Scheme Of Things

Once upon a time there was a little Italian boy made out of wood. He wore a pointy hat, also wooden. In this age of grand illusion, he walked into my life out of my dreams, and forced his way into my scheme of things. This was somewhat unnerving, for it is not an everyday occurrence to find oneself in thrall to a wooden boy. But enthralled I was, to the point where the tables were turned and I tried to fit in with his scheme of things.

In order to do so, I felt I needed to gain a better understanding of what it was like to be made of wood. So I drove to the forest in a Japanese car. I parked at the edge, by a pond, and then I walked deep into the forest and stood there, pretending to be a tree, a pine or an elm. At first I was fidgety, but as the hours passed I found it easier to stand perfectly still, as if I were wooden. I swayed slightly in the breeze.

The little Italian boy made of wood had not followed me to the forest, for he could not drive. I wondered what he was up to, back in my chalet, perched on the edge of a glacier. It was a wooden chalet, so it suited him well, better, in fact, than it suited me. I felt so at home in the forest. Oh I so wanted to sprout leaves and buds!

Several months passed before I was forced to admit that I could not fit in to his scheme of things and that I was not, nor ever would be. made out of wood. I trudged back through the forest towards the pond where I had parked the Japanese car. It had been stolen. I sat on a tuffet next to the pond and I pondered. Pondering by a pond, not made of wood. The sky was immense and immensely blue.

It was a small mercy that I did not know the little wooden Italian boy was a delinquent rascal, and had burned down my chalet the instant I screeched away in my Japanese car. And yet the world keeps turning. That, after all, is in the scheme of things, whether one is wooden or – let us be plain – not wooden, not wooden at all, neither pine nor elm nor any of the other types of wood. They all burn.

The Paradox Of Tarleton’s Pebble

The Paradox of Tarleton’s Pebble is a famous, or infamous, conundrum. It was first posed, not by Tarleton himself, but by his valet, the dwarf Crepusco. Legend has it that Crepusco crept into the room where Tarleton was hosting a swish and sophisticated cocktail party attended by various mountaineers, polar explorers, flappers, Jesuits, toad-headed robbers, Quakers, conjurers, reprobates, gas meter readers, spud-faced nippers, fanatics, greaseproof paper salesmen, composers, dentists, tuppenny-ha’penny tosspots, Grand Guignol performers, Chappaquiddick experts, foopball refs, tugboat captains, hedgers and ditchers, gondoliers, minstrels, troubadours, astronauts, emboldened milquetoasts, rhubarbarians, eel-men, dabblers, plotters, coppers, tanners, coopers, fletchers, tailors, tinkers, Oppidans, floozies, weathermen, mavens, bus conductors, out-of-town Pointy Towners, painters, pimps, and potters. Yes, potters. Several potters, indeed more potters than you could shake a stick at, were you minded to do so. Not for the first time, Tarleton had got the precise balance of his swish sophisticated cocktail party guest-list a little askew.

Things were nevertheless going with a swing, in spite of the potter imbalance, when in crept Crepusco. He silenced the hubbub in his usual manner, by holding aloft the gold-painted head of an antique Italianate monkey doll, through which he ventriloquised. Then, in his horrible voice, raucous as a crow, he posed the conundrum which became known as the Paradox of Tarleton’s Pebble.

The effect was instantaneous. The puzzle dizzied the brains of all those present, including Tarleton himself. It dizzied their brains and it also dizzied their bodies, so that the room became a scene of chaos, the guests reeling about, staggering, flailing, vomiting, and groaning.

Well satisfied, Crepusco crept out and returned to his pantry. He replaced the head of the monkey doll on its shrine, fixed himself a snack, and sat in his rocking chair, rocking, creaking, back and forth, through the long winter evening, on the night before the Munich Air Disaster.


