A pigeon arrives bearing a note and a snippage from OutaSpaceman. “I felt you needed to see this picture”, reads the note. Seldom has a man been more correct in his hunch.
A couple of years ago I had reason to mention a crevasse wanker. Today, while solving the Guardian crossword, I was reminded of that rather more charming figure of the mountaineering world, Gertrude Chumpot, known as the crevasse poppet (16 down, 3 down). Gertrude earned this soubriquet because she was a sort of one-woman mountain rescue service, adept at saving the lives and limbs of hapless mountaineers who, not looking where they were going, plummeted down crevasses to what would otherwise have been certain death.
One of the great mysteries of the crevasse poppet was the manner in which she effected her rescues. Eschewing the usual kit of ropes and pitons and whatever else is used by standard mountain rescue teams, she employed a form of inexplicable mesmerism. Standing at the edge of a crevasse wherein languished a moaning ninny who had fallen in some minutes earlier, Gertrude would make enigmatic sweeping movements of her arms while babbling gibberish and gazing at the sky. By this means, she somehow levitated the nitwit out of the crevasse. At least, that is what she told the Commission of Inquiry when it was considering whether to prosecute her for witchcraft. She was such a charming poppet that the case was dropped.
The crossword is particularly ingenious because it is littered with references to her story. The chairman of the Commission, for example, was an unromantic taciturn Lett (23 across, 1 down, 24 across), named Arpad Klingklang. Arriving for the first session on his horse (9 across), he gave a press conference where he stated that he was ready to burn Gertrude Chumpot immediately, given that in his view it was a clear case of possession (11 across) by Old Nick (10 across). The crevasse poppet had only been on the witness stand for a few minutes, however, before the Lett was like a moonstruck calf, hopelessly in love. Soon enough, he called proceedings to a halt, put all the paperwork through a shredder (5 down), and was persuaded to take a rest cure (26 across) at a seaside resort (7 down), where he spent his time drinking café noir (8 across), dancing the habanera (20 across) with various ladies (22 across), and poring over erotica (17 across). In an attempt to rid him of his Gertrude-mania, the staff fed him a diet of gruel containing bits of leek (2 down) and locust (22 down).
There are several Alpine folk songs about the crevasse poppet, usually yodelled to the accompaniment of an alpenhorn. If you listen to them you will probably need to take a rest cure yourself.
Madge Strudwick, Madge Strudwick, where goest thou?
I’m going to the barn for to milk me a cow.
Madge Strudwick, Madge Strudwick, what will you do then?
I’ll read the hot entrails of a fresh-slaughtered hen.
After studying this verse for several hours, pupils are required to write a potted biography of Madge Strudwick, of no fewer than twenty thousand words, following her progress from the iron cot in the orphanage to a pauper’s grave, and taking in significant events in her life, including the appearance of milk teeth, theft of her breakfast porridge by bears, pole-vaulting competitions, airship disasters, the darning of a rent in her polka dot dress, ignominy and pelf, later further pelf, deployment of the Snodgrass implement, pantry etiquette, on her first looking into Chapman’s Homer, dreary rainy autumnal afternoons, the thing with the spatchcock, the encounter with a spider while sat on a tuffet eating curds and whey, what she really thought about curds, the pricking of her thumbs, dust in her boudoir, the agony in the garden, gardening tips, her reputation as a chatterbox, clown murder, shortcake recipes, planetary influences, chocolate swiss roll, gladioli, Choctaw lineage, speech impediment, holiday snapshots, filbert hedges, the pounding of those infernal drums, pictures of Jap girls in synthesis, collusion with vampires, baffling reappearance of milk teeth, sun worship, pet budgerigar, possible sighting on the grassy knoll on 22 November 1963, ribbons, melodrama, shoes, bus pass, library ticket, pippy bag, anaconda, hoop, shutters, antimacassar, nunnery, pincers, peg, tap, bedevilment, soot, soap, soup. Extra points will be given for pointy bits.
Twenty-six years ago, the Malice Aforethought Press published Penitence And Farm Implements in an edition of twenty-six copies. Each copy was individually lettered from A to Z. The front and back covers contained twenty-six photographs, snipped out of (I think) old copies of National Geographic magazine. One of the original snippages was pasted in on the inside title page of each copy.
The preface – or “A Few Words Before The Drivel” – ran as follows:
The seventy-five pieces in this book were written between 1981 and 1987; they are arranged here in no particular order. Readers whose brains become frazzled by the often turgid nature of these poems may prefer to muck about with the illustrative matter; this consists of sheets of sticky labels inserted here and there within the book. Indeed, it is possible to ignore the texts completely and to spend hours of idle amusement rearranging the pictures in jigsaw-like fashion, or to remove the labels from the book entirely and use them as charming decorative accessories, guaranteed to brighten up the home, office, or slaughterhouse.
To which was appended a line from John Aubrey’s Brief Lives:
“after his Booke came out, he fell mightily in his Practize, and ’twas beleeved by the vulgar that he was crack-brained”.
The “illustrative matter” consisted of further snippages from National Geographic, printed – in black and white – on to sheets of Gestetner sticky labels. Of the written content, the less said the better.
Penitence And Farm Implements is possibly the rarest of rare out of print pamphlets published by the Malice Aforethought Press during the last quarter of the last century. I would be interested to hear from any long-time Hooting Yard fanatics who actually own a copy. There can only be twenty-five of you in total.
You’d be surprised how many people around the world appreciate sausages.
A world sausage expert quoted this morning on Farming Today on Radio Four.
I can see my father now
With his spade
Digging up potatoes
In a field
As rain pours down
Then trudging back
His boots in the muck
To the filthy cottage
Where my mother clutches her rosary beads
And prays to the Blessed Virgin
For more rain
And more potatoes
To feed the visiting priest
For some considerable time I have been keeping track of Schneebaumhooft. There is a map of the world on the wall of my study, into which I have stuck many many pins. They are colour-coded – pinky-red for possible sightings, reddy-red for probable sightings, and blood-red for definite and incontrovertible sightings. In certain lights, particularly towards evening, the reds look identical, and this gives me a certain comfort.
Each of the blood-red definite sightings of Schneebaumhooft is accompanied by a photograph, usually a snapshot taken hastily with a concealed camera. These are pinned up on the wall next to the map of the world, with a post-it note attached to the edge of each photograph giving details of date and location and, where known, the name of the agent who took the snap. Many of my agents are unwilling to divulge their identities. I used to make use of a system of aliases based on an alphabetical list of seaside entertainers of the interwar years, but I became too interested in the entertainers, and spent far too much of my time tracking down old end-of-the-pier variety theatre ephemera instead of tracking down what I was charged with tracking down, which was Schneebaumhooft.
As far as I have been able to gather, Schneebaumhooft was never employed in any kind of capacity as an entertainer. It is laughable to think of him on stilts, for example, or having a custard pie splurged into his face by an accomplice. And yet that is how he appears to me in my dreams. Sometimes he is singing a humorous song, or doing some business with a couple of napkins and a budgerigar while an audience of working-class day-trippers from grim industrial hellholes roar with laughter or gasp in wonderment before breaking into applause, clapping punctuated with whoops and cheers. When I wake from these dreams I go into my study and gaze at the wall, and I am reminded that there has not been a single sighting of Schneebaumhooft anywhere near the seaside.
For some considerable time I have been wondering why Schneebaumhooft is so terrified of the sea. The sea is never still. It is vast and it is merciless. Perhaps that is why.
Zamoyski is adept at painterly scene-setting. One vivid paragraph shows the Paris revolution of 1848, which sent King Louis Philippe scurrying into exile and ignited populist insurrections across Europe, as caused by a clumsy bandsman with a big drum. After a day of innocuous, anti-climactic Paris demonstrations, a company of soldiers stationed on a boulevard corner tried to retreat from a rowdy but hardly murderous crowd into the courtyard of the ministry of foreign affairs. They were blocked because the musician carrying the drum got jammed in the porte-cochère of the ministry. As a result some soldiers had to turn and face the crowd, grew rattled, and fired shots that left over 30 dead. The mangled corpses were piled onto a wagon, which was trundled through the streets of Paris by rabble-rousers crying for revenge. It was the drummer, rather than the previous uprisings in Palermo and Naples, and the granting of constitutions in Sicily, Sardinia and Tuscany, that triggered the continent-wide uprisings of 1848.
Rupert Davenport-Hines reviewing Phantom Terror: The Threat of Revolution and the Repression of Liberty, 1789 – 1848 by Adam Zamoyski in The Spectator.
After my debaucheries in the fleshpots of the east, I sought further debaucheries in the fleshpots of the west. I was sated for a time but then I grew restless, and discovered fresh debaucheries in the fleshpots of the south. Some time later I went north, but in the north I found no fleshpots, just ice and snow and bitter gales and storms so cold my eyelids were frozen shut and I could not see. I stumbled about, blind upon an ice floe, and heard the ominous grunting of bears. The wind was howling, and my brain was howling, but I made no sound, for my frozen lips were blue, and fused together.
This was not the death I had foreseen. I had imagined myself a dissolute voluptuary, sprawled on a divan, my belly full of wine, keeling over suddenly and unknowingly. The only sign of my passing would be when the resident band brought some hot carnal jazz number to an end and began to play a funereal dirge. Instead I was alone and cold in a blizzard of whiteness, about to be mauled and eaten by bears I could not even see.
Then oh joy! I heard the clatter of a helicopter above, and soon enough I was hauled aboard to safety. When my eyelids thawed enough to open, I saw that my saviour was Carruthers. Carruthers, my old mucker from long ago, before my debaucheries in the fleshpots of the east and west and south. Carruthers to whom I had confessed, back then, that the pounding of those infernal drums was driving me mad. Carruthers who comforted me when I went to pieces in the tropics. Now here he was again, at the controls of the helicopter.
“You came much too far north,” he said, briefly removing the pipe clamped between his manly jaws, “You must have overshot the fleshpots on your journey. There are indeed northern fleshpots. I shall take you straight to them so you can continue with your debaucheries.”
“No!”, I cried, as soon as my lips had thawed sufficiently to allow me to open my mouth, “I have learned a valuable moral lesson in the inhospitable bleakness of the ice-girt north. From this day on I shall shun debaucheries of all kinds, and devote my life to proper manly pursuits. Just keep me away from those drums and their infernal pounding.”
Carruthers nodded. And with that, he changed course, and took me to some corner of the earth with overcast skies and light breezes, mild and with occasional drizzle, temperate, temperate, and free of all temptations.
Many thanks to long-time Hooting Yard devotee Jonathan Coleclough, from whom I received in the post today this splendid pamphlet. Mr Coleclough suspects it was published in 2008, though whether or not it is out of print is not clear.
“The dictionary ends sooner than the soul.” – Frederic Myers, letter to Arthur Sidgwick, 14 July 1867.
When we reach the end of the dictionary, there are no more words. We have exhausted them. We are left, then, with three choices.
We may lapse into silence. This is a strategy much favoured by anchorites and hermits and some saints and saintly persons. I have, myself, been described as a Diogenesian recluse, and not without good reason.
We may resort to barbaric grunting. This seems to be a popular choice among many of the shuffling scowling denizens of my bailiwick. Whenever I go sashaying forth – for even a recluse must sashay forth from time to time – I hear more grunts than words. But where once I thumbed my nose in patrician contempt at those grunters, now I understand that they have been reduced to their barbarism because they have used up all the words in the dictionary, from A to Z. They reached the end.
We may invent new words. We may coin new sounds. Glogscheen, snup, parapapahooft, swarfoogie. Some might say we are thus babbling nonsense. Others would counter that our nonce-words are divinely inspired, that we are “speaking in tongues”. Once towards the end of the last century, I sat in a hall in a meeting of the religiously devout, several of whose members loomed over me and so spoke in tongues, to cure me of my woes. Those woes are past, and I may doubt that incoherent babbling was the cause of their passing, but can I ever be sure?
There is a fourth choice. When we reach the end of the dictionary, we turn back to the beginning, where each and every word awaits us anew.
Sometimes I find myself fretting about things which common sense tells me are absolutely not worth fretting about. Yet still I fret. Think of it as idiotic fretting.
The latest matter to consume my stupid attention is as follows. I was struck, when watching Danish television dramas such as Borgen and The Killing, by the immense politeness of the Danes. In both shows, the characters are forever saying “Takk” (“Thank you”), certainly more so than the average Brit or American would do. I am not familiar with real life in Denmark, but I assume that the writers of these series are making every effort to reproduce the actual speech of contemporary Danes.
In Game Of Thrones, by contrast, we are told by Ser Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen) that “there is no word for ‘thank you’ in Dothraki”. Given that the Dothraki are a savage and barbaric race whose idea of a square meal is to consume a whole horse-heart, raw, the absence of an expression of gratitude is not surprising.
But what is bothering me is this : when Danish dramas are shown on Dothraki television, how in heaven’s name will the subtitle-writers cope with all those “Takk”s?
It is, to be sure, a proper quandary, if an idiotic one.
Last night I dreamed I went to Dripping Trellis again. Dripping Trellis, where fresh raindrops dripped from the trellises in its many gardens. Dripping Trellis, where we woke each dawn to the clink of the milkman’s bottles, and his morning song, that odd, strangulated keening, the words never quite decipherable. Dripping Trellis, through which in the afternoons the mobile library would putter, before parking by a dripping trellis, and we would return our books, overdue, overdue, and damp from lying unread on lawns in summer rainfall. It was the bucolic hamlet of my infancy, where I lived until the age of six. It is a deluded memory. There is not a grain of truth in it.
In my dream I was skipping and gambolling across a lawn, a huge lawn, in a garden rife with peewits and starlings and lupins and hollyhocks and Vietcong. The milkman was there, with much milk, but the milk was pink and gold, like the sky at sunset. He was singing, and the mobile librarian was accompanying him on sackbut. There may have been elves. I pranced towards a grot and peered within, and saw lanterns, and caged birds, and my papa. Then tish tosh tish tosh Blunkett of Jago’s Peak. Raindrops dripped off the thousands of trellises in Dripping Trellis. A man with a klaxon made an announcement about a wolf, and waved a flag, and I knew, though I did not see, that the flag had been darned by a convict in a distant pompous land. I had toast and marmalade. There was a Nissen hut, and on its roof perched an owl, and the owl hooted, and I awoke.
Outside, the rain was pouring down, and a bitter wind was howling across the desolate expanse of cement and concrete and tar where I was born, where I have always lived, where there is not a single trellis from which the raindrops may drip.
To a man of [Frederic] Myers’ eager temperament restrained indifference was not possible; his pent-up enthusiasm was sooner or later sure to find some line of discharge. And it so happened that a ready line of discharge was at that point presented to him by the crusading Christianity of Mrs. Josephine Butler, the still young and beautiful wife of George Butler, Vice-Principal of Cheltenham College, and later Principal of Liverpool College. Mrs. Butler later, of course, became famous for her work among prostitutes and her campaign against the Contagious Diseases Acts. At this time however she was chiefly engaged in what might be described as the spiritual seduction of promising young men. Her religion was emotional rather than dogmatic, and her methods of conversion were simple. Having aroused her quarry by her exciting concern for his welfare, she would flatter him with an earnest account of her own inner trials and victories – an account delivered perhaps at twilight while she lay with her slim form stretched out upon a sofa – and at last capture him by a well-staged dénouement. She might, for instance, call him into her room to find her kneeling in pale beauty before her mirror, devoutly praying for his salvation. Only men with the coolest heads could resist such an appeal; and Myers was not one of them. During the next few years he met or visited Mrs. Butler repeatedly, and his way of life changed so much that his friends hardly knew him. One of them, Richard Jebb, noted in his Journal for 26 February 1866: “Myers devotes himself to self-discipline. He never goes anywhere. He gets up at 6.30 and goes to bed at 10.00. His days are spent in reading Ecce Homo and in thinking.”
Alan Gauld, The Founders of Psychical Research (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968)