Overheard in a supermarket:
Mother : Ooh look! Pigs in blankets!
Child : I don’t want to see a poor pig in an old blanket.
Overheard in a supermarket:
Mother : Ooh look! Pigs in blankets!
Child : I don’t want to see a poor pig in an old blanket.
Josef K. was dreaming. Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you about it. Other people’s dreams are almost always insufferably boring. My heart sinks when somebody I barely know insists on telling me one of their dreams. It is akin to the horror I feel when buttonholed by somebody who is determined to read to me their “latest poem”. These poems are invariably codswallop. And so it is with dreams.
On the other hand we are, perhaps rightly, fascinated by our own dreams – as, I suppose, we are by our poems, if we are foolish enough to write them. Dreams churn up our memories, distort them, pluck them from where they belong and drop them into new and weird contexts. Because they belong to us, they are endlessly interesting. We try to wring sense from them, to act as our own Viennese quack and work out what the dream tells us about ourselves. Such navel-gazing is very pleasing, but you really don’t want to impose it on anybody else.
Pleasing, yes, but sometimes futile. God alone knows how I have wrestled with the deep, deep meaning of a dream I had a few years ago, in which I attacked the actor Roy Kinnear, bashing him over the head with a chair. I never met the late Mr Kinnear. It is, to date, his sole appearance in my dreamworld. I still have no idea what that dream meant, if it meant anything.
We might, if we are sufficiently engaged, find the dreams of fictional characters intriguing. I can’t remember the particular dream Josef K. had in A Dream by Franz Kafka, which is another reason I’m not telling you about it. But we ought to remember that fictional characters’ dreams aren’t real dreams – they’re made up by the author. They may well be based on actual dreams the author had, though there is no guarantee of that. In any case, you can bet on your sickly and wizened grandmother’s life that the author embroiders, and shapes the dream-narrative, through art.
Consider, as an example, the story in which fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol has a dream while taking a pre-polevaulting nap. As readers, we know that the dream has been planted in his (fictional) sleeping brain, probably by his coach, the cantankerous, chain-smoking, enovercoated, Homburg-hatted, and all too real Old Halob, a non-fictional character if ever there was one.
In the dream, Bobnit Tivol and Old Halob have somehow swapped identities. Thus, it is the coach who is polevaulting, an image so absurd and preposterous it is the epitome of dream-bizarrerie. This is what I mean by art. Fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol, meanwhile, in the persona of his coach, has gone to visit Old Halob’s sickly and wizened grandmother in her hovel. He explains to her, by thumps on her head, that he is going to gamble on her life in a sordid wager. The grandmother then takes off her thrum nightcap, and is revealed to be a large, fierce wolf, with gleaming and razor-sharp fangs.
Fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol screams. In real life, this is the point where a dreamer would be shocked awake. But in the story, the dream continues. Bobnit Tivol runs out of the hovel, runs and runs, and finds himself on a familiar running track. He runs round and round and round, in pursuit, now, of another runner, just ahead of him. Eventually the fictional athlete catches up with this runner, and they sprint across the finishing line at exactly the same moment. Panting, they turn to face each other, and Bobnit Tivol recognises his fellow-runner as the late actor Roy Kinnear.
Arm in arm, they repair to a sort of supersonic milk bar, where they order a couple of sort of supersonic milk-based drinks. They sit at a table. All of a sudden, the writer Frank Key comes charging in and attacks Roy Kinnear, bashing him over the head with a chair.
Frightened, Bobnit Tivol runs into a sort of supersonic milk bar pantry, locking the door behind him. He mops his fevered brow, first taking off his Homburg – remember, he is still in the guise of his coach Old Halob, who we assume is making up this dream. We might ask, then, at this point, whether the dream tells us more about (fictional) Bobnit Tivol or (non-fictional) Old Halob. We might ask the question of a Viennese quack, who would surely know the answer. But none is available, so instead, growing bored, we ask “how did the dream end?”
Having removed his Homburg, Bobnit Tivol, or Old Halob, looked down, and saw that his trouser-cuffs were dirty and his shoes were laced up wrong. Bending to retie the shoelaces, he bumped his head on a headbumper. So severe was the bump that stars appeared revolving around his fictional, dream head, as in an illustration in a children’s comic. They were such pretty stars! Oh, how they twinkled! Enchanted by the sight, he woke up.
The first sentence, and the last, were translated from the German by Willa and Edwin Muir. Everything in between was not.
