Smokey the Magnificent

Failing the Turing Test since 1986

An Alphabetised Guide to Morris

Axis of Evil – a 45- to 90-degree alignment along which Morris likes to lie at night, for the purpose of minimising parental bedspace

Bedpigs – a chronic infestation, generally most acute in the early morning and along the Axis of Evil.

Continental Drift – when a nappy works its way around the squish so as to expose an entire porcine buttock to the elements

Dactyling – a barbaric, continuous, ear-splitting yawp of Enthuse, named for its resemblance to the cry of a pterodactyl

Enthuse – the overflowing life-force of a Morris, manifesting itself in dactyling, tromping and undirected but intense excitement. Enthuse frequently bursts forth at curtains and ceiling-fans, thus lending credence to the theory that Morris, while fat and pleasing, is a bit of a thicko.

Facial Fats – Morris’ prime export. Self-explanatory, except to note that when consoling a Morris, it is polite to sing this song, to the animated Spider-Man theme tune:

Facial fats, facial fats

Tiny Morris has facial fats

Some like dogs, some like cats

We like babies with facial fats

We doooooo… we likes ‘em when they splats!

Fontanelle – Morris’ off-switch. How did I not know about this before? Sleeping through the night rocks!

Helium Bottom – a serious medical condition in which, during milksing, a baby’s posterior rises gently skywards and begins to sway in the breeze. Actually, to date, Morris is not afflicted with Helium Bottom. In this respect he is a better baby than either of his siblings.

Morris – the babe in question. Known aliases: Morris Minor, Señor, Young Sir, Fatty-Boom-Boom, Short Stack, Heffalump, the Exceptional Fatsome-Sausage, Thumb-Sucking Fool, Small Fry, Creature-Beast, Blobfish, Tiny, Fish-Sticks, and basically any other combination of words which comes to hand when one’s brain is temporarily dazzled at the sight of Morris’ mighty thighs.

Neck-cheese – a uniquely piquant superfood formed between chins 3 and 4 from milks deemed surplus to requirements. See Scummy-button.

Odorflowing – a term coined by my small sister to describe the rejection by Morris of perfectly good milks

Saturated fats – Morris on a hot day.

Scummy-button – a baby’s navel between washings (see Neck-cheese)

Spoon of Justice – Morris’ preferred wielding item. Uniquely, and this is deep, man: unlike many magical artefacts – the Lasso of Truth or Mjölnir, for instance – any spoon, correctly wielded, can be the Spoon of Justice.

Squissues – Pronounced ‘squishues’, squissues are simply issues of the squish: a woeful continuum ranging from constipoops through pesto-poops, boips and pootles to squirtles. Squissues are Morris’ leading cause of sadness and require him to be thoroughly wrung out, folded up, twisted, turned upside-down and occasionally balanced on his tum on someone’s head. The Enthuse of a Morris whose squissues have been resolved has to be seen (or, at a greater distance, heard) to be believed.



Yes yes, I know; I do not call, I do not write. It’s not my fault. I was kidnapped by buccaneers and forced to prepare croquembouche in a cave for the wedding of the Pirate King.

1. My children do not get knock-knock jokes. I tried “Knock-knock”, “Who’s there?”, “Interrupting cow” on the pigs this morning, and they thought that was the end of the joke and laughed hysterically.

2. You know what pleases me about babies? Most things, actually, but other than that? I like how they manage to give off a very low impression of helplessness.

Take young Morris, for instance. Being a wee bit gormless and hampered by his fats, he is still more or less immobile. He does not sit, he does not crawl, he rarely rolls; mostly he just lolls about like a sea-slug. If he wants to be taken anywhere, he has to be carried; similarly, he is of course incapable of feeding or changing himself or doing anything remotely useful.

