No doubt you will be busy today organising a street party, hanging out streams of bunting, distributing paper plates piled high with sausage rolls and slices of fairy cake, and arranging entertainments featuring high-pitched discordant screaming, the cutting off of clothes, and world peace. Yes! It’s Yoko Ono’s 84th birthday. Rejoice!
I posted this thirteen long years ago, in March 2004, but it still makes me laugh, so I thought I’d pop it in again:
Is nothing sacred? In this age of pointless but seemingly obsessive rebranding, news reaches us that Snow White’s diminutive pals, the seven dwarves, are to be given new names. From next Friday, apparently, they are to be known as Wretched, Spiteful, Incontinent, Wistful, Lippy, Rancorous & Preening.
Exterior, the gate of the Wasp Zoo.
Sentry At The Gate Of The Wasp Zoo : Halt! Who goes there?
Voice Offstage : I am Perkins, Bringer Of Mothballs.
Sentry At The Gate Of The Wasp Zoo : You may pass.
Enter Perkins, Bringer Of Mothballs. He is dressed in cardboard boxes save for his hat, which is made of birds.
Perkins, Bringer Of Mothballs : Have you heard the news from Chappaquiddick?
Sentry At The Gate Of The Wasp Zoo : Yes. Poor Mary Jo Kopechne.
Perkins, Bringer Of Mothballs : This is a very bijou wasp zoo.
Sentry At The Gate Of The Wasp Zoo : It is. But now I have no further words, and nor do you, for there is a fatal flaw in this little drama, viz. its incoherence. Now we must simply stand here on stage, silently, for several hours, until such time as your hat-birds fly, fly away.
Perkins, Bringer Of Mothballs : But they are not living birds. They are stone dead and taxidermised.
Sentry At The Gate Of The Wasp Zoo : Did you not hear what I said? Hush ye! Hush ye!
Several hours pass, until the audience bursts into thunderous applause.
Hurrah! I am clearly not alone in my loathing of Twitter. It seems to me thoroughly corrosive, of both journalism and public debate more broadly. But we cannot now uninvent it, so a way must be found to turn people away from it, and steer them towards a more elevated form of social network communication.
Three cheers, then, for Twitsum Twatsum, a new platform launched yesterday. This allows users to couch their every banal waking thought in the form of lengthy disquisitions in Latin, peppered with classical quotations and abstruse scholarly bagatelles. The minimum length of a so-called “Tweetum” is ten thousand words, and if a user attempts to insert one of those wretched “emoticon” horrors, the software is designed to cause their device (phone, tablet, etc.) to explode with a loud bang!, shattering it to smithereens.
I feel sure that millions around the world, who are currently destroying what is left of our civilisation by their endless Twittering, will embrace this splendid new service. I have already posted my first Tweetum, a crushingly tedious comment on what I had for breakfast made uncrushingly untedious by dint of its inordinate length, finely-wrought Latin prose, and quotations from Catullus.
May I remind you that this week is fundraising week at Resonance 104.4FM? The finest radio station in the known universe, and indeed in several parallel universes, urgently needs at least part of the contents of your bank account, plus any loose change you have scattered about your hovel. If you wish to continue listening to Hooting Yard On The Air, and plenty of other tremendous programmes, then please give generously.
Chief among the Loopy Prigs of Shelmerdox was one whose head had dimensions similar to those of a large plum, and its hue too, its hue or tint if you will, a splenetic fellow of milk-stained necktie and eggy brow, whatever that might be, slumped in his hammock at all hours save for when he was off on a jaunt armed with a blunderbuss and the head of wrung-necked chicken dangling from a lanyard about which, foolishly, he had written a song, Oh Lanyard Fair!, to the tune of Carry On Wayward Son by Kansas, nothing to do, apparently, with the Carry On film series starring such screen luminaries as Hattie Jacques and Charles Hawtrey, the latter a resident of Deal, near Sandwich, in Kent, where the Chief Loopy Prig of Shelmerdox had been known to picnic, on occasion, and exhibit his gift for snatching wasps in mid-buzz, reaching to grab them in his fist, with its strange musculature, before plopping them into an empty marmalade jar and screwing the lid down tight, the better to transport them to the Wasp Zoo at Tantarabim Bamforth, a place with the only known conjunction of bim and bam in its name if the gazetteers of that land were to be believed, and why would they not be?
