Two Sparrows

We take as our text for today’s lesson the Gospel of Matthew, chapter ten, verse twenty-nine:

Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father.

Sometimes it so happens that you will go to a sparrow-seller to make purchase of a pair of sparrows, only for him to state an asking price of more than a farthing. Or he might charge a farthing for a single sparrow, but throw in a second sparrow with a “Buy One, Get One Free” offer, in which case you will pay a farthing for two sparrows even if the one sparrow costs a farthing in itself. Thereagain, you might find yourself being offered a free sparrow by a seller of, say, partridges or linnets, who has an unwanted stock of sparrows and cannot wait to be rid of them, for they are greedily eating up his grain and millet that he would rather feed to his partridges or linnets.

So when we ask the question, as we must, are not two sparrows sold for a farthing?, the answer is no, not always, not in all circumstances, come what may, for there may be times and places where we will be asked to pay more, or less, for a pair of sparrows. And from this we can learn much about the ways of God and Man. Yes, the honest sparrow-seller will hand us two sparrows upon receipt of a farthing, but not all sparrow-sellers are honest, while some sparrow-sellers are too honest for their own good. And, as with sparrow-sellers, so too those from whom we buy other birds, not just partridges and linnets, but starlings, and kittiwakes, and seagulls.

But what of the second part of the verse from Matthew 10, that one of them – that is, the sparrows – that one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father? The first part of the verse is a question. The second part is not. It states, quite vehemently and unchallengeably, that, without your Father, one of the sparrows will not fall on the ground. But which of the sparrows is it that shall not fall? One of them will, and one of them will remain in the air, in flight and birdy swooping, until your Father appears, at which point, we must assume, it will plunge towards the earth, just because your Father has arrived.

The more one studies this passage, and I have studied it for years and years, the more problems it raises. Why does one sparrow fall on the ground without your Father? Why does the other sparrow fall on the ground when your Father appears? Is your Father armed with a shotgun, or a catapult? Does His mere presence induce in the tiny frail sparrow a heart attack? And if He can have that effect on a sparrow, what of other birds, partridges, say, or linnets, or starlings or kittiwakes or seagulls or robins or wrens, or even hummingbirds?

These are profound questions, and we must dig deep to answer them, deeper, certainly, than a sparrow may need to dig to light upon a fat juicy earthworm for its morning snack. My own experience has taught me that all that digging will be as nought unless one has first found a sparrow-seller to sell one a pair of sparrows for a farthing. Alas, in this day and age, more leaden than golden, such sparrow-sellers are rare indeed, rarer even than the proverbial hen’s teeth. But the hen is quite another class of bird from a sparrow, as you will know if you have ever kept poultry.

Thus sayeth the Lord.

This piece first appeared in 2011. It seemed particularly pertinent to repost it on today of all days.

A Family Of Goatherds Unparalleled In Their Rapacity

There is a song about a lonely goatherd with which I am sure many of you are familiar. This goatherd is usually represented by a puppet (above). We are fortunate to have a picture – indeed, film! – of the lonely goatherd puppet, for there are other noteworthy goatherd puppets of which no images exist. I refer to the Blots, a family of goatherds unparalleled  in their rapacity, shadow puppets of whom were devised by the shadow puppeteer Jasper Weems.

Weems told the story of the Blots through the medium of shadow puppetry. Let us retell it here, using words.

The Blots had been goatherds in the Swiss Alps for generations. Their lives were, and always had been, narrow, pinched, and poor. Then, one day in 1964, the current patriarch of the family, Hans Blot, came upon a newspaper report of a meeting of British Labour Party politicians. One of their number, George Brown, had apparently made reference to the gnomes of Zurich. His interest piqued, Hans Blot read further, and learned that these gnomes, residing in Switzerland’s largest city, were exceedingly wealthy.

Hans Blot, who was a goatherd unparalleled in his rapacity, saw an opportunity to turn around his family’s fortunes. Instead of scraping a living herding goats, the Blots could borrow money from the gnomes and … well, he did not immediately form a plan, but he felt sure that he could turn a modest loan from the gnomes into an enormous pile of cash somehow or other, given his unparalleled rapacity.

Blot did not set off for Zurich right away. First, he drilled the family in the tenets of anthroposophy as expounded by Rudolf Steiner. This was necessary, Blot thought, because he assumed the gnomes of Zurich were the invisible gnomes who live among men but cannot be perceived by the common riffraff, such as goatherds, only becoming visible to those on a higher plane of human existence, such as Rudolf Steiner.

