Sunday, 24 June 2007

The Coming of Archy, by Don Marquis 1878-1937

Years ago, after I left school, before university, I took a year out.
The main reason was that I had been severely ill in the period leading to my final exams, missing a lot of school, revising time, in hospital for six weeks, hooked up to oxygen, and coming close to death a few times.
So when I was released to take those vital exams, I was definitely not at my best, and confidently expected to fail them, and go back to school to retake my final year.
So I didn't apply to further education, I was too busy just staying alive. In fact I passed them all, comfortably, including an extra one thrown in by my headmaster, for which I had not studied at all. That's a story in itself.
So then I had a year to fill, before further education. And not for me, the resources so often taken for granted now, to go travelling around the world, no gap year for me, a work year was predicated.
I did a short stint in the social security office, posting envelopes deliberately late to miss the post.
My boss required this.
There was a legal ruling that social security claimants be notified of an inspector's visit, so cards had to be sent out...
However, my boss required those cards miss the last post collection, and thus arrive after the inspector.
If say, you were a single woman, and the inspector saw a man's shirt in your home, your claim for rent payment would be disallowed, as it would be deemed evidence you were cohabiting with a man, and therefore he could pay your rent.
The whole aethos of the Department of Health and Social Security (or Stealth and Total Obscurity as we called it) was confrontational, its mission was to withhold , pay nobody, and generally obstruct claimants. I obstructed the department by altering the case notes of my school mates, ticking boxes and passing claims.... and warning them of intended visits. I hated being a part of that machine, so i asked around for other jobs. A friend said he'd heard that the library was hiring.
The Library-
The National Lending Library For Science and Technology. A vast unlibrary-like place, situated in a wartime munitions factory, full of clanking conveyors, shelves of secrets, not open to the public, although there was a reading room.
I applied
Signed the Official Secrets Act, became an Assistant Scientific Officer (unestablished), and gained entry to a treasure chest.
I'll write more of that later, in my usual way, I've digressed hugely from my original course, and I'm going out now to the newly refurbished City Art Gallery, to see old friends on its walls.

Suffice to say, that it was at the NLLST somewhere in the 140 miles or so of shelving I found a copy of Archy and Mehitabel, by Don Marquis. A little bit of which I share with you now.

The first Appearance of Archy
Don Marquis was a newspaperman.
One morning he arrived in his office to find the following message on his typewriter, all in lower case. Archy, a cockroach reincarnated from a poet, had laboriously typed the message to Don by climbing upon the typewriter and jumping on the keys, one at a time. The message is all in lower case, because Archy could not operate the shift key.

The Coming of Archy:

expression is the need of my soul
i was once a vers libre bard
but i died and my soul went
into the body of a cockroach
it has given me a new outlook on life

i see things from the under side now
thank you for the apple peelings in the wastepaper basket
but your paste is getting so stale i can't eat it
there is a cat here called mehitabel i wish you would have
removed she nearly ate me the other night why don't she
catch rats that is what she is supposed to be for
there is a rat here she should get without delay

most of these rats here are just rats
but this rat is like me he has a human soul in him
he used to be a poet himself
night after night i have written poetry for you
on your typewriter
and this big brute of a rat who used to be a poet
comes out of his hole when it is done
and reads it and sniffs at it
he is jealous of my poetry
he used to make fun of it when we were both human
he was a punk poet himself
and after he has read it he sneers
and then he eats it

i wish you would have mehitabel kill that rat
or get a cat that is onto her job
and i will write you a series of poems
showing how things look
to a cockroach
that rats name is freddy
the next time freddy dies i hope he won't be a rat
but something smaller i hope i will be a rat
in the next transmigration and freddy a cockroach
i will teach him to sneer at my poetry then

don't you ever eat any sandwiches in your office
i havent had a crumb of bread
for i dont know how long
or a piece of ham or anything but apple parings
and paste leave a piece of paper in your machine
every night you can call me archy


  1. Just been off to scout this out- brilliant! I want a copy.

  2. Blimey, Minx, you must have been lurking, a comment before my ink's even dry.....
    There'll be more of it soon.

  3. One of the only good things about my first marriage was my ex husband's collection of books. It was during the four years we were together that I first learned how much I love to read. One of my favorite discoveries was the writing cockroach Archy. I read that and up everything else my husband owned. Then I started buying anything I could get my hands on from used book stores with the small allowance he let me have from my paycheck. Yes, I was an idiot to let him bully and control me, so much so that I finally had enough and left. He said all the books were his because he was a teacher. Logic was not his strong suit. I tell you all this because of your story about the bad old days. It's sometimes hard to believe that we had such petty vendictive people in our lives, but perhaps they do make us appreciate how far we've come as human beings. Perhaps if we keep working someday we will have as much heart as the dear insect, Archy


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