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from White Ivory, chapters 23 & 24

< chapters 21 & 22   chapters 25 & 26 >

A Fortnightly Serial.


Chapter Twenty-Three.

TRUE IVORY for the purist comes only from the tusk of the elephant. It’s a modification of dentine which in its transverse sections or fractures exhibits striae which proceed though the arc of a circle. By their decussations they form tiny curvilinear, lozenge-shaped spaces. But using the term a little more loosely, as Charlie’s thesis had already pointed out, we may ascribe the possession of ivory to a few other animals: the walrus, the narwhal, the hippopotamus. The nations of southern Europe have not seriously employed walrus ivory since the Middle Ages. But around the year 890, Ohtere the Norwegian visited England and gave an account to King Alfred of the long voyage in which he had followed these animals, in pursuit of their handsome teeth. Olaus Magnus in the 15th century tells of the making of sword-handles from the dentition of the walrus. Later still, Olaus Wormius describes the long nights of winter endured by the Icelanders, and how during these times they would cut a variety of items from walrus ivory: chess-men; handles of swords, javelins, knives.

As the fly in aspic, so the mammoth in the permafrost, its form retained as the seasons come and go above it.

And there are fossils, as Charlie had also pointed out. Down in the frozen soil of Sibera, along the banks of the larger rivers, the tusks of these mighty animals were found in great quantities. Most of the ivory turner’s work in Russia comes from such fossils. The state of constant chill made the ivory as usable as if the creatures had died only the week before. They fell where they stood and sank into the earth’s refrigerator. As the fly in aspic, so the mammoth in the permafrost, its form retained as the seasons come and go above it.

But back to contemporary elephants. There is in fact a noticeable difference between African and Asiatic ivory. When African ivory has only recently been cut, it has a mellow warmth with little appearance of grain. At this stage it is called transparent or green ivory. But as its oil dries in the air, the colour lightens. Asiatic ivory by contrast when newly-cut appears initially lighter but becomes yellow with exposure. The African variety tends to possess a closer texture, works harder and takes a better polish than the Asiatic. It has often been known, particularly in the form of East African tusks when dried, as white ivory.

Hidden in the dark treasuries of churches, wrapped in linen or lace in the chests of mighty houses, these scraped and chiselled artefacts survived somehow as their own memorials.

Much of it has surfaced from history’s toilsome murk, and this was where its significance became pronounced for Charlie. Hidden in the dark treasuries of churches, wrapped in linen or lace in the chests of mighty houses, these scraped and chiselled artefacts survived somehow as their own memorials. Some went down into the earth with the dead civilisations which had produced them. Layard himself, an epic retriever of the ivory past, observed that the decay of centuries can lead to the glutinous matter, which holds the bonding particles of ivory together, becoming exhausted. The ornaments will then disintegrate on touch. After Layard had sent many such items back from Nineveh, it was suggested by Professor Owen that they should be boiled in a solution of gelatine. This course of action proved effectual. The past, at least for a while,.stopped falling to bits.

So ivory is Ariadne’s bobbin: it takes us back all the way into the darkness of the cave. Prehistoric man carved and engraved his world on ivory. Go back through Clio’s regions to a time when a weekend in the south of France would have seen reindeer in their thousands and even the occasional mammoth staring into your limestone cave. We have ventured back inside that cave, like Theseus, timorous and bold at the same time. Searching for an image which is our own, and yet unimaginably different, as that noble argonaut searched once for the minotaur.

Caves in the Dordogne have yielded up fragments from the tusk of the mammoth, from reindeer bone and horn, bearing incised drawings of various animals, and other representations carved in low relief. Carvings of fish, a snake, an ibex, a man carrying a spear, a horse’s head, a group of reindeer. The human creatures who shaped these things were, if the term means anything at all, artists. Not in the professional sense, but in the spiritual one… Picasso on first going down below ground to see the cave paintings said, We have invented nothing. We moderns have invented nothing at all. The hefty lumber of the mammoth; the spirited grace of the reindeer, its ears twitching in the wind: these have been conveyed with all the fluency and grace of a master. In the palm of a reindeer antler, see the head and shoulder of an ibex, conveyed with the sureness of touch of Rembrandt or Leonardo. Upon a piece of mammoth ivory we can trace the grand shape of the mammoth itself. The creatures they killed were memorialized on the very ivory they had taken from those same creatures.

