J.M. Coetzee’s Nobel lecture, He and his man, must surely be the most remarkable such speech ever heard in Stockholm. There are no thankings of the Academy, no references to honored predecessors, no musings on the state of literature. There is only a tale of a man in Bristol, retired, living with his memories and a dead parrot and the tales sent him by his man.

Boston, on the coast of Lincolnshire, is a handsome town, writes his man. The tallest church steeple in all of England is to be found there; sea-pilots use it to navigate by. Around Boston is fen country. Bitterns abound, ominous birds who give a heavy, groaning call loud enough to be heard two miles away, like the report of a gun.
The fens are home to many other kinds of birds too, writes his man, duck and mallard, teal and widgeon, to capture which the men of the fens, the fen-men, raise tame ducks, which they call decoy ducks or duckoys.
Fens are tracts of wetland. There are tracts of wetland all over Europe, all over the world, but they are not named fens, fen is an English word, it will not migrate…

I did not realize there were fens in the original Boston as well as its New World namesake; I knew “duckoy” was an occasional early variant of decoy (which according to the OED “was preceded by a simple form coy sb. (known in 1621), a. Dutch kooi of the same meaning… but the origin of the de- is undetermined”) but was enthralled by the tale Coetzee (or “his man”) spins of Dutch and German ducks lured to Lincolnshire by crafty decoy-men; I did not know about the Halifax gibbet with its cruel hope-against-hope of escape, which I rather wish Coetzee had invented. Read it. Will you see language better used on a public occasion? I trow not.
Addendum. Caterina, in her enthusiasm for the speech, has put online Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Crusoe in England,” which makes an interesting companion piece.


  1. I did not realize there were fens in the original Boston as well as its New World namesake
    It is the fens of the New World Boston shown on that link which lend its name to Fenway Park, which you may have noticed quite often fairly recently in the news (though perhaps less so if you’re not a baseball fan).

  2. Are you kidding? I know about the fens of Boston because of Fenway Park (which is my favorite ballpark aside from the immortal Wrigley Field; one of the many problems with my resentfully beloved Mets is that they play in the awful Shea Stadium). Check out my Hats page to learn about my long and anguished history as a baseball fan.

  3. Ah! I see I didn’t interpret your statement correctly. I thought you were unaware of the fens existence both in the New as well as in the Old World Boston. I too was unaware of the latter.

  4. I taught elementary British background studies for many years, and the Fens were always on the list of geographical features mentioned! Quite a wide area, not quite Death Valley perhaps but the lowest part of the UK, somewhat below sea level. Dutch engineers drained them in the 16th (I think) century and they have pumps to keep the water out (I haven’t seen this in action, I’m afraid). Salad vegetables (US truck gardening?) and bulbs, including tulips, are grown. A friend of mine came from Spalding, famous for tulips. My knowledge of the fens is rudimentary. I think we use the term ‘fens’ only there, though. Otherwise it’s ‘marsh’.

  5. In the Fen area [From Cam to the Stump UK] the hillocks that come up to sea level are called I believe “pimples”

  6. Waterland by Graham Swift, shorlisted for the 1983 Booker Prize (and beaten by Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K) has the landscape of the fens as a central character. The area is very strange and isolated and still contains pockets of what are euphemistically referred to as “limited gene pools”.
    The ecological terms used in the definitions of different types of wetland are fascinating. A fen is different from both a marsh and a bog. I never realised.

  7. No more did I. If anyone’s curious, to an ecologist a fen is “a type of wetland that accumulates peat deposits, but not as much as a bog. Fens are less acidic than bogs, deriving most of their water from groundwater rich in calcium and magnesium.”

  8. For what it’s worth, “duckoy” is the word used in Defoe’s description of Cambridgeshire in the Tour. The description of Boston is also fairly close to Defoe’s language in the Tour.

