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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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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 together some information about him. Born in 1913, educated at King Edward’s School in Birmingham and University College, Oxford, Lewis spent much of his adult life as a journalist working for, among others, the Economist and The Times. He devoted his retirement to running his one-man-band publishing business, the Keepsake Press, producing mostly hand-printed pamphlets by poets; an admirable way to pass one’s declining years and celebrated in his The Practice of Parlour Printing considered as a Specific against Insomnia and Like Disorders with a warning on Side Effects. In earlier years he had written several books on colonialism in Africa and other social and political issues, but of his three novels only The Evolution Man (1960) was a success. The setting is southern Africa at the end of the Stone Age. Now, in the absence of any contemporaneous Stone Age literature we have to make do with what modern writers have imagined. William Golding’s The Inheritors is probably the most famous example of the genre, although it holds to much the same line of monosyllabic conversation and names (Lok, Mal, Nil) as most other works set in prehistoric times. Golding’s Neanderthals are gentle, dreamy, in tune with nature; noble savages who are no match for the extremely unpleasant Homo sapiens they encounter. There is little of the noble savage in The Evolution Man. It was the comic genius of Roy Lewis to make his characters use urbane and anachronistic language, and to give each a perfectly sensible name. The narrator, Ernest, is a Stone Age boy of about 15. He lives in a cave, seized from a family of bears, with a largish horde of four brothers and five sisters, his parents and a number of husbandless aunts. A fire is kept going almost continuously in the mouth of the cave, affording comfort and protection from the bears and other wild animals, though older and more conservative relatives, such as Uncle Vanya, have their doubts about this dangerous and unstable element:
When ground temperatures were low enough, or the dank rain closed in and made one’s joints creak and ache, Uncle Vanya would come and visit. During a lull in the noise of the jungle traffic you would hear him coming, with a swish-swish-swish through the tree tops punctuated by an occasional ominous crack of an overburdened branch, and a muffled oath, which became a scream of uninhibited rage when he actually fell.
Uncle Vanya is old-school, arguing with Ernest’s father about the unnatural and dangerous evil of fire, and the moral debilitation brought on by new ways of shaping flints and pebbles into weapons and tools. The family have not yet made the connection between fire and cooking, and they continue to eat raw plants and meat. Ernest admits that their health and temper are constantly soured by gastric disturbances: ‘the sunniest disposition is apt to be undermined by chronic colitis . . . Some fruits, some fungi, some roots could be eaten; others could not: pioneers all down the Stone Age had given their lives to discover which were which.’ Father worries endlessly that his horde is not evolving fast enough, but they are making some progress. One cold night when Uncle Vanya comes to call and sits in front of the detested fire, Ernest’s younger half-brother Alexander makes an important discovery:
There, on the surface of the rock, was Uncle Vanya’s shadow, faithfully outlined in charcoal . . . It was unmistakeably Uncle Vanya’s shadow; nobody could mistake those huge bent shoulders, those hairy half-flexed knees and shaggy buttocks . . . that simian arm extended in a typical gesture of denunciation. ‘What is it?’ demanded Uncle Vanya in a terrible voice . . . ‘Representational art,’ squeaked Alexander.
Father’s mind, however, is working on ever more ambitious schemes. He announces that his sons are to join him in an expedition. Now that they have reached puberty, he says, it is high time they find themselves mates. There is a horde a few miles away with girls of a marriageable age. They must each steal one away. The boys protest that they have their own girls at home. Their sisters.
‘People always mate with their sisters,’ Oswald said. ‘It’s the done thing.’ ‘Not any more,’ said Father. ‘Exogamy begins right here. We must mix up the genes a bit . . . In short a young man must go out and find his mate, court her, capture her, fight for her . . . When you are all happily mated, you can bring the girls home.’
The girl picked by Ernest from this alien horde is not an easy catch. Her feet and her wits are considerably faster than his. She leads him a merry dance through savannah and swamp, across rivers and lakes, up and down mountains. At last, after days of pursuit, exhausted and disconsolate, Ernest blunders into a glade in the forest. And there she sits, on a fallen tree trunk,
casually combing her long tawny hair with the backbone of a fish . . . [She] smiled at me. ‘You do look hot . . . and bothered.’ ‘I’ve got you now,’ I said dispiritedly and raised my shillelagh. She patted the tree trunk. ‘Come and sit beside me and tell me all about yourself. I’m simply dying to know.’
So Ernest meets and falls in love with Griselda. His brothers have had equal luck with Clementina, Honoria and Petronella. After an idyllic period of courtship, the boys make their way home with their new mates. Meanwhile, Father has been getting on with evolution. He has discovered the delight of cooked meat, and how to make fire without having to climb the volcano. There is a slight setback when he sets the surrounding jungle alight but, in bartering for new caves and land with an already resident horde, he invents modern diplomacy. Other ideas, however, prove to be altogether too much for his conservative sons, and he suffers the fate of many visionary pioneers – of being destroyed by the less enlightened. In this wonderfully entertaining and witty book the how and the why of the evolution of our early ancestors is telescoped into the history of a single horde of cave-dwellers. It is clear the improvements and discoveries are mostly down to one man, and how far other members of the horde would have progressed without the intellectual push of Father is a moot point. The Stone Age came to an end 8,000 years ago, but it’s not so difficult to imagine Ernest and his family living in a large Victorian rectory with little change in their language or basic thought processes. After all, 8,000 years might seem a long time ago, but it appears a bit closer when you realize it represents only eighty generations of sturdy and clever centenarians like my good Polish friend. I can imagine his forebears doing interesting things with flints.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 62 © William Palmer 2019


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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