Fécamp is an old harbour town in France just north of Le Havre. Until WW2 dozens of fine 3-masted sailing vessels sailed from there to catch cod on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. Of course, there were fine shipyards also to build these wooden schooners. One kind of artisan was always apart from the woodworkers in these yards and these fellows were the caulkers. A ship’s hull is covered with tightly fitted planks, from 2 to 3 inch thick but for the ship to float, caulking in the form of rope yarn, called oakum, must be driven in between these planks with special irons and wooden mallets and the resulting seams are filled in with tar. Only when that caulking job has been done can a ship float and therefore, in Fécamp, the caulkers came to work wearing a top hat. I have done a fair amount of caulking and could tell you a lot about it, suffice to say that it is difficult and a good head is as important as strong arms.

The story that follows has, of course, not been recorded but has stood the test of time all the same. These two caulkers are on the go..bang, bang.. and Jean asks his mate Louis how his son is getting on…bang, bang… “Eh bien, I tried to make a caulker out of him,” replied Louis…bang, bang… “but it was no bloody good. Nothing wrong with his arms because he is a strong boy,” bang…bang…” his head was the matter, he could never figure out how to caulk around the butt-ends of the planks.” ..bang,  bang… “So you reckon he’s too stupid to become a caulker, Louis?” …bang, bang.  “I’m afraid so, Jean, I’m now going to try and make a doctor of him!” ..bang, bang…

 I told this story once when Micheline and I were invited to a doctor’s dinner because I had a few doctor friends. There were about twelve, with their wives and they bored our brains into perforated paper with their hospital stories. A stony silence followed my caulker’s final remarks and… well, we were never invited again.

The blatant stupidity that shows itself in this tale is firstly my mischievous bit and then the over rated opinions of these medical chappies about themselves, certainly not the caulker’s notions. A good but stupid artisan does not exist.

As we’re now well into stupidity we all know that this is an entity easy to find, splendid examples can more often be found in the military and last week was no exception. As the Iranian priests of a merciful god play around with bits that might make an atom bomb, their military fellows show off how brave they might be by intimating how easily the Persian Gulf can be closed by them to all shipping. In great detail they explain the prowess of their missiles and all that their arms can do to exterminate the unbelievers. Come in the Limeys, not very popular in Europe at the moment, although they’re as broke as destitute Greece and Latin Europe.

The Royal Bloody Navy is sending the most powerful destroyer they have as a bottle opener for that Persian Gulf if necessary. If you have the patience to read the limey papers, you‘ll be able to find out all the weaponry this marvellous craft carries. Any gold-covered admiral is ready to supply all the details, like the idiot in my book ‘Sink The Birkenhead’ who told the shipwright Willem Uithaalder all about ‘Birkenhead’s schedule.  I remember when Mrs Thatcher sent a similar craft to the Falklands 30 years ago and a smart French made Exocet missile caused this mighty vessel to make a bloody great hole in the water forthwith.

These military folk will be the big laugh of the coming year, bragging and boasting, chests hung full of coloured bits of bunting, big hats to make them appear taller, telling their future enemies exactly with which weapons and ruse they will be annihilated.

Stupidity has never had such a good time.

Mind you, the politicians are also faring well in this stream. No one seems to be able to find anyone less stupid than Obama or Sarkozy, halleluya! Even a strenuous search amongst the political eminences of our country will not uncover a lode of basic cleverness, only fool’s gold will be found.

Nothing new of course, 500 years ago my countryman Erasmus wrote ‘ The Praise Of Folly’ and like any of us he had no difficulty finding material.

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One Response to In Praise Of Folly

  1. Marius Meiring says:

    Hi Nick
    I am Johan Mendelsohn’s neighbour. You got some grapes from me a few years ago. Just writing to ssay I like your website.

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