As a less poetically inclined gentleman once commented, ‘My memoirs are not my confessions.’ These are sentiments I feel a certain kinship with, the duty of a poet is to draw attention towards that which is worthwhile, not to rub the listeners nose in a squalid reality that they are all too aware of. Indeed if a person wants squalor or degradation there are professions out there who desire nothing more than to pander to these unhealthy desires. (And by this I do not merely mean the more self absorbed novelists and similar.)
But still there are times when it becomes necessary to lay out the truth of what really happened, lest people go through life believing a falsehood that might rebound to my discredit.
The Port Naain Philosophical and Debating Society for Ladies of wit and discernment was not my idea. My involvement was only peripheral. It all started innocently enough, one of my patrons (who for her own peace of mind must remain nameless) mentioned casually that her daughter had developed an interest in Philosophy. I seem to remember replying that as hobbies go it was probably safer than developing an interest in ‘Gentleman’ adventurers and cheaper than an interest in horses. Of course this produced the desired chuckle that such a sally deserves, but my patron was determined. She smiled and said that the daughter would value my advice on the subject.
Recognising that my Patron was serious I suggested she pass on to the young woman these rules.
- Form a society with a sensible membership fee paid in advance.
- Hold the meetings in a neutral establishment, perhaps a back room in respectable tea room.
- Serve a decent lunch.
- Have a steward serve good wine, but make sure that the steward knows to watch the person in the chair who will let him know by significant gestures when a member has had enough.
- Prohibit the carrying of edged weapons to meetings.
Looking back I feel that my Patron regarded the last three rules as a jest on my part, given that the membership was going to be composed of nice young women of impeccable breeding. If she’d raised this issue with me I would have commented that Lord Cartin was of impeccable breeding but I don’t argue with him when he has a drawn sword in his hand.
Still I promptly got back to my job of entertaining my patron’s guests and thought no more about it. Until, that is, I was asked to address one of the early meetings of the newly formed society. The topic I was asked to address was whether poetry had a place within philosophical thought.
The meeting itself went well. I put forward the proposition that whilst poetry itself was not necessarily a vehicle for philosophy, the writing of poetry taught the skill of focusing your thoughts and not wandering off into sheets of excess verbiage. Indeed I summed it up with this short work.
A poet’s wit
There was some discussion after my talk, conducted in good humour with the chair nicely balancing discussion between those who felt that poetry was by its nature essentially philosophical, and those who felt it was merely a vehicle capable of carrying any content, however facile. As I’d rather fallen between both camps each seemed to find in me a fellow traveller along life’s dusty intellectual highway and so I was in the happy situation of everybody almost agreeing with me.
During the discussion I had an opportunity to study the ladies themselves. They were generally aged between twenty and thirty (giving those two ages their widest possible interpretation) and were largely young women of independent means. Some were married, some weren’t but none arrived with their children. I had no doubt that in two or three decades they would almost certainly be looking for an up-and-coming poet of the new generation to enliven their assemblies.
Still, I enjoyed my afternoon, a most civilised event and one which our city needs more of. I recommended various other speakers to them and it seems that for some time the society flourished.
I confess that I didn’t give them much further thought, until one of my patrons commented that she was a little concerned. She felt that the young women might have become a little extreme in their discussions. When I asked her to elucidate she commented that, after a highly charged and emotional debate, they had decided to universally adopt pacifism. Now of itself I couldn’t bring myself to believe this was an entire bad thing so I reassured the lady that it was unlikely that any harm would come of it.
My first qualms came when the young ladies asked me to arrange a joint meeting for them with another philosophical and debating society. This caused me a great deal of heart searching. You see, the other similar societies in Port Naain were almost entirely dominated by men. It seems to be a feature of life, that women, as they grow older, outgrow philosophy in favour of dealing with the reality in which they find themselves. Men on the other hand seem to discover philosophy with advancing age and seize upon it as a refuge from too much reality.
Then I had what I took to be a stroke of luck, I discovered one of these other philosophical societies had voted that it would be open and inclusive, accepting the opinions of all as valid. So it was that I arranged a joint meeting of the ‘Port Naain Philosophical and Debating Society for Ladies of wit and discernment’ with the ‘Port Naain Epistemologists’. As a neutral venue I organised a meeting room at the Sinecurists’ Dining Room. I left the two societies to decide the catering, after all it was out of their budgets, and waited for the invitation.
