Search Results for '"insouciantly against a mantelpiece"'

Exemplary Slobbering Vignettes

I received an invitation to attend a swish sophisticated cocktail party, and decided to wear for the occasion my second-best bib and tucker.

On the evening itself, with the party in full swing, I was leaning insouciantly against a mantelpiece when I was approached by a fellow guest.

You are a grown man,” she said, “Why are you wearing a bib?”

I embarked upon a lengthy explanation of the phenomenon known as involuntary slobbering, citing certain vivid examples both from my own experience and from the historical records. I prattled for quite some time, holding my interlocutor spellbound, until one of my exemplary slobbering vignettes caused her to interrupt me.

Spiro Agnew?” she cried, so loudly that she caught the attention of guests on the far side of the room.

Indeed so,” I said, “And I will not qualify my assertion with that weasel-word allegedly.”

At this, she executed a startled little jump, and confessed to a terrible fear of weasels. I told her they only alarmed me when they went pop! up and down the City Road. More than once, I added, such weasel-popping had caused me to slobber involuntarily. I was pleased, momentarily, to have brought the conversation back to my chosen topic, but my new companion was now fixated upon weasels, and insisted I join her in a search-and-destroy mission in case any weasels had infiltrated the cocktail party.

With what,” I asked, “Shall we destroy any weasels we might hunt down?”

Well,” she said, “What is that?” and she pointed to my tucker.

That is my second-best tucker,” I said, “It goes with the bib.”

We can use it to smother any weasels we find!” she cried, and she took me by the hand, and led me away from the drawing room towards another part of the house where, she hinted, there might be weasels.

I never did get the chance to finish my exemplary slobbering vignette featuring the thirty-ninth vice president of the United States of America. But the weasel-frightened lady gave me her telephone number, so one evening soon I will call her, and tell her the rest of that tale, and several others, until the cows come home.

Eye Eye (Again)

Last week I went for my first appointment at the Tuesday Injection Clinic (which I think of as the Tuesday Injection Club). I learned a number of things. One, that I would be attending every fortnight, rather than every month, until at least the end of the year. Two, that the entire procedure passes off efficiently and painlessly.

But the most important lesson I have learned is that I am now armed with a stupendously effective conversational gambit. Let us imagine, just for one wild moment, that one of these days I actually get invited to a swish sophisticated cocktail party where I can lean insouciantly against a mantelpiece. Now picture various other guests approaching me to engage in conversation with what they fondly imagine will be impressive anecdotes.

Let me tell you about the time I met John F Kennedy”, would say my ex-employer Elkan Allan (were he not late and lamented). Or, “One of my blog posts was picked up by the Huffington Post”, would say my sister Rita Byrne Tull. Or it might be someone telling me they had climbed Everest, or swum the Channel, or discovered the Fab Four, or any number of thrilling facts.

And now imagine a moment of silence, while I pause and play that pause for all it’s worth, and I then say, “Well, that’s very interesting”, and then I declare, in resounding tones, “But every two weeks I have needles injected directly into my eyeballs!”

I can assure you that the effect is electrifying. I have already tried it out a few times – though sadly not in the context of a swish sophisticated cocktail party – and I can report that jaws drop, eyes boggle, and questions are fired at me. I, of course, retain an air of insouciant calm.

I tell you what, as medical issues go, this one certainly beats water-on-the-knee or mad cow disease when it comes to mopping the floor with rival anecdotists.


A letter plops onto the mat from Tord Grip. I wondered if this was the same Tord Grip who is something of a luminary in the world of foopball coaching, but apparently it is a different Tord Grip altogether. Anyway, here is what he has to say for himself:

Dear Mr Key, I have been a devoted reader of yours for many years. Something that has particularly struck me is your fondness for the motif of a character “at a swish sophisticated cocktail party, leaning insouciantly against a mantelpiece”. You return to this again and again. Sometimes the person so leaning is a fictional character and sometimes, in first person narratives, it is you. I am not so naïve as to think that the “I” figure in such tales is actually you, and that the pieces are wholly autobiographical. I realise that the first person narrator may be a fictional or semi-fictional version of yourself. This interpretation is not simply common sense, but is borne out by Roland Clare in his introduction to the anthology By Aerostat To Hooting Yard, where he makes the point that “When Key … conducts occasional epistolary dialogues with correspondents … – almost certainly not real people – his engagement with them shades his own status with a fictional quality. His uncertain standing is compounded by the … pieces written in the first person”, and he posits a distinction between “Frank Key, author of the blog vs Mr Key, the quasi-fictional entity”. So, when you report that you were “at a swish sophisticated cocktail party, leaning insouciantly against a mantelpiece”, are we to infer that this statement is factual or fictional? Or are we deliberately left on shaky ground, uncertain, bewitched, bothered, and bewildered?