The Blots, driven by their unparalleled rapacity, studied hard, and before long, believing they might now be able to perceive the invisible gnomes, set off for Zurich. Upon arrival, they trooped into the first bank they saw, and were delighted when they realised they could see the gnomes with absolute clarity. Hans Blot proceeded to ask for a loan of money. Though the gnomes of Zurich – who were of course not Steinerian gnomes at all, and were visible to everybody – did not lend out money willy-nilly, they recognised the gleam of greed in Hans Blot’s eyes. Such unparalleled rapacity, they felt, was worthy of their regard. The Blots left Zurich with pockets full of cash.

As winter drew in, they spent long evenings huddled in their noisome goatherders’ hovel trying to think up ways to use the loan to, in the words of an accountant, generate a regular revenue stream. Then, on a blizzard-wracked night, one of the younger Blots, Hansi, as rapacious as her grandfather, had a brainwave.

You know, just up the mountain, she babbled in excitement, there is the chalet of the Prix Poubelle-winning writer N K Freaky. He has his own private funicular railway. We could buy it from him, and then gouge oodles of cash by charging exorbitant funicular railway fares!

All the Blots agreed this was a brilliant idea. And over the next five years, they bought more and more funicular railways, not only in the Swiss Alps but in the Austrian and Italian Alps too, and charged their passengers ever-increasing fares for journeys up and down those sublime snow-topped peaks.

But such was their unparalleled rapacity the Blots were reluctant ever to part with a pfennig. When it came time to repay their loan to the gnomes of Zurich, the Blots simply ignored the demands that plopped through the letterbox of their Alpine hovel. Eventually, the gnomes lost patience. After a secretive conference in a secret chamber in their secretive bank, the gnomes of Zurich fastened upon a terrible resolution. They hired a gang of invisible Steinerian gnomes, who one night burst, unperceived, into the Blots’ hovel, and slaughtered them in their beds, each and every one, from Hans to Hansi.

The foregoing cannot, of course, do justice to the vivid shadow puppetry of Jasper Weems’ shadow puppet version of the story of the Blot family, but I hope it has afforded you a modicum of entertainment.

Recommended Pig Reading

This magnificent book, packed with piggery, tells us, among much else, that

old-fashioned pigs … are extremely likeable characters. They are highly intelligent, exceedingly amiable … and will follow you about like a dog. They have a keen sense of the absurd and will suddenly take off in a collective giddy fit, twirling round and round to the accompaniment of hoarse pantings, guffaws, it might almost be said, of merriment.

Babinsky vs. The Grunty Man

It is one of the enduring mysteries of contemporary life. How can it be, I hear you cry, that there is not a blockbusting Hollywood franchise based on Hooting Yard? Imagine for a moment that there existed a dimwitted action-packed film, filled with CGI explosions and the like, in the spirit of, say, Alien vs. Predator, but in this instance called Babinsky vs. The Grunty Man. Clearly the moviegoing hordes would be queueing up at multiplexes across the land to lose themselves for two and a half hours in such a spectacle. So why has Mr Key not yet had a call from a Hollywood mogul? It is, as I say, an enduring mystery.

I am sure, too, that a film entitled Tiny Enid : Plucky Tot could spawn an endless string of sequels. Come on, Hollywood! Get your act together!

To date, only the visionary film-maker Miss HatHorn has used Hooting Yard as her source. If you have not yet seen A Recipe For Gruel, watch it now.

From The Mountains To The Sea

The other day I was scuttling, as one does, across the floors of silent seas. There is no light down there, and it was cold and very wet. But that’s the bottom of the sea for you. It’s no picnic – though I’ve had my fair share of picnics in the cold and wet. I recall one particular childhood picnic where the lid was left off the marmalade jar, and soon enough it contained half marmalade, half rainwater. I was an inquisitive child. I screwed the lid back on the jar and shook it, violently, until the two substances, the marmalade and the rainwater, were mixed together.

Years later, I wrote a book about this experiment, called Marmalade And Rainwater. Some of you may know of it. It was a bestseller, and won several prestigious awards, including the Prix Poubelle. With the money I received for that, I was able to buy an Alpine chalet with its own private funicular railway.

