Weather Report

The county of Kent, 18 September 1796. Jane Austen writes :

What dreadful Hot weather we have! It keeps one in a continual state of Inelegance.

Many thanks to Nige.

Tarleton On His Balcony

Exciting news! Tarleton is back on his balcony! He is eating a plum! It is a Carlsbad plum! He gazes across the city and the wasteland into the distance, where the pinky-russet peaks of the Pinky-Russet Mountains shimmer in the haze! From one of Tarleton’s ears dangles a piratical earring, but there is no piratical parrot on his shoulder! He has, though, acquired, since last we met him, a wooden leg!

Tarleton’s brief, we might recall, was to gouge and hew. Gouge and hew he did, heroically, losing a leg in the process. But he did not complain. He showed fortitude. I was encamped at Fort Hoity, he said to himself, and then at Fort Toity, so it is only meet that, in forts, I show fortitude. No wonder Tarleton was showered with petunia petals by adoring peasants. There remain a few petals in his hair, for it is a long time since he shampooed it.

It is a long time, too, since last he stood upon this balcony, eating a plum. It is so long ago that he only dimly remembers. More vivid are the memories of Fort Hoity, with its ostriches and bandages and zinc, and Fort Toity, with champions arrayed along the crenellations, and games of spit-in-the-gutter. It was between forts that Tarleton lost his leg to a crocodile.

In the middle ages, returning crusaders brought with them the embalmed bodies of crocodiles, which were wrapped in chains and hung from the ceilings of cathedrals. Tarleton did not think of his gouging and hewing as a crusade, but it was, oh it was.

He spits out the plumstone into the palm of his hand, makes a fist, and, taking careful aim, tosses it over the edge of the balcony down into the shallow pool around the fountain. How many Carlsbad plumstones lie there, barely submerged! He has never once missed a toss. Tarleton turns and withdraws into his chamber. His head is full of squeaking imaginary bats.

Higgledy-Piggledy

The OED defines higgledy-piggledy as “without any order of position or direction; in huddled or jumbled confusion and disorder; with heads and tails in any or every direction. Usually contemptuous.” An early citation, from A new dictionary of the terms ancient and modern of the canting crew (1699) makes explicit the reference to “heads and tails”, defining the word as “all together, as Hoggs and Pigges lie”. This pig-based etymology seems to me to be thoroughly erroneous.

My own exhaustive and exhausting research has exhumed from historical obscurity, you know what?, it has been so damnably exhausting that I am going to have to break off here to take a nap. Assume several paragraphs of zzzzzzzzzzs.

That’s better. I am refreshed, and as if the nap were not enough I have also glugged a teaspoon’s-worth of Dr Baxter’s Frenetic Brain Activity Enhancement Cordial. So let us resume. My own exhaustive and exhausting research has exhumed from historical obscurity Monsignor Higledi and Doctor Pigledie, the one a priest and the other a physician. The spellings of their names are in accord with the OED’s earliest citation, from John Florio’s A worlde of wordes, or most copious, and exact dictionarie in Italian and English of 1598.

In 1492, or thereabouts, the monsignor and the doctor were commissioned, by Bruno La Poubelle, to take charge of the Keep Pointy Town Neat And Tidy campaign. This may seem anachronistically modern, in both its intention and its phraseology, but Bruno La Poubelle was ever a figure who transcended the petty bonds of time. Witness, for example, the well-known portrait of him, etched by noted etcher Rex Van Etch, in which he is clearly depicted wearing flying goggles and a Spandau Ballet tee-shirt.

