Savagery In Splat

So, what was meant to happen at the latter end of last week was that Roland Clare and I would present our double act on literary nonsense to the sixth-formers of Truro School. (A riveting account of an earlier appearance at Bristol Grammar School can be found here.) A scheduling mixup hoo-hah meant, however, that instead of descending upon the not-so-tinies in tandem, Roland and I did our bits separately, on successive days. Improvising brilliantly. Mr Clare inserted into his presentation an old Hooting Yard On The Air recording, so my disembodied voice provided a foretaste of what had of necessity become the next day’s entertainment. The piece he chose was, appropriately, devoted to the subject of an unsuccessful educational initiative in Cornwall. It first appeared in Hooting Yard on 30 March 2006. Here it is again:

Dear Mr Key, writes Octavia Funnel, I am sure I read somewhere that Dobson’s companion and amanuensis, Marigold Chew, was a feral child, like the Wild Boy of Aveyron or Kaspar Hauser*. Is this true?

I think I can help Ms Funnel out here. She is clearly unfamiliar with Dobson’s rare and out of print pamphlet Ten Things Guaranteed To Drive Marigold Chew Crackers, an amusing bagatelle which he wrote for Marigold’s birthday one year. It is worth quoting at length:

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Left, the Wild Boy of Aveyron. Right, Kaspar Hauser

There can be no doubt about number one on the list of things that drive Marigold Chew crackers. Countless are the times I have witnessed her seething with fury when she is mistaken for Mary Goldchew, the so-called Savage Infant of Splat.

Splat is a tiny, stricken village in Cornwall, and it was here, on a muggy summer’s day in 19–, that a peasant pushing his barrow of countryside filth along a lane was astonished to encounter a small child roaring and spitting and growling and scrabbling in the muck. Its gender was indeterminate, but its savagery was unquestionable.

The peasant, sad to say, had the morals of the gutter and a heart as foul as a swamp, and he decided then and there to sell the child to a travelling circus or a zoo. Plucking the child from its ditch, he shoved her on to his barrow and trundled off towards a larger town where mountebanks were known to gather. But the child, bestial being that she was, sank her teeth into the peasant’s wrist and attacked him in a whirling frenzy of bloodlust. She was gnawing the hair off his head when a kindly doctor arrived on the scene. He patted her on the head and announced, “There, there, little one, be not afraid. I am a kindly doctor fascinated by Natural Philosophy, and I shall take you to my comfortable house and see if, over a period of months, or years, I can instil in you the civilised qualities that were your birthright but have been stolen from you by no doubt tragic circumstances. What is your name?”

The child howled.

“Ah,” said the kindly doctor, “You are inarticulate. That noise you made sounded to me like a combination of a wolf and a bear, with perhaps a touch of corncrake. I deduce that you have been raised since you were a baby by wolves and bears and corncrakes, and mayhap by bees and hornets too. Still, you must have a name, child, so I shall call you Mary.”

Doctor Goldchew took the child by the hand and led her to his house, which stood all alone in a field outside Splat. There, he dunked her in a disinfectant bath, dressed her in girly clothes, and embarked on a comprehensive pedagogical regime. Over the following weeks, he attempted to teach her metaphysics, arithmetic, rhetoric, logic, Latin, Greek, bread baking, botany, chemistry, religious instruction, conspiracy theory, merchant banking, astronomy, philology, and the rudiments of table tennis, or ping pong. During this time reporters from the Splat Courier & Bugle camped out on his doorstep, filing a series of woefully inaccurate stories about the girl they called the Savage Infant of Splat. Her fame spread throughout Europe, and Doctor Goldchew received visits from some of the most distinguished intellectuals of the day, including Kapisko, Blunkett, and Woobie. It was the latter who persuaded the kindly doctor to have the girl baptised by being fully submerged in the sea off the coast of Cornwall, during which baptism she nearly drowned.