But before we could even write or count, we portrayed the animal we hunted on the animal’s own remains.

Why? By what mysterious requirement, in search of what elusive principle of life, was this representation performed with such love, such labour, such primary intelligence? The original is today in a Paris museum. But before we could even write or count, we portrayed the animal we hunted on the animal’s own remains. And what does that tell us about who we are and why? About the shape of reality we inhabit? That the only way we can live inside creation is to create ourselves?

Charlie stopped for a moment and picked up the little ivory box shaped like a water fowl. A gift from his grandfather. Another token from the treasury of Fenshawe Ivory.

From prehistoric man down through the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the artisans of the Middle Ages, ivory was valued for its beauty, its brilliant finish and its ability to stare time in the face and laugh. Long after your own teeth had fallen out and you had dropped into your grave, these engraved teeth from vast unforgetting creatures would remain.

Pausanius reports that the earliest statues were made of wood: ebony, cypress, cedar, oak. But six hundred years before the birth of Christ ivory statues of the deities were being made at Sicyon and Argos. Diana was often amongst them. Venus, Hebe. And Minerva, her face, hands and feet all ivory, gleaming in expectation of the worship that was her due. And Jupiter at Olympia. These statues were almost all destroyed, smashed to bits by Christian iconoclasts in the eighth century, who believed all such image making was idolatry, calling upon the power of sinister or discredited powers. The very thrones and principalities who had fallen from heaven, following the ever-diminishing light of Lucifer.

Even though artificers in ivory were deemed sufficiently important and sufficiently numerous to be exempted from many municipal obligations, yet ivory carvings of Roman imperial times prior to Constantine are remarkably rare.

Charlie looked down at his guitar in its case. Even Martin had used ivory bridges until 1917, when it started using other materials. The company it used to get them from wasn’t too troubled; it had its work cut out by then supplying billiard balls, just like Fenshawe Ivory over the other side of the Atlantic.

The point about the blues, Charlie wrote, was that it was truth, a truth emerging through history’s toilsome murk just like those ivories,… 

The point about the blues, Charlie wrote, was that it was truth, a truth emerging through history’s toilsome murk just like those ivories, white on black and black on white, emerging on tongues, in throats, at the ends of fingers touching ivory keys or metal strings. It was true. It survived only because of its truth. And it had been made only because of the human requirement to shape a space in the silence, to fill the darkness with a light.

The Bible-soaked, whiskey-soaked blues, where Elijah’s as real as the rent-man. The dirt road with a broken-down truck at the side might just have the devil walking towards you out of the sunrise. He could be white. He could be smiling. He might be able to read and write, when you can’t. He could have come from the Library of Congress. They said that Robert Johnson made a deal with him, down at the crossroads, and was blessed with a guitar style and a voice like no other in the history of the blues, until his whiskey was poisoned one night and it ate the inside of his stomach away over the next few days. Faustus with a bottleneck going to pay his dues.

Between the hoe-down and the medicine show, between the prayer meeting and the corner saloon, they played out their parts: saint and leper, king and  queen, wise man, fool. The blues is nothing if not emblematic. Lovers and killers often tend to be one and the same. But then don’t they always?

The rewards of the blues? Four fingertip scars and harmonica halitosis: the earthly dividend for playing this music. The spiritual benefit is to make life endurable when it isn’t. All the blues sing about staring down the final demands that Fate carries to your door in his big black bag. Charlie picked up his Martin. The tramping sevenths in E began.

Was in the summer
One early fall
Just looking for my
Little all and all
But she is gone
And I don’t worry
Lord, I’m sitting on top of the world.

