As you will have gathered, I have been in the doldrums for the past couple of weeks. I fully intend to write something about the dolls and the drums, but until then, here is the second part of Hooting Yard Live At Brewer’s Bar, recorded last month. Listen and learn.
If you are in the vicinity of a riverbank, and you see two otters, this is known as Double Otters. Mark your little dun cardboard slip accordingly, in pencil, and take it to the kiosk. The man at the kiosk – argumentative, boisterous, catarrh-riddled, dismal, eggy (as in the Beatles’ song), flip, gaunt, horrible, ill, jaded, knock-knee’d, lascivious, mordant – will exchange your slip for a prize, usually a biro or a balloon.
He is a fallen man. When you are not looking, he will blub into a napkin.
Bim cut his chops with chocks. But Bam bamboozled Bim. Bim fought back with flex. Bam unleashed his flocks.
What are we to make of this? That Bim was holy, and Bam was not? Or quite the reverse? But wherein does holiness reside? We know it does not reside in holes, the holes, for example, in Bim’s socks. There were no holes in Bam’s socks, for he was a darner. Or it might be that Bam went sockless. Either way, we know that Bim had never set eyes on a darning-needle, not even the Darning-Needle of Doom.
The Darning-Needle of Doom is the one that pierced Bam’s soul. At its prick, he heard a bell toll. It tolled for Bam, but it did not toll for Bim. Bim was on his uppers. He drooled into a cup. It was a tin cup he won in a wrestling match. His opponent? Bam.
Oh, Bim and Bam. They are inseparable. When Bim looks in a mirror, he sees Bam. When Bam looks in the same mirror, having snatched it from Bim, he sees Bam too. Of course he does! You nitwits! What else would Bam see in a mirror but himself, reflected?
Why then does Bim see Bam in the mirror? Perhaps it is the angle he holds it at. Bim is ignorant of the great mysteries of geometry. But so is Bam. Bam had no schooling to speak of, nor can he speak, for he is mute. Bim babbles.
Bim and Bam the flowerpot men, raucous as crows, yellow as custard. They preen in the sunlight dappling the hideous hills of Hoon. They are gits and they know it. It is time you knew it too, and now you do.
Most buffers are not squelchy, but some are, some are. I am thinking, in particular, of the buffers in the submerged portion at the end of the line at Pointy Town. They are not just squelchy buffers, they are very squelchy buffers, at times exceedingly so, Adding to their squelchiness is the fact that the approach to the buffers, for several hundred plodes, is equipped, at regular intervals, with baffles, of both metal and sponge. The baffles first appear in the unsubmerged portion of the line but continue in the submerged portion until we are within spitting distance of the squelchy buffers themselves. Not that we would actually spit, for that would contravene the by-laws, unsurprisingly.
The poet-in-residence at Pointy Town Terminus, Dennis Beerpint, has recently published an anthology entitled Shall I compare thee to a squelchy buffer?, the answer to which would appear to be “no, I would rather you didn’t” (see Canto XXVII in the collection). Beerpint spent many long hours perched on a camping-stool, half-submerged, close by the squelchy buffers, smoking his pipe and jotting down his matchless poetic aperçus with a propelling pencil in a notepad. Curiously, he had nothing whatsoever to say about the metal and sponge baffles, although it is possible he is saving them for a second anthology which, like the first, will be available at the Pointy Town Terminus Kiosk.
Hoplites often disport themselves near the squelchy buffers, in historical reenactment tableaux vivants, but they do not hop.
Occasionally, it has been remarked that prose will simply peter out.
Things have been quiet here for a while. That is because I have been concentrating on completing my masterwork, the Summa Theologica. As its title indicates, this is a theological summary which attempts to explain the ways of God to Man – or at least to my readership. It has involved untold research, over many years, the collection of thousands, if not millions, of notes, all written painstakingly in pencil on Nabokovian index cards. Now at last I have set about the task of marshalling all this into a coherent narrative that is at once jaw-droppingly erudite and also as readable as any airport bookstall blockbuster.
The opening sentence is, in a sense, the summa theologica of the Summa Theologica. Having consulted my notes, I wrote:
It is blindingly obvious, to even the most dim-witted and wet-behind-the-ears six-year-old, that there is only one god, all-powerful and all-knowing, and that is the hideous bat-god Fatso.