In addition to Doktor Kafka the doom-ridden poète maudit of Prague, he gives us Dr Jackdaw (Kavka in Czech), the charming young writer, fond of slapstick humour, who, reading the first chapter of The Trial to his friends, became so convulsed with laughter that “he could not continue reading at times” while they howled “uncontrollably”.
Tim Martin, reviewing Kafka by Reiner Stach
Coal all spent; the bucket empty; the shovel useless; the stove breathing out cold; the room freezing; the trees outside the window rigid, covered with rime; the sky a silver shield against anyone who looks for help from it. As I did, foolishly. I shoved open the door of the chalet, and steeped out, and stared at the sky.
“Aidez-moi! Aidez-moi!”, I shouted. There was no answer. I went back inside and slammed the door shut. Before I froze to death, I put on two coats, made from the fur of critically endangered medium-size mammals, which I had stolen from Yoko Ono. Physically, I am a good deal bigger than diminutive Yoko, hence the two coats. Ideally, I would have pilfered three, but the Beatle Lennon was mooching about the place, and I had to act fast. That was a long time ago. In those days I did not shout at the sky in French.
That skill, or art, I learned more recently, from Blötzmann. “Those seeking succour from the sky,” he writes (Book XIX, Lavender Series), “Are well advised to note that the sky speaks French, with a smattering of Finnish (verbs only).”
I know there are those who damn Blötzmann as a crank and an idiot, but to date I have found him an infallible guide, in spite of the often senseless tosh he peddles. I say “to date” because now even I am beginning to have doubts. It was, after all, because of Blötzmann (Book IX, Lilac Series) that I ended up here, in a chalet high, high in the ice mountains, with an empty coal-bucket and icicles forming on my moustache.
Should I have treated the invitation with a measure of caution? Probably. But, immersed as I was in the tenets expounded in Book IX, I did not even question it. Instead, I shoved a few essentials into a pippy bag and ran – sprinted! – to the railway station. I was in such a hurry that I did not even lock the door behind me. Within hours I was at the foot of the ice mountains, queuing for a ticket for the funicular railway which would take me to this confounded ice-girt freezing coalless chalet.
The invitation came from the Pointy Town Nisbet Spotting Society, an organisation previously unknown to me.
Dear Shambeko!, it read, Please join us for a very special week of nisbet spotting high, high in the ice mountains. Be our guest in a lovely chalet heated by a coal-stove. Brr! It’s chilly out there, so wrap up warm!
As I say, it might have been wise to make a few enquiries before rushing off and leaving behind everything I held dear. Not only had I never heard of the Pointy Town Nisbet Spotting Society, I had no idea what a nisbet was. How, then, could I spot one? And if I did spot one, or dozens, or hundreds, I would not realise I had done so, not knowing what one was. Dashing off to the chalet was the utmost foolishness on my part. The best I can say in my defence is that I assumed a representative of the Society would be there to enlighten me.
But when I arrived, the chalet was empty. There was a small amount of coal in the bucket, so I got the stove burning, heated up a pan of milk slops, and sat gazing at the rime-encrusted window. And I waited. I waited for three days, until the coal was almost spent. Then, with a sudden crash, the door burst open, and a woman festooned with the pelts of various hairy mammals came waltzing in.
I was astonished to see Pointy Town’s most notorious flapper, Flossie Von Straubenzee. She raised one bemittened fist and cried “Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people!” Flossie had once been a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army, and still liked to shout their slogan in greeting.
“Thank St Spivack you are here!” I babbled, “The bucket of coal is almost spent, there are very few milk slops left, and according to the Daily Ice Mountains News Digest & Weather Forecast, dropped by parachute to the chalet each morning, it’s going to be twice as cold tomorrow, thrice as cold the day after, and so on, exponentially.”
Flossie seemed unperturbed, and asked me how the nisbet spotting was going. Somewhat shamefacedly, I explained that I did not know what a nisbet was.
“Well, nor do we, exactly,” she said, “That’s one reason for this very special week. We’re hoping that you might accomplish the very first authenticated spotting of a nisbet. That would really give the Society a boost. I came to tell you that we’ve just had word there could be a nisbet higher up the ice mountains. Apparently they don’t thrive except right near the summit, where the air is thin and the cold is bitter, or bitterer. Good luck! Cheerio!”
And Flossie waltzed out of the chalet as suddenly as she had come.
