"Cheese has always been good to me."
Jim Friteuse

Friday, September 28, 2012


On the 15th August 1962, during a college trip to the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority’s site at Windscale in Cumbria, an accident occurred in the nearby small seaside town of Seascale that would change the life of seventeen year old Peter Perkins forever. 

Windscale (circa 1962)

At that time he was a shy, underachieving first year philosophy student at the University of Sheffield and a field trip to Windscale seemed the ideal opportunity to get out of the tediously dry lectures on Descartes, Nietzsche, Rousseau and Schopenhauer.

He had no idea how he had ended up in Yorkshire studying a course with the stupidest (and longest) title in the university’s curriculum.  

The History of Western Philosophy and Its Connections with Political and Social Circumstances from the Earliest Times to the Present Day would be, as he was to discover within minutes of attending his first lecture, of no practical use whatsoever when (or indeed if) he graduated.

The only thing that kept him there was the prospect of a date with the beautiful, but shallow, Mary Jane Webster. Peter liked redheads and Mary Jane with her blazing shock of fiery hair effortlessly fitted his ideals of the perfect woman.   

There was only one problem that stood between him and the woman of his dreams.

That problem went by the name of Vim Tomsen.

Vim Tomsen was a German exchange student from Berlin, whose absentee father was currently residing under a false name in Argentina, having given both the Red Army and Simon Weisenthal the slip in 1945 and 1948 respectively. Vim had a thing about parades, in that he loved them, and every time one snaked its way through Sheffield he would inevitably barge his way through the bystanders and find a way of getting to the front of the procession so it looked like he was leading it.

Peter had no idea what Vim was studying, although he liked to think it had something to do with world domination.

Vim was under the impression that he was Mary Jane’s boyfriend as he had already asked her out in his customary abrupt manner. “You vill be mien liebchen, ja!” he had said to her over a romantic dinner of raw herring and Jägermeister Kräuterlikör.

Fortunately the trip to Windscale was only open to philosophy students, but it turned out that Peter had nothing to fear from Vim as Mary Jane had no feelings for him whatsoever and found him wholly unattractive. His close cropped blonde hair and the scar that ran down the left side of his cheek did nothing for her. She also hated the monocle he wore on his right eye and the way he clicked his heels together whenever they met.

A few days before the field trip, Ray Billabong, a reprocessing engineer from Seascale, had nipped out of the nuclear processing plant at Windscale to purchase a copy of The Boys’ Bumper Book of Western Philosophy from WH Smith for his son, who was strangely interested in the subject. As he flicked through the pages he accidentally dropped it in between two rods of plutonium. 

The Boys' Bumper Book of Western Philosophy (1954 edition)

It was such a stupid thing to do and he sincerely hoped that no-one had seen him do it; otherwise he would have spent the rest of the day feeling foolish and embarrassed whilst his workmates, who were all from London, mercilessly ribbed him using their peculiar rhyming slang with phrases like, “Gor Blimey, mate, you’re a right Edmund Burke, aincha!” or “This place would have gone up with an almighty Harold Bloom!” or “What an Immanuel Kant, you are!”

Ray was lucky. There was nobody around to witness the stupidity of his actions and so in order to cover up his tracks he placed the now radioactive book into a lead container and carried it out of the facility in his bag at the end of his shift. Fortunately for Ray, the security guard on duty that day was his close friend and neighbour, Bill Woomera, who just waved him through with a smile and a shout of, “See you down the pub tonight, mate!”

Lacking the resources to bury the container a thousand feet underground, Ray did the best thing he could at such short notice – he smuggled it into the local library at Seascale and secretly hid it amongst the other books on philosophy that no-one ever read due their inherent lack of any usefulness.

Ray thought that he got everything sewn up. No-one would even look for a book on western philosophy, let alone find it in the dark recess of the shelf where it had been deposited. What Ray hadn’t taken into consideration was the chances of two philosophy students from Sheffield taking shelter in the local library on a rainy day in August 1962.

