We were sitting around discussing Britain’s chances in the next Olympics when young Pinker suddenly asked, “I say, whatever happened to H--- , haven’t seen him for ages.”
“Went gallivanting off abroad. Said he wasn’t allowed to tell anyone where he was going. Probably too embarrassed to come back now, or banged up in some hellhole. Another case of ‘Bloggins,’ I’m afraid,” said Moreton.
“Bloggins? What’s that? Is it like Parkinson’s?” asked Pinker.
There was a slightly embarrassed silence, then finally Moreton explained, “Not exactly, more a type of mania I suppose. Well, I better tell you the story. For a start, ‘Fred Bloggins’ wasn’t his real name. It was a matter of “pas devant les domestiques.” We used a – what do you call it – a pseudonym when talking about it to spare the feelings of his mother, who worked here in the kitchen for many years after her husband died young, prematurely worn out from his time in trade. You may recall her duck a l’orange at Christmas. And of course her plum puddings were magnificent.”
“Hear hear!” said old Ferraby, but Moreton, who didn’t suffer fools gladly, just gave him one of his looks.
“Bloggins’s undoing was reading too many spy stories, for he had an overactive imagination, and he would sit up half the night, convinced they were based on fact, and that everyone was either one of our agents, or a foreign spy. He said he just knew the Club had been set up as a front for the Secret Service. It simply didn’t register with him that it would be overly obvious, and unnecessary (there being already many other clubs with members involved with foreign travel and exploration). He had joined because he had heard nobody was allowed to talk on Club premises, and he thought, Aha, that must be to stop anyone revealing secrets!
“He soon found out the silence rule had only applied to the front lounge when it became an extension to the Club library, holding the latest periodicals. But he would sidle up to some group having a quiet conversation in one of the back rooms, and try to insinuate himself into it. When that got him nothing but the cold shoulder, he decided everyone was talking in a secret code he hadn’t been initiated into yet. The fact that to preserve confidentiality, every member has a Club name taken from myth or literature didn’t help. He was convinced these Club membership names were Secret Service agent code names.
“Above all he craved “action.” He would propose expeditions abroad, saying it just wasn’t good enough, all these fellows sitting around when the world was going to hell in a handbasket. “Look at these newspaper headlines,” he would say, “China, Africa, Asia. Time to get out there and set the world to rights, just like Diogenes would have done.” He was told that if he had bothered to do any research, he would learn Diogenes did no such thing, and spurned politics. Also, the Club could not finance such expeditions. Engaging in political activity was against the Club’s charter, its viability depending on the tax deductions it got as a registered charity.
So he changed tack and began trying to get himself included in others’ plans to go on archaeological field trips abroad and the like. “I know what really goes on,” he would say, tapping the side of his nose. This approach gave some the wrong idea. As Ellis delicately put it, “Well, he’s certainly not sharing a tent with me.”
“He would puff himself up and lecture the others on their lack of moral character. “You chaps can waste your life away lazing about,” he would say, “me, I’m made of sterner stuff. There comes a time a real man needs to stand up and be counted. Of course, you need someone to show you the way, give you the idea, that’s my role.” Other members began avoiding him, not wanting to listen to what Simons called this pious piffle. Someone gave him a copy of Don Quixote for Christmas, but he didn’t get it, and was seen underlining key words looking for the secret code.
“It was now obvious he was so naïve he’d believe anything as long he could see evidence of a vast conspiracy – you know, “people in low places, people in high places, their names would astound you” – that sort of thing. It was only a matter of time before someone saw an opportunity to exploit his mania for their own ends. No-one wanted to play Sancho Panza to his Don Quixote, but Carstairs thought Bloggins himself would make a useful Sancho Panza in some convenient cause.
Carstairs was what they euphemistically refer to as “Foreign Office.” There’s someone like that in every Club, dues paid by the Foreign or Home Office, to keep a weather eye on members. Carstairs took him aside one day and told him tales that had Bloggins’s hair standing on end. After that, at least he clammed up. But soon he was hinting he was going abroad. “Hush-hush, can’t talk about it,” he would tell everybody who would listen, “the walls have ears, you know. They have spies everywhere. No one is above suspicion.” And with that, he went.
“The following year the Secretary received a letter from the Consul in some remote flybitten hellhole. Bloggins had lost his papers, but claimed he worked for “a certain department in Whitehall.” He gave his address as the Club, and said they knew all about it. The Club Secretary replied he was certainly not there on Club business. The Foreign Office naturally denied all knowledge of his presence in the country. Details were few, but apparently he had tried to organise an uprising against the big American mining company there. He had told the locals they were being enslaved and should fight to be free, like Englishmen. He had made speeches that managed to offend everyone. “Like a bull in a china shop,” the Consul wrote.
“After one especially insensitive speech about the locals’ treatment of women, there was a riot, and he had to flee over the border. There was a woman behind this of course. “Cherchez la femme,” as Carstairs would say. Bloggins had met this native girl who wanted him to take her back to England with him. She had helped him across the frontier, and he had promised to marry her and make her an English lady. Complications had ensued when it emerged she was only about thirteen. He then said he wanted to adopt her, and she could stay with him in Streatham, where he had a small flat. “I’m going to save her soul,” he said.
“But the local missionaries weren’t having any of that, and sent her back to her family. He himself had malaria and goodness knows what else, and couldn’t travel. But one day he disappeared from the mission hospital, and it emerged he had hitched a lift on a mission supply lorry and crossed the border again. Looking for the girl of course. Said he wanted to save her from a life of servitude. “I’m on a mission too,” he told the local church mission driver, “You see, I can teach her modern western ways, enlighten the poor benighted thing.”
“But he didn’t speak the local lingo, and just wandered about lost in a wretched state, pestering the locals, until he was arrested and accused of being a British spy and agent provocateur. He cracked up totally at this and began laughing hysterically. “The Foreign Office will tell you they’ve never even heard of me,” he laughed. “And as for the church, well, you know the Bible is really written in code, but it’s all been covered up,” he added knowingly. They soon decided he was one of those harmless cranks who waste police time with their attention-seeking behaviour, and despatched him to the mission-run sanatorium.
“Then one day two years on, he turned up again, having staggered off a tramp steamer at Southampton. On his return, he found he had been reported killed, declared legally dead, and was now homeless and penniless. Too proud to turn to his widowed mother for help, he ended up living in the park. He had a sort of shelter there in the bushes, and each morning would scavenge food scraps thrown out by the hotel across the way. It was ironic that finally here he was doing something in the style of the original Diogenes. We saw him less and less, until one day he was just gone for good. He would never talk about what happened in any case. “Mum’s the word,” was all he would ever say, tapping the side of his nose and smiling.