A few weeks ago, someone asked me if I’d heard the story about the man who’d been caught having sex with a picnic table. I really couldn’t believe it at first, and neither apparently could the man’s neighbour who decided to capture the event on video camera. As I thought about this peculiar story, bizarre questions ran riot with my imagination–such as ‘what about splinters?’ And then coincidentally I suddenly came across the absolutely marvellously funny book: A Melon For Ecstasy by John Fortune and John Wells. This is a book about a man who has sex with trees. Anyway, I couldn’t resist, and I have one thing to say: it’s one of the funniest books I’ve read in ages.
A Melon For Ecstasy is the story of middle aged, sexually repressed Humphrey Mackevoy–a quiet, introverted man who runs a bookshop in the dreary little town of Mundham. Humphrey, who lives with his insane, aged mummy seems to be a good, decent and respectably boring man. He has no personal life to speak of and when he’s not at work, he’s taking care of mummy’s various idiosyncratic demands. But underneath Humphrey’s calm exterior beats a wild, uncontrollable passion for…trees.
When the good people of Mundham discover bore holes appearing at an alarming rate in many of the town’s trees, little do they imagine that the holes are the result of Humphrey and his trusty drill’s midnight passionate assignations with which ever tree happens to catch his fancy. While some residents imagine that the sabre-toothed dormouse has struck again, the Mundham Ornithological Society, helmed by various eccentrics, insists that the holes–all 33 inches from the ground–are caused by the “rare Fringed Woodpecker.” The Tree Defense League is formed to ‘Save the Woodpecker.’ Meanwhile Town Clerk Charles Smart is determined to save the trees from further damage and so he brings in mega-amounts of pesticides to kill the marauding woodpeckers.
A civil war is subsequently unleashed in Mundham with the dividing line between those committed to the defense or the destruction of the woodpecker. The formerly sleepy town leaps to life as the fighting becomes vicious, and Humphrey, who tries valiantly to sustain his midnight trysts with various attractive trees, is romantically pursued by no less than two women including the teenage nymphet, Rose who will stop at nothing–even making a purchase of a new pair of knickers–t0 get her man.
While the characters on the surface appear to lead normal lives, the novel which is composed of letters, newspaper stories, diary entries, telegrams, minutes from meetings, excerpts from police logs and transcripts from the tapes of a psychiatrist collectively reveal the pathological, corrosive relationships that exist between people. Humphrey is considered ‘abnormal’ perverted and deranged, and he’s judged by those who have problems of their own, and in some cases these problems are much worse. Humphrey, who’s terrified of women, is an innocent when it comes to the subjects of manipulation and deception, and a great deal of humour is embedded into Humphrey’s sometimes clueless descriptions:
“Mummy was in a sulk when I got back. Not so much, it appeared, because of the fright she had had, but because in her view I had deserted her for Miss Koch. I patiently explained the purpose of the chains, and with less conviction, Miss Koch’s role in the enterprise. Her profession of love came back into my mind, and as I automatically answered Mummy’s questions about the League, Miss Longridge, her furniture and general way of life, I wondered if Miss Koch might have written the anonymous letters. Or could it have been Miss Longridge herself? The more I thought of it, the more sure I became that these two ladies were using me for some humiliating purpose of their own. I resolved to have no part in it and told Mummy that I had changed my mind. To my tremendous surprise she would have none of it, and insisted with an impressive strength and firmness that to back out would be to dishonour the Mackevoy name. She was proud of me, and made me fetch our leaflet. Having read it she scrambled out of bed displaying an agility I had not seen since Mrs Peacock’s elk hound went berserk.”
People often ask me what I am reading, and when I mentioned this book and what it was about, I got a few funny looks and several responses such as “ewww….” and “disgusting.” Prudes out there may worry about the sexual frankness of the book given its subject matter, but Humphrey’s descriptions of his love-trysts lean towards the hyperbole of a bodice ripper rather than a confessional from Penthouse. Humphrey approaches his fetish as some sort of ‘higher love’ and to him the trees–which after all stand there innocently minding their own business–are luring him for sex, and teasing him into madness:
“But my body overcame my mind, and I fled the confusion in the moonlit wood. I slapped the bare trunks , flaunting my body wantonly against their shy flanks. “You want it, I’ve got it!” I hissed , and began to make obscene passes with the glinting drill . It was as though the trees had been theatrically arranged for my pleasure. Each held an identical fascination , each pulled me towards it , and I stood for a moment at the centre of a magic circle , suspended in the perfect balance of their magnetic attractions . To move, to have one, would be to lose the others , and I wanted them all!”
With Humphrey sneaking around at night with his drill in his hand, dodging vigilantes, bird lovers and do-gooders, the rest of Mundham rapidly degenerates into madness as even the seemingly respectable going berserk and standards of acceptable behaviour disappear. In particular, the social relationship between Alderman Strangeways and the town clerk Mr. Smart disintegrates at an alarming rate:
LETTER FROM ALDERMAN STRANGEWAYS TO MR CHAS SMART
Dear Mr Smart,
Your letter left me dumbfounded. Your wife’s drinking bouts are common knowledge: the Italians have a reputation for excess of every kind. And if you must join her in these drunken orgies than that is your own funeral. But it’s no use trying to lay your gastric disorders at my door. It will not wash.
You can tell your wife, or ‘Armpits’ as we call her on the Council, to get back to her own dirty country, and stop annoying decent folk with her wine-sodden breath.
Doris and I had a good laugh over your cheap little trick with the fire alarm, I must say. I shall see you in the council Chamber come Tuesday where we will carry through a censure measure against you. While you have been paying the price of your swinish gluttony quite a few of the Councillors have come round to my way of thinking.
Your old friend,
A Melon for Ecstasy is full of the most marvellous characters: Humphrey’s bizarre, aged and sporadically spry mummy, the insane and sadistic psychiatrist, Graham Nipple, and the Reverend Percy Luff who writes rubbishy christian westerns such as Posse from Galilee. The book’s marvellous introduction is written by John Fortune, and in it he describes how he and Wells wrote the book together. Co author John Wells died in 1998 and is perhaps best remembered as a contributor to Private Eye. Wells with John Ingram wrote the Dear Bill novels ( a series of letters supposedly written by Denis Thatcher) and Mrs. Wilson’s Diary (a diary supposedly written by the wife of the prime minister, Harold Wilson).