After they had completed their tour of Windscale the coach party of fifteen philosophy students from Sheffield stopped off at Seascale for a bite to eat and a look around. Peter and Mary Jane wandered off on their own and were idly chatting to each other when the heavens opened up and it began to rain heavily. They looked around to find shelter and, seeing the local library was open, headed off in that direction.

Postcard from Seascale

For a small town, Seascale had a large library and the couple meandered through the bulging shelves of Fiction A-Z by Author and Non-Fiction A-Z by Subject until they eventually found themselves standing in the Reference Book Section and it was there that Peter discovered, in a dark recess, the book that Ray Billabong had secreted there a few days earlier.

Peter took the book off the shelf and opened it up. Perhaps, he thought, The Boys’ Bumper Book of Western Philosophy, might give him a better understanding of the subject he was supposedly studying. As he turned the first page he let out a sharp cry of pain. “Ouch!” he bleated.

“What’s the matter?” asked Mary Jane, looking a little concerned.

“I’ve just given myself a paper cut from this stupid book. I hate paper cuts. They’re so bloody painful.”

“Don’t be such a baby,” Mary Jane chided. “Let’s have a look.”

Peter showed her the index finger of his right hand. There was a faint red line running down its length. “I think you’ll live,” she said.

Neither of them was aware, on that fateful day, that the radioactivity from the Boys’ Bumper Book of Western Philosophy had already entered Peter’s bloodstream and was beginning to alter the chemical composition of his body. 

It started to take effect almost immediately and, although Peter Perkins didn’t know it at the time, it was the beginning of a process that would eventually change him from a mild-mannered philosophy student into the fairly well-known, reasonably celebrated and mildly irritating superhero I-Think-Therefore-I-Am-Man, capable of diffusing any dangerous situation with carefully chosen words of philosophical wisdom.

Peter made his first appearance as I-Think-Therefore-I-Am-Man a month after he returned to Sheffield from Seascale. His costume consisted of a brown jacket with patches on the elbows, brown corduroy trousers, a striped shirt with a plain collar, spotted tie and a pair of comfortable suede shoes. It was vitally important for him to protect his identity and so whenever he appeared as I-Think-Therefore-I-Am-Man he wore a pair of glasses.

His first act for the benefit of mankind was to help eighty-year old Mrs Greatrex across a busy road. His Spinoza-Sense started to tingle when he saw her dithering at the side of the road, unable to make the decision whether to cross at that particular place or walk further down the road and attempt to cross there. He whispered to himself, “This looks like a job for I-Think-Therefore-I-Am-Man!” before donning his costume in one of the changing rooms in nearby branch of Burton’s.

As he took old Mrs Greatrex by the arm he cleverly combined the words of Heraclitus and Søren Kierkegaard into a sentence of his own making. “One cannot step twice in the same river,” he said in a gentle, soothing voice, “but when you nevertheless make that leap of faith it is subjectivity at its height.” Old Mrs Greatrex felt comforted and confident at the same time and she made her way safely across the road.

News of Sheffield’s own super-hero began to spread across town and he became a minor celebrity. He was interviewed by a reporter from the Sheffield Telegraph after he confronted Nosher Barnsworth (a notorious armed robber, pimp and bonsai enthusiast) during a daring daylight raid on the Eccleshall Road branch of Barclays bank, by successfully combining the words of Thomas Hobbes, Friedrich Nietzche and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz. “The life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. God is dead,” he said, “but we live in the best of all possible worlds.” After hearing those words Nosher had no other choice but to surrender to the police and the mercy of the English judicial system.

A year after his spectacular arrival as I-Think-Therefore-I-Am-Man, Peter Perkins and Mary Jane Webster were married and they had three children, René, Gottfried and Socrates, in rapid succession.

Life, it seemed, could not be better; but life can also be a fickle mistress and shortly after the birth of Socrates, things started to go terribly wrong.

The three boys, having inherited their father’s genes, very quickly learned to talk and they used most of their energies contradicting what their mother said to them. When she asked them to do something for her once they told her that they would only do it if there was sufficient reason to do it and when she argued about it she was told, in no uncertain terms, that she was not enlightened enough to understand how reality is fleeting and impermanent.

