Letter to Posterity

H. F. ELLISis a Londoner whose light prose has frequently appeared in the Atlantic. He is the author, also, of an extraordinarily funny book, The Vexations of A. J. Wentworth.

by H. F. ELLIS

PEOPLE are always writing letters to the above address, no stamp being required for one thing. They are also attracted by the idea of giving helpful advice to those who are in no position as yet to answer back.

I am joining the ranks of these letter-writers for worthier reasons, hoping this will catch the eye of readers round about the year 20,000. What I want to say is that if, while excavating the ruins on the site of what used to be called London, anyone should come across the skeleton of a man in middle life facing west with his knees drawn up and the remains of a hall-point pen beside him, this is not to be taken as evidence of ritual burial customs in the twentieth century.

Archaeologists, unless they have sobered down considerably in the eighteen thousand years or so since these words were written, are a little bit apt to jump to hasty conclusions. Take this piece in a book I’ve been reading about the Mesolithic Period (that will be about thirty thousand years back, from the point of view of you gentlemen I’m writing to), where it says: “The presence of a bone harpoon in the grave shows that lliese Maglemosians eked out a precarious living by spearing fish.” Does it? How do I know the relatives didn’t just chuck the harpoon in along with the remains, because they were tired of having such a useless contrivance slung above the fireplace?

Do you see what I am getting at, at all? I’m just asking for a little ordinary caution when my turn comes to be dug up. The last thing I want is to be exhibited by you Posterity boys as “ Knightsbridge Man. Thought to represent a wave of ballpoint pen culture that swept across Northern Europe and America during the Second Millennium.”

What makes me particularly nervous just now is that our era happens to be threatened by the possibility of a sudden overwhelming catastrophe. (Never mind what sort of catastrophe. If your archaeologists like to deduce, from traces of rheumatism in my joints, that the polar icecap began to advance again in my time and crept southwards rather faster than I could, so much the better for the reputation of the civilization my skeleton has the honor to represent.) The point is that when a man is suddenly overwhelmed by a catastrophe he has little or no time to arrange himself for later excavation, or even to get rid of articles with which he would, on the whole, prefer not to he seen dead. Please bear these facts in mind when writing out the label for my glass case.

This anxiety neurosis1 of mine came to a head the other day when I happened to be lying on the floor of my study facing west with my knees drawn up and a ball-point pen beside me. Suppose, I couldn’t help saying to myself, this catastrophe were to be loosed off now and I just stayed here undisturbed for twenty thousand years, what kind of weird notions would Posterity fake up about me? And there have been other occasions, since then, when I’ve found myself in postures that would be meat and drink to archaeologists, if unluckily perpetuated. So it does seem to me worth while to try, quite briefly, to eradicate one or two possible misconceptions that may arise.

Here are some of the pen portraits of myself I particularly fear.

1. SQUATTING MAN. Circa 2000. One of a number of prehistoric figures found in the typical “squatting “ position, with hands held out before the chest in a gesture of supplication. The shreds of wood and traces of fused glass originally associated with the figure indicate the presence of the customary pagan altar. The present example is unique in that the head is turned completely round on the shoulders, while the right hand clasps a short knife or dagger. The expression of rage or terror on the beautifully preserved features supports the belief that this steam-age Briton was attacked from behind while engaged in some sacrificial rite.

Wrong I had the knife in my hand simply because I happened to be cutting cake when somebody said the focus needed sharpening. The head is rotated on the shoulders because that was the normal position of prehistoric man when simultaneously twiddling knobs,2 asking “Is that better?”, and getting the repeated answer “No, worse.” The expression is not one of terror.

2 SLAVERY IN THE 2ND MILLENNIUM. The arched spine of this specimen, and the position in which the bones

of the forearms were found, shed a grim light on the treatment of malefactors at this epoch. It is evident that the wristswere forced brutally together behind the back, dragged upwards until the whole body was arched over by the strain, and there secured with thongs of leather, traces of which can still be seen on the floor of the case. In all probability we have here the pitiful remains of a household slave tortured for some peccadillo.

I very much resent this. If Posterity is so ignorant of the modes of dress adopted by its ancestors as to be incapable of recognizing the characteristic attitude of a man trying to reach up between his shoulder blades in order to get hold of his suspenders at the back, then Posterity will do well not to indulge in stupid and insulting guesses.

3. BURIAL OF A HUNTER. Probably a man of rank; perhaps a local chieftain. The precise purpose of the metal rod, bent or “angledat the extremity, which is clasped in the outstretched right hand has yet to be determined. But the tense, streamlined posture of the skeletonknees bent, left leg well to the rear, and head poking forwardirresistibly suggests the act of stalking (compare the reconstruction “Buffalo outnumbered by Anglo-Indians” in Gallery 19) and proves that ritual occupational burial was a widespread practice at this time.

It proves nothing of the kind. Clearly, I simply had the misfortune to be overwhelmed by a sudden catastrophe while judging the line of a putt. Either that or I was raking out the kitchen boiler. Posterity really must rid itself of the notion that we men of the twentieth century engaged in barbaric ceremonial rites.

It would be easy to multiply instances. But at present I only wish to add that when a man (engaged perhaps in writing a letter to Posterity) is sitting at his desk with his feet on the blotter and suddenly raises both clenched fists in the air, he is apt to fall clean over backwards; and my experience shows that when this happens he is as likely to land with his knees drawn up as not. Whether he finishes up facing west is a matter that has not, for him, any ritual significance whatever.

If it be asked why a man so engaged should raise both fists in the air, it must be explained that the ball-point pen, erroneously thought to be characteristic of this era, had one peculiarly prehistoric habit: it would work beautifully for weeks and then, without warning of any kind, suddenly dry up altogether when the writer was in mid —

  1. Anxiety neurosis: a thing we used to have in my time, which may be extinct in yours — though in that ease it beats me what you can find to talk about.
  2. Twiddling knobs. It is impossible to convey the significance of this rite to Posterity in the course of a short footnote.