Can’t get any higher then, even though you can’t get any lower either. The blues are all about the wheel of fortune. It never does stop in one place for long. There’s a lot of mathematics in it too:

Six men going to the graveyard
Only five men coming back

So much enumeration, a lot of counting and discounting of the items of life. Or the years of prison sentences:

Ninety-nine years in prison
Judge that ain’t no fine
I got a brother in New Orleans
Who’s serving nine ninety-nine

Ninety-nine years
Judge that just ain’t fair
Ninety-nine it ain’t no fine
So send me to the electric chair

A lot of counting off the passage of bullets, and their multifarious effects:

First time he shot her
Shot her in the side
Second time that he shot her
She lay down her head and died

The truly elegiac lens, Charlie wrote, returning to his computer, has a heavy blue tint.


Chapter Twenty-Four.

WILL SAT in his car opposite the telegraph pole and watched as the girl, an attractive girl, came hurrying down carrying the cellophane packet with the flowers in them. They looked like daisies, something picked out of a field, not the usual florist-prepared bunch he’d grown used to. He’d never seen her before. It was usually the mother. She took the old packet down and taped the new one up. And he noticed as she did this, a tattoo on her shoulder, all in red. It looked like a tongue. There seemed to be some lettering too but he couldn’t read it from there.

Open on his lap was his own copy of Kicking Away the Ladder.

And once in a while down along the ley-line tarmac, we offer up a human sacrifice.

Modern man thinks he is not worshipful. Filled with neither dread nor awe. But if we were to imagine an anthropologist visiting from the future and suspended a few hundred feet in the air, in his hot-air balloon of scrupulous and scientific observation, he would surely beg to differ. We lay ribbons of tarmac out beneath the sun. We form hecatombs of motors at designated times of day, to catch little glitters of light, all inching along, clickety-click, at a few miles an hour, not much faster than the great religious processions of old, listening to the wailing voices of our gods while locked into our little metal prayerboxes, the sanctum sanctorum. And once in a while down along the ley-line tarmac, we offer up a human sacrifice. Blood on the metal and the plastic. Blood on the tarmac, mixed up ceremonially with the petrol and the oil. Then come the sound of the sirens, attendant furies rushing in their white transports.

He had found it amusing when he had written it, but he didn’t find it amusing now.

They’d all been asked to be up at the Mount that afternoon so that the police could interview everyone collectively. They sat together by the big bay window while the policeman spoke in a quiet but authoritative voice.

‘…which was where they found him, the skull stoved in, and two ivory tusks rammed through the eyes. A billiard ball had been stuck in his mouth. The pathologist’s report indicates that he must have been dead already by the time his nose was smashed and the cheekbones broken.’

Could all this have been for the sake of the ritual of the thing, obeisance to some ancestral slaughter, a nod to the hieratic region of gibbering spirits the locality had once been so rich in?

Lindsey listened and wondered if all the stories she had heard in her years in these parts might be right after all. Could all this have been for the sake of the ritual of the thing, obeisance to some ancestral slaughter, a nod to the hieratic region of gibbering spirits the locality had once been so rich in? This killing had continued in a posthumous frenzy. Death itself hadn’t stopped, or even slowed, the assault. The ritual demolition of a head so that even the most impoverished ghost should never wish to choose it as a domicile again. Then she realised what the policeman was saying.

‘The billiard balls were evidently of antique provenance. As were the tusks. We’ve had the balls checked and it seems they were made by Fenshawe Ivory. Ivory House was an obvious port of call. Any idea where somebody might have got hold of something like that?’

The little tusks from the sign at the bottom of the drive were stolen, and the billiard room was raided. We never could make much sense of it.

The old man spoke. ‘After Will’s crash we had a curious break in. The little tusks from the sign at the bottom of the drive were stolen, and the billiard room was raided. We never could make much sense of it. The billiard room is now an annexe needing attention. Good place to be if you’re a spider. The table is unusable. But we did notice that the old billiard balls had gone. We reported the matter to you at the time.’

The inspector gave his sergeant a sharp look.

‘The tusks that were stolen, how big were they?’

Alasdair Fenshawe held his hands about a foot apart. The inspector fell silent for a moment.

‘There is something else. The young man concerned appears to have been operating for a loan-shark operation in Bristol. They get people to sign up to be given some immediate cash. In the process they’re actually signing up to losing their homes. It’s legal, though it wouldn’t be if I had anything to do with it. I’d bang the lot of them up. They make criminals look honest. Anyway, the murdered young man had been targeting this area. We’ve had a couple of reports already about people being duped. Absolutely nothing we can do about it once the signature’s in place. Nothing at all.’ The inspector stopped for a moment and drew the air in through his teeth.