Unfortunately, after writing this, I reached an impasse. It is, indeed, blindingly obvious, so what else is there to say? The simple truth is that we must all bow down or, better, prostrate ourselves upon our bellies, like the creatures that creep upon the earth, before the terrible countenance of the hideous bat-god Fatso, for ever and ever Amen. If you do not grasp that fact, then you are doomed, yea unto the umpteenth generation, and you will eat nought but nettles and drink nothing but evaporated milk flavoured with the bitter tears of grumpy German film directors, and you will be dressed in rags, and the rags will be besmirched with the blood of slaughtered innocents, and your limbs will flail helplessly, and your brain will boil.
If you require further evidence of the unflinchingly brutal reality of the hideous bat-god Fatso, see here.
There was a happy conjunction of words in the Guardian crossword the other day. When solved, the leftmost column on the grid read ANDORRAN VANDAL. Remarkably, these were precisely the words which appeared, in the form of punched-out holes, on the small piece of dun cardboard spat out by the Hooting Yard Analogue Topic Generating Machine, a piece of gubbins I had knocked up for me by a boffin.
Most writers will tell you that the question they are most often asked is “where do you get your ideas from?”Most writers will also tell you that it is a brain-numbingly stupid question to which there is no pat answer. But I have no difficulty answering it. For many years now, I have not had to summon a single idea in my head. Instead, what happens is that a variety of arcane and abstruse data is fed into the Hooting Yard Analogue Topic Generating Machine and, after humming and buzzing for a while, it spits out a small piece of dun cardboard on which is punched out a word or, more often, a few words, thus providing me with my topic and freeing me from the tedium of having to think of anything myself.
So remarkable was the coincidence of my given topic being replicated, exactly, in the Guardian crossword, that I fell out of my chair. How often does that actually happen in real life? But I did, I toppled from my chair and lay sprawled on the carpet, dribbling. After some minutes, I realised that this was a far more comfortable position than sitting in the chair, so I stayed put. The only drawback was that my pencil and paper were up on the desk, and I could not reach them. Still, it was very restful on the floor, so I dozed off. That is why nothing appeared here, on that day, about the ANDORRAN VANDAL, nor indeed has anything appeared here for several days in a row. I have become regrettably enamoured of lying on the floor, dribbling and dozing.
Had I the pep to tell you about the ANDORRAN VANDAL, you would learn that this was a sobriquet once given to Babinsky 2, the idiot half-brother of the lumbering walrus-moustached serial killer Babinsky. Babinsky 2 earned the name during a period in which he went rampaging around Andorra smashing up telephone kiosks and daubing ruderies upon road signs. He dressed in full Andorran national costume while so engaged, and was thus mistaken for a native of that mountainous land.
Further details can be found in a footnote on page 841 of A Thick, Chunky History of Vandalism in Andorra, From 1554 Up To Last Thursday (Spurious Tomes, 2016).
I mentioned my hope that one day a blue plaque would commemorate the site of last week’s live appearance at Brewer’s Bar. Jonathan Coleclough, who attended that night, has been out and about with his box camera and reports that the plaque is already in place.
An exciting new podcast is now available for your listening pleasure. Hooting Yard Live At Brewer’s Bar (Part One) documents the occasion, last week, when Mr Key spouted sweeping paragraphs of majestic prose at a live audience in a small watering-hole in Shacklewell Lane. A plaque may appear on the building some centuries hence. Part Two will follow shortly.
I was intrigued to learn that the new president of the Land Formerly Known As Burma goes by the resounding name Tin Jaw. At least, that is how the BBC pronounces Htin Kyaw on the Today programme.
Though I wish Mr Jaw no ill, past or present, I cannot help wishing that he personifies a spectacular variant of nominative determinism and that, at some point earlier in his life, he suffered a catastrophic injury to his face which led to him being surgically fitted with a tin jaw.
A tin jaw is perhaps not as gritty and heroic as, say, an iron jaw, but it is a fine name for a head of state.
Yesterday, I noted that Elspeth, a character in the soap opera These Plastic Betrayals, was undone by foxgloves. This prompted a letter from Dr Ruth Pastry.
Dear Mijnheer Key, she writes, presuming me to be a Dutchman for reasons best known to herself, I could not help noticing that in the latest episode of These Plastic Betrayals, Elspeth is undone by foxgloves. Now, I yield to no one in the sheer intensity of my admiration for your sure grasp of just about everything in the known universe – with the obvious exception of ornithology, of which you are quite dramatically ignorant – but I must confess as I read these words I spat out my lukewarm vitamin-enhanced milk ‘n’ Lucozade pep drink, all over the tablecloth, embroidered, as it so happens, with a design of foxgloves, by the noted tablecloth designer Dot Foxglovecloth.
