Hooting Yard Archive, December 2004

Hooting Yard reaches its first birthday and celebrates with tales of wild pigs, vampire bats and days of imbecilic glee, as well as looking at the crucial importance of topiary, the legend of the Grunty Man, the Swiss Family Robinson, and, of course, what happened when Björn and Benny and Anni-Frid and Agnetha were invited to Belshazzar's feast... Gosh!


Thursday 30th December 2004
“Four kinds of wild pigs are found.…”
Me and My Thorn-hog
Belshazzar's Feast
Wednesday 29th December 2004
“I have always been impressed in reading…”
Online Learning With Hooting Yard
How Dobson Spent Boxing Day
Monday 27th December 2004
“For thirty years his mottled nose and…”
At Home With Tanquod Shuddery
Jazz Up Your Stamp Album
Friday 24th December 2004
“The ship was the antithesis of the…”
A Christmas Treat From Mrs Gubbins
Tuesday 21st December 2004
“There are many in Paraguay who cherish…”
Christmas Dinner
I Saw Three Ships
Monday 20th December 2004
“There stood the Finn in the doorway…”
A Flying Ship
Danielle Barton Writes
Petrochemical Shiver-me-timbers Conclave
Thursday 16th December 2004
“Man is formed from a species of…”
The Cardboard Club
The Cardboard Club : Correction
Tuesday 14th December 2004
“Then Old Moneybags savagely rings the bell.…”
The Dark Night of the Soul
Tsar Update
At the Duckpond
Monday 13th December 2004
“It was midnight of the new year,…”
The Mysterious Inscription
Three Blue Days of Imbecilic Glee
Two Important Birthdays
Thursday 9th December 2004
“She opened the cage and the bird…”
The Crucial Importance of Topiary
The Legend of the Grunty Man
Wednesday 8th December 2004
“I do not want people going out…”
Hubs and Tranches
Stairway to Heaven
Tuesday 7th December 2004
“In an instant, the whole mass of…”
One Morning on the Lane That Runs From Pointy Town to Coctlosh
Meldrum Fonseca : Über-trombonist
Sunday 5th December 2004
“It appears that in the nineteenth century…”
Constance, Bereft
Hengist Pod Asks a Question
Old Doddery Martin
Saturday 4th December 2004
“After the heavy rain of a thunderstorm…”
Hinged, Unhinged, or Neither?
Veronica Lake and a Swan
The Swiss Family Robinson
Friday 3rd December 2004
“I do not think we should like…”
Tiny Enid Confronts the Russian Bear
In Loopy Copse
Edna Purviance

Thursday 30th December 2004

“Four kinds of wild pigs are found. The most numerous, or at least the most often seen, as it lies about our enclosures, is the common thorn-hog. It is the largest of the wild pigs, long-bodied and flat-sided, in colour much the hue of the mud in which it wallows.” — Richard Jefferies, After London

Me and My Thorn-hog

I was given a common thorn-hog as a Christmas present. It is a wild pig, long-bodied and flat-sided, in colour much the hue of the mud in which it wallows, that mud being my front garden mud, which is somewhat darker than my back garden mud. The mud along the side of the house is another shade again, but Carnforth - that is the pig's name - seems to prefer the front garden, or at least the mud in the front garden.

I did not name her Carnforth. The benefactor who brought her to me at crack of dawn on Christmas morning told me she had been named before birth, like most thorn-hogs. The common practice, I was informed, is for these wild pigs to be called after iconic railway stations, and Carnforth is, of course, where Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard filmed Brief Encounter.

In addition to telling me my new pig's name, my benefactor gave me a little booklet titled So You've Been Given A Wild Pig?, which is packed with useful information on how to care for it, or I should say, her. Not that Carnforth needs much care. She spends most of her time wallowing in the mud in my front garden, and twice a day I unlock the gate to let her out so she can go rampaging about the hills, grunting furiously and waylaying anything edible. She is, after all, a wild pig.

As she is fond of thorns, I took Carnforth to the garden centre when it opened for its Boxing Day sale, and we had a lovely time looking at the rosebushes. I think I can tell from her prolonged and noisy grunts that she would like to go back there when they have restocked.

I have not yet allowed my thorn-hog into the house, as I am in the middle of redecorating. Sometimes in the middle of the night I can hear her thumping violently against the door trying to get in, but I want to finish her indoor sty first. Transforming the entire downstairs is going to be quite a job, but it will be such a nice surprise for her. The price of straw is high at the moment, so I may have to wait for the market to settle. Meanwhile, I am keeping an eagle eye on both hay and straw futures, and counting up all the loose change in my jars.

I would write a thank you letter to my benefactor for such a delightful gift, but he did not leave a forwarding address. Indeed, after delivering the wild pig, he scampered away at high speed, shouting “Merry Christmas!” as if in the throes of a hysterical fit. And do you know something? I had never set eyes on him before.

Belshazzar's Feast

“Will you come with me to Belshazzar's feast?” asked Agnetha.

“I didn't know you'd been invited. I'll have to ask Björn,” said Benny.

Benny strode off into the mountains to find Björn. Agnetha stayed at the hotel, sipping her alcohol-free absinthe. Wild winds were howling and storm clouds gathered.

Benny found Björn sheltering in a declivity. He was burning charcoal.

“Agnetha wants me to go with her to Belshazzar's feast,” said Benny, after tipping his hat to Björn in greeting, “What do you think?”

“The gods may throw a dice,” said Björn, “Their minds as cold as ice.” He stared off into the mist-enshrouded distance, towards the fireworks factory and the abandoned tennis courts.

“I shall reflect on what you have said and come to a decision, then,” said Benny, “Thank you.”

On the way back to the hotel, Benny was accosted on the mountain path by Anni-Frid. She was dressed like a gaucho and looked as if she had been weeping.

“Anni-Frid, whatever is the matter?” asked Benny.

Anni-Frid dabbed at her tears with a paper napkin from the hotel. Her upper lip curled in a sneer. Discomfited by her silence, Benny began to gabble.

“Agnetha asked me to accompany her to Belshazzar's feast,” he said, “And I asked Björn for his advice. He is up there in a declivity burning charcoal.”

“Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin,” said Anni-Frid, and she pranced away into the mist.

Wednesday 29th December 2004

“I have always been impressed in reading the books of John Ruskin to note how many times he speaks about the hands… his words are always full of meaning, and I would have you, from the first days, know something of him and elect him to your friendship. Many times he will speak to you in short, rude words, impatiently too, but never mind that, his heart is warm and full of good.” — Thomas Tapper, Music Talks With Children

Online Learning With Hooting Yard

Here is the first tranche of a new series in which we will attempt to provide a thorough and valuable learning experience for all our readers. Perhaps you failed to pay attention when you were at your community hub? [Note: you may recall it being called a “school”. That was then…] Online Learning With Hooting Yard can help you catch up with all the vital information that passed you by.

Each lesson - specially devised by a team headed by Fatima Gilliblat - consists of two questions, to which model answers are given. They have been carefully researched and are guaranteed correct. No longer need you be stuck for an answer when accosted in the street, or buttonholed at a fashionable cocktail party in a rotating restaurant at the top of a high building. Memorise the answers, or, if your memory is a sorry and puny thing, write them down on the cuff of your shirt or blouse on the same side as you wear your wristwatch. You will soon be sparkling in company, and everyone will be envious of your cleverness.

Lesson One

Q - Are crocodiles frightened of otters?

