Day 11: Dead as a Dormouse

The plot must thicken, inevitably, because now we’ve left Queen’s Wood, crossed the Archway Road and headed up Muswell Hill Road, nipped across Highgate High Street, cut through Pond Square, wended our way down Swain’s Lane, and are poised to enter the ivy-strewn, mossy landscape of Highgate cemetery. Ready?

The cemetery is about a five-minute walk from the duck-rabbit’s London residence, which is itself across the square from the flat where the duck-rabbit’s mother has lived for several years. Nonetheless, it occurred to the duck-rabbit, as it trudged down Swain’s Lane towards the cemetery’s East gate, that it had not been there since it was itself a flopsy-duckit, when her primary school class had made a special pilgrimage to visit Karl Marx’s grave.

The cemetery opened in 1839, but the East side, which was our destination today, was not added till 1860. The West cemetery, which lies on the other side of Swain’s Lane, can only be visited by guided tour, and is only open to children eight and older, so we were giving it a miss this time. The West cemetery (which the duck-rabbit has never visited) does sound awfully enticing though, with bags of melancholic Victorian atmosphere: catacombs; Christina Rossetti’s gravestone; an “Egyptian” avenue; and a mausoleum Julius Beer built in memory of his daughter, Ada, who died aged eight. (Is that why they don’t let children under eight in, the duck-rabbit found itself wondering? Because they think that if you’re seven, you’re more likely to think, this could still totally happen to me, whereas if you’re already eight you think, the odds seem good, at this point, that I will not die of consumption before my ninth birthday. Huzzah!) The duck-rabbit was also sorry to miss Michael Faraday’s grave. Next time. Not that the East side doesn’t have its fair share of celebs: in addition to Marx, the most famous other resident is probably George Eliot.

It was the perfect, slightly drizzly morning for visiting the cemetery. On this visit, the duck-rabbit found itself underwhelmed by the gargantuan pomposity of Marx’s grave and uninspired by George Eliot’s memorial. Instead, it found itself responding to the sly humor of some of the more recent additions. For example, consider the inscription that graces the headstone of Malcolm McLaren, manager of The Sex Pistols:

“Better a spectacular failure, than a benign success.”

The duck decided that henceforth this line would be its guiding motto. The rabbit rolled its eye.

But the favorite of duck and rabbit both was the gravestone that pop artist Patrick Caulfield designed for himself. It’s simultaneously surprising, beautiful, and witty:



Is that an example of a dispondee? A desponding dispondee, perhaps?

The duck-rabbit has been hoping with all its might that its book may finally be D-E-A-D. Not “dead-born from the press,” you understand. No, I mean that the duck-rabbit hopes that all that tortuous checking of the index, line by bloody line, stab by tiny stab, might have incrementally produced the equivalent effect of having plunged a stake into the heart of the production process.

The last couple of days the duck-rabbit got out of the kitchen/hatch and did the indexing in Le Pain Quotidien (or, as its phone would have it, when it was texting its location to He-Who-Must-Be-Preserved, “indexing in pain quotidian,” which was an auto-correction of rare insight).[1] Anyway, the point is: the duck-rabbit has now given its “final approval to text and index,” as requested … which means that the book is really dead, right? It won’t re-animate or come back to haunt me; right?

I don’t know. I haven’t heard back from the press.

What does that mean?

Adding to the inherent difficulty of parsing an absence of communication is the fact that the press outsources the oversight of the book’s production to a company in Chennai, India. Now, the duck-rabbit fully appreciates that outsourcing this tedious process to India saves the press no end of labor. But what the press doesn’t seem to appreciate is the additional imaginative labor with which this decision burdens their poor, beleaguered, authors. For, you see, now when the duck-rabbit doesn’t hear back from the press, as well as going through its usual set of rationalizations like, “Ooh, it must be a bank holiday,” or, “England must have got through to the next round and everyone’s down the pub,” or, “it’s the second half of August; everyone in the UK is in Spain,” it now also has to undertake the additional imaginative labor of speculating about Indian holidays, for example; “August 15th is Indian Independence Day. That’s why no-one is answering my emails.”

Life is very hard.

It is with the book given the authorial Seal of Approval, then, and sent back into the void, that the duck-rabbit bids farewell to London for the time being, leaving behind homemade sloe gin and wild plum compote that He-Who-Must-Be-Preserving made for our generous hosts. To make sloe gin, the duck-rabbit has recently learned, you steep sloes in gin, store the bottle in a cool dark place, shake it gently periodically, and then open it three months later. Sounds like a pretty good way to get through the fall of one’s tenure year, doesn’t it? Soak me in gin, store me in a cool, dark place, give me a gentle shake every now and again, and then open me in November.

Yes, the duck-rabbit is ready to hibernate, dormouse style. As Lord Byron once wrote (with only the tiniest bit of poetic license taken), “when one subtracts from life indexing (which is vegetation), sleep, eating and swilling, buttoning and unbuttoning — how much remains of downright existence? The summer of a dormouse.”[2] The duck-rabbit hopes to—yes, Paul!—uncurl and enjoy that sweet summer after The Vote of Density. Until then, it will be sleeping, eating and swilling, buttoning and unbuttoning as well as, never fear, dear readers, blogging.

Yours very truly,

Your very own furry, web-footed

Rabid Duckwit

[1] My feelings about Le Pain Quotidien are conflicted. On the one hand, as I discovered this summer, it’s handy to have one across the street from where you live, should you be in urgent need of a Belgian chocolate brownie. On the other hand, it’s McDonald’s for the bourgeoisie, isn’t it? Every Le Pain Quotidien in every country is exactly the same, down to the rustically daubed walls and the supercilious service. I’m not exactly sure why I find its uniformity more depressing than the uniformity of McDonald’s or Starbucks or other chains. Maybe it’s that the Oh-this-old-thing?-We-just-picked-this-up-at-our-local-Belgian-flea-market aesthetic jars when it’s a chain’s signature. Also, just because the baked goods are whole wheat, why does everything have to be rendered in a tasteful palette of browns and creams? Is everything in Belgium actually sepia-tinged?

[2] Again, I have John Mortimer to thank for this quote; he used The Summer of the Dormouse as the title of his memoir. And I have the Radio 4 show, “Quote .. Unquote” to thank for pointing me to both this John Mortimer quote, and the “plot at last” one. God, I love Radio 4. Couldn’t have gotten through the indexing without it.


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