Birdsong

I have decided to devote my life to birdsong. No, not that kind of birdsong, all those trills and squawks and cooing noises that birds make. I mean songs about birds. I have not quite worked everything out in my head, but the general idea is to take familiar songs, not originally about birds, and to amend the lyrics to make them more bird-focussed. I feel this would provide an invaluable musical service for both humans and birds. As an example, here is the first fruit of my project, a rewrite of David Bowie’s 1979 hit Boys Keep Swinging. I hope you will agree that this revised version is superior in every way, particularly from an ornithological point of view.

Heaven loves ya
The clouds part for ya
Nothing stands in your way
When you’re a grebe

Plumage regales ya
Life is a pop of the cherry
When you’re a grebe

When you’re a grebe
You can soar through the air
When you’re a grebe
Other grebes check you out
You get a fish
These are your favourite things
When you’re a grebe

Grebes
Grebes
Grebes keep swinging
Grebes always work it out

Uncage the colours
Unfurl the flag
Luck just kissed you hello
When you’re a grebe

They’ll never clone ya
You’re always first on the line
When you’re a grebe

When you’re a grebe
You can dabble about on a pond
When you’re a grebe
Learn to dive and everything
You’ll get your share
When you’re a grebe

Grebes
Grebes
Grebes keep swinging
Grebes always work it out

Classical Grunting

As Hooting Yard is the home of The Grunty Man, I thought I should draw to your attention the latest “Ancient and Modern” column by Peter Jones in The Spectator:

What a pleasure it was to watch the men’s final at Wimbledon contested with a minimum of grunting, exclaiming and gesticulation. Romans would have approved.

It was well known that athletes and those taking exercise had a tendency to grunt. Seneca the Younger (c. 4 bc–ad 65), multi-millionaire Stoic philosopher and adviser to Nero, described his unfortunate lodgings over the baths, which made him abhor his ears: quite apart from people hawking their wares, depilators making their victims shriek, bathers singing out loud and splashing about, ‘those working out with weights — whether actually working out or just faking it — grunt away; when they let out their breath, they emit shrill wheezes’. The satirist Juvenal mocks the way female gladiators, taught by their trainers to prepare for the real thing, ‘grunt while they practise thrusts at a tree-stump (and then reach for the potty)’.The assumption is that the grunting associated with exercise was largely a matter of showing-off: it sent out the message ‘look what a heroic effort we are putting into all this’. In a philosophical dialogue, Cicero shines a different light on the matter. Discussing mastery of pain, he sees an analogy between bracing the soul in order to keep a stiff upper lip and bracing the body to sustain a supreme physical effort. In both cases, a groan or grunt may help. He cites athletes in training, especially ‘boxers who, unleashing a blow on their opponent, emit a grunt… in order to tense up the body and so increase the force of the hit’. To that extent, Cicero goes on, a man in pain may release a groan — but nothing feeble or piteous — if by bringing a degree of relief it will strengthen his will for the battle against it.

The two Wimbledon finalists provided an admirable example of skill, determination, self-control and minimal, functional grunting. Perhaps the professional grunters and ranters might mend their ways if crowds grunted and ranted back at them in mocking unison.

I feel inspired by this to write a fat and comprehensive World History Of Grunts And Grunting. Watch this space.

Buzz!

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Dear Mr Key, Are you still alive?

Dear Mr Key, Has your pea-sized yet pulsating brain finally given up the ghost?

Ahoy there Key!, Is there a terrible vacancy between your ears we devoted readers ought to know about?

These are just some of the letters I have received in response to the eerie silence which has fallen over Hooting Yard like a leaden pall. The awful truth is revealed in today’s Dabbler, and it is all about bees!

Pointy Pod

A particularly thrilling new podcast from ResonanceFM.

On Pointy Town

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Stunned Duchamp

I am much looking forward to the Joseph Cornell exhibition which opened at the Royal Academy at the weekend. Meanwhile, reviewing the show in The Spectator, Martin Gayford tells us:

Cornell … was one of the few ever to ruffle [Marcel] Duchamp’s philosophical cool. At their first meeting, or so the story goes, they discussed the topography of central Paris in enormous detail, building by building – and in French – Cornell mentioning casually only afterwards that he had never visited the city. Duchamp was lost for words.

