Tuesday 27 April 2021

Madness & Taxes In The 27th Kingdom

C16th manuscript illumination

Alice Thomas Ellis, The 27th Kingdom, 1982

Have you ever had a difference of opinion with the Taxman, Dear Reader? It is a tiresome affair. But one can be grateful that we're not under the C14th reign of Ivan I, Prince of Moscow and Grand Prince Vladimir, whereupon tax collectors took a rather more hands-on approach to extracting pesos from reluctant subjects for their Sovereign overlord, as is fetchingly illuminated above. 

But at some point, the tables must have turned even in Russia, as Aunt Irene, hailing from a family of Roman Catholic émigrés who fled from that hallowed homeland across lands and countries and is presently finding herself at odds with the Inland Revenue in the 27th Kingdom, reflects:

Some minor official had been persecuting her for months with trivial enquiries about her means; but since she couldn't bear forms and had a profound conviction that her need of her own money was greater than the government's, she had ignored him. She felt the noble irritation of a fine spirit called from viewing the sunset to inspect the blockage in the kitchen sink. Her ancestors, she thought, would have him boiled. In oil.
I suspect that a general survey across most Kingdoms today would find that Taxmen operate somewhere betwixt the thrashing of subjects and being themselves boiled in oil. While for the taxpayer, these outgoings are still an affliction to be borne like madness. 

Aunt Irene went through the various forms of tragedy that afflict the living: madness and death duties for the upper classes, hunger and indignity for the lower, the eldest son's marriage to the girl on the haberdashery counter for the middle.

Warm and generous Aunt Irene, who presides over her cosy dominion in 1954 Chelsea, finds plenty with which to philosophise further in Alice Thomas Ellis's little gem of a 1982 Booker-Prize-shortlisted novel, The 27th Kingdom. 

"'Why are you looking like that?' asked Kyril.

'I was wondering why people put ferrets in their trousers,' said Aunt Irene.

'Thanatos,' said Kyril. 'An illustration of the death wish.'

'What I wish,' said Aunt Irene, 'is that you'd never read Freud. It's had a very leaden effect on your conversation.'"

The Ferret
Thomas Bewick wood engraving, 1790

As you may guess, this book finds natural endorsement by the Flying With Hands Department of Whimsy for its light and fanciful touch, as opposed to the withering review I found by a New York Times reviewer (bandying about such words as cocksure, facetious, smirky, tired, done to death - phooey! and one who evidently cannot enjoy 150-odd pages of slightly mad company.) Kyril, by the way, is the odious nephew of Aunt Irene and rather considers himself irresistible for both his beauty and his charming wisdom:

"'He's one of those people,' said Kyril, 'who once they go into analysis never never come out - which wouldn't matter if they'd keep it to themselves, but then they never talk about anything else. It gets to be a way of life, and they become extremely earnest and keep examining their motives and looking straight into other people's eyes, and yakking on about transference and ambivalence and complexes until you could murder them. It renders them entirely unfit for human society.'"

It is into her bohemian yet genteel home, Dancing Master House, that Aunt Irene (whose "own looks had gone - disappeared under waves of creamy, curdling flesh. How odd that bones, reminders of old mortality, should be considered essential to beauty in this perverse age") takes in a luminous, Caribbean postulant, Valentine. And the assembled cast of lodger (sad Little Mr. Sirocco) and Kyril's tormented lovers, char-women Mrs. Mason (fallen on hard times and resentful) and Mrs. O'Connor (with the shady side-hustles and jolly), and a cat with more sense than most of them has a mysterious new member.

Valentine it seems, has been sent by Irene's sister, the Mother Superior of a Welsh convent, to rub shoulders with the earthly and hopefully lose some of her unsettling, slightly saintly qualities. For in amongst the still pocked, post-war landscape of London there is plenty of space for a thaumaturge to float relatively unnoticed among the mortal and venial sinners, and take the pressure off the quiet convent.