A - Yes they are. If crocodiles roam into a stretch of river where otters are prevalent, they will hasten away, for crocodiles fear otters.

Q - How did a priest in Bolivia early in the last century supplement his income?

A - He divided his graveyard into three sections - Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell - and charged for burials accordingly.

How Dobson Spent Boxing Day

Throughout his life, Dobson ignored Christmas, but he loved to celebrate Boxing Day. Every year, he made a point of marking the occasion differently. Here is his journal entry for one year during the 1950s.

Ah, Boxing Day at last! What a glorious day it is. This year there is snow on the ground, robin redbreasts hopping about, and Dickensian scenes of wassail and carousing over by the old thatched tavern. That being the case, I have nailed fast the shutters and am sitting in the gloom. I wired up a microphone next to the indoor wasps' nest, so hectic buzzing drowns out the intolerable sound of carol-singing and suchlike torments.

I breakfasted upon a platter of boiled leeks and steamed viper-heads. I will spend much of the day in the kitchen, boiling more leeks and steaming more viper-heads for my supper. I had a new telephone installed last week, and I intend to take a break from boiling and steaming to call the police. I am going to read out my new pamphlet to the desk sergeant, or whoever answers the telephone, for it concerns police matters, specifically the legal position regarding the theft of leeks from the greengrocers' and of vipers from the zoo. In the pamphlet, which I wrote in pig Latin, just to show off, I make a full confession to having used thievery to obtain my Boxing Day foodstuffs, and justify doing so with reference to certain historical and/or mythological figures, including Hildegard von Bingen, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, and the Warrior King Anaxagrotax. I also make mention of the prince-electors of the Holy Roman Empire as a way of throwing the coppers off the scent, should they determine to prosecute me.

Some of the prince-electors of the Holy Roman Empire, gesticulating

At sixty pages, it may take some time to read the complete text to the police officer, so I will attach an extension cord to the telephone and drag it into the bathroom, and make my call while nestling in a tub of hot milk of magnesia. Over the past year I have bought a couple of those little blue-glass bottles every week, and should have enough to fill the bath. I will heat the milk of magnesia using Professor Tadaaki's Submerged Iron Filament contraption, the label on which claims it can boil a few gallons of any known liquid within thirty seconds. Of course, I do not need to boil my bath, far from it. Tadaaki does not provide a thermometer, but I have one somewhere, in a cupboard, and as soon as I have completed this journal entry I shall go in search of it.

After the telephone call, the bath, and my supper, I will put the thermometer back in the cupboard and set a roaring fire in the grate. As I have no coal, nor wood, I will burn the beheaded vipers, for there are many of them and I suspect they will ignite well. I dried them thoroughly by putting them in the airing-cupboard under a pile of blankets. The blankets, incidentally, were not stolen. I wove them myself, when I was a child, and capable of weaving at the loom for hours upon end, humming old Latvian folk tunes to myself. In those long ago days I could never remember the words to the songs, except for one, and that only partially. In papa's translation, it went like this: “There is a shepherd in the hills / There is a [something] green / But black is the crow in the [something] tree / And forked lightning blasts the sky / The shepherd's lass has golden hair / She [something something] milk / But the crow has flown away, my love / And the ducks have left the lake”.

It's time I made that telephone call.

Monday 27th December 2004

“For thirty years his mottled nose and the rubicundity of his cheeks were the ineffaceable ensigns of his intemperance. Yet there was a grimy humour in his forbidding aspect. The fusty black coat, which sat ill upon his shambling frame, was all besmirched with spilled snuff, and the lees of a thousand quart pots. The bands of his profession were ever awry upon a tattered shirt. His ancient wig scattered dust and powder as he went, while a single buckle of some tawdry metal gave a look of oddity to his clumsy, slipshod feet.” — Charles Whibley, A Book Of Scoundrels


Having your blood sucked by a vampire bat can be an alarming experience, and not at all like being bled by leeches. In the latter case, you are likely to be attended by a kindly apothecary or physician, who will apply the leeches and make reassuring noises. Alternatively, you may be trudging through a swamp, and leeches will fasten upon your legs and begin to drain your blood, but in such cases you are unlikely to notice them, as you will be half-submerged in the swamp, therefore in your ignorance of the leeches you will not be frightened. A vampire bat is likely to attack you without warning, however, and so you will be alarmed.

Many folk make the mistake of lumping in pipistrelle, Egyptian fruit, red, long-nosed, little brown, pallid, western mastiff, serotine, pocketed free-tailed, woolly false vampire, hoary, Indiana, northern, ghost-faced, greater horseshoe, Brandt, Honduran white, Natterer's, lappet-browed, noctule, Ipanema, tent-making, big brown, evening, yellow, spotted, Nathusius pipistrelle and other bats with vampire bats, and thus being fearful of them all. But only the vampire bat will plunge its fangs in to the soft white flesh of your neck and begin to drain you of your vital gore. If you are awake, and especially if you are active, for example playing lawn tennis, orienteering, or doing outdoor carpentry, you will be able to fight off the vampire bat. Remember that you are bigger and stronger than it is, and be not afraid.

On the other hand, if you are fast asleep, and unprotected by an anti-bat curtain of heavy purple brocade, the vampire bat may suck your blood uninterrupted, until its thirst is sated. If you are the bat's first victim for a while, it may drink all of your blood, and you will not wake up, because you will be lifeless. Do not believe those foolish stories about waking after a visit from a vampire bat and tentatively feeling punctures in your neck and thenceforth being a kind of undead human version with a bloodlust of your own. That will only happen if you live in Transylvania and bear a resemblance to Bela Lugosi or Lon Chaney. Note that Lon Chaney is not to be confused with Lyn Cheney, wife of the current US vice-president.

Left to right : Lon, Lyn, Dick, a bat

At Home With Tanquod Shuddery

I went to the shops and bought some custard. I went to the shops and bought some custard and a brooch. I went to the shops and bought some custard and a brooch and a flap. I went to the shops and bought some custard and a brooch and a flap and the Pin of Pang. I went to the shops and bought some custard and a brooch and a flap and the Pin of Pang and a copy of Hudibras. I went to the shops and bought some custard and a brooch and a flap and the Pin of Pang and a copy of Hudibras and a jam tart. I went to the shops and bought some custard and a brooch and a flap and the Pin of Pang and a copy of Hudibras and a jam tart and four and twenty blackbirds. I went to the shops and bought some custard and a brooch and a flap and the Pin of Pang and a copy of Hudibras and a jam tart and four and twenty blackbirds and grease in a big round tin. I went to the shops and bought some custard and a brooch and a flap and the Pin of Pang and a copy of Hudibras and a jam tart and four and twenty blackbirds and grease in a big round tin and then I went home and took each item out of its paper bag, and put the paper bags on the fire, and smoke billowed up the chimney, and I saw that it was good, and I declared that it was good, in a loud voice, so loud that my neighbours came a-running, they tumbled into my room in their stockinged feet, and I stood there like a Jack o'Lantern, with my custard and brooch and flap and the Pin of Pang and a copy of Hudibras and my jam tart and four and twenty blackbirds and grease in a big round tin, and I said to my neighbours “Behold what I have bought at the shops, ye neighbourly folk, behold and wonder,” and they did, and I made a pot of tea and handed around cups, and I filled their cups from the pot, and my shopping I distributed to my neighbours as gifts, and their hearts grew warm, and that is what happened when I had what is called an “At Home”, in my simple cottage on the outskirts of the farm, where cows graze and hens cluck, and the farmer has gone to seed.