Cornell spent his entire life on Utopia Parkway in New York, and never travelled further than Maine.

From The 20th Century

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In my cupboard in yesterday’s Dabbler I resurrected some prose from the last century. The twelve potted biographies you will find there served originally as the texts accompanying illustrations for the 1993 Hooting Yard Calendar, entitled The Golden Age Of Bodger’s Spinney Variety Theatre. (One of the illustrations is reproduced for The Dabbler.)

I revisited some even earlier prose in a dream last night. When I was about fifteen years old I wrote a dreadful surrealist(ish) play-of-sorts called The Shepherd Of Amsterdam. The text no longer survives, long ago consumed by fire or eaten by worms. Last night it returned to haunt me in my sleep. I was in charge of putting on a stage production of the work, due to begin in fifteen minutes in spite of the fact that no rehearsals had taken place and the actors were wholly unfamiliar with the play. Indeed, there was only the single copy of the text in my possession, which I belatedly thought to photocopy. I was heading to the library for that purpose when I was told that the soundtrack CD of the play – produced by a walrus-moustachioed impresario who, I was assured, was “a big fan of Hooting Yard” – featuring music by Verdi and Monteverdi, was ready, awaiting only the addition of the actors performing the words.

Then I woke up.

Wives Of Horse-Riding Barbarian Maniacs Bent On Global Domination, No. 1

In the first of our series devoted to the wives of horse-riding barbarian maniacs bent on global domination, we celebrate the intriguingly-named Borte, dearly beloved of Genghis Khan.

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Wooden People

People carved out of wood by the actor Jim Broadbent, in the Royal Festival Hall, snapped by Pansy Cradledew on this day in June MMXV.

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Overcast, With Drizzle

It was a gorgeous day of overcast skies and drizzle and a keen wind, and I set out early, in stout boots, with a pippy bag over my shoulder, whistling a tune remembered from childhood, such as it was, learned, I think, from the orphanage’s brutish overseer, who liked to sing the song as he made us dip into puddles and fossick for squelchy writhing horrors, vile water-worms and other beings which we collected in our pails for him, and the orphan with the highest tally was rewarded with an extra helping of gruel. Oh happy days! We never found out what the brute did with all those aquatic creepy-crawlies, but, at night, as we tossed and turned in our iron cots in the attic, we whispered stories to each other, making up tales about the brute and his pails full of the worms we caught for him. It was only later, when I was grown and had long left the orphanage, that I learned he sold them to a scientist at the sinister secret laboratory along the lane on the other side of the viaduct, as he sold an orphan or two from time to time, when funds were low or he lost his temper.

It was on that gorgeous day that I retraced my steps, past the shuttered and abandoned orphanage and along the lane and through the wicket gate we had been forbidden to cross in the old days, and I carried on under the viaduct and past the shuttered and abandoned laboratory, past the ice cream kiosk and the duckpond, on past the gasworks and the aerodrome and the cement statue of Condoleezza Rice With A Thousand Nightingales, until at last, the sky more overcast, the drizzle heavier, the wind keener, I came to the big stone gates of the Mercy Home.

I rang the bell, it clanked, and a nun came to let me in. Her wimple was filthy. I stated my business, and she led me across the gravel and around the main building and past the vegetable patches and the gazebo to a hut almost hidden in vegetation and awe. I tipped the nun a coin from my pocket and she gambolled away, singing, I noted, the very same song I had been whistling all the long day.

I stood outside the hut and eased my pippy bag from my shoulder, then took from it a sealed jar. Inside the jar, squirming in a quantity of puddlewater, were dozens of squelchy writhing horrors, vile water-worms and other beings which I had collected for the retired brute. I ceased to whistle, and pushed open the door of the hut. I had come to make my weekly offering.

Reincarnation

I have never given serious thought to the idea of reincarnation, and it is about time I did so. After all, we are serious people, are we not?, and we should think seriously about everything, absolutely everything, as it falls within our purview. There will be many subjects deserving of only our fleeting attention, but even those we should consider with all due seriousness. In that spirit, and in the full knowledge that the concept of reincarnation, or the transmigration of souls, is almost certainly arrant poppycock, let us see if we can winkle from it anything of significance.

