Hooting Yard Archive, April 2006

An embittered sludge person, Arnold Bax, how to check that the Pope is dead, potato clocks, obnosis, Dutch gruel ... what more could you ask for?


Sunday 30th April 2006
“[Mr Jones] wrote that he had never…”
Invaluable Cardinals
The Most Thorough Account…
Saturday 29th April 2006
“Bladud was the only child of the…”
The Slovenly Gibbets
Bax Mag
I Became a Tundist…
Monday 17th April 2006
“I sat down upon my bed with…”
Medical Notes on a Mezzotintist
Dobson the Convict
Useful Information
Sunday 16th April 2006
“To make Stars that will expand in…”
How to Stick Pins Into a Wax Doll of Your Enemy
Tuesday 11th April 2006
“I cannot see how a Christian, who…”
Dutch Gruel
That Dobson-hubbard Slur
Monday 10th April 2006
“Were it not for the lower order…”
The Potato Clock : History and Prospects
Stoat in a Bog
Bert Trautmann
Saturday 8th April 2006
“It is a little curious, considering the…”
Lugubrious Fool
Sun Worship
Prattle About Reading
Thursday 6th April 2006
“There seems to be no good reason…”
Don't Say I Didn't Warn You
Wish Upon a Star
Wednesday 5th April 2006
“A man who from youth had become…”
Frequently Asked Question
Basil and Guido and Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich
Sunday 2nd April 2006
“The true house fly is very abundant…”
Embittered Sludge Person

Sunday 30th April 2006

“[Mr Jones] wrote that he had never seen wild hazels with worms in them and would like to learn more about them. I sent him both good and wormy nuts from the wild hazel bush to which I had referred. He was so impressed by them that he wished me to dig up the plant and ship it to him, writing that he wished to cross it with filbert pollen as an experiment. I sent it as he asked but before he was able to make the cross he intended, his death occurred. Several years later, his daughter Mildred wrote to me about this hazel bush, asking if I knew where her father had planted it.” — Carl Weschcke, Growing Nuts In the North

Invaluable Cardinals

Our Antipodean researcher Glyn Webster discovered what he calls “an invaluable checklist for the Hooting Yard birdwatcher” on the wikipedia. This list of large cardinals may of course refer to Roman Catholic überpriests rather than to birds. The wikipedia page allows one to follow links to find out more about the cardinals it lists, which somehow is not as satisfying as a plain recitation, shorn of any detail.

Almost Ramsey cardinal, Erdos cardinal, Extendible cardinal, Huge cardinal, Hyper-Woodin cardinal, Inaccessible cardinal, Ineffable cardinal, Jónsson cardinal, Mahlo cardinal, Measurable cardinal, Ramsey cardinal, Reinhardt cardinal, Remarkable cardinal, Rowbottom cardinal, Shelah cardinal, Strong cardinal, Strongly compact cardinal, Subcompact cardinal, Subtle cardinal, Supercompact cardinal, Superstrong cardinal, Totally indescribable cardinal, Unfoldable cardinal, Weakly compact cardinal, Weakly hyper-Woodin cardinal, Woodin cardinal.

In an ideal world, “Woodin” above would be a misprint for “Wooden”, but alas, I know it is not so.

An ineffable cardinal (right) and the vestments of an unfoldable cardinal (left)

When I was a child, I remember once being taken to a cathedral to hear Mass said by a totally indescribable cardinal. I could witter on for ages about the cathedral and its environs, the altar servers and sacristans and the softly swaying thuribles, the taxidermist's crocodile hung in chains from the ceiling*, the choir and the candles, the stained glass and the eucharist and the benediction, but try as I might I will never be able to describe the totally indescribable cardinal, because he was, and I am sure remains to this day, totally indescribable.

*NOTE : See the quotation from Celeste Olalquiaga on 11th February.

The Most Thorough Account…

Episode two of the serial story Testimony Of A Tundist

The most thorough account of Tundism in the English language is probably Binder's magnificent survey Wrought-Iron Rigour : The World Of The Tundists (Chumpot & Throwback, 19--). A flavour of this astonishing book is perhaps best given by reproducing the table of contents, thus:

The above gives some indication not only of the breadth of Binder's research but also, to some extent, his piercing intensity. The truly surprising thing is that Binder himself was not a Tundist. It seems to me that the acuity of his insight would put to shame many of those who wear the Vest - myself included.Space prevents me from reprinting whole swathes of Binder's work, which is unmatched elsewhere in the literature devoted to Tundism. Sadly, in the Anti-Tundist crackdown of the last decade, Binder's book has become almost impossible to obtain. I urge readers to scan carefully the shelves of secondhand bookdealers, especially those in and around O'Houlihan's Wharf, if they are to root out a copy.

Let me take you back to that soggy November morning. As I say, I was still in my pyjamas. I had had a night of frightful dreams and, on waking, cursing the corncrakes, I could not bring myself, as I usually did, to set about retuning my banjo ready for the lunchtime wassail. Instead, plumping into my wheelchair, I decided to take a turn around the pond and to hurl used batteries at my feathered tormentors. Five minutes into this sport, I was accosted by a fellow I had never seen before. He came hurtling towards me from the direction of the corrugated cardboard stacks, grabbed what batteries I had left in my lap, and jammed them into his trouser-pockets.

I was astounded by his vest. It seemed to shimmer. Despite the autumn chill, he wore no shirt, no jumper nor jacket. His vest was resplendent and numinous.

He had turned on his heel, and was about to bound away as swiftly as he had come, but I called out to him, involuntarily, “My, what a vest!”, or some such words. He stopped, swivelled round to face me, and said - oh! and I remember every last nuance, as if he had spoken but a moment ago - “I wear the Tundist's vest”.

Now this was most irregular. I am the most slavish of Tundists, and one thing we absolutely forbid is to announce our identity so blatantly. In retrospect, it has to be said that Glew - the wearer of the Vest, whose name was tattooed on his forearm - was lax, obtuse… yes, lax and obtuse. Yet however unforgivable his lapse, I cannot find it in my heart to scold his memory. Had he not spoken those words, had he continued to hare away from me, my batteries in his pockets, and me dumbfounded, thunderstruck, well, I would probably never have become a Tundist in my turn, and my life would have been very different, my life would have been unbearable.

At the time, of course, I was unaware of all this. For me, what Glew had said was irregular, not the fact that he had said it at all. I thought I had misheard him. He was already turning away from me again. “I beg your pardon?” I shouted, rather too loudly, to forestall him. My eyes were still glued to the shining vest. He turned back once more, and repeated the mysterious words.

I was young and garrulous. The vest, and curiosity, had driven the stolen batteries from my mind. “And who or what, pray, is the Tundist?” I asked. He realised the error he had made, came to his senses, and, dissembling, mumbled some hogwash, then sprang away. In my ignorance, I thought him a cracker-brain, and resolved to warn the fireworks factory sentries to keep a look-out for him. I wheeled myself back to my hut, my ablutions, and my banjo. But I did not forget him.

Who or what is the Tundist? Without realising it, I had asked a stupendous and world-shuddering question. The simple answer - the best answer - is to dig out Binder, but as I have said, nowadays that is not so easy. Make do, then, with these words, scribbled on the back of a fag packet by the great theorist of Tundism, Diocletian Birdbag: “You will know a Tundist by these signs: an upside-down badger tattoo on the torso; a punnet carried by means of a looped string hung from the right shoulder; worldly wisdom; a Tundist Hat and a Tundist Vest; the breath of unknown planets; the gait of unknown stars. The Tundist is a woman or man who has cut loose from all peasant frailty, who has knelt before the Tundist flag, who has crushed beneath balletic feet the paltry scrimscrums of time and space. But no cult we! All can seek the rigours of Tundism, though many will fall by the wayside. The true Tundist is one who has sucked on spangles, fluttered as a moth, ascended the Ladder of Sibodnedwab, crackled, sparked, and spun. A web is a window. A fact is a truce. A brain is a nest. Know the Tundist through cargpan and stitchery, through what the Tundist is and was and did and does and dares and daren't and digs. Soil sanctified - sanctity soiled. Yes, wear a balaclava, chew a twig, rail at flies and foundries. The Tundist wears another hat, a special Vest… a Tundist's Vest.”