I put this question, in its entirety, from that opening “Chief” to the closing “be”, to both Condoleezza Rice and Ringo Starr. Neither has seen fit to reply, yet, which causes me some grief, though not enough grief to provoke weeping, yet. The weeping will come, I am sure of it, perhaps by next Thursday, if I have still not heard from Rice or Starr, in which case I will be minded to take the Alger Hiss Option. It is unclear to me of what this option consists, but I will strive to find out by visiting my local librar, abutting the market square, with its enormous cement horse trough now a bed of flowers, pinks and posies and lupins and hollyhocks, and nary a horse in sight, any more, since the triumph of the motor car.
You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. For example, only the other day I met, in a shabby cafeteria, a dreamer, who once played the drums for Freddie’s pop group, and he told me that he had been dreaming about the Chief Loopy Prig of Shelmerdox, except that for him it was more nightmare than dream, for the wasp had escaped from the marmalade jar – how? – and stung him on his eggy brow – that mysterious phrase again! – thus waking him from his troubled sleep, waking him into a world where there was no sting, no wasp, nor even a Loopy Prig of Shelmerdox. Thus baffled, the dreamy drummer arose from his bed, and threw away his crutches, and walked!
To where did he walk?
To Tantarabim Bamforth.
And what did he do there?
He rattled a tin.
What was in the tin?
From whence had the buttons come?
The buttons had once been the eyes of a rag doll, a ventriloquist’s dummy, now blind, languishing in a crate in a storage facility in Deal, near Sandwich, in Kent. Imagine that.
A gastronome and a dramaturge were out a-walking one day when they became engulfed in an eerie purple mist. Though they knew it not, it was the sort of mist beloved of writers of phantasmal stories. In these tales, those exposed to the mephitic vapours emerge somehow changed. See, for example, the film The Incredible Shrinking Man, or, lethally, The Purple Cloud by M. P. Shiel.
What happened in the present case was that the pair eventually stumbled out of the mist transformed into a gastroturge and a dramanome. At first they were unaware of the change the mist had wrought. They walked on, o’er the flint-strewn fields, until they reached the clump of pollarded willows by the canal just before the level crossing, where they shook hands and parted, promising to meet each other at the same spot the next day to go a-walking again.
It would be worth devoting a paragraph to that handshake, had I the words to describe it, or to convey its immense significance. What it was not was the kind of coded handshake performed by members of secret societies to signal to each other their shared affiliation. Rather, it was to all intents and purposes a perfectly normal and unremarkable handshake. Had you witnessed it, if, say, you were a peewit perched on the pollarded stub of a branch of one of those willows, you would very likely notice nothing unusual, and fly away, bored. Can birds be bored? That is a query for another occasion, when we are concerned with ornithological psychology rather than with gastroturgy and dramanomery, our current preoccupations.
We will continue into a second paragraph with the handshake, for we are not done with it yet. There is a verse by Dennis Beerpint where the poet writes, famously, In vegetation and in awe / They made a handshake last for hours. This was not that sort of handshake. It lasted for only a few moments, like the average handshake. It involved no special grasp, nor funny business. The right hands of the gastroturge and the dramanome, the ones they shook, were as near as dammit matched in size and in finger-numbers, in neither case being deformed in any way nor outwith the standard lineaments of the adult human hand. Look at the diagrams in Di Boffo’s Gallery Of Standardised Anatomical Limb Appendages, Book IV, and you will see etchings that could be drawn from posings by the gastroturge and the dramanome in person, had they been alive at the time of publication.
Which is by way of saying, as we embark on a third paragraph devoted to the subject, that there really was nothing remarkable about the handshake at all, save for the fact that it was remarkable. The difficulty is in articulating, in plain words, what was so remarkable about it. And believe me, it was, oh! it certainly was! The peewit – or the putative peewit – may well have flown away, bored, but we should not rely on a bored bird to tell us about the fathomless intricacies of human interaction, particularly when that bored bird is merely a notional bird invented as a conceit. It need not even be a peewit. It could equally well be a starling or a chaffinch.
But let us not labour the point, babbling into yet another handshake-fixated paragraph. We know the handshake was of immense significance. We know we have not the words to explain why. It may be a solace to recognise that the fictional peewit, or starling, or chaffinch, is in an even worse position, having no words at all, not even inadequate words, but merely tweetings and chirrups and similar birdy witterings at its disposal. Also, birds’ brains are tiny, much smaller than the brains of the gastroturge and the dramanome. And those brains, albeit both bigger than a bird’s, were about to succumb to unimaginable mental chaos.