Soup-in-the-beard was a condition which affected many Victorian gentlemen possessed of disgusting table manners. It commonly took the form of patches of beard hair becoming soaked in spilled soup, which then dried out, causing the hairs to become matted and malodorous. The spillage would usually occur at the point where the Victorian gentleman, wielding a spoonful of soup and aiming to transfer the full amount into his mouth, would fall at the last hurdle, and send some or all of the spoonful dribbling down his beard. If the bowl of soup was a generous one, as it often was at Victorian banquets, repetitions of this manoeuvre could result in the beard being absolutely drenched, with droplets of the spilled soup dripping on to the elegantly embroidered tablecloth.

Although we do not have precise figures, it is believed that a significant proportion of cases of soup-in-the-beard were caused by uncontrollable tremors of the hand, symptoms of withdrawal from the gargantuan doses of opium favoured by almost all Victorian gentlemen. This does not, of course, excuse their disgusting table manners, which were disgusting, almost as disgusting as – at another time, in another place – those of Franz Kafka.

Contemporary written accounts of soup-in-the-beard are surprisingly few, possibly because it was so prevalent, so much a commonplace, that chroniclers of the time did not consider it worthy of remark. A vivid exception is contained in a letter written by the Dowager Duchess Dipsy of Poxhaven, dated 14 January 1868:

Last night I attended a dinner to raise funds for the Society for the Promotion of Sending Working Class Orphans Down Mineshafts, held at Soot-Blackened House. I was seated next to Walter Mad, whose beard is prodigious. The poor man’s hands were shaking badly, and he confessed to me that he had not had a dose of opium for a full half hour. During the soup course – mulligatawny, to my horror – Walter Mad had a great deal of difficulty transferring the soup from bowl to mouth by means of a spoon, and after a minute or two his beard was sopping wet, almost more soup than hair. I was amused to note that he summoned his valet, who proceeded to wring out the beard, much like a janitor with a mop. Cleverly, Walter Mad commanded him to do this directly over the bowl, so that the soup in the beard replenished the soup in the bowl. By this means, and by several further wringings-out, Walter Mad was still busy with his soup while the rest of us had moved on to the jugged hare and the strangled weasel. His table manners are disgusting, but he gave ten shillings to send urchins from the lower orders down the mines, so his cold black heart is in the right place.

Next week : Egg-On-The-Waistcoat.

Uurrgghh 2 : The Uurrgghh Continues

Plan B for 2016 is to post a potsage [sic] here every day, except on those days when Mr Key is beset by uurrgghh. So far the plan is succeeding beyond all expectations.

Meanwhile, when not whimpering softly, I have tried to cheer myself up by watching Die Hard : The Director’s Cat, two hours of footage of John McTiernan’s pet moggy, Tiddles, graceful yet unfathomably stupid, prowling around the upper floors of the Nakatomi Building, lapping milk from a saucer, fixing its gaze on things invisible to the human eye, and taking long naps. Yippee-ky-oh, motherfucker!


The plan for 2016 was to post a potsage [sic] here every day. In January, I succeeded, but come the first day of the second month and the plan was as dust and ashes in my mouth. Yesterday I felt decidedly uurrgghh and lay abed, with occasional visits to the Thunder Box, over which we shall draw a heavy black veil. Today I feel almost equally uurrgghh. However, quite fortuitously, I posted two potsages on Sunday. I think what we shall do is to pretend that the RIP for Jacques Rivette actually appeared yesterday, and prance on regardless. I hope to feel less uurrgghh tomorrow, Now, back to bed.


Jacques Rivette 1928 – 2016


I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing

I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony. I think I have the makings of an excellent singing teacher. I am to pedagogy as a duck to water. There is nothing that cannot be taught by ferocious spittle-flecked shouting accompanied by thumps on the head with a big stick. It is true that my field of expertise is ornithology, not singing, but I have taught even the most recalcitrant dimwit to identify four different types of bird, with as near as dammit a twenty-five percent success rate. The birds were a swan, an owl, a wren, and an ostrich.

I’d like to teach the world to sing, and the world is rather larger than the classroom in the cellar of Pang Hill Orphanage, where I currently teach. In fact I have never taught anywhere else, as far as I can recall. And I have rarely taught anything other than bird identification skills, apart from occasional sessions of boot-scrubbing, mucking about with saucepans, and guttural German. But pedagogy courses through my veins like blood. The more recalcitrant dimwits among the orphans often develop nosebleeds after my thumpings, so I know what blood looks like, even though it is not my field of expertise.