Jazz Up Your Stamp Album

Here is simple way to jazz up your stamp album. Print out the picture below, snip around the edges, affix a stamp hinge to the reverse side, and stick it into your stamp album. Voila! You have a jazzed-up stamp album of which you can be proud, all thanks to Hooting Yard.

Friday 24th December 2004

“The ship was the antithesis of the floating palace we had left… White-collar workers, adventurers, toughs, would-be toughs, and leather-faced old scoundrels crowded every foot of available space, and when walking up and down the deck we had to dodge foul squirts of tobacco-juice. Their chief occupations were drinking and playing ruinous crap games, and the noise that went on all the time made my study of Spanish grammar a difficult matter.” — Lt Col P H Fawcett, Exploration Fawcett

A Christmas Treat From Mrs Gubbins

Many readers may be unaware that there are other sites on the web, apart from Hooting Yard, which are worth a visit. We asked Mrs Gubbins to recommend just a few of her favourites as a little Christmas treat. So off you go a-roaming - but don't forget to come back!

Mrs Gubbins directs your attention to:


Lorem Ipsum

Archaic Medical Terms

The Owl Pages

Portolan Charts

Tuesday 21st December 2004

“There are many in Paraguay who cherish dreams of discovering Jesuit mines. Humanity loves to deceive itself, although there are plenty ready to deceive it; and if men can both forge for themselves fables and at the same time damage their neighbours in so doing, their pleasure is intense” — R B Cunninghame-Graham, A Vanished Arcadia: Being Some Account Of The Jesuits In Paraguay 1607 To 1767

Christmas Dinner

Here is a recipe for your Christmas dinner, if you are planning on having one. It is taken from Dobson's pamphlet Some Things To Eat In The Bleak Midwinter.

Boiled Cormorant A La Dobson (for Malachy O'Neill)

This is a splendid and satisfying dish, easy to prepare, highly nutritious, and the enemy of indigestion. First, ensure your kitchen is free of verminous creeping things with hundreds of legs, suckers and antennae. Root them out and exterminate them. Gather the tiny corpses, place them in a paper bag, seal the bag with glue, carry it out of the house, and set fire to it. Do not go back indoors until every last speck has been consumed by the terrible flames. Now, back in the kitchen, take off your windcheater and your big black boots and wash your hands with carbolic soap. Cover your hairstyle, if you have one, with a clean rag fixed in place by an elastic band. You are ready to begin.

Take a freshly-slaughtered cormorant and place it on your work-surface. Vegetarians can substitute the bird with a pretend cormorant modelled in marzipan. I will not remind you of this point again. Pluck all the feathers off and put them in a grinder. Grind them to fine powder, and, using a funnel, pour the powder into a spare cruet. If there is a ring around the cormorant's neck, as there will be if it has been exploited by fisherfolk, carefully remove the ring and throw it away, unless it is old and decorative, in which case you may wish to pop it in an envelope and send it to Antiques Roadshow veteran Hugh Scully. But do that later, on Boxing Day.

Step two. Boil the cormorant.

While the bird is simmering away, prepare the sauce. Chop up into tiny bits four pomegranates, a plum, lots and lots of potatoes, sixteen bananas, another cormorant, some toffee apples and a choc ice. Place the tiny bits in a bowl and stir thoroughly, then get the funnel again and pour the contents of the bowl into the grinder. Adjust the setting to “moderately violent grinding” and switch it on for no more than ten seconds. Transfer back into the bowl. Add water up to the brim and stir. Do not on any account use tap water. You will ruin the recipe and end up with a bowl of inedible sludge unless you use the fantastically pure spring water drawn from the Mysterious Old Well at Pointy Town.

Drain any remaining water from the pan with the boiled cormorant in it, and tip the contents of the bowl in, making sure you do so in one swift movement. Ideally, it should sound like this - gloop gloop gloop…gloop. Now put the bowl down somewhere, bring the pan back to the boil and allow to simmer while you fry the cocktail sausages. They should be almost, but not quite, black.

You are nearly done. Take a large oval platter and make a bed of shredded lettuce, chives, spring onions, porridge oats, cream crackers and mayonnaise. Have another look around the kitchen to make sure no creepy-crawlies have appeared from any unhatched eggs you may have overlooked earlier.

Turn off the heat, and transfer the boiled cormorant and sauce on to the platter. Use a clean dishcloth to wipe around the edges in case any of the sauce is dribbling over the side. Take a Swiss Army knife out of your pocket, extract the sharpest blade, and, just in case the last time you used it was to dislodge a pebble from the sole of your boot, plunge it into boiling water to sterilise it. Very carefully slice the blade across the cormorant, as deep as you can, and put the knife down. Insert the cocktail sausages into the bird, then sew up the slit with edible butcher's string.

Try to remember where you left the spare cruet, and sprinkle the powdered cormorant feathers evenly over the dish. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve.

I Saw Three Ships

I saw three ships come sailing in, but what did I care about ships? I wasn't hanging around in the dockyards because I wanted to look at ships. I am an entomologist, and I was here to trap boll weevils. I watched them scuttling out of sacks of flour being unloaded from one of the three ships, so I pounced on them with my nylon boll weevil net, and ferried them back to my lab.

I cackled as I assembled my equipment. How they glistened, my pincers and knives and scalpels and clamps and suction tubes and Petri dishes! Pulling on my lab coat, the white starched cotton splattered here and there with the blood of insects, I scampered like an excited puppy over to the Dansette and put on my favourite Ronnie Milsap LP. I like to listen to country music as I dissect boll weevils.

I was just sharpening one of my scalpels when the door of the lab burst open. Cursing that I had forgotten to lock it, I span round to find myself confronted by a trio of heavily-armed thugs. They were, to a man, huge, very frightening, and togged out in futuristic Robocop-like uniforms. Their helmets had been burnished to a gleam that I could only envy.

“Drop the scalpel, pigdog!” shouted one of them, loud enough to be heard over Ronnie Milsap. I froze, but managed to let the blade fall from my hand. It clattered on the linoleum. I do not approve of carpets or rugs in an insect laboratory.

A second thug snatched up from my work-bench the canvas bag in which I had put the boll weevils. He lifted the visor from his helmet and looked at me with snarling contempt. When he spoke, I was disconcerted by the fluting gentility of his tone.

“Never, ever, trap boll weevils as they scuttle out of our flour sacks on the dockside when three ships come sailing in,” he said.

Crushed and piteous, I began to mumble something, but he waved a gauntleted hand at me, and interrupted.

“If we ever catch you abducting our boll weevils again, we will do something unimaginably horrible to you,” he said, “So be warned.”

And with that, the three thugs swept out of the lab, slamming the door behind them. I took a napkin from my pocket and mopped my brow. I was shaking. Ronnie Milsap was singing. It was on the very same day that David Blunkett resigned as the Home Secretary.

Three boll weevils, David Blunkett, and a fourth boll weevil *

* NOTE : Yes, these are all the same boll weevil. The illustration is for demonstration purposes only.

Monday 20th December 2004

“There stood the Finn in the doorway talking to his reindeer, although they were far away in the mountains. He barred the wolf's way, and threatened the bear with spells; and then he opened his skin sack, so that the storm howled and piped, and there was a swirl of ashes into the hut. And when all grew quiet again, the air was thick with yellow bumble-bees, which settled inside his furs, whilst he gabbled and mumbled and wagged his skull-like head.” — Jonas Lie, Weird Tales From Northern Seas

A Flying Ship

Here is a fine thing from Chambers' Book Of Days. about which I enthused the other day. Visit the site, go to today's date, and you will find much more text to pore over.