That was three days ago. Now, all the coal is spent. The bucket is empty. The shovel is useless. The stove is breathing out cold. Et cetera et cetera. The sky offered no succour. But I have devised a plan. The bucket is large enough for me to squat inside it, just about. I drag it outside, and, using knots both sturdy and ingenious, attach it to the cords of one of the morning parachutes lying in the snow. Then I climb into the bucket. Soon, as I expected, a flock of wingèd things, with beaks and feathers – probably birds – grasp the parachute in their talons, and lift it. The knots hold. I am lifted too, in my bucket.
“Let us go and spot a nisbet!” I cry.
And with that I ascend into the regions of the ice mountains and am lost forever.
The first sentence, and the last, were translated from the German by Willa and Edwin Muir. Everything in between was not.
I heard the wagons rumbling past the garden fence, sometimes I even saw them through gently swaying gaps in the foliage. I would gaze, transfixed, as wagon after wagon after wagon passed. But when they were gone, and the road was empty, I saw, through gently swaying gaps in the foliage, beyond the road, the expanse of the vast wild windswept desolate tarputa, and I was terrified, and I ran back into the cottage, gibbering, until Papa gave me a bowl of soup, and, slurping it without a spoon, I was becalmed.
From infancy, wise Papa had forbidden me to stray beyond the garden fence and foliage. There were countless tales of unsuspecting children wandering on to the tarputa, and vanishing in its vast wild windswept desolate expanse, never to be seen again in this world. The glimpses of it I had, when once the wagons had rumbled past, frightened me beyond words.
Though I was confined to our cottage and its garden, I was a contented tot. I had innumerable pebbles and sticks to play with, and sometimes a bird – a wren or a godwit – would appear in the sky overhead, and swoop, and alight upon the bird table. I would watch entranced as Papa came charging out of the cottage at uncanny speed, a sock filled with wet impacted sand in his fist, and bashed out the brains of the bird before it had time to flit away. On the days when that happened, the soup was particularly slurpable.
My psychiatrist has asked me, repeatedly, if I was a lonely child. In response, I insist that I was not. Never having had any playmates, I had no sense of their absence from my life. All I knew of other children were the terrible tales of them getting lost on the vast wild windswept desolate tarputa.
Then, one day when I was seven or eight years old, something extraordinary happened. I was in the cottage rumpus room, happily playing a game of put-the-pebble-next-to-the-stick, when I heard the sound of rumbling. I dashed out to the garden, and, through gently swaying gaps in the foliage, I saw the wagons pass by, wagon after wagon after wagon. When, eventually, the last wagon rolled past, I was astonished to see, on the other side of the road, coming towards me from the vast wild windswept desolate tarputa, a parcel of children, tiny tots, seven in all. Could these be some of the vanished children, returning, curiously unaged, after years of hopeless wandering? I was agog.
I scampered indoors to tell Papa. Thinking I had come to report a wren or a godwit on the bird table, he was already filling his sock with wet impacted sand. I explained what I had seen.
“Perhaps they could be my playmates!” I added.
But Papa was cautious. We went outside to look at the children through gently swaying gaps in the foliage. They had stopped when they came to the road, and did not cross. They stood there, the seven of them, gazing at the cottage.
“I shall call the lollipop lady,” said Papa, “When she arrives, and helps these mysterious children to cross the road, I will keep them on the other side of the garden fence and interrogate them through the gently swaying gaps in the foliage. You can never be too careful. Carry on playing with your pebble and stick until the lollipop lady gets here.”
By mid-afternoon the children had been safely escorted across the road. Papa let me sit on a stump in the garden while he questioned them through the gently swaying gaps in the foliage.
“Who are you, mysterious tinies?” asked Papa.
The largest child replied for all of them.
“We are Pips,” he said, “Or rather, we will one day become Pips. I am Merald, whose name is Bubba, and this -” he pointed to each tot in turn “- is William and Brenda and Eleanor and Edward and Langston. The little squirt at the end is Chris, whose Pipness will be late, and brief.”
“Pips?” asked uncomprehending Papa.
“As in Gladys Knight And The,” said Merald whose name was Bubba.
Papa knew little of soul music, and even less about Motown, and nor did I, but we took Bubba’s story at face value.
“And what brings you from the vast wild windswept desolate tarputa to my door?” asked Papa.