Another reason I am well suited to the task of teaching the world to sing is that I awake every morning with a song in my heart. Often it is a tuneless and monotonous dirge, which is the best I can muster when I wake in a foul temper, as I usually do. My attic bedroom at Pang Hill Orphanage is dark and dismal and icy cold, even at the height of summer. I have been told this is something to do with local atmospheric conditions, but such conditions are outwith my field of expertise, so I cannot judge the truth of the claim. Sometimes a frail and freezing robin will come and perch on my windowsill of a morning. I think it is a robin, though it is difficult to tell through the grease- and grime-smeared window. But at the sight, albeit blurred, of a feathered friend, the song in my heart is a cheerier and more up-tempo one, such as “Withered And Died” by Richard and Linda Thompson.

Before I teach the world to sing, then, I will make a start by teaching the orphans to sing. But before I teach the orphans to sing, I will hone my singing-teacher techniques – shouting, big stick – by teaching monkeys to sing. There is a Monkey House at Pang Hill Zoo, over on the other side of the hill beyond the viaduct. Through bribery and threats I obtained a key to the Monkey House. I think the janitor who passed me the key assumed I wanted to gain access to the monkeys for unseemly purposes. Well, let him think what he likes. I will betray him to the zoo authorities in any case, and he will languish in a prison cell while I teach the monkeys to sing.

UPDATE : I have discovered that most of the monkeys in the Monkey House at Pang Hill Zoo are howler monkeys. They can already howl their little heads off like nobody’s business. My work is done.

Knud Padde

In Forbrydelsen, the 2007 Danish TV crime thriller known here as The Killing, there was a minor character, appearing in just three of the twenty episodes, named Knud Padde. I confess that I have forgotten pretty much everything about the character but for his name – but what a name! Knud Padde ought, surely, to have his own spin-off series.

I can imagine him, dapper in his Danish duds, as one of the Four Norsemen of the Apocalypse, alongside Lars and Bengt and Erik, a quartet of impossibly sophisticated Scandinavians, noble of brow and fond of herring. I am assuming, of course, that “Norsemen” can refer to any old Scandinavian, not exclusively those from Norway, though if we had to export Knud Padde and his fellows to Norway then so be it.

We could, after all, put them on the banks of a fjord. What would the Apocalypse look like, viewed from a fjord? I asked fjord- and Apocalypse-expert Tarleton Buchbinder for his thoughts. He never called me back. I think he was taking a very long bath, in his tub, listening to a cassette tape of inspirational speeches by Patricia Fripp, sister of the guitarist Robert, husband of popstrel Toyah Wilcox.

Toyah’s big hit was “It’th A Mythtery”, and I think the Knud Padde TV series ought to have a mystery element. The mystery could be some unspoken horror in Knud Padde’s past, or in Lars’s past, or Bengt’s past, or Erik’s past, or perhaps in the pasts of all four of them, the unspoken horror that brought the four of them together in the first place, on the banks of a fjord, in a high and icy wind, noble of brow and fond of herring.

This needs work.

The Day Of Grunting

Today is the Day of Grunting, when all around the world, from Aargau to Zug, people join together as one in celebration of that terrifying figure of children’s most awful nightmares, the Grunty Man.

When you have stopped trembling, you may wish to consult this collection of pieces in which mention is made of our dear grunting pal. Think of him, lurking in his filthy cave, grunting and grunting and grunting until the cows come home*.

* NOTA BENE : I have been asked to point out that no cows actually live in the Grunty Man’s cave, so they are never going to “come home” to it. This suggests that the grunting of the Grunty Man will continue for all eternity, just as it has been going on since long, long before the dawn of time.

Meetings With Remarkable Buntings

I was commissioned to write a fat book entitled Meetings With Remarkable Buntings. Biro poised, I was about to set to work when it occurred to me that I did not know whether I was meant to be writing about birds or those decorative strings of triangular flags festooned at festive occasions such as gala days. I rang the publishers to find out.