A. Represents the Sails wherewith the Air is to be divided, which turn as they are directed. B. The Stern to govern the Ship, that She may not run at random. C. The Body of the Ship which is formed at both ends Scollopwise; in the concavity of Each is a pair of Bellows, which must be blown when there is no Wind. D. Two Wings which keep the Ship upright. E. The Globes of Heaven and Earth containing in them Attractive Virtues. They are of Metal, and serve for a Cover to two Loadstones, placed in tham upon the Pedestals, to draw the Ship after them, the Body of which is of Thin Iron Plates, covered with Straw Mats, for conveniency of ten or eleven men besides the Artist. F. A cover made of Iron Wire in form of a Net, on which are Fastened a good number of Large Amber Beads, which by a Secret Operation will help to keep the Ship Aloft. And by the Sun's heat the aforesaid Mats that line the Ship will be drawn towards the Amber Beads. G. The Artist who by the help of the Celestial Globe, a Sea Map, and Compass, takes the Height of the Sun, thereby to find out the spot of Land over which they are on the Globe of the Earth. H. The Compass to direct them in their Way. I. The Pulleys and Ropes that serve to hoist or Furl the Sails.

Danielle Barton Writes

I received a thrilling email from Danielle Barton, who says, among other things: Hello, I visited your siteand feel that your site would be perfect for inclusion in our free yard directory. I was very touched that Ms Barton had presumably spent her weekend reading the Hooting Yard pages in order to arrive at her view that the site is “perfect for inclusion” in her listing. It is quite an honour to get such a vote of confidence from someone who specialises in yards. I am going to write back to her to express my profound gratitude, and I may slip in a question that has been preoccupying me since I read her delightful letter. “Are you by any chance,” I will ask, “related to Special Agent Dick Barton from the long-ago radio serial?”

As I sit here basking in the glow of being included in a free yard directory, I cannot help but feel a slight pang of disappointment that to date no hooting specialist has written to invite me to be in a free hooting directory. Perhaps that wondrous day will come before such time as I become a doddery, spavined and toothless wretch. Possibly by next Friday, then.

Petrochemical Shiver-me-timbers Conclave

Rookie pirates aboard container ships need to watch their backs. As a seaside doctor, I cannot count the number of cases I've had of youngsters fresh from their first sea voyage coming to me with cutlass wounds or, worse, lead pellets from a blunderbuss embedded in their crania, dangerously close to the brain.

One such lad was Rufus Farjeon, who ran away to sea when he was just seven. He ran from his parents' gingerbread cottage all the way to the beach, panting, panting, and he swam out to a container ship moored on the horizon and clambered aboard, and in his tiny squeak of a voice he said to the captain “Rufus Farjeon, aged nine, reporting for duty, cap'n!”

Captain Cack was not taken in by the boy's lying about his age, but he placed an avuncular hand on Farjeon's shoulder and quizzed him on his knowledge of obscure marine imponderabilities. The captain's right hand was the avuncular one. His left hand was withered.

Over the next few weeks, young Farjeon scrubbed the decks, sloshed out nautical buckets, polished the railings to a gleam, and learned all there was to know about bells at sea. He also sat at Captain Cack's breakfast table, reading aloud to the old sea dog from Yoko Ono's book Grapefruit, while the captain ate plentiful toast, hard tack biscuits and, by coincidence, halves of grapefruit.

Then, one Thursday some weeks into the voyage, the blond and brilliantined bo'sun took the boy aside as he trundled a clattering barrel through a narrow passage between containers.

“A word of warning,” muttered the bo'sun, in tones of menace, “At eight bells the captain is holding a petrochemical shiver-me-timbers conclave in his cabin. There may be trouble. Watch your back.”

But Rufus Farjeon, who had celebrated his eighth birthday a week ago, was by now puffed up, preening and reckless, and he ignored the bo'sun's words. Reeking of grog and blinded by the pitiless tropical sun, he behaved at the conclave in a foolhardy manner, so angering a bloodthirsty corsair that he was taken to the poop deck and shot in the head.

And thus he turned up in my seaside surgery a few days later. I bandaged his wounds and prescribed a course of Doctor Wainwright's Brain Pills. I well knew that just one pill was enough to stun an ostrich, and I had the lad on twenty of them a day, for his metabolism was inhuman. I needed to find out if he was a changeling. He was. And now he sits like a little potentate on a throne on the jetty, facing out to sea, his bandages discarded and his eyes aglow, and mermaids come to gawp at him, and minnows swim in ribbons at his feet, for he is Triton now, and will always be, throned, festooned with seaweed, and staring out to sea.

Thursday 16th December 2004

“Man is formed from a species of mussel. If made of the hard mussel he lives long - it is difficult for him to die. But if he happens to be made of the poisonous mussel, he is fragile, easily upset, and does not live long. The soul of man is called his anganga, or that which goes or comes. It is said to be the daughter of Taufanuu, or vapour of lands, which forms clouds, and as the dark cloudy covering of night comes on, man feels sleepy, because his soul wishes to go and visit its mother.” — George Turner, Samoa, A Hundred Years Ago And Long Before

The Cardboard Club

The Cardboard Club was an odd little society which met in the vicinity of Bodger's Spinney during the last century. Some say that it still does so, although the evidence for this is slight. Throughout its existence it was difficult to pin it down, to attest with any certainty who its members were and what they did, so those who claim its continuance into the new millennium may indeed be correct. I have just noticed a hornets' nest in my rafters.

We do know that the members of the Cardboard Club were fond of regalia. Several crates and trunks packed with badges, emblems, tassels, embroidery, pennants, flags and suchlike were discovered during excavation works on the Blister Lane Bypass a couple of years ago. Catalogued with care by that prematurely white-haired, mute and pallid man at the museum, the collection provides some clues as to the activities of the Cardboard Club.

For example, it seems reasonably clear that the chief purpose of the club was to collect samples of cardboard. Collect, note, not disperse. What is not yet understood is why this was blanketed in secrecy. After all, cardboard is no longer illegal in my country, nor are there any punitive taxes levied upon the possession of it. The mystery deepens when we consider that no cardboard whatsoever was found with the crates of regalia. One can only assume that the club's cardboard collection was squirrelled away.

The most intriguing item to be found was a toy plasticine model of Beaky, from the sixties beat group Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich. A safety pin attached to his plasticine spinal column suggests that it was worn as a signal of honour, perhaps by the Plenipotentiary Grand Vizier of the Cardboard Club. Alternatively, it may have found its way into the crate by accident, and have nothing to do with the club at all. This line of inquiry is well worth pursuing, but not now, because the frantic buzzing of those hornets is driving me crackers, and I am going to have to climb up on the roof and pick them off, one by one, with my deadly anti-hornet pellet rifle.

The Cardboard Club : Correction

I appear to have misunderstood the heading of the previous item, which means that what I wrote above is complete nonsense. The club of the title is not a society or association. It is, rather, a bludgeon. “The cardboard club” refers to a weapon made of cardboard which was used as a theatrical prop during the Bodger's Spinney Variety Theatre's production of Istvan Scrimgeour's Pinteresque drama A Few People Sitting Around In The Dark Hating Each Other. The cardboard club appears in the following scene in Act XVIII:

The Iris Murdoch Character : Shall we go on a picnic?

