Miles Kington: If the fish had had a bicycle, it would be alive to tell the tale

Allais also invented his own private museum, in which he kept the skull of Voltaire at the age of 17 and a genuine piece of the fake cross of Jesus Christ
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The Independent Online

Yesterday, I reported that a man in Minnesota has invented a new kind of shotgun pellet that not only dissolves after it has penetrated its target, but impregnates the game with a chosen flavour. (At last the expression "to pepper a bird with shot" will really mean something.)

As I wrote the words, I had a strong whiff of déjà vu and it occurred forcibly to me that this is the kind of thing Alphonse Allais (1854-1905) might have invented. This French humorist, whom I mentioned recently and promised to come back to, had a great love of such fanciful gadgetry. I told you about the hearse he invented, which cremated the late lamented on board and used the energy derived therefrom to power the hearse en route to the cemetery.

There was also his idea for saving so many trees being cut down for newspapers, which involved a small plastic square being issued every day to readers, who would then put it in a projector, project the news on to the wall and read it.

There was his idea for giving train passengers in-flight entertainment by placing a series of placards beside the line on which was written, sentence by sentence, a sensational novel in large print. (This would also increase railway revenue, because if people arrived at Paris at a very exciting moment in the novel, they would have to buy a ticket to Rouen to find out what happened.)

My favourite of his ideas, perhaps, was contained in a letter from a reader which started: "My dear Allais, May I contribute to your continuing correspondence on the best way to get rid of unwanted mothers-in-law? I once had an unwanted mother-in-law. I no longer have her. Perhaps if I tell you how I got rid of her, it may help other readers in the same situation ..."

The reader goes on to explain that his mother-in-law was a fanatic about wearing cotton clothes. By a simple chemical process, the cunning reader managed to convert all her summer clothes into gun-cotton, a highly volatile and explosive material. When she was sitting in the sunny garden reading one day, he crept up behind her with a magnifying glass, focussed the rays of the sun on the lady's costume and - bang! She vanished!

"The coroner who investigated my mother-in-law's death," writes the reader, "came to the conclusion that it must have been some kind of spontaneous combustion and that the lady may well have been a secret heavy drinker. I did not feel it was my place to contradict an expert."

Allais had clearly invented not only the murderous use of gun cotton, but the fictitious reader as well. He also once invented his own private museum, which had three main exhibits, to wit:-

1. The skull of Voltaire at the age of 17.

2. A genuine piece of the fake cross of Jesus Christ.

3. A cup with the handle on the left-hand side, specially created for the Emperor Ming, who was left-handed.

I suppose that the above are not inventions so much as superior puns. All cups have their handle on the left, if you turn them round. There is something rather French about the joke, though, in that Allais is taking an intellectual idea and standing it on its head to see what happens.

He even did the same to the idea of Darwinian evolution, in his story of the Darwinian scientist who wanted to prove that evolution could take place before our very eyes.

He took a real live herring, and decided to move it up the evolutionary ladder by teaching it to breathe air. Every day he gave the fish a bit more oxygen and a bit less H2O until, after a while, the herring could finally do without water and get all it needed from the air.

The scientist's next step was to get the herring to move around on land and, after a while, he did indeed teach it to walk on its tail. So one day he took it down to the local port for a stroll.

Unfortunately, the scientist made the mistake of taking the fish out on to the jetty, which was made of thin wooden slats. The herring missed its footing and fell through a gap into the water below.

Where the poor fish drowned.

I think perhaps M. Allais may have invented the shaggy-dog story as well.