Meet Mr Vogel

The Testimony
Mr vogel1
The Testimony is an extract from Mr Vogel.

Mr Vogel by Lloyd Jones
Seren (2004)
ISBN 1854113801

The picture is already confused. A swirling mist of gossip and misinterpretation has swept down Mr Vogel's mountainside and obscured the vale of his simple but tormented life.

How am I supposed to drag any drowning truth to safety from the great swamp of falsities created by the fabulists who seem to abound in this town? I am a simple bar-tender, heir to a monosyllabic sailor who was down to his last eye when he came ashore (I concede that this was an extremely expressive eye, capable of oculogyric fireworks and withering glares). The socket in his left eye was filled by a green marble picked off the pavement as he passed a crouching huddle of children at play (they cried 'Oi Mister' and flapped around him when he stole their queenie, then bent back to their play, muttering. He was never forgiven in child lore and most of them never drank in his pub when they grew furtive enough to sidle into bars to buy liquor). The greeny-brown of the whorled marble contrasted sharply with the piercing blue of his overworked right eye, which glared and stared in double measure to make up for the other's shortcomings.

We found, eventually, that his heart had been broken by a native Tasmanian girl who had given him an Emu songline and a squirming fly-bed of a child, born with a scar across his left eye, portending his father's deformity by a matter of months.

Gale-savaged off the Cape of Good Hope (so named, of course, because terrified sailors had little hope of rounding it), the Blue Angel's first owner had lost his left eye in a dispute over latitude and longitude, when another drunken sailor had clubbed him over the head with a stone paperweight used to press charts onto the table-top. When he returned to Tasmania, his head still bandaged, the girl had disappeared into the brown bowels of the shanty town and all that was left of his swarthy son was a phantom memory fading fast from the retina of his remaining eye. I once met a blind woman who had lost her sight only five years previously, but who was already unable to remember the appearance of clouds. I wonder if the sailor's eye was removed by the gods, so that he should remember less of his pain.

As I have said, tracing Mr Vogel's story is like being a lost potholer following a cord back to the surface, along a maze of dark and dangerous caverns, many flooded, and through tunnels as dangerous as boa constrictors. But let us examine the evidence. Fortunately, I have many reference books and by a process of deduction I can usually glean the likeliest story. My countrymen have a great liking for the Chronicle of the Hours, which I have mentioned already. This serves two purposes: it chronicles the past year's main happenings (such as fish falling to earth and demons stalking the land), and it also catalogues major events in the year to come: it gives full lists of impending festivals, galas, hiring fairs and markets, as well as making divinations regarding the region's prospects, foretelling the likelihood of earthquakes and hurricanes, predicting good fortune and bad, the movement of the moon and stars, the most judicious times to plant crops and treat livestock, advice on good husbandry and health; in short it provides us with guidance on a host of interesting subjects. Mr Vogel crops up regularly in the Chronicle.

Since I have many empty hours to fill I have read a great deal about our region's history. As I have already told you, I am particularly interested in the accounts of travellers, since I myself arrived here a traveller, having left my home village far up the river many years ago to seek my fortune and to see the world. Up in the hinterland they still speak the old language, my mother tongue, and when I arrived here I had to learn the language of the incomers (Humboldt is retreating into silence - he's not sure which of my languages to adopt). Although I was considered to be intelligent and learned among my own people, I was given the same accord as a diseased idiot when I limped into this town, being unable to converse with the conquerors, who had power over all occupations and dwellings. Doing menial work in the Blue Angel - lighting the fire, cleaning, collecting and washing glasses, I learnt their language and might have progressed to one of the professions, but discovered that there was no great welcome for me among the rulers, who prefer to elevate their own type. And so I pass my days working, watching, listening and reading. Mr Vogel's story struck a particular chord with me because my own father was twisted out of shape by a disease brought to the region by the first missionaries, who were so anxious for us to embrace their god that they arranged for us to die quickly in great numbers so that we might meet him (it being a condition of this great honour that we perish miserably and lose everything we loved.)

Many of my kinsmen welcomed the incursors, who were much delighted with what they found. Here is how Geoffrey of Monmouth described our region in the 12th century: It provides in unfailing plenty everything that is suited to the use of human beings. It abounds in every kind of mineral. It has broad fields and hillsides which are suitable for the most intensive farming and in which, because of the richness of the soil, all kinds of crops are grown in their season. It also has open woodlands which are filled with every kind of game. Through its forest glades stretch pasture-lands which provide the various feeding-stuffs needed by cattle, and there too grow flowers of every hue which offer their honey to the flitting bees. At the foot of its windswept mountains it has meadows green with grass, beauty spots where clear springs flow into shining streams which ripple gently and murmur an assurance of deep sleep to those lying on their banks.

Our mountains are sublime and our rivers fluent, our air is limpid and our horizons are inspiring and august. But we are not so complacent as to think it the most beautiful land on earth, for it is the habit among many of us to have our dust divided into a hundred portions upon death and sent to all parts of the spinning globe, so that our souls can choose to remain elsewhere or to return home. But to return to Mr Vogel.

