Riddle me this.
Three words which hailed from Spring 1940, and issue one of that timeless neo-classic, Batman.
They were the playthings of a jocular psychopath and Batman’s arch-enemy,The Joker. Sadism is his middle name: but he does love a good riddle.
Because it’s so much more than a joke, isn’t it? A riddle needs ingenuity to solve. The Oxford Dictionary tells us a riddle can be many things: a question serving to test the ingenuity; a puzzling or mysterious fact.
We were driving towards the M6 today, a car loaded with family heading South. And very soon we passed a sign which always affords us more amusement than is strictly necessary.
We passed a sign for the town of Fazakerly.
Pronounced in a Liverpool accent, it becomes less a riddle than a slapstick joke worthy of guffaws. We practice saying it in high tones and low tones, with good and atrocious manners, and it makes us howl for reasons not entirely clear to any of us.
Riddle me this: how did an English town come to have a name like this?
Fazakerly is ancient English, it seems.
It is three Saxon words combined: ‘faes’ is an old word for border ‘aecer’ means field, and lei- describing a clearing.
But, back in 1321 when it was first mentioned in county assizes, colourful it was not. “The country is extremely flat and treeless, with nothing to recommend it to the passer-by, for it seems to be a district of straight lines, devoid of any beauty,” writes some perceptive fourteenth century bureaucrat.
The M6 also passes a village which couches a riddle which is centuries old, and no-one has ever solved.
It is called: The Shugborough Inscription.
Thomas Anson was born in 1695 in the upper echelons of society. A traveller and Member of Parliament, he inherited a vast fortune amassed by his brother, which he used to improve the family seat at Shugborough.
In the grounds of the hall lies The Shepherd’s Monument. It was sculpted by the man who fashioned William Shakespeare’s monument in Westminster Abbey, the Flemish Peter Scheemakers. And it bears one of the world’s great unsolved codes. Josiah Wedgewood, Charles Dickens and Charles Darwin are all reputed to have tried. And all failed.
In Ninth-Gate fashion, it is a copy of the French classical painter Nicholas Poussin’s ‘Shepherds of Arcadia’.
But there are some tiny differences: and there’s an extra sarcophagus on top of the main tomb.
Below the frieze lie eight letters: O,U,O,S,V,A,V and V.
They have two more letters as henchmen: D and M, which would at that time have been take to mean Diis Manibus: Dedicated to the Manes, the Roman word for the Spirits of the Dead.
Riddle me this: what do those letters stand for?
The theories abound but there’s no proof. Take your pick: each might be the first letter of a Latin word, and the whole stands for a dedication to his late wife; or for a Latin translation of the Ecclesiastes verses, “Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity.” My favourite: if we read the two Vs as ten, the letters form a perfect anagram of ‘Devout Mason”.
But that riddle seems to be evading those who would like to solve it.
As we carved into the Midlands, my husband Phil indicated he had a riddle he would like me to solve. “Hold on”, he advised, “It’s coming up….”
And sure enough, there it was: a canal viaduct crossing over the M6. It was triumphantly labelled the Lichfield Canal Aqueduct.
Trouble was: there was no canal going in, and no canal going out of it. It was just this bit of aqueduct, slung across the M6, devoid of any water or a chance barge to make motorists ooh and aah (and possibly swerve wildly).
Do I even have to ask the question?
The Lichfield and Hatherton Canals Restoration Trust holds dear a little stretch of local canal which used to serve coal mines in the area.
The builders of the toll road discovered an aqueduct running across the path of their route. They rode roughshod over it, destroying the centuries-old brickwork and promising only to provide footings for a new aqueduct to pass over the road.
The local restorers worked with the industry which has made that part of the world affluent. They raised the money, and they built it – for who knew when they would need to link the final restored sections of the canal?
But restoration takes time, and plenty of money, and the Lichfield and the Trust must rebuild its empire brick by brick.
And so the aqueduct sits, waiting for water and barges which might be decades away.
Three riddles in as many hours, travelling down a motorway on a mundane Sunday afternoon. They’re everywhere you look: puzzles that wait, good humouredly, to be solved.
Riddle me that.
Written in response to Side View’s weekend theme: ‘Joke’. She chooses an absorbing theme every weekend- find her here