But does this distress him? Does one feel a sense of pity looking down at his stationary self? Not a bit of it. By sheer chutzpah and joie de vivre Morris manages to convey a sense of autonomy. One gets the impression he is doing what he wants. Lying on the floor staring at the ceiling, he acts as if he is exactly where he wishes to be. And should you pick him and take him to a window to see the chickens, well, he wanted to do that too.

It’s impressive. And presumably one would not feel the same way about, say, a quadriplegic. And I realise it isn’t a trait that applies to all babies; there are go-getters in the infant community who register displeasure at their lack of crawling ability, and pitch out of one’s arms trying to reach the curtains.

But Morris does not. He takes life as it comes and finds it goodly. He is secure enough in his place in the cosmos that the thought people might find it tiring to lug him about simply does not occur to him. “Here I am,” he says. “I have joined you now. You’re welcome.”

3. We’re buying a house. Rather, we’re attempting to buy a house. It is a hideous, grinding, demoralising process and I don’t want to talk about it.

4. Few things in muggy weather make me as ambivalent as cosleeping with a fat, loving baby with a low melting point.

5. This baby.


“Can I tell you a story?”

“OK. A short one.”

“How short?”
“As short as your finger.”
“Which finger? This one, or this one, or this one, or this one, or this one?”
“As short as this one here.”
“How about this one?”
“No, I like the one I chose.”
“Morris is so CUUUTE! He’s a wasp!”
“Is he? Don’t pesk his head, I want him to sleep.”
“OK. Now. What animal?”
“Um. How about… well. A wasp?”
“No, wasps have stings.”
“How about a pika.”
“No, you always tell me stories about pikas. How about a snake?”
“No, snakes are scary.”
“How about a manatee?”
“I think I’ll do a bat.”
“Oh, OK.”
“Yes. A bat named Batman.”
“A bat named… OK. Go.”
“Once upon a time there was a bat named Batman, and he could fly and crawl along. And he thought he heard something scary, so he went to see, but it was just Robin, his partner. So they were flying along and then they heard something like this: SSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS. And it was SSSS-ing along, and they flew down to see it. And they thought it was a snake. But it was just a dragon. So it was Robin’s friend, because Robin liked dragons. And then they thought they heard something spotty, so they went to see, and it was a pika.”
“Goodness. But pikas aren’t spotty.”
“This was a spotty pika, with eyes.”
“Yes. And it was Robin’s friend too, because Robin’s favourite animals are dragons AND pikas. And then – now they’re talking. “Look, Robin! I can go upside down on my head! And I can hop on my head! Bup bup bup!” “Wow, cool, Batman! So can I!””
“This story is getting quite long. I think it’s longer than your finger. Can you finish it up?”
“Yes. ….That was the end.”


An Incident I Regret

Recently I made myself a chai latte. I am fond of chai lattes. They make my non-tea-and-coffee-drinking self feel like a grownup at cafes which don’t serve iced chocolates. And this particular chai latte was made from some incredibly delicious chai latte mix I got at the Food Show. It is a sweet, spicy, creamy nectar of the gods, and simple enough to make in the dark.

This proved to be regrettable.

You see, I had invited my mother and sister over for dinner, and, seeking a bit of light and airy escapism, we were watching The Shawshank Redemption. This is a long movie. So when the urge for a chai latte overcame me, I refrained from pausing the movie out of respect for my mother’s bedtime and quietly sneaked around the kitchen.

The latte was delicious. I slurped it happily to soothing scenes of prison violence – out of a soup spoon, because there was froth and I am a pig. (Seriously though, it’s by far the best way to drink milk-froth.)

Seven-eighths of the way through (the latte, not the movie) I schlped another spoonful. My lips met a sort of congealed, slimy mass. “Ew”, I thought, “the milk skin’s gone all oobly”.  I tipped it back in and had a couple more spoonfuls. I met it again. Off-put, I put down the mug and continued watching.

Then a slight niggle of doubt began to creep into my mind. I wondered how milk-skin could survive the intense frothing process a chai latte requires. Some time later, I remembered that the milk-frother is kept on a windowsill regrettably prone to slugfestations. Shortly after that I remembered actually finding a slug on the milk-frother a few weeks ago.