A visionary he may have been, but Bruno La Poubelle made a terrible error of judgement in picking Higledi and Pigledie. The one was a butterfingers and the other was passing strange in a way we would today probably diagnose as clinical insanity. Which was which, monsignor or physician, I have not yet been able to ascertain from the documents. What they do make horribly vivid, however, is that no pair of fifteenth-century Pointy Towners could have been less able to make, let alone keep, things neat and tidy. Wherever they went, in those ancient boulevards, attempting to align things neatly and clear away clutter and chaos, they only made things worse. By the time Bruno La Poubelle put a stop to their activities, all of Pointy Town was a jumble of confusion, with even well-defined pathways crumbled and leading in jagged zigzags towards nothingness, or haystacks from the hinterland to be found plopped upside down in the middle of the town square, or horses behind the counters of pickle shops. There is a measure of truth in the observation that, more than five hundred years later, Pointy Town has never quite recovered. That is why, as soon as you enter the town, even today, you become lost, lost, oh hopelessly lost.

Pigs have nothing to do with it.

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The Farmer Rebukes His Spade

The Farmer Rebukes His Spade is the title of a painting by Cedric Farmpainter, RA. It has been described as his first great daub and as the jewel of the Pointy Town Municipal Galeria. The work itself was destroyed in an inexplicable bird-related cataclysm, and today exists only in the form of a mezzotint copy by the noted mezzotintist Rex Tint. Tint always claimed that he made his print by sitting in front of the original painting, gazing at it for hours, working steadily, but his account has been called into question by his own sister, Dot Tint. In her memoir of her brother, she wrote that he cannot have sat where he said he sat, having been barred from entering the Galeria or its grounds or appurtenances by dint of “insufferable pomposity”.

At this distance in time, we can never know which Tint, Rex or Dot, is telling the truth. All we have is the mezzotint itself, several thousand copies of which were printed and distributed by Rex Tint’s devoted and possibly insane patron, Walter Mad.

The Farmer Rebukes His Spade is a rustic scene. It shows a dreary and rainsoaked field, pitted with many a puddle. To the left, there is a tree, which may be a larch or box or plane or sycamore, against the trunk of which is leaning a spade, at an angle of forty-two degrees (it has been measured, precisely, by swivel-eyed enthusiasts). Next to the tree and the spade, in side profile, is the figure of a farmer, florid of face and fat of belly. One arm is raised, and one finger of one puffy hand is in mid-wag. The farmer appears to be shouting his head off in what one critic has described as “an unbridled and unhinged spewing forth of rancour and remonstrance”. In the top left corner, silhouetted against the bleak sky, there is a bird, almost certainly a small bittern which, as other sources confirm, was the favourite bird of both Rex Tint and Cedric Farmpainter. (See “Painters and mezzotintists wax elegiac about their favourite birds”, The Journal Of Mezzotint- And Painting-Related Ornithology, Vol XXVII, No. 8, August 1909.)

My own copy of the mezzotint was unfortunately destroyed in the course of a sophisticated cocktail party which got out of hand and swiftly descended into an unsophisticated cocktail party and pitched battle.

Toots

Toots clattered up to the post office counter, sore perplexed.

“Hello Toots, what can I do for you today?” said the friendly postmaster.

“I am sore perplexed,” said Toots, “I have lost my Maytals.”

The postmaster was hard of hearing, and had been ever since a traumatic childhood incident when he was inadvertently placed in too close proximity to a klaxon for the duration of a lengthy Communist Party rally.

“If you have lost your marbles, Toots, you’ll be wanting a psychiatrist, not the postal service.”

Toots repeated himself, louder, and with exaggeratedly precise movements of his lips.

“Oh I see,” said the postmaster, “But what makes you think I can be of any assistance?”

Toots went on to explain his belief that the postal service, engaged as it was in the great work of sending and delivering sundry items all around the world, was the obvious agency to consult if one wished to track down something lost, in this case his Maytals. The postmaster took his point, with certain reservations which he kept to himself.

“I will keep a lookout for them, Toots,” he said.

Toots, whose sore perplexity was now etched deeper than ever upon his countenance, was dissatisfied with this response.

“Are you not able to do something more than that?” he screeched, alarming, in the queue behind him, several persons among whom was a skivvy from the Big House up on the hill. The postmaster asked, not unreasonably, what Toots would have him do.