‘The victim still had a bag over his shoulder and in it was some documentation, relating to you, William.’ He stared at Will.

‘It’s Wilberforce.’


‘My name’s Wilberforce, not William. An old family tradition. Ask my father about it. Yes, he signed me up. I didn’t kill him though.’

‘You’d have had a very good reason for doing so.’

‘I’d also have had a very good reason for not doing so.’

‘What was that?’

‘He was my son.’ At this point Will broke down and started, very gently, to weep. Charlie and Lindsey were on either side of him in seconds. Their hands met in the middle of his back.

‘Your son, sir?’

‘My natural son, with a woman called Rachel Hill. And I don’t even have her address.’

‘Do you know where she lives?’

‘Somewhere in Acton.’


‘I’m on it now, sir.’ The sergeant left the room, already talking into his mobile.

‘You’re going to have to come to the station, sir.’

‘Can I come with him?’ Charlie said.

‘Might I ask the nature of the relationship?’

‘I’m his son. The unnatural one.’

They stood up to get their coats. The inspector turned to the old man who was staring silently through the window.

‘You said something, sir. You said the break-in happened just after Wilberforce’s crash.’

‘We all call him Will. Yes, it struck me at the time. It was only a few days after. I remember thinking, Nemesis is rather busy this week.’

‘Nemesis, sir?’

‘You can probably eliminate her from your enquiries: like me, she’s getting on a bit.’

‘What was the nature of the crash?’

‘A head-on collision. The other driver was killed.’

‘Do you remember the name of the other driver?’

‘Never forget it. Malcolm Filey.’

‘It was before my time. Live locally do they?’

‘Over in the village.’

The inspector looked very thoughtful then as he left.

Half-way through the interrogation at the station the Sergeant came in.

‘Sorry to interrupt, sir, but there’s something important.’ They walked over to the corner of the room and whispered. Finally the Inspector nodded and the Sergeant took out his mobile and keyed in a number. Seconds later he said, ‘He’s here now. I’m going to hand you over.’ He handed the phone to Will. ‘I think you need to have a word with Rachel Hill, sir.’

‘Will, are you all right?’

‘Not really. Our son’s dead, Rachel.’

‘We didn’t have a son, Will. We never had a son. ’ Will seemed to stumble with his words.

‘Paul, the one who called himself Quinto. Our son…’

‘But he wasn’t. Don’t you understand? That’s why I picked him up. He looked just like you. You had a beard in those days too. I told him how much he reminded me of someone I’d once loved very much indeed. Then he saw the photograph I had of you. Wanted to know everything about you. Read your book. I thought he was obsessed with your philosophy. I didn’t know what he did, Will, I swear. He told me he was studying at the university in Bristol. Studying philosophy. He didn’t come out of me, Will, he came in to me, just the same as you.’ She fell silent.

‘But you got the money? He gave you the £70,000?’

‘What money? I haven’t seen any money at all.’ Now she was starting to sound wild. He remembered that. He put the phone down on the table. He stared at the wall.

—This is the twelfth installment of White Ivory.
see previously
chapters 1 & 2
chapters 3 & 4
chapters 5 & 6
chapters 7 & 8
chapters 9 & 10
chapters 11 & 12
chapters 13 & 14
chapters 15 & 16
chapters 17 & 18
chapters 19 & 20
chapters 21 & 22

ALAN WALL was born in Bradford, studied English at Oxford, and lives in North Wales. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor PlaceboJacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester and a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. His book Endtimes was published by Shearsman in 2013, and Badmouth, a novel, was published by Harbour Books in 2014. A collection of his essays was issued by Odd VolumesThe Fortnightly Review’s publishing imprint, also in 2014. A second collection, of his Fortnightly reflections on Walter Benjamin, followed in 2018, and a third collection, Midnight of the Sublime, has just been published. An archive of Alan Wall’s Fortnightly work is here.



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