Paul Dundon’s Weblog

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A little cheese and a little whine

My name is Bond. Basildon Bond.

They say the pen is mightier than the sword.

They have no idea.

The year was 1949, the place, East Berlin. I was working for MI5 heading up the most elite unit of operatives ever assembled. While other spies worked on surveillance, defection and assassination, we worked on something much more important: propaganda. We wrote the words that steered the hearts and minds of those trapped behind the Iron Curtain.

We had been recruited from the ranks of journalists and advertising copywriters, pushed through basic training (speed writing, translation and memorising Roget’s Thesaurus) and then deployed in the field with nothing but a pen, a notepad, a convincing cover story and a small fortune in Deutschmarks. And naturally, those pens became the heart of our very lives. Developed by the brightest boffins Britain could boast, they came in many shapes and sizes, each designed to match the skills and needs of the owner.

Our lives depended on those pens. Because we never knew when duty would call. We never knew when we would have to pen a few words condemning communism, a ditty to dispel doubts, a bon mot to boost morale. At any time of night or day we might be called upon to find a motivating metaphor, an appropriate analogy or a singly scintillating sentence. Alliteration and assonance (as well as relevance and resonance) had to be second nature. And worst of all, we had to be able to do it all in German.

Our lives depended on those pens, and that was how I knew Vickers was in trouble. Vickers, the Yank, the only one of our number recruited from Madison Avenue and not Fleet Street or Soho. Visiting his apartment to pass on a new compound noun I found him gone, but his pen still there. In plain view. Plain view, for heaven’s sake. There was no doubt about it – he’d been kidnapped.

Vickers was a good man and a fine operative. He had been brought in to replace Stephens who, although dedicated, had always suffered with his nerves. After a particularly distressing assignment involving hanging propositions and a long chain of malapropisms he had returned to London where he had finally lost his grip on reality and his life had fallen apart.

Only one man in East Berlin would risk something so audacious as kidnapping an established agent. Alexander Goldfink, arch-villain, evil genius and inventor of the notorious Wonder Filler self-replenishing fountain pen. His factory in West Berlin created the pens used by the enemies of the free world across the globe, from Stalin to Mao to the petty dictators of Africa and the Far East. He claimed that they came filled with ink, but the truth was that they came filled with evil. He had prospered under Hitler’s regime and now exported his hate-filled Schreibgeräte throughout the world.

It was a cold December night as I trudged through the snow on Konigstrasse to find Der Tintenbrunnen, the inauspicious dive bar which served as Goldfink’s HQ this side of the Wall. The tiny door was marked only by an old and faded sign and a single lantern. I knocked twice, cursing the biting wind as I stood and waited. I could only hope I wouldn’t be recognised.

The door opened and I came face to face with one of Goldfink’s henchmen, a huge man at least twelve inches taller than me and probably twice as heavy. Of course, size isn’t everything when it comes to an all-out fight, and I could tell from the tattoos on his arms that spelling wasn’t his strong point and that he probably had little regard for good penmanship. I was pretty sure that if push came to shove, I could take him.

He led me down a narrow flight of stairs to a smoke-filled cellar where a few dozen people were drinking, grouped around rough wooden tables. Most of them were writing; everyone had a pen. Suddenly he turned and stopped me.

“Your pen, sir. I am sorry, but patrons are not permitted to bring pens onto the premises.”

Curses! There was nothing I could do. I reached into my coat and took out my instrument. Reluctantly I handed it over.

“Please be assured that we will take good cares for it.”

As I suspected – his grammar was weak too. For a moment I thought about distracting him with a double negative and wresting the pen back from him, but thought better of it. There was no benefit in causing a scene.

He stood aside, and waved me into the room. I walked over to the bar as he walked back up the stairs to resume his duties as doorman.

“What can I get you?” asked the barman.

“What do you have?”

The barman pulled a roll of cloth from under the counter and unfurled it before me. Inside was the motliest collection of pens I had ever seen. It might have been eight years since the Biro brothers had fled Germany, but their pernicious influence was stronger than ever and the collection of inexpensive plastic ballpoints before me made me sick to my stomach.

I placed DM100 on the counter. “You have nothing for the connoisseur?”

“Perhaps – “ he began, and then stopped as he glanced nervously behind me. “But it seems you have more pressing business.”

I looked over my shoulder to see two more of Goldfink’s henchmen. It seemed I had attracted someone’s attention. Taking me by the elbow, the one to my right steered me around and led me towards the end of the cellar where the other opened a small door. A few steps along a damp corridor led us to an office where a small man, who I recognised to be Goldfink himself, sat behind a desk, examining my pen under an anglepoise lamp. The henchmen pushed me into a chair and withdrew. I waited in silence as he finished his examination.

“Erasable gel ink with a retractable fountain nib. Only one man would dare to bring a pen like this into my bar.” He looked at me for the first time. “Basildon Bond, I presume?”

