My apologies for the recent lack of potsages [sic] here at the Yard of Hooting. This has been occasioned my my inability to cope – either mentally or physically – with the damnable weather. Whatever happened to “overcast, with drizzle”? Instrad, I am battered and blinded by the sun – or, as the Moody Blues liked to call it, Brave Helios! Well, Brave Helios is an accur’d orb I would happily see blotted out, or wholly extinguished. I shall pray for rain, or, better, a howling blizzard,, and resume tippy-tapping when I am able.
From the archives, August 2012:
I used to know a man who, like Sloppy in Our Mutual Friend, could do the Police in different voices. It began as a party trick, for which he always received thunderous rounds of applause, upon which he eventually became dependent. There came a time when he no longer used his normal speaking voice at all. He couched every single utterance in one of his different Police voices, but the novelty wore off, and people no longer clapped, and he grew sour and disillusioned and rancorous, and ended his days drunk to high heaven sprawled on the floor of a hotel lobby at a seaside resort. It is a cautionary tale, then, his life.
But that ruinous end cannot dim the joy of his early forays into doing the Police in different voices. I remember as if it were yesterday the first time I came across him. I was attending a sophisticated cocktail party in a sophisticated house in a sophisticated part of town, and, being myself deeply and ineradicably unsophisticated, was having a rather hard time mingling. I was leaning against a mantelpiece, trying my best to look insouciant, but the only people who deigned to speak to me were those who challenged my very presence, accusing me of being some kind of valet or factotum or, worse, an interloper. I grew increasingly cantankerous, losing any sheen of sophistication I might have hoped to assume. I spat at people and pointedly ground out my cigarette butts on the expensive carpet. Across the room I saw a couple of genuine factotae approaching, huge burly monobrowed fellows, like minatory bears, bent, I supposed, on chucking me out into the street. Before they reached me, however, the hubbub of sophisticated chitchat suddenly ceased, and one voice was ringing out solo.
“On the fifteenth inst at eight forty-six pee em I was proceeding along Letsby Avenue in a northerly direction when I spotted the accused taunting a kitten. I apprehended him in the course of this bestial enormity and – “ and then, without missing a beat, he quoted that twit-and-jug bit from The Waste Land, “ – Twit twit twit, Jug jug jug jug jug jug, So rudely forc’d, Tereu”. Then he continued, in so deep and grave and sonorous a voice we might have been listening to T S Eliot himself, “And I dragged him down to the nick for a mild roughing-up by some of Inspector Cargpan’s boys.” It was marvellous, and we all applauded, and my lack of sophistication was forgotten as all eyes turned to the owner of the voice.
Or, as I learned soon enough, voices. A couple of weeks later I went to another sophisticated cocktail party. This time I took the precaution of wearing spats and a dressing gown, to give myself airs. I was leaning against a mantelpiece when once again, there was a hush and a single voice made itself heard:
“On the sixteenth inst at six fourteen pee em I was proceeding along Letsby Avenue in a westerly direction when I spotted the accused engaged in a hate crime against a sparrow. No! Oo-er, missus. Really! Nay, nay and thrice may! Titter ye not! Oo-er. I dragged him down to the nick and handed him over to Inspector Cargpan’s boys for a roughing-up in the basement.”
It was extraordinary. There was no hint of T S Eliot. This time it was is if Frankie Howerd had come back to life. Again there was a round of applause. I left my mantelpiece and made my way across the room to congratulate the speaker personally, but before I could reach him he had flitted away, possibly with some of the silverware tucked in his pocket.
Over the next few years, during my inveterate partygoing, I came upon the fellow, who I had dubbed “Sloppy” after his Dickensian inspiration, on numerous occasions. Every time I heard him he do the Police in different voices. Some of them were recognisable. As with his Eliot and Howerd, he could do pitch perfect impersonations of Enoch Powell and Bernard Levin, both Mike and Bernie Winters, and the Irish one-time hostage Brian Keenan. I even heard him do Yoko Ono. He had other voices which seemed to spring from his repertoire of invented characters, a chuckling Quaker, for example, and a breathless bike wanker. He never repeated himself.
The last time I saw, or rather heard, Sloppy, was at a sophisticated cocktail party at an art gallery private view. I was leaning against a mantelpiece staring vacantly at a splattery daub when a voice rose above the arty babbling. And this time it was not a speaking voice. Sloppy was singing! Well, perhaps it would be more accurate to say he was caterwauling, in an ear-splitting high-pitched screech. I recognised that sound immediately, and did not need to wait for the words “Roxanne, you don’t have to put on the red light” to know he was doing the Police in the voice of Gordon Sumner.
