If I could use strong language I would. The situation calls for it. But, you know what would happen if I did. They’d just say that I was biased and jealous and ignorant, and that would be the end of me. It’s no use arguing. They always know better and they always get their way, even when they are wrong. 100% wrong. 100%? Quite right, I am beginning to sound like them. Let’s just say they are not as right as I am on the subject in question. And, I should know.
What am I talking about? Let me explain. The director of the park and the museum has been the director for as long as anyone can remember. He is the one who was responsible for putting up the signs in the park describing the creatures who live there as vermin, so he is not very popular among those creatures. Of course, the people have elections for a new director every three or four years but, despite the pretence, it’s always the same director who wins. Although he is very old, they say that there is no one more capable of doing the job. They are right. If you don’t nurture young talent or bring someone in from outside with a different point of view, there will never be anyone who is better because there isn’t anyone waiting in the wings, nor anyone else who knows what the job is, nor what the job could be if some imagination was applied instead of the same old thing from the same old people. This stands to reason, doesn’t it? He just stays and everything stays the same, except it doesn’t, as my story shows.
Mary was particularly upset when he was re-elected this year with an increased share of the vote. I asked her if she had voted. She answered irately and unlike her.
“No, of course, I didn’t vote. Why would I vote? What difference would it make if I did? He would still win if they wanted him to. My vote wouldn’t make any difference.”
I asked her if her friends thought the same way. Of course, they did. They all think the same way which is why they don’t vote.” Which is why he is always re-elected, I pointed out.
“So, answer me this, who else is there? Who would you vote for?” Mary knew she should have voted.
I was brought up to believe that it is impolite to talk about politics. It ought to be a private matter between you and your conscience. However, voting is very important. People have sacrificed their lives to get the vote for everyone. The least we can do is vote and there is no reason why the choice should be easy. I wanted Mary to understand this so I tried to explain the principal of negative voting. It’s very simple. You vote for the person you dislike the least. By voting for the candidate you dislike the least you have the satisfaction of knowing that you have deprived the person you dislike the most of your vote. It’s a win-win situation, almost. There is an alternative. Your candidate might win, but it’s better to be realistic. Mary thought for a moment.
“But you’d still get the wrong person, wouldn’t you?”
Sometimes it’s not worth arguing with Mary.
You’re probably asking yourself what’s got me so worked up. Quite right. It’s not really anything to to with Mary not voting. She’ll have to learn that lesson for herself. One day they’ll take away the right to vote and then she will realise her mistake. Someone will have to fight and possibly die to get it back again. It might be one of her children, unless, of course, her child has joined them and has got fat at everyone else’s expense and will not want to change anything. And that’s what has got me so cross. ‘Sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me’ is an old English adage which everyone around here would do well to learn. I can live with the director’s signs, they don’t refer to me anyway. But what Mary told me about her uncle Frederick made me see red.
Any of you who have had any sort of education will know who uncle Frederick is. He is the great art historian. His books are read all over the world, or, I should say, his books were read all over the world when people wanted to improve themselves through reading. Fred, let’s call him, no disrespect intended, grew up in the park. It was a glorious time for mice. The palace was so old and neglected that anyone could get in and out without any trouble at all. There was always a crack to squeeze through however plump you were. And Fred was a plump young mouse. Many people who spend a lot of time pawing over books tend to get fatter, especially in the rear, it’s all that sitting and reading and nibbling. But you have to balance that with the development at the other end. Books and thinking improve the mind.
Fred had to admit that even he, who honours and loves books, sometimes could not resist the temptation of nibbling at the corner of an ancient book he was reading in the library, especially if it was late at night and he’d long finished his cheese snacks.
“I never realised I was doing it until I’d done it. A very bad habit.”
Once, he even managed to eat the page he was reading before he had read it. Not very long ago he told me, in confidence, in the strictest confidence, never to be repeated, that without realising it, he had even eaten his way through a very important history book he was reading. He was so shocked when he realised what he had done that he re-wrote as much as he could remember and hoped that no one would notice. Unfortunately, Fred never had a very good memory and he muddled up a lot of the facts. Don’t forget, history is a very subjective subject. What seems like a truth to one person can seem very different to another. Just think of the question of who won the Battle of Grunwald. Some say the Poles, especially the Poles. Some say the Germans. Some say the Lithuanians. It’s all a matter of perspective and interpretation and what you want it to mean. Anyway, some historian found the book that Fred had rewritten and assumed that it was original. He was not the sort of historian who did his own research. He borrowed from other people and then re-wrote the material in his own words, sometimes. More often he just copied out huge chunks and, banking on everyone else’s ignorance, passed it off as his own work. This usually worked. He declared Fred’s rewrites a masterpiece of historical writing, called the book his own and published it in a special official edition for schools. For generations children have learnt from it and Fred is very ashamed.