“As you can see, we are but tots,” said Bubba, “And our lungs and windpipes have not yet developed fully, whereby we might accompany Gladys Knight on her chart-toppers. We would like to avail ourselves of the rumpus room in your cottage to use as a rehearsal room, so we can sing our little hearts out until we are each as proficient as can be. We are confident that Gladys Knight will come calling for us when, at different times, we are ready to be her Pips.”
Papa’s ferocious countenance hid a heart as soppy as an old sock not yet filled with wet impacted sand. He unlatched the garden gate, and the future Pips entered one by one, Bubba at their head and the little squirt Chris bringing up the rear. They went straight to the rumpus room and started to sing, though I have to say at this nascent stage in their careers as Pips the racket they made is better described as ungodly caterwauling.
“Papa! Papa!” I cried over the din, “You did not ask them what they were doing on the vast wild windswept desolate tarputa!”
“That can wait,” said Papa, “Now be on the lookout for a wren or a godwit, otherwise our soup tonight will be a thin consommé.”
And so I waited. I waited for years. Papa never asked the Pips to explain where they had been, and what they had been doing, before they came to us that day. And nor did I. Neither of us ever got the opportunity. We could never get a word in edgewise. The seven children sang continually, morning, noon, and night, without cease. We prayed for Gladys Knight to turn up and whisk at least some of them away. I spent entire days gazing through the gently swaying gaps in the foliage, barely noticing the wagons rumbling past, trying somehow to summon Gladys Knight. But the vast wild windswept desolate tarputa remained obstinately empty and vast and wild and windswept and desolate, with nary a sign of a soul singer. Gladys Knight never came for her Pips.
On my twelfth birthday, Papa and I were sat in the anteroom of the rumpus room, cotton wool stuffed into our ears to muffle the awful singing. Papa looked haunted and woebegone. I asked him what was the matter.
“A horrible truth has dawned on me, Sophonisba,” he shouted.
“What is that, Papa?” I shouted back.
“I do not think these children are Pips.”
“Not Pips? Then what are they?”
“I think they are fools,” he shouted, “Foolish tots who cannot stop singing.”
“Yes, I have wondered about that,” I shouted, “I have wondered that they sing all day, every day, and all night, every night, and never seem to sleep, or even to get tired.”
Papa raised his eyes to the heavens. He looked as desolate as the tarputa.
“How could fools get tired?”
The first sentence, and the last, were translated from the German by Willa and Edwin Muir. Everything in between was not.
In her “Mind Your Language” column in The Spectator, Dot Wordsworth turns her attention to jejune. It is one of those words (like fulsome) where an erroneous usage is now so common that the correct, original meaning may be lost entirely. Because of its similarity to juvenile and French jeune, jejune is misused to mean childish, naive, callow. (Dot Wordsworth suggests George Bernard Shaw may be to blame.) This is the (wrong) sense given in the finest use of jejune in cinema history:
What jejune actually means is thin, meagre, unsatisfying. Thank heavens there is at least one man who uses the word correctly. Blockbusting potboilerist Pebblehead has embarked on a new series of gaudy paperback potboilers which purport to be sequels, or prequels, or simply complete rewrites, of acknowledged classics. The first title to appear is Pebblehead’s take on Richard Llewellyn’s 1939 novel How Green Was My Valley. Recalling the privations of his childhood in Pang Hill Orphanage, Pebblehead’s book is entitled How Jejune Was My Gruel. It begins:
How jejune was my gruel. Oh, how jejune it was. I remember so vividly how, when given my bowl of gruel in the orphanage dining hall, I was struck by its jejunosity. Has ever a poor orphan child, who grew up to become an internationally successful bestselling paperbackist, been faced with gruel so jejune? I think not.
A film adaptation of How Jejune Was My Gruel is currently in production, starring anybody the producers can find whose career is not in tatters following allegations of sexual misconduct.
Two boys were sitting on the harbour wall playing with dice. One of the boys was clever, and the other boy was dim. Now, when I tell you that one of the boys tossed the dice into the sea that sloshed against the harbour wall, you are likely to conclude that the boy who so tossed was the dim one. Dice serve no purpose in the sea. They will bob upon the surface of the waters, uselessly, carried by the tides, growing ever more distant the one from the other, sopping wet, and no longer to be played with.
