Uncle Vanya Drops In

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A friend and neighbour died last year. Aged 100, he was a Pole who had fought in the war, spoke English and several other languages impeccably, and was both charming and tough-minded. He kept his powerful intellect almost until the end. I used to play chess with him once a week and only realized he was mortal when I unexpectedly beat him one afternoon. It wasn’t until his late nineties that he became housebound and I then ran several curious errands for him.

At the age of 98 he wanted to brush up his Latin verb conjugations. I found him a copy of Kennedy’s Primer in a shop in Charing Cross Road. Then he needed a new stem for his ancient pipe, from a shop, redolent with cigar fumes, in Jermyn Street. He continued smoking to the end. One day he asked me to get him some new flints for his petrol lighter. This was more difficult. The local supermarket was the source of his tobacco. I would try there. The young woman at the counter was puzzled. ‘Flints,’ I repeated. ‘What are they?’ ‘You put them in a lighter,’ I said. She looked as if she wanted to be somewhere else. ‘We do have lighters,’ she said. ‘No,’ I said, ‘my friend has a lighter. He wants some flints.’

Each time I repeated the word, it seemed more outlandish. I steeled myself to explain that a flint was a small cylindrical piece of stone that was inserted in a hole at the top of the lighter. By depressing a lever, a ribbed metal wheel could be caused to rub against the flint, so creating a spark that set light to a petrol-soaked wick. Somehow I couldn’t rise to it. The world seemed to have advanced several decades in a few minutes.

When I reported back, my friend mused that technology might have advanced, but the use of flints to make fire was probably the last example of a technology we shared with people of the Stone Age. I should read The Evolution Man, he said. He would lend it to me.

I had never heard of its author, Roy Lewis, but pieced to

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About the contributor

William Palmer’s collection of poems, The Water Steps, was published by Rack Press in 2017. His seventh novel, The Devil Is White, was published by Jonathan Cape in 2013. He is very glad to have at last exceeded the number produced by Jane Austen and E. M. Forster.

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