Unfortunately, in retrospect, I was invited. Fortunately I wasn’t expected to do much and if I had not been placed on the top table between the two society presidents, I’d probably never have been noticed.
My first thought, when I entered the dining room, was that the two societies were having separate meetings in the same room. Rather than sit lady, gentleman, lady, gentleman, around the table, the gentlemen were on one side of the table and the ladies were on the other.
The next difficulty was the menu. Yes the food was excellent, delicate flavours and subtle textures, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. But, how can I say this, it didn’t put a lining on your stomach; it didn’t stick to the ribs.
Then there was the drink. It was fruit punch and frankly it was excellent. But again, if you’re serving a punch that is one part fresh fruit juice, two parts white wine and three parts strong spirit, you do not serve it in tankards. Still it did give the evening a sense of occasion, even jollity.
My sole formal role was to call upon the first speaker. This was an elderly philosopher called Sargenus. He droned on for some considerable time, and embarrassingly I’m not sure I heard a word. He mumbled into his beard, repeatedly referred to his notes, talked down at the table, and his speech finally faded away and he sat down. I was awakened by the desultorily applause. Then a young lady called Clarretta stood up to answer him. I confess to feeling a little sorry for her as frankly I doubt she’d have much more chance of hearing what he said than I had.
As she stood up to speak I felt the Gentleman President next to me start awake with the words, “Ye gods, it’s a woman speaking!”
This seemed to irritate the Lady President on the other side of me because she grasped the water jug and hurled it at him. The jug missed me by the thickness of a sheet of copy paper and I launched myself backwards. The jug missed the President to hit another gentleman who reacted to being attacked by hurling a heavy pewter cruet set back at his attacker. By the time I’d scrabbled to my feet, a battle was raging in front of me. I thought of intervening but was deterred from this when the redoubtable Clarretta, obviously taking issue with a remark made by a gentleman opposite, snatched a staff off one of the beadles who were trying to restore order and laid about her with it.
As the fighting became general I tried to guide the more rational individuals of both genders to safety. Behind us the fighting remained fierce, the open and inclusive gentlemen were sturdy antagonists but the determinedly pacifist ladies were younger, faster on their feet and by and large held the advantage. The gentlemen conducted a fighting retreat to the main door and onto the street while I got the others out through a side door.
Purely out of curiosity I made my way round to the main door. The ladies had already driven back a spirited counterattack launched by the handful of watchmen who had arrived on the scene and were at bay within the doorway. Like the rest of the idlers in the area I decided to remain to watch developments. These were not long in coming. The watch was turned out and formed up under the steady gaze of Inspector Quent. When they were deployed to his satisfaction he walked up to the door and announced, “Ladies, I must ask you to vacate the premises forthwith or I will be forced to order my men to open fire.”
From inside there was a scornful cry of, “You’ll not open fire on defenceless women.”
Before Quent could reply, a crossbow was loosed from behind him and the quarrel sped through the door and embedded itself in a wall next to where the ladies were standing. It was accompanied by a shout of, “Yes I chuffing well will.”
It is perhaps at this point I ought to introduce the bearer of the crossbow, Sergeant Anicia, a not unattractive lady of middle years.
To be fair to the men of Port Naain, if women have sought to take upon themselves martial duties, to interpose their own bodies between the citizens and the enemies of the city, both at home and abroad, the men have never hesitated to let them.
Sergeant Anicia was one who had taken up the role of a watchman, (she insists on the term and it is not for a poet to tell her she is mistaken in this.) Although occasionally censured for ill-considered violence she had made her way in the watch and was considered especially good at dealing with small children, self important young men who had drunk too much, and (for no reason anybody could put a finger on) runaway livestock.
At this point Quent appeared to notice me. He summoned me to his side and told me to go back in the side door and get the women inside out and away in the next ten minutes, otherwise he would be forced to let Sergeant Anicia and her patrol enter the building.
This I did. The ladies took little convincing and were out and away well before the deadline. I did briefly consider leaving by the front door in case Inspector Quent intended to express his gratitude in tangible form, but was deterred by the fact that Sergeant Anicia had almost certainly reloaded her crossbow.
As an aside, should anybody be the slightest bit interested, there is now a collection of Tallis Steelyard stories available for purchase.