The V S Naipaul Character : (after a pause) Say that again and I'll bash out your brains with a cardboard club.

The Iris Murdoch Character : I expect you will, but what's your motivation?

The V S Naipaul Character : (after a longer pause) Put a sock in it.

The Iris Murdoch Character : Dust and ashes. Ashes and dust.

The V S Naipaul Character bashes the Iris Murdoch Character over the head with the cardboard club, repeatedly. She falls to the ground.

The V S Naipaul Character : Don't say I didn't warn you. I'm going to go and write one of my well-regarded novels.


Tuesday 14th December 2004

“Then Old Moneybags savagely rings the bell. Enters the butler, obsequious and solicitous. ‘The coffee is bad, the toast is vile, everything is wrong. You are a deleted deleted deleted deleted rascal.’ Exit the butler, outwardly humble, inwardly a raging flood of anger, and he meets the maid, who archly invites his attentions. She gets them, only they are in the form of an angry shove and an oath. White with indignation, she stamps her foot and runs into the kitchen, bursting into tears. The cook, solicitous, receives a slap in the face, and as the maid bounces out, the cook, seeking a victim, grabs away the gingerbread from the butcher's boy. And that still hungry juvenile slams the door as he leaves and kicks the slumbering cat off the back doorstep. Unfortunately the film did not show what the outraged cat did.” — Abraham Myerson, The Nervous Housewife

The Dark Night of the Soul

Today is not only the Hooting Yard website's first birthday, it is also the feast day of St John of the Cross, author of that classic work The Dark Night Of The Soul. I recommend a thorough reading of the text, if only to remind oneself that this is the original, and is not to be confused with Park No Lip's Korean underworld pulp potboiler The Dark Night Of Seoul, which is in itself a classic, but in a different way.

St John of the Cross

Alas, in his dotage, Dobson did get the books mixed up, which is why his pamphlet A Full And Frank Commentary On “The Dark Night Of The Soul”, Wherein Certain Controversial Theories Are Proposed Which Have Led The Author Into Fist-Fights With Sailors Outside Tough Drinking Taverns In The Marseilles Dockyards (out-of-print) is such a scrappy piece of work. Reading it, one can only rue the day that Dobson accepted medical advice from a charlatan, and began to take regular infusions of a so-called “patent embrocation for the cranium” which made his last days such a trial.

Aloysius Nestingbird commented “If I ever get my hands on that quack I will strangle him with string and fling his lifeless corpse off the end of one of the jetties to which I have the right of access after a series of lengthy court cases which you don't want to hear about, believe you me”. Nestingbird said this to me - spitting vitriol - while we rummaged around in a battered old bureau somewhere deep in the Dobson Archives, trying to find evidence that the pamphleteer had ever actually visited the notorious French port. That he once spent an afternoon in Le Havre, accompanied by a chuckling maniac, we well knew. But Marseilles? Could it be that the title of Dobson's late pamphlet was a piece of fantastic embroidery? If so, his entire career would take on a new complexion, and an unwelcome one.

Before Nestingbird and myself were able to complete our search of the bureau, a hot and unexpected lamentable thing happened, and we had to abandon the building. As we blundered our way towards the perimeter fence, a messenger ran towards us bearing news of a new Yoko Ono installation. There was only one thing to do.

Bafflingly, the bureau has since disappeared, and with it any chance of completing the magazine article Was Dobson In Marseilles? - A Discursive Analysis, for which Nestingbird and I had been promised a few pounds, or if not that much at least enough for a potato each. But penury, it seems, is destined to dog my footsteps.

The Seamen's Mission in the port of Marseilles : was Dobson ever here?

Tsar Update

Regular readers will recall that some months ago we appointed a Hooting Yard Tsar, the reason being that it seemed a fashionable thing to do. The government has transport tsars and drugs tsars and smoking tsars and so on, so why should we be left out? The Hooting Yard Tsar is an antipodean named Bruce Gilbert, and our equally antipodean Tsar-watcher, Glyn Webster, has just filed this report:

The Hooting Yard Tsar has been issuing directives daily, usually by phone. His directives are majestically profound, poetic and logical. I'm not always sure who they are directed towards, but if they were to be followed they would place Western Civilisation on a new, deeper foundation and lead the world towards an end currently inconceivable to any other being now living - some great change in human history as profound as the invention of the city or the written word. Sometimes I find these directives so tearfully inspiring that I wish I could remember to leave a pencil by the phone to write one or two down.

On an unrelated note, here is my entry for the November Audubon Bird Of The Month competition, which nobody ever notices because it's at the bottom of the page and people tend not to scroll down that far unless they are indefatigable, like me. I know what that bird is, it's a Southern Kokako. I'd know the Southern Kokako's haunting, cathedral bell-like cry anywhere - although I have to admit to not knowing what it looks like.

Glyn wins a prize in the form of a vague fugitive cloud of roseate vapour or aura. Well done! December's contest can be found at the foot of the page.

At the Duckpond

Imagine that you are standing beside a duckpond. Perhaps you are holding a plastic bag filled with the torn-up remains of a loaf of bread with which you intend to feed the ducks. You have been known to do such a thing, on a Sunday morning perhaps, come rain or shine. Now, what I want you to consider is as follows. Do you think there are any circumstances, whether on a Sunday morning or at any other time, when you might look at the famished expectant ducks paddling towards you, and single out one particular duck, and say to yourself, “Hmm, that duck looks lugubrious”?

Can a duck take on a lugubrious air? This is no idle question. For whether the answer is Yea or Nay, further and more cogent questions present themselves, tumbling over each other in their urgency to be answered. “If so, how?” or “If not, why not?” are clearly the next in line, but it does not stop there. To arrive at honest answers to all the succeeding questions will take all your wit and insight, and a knowledge not only of ducks and other waterfowl but of biology and psychology and the engines of perception and optics and so on, ad infinitum. You see, as each question begets another, by the time you have finished answering them - not that you will ever really finish answering them, more that you will faint from exhaustion - you will know everything there is to know about everything in the universe.

That being so, the lugubrious duck has earned its crusts of bread a thousandfold. So feed it now, before you swoon.

Monday 13th December 2004

“It was midnight of the new year, and an aged man stood thoughtfully at the window. He gazed with a long, despairing look, upon the fixed, eternal, and glorious heaven, and down upon the silent, still, and snow-white earth, whereon was none so joyless, so sleepless as he. For his grave stood open near him; it was covered only with the snows of age, not decked with the green of youth; and he brought with him, from a long and rich life, nothing save errors, crimes, and sickness - a wasted body, a desolate soul, a breast filled with poison, and an old age heavy with repentance and sorrow.” — John Mather Austin, Golden Steps To Respectability, Usefulness And Happiness

The Mysterious Inscription

What on earth does the mysterious inscription mean? Why are the antiquaries puzzled? Unlike in this Age of Wretchedness, where nobody learns Latin anymore, it cannot be that the language perplexed them. All those abbreviations, perhaps? I shall reveal the answer tomorrow.

This is reprinted as a way of drawing your attention to the University of Wisconsin-Madison's superb online edition* of Chambers' Book Of Days (1869), where the picture - and the solution - appear under today's date. A brand new edition of the Book Of Days has just been published, apparently, but in place of Chambers' original heteroclite jumble of learning, anecdote and dusty scholarship, the reader is treated to anniversaries of television shows and such important dates as, I suspect, Kylie's birthday. Excuse me while I wail, gnash my teeth and rend my garments.