She entered the booming ocean a savage infant, biting and squealing and howling, wrote the doctor, and she emerged as Mary Goldchew, a pious Christian child.

This is a selective account, of course. The doctor makes no mention of the drenched and spluttering tot who was fished out of the water by a passing trawler. Nor does he admit that the “pious Christian child” remained incorrigibly savage for the rest of her long, long life. In spite of the doctor’s lessons – to which he soon added physics, geology, alchemy, polevaulting, palaentology, entomology, knitting, forensic medicine, vexillology, Dianetics and pottery – the Savage Infant of Splat became a Savage Adolescent and in turn a Savage Adult. She celebrated her twenty-sixth birthday by creeping into Doctor Goldchew’s bedroom as he slept and smothering him with a pillow.

Thereafter she spent her days crashing around like a wild maniac as the once comfortable Splat house fell into ruin about her. When she died, craggy and ancient, decades later, she had learned nothing – nothing except to speak two words, the same two words that were the full extent of the Wild Boy of Aveyron’s vocabulary: God and milk.

*NOTA BENE : Specialists in the field would dub Kaspar Hauser a “confined” rather than “feral” child.

Tooting My Own Trumpet

This is the Age of Unbridled Narcissism, but Mr Key is of course a diffident and unassuming fellow. However, I would like to draw to your attention the programme for Devour! The Food Film Fest, to be held in Wolfville, Nova Scotia in November. Among the films to be shown is Sharon Smith’s splendid adaptation of A Recipe For Gruel, described thus:

Animated and described cleverly by the best British voice you have ever heard, A Recipe for Gruel will charm and inform, but mostly charm.

Er … to be precise, it was animated by Sharon (aka Miss HatHorn) and narrated by Mr Key, but I am flattered by such praise. In case you have no idea what the Nova Scotians are talking about, you can listen to untold hours of that voice babbling away at the Hooting Yard On The Air archives at Resonance104.4FM.

When it has done the rounds of the film festivals, food-related and otherwise, A Recipe For Gruel will be available to watch online. I shall keep you informed.

Disappointment Pot

I do not know the provenance of this map-snap, but I am grateful to OutaSpaceman for bringing it to my attention. (Click to embiggen.)

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10 Celebrities With Crumpled Blotting Paper

It’s amazing to consider the number of celebrities who have, somewhere in their possession, a sheet or sheets of crumpled blotting paper! Check out our exclusive guide:

1. Clothgard Nitpick
2. Junket Sprawl
3. Inspip Pip
4. Loopy Tugendhat
5. Ned Birdtalon
6. Oppidan Chumpot
7. Fab Geese
8. Tinie Tempah
9. Arpad Unstrebnodtalb
10. O Bodger

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The Assassination Of Hilary Mantel

The Guardian today published a short story by Hilary Mantel entitled The Assassination Of Margaret Thatcher. This piece apparently took Ms Mantel thirty years to write, for “technical reasons” – “I just couldn’t see how to get [the characters] to work together”. The inference is that she has at last solved the problem, but it seems to me that the characters – an assassin and the woman whose flat he uses to set up his sniper’s nest – neither work together nor individually.

I have always found Mantel a curiously lifeless writer. The popularity of her prize-winning Thomas Cromwell books is a profound mystery, and Beyond Black was spectacularly turgid. In the present story she makes full use of her gift for clunking, tin-eared dialogue.

Most amusing is the revelation that the original title of the forthcoming collection of stories for which The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher acts as a trailer was Ten Transgressive Tales. Ooh! Transgressive! What could be less transgressive than an infantile fantasy about murdering a Tory prime minister published in the pages of the Guardian?

For the next thirty years I intend to work on a story entitled The Assassination of Hilary Mantel. The technical challenge, to drain all life from my prose, will be huge, but hey!, think how transgressive and shocking it will be.

NOTA BENE : For something genuinely transgressive, see my forthcoming book Tony Benn Was A Complete Wanker.

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