Incidentally, the quotation above from Mr Clare also calls into question my own existence, as one of your correspondents. While I know in the very core of my being that I am a real person of flesh and blood – I need only bash my head against my writing-desk to confirm as much – ouch! – your readers may, like Mr Clare, think I am “almost certainly not real”. Whether or not their suspicions will be heightened or dampened by the coincidence that I share my name with one of the tiptop figures in the world of foopball coaching, I cannot say. In my part of the world, Tord Grip is not so outlandish a name that one can jump to any conclusion in the matter. I think it best to pass over my further ruminations on the question of reality, otherwise we would be here all day and in all likelihood end up with what my clinician has dubbed “crumbling of the brainpans”.

Instead, I should like to turn to the reason I am writing to you in the first place. It so happens that one of my hobbies – alongside knitting, sandpapering rough surfaces, and bird observation – is enacting short extracts from my favourite writers. To this end I have, in recent weeks, gone about wearing a little Ether Hood (Emily Dickinson), taken pictures of Jap girls in synthesis (David Bowie), sucked innumerable pebbles (Samuel Beckett), and run screaming from a Paris hotel room after casting a spell to summon the great god Pan (Aleister Crowley). Having ticked these off in my ledger, next on my list was to go to a swish sophisticated cocktail party and lean insouciantly against a mantelpiece (Frank Key).

First of all, of course, I had to obtain an invitation to such a soirée. The difficulty with this was that, like you, I have been described as a Diogenesian recluse, and I don’t get out much – oh, wait a minute. That reminds me. If you are as reclusive as Mr Cutler asserts, how is it that you are forever attending swish sophisticated cocktail parties? I have spent an inordinate amount of time pondering this conundrum. Even if we take into account that many of the insouciant leaners are explicitly fictional characters, and concede that, pace Roland Clare, you yourself are quasi-fictional, there remains the fact that there is something compelling in these scenes that convinces the reader they must, at the very least, be the result of particularly acute authorial observation. Consider the swish and sophisticated nature of the cocktail parties, the insouciance of the person leaning, the brute solidity of the mantelpiece itself. It seems unlikely that such details could be fomented entirely within your head, absent of direct and emotionally shattering experience.

I am pleased to say that the result of my agonised mulling over the matter was ultimately beneficial. If Mr Key, as a recluse, can yet summon the nerve to accept invitations to swish sophisticated cocktail parties, I said to myself, then I too can screw my courage to the sticking place and do likewise. I said this to myself repeatedly, gazing into a mirror at my strange unnatural beauty. Eventually I was ready. But still I had not received any invitations.

I dabbled with the idea of skipping to the next item on my list, to ring upon the rein of a wimpling wing in my ecstasy (Gerard Manley Hopkins), but I am a methodical sort of person and I knew I would lie awake at night remonstrating with myself until I had completed the Frank Key element of my project. I had been very careful, when drawing up my roster, to place my proposed enactments in a very specific order, based upon the Blötzmann system (Yellow Notebook, Fifth Series). Though I was keenly aware of the possibility that Blötzmann, and his system, and his notebooks, in their series, were all fictional, having been made up by you, Mr Key, I have found his guidance invaluable in several different areas of my life, not least the careful compiling of lists in very specific orders.

I thus found myself at an impasse. I could not move on until I had leaned insouciantly against a mantelpiece at a swish sophisticated cocktail party, and I could not attend a swish sophisticated cocktail party without an invitation. Or could I? Was it not possible for me simply to gatecrash such a do? Hell, yes!, as Ed Miliband would say. But first I had to find a party to gatecrash.

Much as it went against my reclusive nature, I took to stalking the streets of an evening, stopping when I came upon a building with a window alive with lights, and peering in to see if a swish sophisticated cocktail party was in progress. I had already planned how I would gain entry. Knocking at the door, I would pretend to be an emergency postman with an urgent delivery for – at which point I would counterfeit a violent coughing fit and bite on a capsule of blood tucked in my cheek. Spraying what was in reality a small amount of duck’s blood all over the hallway carpet, I would stagger into the house and collapse. While the host ran for help, I would stand up, dab at my mouth with a napkin to erase any traces of gore, comb my hair, take off my emergency postman’s jacket and stuff it behind the umbrella stand, then sashay into the main room where the party was in full swing, grab a cocktail from a tray, and make for the mantelpiece, against which I would lean insouciantly. Job done.

