10 OCTOBER 1970, Page 31


Alas! Poor Porbeagle


For the last twelve years I have been devour- ing my dictionary in the same way that can- nibals have always eaten the bravest of their foes in order to assimilate their heroic qualities. You can imagine then, the abomination of desolation I felt when, two weeks ago, my precious dictionary fell into my bath. The displacement of water was, of course, enormous and had I been called Archimedes I have no doubt that I would have cried 'Eureka!' and would have posited all sorts of extra theories about tomes in baths. As it was, naked and anguished and a rather curious shade of pink on account of the colouring of the jacket which had run, I leapt out of the water and planted that beloved book on to the hot pipes in order that it should dry out.

Then, before I had time to dry myself, I remembered that when Florence was flooded many of the great books in the archives of the Palazzi and museums had been ruined, not only by the watery smudges, but by over- zealous students who had put them into ovens which, on account of the excessive heat, had caused their pages to stick ir- remediably together.

After careful thought, I put the dictionary wide open on its spine in the airing cupboard and for the next two days blew on it at hourly intervals in order to riffle the pages and prevent repetition of the Florentine disaster. This, in a sense, worked a treat but when I finally took it back into my bedroom I found to my horror that where, hitherto, it had opened automatically at Caaing Whale, Mulligrubs or Porbeagle, those pages had gummed themselves inseparably to the next ones.

The loss of the first two words is not absolutely damnable because I know by heart that the Caaing Whale is the most gregarious of all the cetacea and the most frequently stranded and I've often consoled myself when I've failed to be a success at parties by re-reading this pitiful piscine description. Mulligrubs, too, remains in my memory because it means colic or sulkiness—two ailments from which I suffer particularly when I'm writing an article. Throughout these twelve years I've been able to tell my friends, not that I'm vile and ill- humoured, but that I have the Mulligrubs. This has caused them to ponder for a while , and rather nervously keep, their distance, and Fm told that several of them have telephoned their doctors to find out whether it's catching.

Porbeagle is a different matter. The fact is that by some unforgiveable oversight I've never actually looked the word up. It's just been there on the top of a left hand page and I've been too incurious to find out what on earth it can be. Now that it's too late, I haven't the courage to ring up a library or an information centre in case it's an indelicate word which could offend the tender suscep- tibilities of the girl on the other end of the telephone. Perhaps somebody who reads this piece can enlighten me under plain cover. I will, of course, treat the information in the strictest confidence.