The Toad Who Loved Glory
By Oliver Michell (Oxford University, UK)
For my daughter, Oriel.
In August 1918, Edith Sitwell wrote a letter to the poet Robert Nichols in which she described a living toad that had been found in a coal seam a few years earlier. It was thought to have been there for three million years. “Only that toad could even attempt to enter into my agonies, though only with partial success, as at least he had silence. With his advantage in that direction, I should have written better poems.”
For forty thousand years I lived in a bubble of my own flatulence.
It took me a century to become accustomed to the particularity of the perfume, a millennium to grow to like it, another to become an addict, another still to mourn as this friend ebbed away. I tried, for a fleeting fifty life times, to recreate it, combining recipes of grubs and ground water, mildew and molecules of deep-rotted invisible filth, but in vain. I once came close, and there seeped around me that old Elysium, the scent of un-blackness, un-loneliness, non-coal, an essence of anti-toad. But this fragrance also passed into the porous rock that is my mother, father, coffin and grave.
I was born mystically with an unnatural love of glory. From my earliest days I have longed to excel and for the first million years of my life, I strove to satisfy this insatiable desire. Perhaps I am the only toad in this coal face. Perhaps I have been deliberately imprisoned due to some incestuous vulgarity committed by my father, some unforgivable enormity which required his offspring to be unjustly interred, bricked up to contain a reptilian blood-guilt. Perhaps a mere shovel-blow away there is a world of glittering sugar-fountains where I am a god. It matters not. This love of excellence, which resides inside me as perversely as, say, a toad trapped in a coal face, has both sustained my existence and made it intolerable.
Yes, I have attempted to suffocate on my own fart gas. Yes, I have attempted to hop into the rock around me with sufficient force to crush my skull. Each time a twinkling light, if there is such a thing, holds me back and fastens me to life. This dancing flame, by which I have been happily hypnotised, is the thought that I may become an excellent toad, the most excellent toad, philosophically unrivalled, lucid in rhetoric and masterful in oratory, baffling existence with my turn of phrase, dazzling the coal itself with my far-seeing quiddity, discussed, debated, sculpted, documented, carried shoulder-high, adored. For ten thousand years I asked “what do you want to make of this life, so blessed, so favoured by chance?” Although I strained my ears for another reply, only one came. It streamed through me, no more resistible than radiation, “to be an excellent toad, a most excellent, excellent toad…”
Which led to disappointment.
I realise now the importance of experience. When a toad is five thousand years old, he can convince himself of anything. Was it vanity? I plead guilty as charged. I have never seen my own face, but my charlatan pride whispered from the darkness that I was a beauty. As a youth, I longed too much to triumph over others. There were no others, but this shyster, this charmer Mr Self-Love created them. I can offer you no guarantee that you would have liked my five thousand year old self, cock-sure, handsome and brilliant though I was. They were glamorous times. Life has taught me to become self-questioning and, should there be others, a ready admirer of their accomplishments.
Why did I fail? I am quite able to acknowledge now, in the first years of middle age, that my coal bubble is no Parnassus. I was held back. “Who dared to do so?” you roar at the page, angry, outraged, disbelieving. Glory herself, kind, indulgent reader, that and a somewhat wordy prose style, caused by a weakness for inventing and solving crossword puzzles in my head, to which I surrendered too readily for fifty thousand years. Glory stopped me touching her because I loved her so. A world of five toad-lengths weakens one’s resistance to purple prose, and three million years trapped in a seam of coal can, in some instances, lead to a certain self-consciousness in sentence structure, a fatal self-awareness in one’s metaphors which blighted four hundred thousand years of villanelles, cast crystals of mediocrity over my first five hundred operettas and blocked my path as I set out on my pilgrimage towards the avant garde. As if they were children, overly beloved, I indulged my subordinate clauses until they grew up to confound every hope placed upon them.
My predicament was, I discovered, somehow hostile to artistic spontaneity.
“Announce success,” someone shouts from the back of my brain’s auditorium. “Trumpet your own triumph, no-one will ever know.” But I shall know, generous friend. How easy it would be to tell myself that my Dialogues On The Nature of Justice and Virtue, published and re-published in my memory, have broken new ground. How simple for me to tell myself that my discoveries on the nature of ontology, expressed as a series of immeasurably large Sudoku puzzles, each five thousand years in the making, possess the gleam of true originality. Dear friend, it would be a lie. Why clasp Glory in my arms at last, only to discover that she is a cheap, be-wigged mannequin of my own construction? Why sully with self-deceit the love that has sustained me for three million years, and will sustain me for three million more? Far better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. You see, dear reader? Even this feels as if it has been said before.
Perhaps it is time to accept obscurity. How can I describe the tears I shed over my failed experiments with the sonnet? The hopes I placed on my first seventeen thousand novels – juvenile indulgences in retrospect, fatally autobiographical – were bright enough to make the coal itself gleam and sparkle. How often have I looked around these walls and pictured the life of fun I could so easily have spent here, the endless diversions, the millennia devoted to carefree, thoughtless pleasure? How often have I commanded myself simply to enjoy this playground, this pleasuredome, with which life has chosen to tantalise me?
Never. I shall live true to my pledge. I am a toad trapped in a seam of coal for three million years. Naturally, frivolity beckons, joyosity bats her lids. I turn away. Of course, the first few centuries would pass in a flash, a dazzling carousel of amusement and gaiety, as I pirouette from one frippery to the next. After that, however, as youth begins to ebb away, and the big “four mill” approaches, I would look back on that frittered time and…well…
I am just not sure I could live with myself.
Oliver Michell is from South London, born in 1974, and was formerly a barrister, practising from chambers in Lincoln’s Inn in London. He now divides his time between London and Berlin, where his 4 year old daughter lives. His principal interest is writing for the theatre, but he also work on poetry and short novels.