In some versions of the theory, the transmigrating soul flits from species to species. This would suggest that, immediately before the glorious event that was the arrival upon earth of Mr Key, I might have been, say, a bat or a prawn or a tulip. This is a perfect example of something so foolish that our fleeting attention can fly away from it tout suite, with nary a backward glance. Like the collected written outpourings of Will Self, it can be safely tucked away and forgotten about. We gave it our serious attention, for a moment or two, and then moved on, sensibly, as sensible and serious persons do.

Of more interest is the idea that, as the spark of life is extinguished in one human corporeal being, at the very moment when life passes it makes a leap into a brand new host. Though as preposterous as the idea that I was once a tulip, this at least has a certain tidiness about it. If, for a while, we entertain the possibility of it being true, the urgent question then thumps inside our heads – who were you, Mr Key, before you were Mr Key?

I am minded to date the dawn of my existence not to the date of birth, but to the moment of conception in my mother’s womb. Unless one’s father is a precise and punctilious Walter Shandy figure, that moment is well nigh impossible to pinpoint, so the best we can do is to use informed guesswork. Counting backwards from the date of my (premature) birth, it is likely that I was conceived in the dying days of May in the Year of Our Lord MCMLVIII, or, as modern barbarians would prefer, 1958. So who shuffled off this mortal coil around that time, apart from several bats or prawns or tulips?

Three candidates present themselves – the Romanian aviator Constantin Cantacuzino, the Spanish writer Juan Ramón Jiménez, and – skipping forward slightly to the beginning of June – the American oceanographer Townsend Cromwell. The next stage of my serious research will be to immerse myself in the lives of this trio, finding out all I can, perhaps entering a fugue state. Without leaping ahead of myself, I have to say that my favourite of the three, at this stage, is the Spaniard, not so much on account of his Nobel Prize for Literature (1956), but because, judging by this photograph, his wife is wearing exactly the sort of hat I can imagine Pansy Cradledew sporting atop her lovely head.

I will keep you informed of my findings.

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Those Puddles

That stuff about puddles the other day, you remember, the puddles of glory, with Dot and the late lamented Radbod, that was all true, every single word of it, I didn’t make it up, I swear, I swear on my mother’s life, and you may say, well, your mother’s been dead these twenty-one years so you can swear on her life until you are blue in the face but that won’t convince me of anything, there is no point swearing on something that’s gone, in this case your mother’s life, Ghent 1925 to Goodmayes 1994, and in any case you’ve written about your mother before, that she had the voice of a corncrake and taught you to sing Essay On Pigs by Hans Werner Henze and believed she was turning into a corncrake, and there was not a jot of truth in any of that, you made it up out of thin air, for comic purposes presumably, so swearing on her life now that it is long extinguished is a worthless act and gives me no reason to believe in that stuff about puddles of glory and Dot and Radbod, both of whom I have no doubt you also made up out of thin air and for presumably comic effect, but I’m not laughing, you may say all that, to my face, in a reasonable tone of voice or, more likely, betraying a certain mild exasperation, and I will listen calmly to the charges you lay against me, staunch, staunch in my righteousness, and then I will pick up a spade and bash you over the head with it, as punishment for doubting my word, ever, even though I may contradict myself, or make outrageous claims, or tell obvious fibs, because, let’s face it, we are not going to get anywhere unless you accept every last syllable that drops from my lips as God’s own truth, immutable and incandescent, for I am your Oracle and you shall not doubt me, is that clear?, and here is another bash of the spade on your head to drive my point home, thank you very much, that will be fifty pence please, or more if you can afford it, just put your coins in the tin, and every penny I collect will be spent on flowers for my mother’s grave.

A Danish Pencil

Pansy Cradledew recently spent three days in rural Denmark. Upon her return, she presented me with some small gifts of Danish stationery. Among these was a pencil, along the barrel of which the following phrases are stamped:

GRAKS AGANAK PIKIPOF

AUTOMOLOK TITA TITO

PLOKS GUGANAGA PLIP

I suspect this is probably gobbledegook rather than Danish, although there is a distinct possibility it might be Real Orghast. If any reader can tell me what it means, please do so in the Comments.