Success prompted the idea that I could mine my memories of childhood picnics for further books. I began work on a fictionalised account of one such picnic, provisionally entitled Sausages And Wasps. But I couldn’t make it work. After every few pages I would grow exasperated and despairing, and scrunch up what I’d written and toss it down a waste chute. I realised that I was temperamentally incapable of writing about this picnic, even in the guise of fiction, because it had taken place on a hot dry sunny day, whereas what spoke to my imagination was the cold wet picnic.

It seems, though, that readers prefer their literary picnics dry and sunny. My second book, More Marmalade And Further Rainwater, was a complete flop, selling fewer than a dozen copies and winning no prizes whatsoever. It did not take long before I faced financial ruin, so I decided to sell up and move elsewhere. But I made the foolish mistake of selling the funicular railway first. This meant I was unable to go to and from the Alpine chalet without paying a hefty fare for each journey to the new owners, a family of goatherds unparalleled in their rapacity.

How, then, did I get from my high Alpine home to where I am now, lingering in the chambers of the sea? Ah, that will be the subject of my next book, a non-picnic-based memwa. I am taking my time over it. There will be time, there will be time for a hundred visions and revisions before the taking of a toast and tea. And I shall spread my toast with a mixture of marmalade and rainwater.

The Pious Infant

Never has an infant been so pious as little Henry Clump, the pious infant whose life is told in The Pious Infant by Mrs Regera Dowdy – or so I thought. But when I was enmired in the research for Mr Key’s Shorter Potted Brief, Brief Lives, I learned of Saint Rumwold, by comparison with whom Henry Clump seems the spawn of Satan.

Saint Rumwold was born in King’s Sutton in 622 AD, the son of Saint Cyneburga and King Alchfrid. His first words – uttered on the day of his birth – were “I am a Christian”. He then asked to be baptised, and to receive Holy Communion. The next day he preached a sermon, quoting freely from the Bible. On the third day, he gave another sermon, addressed to his parents, after which he keeled over and died. We can be sure he ascended into Heaven.

Mr Key Goes To Innsmouth

I write these words with immense difficulty, and in frantic haste. If what I believe is true, I have little more than an hour, perhaps two, before my mind will lose its moorings, the brain inside my head will be reduced to a twitching jelly of miasmic horror, and I will be a hopeless case, raving and gibbering and throwing myself against the walls of this padded cell. I am confined here upon my own insistence. I had to demand that the lunatic asylum staff lock me up, and keep me locked up. If, in an hour or two’s time, I was free to roam the streets among other men, I shudder to think what unimaginable chaos and havoc would be wrought. No, I must remain here, isolated from a world that must, must be protected at all costs from me …. or rather, from the … thing that I will soon become.

Can it really be only a week ago that I was sitting at home, surrounded by my familiar magnets and retorts and cylinders, in peace and comfort, without a care in the world other than the incessant yapping of my neighbour’s dog and the incessant tinkling of the bell dangling from the collar round my neighbour’s dog’s neck and the incessant ululating incantations of my neighbour himself, incantations devised to summon forth the incarnation of the hideous bat-god Fatso, incantations which, thank the heavens, had proved unsuccessful for twenty years and which, one hoped, would remain unsuccessful for a further twenty years and, indeed, forever after? The yapping and tinkling and ululating aside, I was, as I say, in peace and comfort, and could never have imagined the inexplicable horror that was about to unfold. It has been just one week, but I feel I have lived through a thousand years, nay!, a thousand centuries, a thousand millennia in that time.

It all began, prosaically enough, with the telltale sound of the daily postal delivery dropping onto the mat. I put aside the lemon meringue pie I was eating and went to retrieve it. I flicked briefly through the items: a couple of bills, a letter from my bankers, the latest copy of the Reader’s Digest – I quickly scanned the contents page and made a mental note to read, at the earliest opportunity, the article about bringing a monkey out of a medically-induced coma – a couple of advertising flyers, and – fatefully, as I was to learn – a black envelope, addressed by hand in gleaming silver lettering, bearing a postage stamp which, though I looked at it from every conceivable angle, and then from several inconceivable angles, resisted all attempts to see it clearly. It seemed somehow to shift in shape and colour and size, to become invisible and then visible again. I could not even tell whether it was self-adhesive or had had to be affixed to the envelope with a lick of spittle from a human – or inhuman? – tongue.