*NOTE : The Greater Emmitsburg Historical Society of Maryland has a Hyperlinked & Searchable edition of the 1869 book online.

Three Blue Days of Imbecilic Glee

The first blue day of imbecilic glee was a Tuesday towards the end of March. In truth, the day was not blue, for there was frightful storminess, a blizzard of hailstones, and much tempest and wrack. Nevertheless, when looking back, I remember other things. I remember how we laughed even though our picnic plans were dashed. I remember how we pretended the cow in the field was a Magus, bewitching us. I remember how we ran back to the house and spent the afternoon playing a game of Ayn Rand! Every time you shouted a sentence from The Fountainhead and I countered with one from Atlas Shrugged, the uproar was such that Mr Loog Oldham next door took off his big black boot and hammered on the wall. I remember the embers at the end of that first blue day.

The second blue day of imbecilic glee was that day we took our bicycles on the train to the fishing village at the end of the world and painted watercolours of the post office and bought stamps and drank Tizer and we were followed around the village by a one-eyed dog with terrible fangs and you wanted to take it home and all afternoon the shrill singing of the orphanage choir filled our ears and I found a tiny toy plastic pig in a thicket of stinging nettles and we cycled all the way home along that dangerous road as huge container lorries thundered past us in both directions.

The third blue day of imbecilic glee is today.

Two Important Birthdays

In spite of that little grumble in today's first item, never let Hooting Yard be accused of being out of touch with popular culture. It's just that we're discriminating in what we pay attention to. Today, for example, we celebrate the double birthday of not just one of the finest male voice icons in twentieth century cinema, but two.

Christopher Plummer is 77 today, and decades have passed since his bizarre, strangulated, bird-like squawkings as Atahualpa in The Royal Hunt Of The Sun. I have spent hours upon hours trawling the internet to find out if a Plummermaniac has posted sound samples from the film, but to no avail. Happy birthday, Atahualpa.

Born on the same day two years before Plummer was Dick Van Dyke, the man who invented cockney, or possibly mockney, or whatever that accent was that he used to such powerful effect in Mary Poppins. Chim chim cheroo indeed. One little-known fact about Dick, possibly because it is entirely spurious, is that he signed a multibillion dollar deal to allow his initials to be used by the manufacturers of DVD technology. At one point, the now-ubiquitous discs were going to be called EVDs, because Chariots Of The Gods? author and wag Erich Von Daniken was asking for less money for his initials. The full story is told in Chimney Sweep Versus Spaceman : A Gripping Thriller Of The Business World, available from all good airports.

Thursday 9th December 2004

“She opened the cage and the bird darted into the free air which was the only environment it understood. As it circled the room, its wings brushed the far wall. It shivered an instant, hung suspended as if supported by some unseen hand, and died as it fell to the floor. Neither the bird nor Tarmo had knowledge of the concealed, highly charged panels which recorded, both fluoroscopically and photographically, the images of all those who entered World Center. The image of the bird had appeared on the fluorescent screen. The photographic circuit had been made. And the technicians would curse a burned out circuit.” — Anna Hunger & R DeWitt Miller, The Man Who Lived Forever (clearly the bird did not)

The Crucial Importance of Topiary

Hooting Yard's roving reporter Velma Nebraska writes to inform me that early in the twentieth century, there was a topiarist active in England named, delightfully, William Cutbush. He is mentioned in the splendid Topiary In The United Kingdom site created by Anthony Blagg, who - quote - “lives in Worcestershire with his wife, shears and family of ever growing topiary”.

Incidentally, a Google search for “famous topiarists” yielded a startling result - absolutely nil. What is the world coming to?

Some topiary - although not the splendid Mr Blagg's work, as far as I know

The Legend of the Grunty Man

Now children, settle down your sleepy heads, and remember you must be good, because you know what happens to naughty children, don't you?

What happens, ma?

Why, the Grunty Man comes to get them, of course!


He comes bounding down from the dark terrible hills to snatch bad boys and girls away!

But how does the Grunty Man get in, ma?

He makes his grunty noise, three times, and all the doors and windows of the house just pop open like that!

Oooooooh. What does he look like?

Nobody who the Grunty Man snatches away ever, ever comes back, so nobody can say what he looks like, children.

Where does he take them, ma?

He snatches them from their beds and tucks them under his arms and he bounds away with them up into the dark terrible hills and then he makes them work in his big furnace in a grim black cave where he makes his grunty noise at them all day and all night and it is so loud and horrible that birds fall out of the sky if they hear it… Are you fast asleep now, little ones?

Not yet, ma. Tell us more about the Grunty Man.

The Grunty Man is ten thousand years old, and even huge bears and bison and squid and creepy crawlies and weasels and fierce wild animals are frightened of him.

Does he snatch away bad animals too, ma?

Yes he does, and he keeps them in cages and sets them on the bad children when they don't work hard enough in his terrible belching furnace in the cave.

Oooooooh. What is there to eat in the cave?

The Grunty Man makes special cakes and buns to feed the naughty children, poisonous cakes and buns, with flies hovering over them, and no icing.

No icing at all? Are they like fairy cakes?

They are, children, but poisonous fairy cakes. And they taste horrible!

Eeeeuuurrgghh. We would be sick.

You would be very sick. But you would never die, because the Grunty Man would keep you working at the furnace. Clang clang clang. Imagine the giant anvils and red hot bellows. That is what lies in store for you if you are bad children and do not fall asleep right now, tucked up under your soft eiderdowns.

We understand ma, for we are the spawn of the Grunty Man and he has sent us to menace you and haunt your every waking moment for as long as you shall live!

Wednesday 8th December 2004

“I do not want people going out inciting others against devil worshippers” — David Blunkett, Home Secretary, in a Parliamentary debate, yesterday

Hubs and Tranches

I wrote some months ago that where I live - when I am not on duty in the Haemoglobin Towers annexe, of course - has been designated as a hub. I am not entirely sure who has so designated it, although doubtless it was some “New” Labour apparatchik. In fact it would be more correct to dub it a forthcoming hub, or a hub-to-be, for of course its hubdom is not yet complete. I do not know how many tranches are involved in the area's transformation from whatever it is now to being a true hub, and this bothers me.

I want to know about the tranches, pretty desperately. Something cannot become a hub in Blair's brave new land without each successive tranche being signed off, or so I gather.

In fact I want some tranches of my own. Hooting Yard deserves, I think, to go from one tranche to another. So let this be the First Tranche, I declare.

It also strikes me that Hubs And Tranches sounds like an album title, perhaps one made by a fey singer-songwriter. If, dear reader, you are that fey singer-songwriter, you are welcome to use it.

Stairway to Heaven

Researchers claim to have found a picture of one of Dobson's out-of-print pamphlets. One of the researchers is tall and Hungarian. The other is lantern-jawed and recently suffered from gastroenteritis. They have only been working together for a short time, and have never met face-to-face, communicating via a virtually redundant communications system involving pneumatics, magnets and steam.

I have to say that this picture looks more like a book than a pamphlet, in which case it may be the unimaginably rare Stairway To Heaven, one of Dobson's most puzzling works. The picture is too small to decipher the text, so we can only suppose.

Stairway To Heaven was written in the first flush of Dobson's youth, the manuscript scribbled in a clutch of exercise books the pamphleteer-to-be stole from an enormous locomotive stuck in a railway siding. The guards had apparently gone off to paddle in a pond and hunt wild boar while they waited for spare parts.

