A high point in Malcolm’s career in elective politics was chairing the committee of the local crematorium.
Mock it not!
Thereby he ”covered” two hours of an “environmental studies” class, at ten-minutes’ notice, armed only with the journal of the crematoria association.
Over that two-hour session (which significantly contributed to Malcolm’s overtime payments) and allowing for the statutory tea-break, students calculated the effort required to excavate graves six-feet deep, versus the cost of therms charged by still-nationalized British Gas to raise the human cadaver to its burning point (at this distance in time, Malcolm reckons it was then less than 50p a cadaver). Not forgetting, because the two-hours ran slow, an animadversion on the extra cost of incinerating an emaciated advanced-cancer case.
Malcolm’s moment of self-adulation came from the cynical student, leaving the room, muttering “That’s my best class, ever,”
At that time Malcolm’s day-job was to lecture on English Literature, including a course on Dickens.
Captain Frederick Marryat, in Jacob Faithful, killed off his main character’s mother by implying she had spontaneously combusted. After half-a-dozen telling references to “cinders”, we come to this:
A strong, empyreumatic, thick smoke ascended from the hatchway of the cabin, and, as it had now fallen calm, it mounted straight up the air in a dense column. I attempted to go in, but so soon as I encountered the smoke I found that it was impossible; it would have suffocated me in half a minute. I did what most children would have done in such a situation of excitement and distress—I sat down and cried bitterly. In about ten minutes I moved my hands, with which I had covered up my face, and looked at the cabin hatch. The smoke had disappeared, and all was silent. I went to the hatchway, and although the smell was still overpowering, I found that I could bear it. I descended the little ladder of three steps, and called “Mother!” but there was no answer. The lamp fixed against the after bulk-head, with a glass before it, was still alight, and I could see plainly to every corner of the cabin. Nothing was burning—not even the curtains to my mother’s bed appeared to be singed. I was astonished—breathless with fear, with a trembling voice, I again called out “Mother!” I remained more than a minute panting for breath, and then ventured to draw back the curtains of the bed—my mother was not there! but there appeared to be a black mass in the centre of the bed. I put my hand fearfully upon it—it was a sort of unctuous, pitchy cinder. I screamed with horror—my little senses reeled—I staggered from the cabin and fell down on the deck in a state amounting almost to insanity: it was followed by a sort of stupor, which lasted for many hours.
Well, Marryat was simply expanding upon a report in the London Times in that same year of 1832.
In due course (which brings us back on track), by 1852, Dickens was writing Bleak House and needed to off his minor villain, Krook. Krook is found mysteriously burned to death:
“What’s the matter with the cat?” says Mr Guppy: “Look at her!”
“Mad, I think. And no wonder, in this evil place.”
They advance slowly, looking at all these things. The cat remains where they found her, still snarling at the something on the ground, before the fire and between the two chairs. What is it? Hold up the light.
Here is a small burnt patch of flooring; here is the tinder from a little bundle of burnt paper, but not so light as usual, seeming to be steeped in something; and here is — is it the cinder of a small charred and broken log of wood sprinkled with white ashes, or is it coal? O Horror, he IS here! and this, from which we run away, striking out the light and overturning one another into the street, is all that represents him.
Help, help, help! come into this house for Heaven’s sake!
Plenty will come in, but none can help. The Lord Chancellor of that Court, true to his title in his last act, has died the death of all Lord Chancellors in all Courts, and of all authorities in all places under all names soever, where false pretences are made, and where injustice is done. Call the death by any name Your Highness will, attribute it to whom you will, or say it might have been prevented how you will, it is the same death eternally — inborn, inbred, engendered in the corrupted humours of the vicious body itself, and that only — Spontaneous Combustion, and none other of all the deaths that can be died.
A Malcolmian aside:
Compare and contrast —
- Charles Dickens, 1852: “What’s the matter with the cat?” says Mr Guppy.
- Arthur Conan Doyle, 1894: ”The dog did nothing in the night-time.” “That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.
Dickens, for this piece of literary legerdemain, was the focus of instant criticism. All modern editions contain Dickens’ self-defence:
The possibility of what is called spontaneous combustion has been denied since the death of Mr. Krook; and my good friend Mr. Lewes (quite mistaken, as he soon found, in supposing the thing to have been abandoned by all authorities) published some ingenious letters to me at the time when that event was chronicled, arguing that spontaneous combustion could not possibly be. I have no need to observe that I do not wilfully or negligently mislead my readers and that before I wrote that description I took pains to investigate the subject. There are about thirty cases on record, of which the most famous, that of the Countess Cornelia de Baudi Cesenate, was minutely investigated and described by Giuseppe Bianchini, a prebendary of Verona, otherwise distinguished in letters, who published an account of it at Verona in 1731, which he afterwards republished at Rome. The appearances, beyond all rational doubt, observed in that case are the appearances observed in Mr. Krook’s case. The next most famous instance happened at Rheims six years earlier, and the historian in that case is Le Cat, one of the most renowned surgeons produced by France. The subject was a woman, whose husband was ignorantly convicted of having murdered her; but on solemn appeal to a higher court, he was acquitted because it was shown upon the evidence that she had died the death of which this name of spontaneous combustion is given. I do not think it necessary to add to these notable facts, and that general reference to the authorities which will be found at page 30, vol. ii.,* the recorded opinions and experiences of distinguished medical professors, French, English, and Scotch, in more modern days, contenting myself with observing that I shall not abandon the facts until there shall have been a considerable spontaneous combustion of the testimony on which human occurrences are usually received.
Now we have West Galway coroner Dr Ciaran McLoughlin coping with a similar inexplicable death.
Just before last Christmas, the body of Michael Faherty had been found , totally burned, with damage only to the immediate floor and ceiling.
Malcolm has no opinion on how such things could happen. All he knows is that the human body contains a considerable quantity of sodium. And he has seen how that can burn.
So, on “spontaneous combustion”, like Charles Dickens, he has an open mind.
Especially in regard to Bleak House.
The death of Krook apart, that is a fine novel.