I don’t know if you have ever stalked the evening streets in search of a swish sophisticated cocktail party to inveigle your way into by dint of a foolproof scheme, but believe you me it is not as easy as it sounds. Perhaps I was stalking through the wrong part of town, down by the docks where the sailors all meet, eating fish heads and tails, splitting the night with the roar of their jokes, laughing and lusting till the rancid sound of the accordion bursts. The lit windows I peered into framed scenes of unimaginable depravity and debauch. Nor did I spot a mantelpiece clean enough to lean upon in my specially-hired Ferdinando Boffo dinner-suit, worn beneath the emergency postman’s jacket.

I turned down an alley towards what I hoped would be a more salubrious part of town when I became aware of footsteps following me. There was something inexplicably menacing about them (M. R. James, Sheridan Le Fanu, E. F. Benson – names absent, alas, from my list). I quickened my pace, and so did the footsteps. Determined to confront whoever – whatever – was following me, I turned around. To my horror I saw, silhouetted against the sickly moon, the lumbering walrus-moustached psychopathic serial killer Babinsky! My mind was a chaos. I had always believed him to be a purely fictional maniac dreamed up by you, Mr Key, to trouble my dreams. Yet here he was, all too real, lumbering relentlessly towards me. As he raised his blood-drenched axe above his head, preparing to strike, intermingled with my terror I felt a small measure of solace that, though it was not the enactment of a Hooting Yard scene I had planned, when I drew my last breath having been felled by Babinsky, I would, inadvertently, be recreating a common motif from the works of Mr Key. There can be no more piquant farewell to this life, be it a real life or, perhaps, perhaps, an entirely fictional one.

Swan Hunter

I was reading the other day about closed-down shipyards and came upon a reference to Swan Hunter. This served to remind me of a fellow I met recently whose business card – which he handed to me – announced his business as a swan hunter. We were guests at a swish sophisticated cocktail party and he was leaning insouciantly against a mantelpiece. He apologised that the card was smeared with blood, explaining that it was the blood of a swan and that such smearage was an occupational hazard.

“Surely,” I said, “There is not much hunting to do to find swans? Do you not just head for the nearest body of water, such as a pond or a canal, which swans are known to frequent?”

“There is a measure of truth in what you say,” he replied, bringing up an unseemly gobbet of catarrh and spitting it into a napkin, “But first one must find the pond or canal. Though swans are almost invariably found on ponds and canals, it does not follow that all ponds and canals have their resident swans, as a moment’s thought will confirm.”

“Fair enough,” I said, “But identifying those ponds and canals where you might find a swan hardly counts as hunting. You just need to obtain a map and mark with a pencilled X those ponds and canals shown on it which are known to be populated by swans. You can do that while sitting in an armchair.”

He spat into his napkin again.

“I could indeed,” he said, “But that would take all the thrill out of the hunt. I prefer to go a-roaming through the countryside, or through a large municipal park, sniffing the air and studying the terrain until I track down a pond or a canal. And even then,” he continued before I had a chance to interrupt, “There can be no guarantee that the pond or canal I come upon will be swanful. The uncertainty adds to the excitement.”

“It might be more accurate to say, then, that you are a pond and canal hunter, rather than a swan hunter,” I said.

“Bosh!” he shouted, slopping some of his cocktail onto the hearth-rug, “Where no swans are in evidence upon the pond or canal I have stalked, I press on, indefatigably, come rain or shine.”

“So let us assume,” I said, “That you have arrived at a pond or canal teeming with swans, whether in the countryside or in parkland. Do you then take potshots at them with a Mannlicher-Carcano sniper’s rifle?”

“Heaven forfend!” he cried, slopping more cocktail onto the rug, “Where would be the sport in that? No, I go unarmed. Swan hunting, when executed properly, is the pitting of man against swan in a primal struggle. Having selected an individual swan, I engage it in combat. That is why I have had my arms broken several times in several places.”

“Ah,” I said, “I was wondering why you held your cocktail glass at a rather curious angle.”

