The Man with the Oiling-Can

The Man with the Oiling-CanIN ancient Essex once I saw an ancient man,
Most motionless of men
(By Tiptree, Tolleshunt Knights and Tolleshunt D’Arcy ran
The ancient railway then),
And in his wrinkled hand he held an oiling-can.
It was at eventide, before the moon began
Her slow, belated journey over heaven’s span;
She did not rise till ten.

Against the whitewashed railings, silently, he leant,
By station-lantern-shine
(By Tiptree, Tolleshunt Knights and Tolleshunt D’Arcy went
The ancient railway line);
His cap was peaked, his blue-clad back was somewhat bent,
And from his smouldering pipe there came a fearful scent,
Like acrid wood-smoke from the watch-fires of Tashkent
Mingled with turpentine.

As I passed by he did not turn his dreaming head,
Neither unbend his back
(To Tiptree, Tolleshunt Knights and Tolleshunt D’Arcy led
The ancient railway track);

Yet since he did not tumble down, he was not dead.
The hour was passing late, he should have been in bed;
He seems to serve no useful purpose here, I said,
And on a night so black.

Beneath his stiff-peaked cap I marked his beady eye,
His overhanging brow
(By Tiptree, Tolleshunt Knights and Tolleshunt D’Arcy ply
New-fangled buses now);
Upon the platform waited seven men, and I,
And this immobile ancient, standing silent by.
The train drew in, its fiery smoke against the sky.
A lantern at its prow.

And still he did not move. And there, for all I know,
That ancient still remains.
(By Tiptree, Tolleshunt Knights and Tolleshunt D’Arcy go
The ghostly railway trains.)
He leans against his fence, his fragrant pipe aglow,
Watching the phantom engines passing to and fro,
And on his cap the seedlings fall, and mosses grow
In the soft Essex rains.

R. P. Lister


Heath, Wealth, Etc

Health, Wealth, EtcWE WERE talking – rather loudly, I expect – about disease, poverty and ignorance, those notorious causes of war, when the very large man from the next table suddenly loomed over us.
‘Excuse me gents,’ he boomed. ‘Couldn’t help overhearing what you were saying.’
‘Not at all,’ we said.

HE TOOK a chair.
‘ ’Tain’t so,’ he said. ‘They all say so. But it ain’t so.’
‘What isn’t so? ’
‘Health, wealth and education,’ he said.
‘That’s what causes war.’
‘But-’ we said.
‘Now, listen,’ he said. ‘Stands to reason. Take disease. Cripples can’t carry arms. Take poverty. Poor nations can’t buy ‘em. Can’t even get the credits to buy ‘em. Take ignorance. Lot of ignorant clods can’t learn to use ‘em. Need brains these days to fight wars. Mathematics and all that.’
‘Ah,’ we said. ‘But-’
‘But Nothing,’ said the large man. ‘Tell me it’s the sick, poor and ignorant nations that gets set on by the well, the rich and the knowledgeable? Maybe it is, sometimes. Doesn’t mean they cause war. Going a bit far, that is. Might as well say lambs cause lions. Besides, if there’s no sick and poor, then what? Healthy and wealthy and educated. The others fold up and watch ‘em.’

IT SEEMED useless to interrupt again. We watched, fascinated, while this major apostle of incorrect thinking drew his sleeve slowly across his mouth, like a double bass bowing a long, long open G.
‘Not but what,’ he said suddenly through his sleeve. Then, his arm having finished its trajectory at last, he reflectively rubbed the tropical luxuriance of his moustache.
‘Not but what I don’t hold with health, wealth and education,’ he said. ‘I’m all for ‘em. Rather have healthy nations making war than unhealthy nations not making war. No need to look so shocked. Next war’s going to be the end of civilization-as-we-know-it, ain’t it? Well, the last one was, wasn’t it? And was it?’

HE BLEW. The ends of his moustache billowed out; the distant palms over the bar swayed and nodded.
‘Was it,’ he repeated. ‘Wouldn’t be all that bad a thing if it was, would it? Odd thing is, the people who make the most fuss about the end of civilization-as-we-know-it are always the people who like it least. You noticed that?’
‘I can do with civilization-as-we-know-it,’ he said. ‘Cinemas. Dogs. Pools. Television. National Health Service. Prefabs. The ant-State. Housewives’ Choice. New Towns with Community Centres. Identity cards. Conscription. Purchase tax.’

HE RAISED his hat and regarded its interior.
‘I like it all,’ he said solemnly. ‘I like every bit of it. I even like this beer. And I don’t care whether it’s swept away; not in the least. You like civilization-as-we-know-it?’
‘Well,’ we said.
‘There you are,’ he said, without waiting for us to start. ‘You don’t like it. You want to do away with it. But you don’t want a war. O.K. then. Only one way not to have a war. Disease, poverty and ignorance. That’s the ticket. But as for me- health, wealth and education, for me. This means war? Sure it does. Let it. Maybe we’ll survive. Maybe it’ll mean the end of civilization. Maybe we’ll dodge it- oh, yes, dodge it if we can. That’s diplomacy. But if it does mean the end of civilization- all this health, wealth and education- well; I don’t really care. Not me. Guess I’d get on just as well with disease, poverty and all that.’

SO SAYING, this abominable character rose and settled his hat firmly on his head.
‘At least, ’ he said, ‘we’d have a bit of peace.’

by R. P. Lister