The movie ended. I tipped the rest of my chai latte into the sink and viewed the dregs. And for some time afterwards my mood could best be described as pensive.


Yesterday Rowan lost a tooth.

This isn’t the first tooth she has lost – the two bottom front ones went the way of all flesh many months ago. At that time I first broached the subject of the Tooth Fairy, only to be roundly ridiculed by the pig.

She: “Mummy, fairies aren’t real! That’s ridiculous!”

Me: “Well, you don’t have to believe they’re real. But it’s fun to pretend, because when you put your tooth under your pillow you get money.”

She: “That’s insane. I’m not going to do that.”

Me, disbelievingly (revealing, perhaps, a strong streak of Scottish blood): “But you GET MONEY!”

She, dismissively: “I have lots of money.”

But that was then. Now, Rowan is a wiser and more practical pig, not above taking advantage of a parent’s whimsy in order to fund her chocolate-bar habit. So yesterday when a tiny canine dislodged itself – quietly and with minimal fuss, I’m happy to say – Rowan announced with a masterful blend of cynicism and condescension that she would try putting her tooth under her pillow just this once, but that she didn’t expect it to come to anything.

And so help us, we were out of cash.

Who carries cash about with them these days anyway? I mean, now that I drive I do try to keep the odd coin about my person for the parking meter, but between that and the pigs’ addiction to those child cancer wishing well gizmos, I rarely have twenty cents to rub together – let alone a dollar, which I had incautiously revealed as the going rate.

It was 10:30 at night. Neither Helpdesk Man nor myself was prepared to actually drive into town in search of an establishment a) still open, b) not a strip club and c) willing to put through a $1 EFTPOS transaction. Helpdesk Man checked his wallet, my purse, his coin pocket, the coin pocket of his other pants, his desk drawers, the back of the tallboy and the wardrobe floor. No dice.

Our options seemed to be as follows:

-Leave the tooth in situ and give Rowan a lame “Oh dear, she must have forgotten; let’s try again tonight” speech in the morning. (Rejected due to obvious patheticness.)

-Write a tiny IOU note in wobbly Tooth Fairy writing. (Rejected due to Helpdesk Man’s claim that this was just as pathetic. I thought it was clearly less pathetic, but I was already in bed and would have to get up to write the note, so I conceded graciously.)

-Print out a picture of a Tooth Fairy, slip it under her pillow and claim in the morning she squashed the Tooth Fairy in the act with her enormous heavy head during the night. (Also rejected by Helpdesk Man, who has no sense of Charm.)

-Replace the promised dollar with chocolate. (Rejected after brief consideration as potentially melty and liable to be scorned by the pig, who knows her rights; besides, Helpdesk Man had eaten it all.)

-Find Rowan’s current stash of coins and borrow a dollar out of it, hoping she wouldn’t notice until we got a chance to replace it. (Helpdesk Man had qualms, but I would have totally gone for this; unfortunately, she’d asked me to count it the day before and I recalled she only had a bunch of silver and a $2 coin. A pile of twenty-cent pieces would make a noticeable dent in the stash, as well as implying the Tooth Fairy was pitiably broke; and setting a $2-a-tooth precedent is the way down which lies madness.)

We were staring at each other in despair when I suggested Helpdesk Man check the car. We have a Forrester – a big, ugly brute of a thing (and the fourth most stolen car in New Zealand, whodathunk?), but its one redeeming feature is a plethora of little slots and compartments. I’m fond of small hidey spaces, and you can’t plop your elbow down in the Forrester without it falling into a hitherto-unsuspected bit of moulding designed to hold one’s sunglasses, Coke cup, knuckle-dusters, police-amusing baggie of oregano, etc. It seemed plausible one of them might contain a spot of coinage, popped thoughtfully there in richer days as a safeguard against the chaps who clean your windshield at the lights.