To be continued…

DETOURS : A Brief History Of The ApocalypsePencil RevolutionJesus Inspirational Sport Statues

Saturday 29th April 2006

“Bladud was the only child of the king and queen, and he was not only tenderly beloved by his parents, but was also considered as a child of great beauty and promise by the chiefs and the people. It, however, unfortunately happened that he was attacked with that loathsome disease, so frequently mentioned in Scripture by the name of leprosy. The dirty habits and gross feeding of the early natives of Britain, as well as of all other uncivilized people, rendered this malady common; but at the time in which Prince Bladud lived, no cure for it was known to the Britons. Being highly infectious, therefore, all persons afflicted with it were not only held in disgust and abhorrence, but, by the barbarous laws of the times, were doomed to be driven from the abodes of their fellow-creatures, and to take their chance of life or death in the forests and the deserts, exposed alike to hunger and to beasts of prey.” — Robert W Shoppell, The Afflicted Prince

The Slovenly Gibbets

They were torn down long ago, but the slovenly gibbets standing high on the hill still haunt the history of this thy land. Silhouetted against a leaden sky, the slovenly gibbets creaked in the wind, and did so for years and years, but they are gone now. Their destruction was Tiny Enid's first recorded act of heroism.

She was just eight years old, and was sat in the kitchen of the cabin at the foot of those grim hills eating her milk slops for breakfast, when loud clanking and clunking noises, accompanied by shouts and screams, led her outside. In the pale light of dawn she saw malefactors being dragged up the hill in chains by Prince Fulgencio's henchmen. Wiping some spilled slops off her polka dot shift with an old rag, she confronted the henchman whose tabard was emblazoned with a captain's crest.

“What crimes have these sorry-looking wretches committed, O captain?” she piped, in her shrill infantile voice.

The captain growled at her, and one of his fellow-henchmen picked her up with one mighty, hairy hand, and slobbered at her.

“Unhand me, brute!” cried Tiny Enid, at which her assailant cackled. He carried her over to the roaring river which crashed with such ferocity down the hillside, and was about to throw her in when, with great presence of mind, the tiny child unlaced the big black boot in which her club foot was encased, eased it off, and bashed the henchman's face in, so violently that he dropped her at once on the springy green grass. Replacing her big boot in one sprightly movement, Tiny Enid clomped over to the captain and rebuked him.

It is our uncommon good fortune that one of the other henchmen was carrying a portable metal tapping machine to which was attached a recording device. In an uncanny parallel with the dictaphone belt of Dallas Police Officer W B McLain which inadvertently recorded the assassination of President John F Kennedy in Dealey Plaza on 22nd November 1963, the henchman's device was jammed in the ‘on’ position. We thus know the precise words with which Tiny Enid upbraided the captain.

“You should be mightily ashamed of yourself, O captain,” she said, “For allowing one of your men to manhandle me. I am but a tiny infant in a polka dot shift, and he is a gigantic fellow. Had I not had my wits about me, even now I would be gurgling at the bottom of the terrifying river, the life draining out of me. Instead it is your cruel colleague who has toppled to the earth covered in his own gore. He will live, I think, though his already ugly mug will be further disfigured. Ha! Perhaps the imprint of my big black boot will improve his appearance. Now, captain, you too will feel my wrath unless you loose the manacles from this piteous gaggle of wrongdoers and release them into my care. Release them, I say, or you will go the way of Tarleton and Scobie and O'Houlihan!”

Such was the terror with which the captain heard these words that he crumpled to the ground, suddenly puny and powerless, but not before he had tossed to Tiny Enid the keys to the manacles which chained his prisoners. Before setting them free, the heroic infant questioned each one closely about their crimes, learning that they were all but simple peasants who had stolen a potato or a lettuce, or defaced a big portrait of Prince Fulgencio with boot polish, or just had a general air of rural besmirchment about them. And when all their chains were loosed, she set them the task of tearing down the slovenly gallows, up on the grim horrible hill, and she watched a while, her big black booted club foot resting on the neck of the captain, before kicking him once in the head and skipping in her ungainly manner back to her cabin, and her kitchen, and her breakfast of milk slops.

Bax Mag

Hooting Yard continues its mission to raise the tone of the monthly magazine market. From next week, hoping to oust all that drivel like Beer & Blokes and Handbags For Fluffyheads from your newsagent's shelves, we will be launching an exciting new title devoted entirely to the composer Sir Arnold Bax (1883-1953). Issue one has an exciting article about Sir William Walton's attempt to “knock Bax off the map” with his own first symphony, including a special mezzotint reproduction of the map itself from noted mezzotintist Rex Tint. Plus there is a chance to read some of Bax's pseudonymous 'Dermot O'Byrne' poems, a botanical description of The Garden Of Fand, and some swan recipes from Bax's successor as Master of the Queen's Music, that scamp Sir Peter Maxwell Davies.

I Became a Tundist…

Earlier in the year we published The Immense Duckpond Pamphlet, a story in twenty-six daily(ish) episodes. This seemed to be popular with readers, harking back to the days when fiction was routinely published in serial form, so today we begin a second serialisation with the first episode of Testimony Of A Tundist. This tale first appeared in pamphlet form in 1993, is long out of print (of course), and copies are so rare that even the author doesn't have one.

I became a Tundist at the age of twenty-six. I have never regretted it. Oh, my life has not been easy. I have been racked by doubts, spat upon, consumed by misery, poked at with sticks, ridiculed, accused of numberless crimes, and pelted with pebbles. Yet through years of torment, Tundism has sustained me. It has been a solace and a joy, comforted me, emboldened me, kept me whole. I wear with pride the Tundist's Vest.

What makes one embrace Tundism? There is no simple answer to the question. In my forties, for quite unrelated reasons, I was confined to a dank and grim oubliette for a period of six years, during which time, with little else to do but bite my fingernails and bash rodents with my spoon, I analysed the forces which had impelled me, with ever increasing certainty, towards that unforgettable day when, smoke billowing from the funnels, I donned the Vest, and choirs sang.

My childhood was a happy one, marred only by insect swarms and my father's occasional outbreaks of pumice mania, when he would charge wildly around the house hurling pumice stones at invisible foes. We were a close-knit family. I was the youngest of eight children. My sisters were strange, flushed, lovelorn, towering, bloodthirsty and prim (in that order). My brother I hardly remember; he was much older than me, and joined the post office when I was four, and we saw little of him thereafter, though he kept in touch through letters, often twice daily, recounting his adventures. It is a pity that his handwriting was illegible.

We grew up in a ramshackle cottage on farmland. If my parents had any connection with the farm, they never told me about it. My mother was something in the world of amateur entomology. She regularly received envelopes full of flies in the post, and would spend her afternoons pinning each fly to a gigantic baize noticeboard in the pantry. Once or twice a year she would go off to distant towns to attend entomological gatherings; sometimes one or two of the children would be allowed to accompany her. I have a vivid memory of sitting on a stool at the back of a cold and cavernous hall, somewhere on the outskirts of Blot, while Mama stood behind a lectern at the front, addressing a few dozen enthusiasts. I had no idea what she was talking about.

Of my father, there is little I can say which is not already in the public record. He lived an obscure and blameless life until the terrible day when, celebrating his sixtieth birthday, he was arrested under the provisions of the Suspicious Foreign Maps Act. Once the press got wind of it, he didn't have a chance.

By then, of course, I had already become a Tundist. I must go back ten years or more. I had left home at fifteen, with my parents' blessings, and joined a troupe of hot-air-ballooning minstrels. I remember those years with unalloyed pleasure. Our balloon would touch down in some field, we hardly cared where, and we would clamber out of the basket, clutching our lutes, crumhorns, sackbuts and shawms, and skip frolicsome into the nearest village, where we would commandeer a square, or green, or bandstand, and perform our spritely songs in return for money, victuals, ale, trinkets, and whatever else a delighted populace could bestow upon us.