The person I spoke to sounded about twelve years old and was brimming with confidence, in spite of being clueless. As soon as I uttered the word “bird” she started to babble excitedly about something called Twitter. I slammed the phone down. I was able to do this because I was using a proper telephone, one with a receiver resting on a cradle. With these new-fangled mobile horrors, one cannot slam them down in a satisfying spat of ill temper without risking breakage.

I decided my best bet was to write about both types of bunting and, with the twittery inanities of the publisher sloshing in my ears, took up my biro to write about the bird. But then I paused. The title of the book spoke of Meetings With buntings. I would have to go and find a bunting and commune with it. Now, my ornithological ignorance is staggering, and frankly I wouldn’t know a bunting from a nuthatch or a pipit or a starling or a wagtail. So I rang the Emergency Bird Information Hotline.

The person who answered the phone sounded about twelve years old and was brimming with avian confidence. I told her I wanted to know all there was to know about buntings.

“Do you mean the bird or the decorative strings of triangular flags festooned at festive occasions such as gala days?” she asked.

“Well, you’re the Emergency Bird Information Hotline,” I said, “So I mean the bird, obviously.”

“It might seem obvious to you,” she said, “But you would be surprised how many enquiries we receive about the decorative strings of triangular flags. We are a very festive organisation, forever holding fetes and galas, and so we have bunting hanging permanently outside our headquarters. I think that is why people call us when they want to know about non-bird bunting as well as bunting the bird.”

“Well I want to know about the bird,” I said, but she was prattling on regardless.

“Actually we are having a little garden party this afternoon in celebration of the common chaffinch. Would you like to come? You’ll be able to see our display of bunting – the decorative strings of triangular flags, that is, rather than the birds. But there will be a couple of stuffed chaffinches for you to look at if you want to know more about them.”

“I want to know about the bunting, not the chaffinch!” I shouted, and slammed down the phone, again.

In my rather satisfying spat of ill temper, I went for a walk by the pond and chucked pebbles at swans. Then it occurred to me that I ought to attend the garden party so I could commune with the non-bird bunting. Then at least I would have something to write about. I pranced home and rang the Emergency Bird Information Hotline again. A robotic voice informed me that the line had been disconnected. I repaired to my escritoire and picked up my biro.

Over the course of my life I have met many remarkable buntings, I wrote, lying shamelessly, but who would know?, None more so, perhaps, than Bunting, the Swedish halfbreed skimmel horse which became a film star. Bunting played Pippi Longstocking’s horse Lilla Gubben in a series of films directed by Olle Hellbom.

Of course I had never actually met Bunting, and my knowledge of horses is as patchy as my knowledge of birds, but I felt I was getting to grips with my material. Birds and those decorative strings of triangular flags festooned at festive occasions such as gala days and Emergency Bird Information Hotline garden parties in celebration of the common chaffinch could take a back seat for the time being. By the time I’d finished with Bunting the film star horse, we would be firm friends and boon companions, at least within my head.

I made a mental note to ring the publisher and suggest we amend the title of my book to Meetings With Remarkable Buntings Inside My Head. Then I carried on writing, daddy-o, like a man possessed of unfathomable horse-based inventive genius.

Self-Indulgence At Croydon In Fruit

The Oxford University Press recently published Volume VIII of its majestic Collected Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins. The latest book – a snip at £110 – is devoted to the Diaries, Journals, and Notebooks. As a good Catholic, Hopkins kept a record of the sins he committed, and this new edition includes the previously suppressed details. We learn, for example, of frequent bouts of ”O.H.” (“old habits” – I think we can guess what that means) and of occasions when unseemly thoughts are prompted by the sight of choristers, “cart-boys”, and other young men.

But several other entries are suggestive of the fathomless depths of the poet’s sickening depravity and moral turpitude. He confesses in the privacy of his diary to “looking at and thinking of stallions” and worse, much worse, “self-indulgence at Croydon in fruit”.

How Hopkins escaped prison is one of the enduring mysteries of Victorian Jesuit literature.