Placing the rest of my post in the wicker basket on my escritoire, I returned to the breakfast table, took another mouthful of lemon meringue pie, and opened the envelope carefully. The letter inside was unexpectedly ordinary – a single sheet of white paper, covered in black handwriting of commendable neatness and legibility.

Dear Mr Key, I read, I have long been an admirer of your Hooting Yard weblog and the associated podcasts on Resonance FM. It is an enthusiasm fully shared by my colleagues in the Faculty of Blasphemous and Forbidden Studies at Miskatonic University, Arkham, from where I write this letter. To be wholly accurate, I should say that I am writing from the campus annexe in Innsmouth, where the faculty offices are based. Such is our admiration for you that we wish to issue an invitation. There is work that needs to be done – important and urgent work – and we think you are the man to do it. It is a somewhat delicate matter, and I am reluctant to put the details down in writing – and not merely reluctant. Let us say, rather, that the prospect of committing those details to pen and paper fills me with a terrible, nameless dread. For this reason, I would be grateful if, at your earliest convenience, you would telephone me on the number given below.

The number followed, and the letter was signed – in a florid if shaky hand – by Professor Charles Dexter Nyarlathotep, Dean of Faculty. I immediately picked up my telephone receiver and dialled.

After a few rings, there was a click, as if my call had been answered, but no one seemed to be on the wire, and I was about to hang up when my ear caught a faint suspicion of sound. Was someone trying, under great difficulties, to talk? As I listened, I thought I heard a sort of half-liquid bubbling noise – “glub … glub … glub”- which had an odd suggestion of inarticulate, unintelligible, word and syllable divisions. I called “Is that Professor Nyarlathotep?” but the only answer was “glub-glub …. glub-glub” Then my interlocutor, whoever it was – whatever it was – hung up.

If there is one thing I learned from President Nixon it was the advisability of tape-recording all my conversations. (A second thing I learned from him was to relieve stress by mashing potatoes, but that was not pertinent to the current situation.) I plucked the cassette from the machine and hurried next door. I did not go to my ululating neighbour with the yapping dog and the yapping dog’s tinkling bell, but to my neighbour on the other side. This fellow happened to be an eminent and distinguished retired professor of Comparative and Applied Ichthyolinguistics, and I was certain he would be able to help me to understand the strange sounds from the telephone call. Sure enough, having played the tape back to him, my neighbour was able to make an instant translation.

I have communed with many fish and other aquatic beings,” he said, “And I recognise this at once as the lingua franca of a particularly hideous and unimaginably horrible spawn of the chthonic depths of the sea, depths so deep that all light is blotted out and the creatures there are grotesque blind albino monsters with writhing flippers. One must listen intently to each ‘glub’ to discern its meaning. In this case, it seems you are being invited to Miskatonic University for the purpose of writing the authorised biography of the mad Arab, Abdul Alhazred, author of the Necronomicon.”

I thanked the professor, gave him the remainder of my lemon meringue pie, returned home, packed a suitcase, and made my way to the railway station, where I caught the next train to Arkham. At Arkham, I would need to change trains to proceed on the branch line to the university campus annexe at Innsmouth. It was a long journey, and I passed the time by reading my xeroxed copy of Ebn Khallikan’s early (12th century) biography of Abdul Alhazred. This was the text that claimed, among other things, that the mad Arab had been seized by an invisible monster in broad daylight and devoured horribly before a large number of fright-frozen witnesses. I did not believe a word of this, nor of much else in the book, and as the train passed through bosky rustic backwaters, I grew confident that, as the authorised biographer, appointed by Miskatonic University, I could do a far better job.

When, eventually, we arrived at Innsmouth, I booked myself into a dilapidated and ill-starred boarding house by the quayside. The landlady was a swarthy, bloated dwarf of cretinous appearance. I suspected she was the product of centuries of inbreeding. When completing the register, she asked me, in her weirdly strangulated guttural caterwaul of a voice, punctuated by almost reptilian hisses, to state the nature of my business. Rather than trusting her with the truth, I claimed to be an aide de camp to President Nixon, scouting possible locations for a branch of his presidential library. She scribbled this into her ledger without comment.

