The other day I was seated or sitting (or, as Jeff Green would say, sat) at my roll-top desk, quill in hand, just making the first downstroke of the initial letter of what was to be a magnum opus of such exquisite… well, never mind, you get the picture… when Consuela (my Tejana maid) tapped me on the shoulder and announced that a person from Porlock was at the flap of the teepee, asking to see me. Naturally my concentration was broken, my thread of poetic thought frayed, my incense-cloud of inspiration dispelled, my act of creativity stillborn, my wa rudely disturbed… yes, yes, you get the picture again.
I can’t remember now what the person from Porlock actually wanted, and the epic I was writing is just – poof! – gone. However, one thing which did come out of this episode was a new verb coined in the teepee. To porlock. It means to interrupt an artist in mid-flow. A neighbour pops round to borrow a cup of sugar when an Alexandrine eludes me – damme, missus, you’ve porlocked me! A fuse blows just before I save a rose-diamond of a sonnet to my hard drive – porlocked! The cheerful whistling of the Polish window-cleaner (ever the optimist – the teepee has no windows) when I am reclining on the chaise longue in oriental reverie – yep, porlocked!
Q: What visual image is before you?
A: The picture.
Q: What expression of appropriation fits your relationship to said image?
A: We get it.
I asked you a few days ago to look at a picture.
Specifically I asked if you could identify the turbaned, bearded cove on the extreme left. Now, an amazing amount of people don’t know their left from their right, or are Thespians and assume that left equals stage left, because they thought I was referring to the gent in the topper. Guesses such as Rudyard Kipling were made. A stooshie developed therefrom, because the actual guessing of the identity was pushed to one side in favour of a heated debate as to which was right and which was left.
I do wish people would listen to what I mean instead to what they think I said.
Anyhow, here’s the revelation you have all been waiting for.
The turbaned, bearded cove on the left was none other than Virginia Woolf, in the guise of “Prince Saagaaya of Abyssinia”.
On 7th of February 1919 Horace De Vere Cole sent a telegram to HMS Dreadnought, the Royal Navy warship then anchored at Weymouth, Dorset. The telegram, which purported to come from Sir Charles Hardinge, the Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, ordered the warship to be ready to receive royal visitors from Abyssinia. Cole along with Adrian Stephen and four others – Virginia Stephen as she then was, Guy Ridley, Anthony Buxton, and Duncan Grant – presented themselves at Paddington Station. Cole introduced himself as “Herbert Cholmondeley” of the Foreign Office, Adrian Stephen as an interpreter, and the other four who were heavily disguised as you see in the picture as the members of the Abyssinian Royal Family, and demanded a special train to be put at their disposal.
At Weymouth they were greeted with a guard of honour, and were conducted on a tour of the fleet. They spoke gibberish to each other, the most distinctive words of which were “Bunga! Bunga!” which were taken to signify their delight and admiration.
The prank, when it was later discovered, brought the “Bloomsbury Group” of artists and intellectuals to the attention of the public. Cole sent a copy of the group photograph above to the Daily Mirror, and thereafter crowds of street-urchins would taunt any sailor in uniform with cries of “Bunga! Bunga!”. There were even comic songs made up about the incident and sung in music halls. The Navy later demanded Cole’s arrest, but no law currently in force had been broken. However the navy, being acutely embarrassed because of the group’s known pacifist leanings, sent two officers to cane Cole as a punishment for making the Senior Service look foolish – Cole countered this by suggesting that it was they who should be caned for being stupid enough to have been taken in by the hoax. Officers (maybe the same officers) went to carry out the same punishment on Duncan Grant, but because his pacifist principles forbade him from resisting they confined the punishment to two ceremonial taps.
In 1915 the Dreadnought rammed and sank a submarine of the Imperial German Navy. Amongst the telegrams of congratulation was one that read “BUNGA BUNGA”.
Somehow you could not see this happening today. Although it was only a couple of years ago that a reporter gained entry to an RN Dockyard by flashing a Matalan card at the security man on the gate, the thought of bearded, turbaned men being granted instant access to a military area in the UK is probably not one that would be entertained in the current global political climate.
It reminds me of a stunt of a couple of decades back when a reporter disguised himself as an Arab sheikh (it was not, however, Mazher Mahmood, whose “fake sheikh” activities were reported in his 2008 book) and visited various places in London. His visit to a Jewish deli to buy a salt-beef sandwich was greeted with friendliness, smiles, and politeness; his appearance in the gallery above the Stock Exchange by contrast was greeted by a noisy demonstration from the floor as people chanted “Out! Out! Out!” and “Oil! Oil! Oil!”.