It was a glorious life for a youngster, and I was devastated when, at nineteen, I was forced to leave the troupe through injury. One teeming day in August 19--, I fell from the balloon-basket and broke my back. I have been in a wheelchair ever since. I spent the best part of a year in hospital, slowly coming to terms with my new situation. I frittered the time away, driving the other patients crackers with my sackbut, until it was confiscated by a gruesome janitor. Never much of a reader in those days, I made little use of the hospital library. I invented card games, and taught them to my fellow invalids. I developed a taste for reckless gambling, using counters, until I had impoverished myself and any future children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren I may ever dandle upon my knee. I learned to paint facetious watercolours. My prim and towering sisters visited me. My mother sent me a fly.

Discharged a week after my twentieth birthday, I returned briefly to the family cottage, but grew rapidly disgruntled, and struck off alone, renting a hut in the grounds of a fireworks factory in Frump Harbour, where, through the offices of one of my old ballooning pals, I had been offered a job entertaining the workers during their lunch breaks by strumming upon a banjo and howling. Life was squalid but bearable. My hut was often overrun with weasels, squirrels and shrews. I had no running water, and the only heating was a formidable and rather alarming oil-burner which had been abandoned - judiciously, I thought - by a previous occupant of the hut. Each morning I was woken by a gang of corncrakes, their raucous cries skirling across the factory pond. I was not exactly happy, but I was content. Then, one dismal morning in November, still in my pyjamas, I met a Tundist.

To be continued…

DETOURS : Improbable ResearchPoultry PhotographsUnconsecrated Burials

Monday 17th April 2006

“I sat down upon my bed with my bleeding, aching head in my hands, an object of abject misery. Not a sound beyond the clanging of doors was to be heard, punctuated at frequent intervals by the dull thud of blows, as some hapless wretch was being clubbed, the shrieks and howls of prisoners, and the groans of those on the verge of insanity. It was just as if all the demons of the Nether Regions were at work worrying and harrying their victims. While rocking myself to and fro I heard the turning of the key. The gaoler entered with a bowl containing some evil-looking and worse smelling soup.” — Frederick Arthur Ambrose Talbot, Sixteen Months In Four German Prisons

Medical Notes on a Mezzotintist

“My lung has just collapsed” is not a statement you are likely to hear spoken, for the simple reason that when someone's lung has collapsed, they will not be able to do much more than gasp for breath. Think of the lung like an airbag which, when punctured, shrivels up with a wheezy noise. This is pretty much common sense and does not require extensive medical knowledge.

Now, imagine for a moment that you do have extensive medical knowledge, that you are, for present purposes, a senior medico in an important hospital. You are sitting at your big desk in your big office, leafing through a sheaf of complicated diagrams which would mean nothing to a lay person. Years of training, and an acute and piercing mind, allow you to interpret the mass of medical information contained in these colourful charts and to reach swift, startling, and expert conclusions. You are about to press a blue knob on the desk console which pipes your instructions to less expert doctors elsewhere in the hospital, when you are interrupted.

A man enters your office unannounced. He is blubbery and shaggy-haired and his clothing is creased and crumpled and he has a woebegone yet desperate air and his face is the colour of tallow and he smells of disinfectant and he says “Doctor, doctor, my lung has just collapsed”.

You look up at him, into his watery eyes, and you press the green knob on your console instead of the blue one, and as soon as you hear the gentle hum that indicates you are connected to the system, you say “Please come and get my brother and take him home”. There is no exasperation in your voice, just inhuman patience and a trace, perhaps, of a love that is fathomless and bold. For you are Doctor Tint, and your visitor is Rex Tint. He is known to the world as a supremely talented mezzotintist. To you, he is a hypochondriac, constantly assailed by phantom maladies and imagined injuries.

He is taken home by paramedics and tucked into bed on the mezzanine floor of his mezzotint-strewn flat, where he falls asleep. When he awakes, there is a chance that he may set to work on his latest mezzotint. Equally, he may be convinced that he is subject to black bile and the flux and hare at high speed back to the hospital, or to a clinic, or to a soothsayer.

Rex Tint has much in common with the current Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, who likes to drink Lemsip while he works, because it makes him imagine that he is slightly ill. “I read in a biography of A E Housman that he wrote most of A Shropshire Lad while he had a cold,” he told the BBC, “And I thought, yes, I know about that - that sort of slightly introverted self-pitying mood that a mild illness can give. It is absolutely conducive to poems.”

Rex Tint, however, felt that when mezzotinting, he needed something more than a “mild illness”. He needed to be in trauma, close to death, face to face with extinction. Whether this genuinely improved the quality of his work is hard to say, for so matchless a mezzotintist was he that an open-mouthed gape of awe was - and remains - the only fitting reaction.

Somewhere between Andrew Motion's “self-pitying mood” and the mezzotintist Rex Tint's counterfeit death agony comes Dobson's approach to creativity. He had read about the Vatican's practice of ensuring that the Pope is dead by hitting him on the head three times with a special ceremonial hammer while shouting his name in his ear. If the pontiff fails to respond, he is pronounced dead, and cardinals are summoned from around the world to choose a successor. Dobson was fascinated by this, and whenever he felt a pamphlet coming on, he asked Marigold Chew to beat him thrice on the head with a hammer and shout “Dobson! Dobson! Dobson!”. Nursing a throbbing skull, he would sit down at his escritoire and set to work.

I have not yet decided which of these three methods would suit me best, so I have decided to nurture a slight head cold, feign a collapsed lung, and get bashed on the head with a hammer all at the same time, with a dose of bird flu thrown in for good measure. As the reader, you will be able to judge the success or otherwise of this courageous plan.

Dobson the Convict

Today's quotation, which you will have read attentively, is from Frederick Arthur Ambrose Talbot's 1917 memoir Sixteen Months In Four German Prisons. Dobson was a great admirer of this book and planned to write a sequel entitled Four Months In Sixteen German Prisons. To this end, he arrived in Ülm on a bright spring morning and began to write an inflammatory pamphlet, hoping to be placed under arrest. His plan succeeded brilliantly, and by midday he had been banged up in the jug. He lay back on the cold stone bench in his cell and smiled. Then, before a guard arrived with a tin bowl of evil-looking and worse-smelling soup, the pamphleteer took from a secret compartment in his shoe a notepad and pencil and wrote: Day one. In prison in Ülm. One down, fifteen prisons to go. Soup due soon.

At the time of which I write, Dobson was young and impetuous, and he had not bothered to research the German penal system, particularly that part of it related to the transfer of convicts between prisons. He was later to reflect ruefully on his naïvety. I thought I would be able to get myself moved from prison to prison just by asking nicely, he wrote, but I reckoned without the inhuman, mechanically creaking wheels of Teutonic jurisprudence.

It must be said that this is a somewhat melodramatic evasion. What actually happened was that, hauled before a court within two hours of his incarceration, Dobson was condemned as an “idiotic nuisance” and ejected from the country. He was placed on a prison ship which sailed him home in time for tea.

A ship a bit like the one that sailed Dobson home from prison

Useful Information

Dear Frank, writes Pansy Cradledew, I always enjoy reading about Rex Tint, the mezzotintist, but I must confess that I am not entirely sure what a mezzotint is. I am sure I cannot be the only reader to confess such ignorance, and I would be very grateful for any light you can shed on the matter. Yours curiously, Pansy Cradledew. PS : What on earth has become of Little Severin, the Mystic Badger?

I hope Pansy will forgive me if I simply reprint what the wikipedia has to tell us. I do this for two reasons - one, sheer idleness and two, because it is quite fascinating in itself and I can hardly be expected to improve upon it.

Mezzotint is a printing process of the intaglio family, in which the surface of a metal plate is roughened evenly; the image is then brought out by smoothing the surface, creating the image by working from dark to light.

Plates can be mechanically roughened, but the classical way is to rub fine metal filings over the surface with a piece of glass; the finer the filings, the smaller the grain of the surface. The method commonly in use today is to use a steel rocker approximately five inches wide, which has between 45 and 120 teeth per inch on the face of a blade in the shape of a shallow arc, with a wooden handle projecting upwards in a T-shape. Rocked steadily from side to side at the correct angle, the rocker will proceed forward creating burrs in the surface of the copper. The plate is then moved - either rotated by a set number of degrees or through 90 degrees according to preference - and then rocked in another pass. This is repeated until the plate is roughened evenly and will print a completely solid tone.

