Your latest challenge was to submit an extract from one of the following books: Noah Gets Naked: Bible Stories They Didn’t Teach You at Sunday School; Ending the War on Artisan Cheese; The Joy of Waterboiling; Versailles: The View from Sweden.
These genuine titles have all been contenders for the annual Bookseller/Diagram Prize for Oddest Book Title of the Year, an award invented in 1978 by Bruce Robinson and Trevor Bounford to relieve the tedium of the Frankfurt Book Fair. The Joy of Waterboiling — a German-language guide to cooking meals in a kettle — scooped the gong in 2018 and proved to be top choice with competitors too, followed closely by Versailles: The View from Sweden.
David Silverman, Martyn Hurst, Katie Mallett and Rebecca Pyne earn honourable mentions. The winners, printed below, pocket £30 each.
Your first precept? Be mindful. Where has your water come from? Where your heat? If you have regard the wholeness of this action you can discover joy in the heart of this holistic act. Every Slow Movement communicates its strength to you if you are awake to its potential. Does your water come from the easy turn of a city tap? Do not berate yourself for ‘unnaturalness’ but think it, drop by drop, back to its source — through pipes, reservoir, water course, to the pure mountain spring. Your heat may not be the wood fire’s ur-heat — kindling foraged from sustainable woodland, a struck flint — but you can still honour its earthy source, its transience. Hold joy in the moment of the electric spark, hiss of gas, its clean flame; its role. Without it there would be no slow heating, no first bubble breaking the water’s surface, no joyful boiling.
Most fun of all is competitive waterboiling, attempting to raise 100ccs of liquid to 100º Celsius, using only the heat of a candle. Each contestant chooses his own container. Many swear by tinfoil or even aluminium, whereas I always employ my trusty silicon egg-poacher. Marcus Nettles famously used a paper bag once, which worked superbly until the paper caught fire, spilling the water and dousing his candle. This caused much merriment during the following hours, while we sat staring concentratedly at our containers.
It was Trev Hardiman who speculated humorously that these fierce stares did as much to warm the liquid as the meagre heat of the candles. The idea was taken up enthusiastically, and the following weekend we attempted to boil water by will-power alone, without candles. I still maintain that our efforts might have proved successful had we kept at it for just a few more days.
To look in the direction of Versailles is to command a view of Louis XIV’s astonishing palace, notwithstanding its complete obstruction by pine forests, central Gothenburg, the Kebnekaise massif or, indeed, the curvature of the Earth. The photographs comprising this book may, to the literalist, show only south-westerly facing Swedish landscapes; Stockholm carparks, fog-bound island vistas. To adherents of its dedicatee, Ingvar Blom, Professor of Pure Theoretics at Uppsala University, it will provide ample proof of his hypothesis that views of Versailles must logically reside within, behind or beyond the prosaic scenes occluding them. Why Versailles? It is the example with which Blom first explained his Theory of Vision, the place he was attempting to view when falling from a stepladder at his library, an accident which cost him his sight. Should his theory hold, he need only point his face at this book to apprehend all.
Waterboiling has had some surprising adherents. During their German idyll George Eliot and G.H. Lewes made its ‘healthy, powerful energy which evanesces in a pleasing vapour’ an integral part of their bathtime ritual. In the Lawrence household, Frieda was heard more than once to complain that ‘that little Englischer pervert doesn’t know how to boil water!’, while recently deciphered entries in A.E. Housman’s diaries reveal that ‘putting the kettle on’ wasn’t a cue for teatime.
An eccentric fad of the cultural élite? By no means. Following world war two local waterboiling clubs or societies sprang up in a score of UK towns, a sign of peacetime recovery. And in the 1960s and 1970s waterboiling therapy spread from the US as a major force in the international anti-psychiatry movement. It was known as ‘the joyful cure’. I want to share the secret that saved my sanity.
Even for an alert 600-year-old the naming of the animals had been a task as time-consuming as collecting them. The elusive phalarope he called Flighty and her mate was Flightiness; the sparrow, on which God seemed to keep a constant eye, was Sprightly and her mate Sprightliness. The Dove and her mate were Dainty and Daintiness while the bad-tempered raven was Naked, who often neglected her Nakedness. Which bird to send out first was an easy decision. Naked made no complaint, happy to quit the Ark. She did not return, which surprised nobody. Dainty did all she was asked, even returning with an olive branch. At last the titanic craft crashed ashore and Noah released his live cargo, calling each by name. When he called out Nakedness the raven flew to his arm and a few minutes later Naked joined her. Thus did Noah get Naked.
Dominic Cummings’s recent job advert said that the ideal candidate for one of the positions on offer might resemble a weirdo from a William Gibson novel. But perhaps there are other fictional characters out there who might fit the bill. Your next challenge is to submit an application letter for a job at No. 10 from a fictional character of your choice (please specify). Please email entries of up to 150 words to firstname.lastname@example.org by midday on 5 February.