But in fact it was the clever boy who ruined their play by tossing the dice into the sea. For not only was he astoundingly clever, with an intellect far outwith the usual range of boyish brains, but he was also a psychopath. No sooner had he tossed the dice into the sea than he shoved his dim playmate off the harbour wall into the same sloshing sea and, for good measure, he grabbed hold of a passing harbour kitten and, deaf to its mewling, chucked it into the water alongside the dice and the dim boy. The name of this clever boy? Young Babinsky!
Amused by his seaside enormities, the youthful psychopath toddled off to a milk bar with not a care in the world. Meanwhile, in the vast wet merciless sea, the dice bobbed, but the dim boy and the harbour kitten sank like stones, and the waters washed over them, and they were forgotten.
Let us leap forward thirty, no, forty years. Forty is a better number than thirty, according to Blötzmann, who famously assigned abstruse yet compelling non-numerical values to certain numbers that took his fancy, for example eight and eleven and fifteen and sixteen and nineteen and twenty-six and twenty-nine and thirty-seven and forty and oh for god’s sake shut up with the list of numbers, it could go on ad infinitum. Suffice to say forty is one of Blötzmann’s so-called “basilisk” numbers, whatever that might mean.
In the forty years since the clever boy and the dim boy sat on the harbour wall playing with dice, the wall has crumbled. The big wet sea is reclaiming the land. Half of the town is now under water, including the milk bar where, all those years ago, Babinsky drank a tumbler of warm sour goaty milk and chuckled at his youthful crimes. And now he has returned. Look, there he is, silhouetted against the ghastly sky, swinging his axe, standing on the town’s highest hill and gazing, perplexed, at the sea below. He has come on a pilgrimage of sorts, eager to revisit the scenes – idyllic, as he remembers them – of his youth. But they are gone, sunk beneath the waves as surely as his first victims, his dim playmate and the harbour kitten, vanished forever.
Babinsky was not a man to let a little thing like the sea confound him. Pausing only to waylay a passing Punch & Judy man, butchering him with his axe and slicers, the lumbering walrus-moustached psychopath lumbered off towards a chandlery, where he rented a deep-sea diving outfit, complete with gleaming brass helmet. Then he walked into the sea, following the old familiar roads and paths and mews and alleys submerged under the churning waters, until he came to the milk bar.
Its door had long ago fallen from its rusted hinges. Babinsky entered, and sat at the communal table, whereon tiny crabs scuttled and lobsters clacked. Memories tumbled through his insane head. He could almost taste the goaty milk of forty years ago.
And then, from behind the milk bar counter, there appeared a sea-wraith, festooned in seaweed. It was accompanied by a sea-ghoul kitten. The kitten wore a necklace of eelgrass, on which were strung a pair of dice. The wraith sat down opposite Babinsky. The ghoulish kitten jumped up on to the table and chased away the crabs and lobsters.
“Hello, Babinsky” gurgled the wraith.
For once, the walrus-moustached psychopath was nonplussed.
“Yes, it is me, your childhood playmate, poor dim Gracchus. You shoved me off the old harbour wall, into the pitiless sea, and chucked Tiddles the kitten in after me. I thank you for that. He has been a boon, if kittenish, companion these past forty years.
“We both drowned, of course. But our bodies were never recovered. When we sank to the bottom of the sea, we were dragged into a cave by an old man with a long beard who carried a trident. He nursed us back to what passes for health among sea-wraiths and sea-ghouls, until we were well enough to attend his series of Microsoft PowerPoint presentations about undersea life. They were a real eye-opener, I can tell you. Even someone as dim as me, or as stupid as the kitten – we learned so much!
“For example, do you have any idea how easy it is to hunt down and kill tiny fish such as dabs and sprats and blennies? That is how I make my living – or rather, wraithing – these days. I roam the seas in my little ship, with Tiddles as First Mate, casting my net and catching tiny fish which I sell to the other denizens of the deep. There are all sorts down here – drowned sailors, suicides, nitwits who never learned to swim.
“You should think about coming to join us, Babinsky. There must have been times, lying awake in your blood-drenched bed, when it crossed your mind that you should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas. Not that it’s silent down here, oh no. Apart from the shrill piping screams of slaughtered dabs and sprats and blennies, there is the continuing reverberation of “Autumn”, played by the house band on the Titanic, as documented by Gavin Bryars in his 1975 recording The Sinking Of The Titanic, released on Brian Eno’s Obscure Records label. Plus there are all sorts of weird bubbly gurgling noises.
“Anyway, Babinsky my old mucker, give it some thought. I think you’ll like it here. My ship has no rudder, and it is driven by the wind that blows in the undermost regions of death.”