“Some kind of tracking,” said Toots, “With post office dogs, bloodhounds, tracking, or tagging, the sending of telegrams or telegraphs, uniformed post office runners, I don’t know, notices slapped up in post offices across the land, vans scouring the countryside, the full weight of the postal service thrown behind the search … “

“Let me stop you there,” said the postmaster, “While I serve this skivvy from the Big House.”

Toots slumped in a corner of the post office, woebegone and weeping. The skivvy bought a single postage stamp, plopped it into a pocket of her apron, and trudged out and along the street past the haberdashery and the butcher’s and the fairy grotto, over the bridge across the canal and along the lane through the spinney up the hill to the gaunt iron gates of the Big House, along the path by the turnip beds and the stone statues of daredevil wartime aeroplane pilots, across the lawn and down the alley along the side of the house, in through a door tucked almost imperceptibly in a porch, down a flight of stairs into a gloomy corridor, until she reached the door of her scullery. She took from a different, deeper pocket of her apron a huge iron key, inserted it into the lock, turned it, and pushed the door open. In the pitch black of the scullery she heard the sudden rattling of chains and fetters. Locking the door behind her, she flicked a switch, and a lightbulb on the ceiling cast a dim glow, revealing a huddle of ska musicians, chained and fettered.

“I have pots and pans to scrub,” she announced, “So, my Maytals, play your ska music to cheer me in my chores!”

And soon enough the scullery was loud and joyful with the strains of “Monkey Man”.

Laughter In The Dark

Having been somewhat disconsolate of late, for reasons I need not bore you with (but hence the silence here), I needed a laugh, and was rewarded this morning. In the Guardian, Suzanne Goldenberg interviews Naomi Klein.

She flies, already a lot more than most people, and is set to rack up air miles that would make her, by her own admission, “a climate criminal” … Yet she confesses to getting weepy when she thinks about the future under climate change.

Imagine poor Naomi sobbing her heart out. But not to worry …

She says she is not going to be trapped into “gotcha games” about personal habits.

Speaking of the Guardian, Rod Liddle has an amusing line about the online video lectures delivered by Russell Brand:

like a condensed version of a particularly bad edition of the Guardian, filtered through the veins of an imbecile.

The Expurgated Lovecraft

The other day I met a man who has devoted the past several years to a singular literary project. His aim is to produce a bowdlerised version of the complete works of H. P. Lovecraft, in which all reference to the spine-tingling and the spooky, the eldritch and the uncanny, is expunged. I was able immediately to grasp the value of this scheme. Lovecraft is a fascinating writer, but there must be many potential readers who are deterred from his work because, quite frankly, they do not wish to get the collywobbles. Excise the spine-tingling and the spooky, the eldritch and the uncanny, and an entire new constituency of fans will be created.

I asked my new friend how he went about the creation of an expurgated Lovecraft. He explained that he began by simply deleting all the terrifying adjectives, adverbs, verbs and nouns. This had the unintended consequence of rendering much of Lovecraft’s prose “bitty and near-incomprehensible”, as he put it. Whole passages were reduced to strings of prepositions. Though commendably brief, the resulting text lacked heft. So then, he said proudly, his real work began. He realised that he could reinstate a certain amount of readability, and up the word-count, by replacing, for example, Shoggoth with a pretty vase of flowers, or hideous tentacles with gambolling bunny rabbits. I pointed out to him that some people – not least myself – found rabbits utterly frightening, and he promised to look again at his revisions.

Then he bid me farewell, and I sat alone at the café table, mercilessly correlating all the contents of my mind.

Books. Pencils. Dabbling.

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Mr Key has been feeling somewhat debilitated for the past few days – not unconnected, perhaps, to sci-fi hero Lantus Solostar and the Humalog – hence the Hooting Yard silence. Over at The Dabbler today, however, there is a brief note on books and pencils (and in praise of Henry Petroski).