Anyway, off he trucked, and returned after a very long time with seventy cents and a Samoan tala. (“They were in the coin compartment. They must’ve been from the previous owner.” “Wait, we have a coin compartment?” We do, apparently. No idea what it looks like; the Forrester reveals its secrets slowly, like unto the unfurling rose or, come to think of it, the TARDIS.)

Long story short? Our Tooth Fairy mythos now contains special Tooth Fairy coins, which are prettier than regular money but can be exchanged for boring old Kiwi dollars when Helpdesk Man next goes to the supermarket. Tooth Fairy coins are largeish, gold, slightly fluted around the edges, and if by spectacular coincidence they happen to have a profile of the king of Samoa on one side, what of it? Maybe the Tooth Fairy’s a fan of taro.

Of course, the hard part now is preventing Helpdesk Man from losing the tala before Rowan finishes losing her teeth. After all, regular non-magic money isn’t going to cut it any more… We may have erred.

The Birth of Morris: A Visual Guide

A less visual guide to Morris’ appearance can be found here, but be warned – it’s, like, five pages long and pretty gory.


It is June 8. I am officially due.

Specifically, it is 3:21 AM on June 8. Yep, that whole pregnancy-insomnia thing is still going strong. Fun stuff, I tell you.

I had forgotten until recently what a uniquely horrible experience the last few weeks of pregnancy are. Not physically, so much – I mean, yes, but I’m inured to that by now. It’s the mental thing.

I mean, basically, late pregnancy is all about getting you to the point that you’re so miserable you’ll welcome labour. WELCOME LABOUR. As in, genuinely look forward to it. As in, wake up frustrated and annoyed in the morning because didn’t go into labour in the night.

Can you even conceive of what a weird headspace that is? I hate labour. I’m not one of those “I love my powerful pressure waves” people, despite repeated attempts at self-indoctrination with Hypnobabies. Wanting to be in labour is like waking up every morning angry that you’re not having a muscle cramp in your leg, or a bout of food poisoning, or a recently-broken collarbone. Sane people do not wish for these conditions.

The sensible wisdom on pregnancy forums is to keep oneself busy, planning fun and quirky things to do on and around your due date with the knowledge that if you have to cancel them, so much the better. Get a pedicure! Go to the zoo! Have lunch with friends! Make a belly cast!

Unfortunately a) most of those suggestions cost money, b) the only valid reason to make a belly cast is so one can leave it behind in a cupboard at one’s rental house to squick out the next tenants, and our cupboards are full; and c) the whole premise assumes one is still mentally capable of organising things, rather than wandering around the house in a constant state of nervous limbo thinking “Is it worth starting a batch of bread dough if I might go into labour at any time?” (Oddly, I feel this way upon finding out I’m pregnant too – I go into this strange ‘being pregnant is a fulltime occupation which requires my total attention despite the fact that nothing of note is happening’ zone and don’t emerge for several weeks. Highly annoying and unproductive.)

So instead of sipping chai lattes with my girlfriends at the mall, I’m whiling away the days by repeatedly googling ‘natural labour induction methods’. For the record, I *know* all the natural labour induction methods. This is my third baby. I can tell you how many pineapples one has to consume in order to receive a sufficient dosage of labour-triggering enzymes to have an impact. (Too many, especially for someone with heartburn.) And yet I keep delving further and further through pages of Google results in the hopes that someone, somewhere will mention an obscure but amazingly effective technique I haven’t heard of before.

Actually I did find one new one – balloons. Apparently someone’s grandmother once told her that blowing up balloons can trigger labour by increasing intra-abdominal pressure. It is a measure of my current state of sanity that I actually bought a packet and tried.

Now, lest you be tempted to give me The Talk about how 40 weeks is far too early to worry, that babies come when they’re ready, that only 4% of babies are born on their due dates, and so forth: I know. I KNOW. Heck, Miles was eight days late (the pig was induced at 39+4, so doesn’t count for pattern-establishing purposes), so it’s not like I have any good reason to expect a prompt 40-week birth.