The book is subtitled Some Conjectures On The Possible Location Of An Actual Staircase That Leads To The Celestial Sphere, and is a remarkably assured text for one so young. It begins thus:

As I wander through the wilderness of this world, I often fall to wondering how I will get to heaven. I know it is there somewhere, for that is what my mama and papa have told me ever since I was a tot. I know, too, that every single thing they have ever told me is true, because they vowed it was so. They made these vows to me on my sixth birthday, as papa cut my cake and shortly after mama clambered in through the window after chasing away a robber with her high velocity sniper's rifle. She came through the window of the kitchen because at that time the door to the cottage was sealed shut against fiends and demons, known to prey upon good folk in the countryside where I grew. Papa used quick-drying cement for the job, completing the work in just an hour on the one day that winter when there was no rain or snow, for we lived in a valley. If there is ever a second edition of this book I will check a meteorological reference work to check the accuracy of that statement.

There never was a second edition, of course, a fact that sometimes finds me lying awake all night, sobbing into my blankets, big blankets from Finland, where it is important to keep warm and snug through the long, long winter night.

Tuesday 7th December 2004

“In an instant, the whole mass of ice, extending for several miles from the coast, and as far as the eye could reach, burst, and was overwhelmed by the rolling waves. The sight was tremendous and awfully grand; the large fields of ice raising themselves out of the water, striking against each other, and plunging into the deep, with a violence not to be described, and a noise like the discharge of innumerable batteries of heavy guns. The darkness of the night; the roaring of the wind and the sea, and the dashing of the waves and ice against the rocks, filled the travellers with sensations of awe and horror, so as almost to deprive them of the power of utterance.” — Anonymous, Dangers On The Ice Off The Coast Of Labrador, With Some Interesting Particulars Respecting the Natives of that Country, Printed for the Religious Tract Society, London

One Morning on the Lane That Runs From Pointy Town to Coctlosh

It was a sweltering day. I was strolling along the lane that runs from Pointy Town to Coctlosh when I chanced upon a Jesuit priest sitting on a bench. I tipped my hat and greeted him.

“Hello,” I said, “What a sweltering day it is.”

“Felix Randal the farrier o is he dead then?” said the priest, and I realised that I was talking to Gerard Manley Hopkins.

“Father Hopkins!” I cried, perhaps a tad overenthusiastically, for he frowned at me and said: “My duty all ended, who have watched his mould of man, big-boned and hardy-handsome, pining - ”

“Would you like a bite of my medlar?” I interrupted, and as I did so a dapple-dawn-drawn falcon flew past, narrowly missing my head.

“Pining,” continued Hopkins, without taking a blind bit of notice of my fruit-sharing initiative, “till time when reason rambled in it and some fatal four disorders, fleshed there, all contended?”

Swallowing a chunk of medlar, I wondered about these four disorders.

“Impetigo, ague, the bloody flux and Blotzmann's syndrome?” I asked.

Father Hopkins was now fretting with his rosary beads.

“Sickness broke him,” he said. I was beginning to wonder why the priest was chuntering on about a dead farrier, but I decided to sit down on the bench. He didn't flinch. He kept talking, but I was no longer listening. I had become transfixed by the sight of a flock of weird unholy birds circling above us. They were black and purple and huge, with savage talons and a wingspan of monstrous proportions. Could they be the legendary Birds of Bog I had read about in my little primer when I was an infant at Sunday School?

Suddenly Father Hopkins tapped me on the shoulder.

“How far from then forethought of,” he was shouting, “all thy more boisterous years, when thou at the random grim forge, powerful amidst peers, didst fettle for the great grey drayhorse his bright and battering sandal!”

The last few words were yelled so loudly that my hat nearly fell off my head. But it seemed as if the priest had finished jabbering at last. I felt a sudden urge to kiss his hand, as if he were a bishop, but I decided not to. Instead, I thrust my last medlar at him.

“Take it, take it, Father Hopkins,” I said, and I got up and walked away. All in all, it was quite an interesting morning.

Father Hopkins, S.J.

Meldrum Fonseca : Über-trombonist

Eschewing the nose-flute, Meldrum Fonseca first took up the trombone at the age of seventy. Before this, his entire musical experience was limited to singing in the bath - or possibly singing in Bath, it is not quite clear. Having spent the best part of his life as a plinth magnate, Meldrum was a rich man. From Aleppo to Zug, few cities or towns exist without at least one plinth from the Fonseca Plinth Factory or one of its many franchised workshops dotted haphazardly around the globe.

The conversation on that autumn day, under an overcast sky, went something like this. Meldrum's paramour, Mrs Fonseca, asked him why he had never learned to play the trombone. This was a common verbal sally of hers, keeping Meldrum alert by firing questions at him which he had never been asked before. On the same day, for example, she asked him if he knew the slightest thing about the skeletal structure of badgers, and whether he could recommend a particular recording of a 19th century railway timetable being read aloud from cover to cover.

Due to Mrs Fonseca's constant mental prodding, Meldrum's brain was a superb mechanism, thoroughly exercised, almost like a champion greyhound. Although often his answers to these constant questions might simply be “yes” or “no”, his response to the trombone enquiry was “Well stap my chives, Marjorie-Suzanna, that's a bloody good idea! I'm going to go out this very minute and buy myself a trombone!”

And he did. He engaged a tutor on the same day, an unnerving milksop called Reynolds. Reynolds taught him daily for the next year, at which point Meldrum had become so adept that the tutor threw his hands in the air and said, in his weedy little voice, “Mr Fonseca, I can teach you no more! Your skills have outstripped my own!”

From that day on, Meldrum spent most of his time standing next to a hedge by the ring road, playing his trombone and gladdening the hearts of all who passed him by.

Source : Little Stories Of Charming People To Warm The Cockles Of Your Heart by Dobson (out of print)

Sunday 5th December 2004

“It appears that in the nineteenth century only one airship was constructed in this country, which proved to be capable of ascending into the air and being propelled by its own machinery. This airship made its appearance in the year 1848, and was built to the designs of a man named Partridge. Very little information is available concerning this ship. The envelope was cylindrical in shape, tapering at each end, and was composed of a light rigid framework covered with fabric. The envelope itself was covered with a light wire net, from which the car was suspended. The envelope contained a single ballonet for regulating the pressure of the gas.” — George Whale, British Airships, Past / Present / Future

Constance, Bereft

The pigs needed feeding, so Constance took a big crate full of apples and trudged out in the morning drizzle. The apples were pippins, and mostly rotten, but she knew that the pigs would guzzle them down. Over by the aircraft hangar a flop-eared bunny rabbit was hopping about among a pile of abandoned pots and pans. Constance worried about rust, but not today. She tipped the apples into the pigsty, put the empty crate onto a pile of other empty crates, and headed off towards the orchard as dawn was breaking. Constance had an assignation in the orchard.

The following day, before her assignation, Constance not only fed the pigs with a crate full of overripe plums, but she gathered up all the pots and pans strewn around the door of the aircraft hangar and derusted them with a derusting solution of her own devising. The flop-eared bunny rabbit was nowhere to be seen, but she saw an Arctic hare on the horizon. Then she trotted off excitedly to the orchard.

This is what an Arctic hare looks like

On the Thursday, she was late getting to the orchard for her assignation, because one of the pigs had contracted a lethal pig disease, and she ran across the muddy fields to call the local veterinary surgeon, a mutton-chopped old fool with watery eyes. He was still abed, and Constance knocked and knocked on his door to rouse him. When he eventually came down in his dressing gown, not quite awake, and unlatched his door, the following dialogue took place:

Constance : Vet, vet, I have a sick pig!