Tosspot In A Bivouac

An old favourite from the archives, first posted in 2008. Two words have been added to the original text, giving beetle-browed students of Key Studies something to write an essay about.

Once upon a time, I was scrabbling down the lower reaches of a mountainside, through shingle and scumble and bracken, when I chanced upon a tosspot’s bivouac. It was a surprisingly well-made bivouac, using branches from larch and beech and bladdernut and sycamore trees to form a roof upon which sufficient foliage had been empacted to provide sterling shelter from hailstorms and tempests, although the weather was in fact spectacularly clement. Clement, too, was the name of the tosspot, as I soon learned, for I immediately struck up a conversation with him, as is my habit when I encounter mountainside people.

I learned that he had taken to his bivouac after fleeing. Fleeing from what?, I asked, but he seemed reluctant to tell me. Someone with a less acute insight into human nature than I may have put this down to coyness, but I spent many years studying under Glaggy and Dampster, so I knew there was more than simple shyness behind his diffident mutterings, and I determined to winkle the full story out of him.

So I grabbed the tosspot around the neck with one of my huge bear-like hands, lifted him off his feet, and shook my other huge bear-like hand, made into a fist, in front of his face. As Dampster taught, by attuning one’s fist-shaking to a very precise rhythm, the half-strangled subject is quickly placed in what Glaggy termed a “confessional brain-zone”, akin to having been injected with a truth serum. As I suggested, it took years of training to perfect the technique, and I am afraid a large number of fully-strangled hamsters and stoats lie buried in the grounds of the Institute.

Five minutes later I was fully apprised of the reasons why the tosspot had fled to his mountainside bivouac. He had been employed as an extra in a heist film set on a submarine. Sterling Hayden may have been involved in the production, but this was not entirely clear. What came shining through the tosspot’s account, however, was the claustrophobic atmosphere on the set, which was actually a real, decommissioned submarine. The tenebrous, leaking interior had been slightly refurbished to include heist movie essentials like an intricate security system and a safe full of gold bullion, but otherwise it remained cramped and hot and riddled with clanking machinery. After six days filming, during which time he had to lean against a damaged pump looking mordant, the tosspot had cracked. Tearing off his submariner’s green tunic and cap, he stumbled out of the submarine, swam to the surface of the tank in which it was docked, scrambled up a ladder to the studio canteen, and fled, until he reached the mountainside, where with unaccustomed competence he constructed his bivouac using already fallen branches from larch and beech and bladdernut and sycamore trees, and the foliage thereof, where I bumped into him as I scrambled down from the mountain peak, upon which I had been making an invaluable study of the nesting habits of the mountain lopwit.

Later I was to discover that the continuity person on the film set, distraught at the vanishing of Clement the tosspot, and unable to find anyone of a similar physiognomy to lean against the damaged pump looking mordant, advised the producer to abandon the project. It remained unclear whether this producer was Sterling Hayden, or possibly Hume Cronyn. Either way, the film was never finished.

I put down the tosspot and gave him a look of reproach, and then I carried on down the mountainside in sadness and sorrow.

Gunner Pitkin

Gunner Pitkin found himself stranded behind enemy lines.
He hid in a barn.
There was a cow in the barn.
It was an enemy cow.
Back in the field tent, Gunner Pitkin had had dinned into his head, by the captain, where his duty lay.
It was an enemy cow, so he had to kill it.
Gunner Pitkin was not the brightest of men, but he realised that if he used his gun to shoot the cow, the noise of the report could alert the enemy to his presence in the barn.
Back in the field tent, Gunner Pitkin had had dinned into his head, by the captain, that part of his duty was to avoid capture at all costs.
Gunner Pitkin looked wildly around the barn, seeking an instrument by which he might bring about the death of the enemy cow, but silently.
He saw a churn and a hoe and a spade.
Gunner Pitkin put down his gun and picked up the spade.
He approached the cow.
Gunner Pitkin hoisted the spade high, ready to bring it bashing down repeatedly and relentlessly upon the cow’s head.
Then it occurred to him that there lives the dearest freshness deep down things, even cows, even enemy cows.
He put the spade down.
Gunner Pitkin lay upon a bale of straw and fell asleep.
Several hours later he was captured by the enemy.
In the prisoner of war camp, Gunner Pitkin occupied his time making toy cows out of balsa wood and dough.
By the time the peace was signed on Luneburg Heath, he had made hundreds of toy cows.
They can now be found in a museum, a converted barn in a daffodil-splattered field that used to be behind enemy lines.