Thing is, though, Miles was eight days late. And as a result he was born on my birthday. When’s my birthday? June 17. What’s today? June 8. Call me a diva, but I do not want to have two sons sharing my birthday.

And perhaps more legitimately, I don’t want to go crazy and drive off a bridge. See, when I take Prozac the baby gets Prozac, and if he were to be born with a brainful of the stuff, he might get seratonin syndrome, which is basically antidepressant withdrawal – grumpiness, difficulty sleeping and the like, plus (for some reason) respiratory distress. So the doctors in their infinite wisdom got me to taper off the Prozac a few weeks ago, and now I’m not allowed to take anything until the baby’s born, at which point I can immediately start another antidepressant with a lower breastmilk transfer rate. (Actual quote from the doctor, in a bored voice: “Yeah, so you could be off the drugs for a while, depending when the baby’s born… I’ll give you our crisis number.”)

Which I do feel is a valid reason for wanting to get on with labour. Though not necessarily a valid reason for obsessively overanalysing every kick, Braxton-Hick and twinge I experience in the wee small hours of the morning. (But then, Prozac helps with anxiety and I went off it. What did I expect?)

The hardest part is not being able to summon labour by mere force of will. Believe me, if you could I would. I’ve spent whole evenings watching One Born Every Minute while chugging raspberry leaf tea, downing evening primrose oil like popcorn and doing step exercises on a stool like a less than usually elegant performing walrus. I’ve thought Open Thoughts and listened to birthing affirmations and told myself once a day “Right, now I’ve finished sewing this onesie/making this baby present for a friend/stocking up the freezer with homemade bread/choosing my labour music; I can let go all of my Subconscious Tightness and welcome labour!” And labour’s like “Ha! Nope.”

Meanwhile the pig, upon coming across me crawling around on my hands and knees or acupressuring my ankles (I know, I know), naturally enquires as to what I am doing. And when I say “Trying to induce labour” her eyes light up and she gasps “Are you going to have the baby TODAY?” It was endearing a week ago… (Miles, conversely, reacts by climbing onto my back for a horsie-ride and trying to eat the citrus-scented massage bar.)

At this point, I’m thinking my best option is to get stuck in a lift with an action-movie protagonist. In the meantime, back to bed, where I can lie down gargling on my own stomach juices because I’ve had my heartburn-meds quota for the night and they wore off an hour ago. Perhaps if I randomly twitch my right leg until Helpdesk Man kicks me in sleepy rage I’ll trigger labour; I mean, it hasn’t worked for the last ten nights, but it’s better than doing nothing like some sort of chump, innit?

34 Weeks

And a half.

My physical degeneration has now become actually comical. I’ve been suffering, for instance, from bouts of pregnancy insomnia. A friend kindly recommended chamomile tea; but that’s no good, because drinking liquids causes my stomach contents to slosh acidly up into my throat even despite the Ranitidine, meaning the only way to avoid heartburn is to maintain a state of chronic dehydration: and you know what that’s not good for? Low blood pressure. Yep, that’s still going on. This morning we ventured, I dunno, three hundred metres to the walnut tree to collect walnuts. Between the walk and the stooping I came over all faint on the way home and would have had a nice lie-down, except I’m in the middle of making fudge and bread dough, neither of which lend themselves to neglect.

Remember Rachel Lynde’s dire condemnation: “She washes her dishes sitting down“? Well, I’ve one-upped whoever it was by not washing the dishes at all; but everything else I’ve taken to doing more or less horizontally. I sit while chopping apples, lie down to administer Rowan’s spelling tests, and completely fall asleep while she’s reading me Pippi Longstocking for English. If I could figure out a way to be actually comatose while making dinner, I’d do it.

