The other day I mentioned Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons. I feel it only right that you should be told Tender Buttons is also the name of a magnificent button shop in New York City. Last year it celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. Should you find yourself in that fair city I wholeheartedly recommend you pay it a visit and buy some buttons. I did.
Pick a barn, suggested Gertrude Stein in Tender Buttons (1914), so that is exactly what I did, I picked a barn. The barn I picked was the eerie barn at Scroonhoonpooge Farmyard. It was an appropriate choice. Just as Tender Buttons has been hailed as a masterpiece of cubist prose, so there is something decidedly cubist about the eerie barn, which reveals, if not its secrets, then to some extent its eeriness, when viewed simultaneously from different angles. How one might go about viewing an indubiitably solid three-dimensional barn from different angles simultaneously is The Point That Is Moot. It is well to bear this mootage in mind.
The eerie barn at Scroonhoonpooge Farmyard has been the scene of many many enormities, some involving the lumbering walrus-moustached psychopath Babinsky, some involving buttons, and some both Babinsky and buttons. The barn has also witnessed, day in day out, the slaughter of an unconscionable number of farmyard animals, not least chickens. One of the buttons on Babinsky’s overcoat, incidentally, had a decorative bit of folderol depicting a Vanburgh chicken, but only one of the buttons. Why the overcoat bore an odd button is, again, The Point That Is Moot. That makes two points of mootage.
Having picked my barn, I was not sure what to do next, so I further consulted Gertrude Stein, who clearly knew about such matters. “Pick a barn, a whole barn,” she wrote, “and bend more slender accents than have ever been necessary, shine in the darkness necessarily.” So I did that, bend and shine, bend and shine, turn and turn about, in the whole eerie barn. It was cavernous. When I felt I had bent and shone sufficient unto the day, or rather the evening, for it was evening, I had an overwhelming sense of mootage. Did I sense, too, the phantom presence of Babinsky, his great hairy hands drenched with blood, his one odd chicken button gleaming in the necessary darkness? I did not, and that was a small mercy.
Having picked and bent and shone, and reassured myself that Babinsky was nowhere in the vicinity, I was at something of a loose end. Then I remembered that Gertrude Stein liked to write while out in the countryside, sitting on a camping-stool, looking at cows. I reasoned, rightly I think, that where there is a barn there will be cows, or at least one cow. All I need do was to arm myself with a notepad and pencil and camping-stool, then find a cow. My various mootages began to dissolve, like liver salts in cold water.
Gertrude Stein was driven to her countryside cow-observation-and-writing spots by Alice B. Toklas, but without car or driver I had to trudge through farmyard and fields, and puddle after puddle after puddle, in search of my wantings. Do you have any idea how difficult it can be to find a notepad and a pencil and a camping-stool in a rustic backwater? These things are not just lying about waiting to be gathered gratefully to the bosom of the scavenger. As night fell, black and inhuman, I was still wandering about like a nincompoop, without pencil or notepad or camping-stool. Nor did I encounter a single cow in my roamings. Perhaps they had all been done to death in the eerie barn at Scroonhoonpooge Farmyard.
Before I tumbled into a ditch to spend a night of unrest and terror, I found, floating in a puddle, a button. I clutched it tenderly. But then I noticed that it bore a decorative bit of folderol depicting a Vanburgh chicken. Was it the button of Babinsky? That the fiend might be close at hand, hunting desperately for his odd button, made me sick with fear. I flung the button away from me, as far as it could be flung, and toppled into my ditch. Tomorrow I would pick a different barn, less eerie, less cubist, and far, far from this accursed spot.
While shepherds watched their flocks at night on Pugton Hill the wind blew wild and there were shimmerings or ghostly gleams. One shepherd had a wristwatch and told the time to the other two. Down below Pugton Hill on the main arterial road huge container lorries thundered past on their way to the ferry. The shepherds smoked their pipes. The lorries too belched smoke for there were no laws in place to stop them so doing. Nor were there speed limits. Crashes and pile-ups and terrible accidents were common at that time in that place below Pugton Hill. When they heard or saw dimly in the black night a grievous traffic incident the shepherds laughed for their hearts were cold and void of human sympathy. They preferred the company of nocturnal sheep wide awake and terrified as sheep are for most of their time on earth and on Pugton Hill. So slowly the hands of the wristwatch tock off the minutes and the hours. The shepherds are waiting for a sign. There is no signage on the main arterial road save for an occasional arrow pointing towards the ferry. No sign points the way back for none of the huge speeding lorries ever comes back. They carry the contents of the country load by load to the ferry and never return past Pugton Hill atop which the shepherds smoke and laugh and are fiercely protective of their terrified sheep. Glory be for yes it is a kind of glory up there above the road as the wind blows wild in the night on Pugton Hill.
