Filed under: Literature | Tags: Blind Man with a Pistol, Chester Himes, Gee Williams, Isle of Mull, James Tait Black Memorial Prize, Kidnapped, Robert Louis Stevenson, Salvage
I took the name of this blog from the title of Chester Himes’ 1969 police-procedural novel starring the inimitable detectives Coffin Ed Johnston and Grave Digger Jones. Himes himself provides the epigraph:
A friend of mine, Phil Lomax, told me this story about a blind man with a pistol shooting at a man who had slapped him on the subway train and killing an innocent bystander peacefully reading his newspaper across the aisle and I thought, damn right, sounds just like today’s news, riots in the ghettos, war in Vietnam, masochistic doings in the Middle East. And then I thought of some of our loudmouthed leaders urging our vulnerable soul brothers on to getting themselves killed, and thought further that all unorganized violence is like a blind man with a pistol.
Himes follows his preface with one of my favourite quotes of all time, a ‘foreword’ credited to ‘A Harlem intellectual’:
Motherfucking right. it’s confusing; it’s a gas, baby, you dig.
Last night, I attended the James Tait Black Literary Award ceremony, where I was cheering on the wonderful Gee Williams and her equally wonderful Salvage (unfortunately for Williams, the winner for fiction was Rosalind Belben’s Our Horses in Egypt). I was lucky enough to speak with Williams and her husband, and they introduced me to another, delightful literary blind man and his sidearm.
In Chapter 15 of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped our narrator-hero David Balfour is shipwrecked (surprise!) and washes up on the Isle of Mull on the west coast of Scotland (forgive the extended passage, but I could not resist quoting at length):
In about half an hour of walk, I overtook a great, ragged man, moving pretty fast but feeling before him with a staff. He was quite blind, and told me he was a catechist, which should have put me at my ease. But his face went against me; it seemed dark and dangerous and secret; and presently, as we began to go on alongside, I saw the steel butt of a pistol sticking from under the flap of his coat-pocket. To carry such a thing meant a fine of fifteen pounds sterling upon a first offence, and transportation to the colonies upon a second. Nor could I quite see why a religious teacher should go armed, or what a blind man could be doing with a pistol.
I told him about my guide, for I was proud of what I had done, and my vanity for once got the heels of my prudence. At the mention of the five shillings he cried out so loud that I made up my mind I should say nothing of the other two, and was glad he could not see my blushes.
“Was it too much?” I asked, a little faltering.
“Too much!” cries he. “Why, I will guide you to Torosay myself for a dram of brandy. And give you the great pleasure of my company (me that is a man of some learning) in the bargain.”
I said I did not see how a blind man could be a guide; but at that he laughed aloud, and said his stick was eyes enough for an eagle.
“In the Isle of Mull, at least,” says he, “where I know every stone and heather-bush by mark of head. See, now,” he said, striking right and left, as if to make sure, “down there a burn is running; and at the head of it there stands a bit of a small hill with a stone cocked upon the top of that; and it’s hard at the foot of the hill, that the way runs by to Torosay; and the way here, being for droves, is plainly trodden, and will show grassy through the heather.”
I had to own he was right in every feature, and told my wonder.
“Ha!” says he, “that’s nothing. Would ye believe me now, that before the Act came out, and when there were weepons in this country, I could shoot? Ay, could I!” cries he, and then with a leer: “If ye had such a thing as a pistol here to try with, I would show ye how it’s done.”
I told him I had nothing of the sort, and gave him a wider berth. If he had known, his pistol stuck at that time quite plainly out of his pocket, and I could see the sun twinkle on the steel of the butt. But by the better luck for me, he knew nothing, thought all was covered, and lied on in the dark.
He then began to question me cunningly, where I came from, whether I was rich, whether I could change a five-shilling piece for him (which he declared he had that moment in his sporran), and all the time he kept edging up to me and I avoiding him. We were now upon a sort of green cattle-track which crossed the hills towards Torosay, and we kept changing sides upon that like ancers in a reel. I had so plainly the upper-hand that my spirits rose, and indeed I took a pleasure in this game of blindman’s buff; but the catechist grew angrier and angrier, and at last began to swear in Gaelic and to strike for my legs with his staff.
Then I told him that, sure enough, I had a pistol in my pocket as well as he, and if he did not strike across the hill due south I would even blow his brains out.
He became at once very polite, and after trying to soften me for some time, but quite in vain, he cursed me once more in Gaelic and took himself off. I watched him striding along, through bog and brier, tapping with his stick, until he turned the end of a hill and disappeared in the next hollow. Then I struck on again for Torosay, much better pleased to be alone than to travel with that man of learning. This was an unlucky day; and these two, of whom I had just rid myself, one after the other, were the two worst men I met with in the Highlands.
At Torosay, on the Sound of Mull and looking over to the mainland of Morven, there was an inn with an innkeeper, who was a Maclean, it appeared, of a very high family; for to keep an inn is thought even more genteel in the Highlands than it is with us, perhaps as partaking of hospitality, or perhaps because the trade is idle and drunken. He spoke good English, and finding me to be something of a scholar, tried me first in French, where he easily beat me, and then in the Latin, in which I don’t know which of us did best. This pleasant rivalry put us at once upon friendly terms; and I sat up and drank punch with him (or to be more correct, sat up and watched him drink it), until he was so tipsy that he wept upon my shoulder.
I tried him, as if by accident, with a sight of Alan’s button; but it was plain he had never seen or heard of it. Indeed, he bore some grudge against the family and friends of Ardshiel, and before he was drunk he read me a lampoon, in very good Latin, but with a very ill meaning, which he had made in elegiac verses upon a person of that house.
When I told him of my catechist, he shook his head, and said I was lucky to have got clear off. “That is a very dangerous man,” he said; “Duncan Mackiegh is his name; he can shoot by the ear at several yards, and has been often accused of highway robberies, and once of murder.”
“The cream of it is,” says I, “that he called himself a catechist.”
“And why should he not?” says he, “when that is what he is. It was Maclean of Duart gave it to him because he was blind. But perhaps it was a peety,” says my host, “for he is always on the road, going from one place to another to hear the young folk say their religion; and, doubtless, that is a great temptation to the poor man.”
So far, this blog finds itself between acts of random, ludicrous violence and blind catechists packing heat. I’d say that’s pretty good company.