“Indeed. Forgive me. If I’d have known you were here I would have introduced myself instead of waiting for your assistants.”

Goldfink flinched only a little at my ill-constructed subjunctive. “Tell me, Mr Bond,” he began. “How did you find us?”

“Hanging over the door, I saw your sign,” I said, watching his lip curl slightly as he processed the dangling participle. “The colour of the ink was quite recognisable. It was a simple deduction given the data that was available.”

“Your little tricks will not work on me, Mr Bond. Today, almost everybody uses data as a mass noun.”

“I’m sorry to be so out of touch. It’s just that we have less operatives in the field these days.”

“Fewer!” he shouted, suddenly irate. “Fewer operatives! Operatives is a countable noun!” He took a deep breath and regained his composure. “Still. This is your pen, is it not?”

“I don’t believe it is. In fact, I don’t know to who it belongs.”

Goldfink gave a tiny yelp and a shudder. Pressing my advantage, I continued. “So – are you going to tell me what you brought me in from out there for?”

“Do not provoke me any further, Mr Bond, or Vickers will suffer for it.”

“Vickers?”

“Yes, Mr Bond.” Goldfink stood up and moved to the end of the room where a curtain obscured a section of the wall. He pulled it back to reveal a truly hideous sight. In an adjoining room, Vickers sat at a small wooden table illuminated by an overhead lamp. His arms were chained up, loose enough to allow him to write. His brow feverish and his face pained, he was scribbling away on tiny scraps of paper. Every few seconds he wrote a few words, then screwed up the paper and threw it to the floor. The mountain of paper balls surrounding him was testament to the time he had been there, as was the expression of anguish on his face.

“My god!” I exclaimed. “What have you done to him?”

“It is not what we have done to him, but rather, what he will do for us. You see, Vickers will spearhead a propaganda campaign within the US government. The purpose of this campaign will be to have them create a global communications network, rather like the existing telephone network. It will allow people not just to have conversations, but to publish all their thoughts and ideas. It will be hailed as a wonderful invention, a triumph for democracy and education. And then do you know what will happen, Mr Bond?”

“Enlighten me.”

“Millions of people will speak their minds to the world, and they will have nothing to say. And more to the point, they will not know how to say it. They will mix their metaphors. Split their infinitives. The will confuse “there”, “they’re” and “their”. And they won’t care in the least. The English-speaking world will be awash with badly spelled, badly punctuated trivia. Words will come to mean nothing, and people like you and me – we will become obsolete. But America and your own country – they will be ripe for conquest by the proud, grammar-loving German people!”

“He will never do it!”

“Oh, the Vickers you have worked with would never do such a thing. This is why it is necessary for us to break his will.”

I looked more closely at the terrible scene before me. “You swine! That’s – a Biro! No – it’s an imitation Biro! And – no, no, you wouldn’t!”

“Yes, Mr Bond. Look closely. The ink is green. Vickers has been composing short verses of condolence for the last thirty six hours, every one of them hideous to his refined sensibilities. Soon he will find himself in the same state as your friend Stephens.

I realised it was time to bring out the big guns. “Ah, Stephens. I remember him. He went to London, insane, and then under.”

Goldfink screamed at the awful syllepsis. “No, no!” he cried.

“It’s no use Goldfink!” I shouted. “Once one has scraped the bottom of the barrel, you have to stop flogging the dead horse!” He screamed even louder, falling to his knees. “I don’t mean to take the wind out of your saddle, but it seems to me you’ve been burning the midnight oil at both ends.”

“Please Mr Bond! Please! Stop!”

“Vickers may be a little green behind the ears – “ Goldfink was beating the floor with his fists by now – “but he still keeps his shoulder to the grindstone.”

“Stop! Take Vickers! Leave me be!” Goldfink held out the keys to Vickers’ chains. I grabbed my pen and marched towards the doorway.

“Damn grammar Nazis,” I snarled as I snatched the keys.

Releasing Vickers was the work of a moment. Barely able to grasp what was going on he smiled weakly at me as I threw away the chains.

“Come on old chap,” I said. “Time for you to go home.”

I can’t say how many heads we broke or infinitives we split getting out of there, but it was just half an hour later that I found myself putting an exhausted Vickers to bed in his apartment. A stiff glass of whiskey had calmed his nerves and I watched over him as, clutching his pen, he fell into a deep and restful sleep.

An hour later, back at my own flat, I too drifted into slumber, knowing that once again I had done my bit to defend right and freedom.

Or had I? How much of a threat was Goldfink, in reality? After all, he was clearly a madman. A global communications network where the proper use of language counted for nothing. The very thought!

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Filed under: Humour, Writing

One Response

  1. Jim St Ruth says:

    I loves it, I does, you is a writer of wonderful, most finest finery!

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My Bookshelf

The Golden Bough
The Value of Nothing
The Fire
A Wolf at the Table
Devil Bones

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