Ten Books

I was persuaded to take part in one of those Facecloth round-robins, in which I was asked to name ten favourite books “without thinking too hard”. Here is my list (A-Z by author):

1. Watt, Samuel Beckett
2. Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead, Barbara Comyns
3. The Household Wreck, Thomas De Quincey
4. Amphigorey, Edward Gorey
5. The Falls, Peter Greenaway
6. Bartleby The Scrivener, Herman Melville
7. Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov
8. W or The Memory Of Childhood, Georges Perec
9. The Crying Of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon
10. The Purple Cloud, M P Shiel

Do not be confused by No. 5. The screenplay of Greenaway’s majestic film is (or was) available in paperback, and takes the form of a continuous piece of prose.

Sci-Fi For Diabetics

I am sniffy about science fiction. The genre does not appeal to me. Over the years I have read several sci-fi books – or SF, or speculative fiction, or whatever the preferred term is these days – and though I have enjoyed some of them, mildly, I feel no great urge to read more widely in the field. Similarly with the cinema – there are a few sci-fi films I like, but in general I will actively avoid them. I have never, for example, seen Star Wars, nor any of its seemingly inordinate sequels and prequels. Despite not having seen it, I tend to agree with the critic who suggested that its success destroyed American cinema. The vast majority of films churned out by Hollywood are pap, and pap of a certain kind, for which George Lucas is to be held personally responsible.

In addition to being sniffy about sci-fi, I am also diabetic. Until recently, these two parts of my life could coexist without hoo-hah. I have to jab myself with insulin daily, as a direct result of the debaucheries of my Wilderness Years. I do not find this particularly onerous, and if anything it acts as a useful reminder not to revisit those chaotic stupidities.

But a few weeks ago, after seeing a consultant whose resemblance to Brian Eno is so eerily close that I would swear Brain One is moonlighting as an NHS doctor, my regimen was changed. Instead of injecting one type of insulin (Novomix), Brian recommended my diabetes would be better managed by using two different preparations. It is the names of these that make me feel, daily, like a collaborator in some awful sci-fi adventure.

I do not know who is responsible for the nomenclature of insulin solutions. Whomsoever it is clearly gave no thought to the psychic damage wrought upon my tattered nerves by forcing me to inject Humalog and the even more sci-fi-sounding Lantus Solostar.

In hindsight, Novomix itself sounds like the name of a distant star in a galaxy far far away. One imagines it as the setting where dashing space hero Lantus Solostar does battle with the bumbling robots known as Humalogs.

God give me strength.

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Lantus Solostar

Werner Herzog Goes For A Walk

For me, the story that sums up Herzog’s unique world-view concerns the great German Jewish film critic Lotte Eisner, a concentration camp survivor and an early champion of his work. Eisner had lived in Paris since the war, having fled to France to escape the Nazis. In November 1974 Herzog was in Munich when he heard that she was dying. ‘German cinema could not do without her now,’ he declared. ‘I set off on the most direct route to Paris, in full faith, believing that she would stay alive if I came on foot.’ For three weeks he walked through rain and snow, without a proper map or winter clothing, trekking across muddy fields, following a straight line on his compass. ‘It was like a pilgrimage,’ he says. ‘I would not allow her to die.’ When he arrived at her bedside, Eisner was on the mend. ‘Open the window,’ he told her. ‘From these last days onward I can fly.’

from a review of The Werner Herzog Collection (BFI) in The Spectator

The King And His Retinue

Here comes the King, clopping along on his horse. His retinue, today, includes an Elk, Peacock, Shark, Butterfly, Lion, Tiger, Rabbit, Book, Coat, Boot, Hare, Rake, Barrel, Caterpillar, Pigeon, Yard Stick, Snail, Match, Turtle, Owl, Rhinoceros, Antelope, Watch, Skull, Cat, Cow, Giraffe, Priest, Mummy, Humpty Dumpty, Squirrel, 5 Fishes, 2 Indians, 12 Faces, 3 Mice, 11 Dogs, 3 Eagles, 5 Letters, 5 Ducks, 2 Camels, 3 Elephants, 7 Men, 2 Monkeys, 2 Cymbals, 4 Birds, 4 Bears, 4 Goats, 8 Frogs, 2 Seals, 3 Beavers, 9 Sheep, 3 Ladies, 5 Horses, 5 Pigs, 2 Chickens, 4 Alligators, 2 Boys, 2 Babies, 2 Combs. It is a curious retinue, but then he is a curious King. His father said as much, when the King was yet a Prince.