Veterinary Surgeon : Let me get dressed and put all the necessaries in my bag and I will come with you.

Constance : Hurry, hurry, vet! The pig may die!

Veterinary Surgeon : I will do my utmost to save your pig.

Because Constance had run across the fields to call the veterinary surgeon, she was late for her assignation in the orchard. When she got there, at last, she found a note fastened to a withered old pugton tree. She read only half of it before hot tears welled up and she fled from the orchard sobbing and bereft.

Back at the pigsty, the watery-eyed veterinary surgeon was packing up his bag. Constance blundered through the gate, fraught and weeping and wild-eyed.

Veterinary Surgeon : I have cured the pig, Miss Constance. All will be well.

Constance, Bereft : The Motion Picture is currently in production, starring Cher as Constance and Kevin Costner as the veterinary surgeon.

Hengist Pod Asks a Question

Now here is a question worth asking. Did there once exist, aeons ago, on a distant, icy planet, a race of beings not unlike emperor penguins in appearance, if not size, for let us say that these beings were minuscule, that a hundred of them gathered together would be no bigger than a gnat, and that these beings were unfathomably stupid, that their behaviour patterns were inane and pointless, but that they somehow managed to construct an intergalactic spacecraft built from pack ice, and used it to ferry themselves to other planets and other galaxies for no purpose other than what we might call sight-seeing, and that over millions of years they visited thousands of planets without ever once alighting on earth, for the pale blue dot of our planet, to use Carl Sagan's phrase, was visually horrifying to these beings, whose eight eyes could not tolerate the colour blue, in any of its tints and shades, or green, for that matter, given that their own planet bathed in a totally alien colour spectrum unimaginable to the human brain, unimaginable even to someone like self-styled brain guru and MindMap™ maker Tony Buzan, and that one of these beings, wearing a sort of rocket booster backpack, jetted out of the spacecraft when it was near earth, and this tiny emperor penguin-like being collided with an asteroid and was pulled into earth's magnetic field, if that is possible, and it came in to land on the towpath of the canal just outside my door, last Wednesday, when I was on my way to buy a rake and a hoe for my allotment, having counted my potatoes as I liked to do every morning, wearing a plastic Viking helmet with only one horn, the other horn having broken off when I was clambering down the hillside without pausing for breath on that day I was pursued by an ill-tempered giant badger whose sett I had accidentally demolished? Answer me that, and I will give you sixpence.

Hengist Pod's potato count notebook

Old Doddery Martin

Old doddery Martin trudged through the park. His hat was askew of course. He blanched when he saw the vinegar man who came all the way from the outskirts of Minsk. Why was a Minsk-man here in the park? A man who was jabbering at a crow in a tree? Doddery Martin mussed his hair. He went to feed the park's polar bear. He fed it with biscuits and nuts. I said, he fed it with biscuits and nuts. Back in Vietnam, old doddery Martin had gutted huts. He'd been a keen marine in his time. Now he forged banknotes in a basement by the Seine, in Paris, in Paris, in the capital of France, where his banknotes were passed from hand to hand by evil men, banknotes made by doddery Martin, home at last from Vietnam.

Saturday 4th December 2004

“After the heavy rain of a thunderstorm has washed the soil, it sometimes happens that a child, or a rustic, finds a wedge-shaped piece of metal or a few triangular flints in a field or near a road. There was no such piece of metal, there were no such flints, lying there yesterday, and the finder is puzzled about the origin of the objects on which he has lighted. He carries them home, and the village wisdom determines that the wedge-shaped piece of metal is a thunderbolt, or that the bits of flint are elf-shots, the heads of fairy arrows.” — Andrew Lang, Custom And Myth

Hinged, Unhinged, or Neither?

The quandary that beset Dennis, apart from his conviction that in a previous life he was Veronica Lake, was whether he was hinged or unhinged, or possibly neither. Most of us would not fret about such a thing, but Dennis did. There is a temptation to say that this fact in itself proves that Dennis was indeed unhinged, and to ponder why this had not occurred to him. But it had, and it added to his fretfulness. For there was so much about Dennis that was hinged. For example, when he chanced upon poisonous toads, he scampered out of their way, rather than picking them up and taking them home, as an unhinged person might.

Dennis was adept at self-preservation in a very hinged way. When he plunged out of an aircraft at high altitude, without a parachute, he made sure that he lit upon an air current that allowed him to drift easily onto a bank of fresh-fallen snow, thus cushioning his landing and meaning that he only spent six weeks in hospital instead of being coffined up and buried in that Baltimore churchyard where lie the remains of Edgar Allan Poe.

Dennis had given much thought to the idea that he might be neither hinged nor unhinged, not in the sense that he fell somewhere in between, but that hingedness or its opposite was foreign to him, as an igloo to a Maori, or a biro to a caveman. Dennis remembered, in addition to being Veronica Lake, being a caveman. The gulf of thousands of years between these lives was a blank, however, and Dennis wondered if he had spent all that time in some kind of limbo. If he had, where was that limbo, and had he been hinged or unhinged, or neither, while trapped in it? This seemed to Dennis so monumental a question that he could find no rest.

Dennis needs your help. In particular, he needs your shoes. All of them. If Dennis' story has tugged at your heart-strings, please, please parcel up all your footwear and send the package to Dennis, c/o The Veronica Lake Building, Winnipeg. Thank you.

Veronica Lake and a Swan

Left, Veronica Lake, whose real name was Constance Frances Marie Ockleman (see above). Right, a swan in a pond (see below).

The Swiss Family Robinson

Have you ever met someone from Switzerland named Robinson? Someone named Robinson, from Switzerland, who has been shipwrecked? I have. I was sitting in a coffee bar in Old Grimy Town up north, and as I sipped my cocoa and leafed through yesterday's copy of The Old Grimy Town Gazette, in walked Fathead Robinson and Poopy Robinson and their children Ned, Gristle and Sawdust. They sat at my table.

“We are the Swiss Family Robinson,” said Fathead. “We are from Switzerland, and we were shipwrecked.”

I looked at them one by one, trying to see evidence of their ordeal.

“When was this?” I asked.

“Years ago,” said Poopy, “We were rescued by a big boat of birds.”

“A boat of birds?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Ned, “It was a big boat and there were no humans aboard it, only birds. Starlings and chaffinches and buntings and wagtails and corncrakes and linnets and sparrows and swans.”

“Was a swan the captain?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Ned, “How did you guess?”

I fixed him with my one working eye, sipped the dregs of my cocoa, and stood up. Saying nothing, I swept out of the coffee bar, and went straight home to write in my diary. Today I met the Swiss Family Robinson, I wrote, and then I put down my pencil and became lachrymose, thinking about swans imperilled on the high seas, and my parrot, Lascelles, who yearned for Colombia, where he was born, on a bright summer day so many years ago.

Friday 3rd December 2004

“I do not think we should like to dine with a Chinese gentleman, or Mandarin, as he would treat us to strange dainties, as a roast dog, a dish of stewed worms, a rat pie; or, perhaps, a bird's-nest. But the bird's-nest would be the best of the list, for it is not like the kind of bird's-nests which you have seen, but is made, I believe, of the spawn of fish, and looks something like isinglass. It is the nest of a sort of swallow, is about the size of a goose's egg, and is found in caverns along the sea shores; so it is not so bad as it seems at first.” — Anonymous, The World's Fair : Or, