The wise, mad folk of Gotham
As Batman turned 80 this September, two little fans visit the tiny English village that lent the superhero’s home city its name
I looked around wildly. I could have sworn I had stepped into a newsagent’s and not a butcher’s. The racks of newspapers and magazines, the high shelves of alcohol and cigarettes, and for the children wandering in, a freezer of ice-lollies, were all there. But no Mr Freeze. No Penguin. And surely the farthest thing from the Joker was the man behind the counter.
“Not GoTHam, but Goat-ham," he grimaced, “goat town is what it means. You won’t find Batman here. Nor adventure. It’s a quiet English village."
Quite another crime-fighting icon, Miss Marple, might have had something to say about the dark and dangerous things that happened in little English villages, I thought as I stepped out with the children into the mellow autumn sunshine. But it was the caped rather than the cardiganned crusader we hoped to spy in the foxglove-filled nooks and green-wreathed lanes of this Nottinghamshire village.
Because the sign on this shop definitely said Gotham News. So had the totem pole-like signpost that had greeted us as we drove in. A spiralling blue and gold tribute to the legendary denizens of this hamlet, it also had Batman climbing up its metallic side. It was true, I declared to the children, as I took their hands firmly in mine and marched down the deserted street, that there wasn’t much evidence of mayhem in these parts, but Bill Finger, Batman’s co-creator, hadn’t named his fictitious anarchic metropolis after this English parish for nothing. And I knew just where to find the clues.
Strolling through the village, we came to a halt outside the jauntily lopsided Sun Inn, its neat olive-green shutters in sharp relief against a blue-washed sky. But across the street, in the protective shadow of Gotham’s 13th century church, with its soaring spire, was what we had come to see…
“Daddy!" the children pointed to the man loping towards us, who, having parked the family car, rejoined our promenade to the recently restored Victorian Well House, refurbished with the help of Batman fans everywhere, and receptacle, I suspected, of the answers to the Gotham conundrum.
Inside were the only two people roaming Gotham’s streets with us that afternoon, unmistakeable in their identical homage hoodies and rapt expressions. As our children’s capes (but of course they were dressed the part!) fluttered in the wayward breeze that had wheedled its way into the modest structure, we helped them on to the old stone plinth at its heart. And voilà, we were in GoTHam at last.
On the angled wooden ceiling was Batman himself. Or a picture, but one that seemed to swoop down with its black batwings outstretched. The children reached up reverentially, following the timeline that wound its way around ceiling and walls with their fingers till they reached more intriguing legends still.
Here was American author Washington Irving, with his quill poised to link Gotham’s name to New York’s for the first time in 1807, having read about the “wise men of Gotham" and finding instant parallels with the bedlam of the Big Apple. New York embraced this new moniker with its implication of a cunning madness with gusto, and soon, there were businesses named after it mushrooming in their city. There, garlanding the cupola, were murals depicting the madness of the village residents. Village rabble rolling a wheel of cheese down a hill, another horde pooling round a pillar were planning to drown an eel, while the third yokel band tried their hand at fishing the moon’s reflection out of the parish pond.
A century later, Bill Finger ran precisely that limb through business names in a New York phone book to find an appellation for his own mad, made-up city. Gotham first featured as Batman’s home in December 1940. If Finger was aware of the name’s antecedents, he may not have known just how wise Gotham’s madness had been, as the villain of The Batman Chronicles of 1996 proves when he explains how he has christened an asylum “after a village in England where all are bereft of their wits".
“But in fact they weren’t," the children’s father told them, finally unravelling the mystery of the “mad" folk of Gotham. “King John on his journey to the north of England wanted to build a road through this peaceful village. A big public road. Naturally, the villagers, sturdy Middle English stock that they were, were having none of it. A public road would involve paying taxes after all!"
“So what did they do?" wondered our daughter, twirling on the plinth, the cape clouding around her darkly.
“How does one deter an all-powerful king?" I picked up the thread of the story as long shadows stretched in tiny Well House. “The villagers colluded to frighten the king with the one scourge medieval monarchs feared more than the plague—madness. In the 13th century, insanity was not only considered a supernatural affliction but also infectious. So, when the soldiers came tramping through their land, the villagers, en masse, pretended to be as mad as March hares. Even tying their hard-earned purses to actual hares which then hared off, demonstrating how comprehensively they had lost their senses."
“That is pretty mad," grinned our son, patting his capacious pockets to ensure his pocket money was intact.
“But you know what’s really mad?" I laughed. “Fencing a cuckoo in a bush to keep it singing beyond the summer—look!" As their eyes followed my finger to the mural overhead, their dad interjected, “But madder still would be a pit stop at the pub of the same name to refuel before returning home!"
We had all seen the red-bricked Cuckoo Bush, with its scarlet sign swinging in the wind like a gibbet, on our way up to Well House. As we ambled back, with the world darkening around us, we could hear peals of laughter through the latticed windows. Then the lights sprang on inside, and we saw for the first time the revellers within—a portly man in a black bow tie threw back his head and guffawed at what the feline woman beside him had to say. While, by the window nearest us, sat a man in a tall green hat, stroking his abnormally long chin and contemplating…I realized it was…us!
“Did you see that?" I breathed, turning to my family to find them gone. They were running across the deserted street, their capes streaming after them, their masks failing to conceal the laughter in which each face was wreathed. “There are more mad men who pass through Gotham than live within it," the children chortled, when I caught up with them in the car park. “But," I spluttered, as their father turned the car around to take us home, “how did you little monkeys manage that?"
Shreya Sen-Handley is the author of Strange and Memoirs Of My Body, and librettist with the Welsh National Opera.
FIRST PUBLISHED30.11.2019 | 12:00 PM IST