Thaumaturgy in action, or
A Miracle of Saint Joseph of Cupertino
Placido Costanzi, 1750

But it's not all sweetness and light in this slight, supernatural tale. Times are hard and housing is still short. The recent war has left its scars on the city and its people, and opportunists abound. "There was, thought Aunt Irene, a glaring thread of madness in human affairs which shed about it a short, confounding light towards which people were drawn like death-drugged gnats." 

Not to mention that lurking tax man. After a worrying visit from him, Aunt Irene is served a restorative cup of tooth-stripping tea in her own good china by the jollier of her charwomen, Mrs. O'Connor. "The world was upside down. On the whole this pleased Aunt Irene as much as it angered Mrs Mason. It was more interesting that way, but it was hard on the porcelain."

Image credits: 1: GrangerAcademic.com; 2: Flying With Hands; 3: V&A Museum; 4: Wikimedia Commons


  1. Thank you for a wonderful and entertaining read thi morning. I'm running out to buy the book. CD

  2. CD: Yours is a brave soul, committing hard-earned pesos on the say so of Your Correspondent:) For myself, this little nugget of rather polarising fiction (if you cast an eye over the GoodReads site) was a fortuitous condominio book exchange find! I do hope you enjoy it & report back forthwith if you get a chance to read it.

  3. Hello Pipistrello, Thanks for reminding me that I have to get cracking on my own taxes! The current collectors of taxes might not get as physical, but they are just as relentless!

  4. Jim: Ah, yes, best not to let them get carried away!

    Contessa: Yes, but I'm sure the topic of bounty hunting comes up every team meeting!

  5. The C16th manuscript illumination of a man being held upside down and beaten with rods is obscene, especially with the audience clapping.

    What I don't understand is that taxation was only an issue for the landed gentry and increasingly for business people.
    The poor didn't have enough money for food, let alone to pay taxes. So why would a man of standing, a noble man or land/business owner, be treated like a petty criminal?

  6. Hels: In order to understand all this, one would probably need to have a chat with Ivan I. Life in the C21st is paradisiacal on so many fronts.

  7. Bewick engravings are the best. His little landscapes are superb.

  8. Cro: They are pretty lush. I do love the little ferret.

  9. It sounds like an interesting book and I am so glad that everything we owe the taxman is automatically deducted at source. I am terrible with finances and find the topic essential but extremely boring.

  10. Loree: Quirky is probably the best description of this little book! I expect that those who find everyday joy in matter finance will probably not be found around these pages :)

  11. I have always got on very well with the "taxman", thus far, although when I have spoken with "him" it has always been with a she. Anyway, I keep the taxlady happy by filling in her forms on time, paying up on time and not trying to diddle her. I actually quite enjoy paying my taxes, because the more I have to pay the better year I have had. Some would call me an idiot, indeed they often do.

  12. Andrew: Well played. But I just had to check for you if idiocy was a form of madness, for madness and taxes do go hand-in-hand, and lo! an academic over at the University of Dundee (and thus a possible neighbour to you?) has a recent published book chapter on just this: "Idiocy and the conceptual economy of madness" :)

  13. OMG !!!!!
    Alice Thomas Ellis is one of my favorite authors, and I have never met anyone who knows about her let alone reads her works!
    My eyes lit up to see her reference here.

  14. Ur-spo: Ah, so this Chelsea household is already known to you! This is my first ATE novel, I'm rather abashed to say, but will be pouncing on any more that come my way.

  15. On of my favorites is her "Inn at the end of the world"

  16. Ur-spo: Thank you, kindly, dear! I do love me a good nudge in the right direction.

  17. So sorry to be late to the party Pip ! Hope I’m forgiven 🙏….. We get the accountant to do ours 🤣😂🤣 Thank God we weren’t born in the 16th century ! XXXX

  18. Jackie: Never let it be said that I'm hustling company out the door, looking to wash the glasses, haha!! My next little get-together is still in the planning stages :) xx


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