  9. Dedicated to all men and women (who did not chatter too much)lost in the fens of Lincolnshire and buried at Mountmill cemetery. Amen.
    Bobe-Mayse No 5765
    Browsing the web the other day, I stumbled by chance on a story, or lecture, or bobe-mayse given recently to the Swedish Academy and published by the Nobel Foundation.
    On the following day, finding my way through the fens of Lincolnshire which were full of ducks, mallards, teals and widgeons, I observed a sign which read “No matter how far you sail, no matter where you hide, you will be searched out”.
    Despite the fact that I was not much of a sailor (although I can speak and understand Yiddish) and was not hiding (or seeking, or both), I decided to turn back.
    On my way back to Boston, I met a strange man, who was sitting stark naked under the tree and playing with his Palm Pilot. He looked post middle-aged (1???-1???) and could pass, considering his age, as a wandering Jew.
    But his obvious lack of Yiddish skills, despite my repeated attempts to talk to him, convinced me otherwise.
    He understood only one word in Yiddish. Each time I would say metsieh, he would leap and prance and make a thousand gestures and motions and point proudly to his Palm Pilot.
    He told me that his name was Dinnis or Dennis, or Denes and that he was the only man who was ever able to escape that infamous engine of execution called Halifax Gibbet.
    He also told me that he keeps busy by working part-time for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, using his Palm Pilot to keep track of Indian students lost in the fens of Lincolnshire. He even joked that the pay is low, but the job is permanent.
    As to his knowledge of the word metsieh, he learned it from the store owner who sold to him the Palm Pilot. Dinnis, or Dennis, or Denes recalled that the shop was located on Harrow Alley near Petticoat Lane, Whitechappel, and that every time he tried to bargain down the price, the owner would repeat like a parrot “This is a metsieh! This is a metsieh!”.
    Next day, while continuing with my journey back to Boston, I met another man with a mole on his nose and a sore on his chin. He was a bit younger than Dinnis, or Dennis, or Denes but also middle-aged.
    He was sitting on a pile of cash (it looked like USD $1.3M), completely naked and looking at the screen of his brand new laptop featuring voice recognition.
    He told me that his name was J.M. Coetzee (pronounced as in metsieh) and that he was the only man ever able to escape that infamous engine of execution called Halifax Gibbet.
    When I politely tried to explain to him that the other day I met Dinnis, or Dennis, or Denes, who told me a similar story, he smiled broadly and said reassuredly let me tell you another story.
    When the kingdom decided to join the European Union, they had to abolish the death penalty and with it to destroy the engine of execution called Halifax Gibbet. But they decided to keep it and secretly rename it Halifax Search Engine. Not only that – they secretly changed many other names as well, e.g. decoys became key-words, fens became programs, decoy-men became programmers etc. etc. I know all that because I was in charge of that project.
    But how can you prove it to me? I asked.
    Go to Halifax Search Engine and you will not find any name or any entry relating to me he replied.
    Nervously, I spoke the phrase ‘J.M. Coetzee’ (pronounced as ‘metsieh’) into the microphone of his laptop (although he assured me that it was possible to use a keyboard on a less-sophisticated laptop) and a message instantly appeared on the screen: No Findit results from this search.
    But if you really want to get in touch with me in the future, he added, try F.J. Chiaventone on Google.
    By the time I reached Boston, it was late at night. Tired and frustrated, I sat down and tracked F.J. Chiaventone, by which time I almost went mad (and who is to say, except F.J. Chiaventone, that I did not, in some measure). But that is another story, lecture, or bobe-mayse. Meanwhile, I have to send this email but don’t know where – to him or to his man:
    Was it odd of God
    To choose Coetzee?
    There were few who thought
    He was a metsieh.
    He is always straight
    And his man is narrow.
    Should we take their bait
    In the Alley called Harrow?
    Jack Lasky.

  10. JM Coetzee’s secret is out. He wanted it to be
    “He and his woman [elizabeth costello]”, but was too modest to do so. But who knows in time he may prove to be right. See what happened to Robinson Crusoe, Calvin and Hobbes, Dennis the Gibbet Man, etc. See the full story at my URL.

  11. jack lasky says

    i receieve so many emails about yiddish. i cannot write it but my grandmother tought it to me since i was 2.you know that mel brooks who was born in ny did not know till he had his bar mitzvah that he spoke yiddish-he thought it was english.david brooks from ny times said in a recent interview his parents always said to him :think yiddish act british.i think it was the best advice any jewish parent can give!

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