That, at least, was what I thought. But on my way home that night, through certain half-deserted streets, the muttering retreats of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels and sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells, I picked up the Evening Rag, and reading it on the unsophisticated top deck of the unsophisticated bus which took me to my unsophisticated home, I read that the man I knew as Sloppy had been buried that day in a seaside resort graveyard, having died drunk to high heaven sprawled on the floor of a hotel lobby earlier in the week. I realised, with a shock, that the screeching caterwauler at the private view must have been Sumner himself, and I wept. I could connect Nothing with nothing. The broken finger-nails of dirty hands. My people humble people who expect Nothing.
To Carthage then I came
Burning burning burning burning
O Lord Thou pluckest me out
O Lord Thou pluckest
“I think that the constant study of maps is apt to disturb men’s reasoning powers.”
Prime Minister Lord Salisbury in 1890, quoted in Empire by Niall Ferguson (2003)
This year’s foopball World Cup coincided with the Hooting Yard shutdown, which means I have neglected to keep you lot apprised of the choice witterings of commentators. Each time there is a big foopball tournament, we find ourselves wondering if one of the TV babblers will say anything to match that classic observation from 2010 : “For a moment there, he looked like a baby gazelle who’d just plopped out of the womb.”
My favourite moment from this year came early in the contest. Commenting on one of the Argentinian players, the BBC man said : “He’s five-foot-five, the same height as Kirsten Dunst. A dangerous little winger.”
Was he in possession of a chart matching the heights of foopballers to Hollywood stars? Or is a foopballer’s height relative to Kirsten Dunst a standard measure? These questions were never answered, more’s the pity.
The Viceroy’s Palace [in New Delhi] covered four and a half acres, and had to be staffed by 6,000 servants, and 400 gardeners, fifty of whom were solely employed to chase birds away.
Niall Ferguson, Empire (2003)
Er … as you may have noticed, we’re not quite there yet with the Rebirth of Hooting Yard. (Basically, none of the Innards is working, so anything you try to click on is apparently “Not Found”.) Fear not! Optimum blogtasticness will resume shortly …
Meanwhile – news of Killer Swans!
Renaissance : noun, from the French for “rebirth”. If you stumble upon this word in the course of your reading, you need no longer scratch your head in dimwitted befuddlement. Its primary definition is a reference to the occasion, in early July in the Year of Our Lord MMXVIII, when the Hooting Yard website, having been kaput for some while, came blazing back to life (hence, rebirth) like a phoenix rising from the ashes. (If you want to know what a phoenix is, you will have to wait for the “P” section of the Hooting Yard Guide To Non-Existent Birds.)
Lonely, he made a companion of string and wood and tin, and sat her at his window, as if she were looking out. And whenever he returned from tiresome jaunts, she was there, framed in the window, to welcome him home.
But when he was at home, she had her back turned to him. She was facing the outside world, immobile, yet desperate to go frolicking dizzily into that world, where other things of string and wood and tin were surely to be found.
At the hotel, the bellhop had, implanted in his head, the brain of a cat. His own brain had been removed and sat in preserving jelly in a jar on a shelf in a cupboard in a lab. It was a locked lab, the only key to which was kept in the pocket of the mad crazed lunatic boffin who had carried out the brain-swap, during a thunderstorm on the previous Tuesday. This boffin habitually assumed the guise of a janitor, and performed janitorial duties the better to hoodwink his hoodwinkees, of whom there were several dotted about the site, from the parking attendant to the secretariat. The secretariat consisted of but a single secretary, into whose head the boffin planned to insert the brain of a badger, having first removed the secretary’s actual brain and placed it in preserving jelly in a jar on a shelf in another cupboard in the lab. He calculated that the use of two different cupboards would prevent him from muddling up the two different brains, the bellhop’s and the secretary’s.
Each cupboard was itself locked, as locked as the lab, and the boffin-janitor thus had three keys to cope with. To anybody unlettered in the art and science of locksmithery – that is to say, to as near as dammit every single person present upon our gaily rotating planet, alive or dead – the three keys appeared to be identical, or at least so similar one to another that they could not be told apart. Thus, affixed to each key by a looped length of cord cut from a bootlace was a small rectangle of cardboard. On each rectangle was written, in a biro shortly to be exhausted of its ink, in draughtsmanship staggering in its delicacy, as if learned and perfected in an earlier century when penmanship counted for something among the educated classes, and surely too beautiful for the usual effusions of the humble biro, an indication of the lock the attached key was designed to unlock.