A few readers asked to see a copy of the theological tract to which I made reference yesterday. Et voila!
When Eduard Raban, coming along the passage, walked into the open doorway, he saw that it was raining. The morning drizzle had become a lunchtime downpour. So teeming was the rain that Raban could barely see the milk bar across the street. Crushed by weather, he turned abruptly, returned along the passage and up the stairs and into his rented room and flung himself on to the bed and promptly fell asleep.
Shortly afterwards, without waking, he rose from the bed, put on a pair of galoshes, and went back out of the room and down the stairs and along the passage and into the open doorway. But this time, being fast asleep, he did not stop to consider the rain, but continued out, sploshing across the puddle-splattered street and into the milk bar.
He sat at the communal table and, still wholly unconscious, waved his arm in a languid, foppish manner to attract the attention of the milk bar serving urchin, a tiny lad no more than four foot tall, with a withered leg and a pointy hat. Unlike Raban, this urchin boy was wide awake, almost uncannily so, vividly aware of everything going on around him, from the languid and foppish gestures of unconscious customers to the scuttling of tiny beetles across the sawdust floor of the milk bar.
Now, in the ringing words of Blötzmann – admittedly wrenched out of context – “Forget the somnambulist!” and concentrate instead upon the urchin. For it is this weedy milk bar factotum who played a decisive part in the history of the century of which I write. This tiny lad was none other than Gus Von Vig, inventor – or perhaps one should say discoverer – of the milk moustache. It was a fashion craze that swept across the continent as relentlessly as the plague-riddled rats of an earlier century. And it was more than a fad, oh!, much more. One need only study photographs taken during the decades when the milk moustache was de rigueur. Scarcely an upper lip is unadorned by a stripe of dried or drying milk.
Because he was employed as a milk bar serving urchin, it was long believed that Gus Von Vig lit upon the milk moustache in the course of his duties. Recent and fantastically rigorous research by upper lip fashion historian Popsi Uplip has demonstrated, beyond argument, that, on the contrary and unexpectedly, Von Vig first gave the milk moustache a public outing dozens of miles away from the milk bar, out in the country, when he attended a wedding.
He had been invited, the Lord only knows why, to the nuptials of Babinsky 2, the idiot half-brother of the lumbering walrus-(not milk-)moustached serial killer Babinsky, and his bride, the equally dimwitted Babs Glint, daughter of countryside folk. The wedding took place in some godforsaken rustic hellhole a half-day’s train journey away from the bustling modern city, replete with street lighting and majestic boulevards and sodium flares and milk bars where Gus Von Vig had lived all his life.
While he sat enlocomotived waiting for the train to chug out of the station, far away in the countryside Mama and Papa Glint were making preparations for their daughter’s wedding. There was a tent. There were trestle tables. There were cackhandedly embroidered cloths covering the tables. Upon each cloth was placed a potato, one per table. There was every chance that pitting the wedding guests against each other in games of the often brutal peasant sport of Grab The Potato would lead to unbridled violence, but both Mama and Papa Glint were brutish and given to unbridled violence, as were almost all the wedding guests, as indeed was the blushing bride, dimwitted Babs.
Also preparing for the wedding was the local man of the cloth, the Reverend Pluvius Mancloth. Urbane, hirsute, vengeful, cantankerous, potty, gassy, ferocious, dismal, hare-brained, hare-lipped, lascivious, erudite, appalling, nuts, rubicund, sordid, wintry, butter-fingered, holy, brittle, bitter, blessed of the fruit of Our Lady’s womb, Jesus, half-full of grace, rotting-from-the-inside, creaky, blind, the Rev. Mancloth was also brutish and given to unbridled violence, but only towards puppies and kittens. To his flock of peasant churchgoers, he appeared addled and incompetent, if somewhat greasy. And yet he was loved by them, with a deep spiritual peasant love, akin to the love a farmer feels for his favourite pig. It was appropriate, then, that the vicar prepared for the wedding by wallowing, among pigs, in the muck, in their sty.
What nobody could have foreseen was that this squalid countryside wedding, of Babinsky 2 to Babs Glint, would witness the public debut of the greatest upper lip fashion craze of the century. For as his train chugged slowly towards the rustic hellhole’s dilapidated railway station, Gus Von Vig grew thirsty. He determined that the first thing he would do, upon disembarking from the train, was to beg a farmer for a tumbler of milk.