On the bright side, I think I’ve managed to partially stave off baby brain by maintaining a constant alertness as to the windows of time in which I can take my drugs. Ranitidine, for instance, cannot be taken within two hours of calcium or iron supplements. I’m not *on* calcium supplements, but I am craving milk like a freak; but I can only drink it if I’m not planning to nap or do Hypnobabies (ie nap) for the next few hours, because it aggravates my heartburn. (Oh, you found milk helped your heartburn? Allow me to hiss my congratulations.) And iron, of course, is best taken with Vitamin C, which also aggravates my heartburn. Then I’m supposed to take my probiotics with meals, and my iodine… any time, actually, that one’s not so bad… and my Fluoxetine late at night to minimise its drowsifying effects, but not *too* late at night because I have to swallow it with water, and again, heartburn. Which is also a consideration for the raspberry leaf tea I’m meant to be downing by the gallon to prevent my uterus becoming flabby and useless, presumably from following the example of the rest of me. And I haven’t even bought zinc yet to combat PPD and promote bonding, which – if animal trials can be extrapolated – means I am probably going to roll on and/or eat my young. And that being the case, why even bother with vitamin D? Cannibalistic sow-mothers don’t deserve to be happy and strong-boned.

This had better be one heck of a baby, is what I’m saying.


I have questions. In my mind.

1. What is it with women who deliberately marry into awful last names?

I mean, I took Helpdesk Man’s name when we wedded up, and to be honest I sometimes have vague regrets on that score; I prefer my old last name, and after eight years being called Mrs — still sounds like I’m being confused with my mother-in-law. But it’s not like his surname is actively obnoxious… or like my old one was particularly euphonious, come to that… and it’s certainly simpler pigwise for all of us to have the same last name, so meh. Whatever.

But if his surname had been something ghastly, you bet I’d have had second thoughts. Today, for instance, I saw a photo of a lovely old couple named Mr and Mrs Poot. Which means that once a trembling young fiancee had to look down the dark abyss of years and consent to being known forever and always as a Poot. Mrs Poot. The Poots. And she consented. I don’t think I can fathom a love like that. Unless her maiden name was, like, Snotwrangler or something, in which case she and her fiance probably fell in love over the mutual trauma of it all, but then why didn’t they run off together and change both their names to Montgomery?

2. Do people eat tumours?

I mean, yes, ew, but then I have a similarly visceral reaction to all sorts of foodstuffs cherished throughout the world. There are cultures in which people chow down happily on insects, blood puddings, calves’ brains, live octopi and eyeballs, after all. So why have I never heard of people cooking up tumours? Are they, like, carcinogenic? Presumably a cross-species, denatured-by-cooking cancerous mass wouldn’t be an actual health risk to humans, would it? And certainly they’d be difficult to farm – one has horrid visions of a bunch of squealing piggies being zapped with gamma radiation or forced to live under power poles with cellphones taped to their ears – but wouldn’t that just increase the market value? I mean, we go to tremendous lengths to acquire vanilla beans and truffles.

Perhaps tumours aren’t good to eat, though. I mean, they’re not muscle meat… are they? Or fat, surely? So what *are* they exactly? Growths of what texture of matter? Doesn’t it vary wildly? Seriously, if you have any information on this, let me know, because it’s really bugging me. What about predators – in the wild, if they come across a tumour in their prey, do they eat around it? Or can they smell the evil? Dogs can sniff out cancer, they say; and we think it’s noble, but maybe they’re really going “Mmmm, nommy”.

3. OK, so. America. The War on Drugs. Using is illegal. No?

So how come when a celebrity admits on a talk show to having spent the last few decades in a coke-addled haze, he doesn’t get carted off to the clink? I mean, he just confessed to a crime, didn’t he? Similarly, why aren’t people arrested on the way into rehab or AA meetings; or why aren’t the clearly drug-celebrating lyrics written by rock stars used as probable cause for searching their trailers for the vast quantities of crack they gleefully sing about consuming?