Let us not forget that they entered the eerie purple mist as a gastronome and a dramaturge. Yet when they emerged, they had been transformed, in some inexplicable manner, into a gastroturge and a dramanome. As they shook hands by the clump of pollarded willows by the canal just before the level crossing, and parted, taking their divergent paths home, neither was aware of what had befallen them. Only slowly, as the day wore on, and their brains struggled to comprehend the cataclysmic changes, did the gastroturge and the dramanome begin to exhibit erratic patterns of behaviour. At first these were barely perceptible. But by the next morning, both of them had gone completely doolally.
By midday, less than twenty four hours since they had been engulfed in the eerie purple mist, both the gastroturge and the dramanome were under lock and key, confined in neighbouring secure wards in a Bewilderment Home. And there they would remain, for years to come, until boffins could work out a method of switching turge to nome, and nome to turge, without having to wrench their heads off their necks, or commit some similar, almost certainly fatal, procedure.
Meanwhile, the pair sat peering out of their windows at a peewit perched on the pollarded stub of a willow. Birds have no hands to shake, in greeting or in parting. Take note of that fact. It may prove useful to you, in the coming days.
Tiptop pop group the Tiptop Toofles have released a new single which is steaming towards the top of the charts. “My Monkey Has An Ague” is a sprightly yet forlorn ballad telling of the lead singer’s pet monkey, Alan, being hospitalised in a monkey hospital after contracting an ague. It is an odd sort of monkey hospital. The lyrics make explicit that it is closely based on the hospital in a Carry On film, so there are name-checks for Kenneth Williams as a doctor, Hattie Jacques as Matron, and Charles Hawtrey as a weedy patient, languishing in the bed next to the monkey’s. So vivid is the picture painted by the words, though, that we accept it and trust to its verisimilitude, even though, if we give it a moment’s sober thought, it is piffle.
As with all Tiptop Toofles tracks, it’s a toe-tapper, while at the same time being emotionally devastating. For those who have not yet heard it, I will not spoil the song by giving away its ending. All I will say is that, in the final verse, the scene changes from the monkey hospital to a monkey graveyard.
The B side of the single is more smoochy than toe-tappy. “Apparent rari nantes in gurgite vasto” features the sampled voices of both Hattie Jacques and Charles Hawtrey – though not Kenneth Williams – and is scored, unusually for the Tiptop Toofles, or indeed for any other pop group, for Wurlitzer organ, piccolo, and Brazil nuts. At eleven and a half minutes, it is by far the longest track the group has ever released, and it is fair to say that it outstays its welcome by a good ten minutes or so. This has not deterred top pop critic Ted Popcrit from hailing it as “the smoochiest B side ever committed to wax cylinder recording technology that I have heard since yesterday afternoon”. Maddeningly, but characteristically, Ted does not divulge what he was listening to yesterday afternoon, so I rang him up to ask.
“Hello?” I said, “Is that Ted Popcrit?”
But in reply all I heard was a Lovecraftian bubbling sound of “Glub …. glub … glub”. I surmised that Ted must be listening to the Tiptop Toofles’ previous chart-topper, the sprightly yet forlorn smoochy toe-tapper “Disgusting Seaside Resort”. Pop fans will know that this smash hit features the sampled voices of Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson, and that tremendous chorus “the pollarded willows by the canal just before the level crossing”, so startling because it has nothing whatsoever to do with seaside resorts.
If you would like to join the Tiptop Toofles Fan Club, you are strongly advised to consult a qualified medical practitioner, or a man of the cloth, whichever suits your pocket.
The mother of a famous cellist was absolutely obsessed with a children’s toy, so much so that, when she gave birth to the future maestro, she decided to name him after it. This was later reported in the magazine Nomenclature Of Cellists Incorporating Tots’ Playthings Plus Palindromes under the headline Yo Yo Ma’s Ma’s Yo Yo.
Q – Dear Mr Key, I read with great interest your piece on swarfega pitfalls. I myself have often experienced swarfega pratfalls. I think it would be very helpful for your readers if you could provide a clear, comprehensive, and slightly hysterical explanatory string of paragraphs on the differences between pitfalls and pratfalls. Should you require my assistance in this matter, I am available for interview at the corner table in Old Ma Popsicle’s Tea Shoppe every day between the crack of dawn and the engulfing shroud of pitch black starless night.
