thus, it was translated with a Greek word meaning monoceros, i.e. one-horn. The dominant Christian position thereafter was that the reem is the rhinoceros.  However, the original reem, that of the Hebrew text, turned out to be (as later revealed in Henry Rawlinson’s study of a Persian inscription), the now extinct aurochs – a two-horned animal.

Throughout time, the unicorn became more prominent in the Christian tradition. Physiologus, a (presumably) second-century text/predecessor of bestiaries, consists of descriptions of animals and fantastical creatures, and, of course, features the unicorn. The nature of stories in the text is allegorical, and the tale of the unicorn refers to the a virgin who can trap the animal, and carries distinctly Christian connotations. This story, however, seems to be a modified version of ancient Eastern tales of the male meeting the female, and settling down after the due process of (sexual) taming is completed.  The religious later seeped out into the secular and chivalrous which, in an ironic return, was once more preoccupied with the charms of women. It’s a beautiful way to think about stories as they twist their way through the centuries, to then flow into others, and, ultimately, saturate human lives, not only in art, but in practice as well. Thus, in the Middle Ages, alicorn – the unicorn’s horn – became a desired and consequently very expensive possession, due to its supposed alexipharmic properties (i.e. as an antidote to poison). In reality, what was peddled as alicorn had very little to do with what we would now picture when we think of a unicorn. Just compare a photo of a narwhal to the white horse-like creatures of medieval tapestries.

In the eighteenth century, travellers encountered the idea of a one-horned animal in their explorations of India and Tibet. Lavers says: “Nikolai Przhevalsky eventually twigged that Himalayan unicorns existed wherever he happened not to be, a phenomenon nicely illustrated by the rajah’s phrase barra dûre!, a great way off!” Similarly, later exploits into Africa did not result in the discovery of unicorns – but the pursuit led to Harry Johnston finding the okapi in the Ituri rainforest. Unicorns don’t and can’t exist, was the adamant position. Until science, in the face of W. Franklin Dove, intervened to create a unicorned calf, by surgically manipulating its horn buds.

I have to admit complete and utter failure in all my attempts to arrange the facts, conclusions, and hypotheses of this book neatly and chronologically in my head. Coming to the natural history of unicorns as a lay lover of zoology, I relished the descriptions of the real animals, accompanied by pictures and stories. But what stuck with me above all is humanity’s power to transcend the constraints of its surrounding world through a combination of chance, foolishness, and imagination. A child sits down to watch a cartoon about a unicorn, surrounded by a biscuit tin, an ironing board, and the ghost of an aurochs. It’s the stuff of myth, really.