I mean, I know the police care more about dealing than using. And I’m not saying it would be a good thing if going to rehab got you chucked in the clink, because then no-one would ever go to rehab. I’m just saying, is the law the law or ain’t it? And if they never enforce it, shouldn’t they either start enforcing it or change it to comport with the reality of the situation? I mean, I’m sure Carrie Fisher had a legal team check through her confessional autobiographies (which are pretty good, incidentally), and did any of them say “Um, Carrie, you realise if you confess to using drugs here they can put you in prison?” Presumably not. Because of course they wouldn’t. But one assumes the same would not have applied had Martha Stewart written a wryly introspective account of her years as a tax fraudster. (Fraudstress? Fräudlein?)

4. Why are hamsters illegal in New Zealand? Because they are. And I want one. If someone were to send me a hamster, could I look after it for ten years and then talk about it afterwards on late-night TV so as to grant myself celebrimatic immunity? But then, who am I kidding; it wouldn’t last ten years. Rowan found a caterpillar on an ear of corn the other day and fell in love with it, and despite us googling the correct kinds of leaves and making it a sweet little habitat and only dropping it on the carpet twice, it pined away and died in a matter of days. And we were none the wiser until my younger sister said “Don’t you have automatic fly spray?” We’re not good with pets, is what I’m saying. A really robust hamster with impeccable gut flora and solid dental hygiene would maybe last a month, tops. Heck: maybe New Zealand made that law just for us. 


I have been reading a lot, largely on Kindle.

This has been salutary for my broad-mindedness. Not the content of the books, mind you: the format. Until six months ago I was mildly snobbish about Kindles, preferring the look and feel of REAL books. I had a Kindle – Helpdesk Man bought me one – but I rarely used it, though reluctantly conceding it was handy for travel.

And then an old, nearly-blind friend of mine mentioned that she loves Kindles because you can change the size of the print, and I had to admit that you couldn’t really argue with that. And then I got pregnant. And let me tell you, there’s nothing like spending most of every day for several months unable to get out of bed, let alone head to the library, to shoo your pontifications about the feel of Real Paper and the smell of Old Bookshops out of your lexicon right quick.

Plus, as it happens, our town’s libraries have a terrible selection and Kindle doesn’t. After an initial binge I limited myself to the free books, which I expected to be a paltry selection of dead-obvious classics like Jane Austen and Dickens.

But nope. Some study team of volunteers has gone to the trouble of scanning a delightfully arcane selection of out-of-copyright books; and it’s delightful. I have in my possession, among others, ‘The Prospective Mother, a Handbook for Women During Pregnancy’, published in 1921; ‘Strange True Stories of Louisiana’ (1890; haven’t read it yet, but I’m hoping it includes gators); ‘History of the Donner Party'; ‘Fifteen Thousand Useful Phrases: A Practical Handbook of Pertinent Expressions, Striking Similes, Literary, Commercial, Conversational, and Oratorical Terms, for the Embellishment of Speech and Literature, and the Improvement of the Vocabulary of Those Persons Who Read, Write and Speak English'; and the unexpectedly hilarious ‘Sabbath in Puritan New England’. No, really.

The result is that I am now thoroughly learned. And as a civic-minded individual, I hereby pass on a selection of my shiniest knowledge, that you too may be fun at parties.

Point the First: Domestication has greatly injured the moral character of ducks. (Mrs Beeton.)

Point the Second: Cases have been reported in medical literature of menstruation from the ear. (Anomalies of Curiosities of Medicine, 1896; a year by which, I feel, they should have known better.)

Point the Third: It was customary among Puritans to employ a church official known as a tithingman. During the week his job was to chase up families who hadn’t come to service on Sunday, and accost their children on the street with catechism questions to prove they knew their stuff. On Sundays, he stalked the meeting house with a sturdy stick, armed on one end with a sturdy knob and a thorn, and on the other with a fox-tail. When men fell asleep during the sermon, as they frequently did, he would give them a sound rap and/or prick with the manly end of the stick. Women, in concession to their delicacy, got tickled awake with the fox-tail instead.