“The Prince,” said the old King to his wife, the Queen, languishing at death’s door as usual, “Is a very curious young man. There is for one thing the business with the buttons. There is for another thing the shape of the head. I fear he will become a curious King when his time comes.”

The Queen groaned and asked the King to summon the nurse to replace her mustard plaster.

The King, then Prince, was six when these words were spoken. Now he is sixty-six. He has been the King for over half a century. It is almost as long ago that he put the business with the buttons behind him. The shape of the head, being physiological rather than whimsy, was not so easily discarded. And yet, over the long years, the shape of the head had changed, slowly gradually glacially, as it moulded itself better to fit the crown atop it. The crown had been struck for and first worn by the King’s great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, though we ought not try to be too precise about the number of greats. History can be treacherous the farther back we delve.

Ahead of the King now, as he clops on his horse, are the motorcycle outriders. There is a significant number of them also at the rear of the retinue, just behind the 2 Babies and 2 Combs. The motorcycle engines purr, their purr a constant below the rhythmic clopping. The King’s tape-recordist skitters now ahead, now behind, now in the midst of the retinue, never satisfied that he has found quite the perfect spot to immortalise the sound of the King’s progress through his island. Today’s recording, however imperfect, will fill the airwaves of the radio station for the next week or more. The King’s subjects will listen, rapt, as they go about their grind.

Today’s sniper is stationed, foolishly and predictably, at the sixth-floor window of one of the replicas of the Texas Schoolbook Depository building in Dallas. These clapboard but highly accurate constructions have been placed at intervals along the King’s route, specifically to lure and entrap foolish and predictable would-be assassins. Sure enough, with minutes to spare before the King and his retinue hove into the sniper’s sights, a SWAT team takes him out with extreme prejudice. The SWAT team have been awaiting the signal from their base in a replica LZ 129 Hindenburg airship hovering high in the clouds above the replica Schoolbook Depository.

There is always the possibility that the King may be threatened by a sniper who is both intelligent and unpredictable, and there is a Plan B to deal with such a situation. I hope I am not giving too much away by revealing that the 2 Monkeys, 4 Bears, and six of the 9 Sheep in the retinue are not quite what they seem.

The King himself is not even aware of Plan B. It was thought best not to tell him. He has never really regained his wits since a sniper’s bullet felled his father, the old King, over half a century ago. Hence his relentless criss-crossing of his island kingdom, astride his clopping horse, with his curious retinue, to no apparent purpose, and with no apparent end.

Toll Gate No. 4

Here is another cutting from Poppy Nisbet. (As before, click to enlarge.) There is something utterly compelling about this list. Any sense of vague coherence it may have collapses, beautifully. It cries out to be incorporated into a piece of prose, and that is the goal I have set for myself tomorrow.

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Monkey In Ice

Slaloming from my chalet down to the post office, I stopped short when I saw, at the edge of a crevasse, a monkey encased in a block of ice. I am no expert on monkeys, and I was not sure what kind of monkey it was. It was between a quarter and a third of the size of an average human, if such a thing exists. I made a note with a propelling pencil in my jotting pad to remind me of the precise location, then carried on down to the post office at the foot of the mountain. I transacted my business – at this distance in time I cannot remember what it was – and made my way to the funicular railway station, stopping off to buy a pastry snack and a bag of plums.