Tribulations Of The Buttonmaker

Tribulations Of The Buttonmaker is an opera by the French-Aboriginal Australian composer Di Géridu. It has not been performed since the early 19th century, possibly because of its vast cast, loopy libretto, and/or musical pomposity.

In Act One, Fulgencio the buttonmaker is beset by tribulations. He is attacked by an angry spider. His hat is blown off in a high wind. He chokes on a gobstopper. One of his buttons falls down a drain. He is excommunicated by the Pope. Brutes break both his arms. The weft of his tunic is in disarray. His villa is infested by peewits. He contracts a dangerous ague. Mice nibble his bootlaces. Another of his buttons falls down a different drain. His bowl of plums is poisoned. Malign sprites with pitchforks torment him in his sleep. The rent on his palazzo is increased. He is hoist by his own petard. Then he is hoist by several other people’s petards. He is followed everywhere he goes by a rancorous chicken. He develops an allergy to spinach. He accidentally drops another button down another drain. The earth trembles. The stars are blotted out. The sky falls down

Act One closes with Fulgencio singing the monotonous dirge “O! Woe unto me for I have been attacked by an angry spider and my hat was blown off in a high wind and I choked on a gobstopper and one of my buttons fell down a drain and I was excommunicated by the Pope and brutes broke both my arms and the weft of my tunic was in disarray and my villa was infested by peewits and I contracted a dangerous ague and mice nibbled my bootlaces and another of my buttons fell down a different drain and my bowl of plums was poisoned and malign sprites with pitchforks tormented me in my sleep and the rent on my palazzo was increased and I was hoist by my own petard and then I was hoist by several other people’s petards and I was followed everywhere I went by a rancorous chicken and I developed an allergy to spinach and I accidentally dropped another button down another drain and the earth trembled and the stars were blotted out and the sky fell down and I’m feeling so lonesome I could die”.

In Acts Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven, Eight, Nine, Ten, Eleven, Twelve, Thirteen and Fourteen Fulgencio the buttonmaker suffers further tribulations, until, as the curtain falls, the stage is littered with corpses and the angry spider scuttles off, stage right.

Seething Dobson

Dobson was seething. The twentieth century’s great out of print pamphleteer was sitting at his breakfast table absolutely seething. Pausing before spooning a dollop of marmalade-style pipless jellied-eel goo into her mouth, Dobson’s inamorata Marigold Chew observed “You appear to be seething, Dobson”.

“Indeed I am, oh light of my life,” said the pamphleteer, “I have a lengthy list of exasperations which I would happily recite to you, the better that you may understand the multifarious sources of my seething.”

“Perhaps not, Dobson,” said Marigold Chew, “Instead, I would rather that you seethe elsewhere than at the breakfast table. Have you considered going to Seething to seethe?”

“I have not,” said Dobson, “And where in the name of high heaven is Seething?”

“Seething is a tiny village in the county of Norfolk,” said Marigold Chew, “About nine miles south-east of Norwich. Its church, St Margaret’s, has a round tower, though that is not strictly relevant. I am told that the villagers of Seething often seethe, about all sorts of exasperations, and I feel sure you would find a welcome there.”

“Then seethe in Seething I shall!” shouted Dobson, and he rose from the table, pulled on his Ivory Coast crop-dusting co-pilot’s boots, and crashed out of the door into the teeming downpour. So heavy was the rain, so thick the mist, so broken his pocket compass, that the pamphleteer became almost immediately lost. When, eventually, he came to a halt, he was not in Seething at all. Dobson had wandered as far as the county of Cornwall, and found himself in the tiny village of Splat.

Dobson was splatting.