Certain other details in the episode, such as vinegar dusks, and stunned nightingales plummeting from rooftops, have the unmistakeable stamp of verisimilitude, of actual phenomena in an actual world actually occurring. But to be undone by foxgloves? Come, come, Mijnheer Key, this strikes me, and I am sure many others, as a fancy born of an overheated brain. I think you would be well advised to go and lie down in a darkened room with a cold compress upon your forehead, and perhaps a cassette recording of sounds designed to encourage relaxation, such as the songs of whales, the breeze rustling through a clump of aspens, or Aleister Crowley invoking the Great God Pan.
Yours more in sorrow than in actuality, Dr Ruth Pastry
It is always a pleasure to hear from Dr Pastry, and I usually reread her letters several times before adding them to the bundle, tied with pink ribbon, which I keep in a cardboard box underneath my sink. On this occasion, however, I tossed the letter aside after a single reading, and am minded to set fire to it later, after I have set out on my very own Quest For Fire, babbling in an artificial primitive language devised by the late Mancunian polymath Anthony Burgess.
Dr Pastry will, I hope, forgive me for asserting that she has no idea what she is talking about, whereas I, as always, do. Unlike Dr Pastry, I have scoured the literature, and found innumerable – innumerable! – instances, particularly in soap operas, of characters being undone by foxgloves, unhinged by petunias, and unmanned by primroses. I cannot actually provide any concrete examples here and now, obviously, because I have far better things to do with my time, such as going on a Quest For Fire, and eating my breakfast, and gazing disconsolately out of the window at the crows on the lawn in the rain, and it may well be that I have not really scoured the literature and not really found any examples of floral undoing, or unhingement, or unmanning, whatever that latter might mean, and my claim to have done so is but the product of an overheated brain, but let us not forget that in the country of the Swiss roll, the roll is Swiss.
Now, if somebody will hand me a megaphone, I will shout my head off from a vantage point on a promontory looking out over the vast wet hysterical sea, and I shall frighten the fish and the dolphins and the plankton and the krill, and I shall awake the Kraken!
These plastic betrayals, oh how they discomfit me. Harken, child, harken. Elspeth is keening next to the ha-ha, undone, again, by foxgloves, again. Of Hubert, the verbal mash is clogged, as if by butter unclarified. The child preens near the fort.
They are taking a heronry census. Noddy’s cap snagged on a twig. Elspeth miscounted the bobbins. Of Hubert, oh Hubert!, where is he in that mosh pit? A flock of seagulls might pass unnoticed before the gong is sounded for supper.
The clairvoyant, Hetty, wears night-vision goggles. The child’s toffee apple lies untouched on the windowsill. Elspeth has come unstrung. Of Hubert, dear Hubert, word comes of bathtub gin. They count the herons again, using tally sticks.
What will become of this parcel of land? Soil ne’er smelled so soily. They gathered around the box to watch Blunkett weeping, again. The grain of his voice is tape-damaged. Elspeth drops her empty teacup on the rug. The child genuflects. Of Hubert, silly old Hubert, no angels wassail.
These vinegar dusks tug me to The Clappers. Hetty is up in the tower. The distant Carpathians shimmer. A dog returns to its vomit. Elspeth, and poor Hubert, and the child, pore over photographs. Blunkett in extremis. Hubert’s weasel moustache.
The doctor is coming, on his bicycle. Stunned nightingales plummet from the rooftops. Now the child wails for a choc ice. These iron nostrums, oh how they break us. The box in the corner has collapsed like a pudding. Harken. Harken, to the lovely gunshots.
Breakfast, the next day, veered from egg to herring. The copper came with his truncheon. Hetty’s garb was polka-dotted. They awaited the final heronry count. Pips were spat into the empty grate. Blunkett seemed a distant memory. Wolves circled the grange.
There will be no further episodes of this shabby soap opera. There was a damning review in The Slop Bucket. “Incoherent gibberish from first to last.” And – pffft! – it is swept away and gone.
At a loose end, I signed up for Pilbeam’s Crash-Course in the Imitation of Christ. Earlier in the day, plodding through the streets, I had been given a leaflet. The hawker who handed it to me was a person of regrettable grubbiness, and some of his filth inevitably besmirched the leaflet, which was smudged, with the effect that I misread The Imitation of Christ as The Imitation of Chris.
Chris who?, I wondered, hoping that Pilbeam was taking an overfamiliar tone with regard to the actor Christopher Plummer. It so happened that I was wearing a Tyrolean jacket not unlike the one sported by Plummer in his career-defining role as Captain Von Trapp in the film version of The Sound of Music. Dressed so, I felt I would have an excellent chance of crashing through the crash course and perhaps winning a plaudit or two.
