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.

The saucepans are boiling, and an unaccustomed mood of conservation comes over me: I won’t waste the water, I’ll use some to fill the teapot. The fax, fairly pulsing with lewd thoughts, is on the draining-board as I pour the boiling water from the biggest saucepan without a lip. Some of it does go in the teapot, but the same amount takes a graceful and, it seems to me, gleeful leap over it, to splash land dead centre on the fax. Time, heat and moisture fade fax paper to total blackness. The only thing this fax didn’t have was time, and instantly, every delightful, dirty word disappears, replaced by an A4-sized black hole. I decide philosophical is the way to go, and tip my hat (happily, already on my head in case I forget to pack it) to the Old Joker. Easy come, easy go. Anyway, I know the value of the imagination over the specifics of language. I’ll manage without the words. If I can’t read them, I’ll invent them.

Later, unpacking and re-packing less then more T-shirts, the phone rings. It’s a friend, older generation (even older generation), currently doing some digging into her past.

‘Do you remember “rumpty tumpty’?’ she asks.

‘What?’ My mind was on the algebra of how many T-shirts equals two weeks by the sea.

‘Rumpty tumpty. Meaning “sex”. Or it did when I was young. Didn’t your lot have the phrase?’

I shake my head, confounded.

‘No, we didn’t. Rumpty tumpty? And still you managed to win the war?’

‘I wondered how long it was used for. It’s like “poon tang”. You know that, don’t you?’

‘A Far-Eastern herbal remedy for memory disorders?’ I try, hopefully.

‘Sex, dear. You must have had poon tang.’

‘We had “fucking”,’ I say, dredging up all the laid-back cool I can recollect from the late Sixties.

‘I always said the trouble with your generation was you didn’t know how to have fun.’

I shove all my T-shirts into the case and shut the lid.

‘A man in Santa Monica wrote to the LRB to say what Dahmer did with his dead heads was irrumation, not fellatio.’

‘What’s that?’

I ‘don’t know, but I don’t see why I should be the only one to worry about it. Bye-bye, I’m off to Palm Island.’

And not a moment too soon.

If you stand on one edge of Palm Island and look straight ahead inland, what you see is the other edge of Palm Island, and the same deep turquoise and navy blue of the Caribbean as you would if you turned round and looked behind you. Palm Island may be bigger than Primrose Hill, but I think London Zoo would spill over into the sea if it was moved here.

Mostly, what the handful of people staying here do is lie breathtakingly still in the sun and watch big white boats with tall triangular sails go by – very likely to somewhere else. There’s nothing to do, and nothing happens. Except, the plovers fight with the rose-throated doves when I throw them crumbs of the cake which arrives with a pot of tea at my beachside patio at four o’clock.

I know they’re plovers and doves because Errol told me. Errol’s the head waiter, also apparently having (unofficial, I suppose) responsibility for single women. At any rate, he assures me repeatedly that he wants personally to make sure I have a really good time, and if I need company, just let him know – not so much Man Friday, as a potential Month of Sundays. Though Errol is gorgeous, no doubt about it, I explain that I don’t suffer from loneliness, but he could tell me what the birds are called. He is very accommodating and points out the plovers and the doves hanging around the table.

‘And the little yellow bird?’ I ask.

‘It’s a yellowbird,’ says Errol.

Just like that nice couple Nina and Frederick used to sing about before Nina became the world’s worst movie actress and Frederick disappeared without trace.

‘And that one?’ I point to a small black bird, with absurdly large feet.

‘That’s a blackbird.’

Well, it’s only sometimes a black bird; at certain angles it’s definitely midnight blue, and it doesn’t look like any blackbird that comes visiting my back garden in Gospel Oak. But I’m not going to argue with Errol, who, after all, is in charge of lunch. I figure out for myself that the white, long-necked bird which wades in the swamp, is, of course, a white, long-necked swamp-wading bird.

I am here under false pretences. Arnold, the young man who picks me up from Union Island, a mile across the bay, seems mysteriously over-excited to see me, and asks in the launch: ‘You’re in the movies, aren’t you?’ I tell him I’m not. He insists; he knows he’s seen me in a movie. I swear to him I’ve never been in one. Later, I hear he thinks I’m Barbra Streisand. This isn’t the first time I’ve been mistaken for her (I have the profile, but not the vocal chords). The waiter at dinner says he’s seen me before. I say it’s my first time on the island. ‘Oh,’ he says with a knowing smile. ‘You know, faces ...’ He’ll maintain my incognito, his nod suggests, he understands the pressures of fame, but he wants me to know he knows I’m really Barbra Streisand. I’ll just have to live with it. I daresay Barbra gets pissed off being mistaken for me.