It was late, and I was tired, so I declined the landlady’s offer of supper – which appeared to consist of a bowl full of boiled, writhing tentacles swimming in a mixture of brine and goat’s milk – and I retired to my room. As I opened the door, I reeled and nearly swooned. It was cramped and filthy and the wallpaper depicted ungodly patterns, in colours beyond any spectrum known to human science and lines and shapes of some bizarre, alien geometry. I flung myself on to the fantastically uncomfortable bed and prayed for sleep. For several hours I tossed and turned, but eventually I lost consciousness. How I wish I had not! That night, for the first time since infancy, my dreams were haunted by … the Grunty Man!

Most people of my generation will be familiar with this loathsome monster. It was common, when I was a child, for parents to frighten their children to sleep with spine-tingling tales of this creature, dwelling in a deep dark dank cave, hairy and grunting and covered in sores and suppurating boils, a hideous being older than the universe, older than time and space, grunting, drooling, stinking, and ever prepared to come lumbering out of the maw of his cave to visit unimaginable havoc upon the innocent. He had terrified me as a tiny tot, and he terrified me now, the more so because the nightmare was so inexplicably vivid.

Eventually, mercifully, I awoke from this hideous phantasm. I was twitching and shattered. After cursory ablutions, I went downstairs to the breakfast room. When I saw that breakfast was the same bowl of tentacles as the supper of the night before, I excused myself, and crashed unsteadily out of the door. I decided to head straight for the campus to seek out Professor Nyarlathotep. The sooner I obtained comprehensive details of my commission, and signed a contract, the sooner I could leave this benighted, wretched, vile seaside hellhole.

After a short bus ride to the campus, it was a simple enough matter to locate the Faculty of Blasphemous and Forbidden Studies and, once inside, to find the professor’s office. A young woman was sitting at a desk in the anteroom.

You must be Mr Key,” she said, “I am Miss Dimity Cashew, the professor’s secretary. I am afraid he is not here right now He is off somewhere or other, consulting an abominable tome written in an unknown and possibly bestial alphabet.”

She was a pallid and asymmetrical figure, with a club foot and one withered leg, a withered arm, several extra fingers on one hand and several fingers missing on the other, eyes of different colours which seemed always to be looking in wildly different directions, and her lank hair was scattered with breadcrumbs and a twig or two. I was transfixed. My dementedly thumping heart seemed ready to burst from my breast. I could barely speak, but I managed to splutter some incoherent words. Dimity agreed to join me for a stroll along the Innsmouth promenade.

It was a whirlwind romance, and five days later we were married in St Bibblybibdib’s church. Only on the morning after our wedding night did I snap out of my lovestruck daze and remember why I had come to Innsmouth in the first place.

The authorised biography of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred!” I cried, “I must go to see the professor at once!”

These words had a strange effect on my new bride. Dimity seemed to shrink visibly and clutched desperately at the bedsheets. Already pallid, what little colour there was drained from her face. She shook her head violently, sending twigs and breadcrumbs flying from her lank hair across the room. And then, for the first time since I had met her, both of her eyes swivelled to fix in the same direction, and she looked straight at me.

For god’s sake!” she screamed, “Phn’glui mglw’nafh! Wgah’fhtagn! The pit of the shoggoths! Down the six thousand steps … the abomination of abominations … I never would let him take me, and then I found myself there! Ia! Shub-Niggurath! The Hooded Thing bleated ‘Kamog! Kamog!’ In the place of utter blasphemy! I can’t stand it! I can’t stand it! My brain! It’s tugging – from beyond – knocking – clawing – Ngr’hfglkhar! The Goat with a Thousand Young! … Oh God!”

Like a fool, I dismissed this as delirium, a fit of the vapours. I told Dimity to have a nice cup of tea and to get some more sleep. And I hurried out towards the faculty office … and, had I but known it, towards my own destruction.

There is little more to tell. I ran to the faculty building and through into the anteroom, past Dimity’s empty desk, until I stood at the professor’s door. I knocked, and heard from inside a weird eldritch unfathomable rustling and panting and … grunting. I threw open the door, and rushed in, and found myself in a room as deep and dark and dank as the cave of the Grunty Man. It was the cave of the Grunty Man! And there, in the Stygian blackness, looming before me, was the Grunty Man himself, in the form of the withered, ancient figure of Professor Nyarlathotep.

Ah! At last!” he wheezed, “I have been waiting for you. Every ten thousand years, I require a new host body. And here you are!”