Carol Wax's book The Mezzotint: History and Technique (Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1990) is the best available text on the subject, covering history, development, methods and materials for the whole process. Mezzotint is known for the luxurious quality of its tones: first, because an evenly, finely roughened surface holds a lot of ink, allowing deep solid colours to be printed; secondly because the process of smoothing the texture with burin, burnisher and scraper allows fine gradations in tone to be developed.

The mezzotint printing method was invented by Ludwig von Siegen (1609-1680). His earliest surviving mezzotint print dates to 1642 and is a portrait of Amelia Elizabeth, Landgravine of Hesse-Cassel. The word mezzotint is derived from the Italian mezzo-tinto, meaning half-painted.

There we are, now you know as much about mezzotints as I do. You may wish to follow the detour below, which leads to M R James' spooky story The Mezzotint. As for Little Severin the Mystic Badger, expect an important announcement very soon.

DETOURS : The MezzotintBird SoundsThe Gashlycrumb Tinies

Sunday 16th April 2006

“To make Stars that will expand in Flame, and appear like natural Stars in the Firmament for a time: Take half a Pound of Salt-peter, the like quantity of Brimstone, finely beaten together, sifted and mingled with a quarter of a Pound of Gunpowder so ordered: Then wrap up the Composition in Linnen Rags or fine Paper, to the quantity of a Walnut, bind them with small Thread, and prick holes in the Rag or Paper with a Bodkin, and place six or ten of them on the Head of a great Rocket, as you did the Quills, and when the Rocket expires, they take fire and spread into a Flame, hovering in the Air like Stars, and descend leisurely till the matter is spent that gives them light.” — Robert Howlett, The School Of Recreation

How to Stick Pins Into a Wax Doll of Your Enemy

Here is a simple and cost-effective way to cause harm to your enemy. All you will need is some wax, a few pins, and a hank of your enemy's hair or a scrap from clothing they have worn or some other item imbued with their spirit or Geist.

You may protest, as so many people do, that you have not an enemy in the world, that your sunny disposition and acts of alms-giving mean that no one wishes you ill. Much as I would like this to be true, it is extremely unlikely. At one time or another, all of us have made enemies. Perhaps there was a time when you struck clunk rather than clang during bell-ringing, and so offended the ears of your captain that he has hated you ever since with a loathing that grows by the day. Or you may have inadvertently bashed into and maimed a goat while cycling at high speed - remember that collision? - and there is a farmer who spends his lonely nights cursing you to hell. You could even have made an enemy by stealing a bonbon from the mouth of a tiny tot, a mischievous deed that you have since forgotten but has led that infant, now a grown adult, to harbour a burning indignation which has quite distorted her life. So do not think you have no foes, and do not think yourself innocent and safe. There are people bent on revenge, and they will stop at nothing, and the best way to protect yourself is to cause them harm before they steal upon you at dead of night and smother you with your own pillow.

Obtaining your wax and pins couldn't be easier. You can get wax from a wax chandler, or you can just melt a few candles until they are soft enough to mould. You do not need a great deal of wax, as your doll will only be a tiny thing, like a little incubus. Ideally you should be able to hold it in one hand while, cackling and slobbering, you drive the pins home with the fingers of your other hand. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

I will assume you have the wax, and a means of heating it. Bunsen burners, as found in the laboratories of boffins both mad and otherwise, are useful for this part of the project, or you may prefer to use your gas cooker at home. Do remember to pay your bill, though, for if you neglect it your gas provider may cut off your supply, and you will be left with wax too hard to mould into a doll. When you have malleable wax, fashion it with your fingers and thumbs into a basic simulacram of a human being. It need not be an accurate representation of your enemy, unless they have a particularly noticeable physical flaw, such as a missing limb or a giant swollen head. In most cases, a standard humanoid shape will do.

Some correspondents have asked me if the little doll which you will pierce with sharp pins to harm your foe can be made out of plasticine, or some other proprietary modelling clay suitable for infants and for those embarking on a course of physical therapy in an institution for the bewildered. The straightforward answer is “No, No, a thousand times No!” You must always, always use wax, for there is something weird and even sinister about wax.

Now, about those pins. You can get pins from any old haberdasher or needlework shop, from anywhere in fact which sells pins for innocent domestic purposes. So long as the pins are of metal, you can't really go wrong. But if you have a flair for wickedness, you might want to use special Zoltan™ pins. These are manufactured especially for plunging remorselessly into waxen images for nefarious purposes, and the makers promise faster and more decisive results. Independent studies have not been able to uphold such claims, alas, and it may be that the Zoltan™ pins people are guilty of hyperbole and guff. I leave the choice to you.

One parenthetical note. You must use pins and not nails. If you try to press nails into your wax doll, you are making a category error. Nails exist to be driven into mud idols for quite other purposes. There was a time when children learned the useful phrase “Pins for wax, nails for mud” as soon as they could speak, but that seems to be one of those pieces of traditional wisdom we have lost in our pap-engulfed world. It ought to be revived, starting now.

So, you have your doll and you have your pins. Most important of all, you have your enemy, whether it be the village wrestler who once scolded you as you frolicked in the graveyard, or the pilot of a jet aircraft whose uniform cap you tipped off his head and kicked along the street as he made his way home after flying his spy plane deep into enemy airspace. Now you have to imbue that little wax doll with the spirit of your foe. You will not be bringing the doll to life exactly, like some sort of waxen Pinocchio, but it needs to lose its anonymity and be clearly identified with your enemy. You can do this by attaching to it that hank of hair or scrap of clothing I mentioned earlier, or some other unique item. I shall leave it to your finely-honed wits to work out how to obtain such a thing. Unless you are the village barber or dry cleaner, you may need to employ a private detective or, as a cheaper option, hire the services of a ne'er-do-well hobbledehoy.

Having somehow instilled your doll with the Geist of your foe, you are now at last ready to pierce it with pins. Go on, stick them in! Your face ought to take on an expression of evil concentration, and you may even cackle, but you do not need to have a bubbling cauldron of some foul eldritch potion at your side. That is mere whimsy.

Opinions differ as to how you may judge the efficacy of the operation. Some hold that success consists in gaining immediate results, so that at the very instant you stick a pin into your doll's leg, your enemy feels a sharp pang in the same spot. Others contend that a pin so placed will lead to your foe breaking their leg in the near future. There is no foolproof way of influencing the precise kind of harm your enemy will come to. You need to trust to the invisible powers of the cosmos, in much the same way as loveable disc jockey and television personality Noel Edmonds does, through his adherence to the Cosmic Ordering Service.

Noel Edmonds : wax doll available soon

Next week, we will be looking at evil things to do with the help of toads.

DETOURS : The Circles Of HellRudolf Leuckart Wall ChartsThe English Emblem Book Project

Tuesday 11th April 2006

“I cannot see how a Christian, who has had a taste of 'angel's food', can relish the miserable trash contained in novels. The tendency of novel reading is most pernicious. It enervates the mental powers, and unfits them for close study and serious contemplation. It dissipates the mind, and creates a diseased imagination. It promotes a sickly sensibility, and renders its votaries unfit for the pursuits of real life. It is a great waste of time, and on this account alone may be regarded as sinful.” — Harvey Newcomb, A Practical Directory For Young Christian Females

Dutch Gruel

There has always been a pedagogical impulse throbbing at the heart of Hooting Yard, so I am delighted to report that our recipe for gruel is now being used as a set text. Students are directed to this “rather elaborate recipe” by the editors of Alquin, a site for students learning English as a foreign language. The assignment is as follows:

“Search the Internet for recipes for two of the following Victorian foodstuffs and translate the recipes into Dutch, in a way that you, or someone else, would easily be able to prepare the food. By presenting some Victorian food dishes, the actors who're in the play [an adaptation of Oliver Twist] might be even more motivated to act Victorian. Of course you could also feed them gruel, but that might not go down that well…”

There follows a list of enticing grub including dumplings, black-cap pudding, ‘good common cake’, pickled mussels, and potted meat sandwiches. Links for each dish are provided for the students, ending with one to Hooting Yard, suggesting that they “try to work out from this description what you need to do to make gruel”.

May I implore all readers, next time they find themselves eating out in the Netherlands, to order a bowl of gruel?