The labelling of the keys was simple, and thus resistant to misunderstanding by anyone but a halfwit. “Lab”, “Cupboard with red door”, “Cupboard with yellow door”. The boffin-janitor could think of no circumstance that might cause him to muddle the keys, save for the unscheduled repainting of the cupboard doors, in different colours, over a bank holiday weekend, by contractors hired and brought in from some area beyond janitorial control. That such a thing could happen was so egregious that he tossed the idea aside, much as one might toss a tossable bittybob down a well, were one passing by a well, clutching a bittybob for which one had no use. There was a well in a field between the hotel and the lab. The boffin-janitor passed it on most working days, but had never tossed anything into it.
Nor had he drawn any water from it, for he could not. It was a dry well. It had been dry for some years, by dint of subterranean engineering works not unconnected to the construction of the car park anent the lab, and another, larger, more distressingly bleak car park that served the hotel. The works had been carried out, in their underground phase, by a team of what used to be called navvies, the brain of each of whom had been removed and in its place implanted the brain of a mole. All the removed brains had been stored in preserving jelly in jars on shelves in cupboards in the lab, but one night malfeasance had occurred, conducted by highly-organised ne’er-do-wells. It was on the morning after this enormity that the boffin-janitor went tootling into the nearest village to parlay with a locksmith.
In reporting these matters, it may be that I have got some of the details wrong. I was drifting off to sleep when my papa told me the tale, which he himself had heard from an old pal of his, a frequent guest in many an hotel, a travelling salesman who dealt in exotic rugs and carpets, whose name I seem to recall was G. I. Gurdjieff.
I can only wonder why the patients smile more for four sweets than for two. It isn’t the pleasure of the man’s company, or his self-sacrifice, that they appreciate. No, it’s the augmented toffees.
Malachi Whitaker, And So Did I (1939)
Pity me, O people of Switzerland. I am a Swiss soldier, and I languish in a Swiss dungeon, under sentence of death. My crime? I sang, in a public square, the milking-song Khue-Reyen. And thus I was condemned. I broke the law, and now I must pay the price.
For comfort, in my cold Swiss subterranean cell, I clutch to my cheek the Bib of St Bibblybibdib. There is a story to tell of how this sacred relic came into my possession. It is not a particularly arresting story, but I will tell it anyway, to pass the time before I am dragged from my dungeon to the gibbet, and hanged by the neck until I am justly dead.
There were a half-dozen of us, six Swiss soldiers, camped on a hill above a Swiss village. Our orders were to await the dawn and then to charge, screaming, down to the village and to lay it waste. Doing so, we were told, would bring us one step closer to victory over our foe.
And so we charged, and so we screamed, and so we laid waste. And among the buildings to which we laid waste was the village church. And in the sacristy of this church was kept, in a bejewelled casket, the Bib of St Bibblybibdib.
Was it the real Bib, or was it one of the dozens, even hundreds, of counterfeit bibs thought to be held in parishes throughout the cantons of Switzerland? We did not know. We were rough tough Swiss soldiers, not men of God. That is why, in deciding which of us should carry off the Bib as his war prize, we cleared the surface of the altar in the village church of its holy bric-a-brac, and played a game of cards upon it. We played My Lady’s Pudding under knock-out rules, and I was the last Swiss soldier standing.
And so I was given first dibs on St Bibblybibdib’s bib.
I will carry it with me to the place of Swiss execution, if they will let me. Whether they do or do not, at this hour of my death, pity me, people of Switzerland.
“The term ‘nostalgia’ was in fact dreamt up in 1688 by a doctor called Johannes Hofer who was treating young Swiss mercenaries suffering from a strange set of symptoms. They wouldn’t eat, couldn’t summon the will to live and sometimes became dangerously ill with no apparent physical cause. They had fainting fits, high fevers and indigestion. After talking to the young men, Hofer realised they were simply ill for want of home. When he sent them back to the mountains, they invariably recovered.
“Even earlier, Swiss soldiers were said to be so susceptible to nostalgia when they heard a particular Swiss milking song, ‘Khue-Reyen’, that its playing was punishable by death.”
Mary Wakefield in The Speccie
Sick at heart and improperly trousered, the vicar galumphed across the fields towards the viaduct. Not for nothing was he known as the vicar of the viaduct. Air wafted about his head, tiny little flying insects perched ephemerally in his hair. He had his sermon all prepared, committed to memory, for the service of the blessing of the crutches. The sun blazed down. Brave Helios!