Actually, I ws not wondering this at all. I was just making conversation. It has never been my habit to examine in any detail the angles at which swish sophisticated cocktail party guests hold their cocktail glasses, nor, for that matter, am I much exercised when in their excitement they slop some of the contents of said glasses on to the hearth rug, unless of course it is my own hearth rug. But it never is, for I do not host my own cocktail parties. I am temperamentally incapable of organising sufficient sausages on sticks due to my cackhandedness, which invariably means I prick my fingers and thumbs repeatedly with the sharp wooden cocktail sticks, drawing blood. No one in their right minds wants to attend a party, however sumptuous the cocktails, if the plates are littered with sausages lying unpunctured beside piles of bloodied wooden sticks. A business card smeared with the blood of a swan seemed to me a far less gruesome sight. In fact, the more I thought about it, my own reservations about hosting a cocktail party seemed immeasurably more interesting than listening to a man wittering on about his experiences of unarmed combat with swans, fighting to the death. Only my impeccable manners prevented me from saying so, in a voice loud enough to be heard by everyone else in the room.

It was only then, looking around, that I noticed the swan hunter and I were the only guests still present. Everyone else had tiptoed out, through the open French windows. Peering out into the dusk, I saw approaching, marching relentlessly across the lawn, a gaggle of savage and vengeful swans.

The Man Who Ate His Own Head

The other day I met a man who claimed he could eat his own head. I considered this preposterous, and said so. We were at a sophisticated cocktail party and he was leaning insouciantly against a mantelpiece.

“I can prove it to you,” he said, “As a demonstration, I will eat your head, and that will show that I could eat my own.”

I thought about this for perhaps three seconds before responding.

“Your so-called proof has several distinct flaws,” I said, “First, that if you eat my head, I will be in no position to form a judgement on the success or otherwise of your antics, as I presume I will lose consciousness and die as you gnaw through my neck, thus severing those all-important nerves and arteries and whatnot that enable my brain to function. Second, your ability to eat my head has no bearing whatsoever on your claim to be able to eat your own head. It is an entirely different head.”

He took a sip of his cocktail before conceding.

“Those are both valid points. But there were but two, and you said you had several.”

“Let those two suffice for the time being,” I said.

“Very well,” he replied, “I can see that I am up against a sceptic of formidable mental acuity. You are not by any chance a Jesuit, are you?”

I assured him I was not, despite it having been a childhood ambition to be ordained into the order.

“I, too, once dreamed of becoming a Jesuit,” he said, “But alas, I lost my faith. Still, that was a long time ago, since when I suppose I learned to replace it with the more fervent belief that I can eat my own head. You will not be satisfied until you actually witness me in the act of doing so, will you?”

I nodded my agreement. He looked at me in silence, and after a pause, said “There”.

“There what?” I asked.

“I just ate my own head and regurgitated it, as a bird does with food for its young.” he said, “You must excuse my manners, for I am a terribly fast eater and tend to gobble my food. I can be quite a cause of social discomfiture in the better restaurants.”

“I witnessed neither eating nor regurgitation,” I said, “You just stood there looking at me.”

He sighed with a measure of impatience.

“I have just explained to you that I eat with regrettable speed,” he said, “And this habit has a deleterious effect on my digestive system, one consequence of which is that I cannot tolerate certain foodstuffs, including human flesh and bone and brain matter, etcetera, so I spew them up immediately.”

“You are a very foolish man. Good evening to you, sir,” I said, and I turned on my heel and wandered off across the room, away from the mantelpiece, in search of somebody else to talk to.

Later that evening, passing near the mantelpiece again, I saw the man biting the head off another party guest, a person who, I reasoned, had not had the benefits of a Jesuitical education, and thus could not counter the arguments of this foolish but persuasive fellow. There was blood on the carpet, as there so often is, even at the most sophisticated cocktail parties.

Invoking Sumai

There is a scene in the second series of Game Of Thrones where Daenarys Targaryen and her raggle-taggle band of Dothraki followers, having struggled across the vast and desolate Red Wastes, their food and water supplies exhausted, seek entrance to the walled city of Qarth. They are met, outside the gates, by the Thirteen, the ruling council, whose oleaginous spokesman refuses to let them enter. As the Mother of Dragons points out, not unreasonably, this dooms them to certain death. The spokesman is unmoved. How to resolve the impasse?