Here is an extract from a Scientology Handbook:

There is a word “obnosis” which has been put together from the phrase, “observing the obvious.” The art of observing the obvious is strenuously neglected in our society at this time. Pity. It's the only way you ever see anything; you observe the obvious. You look at the isness of something, at what is actually there. Fortunately for us, the ability to obnose is not in any sense “inborn” or mystical. But it is being taught that way by people outside of Scientology. How do you teach somebody to see what is there? Well, you put up something for him to look at, and have him tell you what he sees. An individual can practice this on his own or in a group situation, such as a class.

And here is an extract from Janet Reitman's Rolling Stone article “Inside Scientology”:

[Scientologists] assert that 75 million years ago, an evil galactic warlord named Xenu controlled seventy-six planets in this corner of the galaxy, each of which was severely overpopulated. To solve this problem, Xenu rounded up 13.5 trillion beings and then flew them to Earth, where they were dumped into volcanoes around the globe and vaporized with bombs. This scattered their radioactive souls, or thetans, until they were caught in electronic traps set up around the atmosphere and “implanted” with a number of false ideas -- including the concepts of God, Christ and organized religion. Scientologists later learn that many of these entities attached themselves to human beings, where they remain to this day, creating not just the root of all of our emotional and physical problems but the root of all problems of the modern world.

Oh, and one more extract from Reitman:

Unique among religious faiths, Scientology charges for virtually all of its religious services.

I think it can be a useful exercise to obnose those three paragraphs, and draw the obnostic conclusion.

That Dobson-hubbard Slur

Speaking of Scientology, I read somewhere recently an article claiming that Dobson, the out of print pamphleteer, had pretensions to being some sort of L Ron Hubbard figure, or “Enron” Hubbard, as some wags have taken to calling the old rogue. This is a terrible slur on Dobson who, if not exactly saintly, was by no means a money-grubbing charlatan. It is true that he wrote a “guide to life” entitled Dobsonetics, and devised a “personality test” with which he would attempt to entice passers-by on street corners, but there the similarities end. Much as he might have wanted to, Dobson was never able to buy a small fleet of ships and spend years sailing the oceans with a private navy (the “Sea Organisation”) as a tax-avoidance scheme.

The Dobsonetics personality test survives only in fragmentary form, for the simple reason that most of those invited to take it judged it a piece of blithering inanity and tore it to shreds. To his credit, the pamphleteer did not condemn such folk as apostates who should be abominated, threatened, and shunned. Instead, he looked on sadly as the torn-up scraps of yet another uncompleted test fell to the ground, only to be picked up by the howling winds and carried off, fluttering away in the air. He would watch until they disappeared, and then trudge home, fix himself a cup of piping hot tea, and sit at his escritoire to devise more questions.

It is worth pointing out that, as with so much else Dobsonian, the personality test was a fleeting fad, and he soon moved on to pastures new. Years later he penned a pamphlet entitled A Recantation Of Dobsonetics, which has the dubious distinction of having sold precisely nil copies.

It is estimated that there were two hundred questions in the original Dobsonetics personality test. Of these, only seven have survived. As an act of historical curiosity, you may wish to answer them.

1. Complete the following sequence: thumping headache … spinach … creosote … viper … Helen Shapiro …

2. Do you prefer a flip-top lid to a twist-off cap?

3. Have you ever been mistaken for Stalin?

4. Do you tremble in the presence of coat hangers?

5. “Men are from Uttoxeter, women are from Didcot.” True or false?

6. The best thing to do with a plastic basin full of bird feathers is….. what?

7. Have you ever had any unkind thoughts about L Ron Hubbard?

DETOURS : The History Of PhrenologyGermander SpeedwellThe Stingy Scholar

Monday 10th April 2006

“Were it not for the lower order of spirit brains, there would be comparatively few drunkards, gamblers, adulterers, fornicators, murderers, and suicides. It is they who excite man's animal senses, by conjuring up alluring pictures of drink, and gold, and sexual happiness. By the aid of the higher type of spirit brains I have been enabled to perceive the atmosphere surrounding drinking-dens and brothels full of all kinds of bestial influences, from elementals, who allure men by presenting to their minds all kinds of attractive tableaux, to the earth-bound spirits of drunkards and libertines, transformed into horrors of the sub-human, sub-animal order of phantasms - things with bloated, nude bodies and pigs' faces, shaggy bears with fulsome, watery eyes; mangy dogs, etc.” — Elliott O'Donnell, Byways Of Ghost-Land

The Potato Clock : History and Prospects

(Text of a paper given at the Fifteenth International Symposium Of Potato Chronometry, held in Ülm, Spring 2006)

Helsinki or Ülm? Helsinki or Ülm? That was the question faced by our colleagues on the Steering Committee when wrestling with the problem of where to hold this, our fifteenth symposium. And I mean “wrestling”, for that is how the matter was eventually decided. Winterbag represented the Ülmites, and Ah Fang the Helsinkiistas, and they fought a bout, each round of which was of course timed by a potato clock.

In round one, Winterbag came out on top, making use of a butterfly, reverse crucifix, lady of the lake and octopus hold. Round two saw him further the cause of the Ülmites with some decisive inverted facelock camel clutches, tiger feint crucifix armbars, a chicken wing, beast choker, and a Tongan death grip. It looked as if our symposium was certainly headed for this fair German city. But in round three, Ah Fang rallied, with a two handed choke lift, an Argentine leglock, spinning toe hold, sharpshooter, clawhold, front chancery, stretch plum, pearl river plunge, mount, scoop and pump handle. He pushed home his advantage in round four, with a tilt-a-whirl and a tree of woe. Winterbag got his breath back, however, and in the final round won the match with a fish hook, sunset flip, Texas cloverleaf, gory special, Fujiwara armbar, hammerlock, sitting double chicken wing, anaconda vice, a wheelbarrow, and a Haas of Pain. It was all over, and the symposium was headed for Ülm.And here we are!

There has never been a better time to sing the praises of potato chronometry. In a world threatened by bird flu, climate change, the depletion of oil reserves, terrorism, poverty, war, David Blunkett, and fundamentalisms of every stripe, we may yet have faith in the simple potato. A generation ago, in the doomed upheavals of 1968, the call was for “Power To The People!” Had those naïve revolutionaries called for “Power To The Potato!” things would be very different today.

For potatoes, as we know, have power. Which of us here in this splendidly-appointed conference centre in Ülm has not, at one time or another, taken two common galvanized nails, three alligator clip/wire units (that is, alligator clips connected to one another with wire), two short pieces of heavy copper wire, a simple low-voltage LED clock unit, and two potatoes, and obtained a simple LED clock unit that functions from the power of a 1- to 2-volt, button-type battery, opened the battery compartment to remove the battery, noted that there is a positive (+) and a negative (-) terminal point where the battery was installed, identified the potatoes as number one and number two, inserted one nail in each potato, inserted one short piece of heavy copper wire in each potato, placing it as far from the nail as possible, used one alligator clip/wire to connect the copper wire inserted in potato number one to the positive terminal in the clock unit, then used one alligator clip/wire to link the nail in potato number two to the negative terminal in the clock unit, used the final alligator clip/wire to link the nail in potato number one to the copper wire in potato number two, and finally, with no little sense of triumph, set the clock a-ticking? Which of us has not harnessed the power of the potato to control time?

The history of potato clocks is the subject of Dobson's magnificent pamphlet On The History Of Potato Clocks. Sadly, it is out of print. Those of you lucky enough to have read it will know that it caused a good deal of controversy among the experts, sharply dividing the world of potato chronometry into two hostile camps. Broadly speaking, there were the potato-ists, who held that the defining characteristic of the potato clock is its “potato-ness”, vying with the clockists, who are wedded to the idea that the keeping of accurate time is the crux of the matter. Dobson himself refused to take sides, arguing with some elegance that both potato and clock are equally important in what it means to be a potato clock. This assertion itself led to a slew of letters and articles in the specialist press, accusing Dobson of preposterous arrogance.

The pamphleteer, thundered one anonymous correspondent, claims that he knows what it is like to be a potato clock. This is arrant twaddle. A potato clock is made of potatoes and a few bits of wire and other things. Dobson is simply a flawed biped, and one whose brain is obviously not working properly.