Alas, a falling raindrop washed away the smudge and I realised the course was about Christ rather than Christopher Plummer. Still, I was, as I said, at a loose end, so I headed for the hall where the course was to be held, and I signed up.
Throng and hubbub packed the hall, but I found an empty seat and sat down. Soon enough, a fellow I assumed to be Pilbeam appeared on a dais at the front. The first thing he said was “I am not Pilbeam”
Had I been lured here under false pretences? The speaker cut a pale and widdershins figure and was almost as grime-splattered as the hawker in the street. It may even have been the same man, no doubt a rascal. But I had nothing better to do, so I continued to sit and listen.
“I am sorry to say that Pilbeam is not able to be with us today. He has been incapacitated by Mitteleuropean pig flu, and has asked me to deputise for him. While I would never make so bold as to compare myself to Pilbeam, please be assured that you are in good hands. I have spent many years studying under Pilbeam, eating from the same table, having my hair cut at the same barber’s, with the same pair of scissors, and wearing the same size shoes, like Beckett and Joyce. My name is Lars, rather than Pilbeam, but I can say truthfully that I am the next best thing to Pilbeam when it comes to delivering this crash course.
“So let us turn now to the crash course itself, the aim of which is to furnish you with the skills necessary to imitate Christ. As it is a crash course, we will not be seeking to imitate Christ in every particular. If we tried that” – he chuckled – “we would become so Christ-like there would be a risk of blasphemy. Far better, according to Pilbeam’s precepts, to imitate Christ in a limited way, enough for us to benefit and to become holier than we are, but not so much that we threaten the unique and ineffable goodness of Christ Our Lord Himself.
“I trust you are all keeping up. Excellent. In what way, then, shall we imitate Christ? You will all, I hope, be familiar with the story of the Gadarene swine. It is to be found in all three of the Synoptic Gospels, in Matthew 8 : 28-32, in Mark 5 : 1-13, and in Luke 8 : 26-33. Briefly put, a poor man possessed by demons begs Christ to release him from his torment. Christ duly casts the demons out of the man, and into some nearby pigs, which thereupon go rushing headlong into the sea, and drown. Certain details differ in the three accounts, but that is the general idea.
“Now, Pilbeam states that we can imitate Christ by driving a herd of pigs into the sea, or indeed into any large body of water. We need not worry our little heads about finding a man possessed by demons, and all that hullabaloo. For our purposes, we take a crash course shortcut by imagining we have cast the demons out of the man and into the pigs, and we simply goad the pigs into the water and make damn sure none of them manages to make it back to shore. The important thing, in accurately imitating Christ, is drowning the pigs. Any questions?”
I put up my hand.
“In your opening remarks,” I piped up, when pointed at, “You said that Pilbeam could not be with us because he is suffering from Mitteleuropean pig flu. Could it be that this whole crash course is his way of exacting vicarious revenge upon the flu-ridden pigs he blames for his condition?”
There were several gasps from the audience. Lars paused, menacingly, before responding.
“Seldom,” he roared, eventually, “Seldom have I ever heard so vile a calumny! O, vile!, vile!, the calumny you have committed upon poor saintly bed-ridden Mitteleuropean pig flu-ridden Pilbeam, that paragon among crash course tutors in the Imitation of Christ! How dare you, sir, how dare you?”
“I’m sorry,” I said, “It was just a passing thought, that was all.”
Lars seemed mollified, if only slightly.
“There is a fourth, apocryphal version of the story of the Gadarene swine,” he said, “In Pilbeam 6 : 42-51. Here, after driving the pigs into the sea, Christ has his henchmen – sorry, Apostles – attack the man from whom demons have been cast out, beating him insensible with spades and shovels before injecting his bruised and battered body with a virulent strain of Mitteleuropean pig flu and then abandoning him on a remote atoll far, far out at sea. Usually we do not attempt to enact the Pilbeam version on this crash course, for want of a volunteer, but on this occasion we shall take great pleasure in doing so.”
And Lars clapped his hands and summoned his Apostles – sorry, henchmen – and they dragged me out of the hall and off towards a coastal pig farm, and the vast, wet, unforgiving sea.
The usual pronunciation of vase, in this country, is as a rhyme with mars. In the United States, it is more common for vase to rhyme with lace. Growing up on an Essex council estate with a Belgian mother whose native tongue was Flemish, however, I learned to rhyme vase with jaws.