A – My correspondent is deluded in thinking there is such a thing as a swarfega pratfall. He or she is obviously confusing the phrase with Swarfegaprat Falls, a mighty cataract of tumbling water which can be found on the outskirts of Pointy Town. (Turn left by the cement statue of Hattie Jacques and keep going until you hear the roar and slosh of a mighty cataract of tumbling water.)
From his banishment in a pompous land, Mike Jennings writes to suggest that I exhume the piece Dim Tyrant, posted here in 2010. “The dim tyrant, Crepuscus VIII, would seem very relevant all of a sudden,” says Mr Jennings, “Given his, quote, fateful combination of childish whimsy and an inability to string together a coherent sentence, unquote.” What POTUS could he possibly be thinking of? Anyway, here is the piece, which does seem, at least in its earlier passages, spookily prophetic.
Assessing the career of the tyrant king Crepuscus VIII, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that he was excessively dull-witted and dim. There is a plethora of anecdotage, from courtiers and palace leeches, revealing that the king was rarely able to answer simple questions such as “What part of the body sits atop the neck?”, “How many angels can dance upon the head of a pin?” or “Who won the 1953 FA Cup Final?”
And yet this atrociously stupid man ruled over a mighty kingdom for many years, his hands steady at the helm though his mind was doolally. So, dim as he was, he has much to teach us about the craft of kingship, and indeed of tyranny, if we consider tyranny a craft. For let there be no doubt that his reign was tyrannical.
“In the case of Crepuscus VIII,” wrote the historian Sagely, sagely, “we find a fateful combination of childish whimsy and an inability to string together a coherent sentence. Thus it was that his henchpersons invariably misunderstood his ukases, but hurried to fulfil them come what may.” Sagely gives as an example the occasion when the tyrant king’s whim was to burn down every barn in the land. But so muddled and mangled was the manner in which he gave the command that his Royal Barn Burner mistakenly put a pot-belled pig in charge of the palace treasury instead. As might have been expected, the pig spent every last golden coin on swill, and not a barn was burned to the ground. Fortunately, Crepuscus VIII was so dim that he did not realise what had happened, nor why, and he retired to his boudoir to gaze at the ceiling, thinking it was the vault of heaven.
One could multiply such flimflam until the cows come home, and indeed there are many amusing – and sometimes alarming – books which cobble together hundreds of instances of Crepuscus VIII’s imbecility. I want to take a slightly different tack, however. The thing that has always fascinated me about the tyrant king is not his breathtaking dimness but his dinner jackets.
Dinner was of supreme importance at the court of Crepuscus VIII. Whatever else was going on, at four o’ clock sharp every day, the king would sweep into his banqueting hall and sit down at his banqueting table, at which would be gathered all sorts of banqueting companions. In spite of his dimness, the king liked to be entertained during dinner by philosophers, scientists, novelists, artists, actors, clowns, jugglers, pamphleteers, scruffily-bearded film directors, engineers, podcast maestros, deep sea divers, chefs, snipers, ornithologists, sundry persons with metal plates in their skulls, magicians, mountaineers, ex-Beatles, priests, anthropologists, cartographers, architects, mesmerists, and, if he was available, Rolf Harris. It is doubtful if any of the high-flown table talk penetrated the king’s dull-witted brain, but he sat there, a fork in each hand (he never used a knife), beaming, and resplendent in his dinner jacket of the day.
There were seven of these jackets, one for each day of the week, and the king cut quite a dash in all of them. Monday’s was made of crimplene and cardboard, with golden stars and ribbons and a coathanger embedded in it. Tuesday’s was of plain burlap sacking, adorned with coal dust and grease. Wednesday’s was a gorgeous embroidered flapping wonder. Thursday’s was satin, boxy and black. Friday’s was knit from strands of a rare and stinking wool, shorn from rabid sheep, tie-dyed like some hippy shawl, surrounded by an aura invisible. Saturday’s was of classic cut but frayed at the cuffs, with dangling bells. Sunday’s was somehow a blur, as if the king was vibrating, or on another plane just beyond human apprehension. Whatever day of the week it was, whichever dinner jacket he was wearing, the tyrant king ate sparingly, birdseed and millet mostly, accompanied by sips of lukewarm water from the palace spigot.
Today the dinner jackets can be found hanging in display cases in a jolly little museum hidden away in one of the less salubrious faubourgs of Pointy Town. I exhort you to pay a visit, nay, repeated visits. Study the jackets, now caked with dust, hear the echoes of all that banqueting table babbling, take away with you a souvenir packet of Tyrant King’s Birdseed®, relive the days when Crepuscus VIII reigned over us, dim and tyrannical and cutting quite a dash.