As luck would have it, there was just such a farmer loitering on the station platform. He was on the lookout for the railway cat, for which, each day, he would pour a tumblerful of milk into a bowl, and watch it lap. When Gus Von Vig came mincing along the platform, the milk had not yet been poured into the bowl. It was still in the tumbler, held in the farmer’s muscular and grubby peasant hand. Gus begged. The farmer explained about the cat. Gus begged further, but the farmer would not yield.
Then Gus realised he had in his jacket pocket a persuasive theological tract which, if he were to recite the more vivid passages to the farmer, might change his mind. Coincidentally, this tract – entitled Why Cats Must Suffer – had been written by the Rev. Pluvius Mancloth. It certainly proved persuasive, for no sooner had he heard four or five words of it than the farmer handed the tumbler of milk to Gus Von Vig, who gulped it down greedily, inadvertently leaving the telltale stripe of a milk moustache on his upper lip.
And it was thus adorned that he attended the wedding. Not a single peasant expressed admiration of his milk moustache, but at the reception, when the games of Grab The Potato descended into unbridled violence, weedy Von Vig sought refuge from the brutality by fleeing to a nearby newsagent’s kiosk. Also at the kiosk, buying a bundle of the latest fashion magazines, was the internationally celebrated Italian fashionista Giuseppe Boppo. Boppo’s glance fell on the milk moustache upon Von Vig’s upper lip, and so great was his ecstasy that he swooned. The rest is history.
A question that has always plagued those plagued by questions is precisely why Boppo was so taken with the milk moustache. Such was his influence that, within a week of the wedding, it was on the upper lips of the most fashionable people in every important city across the continent. In her research paper, Popsi Uplip provides a simple explanation, when she writes:
He’s instantly ecstatic about everything beautiful …
The first sentence, and the last, were translated from the German by Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins. Everything in between was not.
Conducting research into the world of children’s comics, I learned that several decades ago there was a brouhaha in the offices of a popular comic for girls. The subeditors and junior reporters rose up in rebellion against the formidable editrix, and ejected her from the building. This became known as The Mutiny On The Bunty.
Hooting Yard is “a transformative experience”. So says Winston Alden, and he explains why in Frank Key’s Hooting Yard and the Tradition of Grand English Nonsense, here.
The compendium Ruined Picnics gives accounts of one thousand ruined picnics between 1959 and 2017. An unsurprising number of ruinations are caused by rainfall and wasps, but there is only one recorded picnic ruined by a panic-stricken goose.
This picnic took place on 14 January 1987, in a field hemmed by larch and sycamore, not far from a farm, or, better, farmstead, yes, a farmstead, where many geese were kept. It was a sort of goose-farmstead, if you can imagine such a thing. The bulk, or majority, of the geese were content and placid, but one of their number was thrown into a state of panic by something strange and grubby and inchoate. At this distance in time, we cannot know for certain what it was, precisely, or even vaguely, this thing. All that can be said for certain is that it induced panic in a single goose, which, maddened, broke out of the farmstead by hurling itself repeatedly against a portion of fencing weakened by rust and metal fatigue, until it had created a gap large enough for it to go goose-stepping away from the farmstead, in a direct line to the field, hemmed by larch and sycamore, where a picnic was, on that afternoon, in January!, taking place.
This was one of the so-called Picnics of Piety, organised by the pious and puritanical Reverend Ringo Starr – not to be confused, though he often was, with the drumming Beatle of the same name, though we would do well to remember that the latter adopted it as a pseudonym or stage-name, whereas for the Reverend it was his real name. At least, he claimed as much, though was curiously reluctant ever to produce his birth certificate when asked, for example by petty bureaucrats working for petty bureaucracies, and similar curses upon humanity.
Picture, them, on a freezing January afternoon, in a field, a Picnic of Piety, with sausage rolls and cream crackers and marmalade and buns and digestive biscuits and reconstituted meat-style gaeitiés, accompanied by flasks of spigot-water. Fast, or fastish, approaching the picnic blanket is the panic-stricken goose. Nobody at the picnic sees it coming, for the Reverend Ringo Starr has commanded the picnickers to shut their eyes and think pious thoughts while chewing their sausage rolls and cream crackers and marmalade and buns and digestive biscuits and reconstituted meat-style gaeitiés and slurping their spigot-water. The scene is set for the ruination of a picnic, by a maddened and panic-stricken goose, and that is precisely what happened. Tupperware was strewn everywhere.
