home exhibitions | interviewsfeatures profileswebprojects archive


Ithell Colquhoun

From the new illustrated edition of 'Goose of Hermogenes', published by Peter Owen in 2018



To find an oblong of burnt-sienna-coloured jelly and cut it most carefully into a number of facets as if it were a second Koh-i- Nor, was a great delight. It was late summer, and my navel secreted each day some crystalline gum of this colour, like that which oozes from between the bark and the wood of a scored cherry-tree. It had a rank, salty flavour that I much enjoyed. The cherry-gum I also used to eat whenever I found any, but that taste was more like ear-wax. I was very fond of weaving: I got the gum in its early state before it had hardened and darkened and would imprison a flower or a fly in its viscous threads.

I then concentrated all the poison of my body into a large acne spot in the middle of my back and found it very pleasant to squeeze it out, all at one go - that saved the boredom of repetition. It exuded in the form of a whitish transparent worm bottle-shaped with a tassel for a cork, and I cracked it like a flea for the liquid.

You have heard of those lenses that some people with bad sight have to use? Contact lenses, they're called, they are transparent, of course, and you wear them fitting over your eye ball under the lids. I thought how, sometimes when I looked at anyone, I had the idea of fixing some over their eyes, particularly if the eyes looked naked, like the Anchorite's.

I stabbed a metal tooth-pick down between one of my teeth and its gum, and cut my temples because I had a headache; and this reminded me of Albania, where they say that if you have jaundice you must let the yellow out in order to be cured, and to do that you make a slit in the centre of the forehead just where the hair begins to grow. Then there's a German song about the Doctor Eisenbaht, who was so drastic with his patients that when one came to him with toothache he would shoot out the tooth with a revolver; and he had similar remedies for all the ailments.

I felt the muscles that run down on either side of my spine and thought of picking the flesh from the bones of a roast rabbit and of how the best meat is there. I thought I was a rabbit and was being picked, and remembered that one evening when I was dining at a restaurant with some friends, I saw on the menu 'A little fresh ham' and said I would have that. The waiter brought it to me to examine; it was a rabbit with the fur on, and he proceeded to skin and disembowel it. To do this he removed it from the table and put it on a bed, where it became a woman with dark wavy hair, whose clavicles he began to massage with oil.

We were much amused but also rather disturbed, because the woman was alive. We debated whether we should strangle her but thought this might be murder, and finally we decided against it. We tried instead to push her insides back into place but then it seemed that her head had been severed, and I was attempting to shake the brains which had poured out of it back into the skull when a policeman appeared and told us how a man at Croyden Bank was in the habit of sucking babies' insides out and then tossing the carcases into one of the vaults. We determined to go there, picturing a grassy bank, but when we got there we found it was only a bank with a manager, though part of it was a night-club where a priest was playing ball.

I began to remember some more anecdotes.

A friend of mine was once accosted by a child of about eight in a slum off the Tottenham Court Road.

'But I've only got sixpence,' he protested. 'Never mind, I've got change' she replied unexpectedly, so on an impulse he went home with her to the home of the Stump family.

The whole pack of them lived in one large room at the top of a warehouse: father, mother; three children aged seven, eight and ten, granny and the Stump, a man about thirty with no arms, legs or ears. This fascinated the old granny, who used to sit by the window for hours looking at him. The Stump would be lying in his box, he couldn't do much else, but the kids used to have a game with him when he got excited, spinning him round like a top. He was covered with sores that scabbed over; the children's chief food consisted of the scales they pulled off these sores, and the greenish treacly matter, mixed with blood, that they found underneath. Every night about two thirty the Stump would give the blood-laugh, it began with a strange piping in his throat like the call of a bird, developed into a gurgle and then burst into a long-drawn peal, at the close of which blood would pour from his mouth and make a pool on the bare floor. The children would dip their fingers in this eagerly and then lick them with delight.

The parents were ill, so the family subsisted on the earnings of the children, who were usually out most of the night, their clients being mostly negroes.

The same friend was at a party given by a girl-friend of his, who lived with her father in a top-floor room in Brixton. The old man was very ill, but his daughter had invited about fifty people and didn't want to put them off, so the party went on noisily at one end of the room, while the old man lay dying on a wretched bed at the other. The girl's friends were drinking, dancing on the linoleum to a gramophone, laughing, shouting, necking, fighting, vomiting occasionally. Presently the old father began feebly to protest.

'Can't you make les noise,' he whined. Won't you let me die in peace?' Not a bit, they only laughed the more. After a while, though they got sick of his complaints and thought they'd give him something to whine at. First, they lit a fire under his bed, it soon got so hot he had to spring up from it towards the low ceiling. Then someone found a board with nails sticking through it; they held it above the bed so that when the old man bounded up and away from the heat of the fire, he got a jab with the nails. In this uneasy manner his last moments were passing.

Meanwhile his daughter was telephoning the undertaker.

'He'll soon be gone,' she was calling. 'You can send round at once, he won't last another hour'

'Righto, miss,' and, sure enough, the undertakers could soon be heard lumbering up the stairs with the coffin. When they dragged it into the room, 'I'm not dead yet,' the old man groaned. 'Let me die in peace,' he repeated.

But undertakers are busy men, and it was very late already, so they lifted him out of bed and put him into the coffin, only to find that it was too short. There was nothing to do but fold the old man's legs; it meant breaking the bones, of course, but he was so weak by this time that they could be bent up like bits of dry grass. This done, the undertakers nailed down the coffin and took it away, though the old father inside was still whimpering.

The fire under the bed had been allowed to go out, the board had been thrown into a corner; and the girl and her friends were too drunk by this time to clamour for further diversion.




Thanks to Richard Shillitoe and to Peter Owen Publishers