At this point, another member of the Thirteen, who has been lurking at the back of the group, steps forward. When his own arguments in favour of allowing the travellers in fail, he announces “I invoke Sumai!” He then unsheathes his dagger and slices a nasty cut in his own hand. Now the gates of Qarth are thrown open, and Daenarys and her “Dothraki savages” are ushered in, and saved.

I was going to praise writer George R. R. Martin for this touch of brilliance, until I learned – from one of the terrifyingly erudite websites devoted to the minutiae of the Game Of Thrones universe – that the scene is absent from the original books, and was devised for the television series. No explanation is ever offered for Sumai, or what precisely its invocation might mean in any other circumstances, and nobody ever refers to it again. Yet I am lost in admiration for it as a narrative technique to keep the story chugging along. I shall use it myself, and commend it to any other writer who reaches a sticking point in their story. The bit with the dagger and the blood can be modified, or left out entirely. But is there a single work of fiction that could not be improved by having a character, at some point, declaiming portentously “I invoke Sumai!”? I think not.

I have prepared a supply of slips of paper on which is typed “I invoke Sumai!”, said followed by a blank space. I intend, shortly, to work my way systematically through the volumes of fiction on the Key bookshelves, affixing with glue a slip at a point in each book where the narrative threatens to get stuck in a cul de sac, and then writing in an apt character name. The effect would be jarring if the phrase were to be spoken invariably by rogue member of the Thirteen Xaro Xhoan Doxos. Far better that it is put into the mouth of a character with whom we have grown familiar in each particular novel, say for example Humbert Humbert or Elizabeth Bennett or Josef K. or Bartleby the scrivener.

Invoking Sumai may also come in handy in real life. I am sure there are times, for example when you are leaning insouciantly against a mantelpiece at a sophisticated cocktail party, when the conversation palls and you are lost for words. Now, all you need do to avert social discomfort is to announce “I invoke Sumai!”. The ice will be broken, and stay broken, if I am correct.


Xaro Xhoan Doxos invokes Sumai

I Am A Willow Warbler

The willow warbler is a type of bird which warbles in willows. I am not a bird – obviously! – but I, too, have warbled in willows. It is a simple enough matter. What you do is locate a clump of willows, then wander into the midst of them, and start warbling. You can then describe yourself as a willow warbler, perhaps when, at a sophisticated cocktail party, leaning insouciantly against a mantelpiece, you are approached by a fellow guest who asks you what you do. “I am a willow warbler”, you can say, truthfully.

Among the various definitions given for warble in the OED, the one I find particularly helpful is “To twitter, as a young bird; to make uncertain attempts at singing”. This is my kind of warbling, because, frankly, I cannot sing for toffee. But there is nothing to stop me making “uncertain attempts” at singing, in the midst of a clump of willows, whenever the mood takes me. And take me it often does!, to the point of mania.

I have a varied repertoire of songs which I warble – or sing uncertainly – on my willowy jaunts. Land Of Ladies by the Brothers Johnson, Vienna by Ultravox, Boom Bang-A-Bang by Lulu, and Nunc dimittis servum tuum by The Toofles are among my favourites. I struggle with the words – and tunes – of all of them, but that is par for the course with warbling. Occasionally I am shot at by farmers.


Me And My Eggs

I keep all my eggs in one basket. I have several baskets, obtained during what I like to think of as my “basket-acquiring years”, but there is only one in which I put my eggs. This is a small, oval, wicker basket, a bit tatty with age, which I keep on one side of the countertop in my kitchen. My other baskets I use for a number of different purposes, in different parts of the house, and outside. One purpose to which they are never, ever put is for the keeping of eggs. The eggs always go in their designated basket.

I usually buy half a dozen eggs at one time. Invariably, they come packaged in a cardboard egg-carton specifically designed for the storage of eggs. Some people are happy to leave the eggs in the carton once they get them home. That is their choice and it is not one with which I would argue, unless I was in a frantic and fractious frame of mind and, at the end of my tether, looking for a pretext to blow my top and indulge in a violent argument. Shouting my head off about the pros and cons of different egg storage possibilities can be a splendid way to let off steam. In general, though, I tolerate the practice of leaving the eggs in the carton you bought them in, so long as my own preference for putting my eggs in a basket is accepted in return. It usually is.