Meantime, I lie on the beach, face down on my sunbed, brooding about the cassata-coloured sand, which is, I’m told, parrot-fish shit after a meal of coral. I also spend a great deal of time on a float mat, eyes level with the surface of the Caribbean, watching the waves roll and ripple towards me. According to Simone Weil whose biography I’m reading, the movement of the waves is a manifestation of Necessity, that to which we must consent if we’re to apprehend the Good. I can go along with that, and for countless hours consent to the Necessity of the waves. I wonder, too, where the current would take me if I let it float me away (a short story here I think, which means I’m doing research as well as consenting to Necessity). I keep an eye open, as I paddle myself farther out and stare down into the water, for sea serpents and the ancient wrecks of buccaneers, barnacle-struck on the bottom. Nothing, so far. Very occasionally I remember I don’t know the meaning of ‘irrumation’.

After lunch I paddle through the surf on a tour of the island, and settle on one of the four totally empty beaches to read. I alternate between the Weil biography, another of Roy Cohn (McCarthy’s henchman) and the Oedipus trilogy – the good, the bad and the mightily confused (perm any one of three?). All this indolence is not in vain: it’s in preparation for the rigours of my sunset vigil.

It takes tremendous concentration to keep an unblinking and even-eyed watch on the movement of the sinking sun, the long shaft of silver made up of triangular lights on the water, the pinks, mauves and puce of the sky at the horizon, and the darkening, sharpening outline of Union Island across the way. And as if that wasn’t enough, there’s the sand crab at my feet to follow in my peripheral vision, trying to make it to the water’s edge. It makes small rushes of six inches, but, terminally tentative, scurries back to where it started and zips back into the sand. I try, while still holding sun, shaft, horizon and outline in view, to give it moral encouragement from a corner of my eye and mind, but it never makes it. Luckily, however, my attention has not been fatally diverted, and the sun does finally fall below the horizon. It’s exhausting, making this happen night after night, but it’s worthwhile work, I feel. Certainly, Ricky, the barman, thinks so: he runs me up a congratulatory daiquiri, with, I think, a look of quiet gratitude and relief.

The starwatch project is more difficult. Apart from having to douse myself with lethal chemicals to keep mosquitos at bay, astronomy and geography are blanks to me. I never did get the stars straight, and, in truth, I’m not sure which hemisphere I’m in, nor what difference it would make if I knew. Still, the stars are up there in their millions, burning holes in the sky, and I’ve identified some constellations: the Little Peugeot 205, the Great EC Insignia, the Big Toshiba Laptop With Combined Automatic Eggwhisk, as well as the pair of Stonewashed Levis which forever pursue, but never catch the Seven Very Sensible These Days Virgins. Stars plummet by the bucketload. If there’s anything in this wishing on a falling star business, then we can all relax, everything’s going to be all right: Eastern Europe, world recession, spiritual anomie, the British Library, the lot. There are even enough shooting stars I left over to apply to the wish fairy for an appointment as Writer in Residence to Palm Island.

After all, there’s still the droll and terrible story of the Caldwell dynasty to relate. I didn’t bring Oedipus with me for nothing, it turns out. There is discontent in paradise. Papa Caldwell, who bought Palm Island for a dollar (for all I know from Ernest Hemingway) is a Jack London-reading Texan who believes in only eating when hungry and not having second helpings. Mary is the wife he collected at the end of the war from Australia, after building a boat to collect her in, and go in search of Eden. They separated twenty years ago (same island, different establishments). One forty-year-old son glowers dangerously and sails a yacht called Illusion. The other older son manages the hotel, but, as he tells anyone who’ll listen, only when Papa Caldwell lets him. He lives with his Mum; defeated, overweight and nearly tragic, skewered on his father’s continued shrivelling need for control. Failed husband, diver, businessman, escapee, he talks mistily about finding a woman and an island of his own, only he can’t quite get to leave. Fortunately, he’s become a spiritualist, and is certain it’ll all come right in his next incarnation. Tennessee Williams, anyone? Best, I suppose, to get back to the land of disappearing faxes. Anyway, I’ve got a lunch date at The Ivy with my publisher: maybe she knows what ‘irrumation’ means.

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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.

Miles Burrows
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.

Linnett Nuttgens
High Wycombe

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.

Niall Rudd

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.

Phil Edwards

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