To compound matters even more Peter had not fully understood the unwritten mathematical law that all men who marry redheads should take into account, which is: Fiery red hair / Fiery red temper + annoying husband x 3 children = Misery for all concerned.

Mary Jane’s temper reached boiling point as she struggled to bring up three pretentious and ungrateful children and a husband whose irritating sayings were becoming more bizarre and surreal as each day passed. When she asked him to do the washing up after dinner one evening he replied, “Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily.” This direct quotation from William of Ockham was commonly known as Ockham’s razor and was used completely out of context, proving, to Mary Jane at least, that Peter was losing it.

They were divorced two years later. Mary Jane took the children with her and admitted them into a correctional facility just outside Preston, where they would have all the pretentiousness beaten out of them. It took five long and agonising years of therapy to turn them into normal children and when they realised the effect their father had had on them they never spoke to him again.

Peter moved back to his home town of Braintree in Essex, where in 1979, he found a job as an event organiser at the small Frontiere cheese factory, where his skills in putting words together helped him enormously. When the factory received a visit from Liam Schiffrin, Peter was recruited into the Big Top as the first point of contact for any Kiwi agents arriving in the country. He had put on some weight and lost some hair and retired I-Think-Therefore-I-Am-Man, preferring obscurity to the limelight of his heady days as a superhero.

In 1962, when he first acquired his super-power Peter’s appropriate words of philosophical wisdom sounded confident and cool, but in 1985, when he met Jim at the airport, he was a fat, balding forty-year old divorcee, an estranged father of three and a borderline alcoholic with an unhealthy desire for slim Asian women less than half his age, and his nuggets of wisdom, when he used them, sounded more than a little creepy.

In the car on the way to the Braintree branch of Frontiere, Peter Perkins told Jim and Claire his life story, adding, as a footnote, that he was currently seeing a psychoanalyst who was attempting to cure him of his pretentiousness issues.

Braintree, Essex

“Pretentiousness issues?” Jim asked, nervously.

“According to my psychoanalyst, since my visit to Windscale the reason I spent my life putting on an extravagant outward show was to claim a position of unjustified distinction.

“That sounds like a load of rubbish to me,” said Jim.

“Oh no,” replied Peter, defensively. “He’s very clever. He has certificates and everything that prove he is.”

“Having a certificate doesn’t mean you’re clever, Peter,” said Claire.

“Do you have any certificates, Mr Friteuse?”

“Only for swimming.”

“Oh,” said Peter, and then he remained silent for the rest of the journey.

After two hours they reached their destination and pulled into the gravelled driveway of a small two-bedroom bungalow in a leafy suburb of Braintree. Peter helped them in with their suitcases and stood in the doorway as if waiting for a tip.

“What?” asked Jim.

“Err, my boss said that if you’ve got any questions then I should be available to answer them before I leave you to it.”

“Oh, right. Well, what’s there to do around here?”

“There’s a supermarket at the end of the road. It’s not very big, but it’ll have most of the stuff you’ll need.”

“Does it sell canned food?” enquired Claire.

“Oh, yes. Lots of it. But we’ve already stocked up your fridge and cupboards with food and stuff. We didn’t now exactly what you ate, being foreign and all.”

“I was thinking more about the night life, Peter.”

“Well, there’s an offy two streets down. That’s where most of the youngsters seem to hang out.”

“What’s an offy?”

 “An off-licence. They sell Thunderbird and Woodpecker cider over the counter, mostly to the under-age kids in the neighbourhood.”

“Isn’t that illegal?”

“Not in Braintree.”

“Anything else?

“Well, err, not really. The people of Braintree don’t lead the most exciting of lives, not like us in the Big Top.” Peter whispered the last part of his sentence, making sure that Claire couldn’t hear it.

“Right,” said Jim, “I suppose that will be all.”

“OK, then, I’ll pick you up in the morning at 8.30.”

That night, Jim and Claire ate beans on toast and watched a bit of bad telly before retiring. Just before he turned the light out, Jim said to Claire, “Can you believe it – Braintree’s full of nutters, there’s nothing to do at night and the telly’s rubbish.”

“I know, darling,” said Claire. “Isn't it just perfect! It’s exactly like home!"

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