Where does this leave us? We stand at the dawn of a new millennium, one in which the potato clock will have a decisive part to play, even if we do not yet know with any precision what that part will be. Is our perception of time, as measured by potatoes, qualitatively different, better or worse than other methods of keeping time, more or less attuned to nature, to the cycle of the seasons, to the sun and the moon and the stars, to the tides of the sea and the life cycle of beings both tiny and huge? We need to answer these questions with some urgency, and that is why I propose that we storm the gates of all those remote and secretive buildings where so-called atomic clocks with their pinpoint accuracy are ticktocking away, and we wrench them from their fixtures and stamp them to bits under our big boots, and we replace them all with potato clocks. I, for one, foresee our triumph.

Thank you. My next lecture will take place in the pie shop annexe where I will be addressing the exciting topic Measuring Distance By Laying Celery Sticks End To End.

Stoat in a Bog

I went a-roaming on a bright morning, and I had roamed for about half an hour when the sun was obscured by louring black clouds, and a downpour began. I pulled up the hood of my Westphalian Storm Jacket, and ploughed on, though I knew not where I was going. My head was filled with quiz questions to which I had no answers, for it was a football quiz and I know so little of football. In which year did Manchester City goalkeeper Bert Trautmann break his neck in the FA Cup Final? Who were Han Bong Jin and Lim Zoong Sun? Was it wise to pick both Hoddle and Waddle for the England squad? I tussled with these perplexities as I wandered off the muddy path by the canal and into a soggy field. Luckily, the field was empty of cows, for I am terrified of cows, and always have been, they seem so… patient.

I crossed the field and came upon a ramshackle collection of abandoned farm machinery. Perching on what might once have been a tractor piston before rust gnawed any utility from it, I took a pastry from my pocket and nibbled at it cautiously. There were few books on the shelves of the derelict cottage in which I grew up, and the only one I remembered was Caution With Pastries & Other Tips For The Neurasthenic Peasant, a lavishly illustrated compendium of advice that I learned by heart, and have followed diligently all my life long. And it has been a long life, seven or eight decades now, none any better or worse than the other.

Swallowing the last flecks of pastry, after about half an hour's cautious chewing, I stood up and looked around me. The rain was petering out into a drizzle. I headed off towards the west, towards trees, for I had heard that beyond the trees there was a brand new government one stop shop. My understanding was that a one stop shop would cater to all my needs, for that is what it promised in the brochure that had been tossed on to my garden path by the postal delivery person. I wanted insignia, desperately, something I could pin to my hats.

The trees, when I reached them, were dense, many of them of rotting, all of them dripping with recent raindrops. I leaned against a larch, or it may have been a sycamore, and lit my pipe. I decided to skirt the trees rather than to plunge recklessly through them. And that is how I ended up knee-deep in a bog. There was a stoat in the bog, and our eyes met. I wanted to be the stoat, and the stoat wanted to be me. We looked at each other, intently, for the longest time. We were still there, in the bog, staring at each other, when night crashed down and stars glittered in the sky. Such is life.

Bert Trautmann

DETOURS : Pictures From Old BooksEngines Of Our IngenuityGod Checker

Saturday 8th April 2006

“It is a little curious, considering the devotion of latter-day men of letters to tobacco, that in their early days so many of the men who wrote on the subject attacked the social use of tobacco with violence and virulence. Their titles are characteristic of their style. A writer named Deacon published in 1616 a quarto entitled ‘Tobacco tortured in the filthy Fumes of Tobacco refined’; but Joshua Sylvester had easily surpassed this when he wrote his ‘Tobacco Battered and the Pipes Shattered about their Eares, that idely Idolize so base and barbarous a Weed, or at least overlove so loathsome a Vanity, by a Volley of Holy Shot Thundered from Mount Helicon’, 1615. Controversialists of that period rejoiced in full-worded titles and in full-blooded praise or abuse.” — G L Apperson, The Social History Of Smoking

Lugubrious Fool

Prince Fulgencio had a heart of stone and his palace was a palace exceeding glum. No, no, it was not a palace, it was a castle, turreted and towered, with many flags and banners flying, every one of them showing blasphemous heraldic devices. All sorts of abominations featured on those flags, from unicorns with five legs to many-headed hydra, from fiery basilisks to crows whose heads were back to front.

The Prince's henchmen patrolled the castle battlements through every hour of day and night, armed with swords and daggers and blunderbusses and glue guns and pipes from which to blow poisoned darts. Woe betide any interloper who made an unauthorised landing on the helipad! They would be immediately surrounded, overpowered, and delivered to Prince Fulgencio's deepest dungeons, and their 'copter smashed to smithereens. The Prince was proud of his guards, who were the most devoted and violent in the land, as well as the fittest. They were each given regular breaks from duty to take part in bio-ching sessions. In addition, the Prince ensured they were all given a copy of his book Henchmen Are From Mars, Damsels Are From A Girly Planet, which they were expected to memorise. No one could argue that the henchmen did not have a martial bearing, clanking around in their armour, shouting their heads off, and generally being intimidating.

What they lacked, however, was entertainment. Prince Fulgencio himself did not understand fun, humour, nor high jinks, for his time on earth was spent exclusively in plotting dark and terrible deeds. He was alert, however, to unrest among his myrmidons, and it was clear that something would have to be done to appease them. He had a spy, or creature, like Bosola in The Duchess Of Malfi, who mingled incognito among the henchmen to discover what secrets lurked in their foul and treacherous hearts. The spy was called George Kaplan (a name later borrowed by screenwriter Ernest Lehman for the non-existent agent in North By Northwest), and he reported to the Prince as follows:

Kaplan - The henchmen are becoming restive, O Prince.

Fulgencio - Then I shall have each of them put to death and replaced by other henchmen.

Kaplan - If I might say so, an unwise decision, O Prince, for though restive, your henchmen are fanatically loyal to you and I know not where you might find their like elsewhere.

Fulgencio - From Mars, of course! Have you not read my book?

Kaplan - I have indeed, O Prince, many a time, but - and I tread delicately here - though you are omnipotent and wise and princely, your helicopter is not equipped to journey through space as far as other planetoids, much as you might wish it.

Fulgencio - God blast the stars!

Kaplan - I am sure He will, O Prince. Meanwhile, I think that if you bring to the castle a fool or jester, an entertainer in cap and bells, the henchmen will be placated.

Prince Fulgencio's face assumed a curdled cast, but he was pragmatic. Dismissing George Kaplan with a wave of his fat and pasty hand, he sat down at his metal tapping machine and sent an advert to the classified section of the Daily Manacle.

Wanted. Fool for amusement of henchmen, it read, You will be responsible for devising, implementing and evaluating a core strategy for tomfoolery and japes, consulting with stakeholders, and demonstrating a proactive approach. The successful candidate will have a proven track record in delivering merrymaking within a goal-oriented environment. The Prince is working towards a castle which reflects the diversity of his earthly domain.

On the day of the interviews, Prince Fulgencio was sick with an attack of the seeds and bindings, so he delegated George Kaplan to weed out the chaff. Being a duplicitious knave, the spy appointed as jester a man named Selwyn Pob, a lugubrious cripple of downcast air and abject gloom. And thus it was that, upon hearing Pob's dirges and threnodies, delivered while dragging himself around the castle on his worm-eaten crutches, the henchmen's unrest turned to rebellion, and they hacked Prince Fulgencio to pieces with their hatchets as he lay groaning in his sickbed, and his blood and gore were splattered upon the walls, and there, in the shadows, George Kaplan smiled, and went creeping down to the pantries, where he gorged himself on cake and buns and pies and pastries and custard, until he was replete.

Sun Worship

If you are a sun-worshipper, you may need to know that today, in the Aztec calendar, is the day of grass in the trecena of the flower in the year of the rabbit. Just keeping you informed…

Prattle About Reading

Ever since a copy of The Third Policeman was shown, for a few seconds, in an episode of the television series Lost, there has been a huge increase in sales of Flann O'Brien's masterpiece. Clearly, then, the way to tackle the crisis in literacy and to get people to read books is to extend such “product placement” throughout the TV schedules.