And before I had time to scream, or flee, the hideous being shot across the darkness towards me and somehow inserted itself, body and soul, its very being, into me. I felt it settle, adjusting its horrible contours to mine, feeling its way into me, physically and mentally. Desperately, I clung on to a small corner of my brain that remained my own. I have continued to cling to it for as long as I can, but I grow weaker and weaker, and the ‘me’ that clings will soon be no more. That is why I ran as fast as I could to this lunatic asylum and, at gunpoint, demanded to be confined in a padded cell. Its walls and locks will keep humanity safe for a time. But the time will come, years, centuries hence, when the locks will rust and the walls crumble … and then the Grunty Man will lumber forth, in his awful grunting horror, and he shall have dominion over the earth, and all the other planets in all the other universes, forever and ever. I am the Grunty Man!

Cocking A Snook

Cocking a snook is an age-old custom in Pointy Town, harking back to the days of Bruno La Poubelle, or even earlier. It is unrelated to the snook-cocking practised elsewhere in the world. That is not the same thing at all. No it is not, oh no. No.

What am I talking about, then, when I talk about the specifically Pointy Town practice – or praxis, as the postmodernist philosopher Jean-Luc Postmod would put it – of cocking a snook? Am I just babbling incoherently? No, I am not, oh no. Not at all.

We may go back to the ur-text in this matter, the centuries-old Great Book of Bruno La Poubelle, in which we find this passage. Granted, to the modern reader it is gibberish, but bear with me. Have patience. This is what we read:

Wheat! Goosepeck ouch. Sit, Fido. Rubber papa hemingway in storm drains. Kew Rhone sow’s ear, wah wah pedal bin. Birds without ears. Oo look teabag. Hen coop protocol baffling. Fiery, fiery Fido sit. Pictures of Jap girls in synthesis. Religio medici urn burial. Early Scritti, natty Jah, natty cock, natty snook, natty dread.

Roughly translated, this means … well, it is so roughly translated it can hardly be called a translation. I for one can make head nor tail of it. The important point is that the words “cock” and “snook” can both be spotted in the passage, and in close proximity, so that tells us something. What does it tell us? At the very least, it tells us that both “cock” and “snook” were words in usage in Pointy Town at the time of the composition of the Great Book of Bruno La Poubelle. So we are getting somewhere. Oh yes we are.

When I suffered a burst appendix, and they put me on a stretcher, I had visions. Yes I did, I’m not making this up. One of these visions was of an ancient Pointy Towner, out gathering snooks. I saw the vision as if through a mist, a thick mist, such that I could not clearly discern the Pointy Towner. Put it like this, I wouldn’t be able to identify him in a police line-up. The same is true of the snooks he was gathering. Oh thick, thick mist! How you blurred my sight as I lay on that stretcher with a burst appendix!

In another vision, following swiftly on the first, the ancient Pointy Towner was cocking the snooks he’d gathered. This, too, was obscured by mist, more’s the pity. And more’s the potty, if you want to know, and I’m sure you do. I’m quite sure. Oh yes I am. There was a hell of a lot of pottiness abroad at that time. What a time it was! A potty time, pottier than ever before or after, even now …

Now the gold is turned to lead
And you are lying in your bed
With curtains drawn across the night
Oh hug your pillow! Hug it tight
Though you may plead and you may pray
The Grunty Man is on his way!

Another Enid

The latest correspondence in the Hooting Yard postbox:

Dear Mr Key : Your brief list of children’s authors named Enid brought back happy memories. I was surprised, however, that you made no mention of my own favourite, Enid Blytmyfire. Who can forget her series of books about Little Jim, the shamanic singer, poet and counterculture icon, who is revealed as merely a drug-addled alcoholic who dies in a bathtub in Paris?

The Pauper And The Princeling And The Pea

There is the story about the pauper who steals a pea from a princeling. Or it may be that the princeling steals a pea from a pauper. I can never quite recall which way round it goes. I ought to remember, because god knows I heard the story often enough. My ma, or sometimes my pa, read it to me every single night, for years and years, as my bedtime story. Perhaps that is why I don’t remember it with blinding clarity, because I was always falling asleep as I listened to it. I fell asleep in spite of the undoubted excitement of the story, and of the Sturm und Drang of the violent thunderstorms which were a constant feature of the weather in that place at that time. I suspect my falling asleep came so easily because my ma, or my pa, spiked my bedtime milk of magnesia with a powerful tranquiliser.