Valuable – some might say invaluable – as the compendium is, we might lament the fact that it neglects to give any details of what occurred in the aftermaths of the one thousand ruined picnics it covers. Thus we are left in the dark about, for example, whether the January 1987 Picnic of Piety was able to resume after its goose-visitation, or whether it was abandoned, or whether the picnickers, with their eyes shut and their minds wholly concentrated on pious thoughts, even noticed that their picnic had been ruined. We might lament these omissions, and we do, by weeping, and singing dirges, or humming them, if we cannot sing in tune.
There is weeping and wailing all over the nation
At untold picnic ruination
Untold until now – now the tally is tolled
And it makes our blood run cold
Here is an old favourite, written over thirty years ago. Two words have been changed from the original version. I have no idea what it means, but it might be diverting to subject it to piercing critical analysis. Does anybody want to have a go?
Hats are off in Docking; caps are being doffed. The council’s got a town plan. The maths are on a chart. Pips have been spat out and drudgery is bye-byed. Chocolate puddings seem to be in everybody’s pantry. And here comes Pebblehead père. He caught a shark in waters. His sou’wester’s been askew since 1954-ish. Bubbles surge from froth. The chemist’s shop is shut. There’s pills & pills & pills that no Docking man could swallow. Suffering aborted. The council in a caucus. The shaven heads of heads of state are battering the doors down. The city gates, the turrets, the alleys, roads & mews: Docking has its ears all go for red alert decisions. Language has been no-no’d, the bamboo men are wailing, the breakage rate is scheduled: the system has been broken. Crayons pink & stacked, the burnt sienna packaged. Vandals clash at nightfall, but Docking has its crackers. Plastic wrapped in plastic. The Docking coffers emptied. Idiot brawl saloon bar, a gorgeous snag-tooth babble. Prepared to dance a hoo-cha, not a tear or boo-hoo. Thousands of museums stacked with golden maps. Misshapen trunk road closures. Big stone reconstructions. Docking’s cottoned on: it’s a town about a tower. The frame is out of kilter, the coughing’s filling coffins. Oh, but I want to go back to that Docking, Docking hack.
The Peter Blegvad Trio are playing at Cafe Oto in London on Friday. I hope they have roped in this splendid fellow to drive them to the gig. In the words of PB, “he’s something else, isn’t he?”
One of the most valuable lessons life has taught me is to know the difference between salvation and salivation. It is so easy to confuse the two, especially in one’s youth. When I was a young whippersnappernipper, long ago, I would regularly insert an i when one was not needed, or omit an i where the high heavens cried out for one. I know I was not the only pimply young shaver to commit these errors. Over the decades, I have had conversations with, ooh, hundreds if not thousands of people who were – and in some cases still are! – fuddled by the difference. It should go without saying that confusing the two can have serious ramifications.
That is another word, incidentally, with which I had problems. I would commonly omit not just an i but also an a, giving it as ramfictions. This was because I thought it had something to do with stories about sheep. My dear departed Ma would regularly read to me a bedtime story about a sheep named Dolores, whose fleece became snagged on a wire fence at the edge of a field on a farm in a fictional place called Dippydopeyland. As her name indicates, Dolores was a ewe rather than a ram, so even if such a thing as a ramfiction existed, which it did not, except within my little head, her story would not have been one. But that was just something else that confused me as a child.
When I heard the word ewe I thought the speaker was referring to a yew. I suspect this was because, when it was my dear departed Pa’s turn to read me a bedtime story, he invariably chose to recite, in an eerie voice, “The Moon And The Yew Tree” by Sylvia Plath. The result was that I found Ma’s story of Dolores frankly incomprehensible. The Plath poem, on the other hand, with its fumy spiritous mists and sea like a dark crime and bonging bells and bats and owls and the moon bald and wild and the blackness and silence, I found almost unbearably thrilling, so much so that I began to salivate. I would often slobber on to my pillow before Pa got to the end of the poem.
Of course, I confused my salivation with salvation, and imagined Jesus was about to come and pluck me from my bed, and take me to his bosom, and up to heaven, where he wanted me for a sunbeam. Now, as it happened, if Ma and Pa were called away to a night rally, my dear departed Uncle Ned read my bedtime story, which for him was always Chapter V of Part III of Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships. That is why, throughout my childhood, I was convinced I was a cucumber.