On one occasion, a respected Puritan gent was snoozing so far back in his pew that the tithingman couldn’t reach his head for a satisfying whack. So he contented himself with driving the thorn into the man’s hand; whereupon the poor chap dreamt he’d been bitten and awoke roaring “Curse ye woodchuck!”, to the scandalised glares of the congregation and the mortification of his wife. This anecdote gives me tremendous pleasure.

Point the Fourth: “Ensor reports an interesting case occurring at Port Elizabeth, South Africa. While bathing, an expert swimmer felt a sharp pain in the thigh, and before he could cry out, felt a horrid crunch and was dragged below the surface of the water. He struggled for a minute, was twisted about, shaken, and then set free, and by a supreme effort, reached the landing stairs of the jetty, where, to his surprise, he found that a monstrous shark had bitten his leg off.”

This anecdote also gives me tremendous pleasure. It probably shouldn’t, but I’m nasty and maladjusted.

Point the Fifth: It is very impolite to apologise at a dinner party for spilling or breaking something. It implies your host is badly-stocked and/or poor enough that the loss of the item will be noticed. One can allow one’s regret to show in one’s face, but that is all.

It is also impolite to discuss The Abolition Question in front of the slaves. (One of several 19th-century etiquette books I read in quick succession.)

Point the Sixth: ‘Canyon’ used to be spelled with a tilde. Cañon. Like that.

Point the Seventh: Commercial cremation is not as simple a process as one might think. Like any oven, a cremation retort has hot spots; indeed, one off-centre jet of flame is the hottest spot in the place. One must therefore ensure that the corpse’s chest is placed beneath this jet, as the chest tends to be the thickest part which takes the longest to burn. But halfway through the process, one has to open the door, take a rake, hook the ribcage and hoick the whole body forward so the legs get a turn in the hot spot. Then after one has swept the ashes out, they go in a blender to reduce them to a homogenous mass, that the grieving relatives might not be shocked by a molar or a toe-bone peeking out of its fluffy nest. (This piece of knowledge wasn’t from Kindle; it was from a library book written by a crematory worker, titled delightfully enough, ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’.)

Point the Eighth: The hedgehog is a sort of vagabond rabbit. (Mrs Beeton again.)

Point the Ninth: No lady wears dark gloves. (Etiquette manual again.)

Point the Tenth: One can make puddings more frugal, yet equally delicious, by leaving out the eggs. (“Twenty-Five Cent Dinners for Families of Six”; 1879)

Point the Eleventh: The traits of a woman’s previous husband will influence the children she has with a succeeding husband. For instance, a child from a second marriage might be born with the birth defect of his mother’s first husband; for instance, an extra digit. It is also well-known that once a Black woman has had a baby with a white man, she will never again bear a pure Black child, even with a Black husband, but will always give birth to half-white babies. (Medical Anomalies again.)

Point the Twelfth: A misshapen woman may appear at a ball, if she is discreetly swathed in a large cape or shawl; but she must under no circumstances dance. If she considers it might give her pleasure, she should reflect that it ought not to give her pleasure. Similarly, while it is good of a hostess to ensure that plain (but non-misshapen) women are given the occasional dance partner, she should not importune too heavily on the gentlemen to be gallant, lest the absurd situation arise of plain women being engaged for more dances than the pretty ones.

Point the Thirteenth: The Chinese have developed an ingenious method of catching ducks. Wearing a calabash on his head, the canny farmer wades into the pond up to his eyebrows. The ducks, seeing a calabash float towards them on the water, are unperturbed. The farmer can thus come among them freely, and grabbing them by the legs, pull them sharply under the water one at a time and attach them to his belt until he has harvested his fill. It’s sneaky, but it’s OK because ducks have a Low Moral Character and deserve no better (see Point the First.)

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