As an aside, it is unwise to rely upon government action to create a literate population. The Education White Paper that has caused such controversy had to be pulped and reprinted at a cost of £23,000 because it was riddled with errors of spelling and grammar. It could have been proof-read at a fraction of the cost, but we ought not expect such a basic step from a gang of zombies who think and speak gobbledegook. Consider this exchange, from Hansard on 7th November 2005:

Mr. Hollobone: To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Skills how many (a) spelling mistakes and (b) grammatical errors in the Education White Paper were identified by her Department after publication.

Jacqui Smith: Since publication, we have focussed on disseminating the policy ideas in the White Paper and planning their implementation rather than proof-reading again. As with any document of this size, it is inevitable that some minor errors will remain and a small number have been noted that are not significant enough to require clarification.*

Note to Ms Smith: errors do not need to be “clarified”. They need to be corrected. But then, I suppose that's much less fun than “focussing” and “disseminating” and “planning” and “implementing”.

Anyway, where was I? Ah yes, book placement as a variation on product placement. Here are some suggestions for the programme-makers:

A customer in one of those soap opera pubs, the Rover's Return or the Queen Vic, could be shown reading a copy of Robert Burton's The Anatomy Of Melancholy as they nurse their pint of lager.

Medical dramas like Casualty and Holby City provide endless opportunities for reading scenes, what with all those bedridden patients not doing much. Shove a copy of Selected Works Of Thomas De Quincey in their palsied hands.

At the end of news bulletins, presenters like to shuffle their papers and smile at each other. Instead, they could be shown going back to reading The Confidence Man, His Masquerade by Herman Melville.

Given that most television persons are unaware of books other than The Da Vinci Code or Bravo Two Zero, however, I can see that my scheme is doomed to failure.

*NOTE : Isn't that marvellous? Ms Smith manages to insert a grammatical error into her written answer!

DETOURS : Bobbed Haired BanditThe Duchess Of MalfiArchaic Medical Terms

Thursday 6th April 2006

“There seems to be no good reason why a man's way of sharpening a pencil is any better than a woman's. It is difficult to see just why it is advisable to cover the thumb with powdered graphite, and expose that useful member to possible amputation by a knife directed uncompromisingly toward it, when the pencil might be pointed the other way, the risk of amputation avoided, and the shavings and pulverised graphite left safely to the action of gravitation and centrifugal force. Yet the entire race of men refuse to see the true value of the feminine method, and, indeed, any man would rather sharpen any woman's pencil than see her do it herself.” — Myrtle Reed, The Spinster Book

Don't Say I Didn't Warn You

A few weeks ago, on 20th February, Hooting Yard provided full instructions for Saving Your Swan in the event of a bird flu pandemic. Clearly, the gritty northern folk who live in Cellardyke up in Scotland took absolutely no notice.

I love the way the Daily Mail manages to inject a note of patriotic fervour. We don't care tuppence about all those foreign birds, it implies, but this was a British swan, dammit! I hope they sent a reporter to hand-deliver a message of condolence to our bereaved monarch (see Frequently Asked Question, yesterday).

Wish Upon a Star

When you wish upon a star, you are almost certainly wasting your time. It is surely not sensible to hope that your future can be in any way influenced by a piece of burning rock hurtling around in space, billions of miles away. Considering such behaviour objectively, it would not be unkind to say that you are deluded, if not completely bonkers. In a crueller age, you would probably have been locked up, or worse.

One can imagine, perhaps, some mediaeval person standing in a field, staring up at the night sky, peering at a faraway star, then closing their eyes briefly, the better to concentrate, and mumbling a wish. Suddenly there is the sound of galloping hooves, and a detachment of horsemen from Prince Fulgencio's palace comes to a halt in front of the wishing peasant.

“Hail, peasant of the night,” their leader might say, an evil smile playing about his thin lips, “What are you about?”

The peasant, knowing how dangerous the Prince's henchmen are, dissembles, muttering something about collecting night-potatoes, or some otherwise innocent deed. The captain of the horsemen cackles, and his companions laugh too, as if they are sharing a joke.

“The Prince will be mighty pleased!” says the captain, wiping spittle from his chin with the sleeve of a rich purple tunic made of cloth so expensive that the peasant gasps at the sight of it, “You must come with us and tell the Prince that his realm has been blessed with potatoes in the sky!” There is a menacing pause. “For you were looking up at the firmament, were you not, rather than down in the muck where potatoes are usually found?”

The peasant knows he is in trouble now, and tries to flee, but he is captured, taken back to Prince Fulgencio's castle, and chained up in an oubliette. Though harsh, the Prince's orders to his henchman make sense, as he does not want his temporal power threatened by a peasantry who owe allegiance to stars, planets, other heavenly bodies, or indeed to any system of supernatural hocus pocus that he cannot control.

Such rigour is pooh-poohed in our more enlightened age, but not everywhere. There are still lands where the modern equivalents of Prince Fulgencio will have a stargazer stoned to death, or chop off their head. Over here we have taken a therapeutic route, and nowadays, if you stand in a field at night wishing upon a star, you are likely to be picked up by Social Services and given counselling until you achieve closure. The inference is the same, however, that by relying upon distant twinkling lights in the sky as a guide to your future, you are clearly a loon.

When you wish upon a star, in the modern age, it is best if you use the word star figuratively. It is quite acceptable for you to wish upon such “stars” as Kevin Costner or Mel Gibson, Celine Dion or that Chantelle girl from Big Brother. This is seen as not only acceptable and safe, but is positively encouraged. Indeed, I get the impression that it is becoming compulsory.

And my wish? Bring back Prince Fulgencio and his henchmen, and set them to do their worst at Celebrity Pap! magazine.

DETOURS : God Speaks To Modern ManMusæum ClausumThe Atlas Of Forgotten Nations

Wednesday 5th April 2006

“A man who from youth had become accustomed to drinking exaggerated quantities of tea and had reached a daily consumption of thirty cups suffered from symptoms of anaemia, suffocation, and hallucinations.” — Louis Lewin, Phantastica : A Classic Survey On The Use And Abuse Of Mind-Altering Plants

Frequently Asked Question

As I wend my slightly crumpled way through the world, there is one question I am asked more often than any other. Readers of this website and those who listen to Hooting Yard On The Air, the weekly radio show on ResonanceFM, will buttonhole me at bus stops or as I trudge around Nameless Pond, and say, usually in importunate tones, “Frank, why is it that you are so obsessed with the fact that a few years ago Peter Maxwell Davies found an electrocuted whooper swan, took it home, cooked it and ate it?”

Regular readers will know that I have referred more than once to the swan-eating habits of the contemporary British composer, who is also the Master of the Queen's Music (whatever that might mean). And here I am beetling away at the topic again. Why does it exert such a fascination upon me?

Oh, I could tell some long and involved story about my invented ornithological past, but I am not going to. I will simply say this. Max, as he is known to his chums, was interviewed by the police when they saw a dead swan hanging outside his Orcadian retreat. They were concerned because all swans are the property of the Queen. (I assume this means all British swans, as opposed to every single swan throughout the world, but I am prepared to be corrected on this detail. Commonwealth swans, too, possibly belong to Mrs Saxe-Coburg-Gotha-Windsor. Maybe.) Anyway, I was wondering if a meeting had to be called where the Master of the Queen's Music, still digesting that whooper swan, was hauled before the Keeper of the Queen's Swans to explain just what he thought he was doing, stealing food from the monarch.

It was then I learned that the post of Keeper of the Queen's Swans - the only job I ever really wanted - had been abolished in 1993. Reactionaries complain that the “New” Labour government is destroying traditions and institutions that have defined this country for centuries, but here was a case of flagrant and senseless cultural vandalism from the Conservative administration of John Major. I began to understand the true reasons for that Labour landslide in 1997. It all came down to the Cones Hotline and the abolition of the Keeper of the Queen's Swans!

I admit that I carried myself with an air of smugness, having identified one of the hidden threads of late twentieth century history. But I was in for a shock. In fact, what I learned next meant that my theory crumbled to dust, to ashes and dust. Yes, it was certainly true that there was no longer a Keeper of the Queen's Swans. And no, the position had not been replaced by zonk-eyed bean-counting management consultants under a public-private partnership initiative, whose first decision would have been to give it a trendy new name like Swansignia. What actually happened was that the post was replaced by two brand new offices, the Warden of the Queen's Swans and the Marker of the Queen's Swans. This made me so happy that I burst into tears. Now all I need to do is wait for one of the post-holders to resign or die. Wish me luck.