It would be a mistake to think that six is the maximum number of eggs in my basket. I make it my habit to buy a new carton of eggs when there is still one egg, or even two, in the basket. Thus the maximum number is seven or eight. When adding the newly-bought half dozen eggs, what I do is to remove, temporarily, the one or two eggs remaining in the basket, put the fresh eggs in, carefully, and then place the one or two older eggs, even more carefully, on top of the clutch. If I did not do this, the same one or two eggs would always remain at the bottom, and might never get used, and they would rot, from the inside, unbeknown to me until such time as I cracked the shell and released an unutterable Lovecraftian stench.

Placing the one or two older eggs atop the clutch is not without risk, of course. When removing them temporarily from the basket, I cannot simply place them on the countertop. If I were to do that, they might, being egg-shaped, roll all the way off the countertop and smash upon the floor. Mopping up egg innards and shattered shell is never a pleasant business. Thus I first lay out a tea-towel on the countertop, and put the older eggs on that, to avert any rolling. It has been suggested that I might temporarily place the older eggs in one of my other baskets. Superficially attractive as that may be, I loathe the very idea. As I insisted at the outset, I like to keep my eggs in one basket.

One great advantage of my system is that I have an empty egg carton to muck about with. Judicious use of scissors and paint and glue can transform the carton into a few hats for gnomes. There are lots of other things you can do with empty egg cartons, of course, but that is the one I always return to. My gnomes are always losing their hats in high winds.

Now. A terrible thing happened last week. I was at a swish cocktail party, leaning insouciantly against a mantelpiece, when I heard, above the hubbub, a snatch of conversation. One of the guests, in a voice as strident as a corncrake’s, said “Well, you know what they say, never keep all your eggs in one basket”. It is hard to describe the effect these words had on me. They came with the force of a thunderclap. I felt unmoored from all that was familiar, all I held dear, all I knew. “They”? Who were “they”, who said this, with such confidence, such authority? Steadying myself against the mantelpiece, I stood on tiptoe, craning my neck to peer over the heads of the partygoers, trying to see who it was who had said these awful, hideous words.

There could be only one culprit. He sounded like a corncrake, and he looked like a corncrake, and now he was saying something about not counting chickens. I clutched at the mantelpiece, fearing I would swoon. No man should be allowed to live who could utter such things. My head throbbing, I felt in my pocket for my stiletto. Damn .. . . it was not there. Panicked, I rummaged in my other pockets, in vain. Then I remembered that I had left my stiletto at home, in one of my other baskets, the big, blood-soaked one, the one in which I keep my stilettos and knives and hatchets and axes and slicers and shivs.

Source : Me And My Eggs, by the lumbering walrus-moustached psychopathic serial killer Babinsky.


“You must be that fire-priestess everyone is talking about.”

This is a line from Game Of Thrones that I have been hoping to use in everyday conversation. I could, of course, just say it next time I find myself leaning insouciantly against a mantelpiece at a swish cocktail party, to any woman within earshot, but even I realise how foolish that would be. No, what I need to do is to find the right milieu, one where not only can I fall naturally into conversation with a fire-priestess, but one where she is a common subject of discussion among the bien pensants. That is very unlikely to happen in my bailiwick, where I do not think I have ever met a fire-priestess. Nor have I heard anybody talking about one, though to be fair most of the people who live around here speak in barbaric incoherent grunts, if they speak at all.

Shortly after writing the above paragraph, I decided to immerse myself in some serious fire-priestess research. I took the phone off the hook, drew down the blinds, barricaded the door, and crouched in the middle of the living room in the stance Blötzmann calls “the alert chaffinch” (see the Third Notebook, Lilac Series). Concentrating hard for twenty seconds as recommended, I was then able to proceed. I put on my shoes and Tyrolean sports casual jacket, unbarricaded the door, and pranced off to the railway station, where I bought a ticket to Shoeburyness.

Using the Blötzmann method, I had ascertained that the Essex coastal town was a likely milieu to find everyone babbling about a fire-priestess and, indeed, a fire-priestess herself. I would then be able to meet with her and deploy the line from Game Of Thrones. To do so had become my dearest wish, to the point, I suppose, of mania.

Shoeburyness is notable for its proximity to the large Ministry of Defence facility at Pig’s Bay and also for its bottomless viper pit, of which I have written previously. As I disembarked from my train, I was confident that my Blötzmann-inspired hunch was correct, and I immediately pranced into the railway station canteen to commune with Shoeburynessites who, I felt sure, would have no other topic on their lips than the presence in the town of a fire-priestess. I bought a cup of tea, a sausage snack, and a slice of fruitcake, and sat down at one of the tables, cocking my ears.