I was certainly a tranquil child. I never said “Boo!” to a goose. My parents kept several geese, but I never dared say “Boo!” to a single one of them. Frankly, they terrified me with their honking and their waddling about and the whiteness of their feathers, a whiteness that seemed unearthly. It reminded me of the final scene in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edgar Allan Poe.

Of course, I was not reminded of this when I was an unlettered tot, it was only later, when I learned to read. At first I read childish comics like The Ipsy Dipsy Doo and The Hammer of Christ, but I was a keen reader and swiftly moved on to Enid Blyton and Enid Blytoff and Enid Blytattheendofthetunnel, before tackling Burgess and Borges, and the gloomy Russians, and potboilers by Pebblehead, until, at twelve, I read Arthur Gordon Pym, after which I was so unnerved by that whiteness that I never read anything else, ever again, just reading Poe’s novel over and over again and again. It remains the only book on my bookshelf, which rather obviates the need for the space provided by a shelf. Hence I have filled it with plasticine models of a pauper and a pea and a princeling.

I made these models myself, visualising the pauper and the princeling based on what little I could remember about my childhood bedtime story, and the pea on close observation of a frozen pea I removed from a packet of frozen peas stored in the freezer compartment of my refrigerator in my kitchen in my chalet high in the Alps near the sanatorium where tubercular patients lie sprawled, exhausted, on balconies.

Among these patients, who I watch through a pair of binoculars, is a fellow with a walrus moustache who closely resembles the lumbering psychopathic serial killer Babinsky. But it cannot be him. If it were, I like to think I would clamber up to his balcony and engage him in conversation and ask him if he, too, grew up listening over and over again and again to the tale of the pauper and the princeling and the pea. If he had, and if he was indeed Babinsky, it would explain a lot about his subsequent career raining violent havoc and mayhem upon the weedy and the blameless and the innocent.

When I tire of watching the Babinsky lookalike, I train my binoculars upon the snow-capped Alpine peaks, white, so white, so unutterably, blindingly white.

Pierre Et Les Pantoufles

Dear Mr Key, writes rock ‘n’ pop critic Rick Rockpopcrit, I was fascinated to read your piece about Pierre et Clothilde yesterday. It is true, sadly, that the duo’s career lay in tatters by the early 1970s. What was missing from your article, however, was any account of Pierre’s later involvement in the punk ‘n’ post-punk scene. My cousin Sid Punkcrit covered this in an article for the monthly magazine Punks Named Pierre in September 1979. I clipped it out with a pair of extremely shiny scissors, and am sending it to you so you can transcribe it and share it with your readers.

Exciting news reaches us that Pierre, previously of chart-non-topping duo Pierre et Clothilde, is making a comeback! He has completely reinvented himself for the punk ‘n’ post-punk era, fronting a new band called Pierre et les Pantoufles (above; Pierre is on the far left). Their first single, Où est Clothilde?, a raucous and godawful discordant din, had me tapping my toes while wearing my own pantoufles. The B side, Clothilde, Mon Amour is less of a toe-tapper and more of a hands-over-the-ears cacophany of cacophonosity.

The band is currently in the studio recording their debut album, Devons-nous jeter cette saleté à  nos pop-enfants, Clothilde? It promises to be a cracker. That is a view shared by Plastic Bertrand, who I bumped into in a corridor on my way to conduct an interview with Pierre. It came as a surprise to me that Plastic Bertrand is not, as I thought, made of plastic. This revelation so disconcerted me that, when I sat down with Pierre, the first thing I said to him was: “Pierre, did you know that Plastic Bertrand is not made of plastic?”

Oui” he muttered, before launching into a mournful lament about Clothilde, accompanied by copious weeping. Unfortunately, it was all in French, or the dialect of French spoken by Walloons, a language with which I am wholly unfamiliar. So I just sat there trying to look sympathetic, while puffing on a Gitane. There was no sign of the Pantoufles.

By the time Pierre eventually shut up and dried his eyes with a dainty and unpunklike silken handkerchief, I had got through an entire pack of Gitanes and had heard quite enough mawkish Wallonian blathering. I was trying to work out what to do next. I could slap Pierre about and tell him to get a grip. Or I could try to divert him on to a different subject. Best of all, perhaps, I could sweep imperiously out of the room and pursue Plastic Bertrand.

Then the door crashed open, and a woman swept imperiously into the room. I thought for a moment she was some kind of space hippy. Then I realised – it was Clothilde!