Puddles

Then puddles. There was glory in them. Hopscotch manoeuvres met the moment, but cramp brought gyp, and they sank to their knees on the kerb. Dot wanted a choc-ice, but the kiosk was boarded-up. Whatever had become of Mister Mufty? Radbod scented a detective escapade. Dot’s doll fell into one of the puddles. She was inconsolable. Radbod pretended to shoot at sparrows with a stick. The sodden doll reproached the pair of them. Then they heard the tinkle of an ice cream van. Dot’s heart thumped so hard she thought she might die. But Radbod was the first to die, bitten by a gnat, like Rupert Brooke. Dot lived on into her nineties, blitz-brained and toothless, still cradling the long dry doll in her lap, remembering, as she remembered nothing else, the glory in the puddles.

Tiny Enid And The Tentacles Of Cthulhu

Evidence has come to light that Tiny Enid, the plucky club-footed tot of this parish, may have had more in common with H. P. Lovecraft than a fondness for fascism. I am grateful to OutaSpaceman for bringing to my attention this snap, originally found on something called the “Flickr account” of one Lawrence Jones:

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Correspondence And Crows

Dear Mr Key, writes Olivia Funnel, who may or may not be fictitious – I wouldn’t presume to know – I confess I am a little puzzled by something. Yesterday you reproduced a letter received from Tord Grip, which, you say, plopped onto the mat, suggesting that it was an old-fashioned letter written on paper and inserted into an envelope with a postage stamp affixed. Surely, in our brave new e-world of digital fantasticness your correspondents communicate with you by email? Perplexedly yours, Olivia Funnel.

Well, Ms Funnel, it is true that almost all of my correspondence these days arrives in the form of electronic communications. However, as you will learn when next you check your in-box, all emails I receive generate an automated reply, which reads as follows:

Thank you for writing to Mr Key. Please note that your inscriptio cursus electronici will be ignored unless you rewrite it by hand, with a propelling pencil upon a sheet of creamy paper, which you should then insert into an envelope to which you should affix a postage stamp. The envelope should then be rolled into a cylinder and fastened around the leg of a crow. Whisper “To Mr Key! To Mr Key!” into the crow’s ear and watch it fly away. If you are not sure where the crow’s ear is, study ornithology.

The fact that I am replying to Olivia Funnel is evidence that she did indeed follow these instructions. I ought to point out that I do not eschew modern electronic communication methods due to some ill-tempered Luddite animus against the modern world – though I do – but rather because it pleases me to have crows flying in through my window on a regular basis. Once I have detached the rolled-up envelope from the crow’s leg, I inject it with a serum which renders it unconscious, and add it to my collection of unconscious crows. I have not yet worked out what to do with them all, and for the moment I am content enough to see their number growing by the day.

One of my correspondents has suggested attaching a brain scanner to each crow, and deducing from the resulting print-outs the nature of crows’ dreams (and nightmares). This would seem to me a very worthy enterprise, and I will consider giving it a go.

Dear Mr Key, writes Olivia Funnel, again, Thank you for your reply to my query. Unfortunately it raises further questions which leave me even more perplexed than heretofore. If you receive your letters through the agency of a crow flying in through your window with an envelope furled around its leg, how then did Tord Grip’s letter plop onto the mat? The only explanation that makes sense is that you dropped the envelope onto the mat yourself, once you had detached it from the crow, and before or after injecting the crow with a serum. But what possible rationale could you have for so dropping the envelope? That seems to me to be the utmost foolery. Yours more in sorrow than in anger, Olivia Funnel.

I said, after receiving Ms Funnel’s earlier missive, that I was unsure whether she was real or fictional. Evidence has now come to light that she is, decisively, the latter. This leads me to conclude that, contrary to her assertion, the utmost foolery would be to indulge a letter from a wholly fictitious person with a reply. I have, instead, torn both her letters to shreds with my bare hands. I intend to stuff the shreds into an envelope of cloth, thus forming a little cushion, which will serve as a splendid resting-place for one of my unconscious crows.