“I was young. I had a narrow view of the world. I never realised what the consequences of my actions would be. Now I can see that what I wrote was all nonsense or mostly nonsense. It should never have happened.”
But it did. I suggested that he should own up.
“They’d never forgive me if I did that. Think how stupid they would all look. And what about my pension and reputation? I could lose everything. No, it’s better to let sleeping dogs lie.”
Whilst I don’t agree with him about the book, I can see his point about the dogs.
There were cats and dogs on guard around the palace, but they were lazy and vain in their smart gold-embroidered uniforms. They much preferred to gaze at their reflections in the great gilt framed mirrors in the palace hall and boast about what they would do if they ever saw a mouse trying to get in to the palace, rather than actually noticing the mice who were wandering in and out as they pleased, especially on Sunday afternoons when many people used to visit the palace and the guards would put on a display of efficiency strutting up and down the hall in their heavy boots, breathing their foul breath in the faces and down the necks of people who stopped to look at a picture or who got too close, as if they were planning to steal it rather than appreciate the detail. They looked impressive, no one can doubt that. They sounded fearsome as they ordered people to “move on,” but their bark was worse than their bite if you’ll excuse the pun, something that every mouse knew, even if the people didn’t. Some people said some very rude things about the guards, behind their backs, of course.
In his student days, when he wasn’t in the ancient oak panelled library, Uncle Fred would wander around the palace rooms looking at the pictures and running up and down chair and table legs and on to the frames themselves to get a closer look. He loved the pictures almost as much as he loved the books. There was one picture that he loved in particular. It wasn’t very big but it was exquisite. It was what we call a still life: a table with a bowl of fruit, a decanter of wine, a glass, a plate and a knife, a napkin, a loaf of bread and in the foreground, on a splendid Chinese porcelain plate, the most golden and delicious looking lump of Parmesan cheese you could imagine. Fred used to spend hours staring at it, smelling it, tasting its crumbly sweet texture. He would let his imagination run wild, as only a mouse dreaming about a glorious lump of cheese can. This was the stuff of dreams.
Then, Fred went away. He spent many years outside the park, travelling, teaching, learning, meeting new people, seeing new wonders. But, recently, feeling that time was short, he decided to return to the park, not to live there, but to see his picture, the picture that had thrilled him so much when he was a young mouse, the image of which he has carried with him throughout his life.
It is much harder to get into the palace than it used to be. All the old doors have been replaced and the cracks filled in; and there are security systems and cameras. It isn’t as charming as it used to be. The patina of age has been lost to renovation and restoration. The grand informality has been replaced with officiousness and sanitariness. But, in its soul, it is still the palace and with some help from Pawel, who can always get in anywhere if he sets his mind to it, uncle Fred was soon in front of his old favourite. He looked at it with excitement as his memory and reality merged. He looked and waited. His admiration began to fade. Somehow, it didn’t seem quite the same. Perhaps he had let his imagination remember things that were not there. It often happens. He has a very creative memory. But no. It really did seem different, almost like another picture. Surely, the painting he remembered was a much better painting. Surely, even then, when he knew so little about technique, he would have been able to recognise its faults. The painting before him was full of those. Pawel realised that there was something wrong as he helped his old uncle to come down the chair leg to the floor.
“What’s the matter, uncle?”
“It’s not as I remembered it. It’s in the same frame. It’s got the same name and the description is the same, but it’s different.”
“Time plays tricks with memory, uncle.” Pawel is a kind young mouse and wanted to soothe his uncle. But suddenly the old mouse became rigid. He turned towards his nephew, and in a whispered tone that chilled the youth, he said, “That picture is a fake!”
“No, uncle, it’s your memory.”
“No,” said the old mouse, “ it’s a fake, and I can prove it.”
And so it proved. Fred always made sketches of the things he loved. And sure enough, in an old leather-bound sketchbook, he found his drawing from all those years ago. Pawel, who is much more intelligent than his teachers at school and the examiners can appreciate, tracked down the original. It had appeared in the catalogue of a great auction house. It was described as a “rare 18th century masterpiece of the genre, with an unknown provenance.” However, after some further research, Pawel discovered that it had its official museum identification markings on the back of the canvas which somebody had tried to obscure. The director claimed he knew nothing, that the deception must have taken place before his time in office. But, as Mary ask pertinently, “Which time in office was he referring to? There never was a time before his time!”
Uncle Frederick said: “Even an idiot would have seen that the picture was a fake. Even an idiot, if he’d bothered to look.”
Now, if I had a stick or a stone that director would learn a lesson or two.
Richard Berkeley’s career covers the arts and business as a performer, conductor, composer, writer, broadcaster, journalist, teacher, lobbyist, manager, NGO chairman, coach, mentor, and trainer. He has lived in England, Italy and Poland.