Mr Key has returned from his brief sojourn in New York, and is gathering his wits and resting his weary limbs. Meanwhile, here is a snap of a couple of New Yorkers I encountered (in the Metropolitan Museum of Art). Coming soon – another New Yorker, the Knight of the Whisks (with whisks)!
Mr Key is off gallivanting in foreign parts, so there will be no postages here for a week or so. You may wish to fill the Hooting Yard-shaped hole in your noggin by traipsing through the archives, or perhaps by just gazing into the middle distance with a look of longing and desolation ravaging your countenance. Either way, I shall be back before you can say
Hezezezezezezezezezezezezezezeze cowar ho dze hoi
Higaigaigaigaigaigaigaigaigaigai, guaiagai coricor dzio dzio pi
which, according to the German naturalist Bechstein, is an accurate transcription of the song of the nightingale.
From the archives:
When push comes to shove, I invariably topple over. If I am standing on a precipice, or at the edge of a gaping pit, this can be life-threatening. Thus, whenever my plans for the day include roaming in the vicinity of a yawning chasm, I take precautions by wearing a sort of winch-and-pulley affair, one end of which is wound around my torso, under my vest, and the other end of which I hammer into a patch of firm ground using a great big iron mallet. I am careful to ensure that this end of my winch-and-pulley is stuck fast in the earth, for if there is any chance of it working itself loose, the entire activity would be pointless, for if, heaven forbid, I were to topple when shoved, my efforts would have been in vain, for the crumbling or squelchy soil would yield up my winch-and-pulley and I would surely topple as if I had never been attached to anything in the first place. That is such a terrible prospect that I make efforts to map out in advance the terrain in which I plan to wander, perhaps a week or so ahead. Of course, fugitive weather conditions can alter the state of the ground as shown on my charts, but risk and chance play a role in all human affairs, and there is no reason why my roamings should be exempt. When setting out on my map-making expeditions, I usually attach one end of the winch-and-pulley to some stable object like a horse-trough or a concrete sundial.
My benefactors have long sought to deter me from straying near pits, chasms and abandoned mineshafts, so I am afraid I have had to use subterfuge. As I wave to them from the garden gate, with the winch-and-pulley concealed behind a muffler, I say something like, “I am just going out to check the concrete sundial” or “My my, the day is so clement that I think I will stroll along a flat and featureless plain like the big field where Farmer Buzan used to grow his potatoes all those years ago”. Sometimes such announcements will be met with questions, which I am usually able to anticipate by peering at the furrowedness of my benefactors’ brows. At other times I may have to improvise a convincing response or deflect the queries by pointing at a starling, for example, or forcing a sudden spray of projectile vomiting. When push comes to shove, pointing at a starling is my preferred option.
It is twenty years now since I bashed in Farmer Buzan’s head with his own spade. I like to think that my benefactors trust me these days, but it seems not. Oh look, there’s a starling in that sycamore tree!
I am very grateful to Poppy Nisbet for drawing this to my attention. From this moment on, I shall be magnetizing all my food. I will let you know how things are going in a week or so.
There was an item on the Today programme on BBC Radio Four this morning about a new scientific study of penguins. I am afraid I was not paying due attention so cannot enlighten you. However, it did serve to remind me that, in the long ago, when I used to draw pictures, I once depicted, in the medium of pen and ink, a scientific experiment upon a penguin.
He went to an orchard with his chums
And they stole a punnet’s worth of plums
Then they scampered off to their hideaway
As the last light faded from the day
The sky grew dark, then darker, black
They transferred the plums into a sack
Then they tumbled out of their hideaway tent
And round the town in the night they went
Depositing plums from door to door
Mischief that was against the law
For in that town plums had been banned
As elsewhere in that plumless land
According to the king’s decree
(The king looked just like Dick Van Dyke)
Plums were a fruit he did not like
Why then, you ask, did he allow
The orchard’s trees, bough upon bough
To sprout so many Carlsbad plums?
Let us ask the little chums.
But oh! They’ve vanished in the night
Now they’re completely out of sight
O’er the hills and far away
As dawn breaks on a brand new day
And townsfolk find plums on their stoeps
They greet them with shrill cries and whoops
And hide them quick before King Claus
Comes on his rounds from house to house
If he finds a plum his wrath will wax
And cause umpteen heart attacks
So hide your plums well, folks of the town
Till human voices wake you, and you drown.
As I still seem to have a completely empty head, as far as prose is concerned, you lot can assuage your lack-of-Hooting-Yard misery with this. It is the second of Outa_Spaceman’s revisited and revised settings of the Great Hooting Yard Songbook, following on from this.