I told the conductor that I wanted to alight before my usual, chalet level, stop. He raised one eyebrow and gave me a quizzical look, but dinted my ticket with his metal ticket dinter without further comment. The windows of the carriage were steamed up, so I could not see a thing outside. I lit my pipe, and we began to creak slowly upwards.

I got off when the conductor gave me the nod, and trudged over to the crevasse. In my absence, the block of ice had not thawed one iota. If anything it had frozen to even more adamantine solidity, not surprising given the foul weather. The sun had been obscured by clouds and mist and bad air for three or four days on the trot. I tapped my bemittened knuckle on the ice, but of course the monkey inside did not stir. How could it? It too was frozen solid.

My first thought had been to melt the ice in situ, releasing the monkey dangerously close to the crevasse. If, upon regaining consciousness, it bounded off in the direction of the gaping chasm and looked as if it might plunge to its death, I hoped to forestall such a calamity by tempting it with plums, or pastry. But while aboard the funicular railway, I had become peckish, extinguished my pipe, and eaten half the plums and the entire pastry. I had to rethink my plans. It would make far more sense to haul the block of ice up to my chalet, and to melt it there. This would have the advantage that I could immediately put the frozen monkey in a place of comfort – my sofa or my bed – so that when it eventually awoke it would be less likely to panic and plunge down a crevasse.

The problem now was how to transport the block of ice up the unforgiving mountainside. Monkeys, I knew, were banned from the funicular railway, and with good reason. I was barely strong enough to clamber uphill unencumbered, let alone shoving, Sisyphean fashion, a block of ice containing a monkey ahead of me. For one wild moment I envisioned a helicopter swooping down, rope dangling, to ferry my cargo to the chalet. But of course the mountain, and its hinterland for miles in every direction, were a no fly zone according to Directive No. 17. What I had always found puzzling, incidentally, was the impossibility of finding out what on earth Directives Nos. 1 to 16 were. Nobody seemed to know, or at least nobody was willing to tell.

Then I remembered that I had, in my cupboard in the chalet, a very lengthy length of sturdy chain. It should be possible to affix one end of this to the block of ice, and to devise a contraption which, with minimal effort from me, for example dainty movements of my little fingers, would drag the block of ice up to my chalet. Satisfied, I lit my pipe and waited for the funicular railway to resume my journey up and home.

While I waited I peered at the monkey inside the ice, or as much of it as I could see, which in truth was very little. Sometimes ice is crystal clear, but this block was somewhat more opaque. It gave the monkey a blurred quality, as if viewed by a catastrophically myopic person, or seen in a dream. I had often dreamed of such monkeys, blurry, ill-defined, and ominously still. It had never occurred to me to wonder what these dreams might “mean”, as if they could possibly mean anything! Stalin has always seemed to me a far better guide than Freud. That is why I have a hammer-and-sickle emblem nailed to the door of my chalet, to announce my stance to any visitors, thus averting the risk of futile conversations.

And the funicular railway carriage arrived on schedule and I clambered aboard and I smoked my pipe and ate the remainder of the plums and I alighted at my usual stop and I went home and I devised a contraption to drag the block of ice up the mountain slope and I fetched the chain from the cupboard and I fixed one end of it to the bracket on the contraption and gave it a hefty tug to ensure it was secure and I started to make my way slaloming back down the mountain paying out the chain behind me until I came to the block of ice with the monkey inside it and I wrapped the chain round and round the ice and gave it a hefty tug to ensure it was secure and I returned to the funicular railway stop to wait for the carriage to take me back uphill and then I began to feel peckish again and instead of going home I slalomed down to the village and bought another pastry and another bag of plums and I sat on a stone bench next to a statue of Stalin and scoffed the pastry and the plums and when I was replete I fell into a doze right there on the bench and I dreamed of a monkey, blurry, ill-defined, and ominously still.

I can hardly believe that fifty years have passed since that day.

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Accidental Pod

The second part of a tale from the last century …

Accidental Deaths Of Twelve Cartographers (Part Two)

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