To my bitter disappointment, in the time it took me to munch my sausage and fruitcake and to drain my teacup, I heard not a single mention of a fire-priestess. Ukip, badgers, foopball, Ruskin’s Fors Clavigera, the weather – these seemed to be the hot topics in Shoeburyness that day. I crashed out of the door and went prancing through the streets, down to the beach. Nobody I passed had a word to say about a fire-priestess.

I wondered if perhaps I might draw her to me by setting fire to a waste bin. I found one, overflowing with paper and cardboard and seaside detritus, and ignited it with my lighter. As I hoped, a woman came rushing towards me. She was dressed in the uniform of a Shoeburyness Seaside Community Support Patrol Officer, but I knew, deep down in my gut, that it was merely a disguise. I opened my mouth, about to speak the magical words, but before I could do so she unleashed a Tazer and zapped me, deep down in my gut.

As I lay writhing on the ground, panting and frazzled, she doused the flames in the waste bin. But here is the curious thing. She did so by making the tiniest gesture, a significant sweeping movement of her hand through the air, so quick it was virtually imperceptible. Only a fire-priestess could do that!, I thought, before losing consciousness.

When I came to, I discovered I had been bundled into the freight van of a train, and it was just pulling out of Shoeburyness station. Pinned to my Tyrolean sports casual jacket was a civic proclamation banning me from ever setting foot in the town again. I staggered to my feet, and peered out of the train window, and there on the platform I saw, waving at me, her flaming red Pre-Raphaelite tresses blowing in the breeze, her eyes pools of fathomless inky-black witchery, the Shoeburyness Seaside Community Support Patrol Officer. Only I knew her for what she truly was. But as I gazed, the train gathered speed, and soon she was but a speck in the distance, and then she was gone.

Plenipotentiary With Cornflakes Carton And Nightjar

Our survey of artworks continues with Plenipotentiary With Cornflakes Carton And Nightjar. This is a large painting, though I have not measured it, showing, as its title indicates, a plenipotentiary with the traditional attributes of his office, a cornflakes carton and a nightjar. Executed in scumbled daubs of emulsion on a sheet of corrugated cardboard, the plenipotentiary is shown leaning insouciantly against a mantelpiece, holding in his right hand a cornflakes carton while a nightjar perches atop his head. Stipples of what looks like gouache have been stippled hither and thither about the composition to add élan. There is an unseemly smudge at the bottom left, above which the painter’s signature has been scribbled with a biro, seemingly so hurriedly that it is illegible. The overall style is a combination of primitivist, classical, Rococo, expressionist, winsome, cack-handed, and gorgeous.

This is probably the most important painting in the collection of the toffee apple entrepreneur Argvis Bonescrape, who refuses all permission to reproduce it in any form.

You may also enjoy : Biro Scribble With Unseemly Smudge, Nightjar With Plenipotentiary And Gouache Stipples, and Cornflakes Carton No. 17. The latter is a conceptual artwork and does not actually consist of a cornflakes carton in any form whatsoever, other than as an idea nestling in the artist’s brain. We have no current information regarding cornflakes cartons numbers one to sixteen, which may not even exist.

If you would like further information on nightjars, please consult an authoritative reference work on ornithology.

On Pontoppidan

Like absolutely everybody else throughout the land – with the sole exception of Nige – I have become enamoured of Scandinavian crime fiction. That is why, the other day, I picked up a cheap paperback copy of Headhunters by Jo Nesbo and have read about half of it at one sitting. It rattles along. I found myself diverted by this passage:

The second [thing that caught my attention] was a quotation from what are known informally as “Pontoppidan’s Explanations” in which he declares that a person is capable of killing another person’s soul, infecting it, dragging it down into sin in such a way that redemption is precluded.

As soon as I felt able to tear myself away from Headhunters, about ninety pages later – I did say it rattles along – I made a cup of tea and devoted myself to discovering what I could about Pontoppidan and his Explanations. The first thing I learned was that no human being has ever resembled a poodle or a pompom as closely as Erik Pontoppidan (1698-1764).


In the Wikipedia, he is listed in the following categories: Danish theologians, Danish bishops, Danish ornithologists, Danish naturalists, Norwegian bishops, 18th-century Lutheran bishops, People from Aarhus. That gives us a reasonably comprehensive picture. As for the Explanations, these appear to be one of his most important theological works, a 1737 official state church explanation of the Lutheran catechism. One might think that makes for rather dry reading, but the part alluded to by Jo Nesbo suggests otherwise. I may have to see if there is an English translation available and pore over it for further references to murder and infection and sin and eternal damnation.

