Palm Island Diary
It’s six-thirty, I’m wide awake and all fired up to go to Palm Island. As I’m about to run the bath, a sudden silence breaks over the flat. An electricity blackout. A little urban catastrophe and a personal disaster: no hot water. How can I start the day, let alone go off lotus-eating, without a cup of tea and immersing myself in hot water? I assess my resources, and in the spirit of pioneering self-sufficiency (pre-desert island practice) put three large saucepans of water to boil on the gas stove. I shall have my bath and cup of tea – and go to the ball, too, if I want! But ten minutes later the electricity clicks and hums all the machines back into life, and almost immediately a fax comes through in the study. It is from P., currently out of town, wishing me bon voyage. No need to scan it; it’ll be deliciously filthy, designed to keep his memory jiggling in my base and basest cells as I idle away my fortnight in paradise. A mistress of the deferred and doubled pleasure, I save it to read with a cup of tea back in bed, while the bath runs.
Vol. 15 No. 10 · 27 May 1993
As to Jenny Diski’s query (LRB, 22 April): there is a verse in Catullus that begins something like ‘pedicabo vos et irrumabo.’ This still leaves us rather in the dark. Except that it is something a poet will do to his critics.
Al Ain, Abu Dhabi
Vol. 15 No. 11 · 10 June 1993
I resisted the temptation to pass on this information to Jenny Diski before this, because I was rather ashamed of my own curiosity, but since Mr Burrows (Letters, 27 May) didn’t bother to translate his quotation from Catullus, I thought I’d better add my findings. The only dictionary on our shelves which helps is Smith’s Latin-English Dictionary (1868):
irrumator, one who practises a kind of obscenity. irrumo, to extend the breast to give suck; hence to practise a kind of filthy obscenity.
I think Mr Smith is being coy. Incidentally, the ex libris plate in the book is that of Eric Gill. Trust him to have such definitions to hand.
Vol. 15 No. 12 · 24 June 1993
Miles Burrow complains of being rather in the dark about Catullus’s irrumabo (Letters, 27 May). To judge strictly from its etymology this should mean: ‘I shall put a teat (ruma) in your mouth.’ But when the teat is seen as the male organ, and when the spirit is one of angry aggression, the effect is transformed. The standard work on this, and similarly edifying topics, is The Latin Sexual Vocabulary by J.N. Adams.
Vol. 15 No. 13 · 8 July 1993
I imagine that the verb irrumo – and hence the English ‘irrumation’ – derives from rumen, ‘throat’. (In an ideal world it would be irrumino, but there you go.) Instead of the evasive Victorian definition cited by Linnett Nuttgens (Letters, 10 June) – ‘filthy obscenity’, indeed! – I’d suggest:
irrumo, to introduce a part of the body into another’s throat or mouth (as in breastfeeding, fellatio etc).
I think ‘or mouth’ is correct, given that the definition cited by Nuttgens refers to breastfeeding: Catullus, as quoted by Miles Burrows (Letters, 27 May), wasn’t threatening to ram anything down his listeners’ throats. In sexual terms an irrumator is nothing more filthy or obscene than a fellatee, by and large. The exception is a necrophile like Jeffrey Dahmer – which is where we came in.
My thanks to Miles Burrows for his suggestion that irrumation is something a poet will do to his [sic] critics. It’s certainly never been my experience, but I shall keep it in mind the next time I get a rejection slip.