The above may not have answered that frequently asked question, but I am sure it is a topic we shall return to again. And again.

Basil and Guido and Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich

Here is Rex Tint's magnificent hand-coloured mezzotint of dance duo Basil and Guido accompanying sixties pop demigods Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich in a performance of the ballet Dejected Moorhens. Mr Tint captured the precise moment when the loveable popsters were obliterated in a puff of eldritch fumes from a thurible.

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Sunday 2nd April 2006

“The true house fly is very abundant in localities where little or no horse manure is found, and in such cases it breeds in other manure, such as chicken manure in backyard poultry lots, or in slops or fermenting vegetable material, such as spent hops, moist bran, ensilage, or rotting potatoes.” — L O Howard & F C Bishopp, The House Fly And How To Suppress It

Embittered Sludge Person

Q - Did Dobson ever receive death threats from a vengeful maniac?

A - Yes, he did. When he was living in the village of Mustard Parva he turned his attention to rural matters and wrote a pamphlet - now out of print - entitled My Revolutionary New Method Of Moving Sludge Around The Countryside. A copy fell into the hands of the village sludge person, a peasant whose job it was to push his barrow of sludge along country lanes, from a field to a barn, or from a ditch to a coppice, or from a farmyard to a pond*.

The village sludge person was unable to read, but was so entranced by the picture on the cover that he took the pamphlet to Mistress Spinoza, who taught the village urchins.

“Hail, oh sludge person!” she cried, as he crashed into her schoolroom, holding the pamphlet as if it were a hot pie, “I shall lock the urchins in a dark cupboard so they do not get up to any mischief while I read Dobson's latest pamphlet to you!”

As soon as her forty-seven snivelling, whimpering charges had been safely confined, and heavy iron bolts drawn across the cupboard door, she rattled through the pamphlet as the sludge person listened, at first with curiosity, then with growing rage.

Too many of today's peasants simply do not know how to move sludge, or indeed any other kind of rustic matter, along the lanes of our bosky and idyllic countryside, wrote Dobson, so I have invented a fantastic new technique, wholesome yet valiant, impeccable yet louche, which, if put into effect, will utterly transform the movement of sludge from, say, a barnyard to a trench, or vice versa. Mark my words, he continued, as a red mist descended over the listening sludge person, unless the peasantry follows this incredibly exciting new scheme, our land will fall into desuetude and ruin. Do not say you have not been warned!

Mistress Spinoza handed the pamphlet back to the sludge person and steered him into the kitchenette attached to the schoolroom. She made him drink a draught of Doctor Gillespie's Brain Calming Syrup, and as he tottered away on his spindly legs, she hoped that his anger would subside.

Q - Did his anger so subside under the influence of Doctor Gillespie's excellent syrup?

A - No, it did not, for unbeknown to her, Mistress Spinoza had bought a rogue bottle of the syrup, laced with ingredients which served only to inflame the sludge person's temper. He went directly from the schoolroom to Dobson's cabin, and hammered on the door like a crazed thing.

Dobson was not amenable to unexpected visitors. Like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, he had had his Person from Porlock moments, and he had taken to stuffing his ears with rags while at work. Imagine then, how a hot-tempered peasant bashing on Dobson's door would become increasingly splenetic as the hours passed. He was nothing if not persistent, this sludge person, for he continued to beat his hairy fists on the door for three hours, until exhaustion, agony, bruising, blood, and broken bones made him stop. All the while, a deliberately deafened Dobson was writing another pamphlet, this one on the subject of X-ray vision, dust, and fruit pastilles. The sludge person lay slumped in the doorway for a further hour before crawling back to his shabby hovel, where he sprawled on a mattress riddled with weevils and other tiny scurrying beasts, plotting Dobson's downfall.

Q - May I ask what angered him so?

A - You may. The pamphleteer's revolutionary new method of moving sludge around the countryside threatened him. It threatened his livelihood, but more importantly it threatened his pride. The sludge person had inherited his job from his father, who had inherited it from his father, who had taken the job over from his father, and so on, yea unto generations past. So long as sludge had been moved around the lanes of Mustard Parva and thereabouts, this peasant's family had been in the thick of it. Now along came this pamphleteer with his peanut-shaped hat and his Paraguayan Detective Inspector's jacket, and not only did he have the temerity to live in the cabin where once Old Mother Weltschmerz had read the runes and done weird things with hamsters, but he was putting it about that there were other, better ways to move sludge.

And so, as I said, he plotted Dobson's doom. He began, next morning, by going back to the schoolhouse, just as Mistress Spinoza was letting the urchins out of the grim dark cupboard.

“Top of the morning to you, oh sludge person!” she yelled, “Would you like me to read Dobson's pamphlet to you once again?”

The sludge person explained that, on the contrary, this time he wanted her to write a letter on his behalf.

“Then let me get my ink and nib,” she said, as she corralled the pallid consumptive infants back into their cupboard so she would be able to write undisturbed.

“Dear Pamphleteer,” dictated the sludge person, as Mistress Spinoza inscribed his words in her neatest copperplate, “I know how to move sludge and I am going to put you to death for threatening my livelihood and injuring my pride, exclamation mark.”

He had lain upon his filthy mattress all night, embittered and impassioned, devising the exact wording for his letter, and now that it was written he sat back on the sawdust of the schoolroom floor, smug and content, as if the threatened deed had already been accomplished. Then he noticed that the schoolmistress was peering at him, and the look on her face was one of dismay and contempt.

“This will never do,” she announced, tearing the letter to shreds before the ink was even dry, “I will not be party to threats of violence. You ought to be ashamed of yourself. I have a good mind to lock you in the cupboard with the urchins. In fact, that is exactly what I am going to do.”

Mistress Spinoza was a slight woman, rake-thin and not much taller than the tots she taught, but she had inherited inhuman physical strength from her parents, a pair of circus artistes known professionally as Herculean Strongman Gervase Spinoza And His Equally Herculean Wife Constance. Now, their daughter picked up the peasant by his grubby collar and deposited him in the cupboard. No sooner had she done so than Dobson appeared.

“You are harbouring a peasant who has threatened me with death!” he announced, “And I know this is so because I have been experimenting with a futuristic telepathy device made of rubber, gutta percha, funnels, wiring, batteries, Coddington lenses and complicated electric circuitry. Ha!” — at this point he pointed to the torn up scraps of the letter in Mistress Spinoza's waste paper basket - “Can you deny it is so?”

Without a word, Mistress Spinoza led the fuming pamphleteer to the kitchenette, took the rags out of his ears, and made him a nice cup of tea, which she laced with six droplets of Baxter's Terrible Liquid Nerve Suppressant, “guaranteed” — according to the label - “to render the most tempestuous hot-head comatose for up to a week”. This had been purchased from a reputable supplier, and Dobson soon fell into a swoon.

Later, the resourceful schoolmistress let the peasant out of the cupboard and had him load Dobson onto his wheelbarrow and take him home. Then she sat down at her escritoire and fired off a pamphlet of her own, entitled A Counterblast To The Mad Ideas Propounded By Dobson Regarding The Movement Of Sludge Around Our Lovely Countryside, and sent one of the urchins off with it to the printers.

By the time Dobson woke up six days later, all the talk in the village was of Mistress Spinoza's bonkers but brilliantly-argued philippic. No one was interested anymore in half-baked schemes to revolutionise the movement of sludge around the lanes of Mustard Parva. Dobson turned his attention to other things (jawbones, knitwear, Hedy Lamarr), and as dusk fell on that hot, sun-battered day, the sludge person, no longer embittered, could be seen pushing his wheelbarrow piled high with sludge up Pang Hill towards the orchard, as he and his ancestors had always done, and always would, throughout eternity, like Sisyphus.

*NOTE : This may have been the same peasant who planned to sell Mary Goldchew, the Savage Infant of Splat, to a zoo. See Feral Childhood, 30th March.

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