As with so many clergymen of the era, Pontoppidan was also an enthusiastic naturalist and antiquarian. He compiled, in 1763-64, The Danish Atlas, a detailed and ambitious description of Denmark based on information gathered from clergy around the country. His Natural History of Norway (1752–1753), was a description not only of the flora and fauna of the country, but also of the peasant population, their ways of living and thinking, based upon close observation. It is thanks to Pontoppidan that much folkloric material has been preserved.

Among his other works were a standard Danish hymn book, a guide for vicars to help eradicate superstition and reduce devotion to Catholic relics among the peasantry, a four volume history of the Danish church, and a collection of epitaphs transcribed from tombstones.

Of particular interest, at least to me, is that Pontoppidan is one of the earliest sources for our knowledge of that ferocious sea monster, the kraken. In the Natural History of Norway he gives an extensive description of the beast and makes a number of claims, including that the kraken is so enormous it is sometimes mistaken for an island, and that the greatest danger to sailors comes not from the creature itself but from the mighty whirlpool it leaves in its wake. Not that the kraken does not have great destructive power, as Pontoppidan writes “It is said that if [the creature's arms] were to lay hold of the largest man-of-war, they would pull it down to the bottom”. The image of the kraken dragging a ship down to the bottom of the sea is startlingly similar to the image, in the Explanations, of the soul-murderer dragging the infected victim down into sin. One wonders what tormented phantasms were going on inside Pontoppidan’s head, surrounded by that pompom of snow-white hair and the crisp white ruff.

[This piece is nowhere near one thousand words in length, but I think it best to end there, when I have nothing more to say, than to expand it needlessly by chuntering on. I could copy out bits of Pontoppidanery from the Wikipedia and from the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica and from the 1914 New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopaedia Of Religious Knowledge (Third Edition). I could point out that, weirdly, Erik Pontoppidan has his own Facecloth page, which is “liked” by a total of six people. (I am toying with the idea of becoming the seventh.) But, short of immersing myself in certain of the texts, I think I have learned enough, and told you enough, about Pontoppidan for the time being. It is interesting to me that, just a few hours ago, I had never heard of him, and a stray reference led me to find out that little which I have found out. Now, when next I am at an elegant and sophisticated cocktail party, leaning insouciantly against a mantelpiece in my Tyrolean jacket similar to that worn by Christopher Plummer in The Sound Of Music, and the conversation turns, as it so often does, to the subject of the kraken, I shall be able to pipe up with a learned reference to Erik Pontoppidan. Having grabbed the attention of the gathering, I can then dazzle my listeners with abstruse points of Scandinavian theology and amusing anecdotes of eighteenth century peasant life in Norway. I might even throw in a couple of Danish tombstone epitaphs for added entertainment, by which time every single person at the cocktail party will be hanging on my every word. There is every possibility that, at this point, the cry will go up, from one voice or from many, to “please, please tell us what Erik Pontoppidan looked like, Mr Key!” “Well, those of you foregathered and rapt,” I will reply, “If you have ever seen a poodle, or a white pompom, and imagine either of those in human form, then you can summon in your mind's eye a portrait of our man.” At which point I might sashay away from the mantelpiece and pay a visit to the bathroom, wherein I shall liberally entalc my hair and head and collar, and then reappear among the party guests, a striking tableau vivant of Erik Pontoppidan. It will then remain for me to select a victim, murder their soul, infect it, and drag them down into sin, in such a way that redemption is precluded - if, of course, it is that kind of cocktail party.]

A Mordant Heron

Every so often, if I am leaning insouciantly against a mantelpiece at a swish cocktail party, a fellow-guest will approach me and say something along the lines of “Mr Key, you probably know more about ornithology than anyone else in the world, or at least anyone else at this swish cocktail party, certainly anyone else leaning insouciantly against this mantelpiece. Tell me, what is your favourite of all the birds of the air?”

My reply to this will vary from day to day, hour to hour, even minute to minute, but if I were to be asked right now, I would say “A mordant heron”.

And lo!, here is a particularly mordant heron, from Banished’s Bugs, home of Hooting Yard reader and correspondent Banished To A Pompous Land.