The earliest reference to our hero, I believe, is in the Travels of Thomas Pennant, but it becomes starkly clear in his book that his knowledge of Mr Vogel was gained at second hand, and I know exactly why. How clearly this event displays the unreliable ways in which historians get their material, and how prone they are to error! For Mr Pennant, illustrious and interesting though he may have been, never clapped eyes on Vogel - instead he lapped up a story imparted to him by his manservant Moses, who had climbed up to Mr Pennant's chamber in the Blue Angel, heavy with porter, just before bedtime, in the light of a guttering candle, to tell him an entertaining tale about a cripple who was the talk of the entire country. This story he had gleaned from no less a person than myself! So no-one knows better the warp and weft in Mr Pennant's story before the finished garment left the loom!

I remember that evening as if it were tonight - travellers of Mr Pennant's reputation do not lodge with us often, but since he needed quarters for his horse as well as his servant, and it being deep into dusk, he settled on the Blue Angel - after all, I heard him mutter, it was only for one night (he had the temerity to describe it, fleetingly, in his book as 'a coarse lodging').

I quickly fulfilled my role as the inn's ostler (for this task my childhood among the wild horses of the upland mountains stood me in good stead), and upon re-entering the Blue Angel I offered the grumbling Pennant, who had already downed a quart of ale, our list of victuals.

'Pah,' he said, swiping aside my carte du jour (and carte du month, for that matter). Exhibiting all the prowess of a seasoned traveller he waded past me, straight into the kitchen, past the cook and into the larder, where he examined every shank, chop and fish, before proclaiming loudly that he wouldn't give the mutton to a dying dog. He finally settled (wisely) on the beef pie and he also attempted the pickled puffin (experimentally, and such was his mistrust that he forced me to eat a portion first).

According to the Travels, Thomas Pennant entered this area as winter was setting in. He passed through mountainous country and descended through a boulder-strewn gorge which was so steep and hazardous he was forced to dismount and lead his horse through gorse and sessile oaks until he beheld, from the upland reaches, a widening vale gliding down to the meeting of two great valleys, and where they met two rivers conjoined in a glittering blue cascade.

On reaching this confluence late in the evening he faced seawards and followed the river to the teeming port on the environs of our town. With his eye for the anecdotal, and his serendipitous habit of stumbling on the irregular, he encountered in mid-afternoon a remarkable woman well known to us, her abode being a simple shack by the river hard by the port.

I quote from his Travels: Near this end of the port lives a celebrated personage, Margaret the daughter of Evans, the last specimen of the strength and spirit of the ancient people of this region. She is at this time about 90 years of age. This extraordinary female was the greatest hunter, shooter and fisher of her time. She kept a dozen at least of dogs, terriers, greyhounds and spaniels, all excellent in their kinds. She killed more foxes in one year than all the confederate hunts do in ten, rowed stoutly and was queen of the river, fiddled excellently and knew all our old music, did not neglect the mechanical arts for she was a very good joiner, and at the age of 70 was the best wrestler in the country, few young men dared to try a fall with her. Some years ago she had a maid of congenial qualities but death, that mighty hunter, at last earthed this faithful companion. Margaret was also a blacksmith, shoemaker, boat-builder and maker of harps. She shoed her own horses, made her own shoes and was under contract to convey the copper ore down the mountainside. All the neighbouring poets paid their addresses to Margaret and celebrated her exploits in pure verse. At length, she gave her hand to the most effeminate of her admirers as if predetermined to maintain the superiority which nature had bestowed on her.

I knew Margaret well, since I visited her to stay supple in my mother tongue, which has fallen into disuse in the town; certainly, I hear it very rarely now in the Blue Angel, which saddens me greatly, for my heart leaps when I hear it spoken and I hurry to greet the communicant. It is, I believe, the oldest language in this corner of the globe and is antique, which has caused its demise since all the new words to do with commerce, appropriation of land, legal contentions, disease and warfare have been coined by the invaders. Margaret and I delighted in pursing neglected words in dusty etymological dictionaries (she had made a pile of these in the form of a small throne and often sat on it!) and during the course of many a quiet afternoon she found no less than 39 words describing rain (including that soft grey curtain which heralds the autumn), and I found 21 cognate words for wind (you might like to know that the word hurricane comes from Hurakan, who is the God of the Storm).

The grammar of our language is so precise that every sentence is unique and can never be said again. Our language also has mystical qualities, and when our ancestors learnt English for the first time they couldn't believe it was so simple - they spent many years trying to detect a secret, encoded English, a hidden version of the language which had a special, sacred force like our own, but of course there was no such thing! There are other differences: in our country it is taboo to mention anyone's name for a year after his or her death, and long ago it was possible for anyone uttering a forbidden word to be put to death; fortunately, this practice has fallen into disuse.

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