This was but one example of my mother’s idiosyncratic English. She spoke of the old films we loved to watch as being “in white and black”, and regularly deployed a sort of guttural expostulation my sister still refers to as “the Flemish sound”. This was used to express a vast swathe of emotions, from surprise to incredulity to contempt to disgust to … well, pretty much any response.
The word chasm is one that we probably encounter more in written than spoken English. My mother pronounced it with a soft ch, as in chase or chicken. So I did too, on the rare occasions I said it aloud. I only learned the correct, hard c pronunciation in my late teens, when I was reading a passage aloud in an English class at school and my teacher raised an amused eyebrow. He gently corrected me when I finished reading.
Many years have passed, but I still find myself drawn inexorably to the pronunciations I learned at my mother’s knee. And, intriguingly, my sister finds herself increasingly using “the Flemish sound” as she grows older.
Following the mothballing of The Dabbler, my sister Rita has launched a new home for her Dispatches From The Former New World. Make sure you keep a close eye on it. Bear in mind that Mr Key would not be the scribbler you know and adore were it not for the influence, from a very early age, of this woman – last spotted here wearing a mortar board outside Brighton Pavilion.
In the United States, during the 1950s, people often found Communists hiding under their beds. That this was a common phenomenon is clear from the historical record. There are numerous contemporary accounts, of which the following is a typical example. It comes from a letter written to his local newspaper by a solid citizen in one of the Midwestern states.
One day last week, just after turning in for the night and settling down to sleep, I became aware of a rustling noise under my bed. I was far too tired to get up, so, taking my torch from the bedside table, I leaned right over and, with my head upside down, shone the torch under the bed. I was startled to see, lying on the floor, an urbane and stylishly-dressed man who had about him something of the air of an important State Department diplomat. He was faffing about with bits of microfilm.
“Who the hell are you and what are you doing hiding under my bed?” I cried.
“Oh, good evening,” he replied, in the cultured voice of an East Coast Mandarin, “I’m so sorry to disturb you. Allow me to introduce myself. Hiss, Alger Hiss. This is a fine piece of carpet, by the way, very comfortable.”
While he was saying this, he was hurriedly stuffing the bits of microfilm into the pockets of his expensive jacket to conceal them.
“I’m pleased you like my carpet,” I said, “But you haven’t explained what you are doing under my bed.”
Alger Hiss ignored my question and took from an inside pocket of his expensive jacket a pamphlet, which he thrust at me.
“I wonder if I might interest you in this pamphlet,” he said, “It gives a Marxist-Leninist perspective on the current crisis and is well worth reading, should you wish to remove the imperialist blinkers from your eyes.”
“I’m not one for bookish learning,” I said.
“Well, it’s a pamphlet rather than a book. Perhaps you could leave it on your bedside table and pick it up later.”
“Perhaps,” I said, but at that point Alger Hiss unleashed upon me a strange bright-eyed gaze of fiendish Communist hypnotic power, and I promptly fell into a deep, deep, and troubled sleep. When I woke up, he was gone, and there was no sign he had ever been there, save for the pamphlet on the bedside table, which I handed over to my local FBI agent for analysis.
Although we have many similar accounts, what has been lacking to date is counter testimony from Communists themselves, explaining what they hoped to achieve by hiding under beds. All the more welcome, then, is a new book by the pseudonymous “Agent X”. It is entitled Why I Spent Much Of The 1950s Hiding Under The Beds Of Solid Citizens, and is a rollicking good read, or at least it would be were it not padded out with lengthy passages of indigestible Marxist dialectic and incoherent socio-economic blathering. I have extracted the key passage so you do not need to read the whole thing.
I received instructions from Yuri, my Moscow handler, that I was to be a “sleeper”. Unfortunately, the microfilm bearing his message was damaged by pigeons, and it was not entirely clear to me how I was to proceed. Sleeping seemed to be the gist of it, however, and my faith in the Party was unshakeable, so I did not question how useful this would be in fomenting the great proletarian revolution and bringing the hated capitalist United States to its knees. Instead, I found a darkened room with a bed in it and lay me down to sleep.
But something was not right, and I soon realised what it was. The bourgeois comforts of mattresses and pillows and blankets were a terrible distraction, classic techniques of the degenerate system to lull me into false consciousness – or, in this case, false unconsciousness. I eschewed them, and lay down instead in the dark, on the floor, under the bed. Soon enough, word got out among my fellow spies, and we were all at it. Happy days!
Some of these “sleepers” were so fanatical, and so devoted to the cause, that a quarter of a century after the fall of the Soviet empire there are still thought to be several Communists hiding under beds in the American Midwest. Solid citizens, be on your guard!