The part of the body atop the king’s neck, by the way, was his head.
Many and various are the pitfalls one can face when using swarfega. You don’t need me to tell you that, but I’m going to anyway. I shall show you how to anticipate the common pitfalls, how to sidestep them with a certain elegance, and, where the pitfalls are gaping chasms that cannot be avoided, how to emerge from them more or less unscathed. As I say, you probably know all this already, but that won’t stop me from telling you, if I have time.
First, though, there is something else I needs must address. When I have given this talk on previous occasions, whether in village halls or in windswept marquees, there are always one or two people in the audience who think the subject of my talk is Swarfegapit Falls, a putative cataract of tumbling water akin to, say, Niagara or Victoria Falls.
Often I might be half-way through my talk, or even close to its end, when someone in the audience will pipe up with a complaint. These nitwits can become quite hot of head. One fellow insisted on brandishing at me a fat book called, I think, A Gazetteer Of The World’s Wettest Waterfalls, holding it open and jabbing his finger repeatedly at what he claimed was a colour plate of a mezzotint of Swarfegapit Falls. Another such ninny held aloft a marmalade jar, emptied of marmalade and now containing water, water which, he shouted, he had personally collected, perilously, from the seething roiling churning sloshing foot of Swarfegapit Falls.
I usually deal with these interruptions by calmly pointing out that there is no such waterfall, and politely suggesting that my hecklers pay closer attention to the typography in my publicity material. This rarely satisfies them. For example, the gazetteer-wielder leaped on to the stage and began thumping me with the gazetteer, and the marmalade jar man similarly leaped on to the stage, unscrewed the lid from the jar, and poured the contents over my head, quite ruining my majestic bouffant.
The point I am trying to make is that while there are pitfalls to be faced when using swarfega, equally, if not more so, there are pitfalls to be faced when simply talking about the pitfalls to be faced when using swarfega. These latter pitfalls can be more alarming. In all my years of using swarfega, for example, I cannot recall a single occasion when, having prised the lid off the tin and being ready to dip my hand into the squelchy cleansing agent, I have been set upon by a nincompoop either bashing me with a gazetteer or pouring a jar of water over my head. It is true that several times my majestic bouffant has been ruined in swarfega-related circumstances, but I must admit this has almost always been my own fault, by absent-mindedly preening my bouffant just moments after getting my hands covered in swarfega.
Given the number of times my talks are interrupted by people demanding their money back because I am not talking about a waterfall, whether or not they physically attack me, it has crossed my mind that perhaps there actually exists a tumbling cataract called Swarfegapit Falls somewhere in the wide world. I have thus employed a gaggle of unpaid interns to fan out across the globe in search of it. They regularly report back to me on their progress. To date, none has found convincing evidence of a waterfall so named. More worryingly, one by one, my keen and perky interns fall silent, so that I have had to engage a second set of interns to fan out across the globe to track down the original gaggle. The reports I receive from the second lot make for sobering reading. It appears that, in traipsing through far-flung places in search of Swarfegapit Falls, each of the pioneer group has fallen into a pit. So cavernous are these pits, near waterfalls, that none has ever emerged. They may even have fallen into bottomless pits, riddled with subterranean vipers, like the one at Shoeburyness. Such are the pitfalls of unpaid internship with a lecturer giving talks on the pitfalls faced when using swarfega.
They can’t say I didn’t warn them. “There may be pitfalls,” I announced, breezily, for I always like to make my announcements breezily. But even I had no idea how many perilous pits there were in the vicinity of waterfalls. It has come as something of a surprise. The next surprise I am waiting for is when, or if, one of my interns manages to avoid the pitfall of falling into a pit and reports back to me the startling news that, yes, the ninnies and nincompoops were right all along, and there is in fact a waterfall called Swarfegapit Falls.
Should that day come, I will have no option but to tear up the text of my lecture and start all over again. I will announce, breezily:
Many and various are the pitfalls one can face when using swarfega. You don’t need me to tell you that, so I won’t. Instead, I will tell you about the pitfalls one can face when searching the globe for that mighty tumbling cataract, Swarfegapit Falls.
The sea, the sea, vast wet expanse! I sailed upon it with Captain Hans. Hans was German. He could not swim. He was stricken with a withered limb. An arm or a leg, I remember not. Memories make my brain grow hot. I live in the present, by the shore. I live outwith the rule of law. My only rules are those of the sea. Vast wet expanse! Come splish-splosh me!