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2 March 2022

From the NS archive: Sssh!

18 November 1944: A short story by GW Stonier.

By G W Stonier

George Walter Stonier (1903-85) was a critic, novelist, playwright, and New Statesman literary editor. In this amusing and quintessentially English short story, he writes from a small village where strange things are happening. Jasper, the son of a local grocer, has been firing grains of rice out of a blowgun at the village’s inhabitants, including Mr Fortescue. When the gentleman goes, with a group of others, to complain to the police, the sergeant tells them that “rice is a funny thing”, and the meeting breaks up. Then Jasper’s brother begins firing potato pellets at the villagers, and Mr Fortescue again goes to the police, only to be told that in future it would be a criminal offence to even mention potatoes. “And that has been the position ever since,” the narrator says. “We may say that rice is rice, and that potato is rice, but not that potato is potato.” Things are not what they seem – and I’d bet the grocer has something to do with it.


Such very queer things have been going on down our way that I’m not sure we ought to talk about it. They are still going on, you understand. At any moment – Sssh!

Mr Fortescue is a gentleman living in a village in Southern England. It is his habit, of an evening, to sit at his window and read the paper and chat with the passers-by: a habit shared by his neighbours and indeed by thousands up and down the country.

Well, one evening as he was sitting at his window he heard a whistle and something struck him lightly and sharply on the cheek; he glanced round, at the gardens, at the sky, but could see nothing, and went back to his reading.

A few moments later the thing happened again, and this time he looked up to see his neighbour’s small boy grinning through the honeysuckle. “Go away!” he shouted. But young Jasper seemed intent on blowing a flute of some kind, and every now and again, when he raised the instrument to his lips, a shower of hard little pellets would go whistling through the air.

Rice!

Mr Fortescue saw the postman wobble on his bicycle and pitch forward. There was no sign of Jasper.

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“How vexatious!” thought Mr Fortescue; for if Jasper was bad, his father was ten times worse. No use appealing there – he was our local grocer, with a power of life and death in the larder; so Mr Fortescue collected the sharp little grains of rice and set off for the police station. There a very extraordinary state of affairs was revealed. A dozen or more angry householders, all waving rice in envelopes, were being silenced by a statement from the sergeant in charge. “Such and such,” he concluded, “may or may not have been the case. A certain party may have transgressed. We can’t say. But rice is a funny thing – remember that – a very funny thing. There are a lot of weddings nowadays.” The last words were spoken so darkly that the little meeting broke up under a vow – no less strict for being mysterious – of silence.

Henceforth there could be no more assaults of rice. But at dinner Mr Fortescue would suddenly clap his hand to the back of his head and exclaim, “Damn those whatd’youcallums.”

“The mosquitoes,” Mrs Fortescue would agree, “are very tiresome this evening.”

Next door the maid passing an open window gave a yell and dropped a pile of dishes. She was starting to explain (being a simple girl) when her mistress interposed with: “You mean it was a horsefly, Mary.” Everyone agreed that the horseflies and the mosquitoes were getting terrible. Young Jasper had taken to playing his flute at all hours so that it was hardly safe to venture out of doors.

The authorities had been keeping well out of sight all this time, but one night a bobby came round to say that investigations were complete and the offender would be charged with blowing rice. The phrase quite shocked us at first; but it was repeated and seemed in order, for a report had come from a Home Office analyst confirming that rice, the seed of the plant Oryza sativa, was indeed the object in question.

People began to feel rather easier in their minds and were settling down to take the rice as it came – which it did now in volleys, from all angles, Jasper having enlisted a number of companions to aid him.

Mr Fortescue sat at his window wearing a balaclava helmet, the postman wobbled but rode on, even the horses and pigs and dogs accepted with an occasional howl the fact that life has its pinpricks.

Then one quiet evening, as Mr Fortescue was ambling to the pub, he came on Jasper’s elder brother, behind a lamp-post, digging an unmistakable blowpipe into a potato. Plonk! A lozenge – more painful than any rice pellet – caught him under the eye; another clipped his ear, to the accompaniment of hoarse laughter, as he ran stumbling towards the police station. This time he had been apparently the first to suffer. The sergeant eyed him warily.

“I have been attacked,” he began breathlessly, “wantonly assailed, by Jasper’s elder brother.”

“What’s this, Mr Fortescue?” asked the sergeant. “What’s this?”

“With a potato.” He held out his hand.

“No,” said the sergeant.

“With pieces of a potato.”

“No.”

“Then what do you call this?”

The sergeant considered. “Nothing,” he said at last, and winked uneasily.

He went on to explain – since there could be no one listening – that Jasper’s elder brother was a difficult case; and if it once dawned on him that there was any connection between his blowpipe and the peculiar yelps and hops of the villagers he would redouble his efforts. By this time several more complainants had arrived, and in silence they heard the official pronouncement that in future it would be a criminal offence to mention potatoes. “Just go on as though nothing had happened – nothing has as yet – and he’ll probably give it up as a bad job.”

So everyone walked round taking potato flecks out of their eyes and ears and exclaiming in a loud voice that it was a wicked waste of rice.

And that has been the position ever since. We may say that rice is rice, and that potato is rice, but not that potato is potato. The next thing will be that Jasper’s father will go up to town and come back with a catapult, and when flints are flying about and breaking windows and denting skulls, then we shall be allowed to raise our outcry: about potatoes.

Stop press. This morning the Vicar has flabbergasted everyone by preaching a sermon on Jasper’s big brother! “We are in the happy position to-day,” he said, amid rising excitement, “of being able to point the finger and call a spud a spud.” Well, we couldn’t believe our ears; we applauded, we hissed, we murmured Bravo, and No, he shouldn’t have been told. For Jasper’s big brother and Jasper himself, of course, were there in a corner, fairly hugging themselves with glee. They peppered us from the cemetery as we left, but out of habit we went on walking in twos and threes, as though nothing had happened.

“Things are not always what they seem” had been the text of the Vicar’s previous sermons.

Few of us now, if it came to the point, would care to admit openly that there was a war on, for fear of the encouragement it might give the enemy. And rice-puddings and shepherd’s pie aren’t as popular as they were.

But the question, so far unspoken, in all our minds is this:

“How many brothers has Jasper got?”

Some say three; others go as far as ten or 20. There are even rumours of a sister, bigger than any of them, who has been taking lessons in archery.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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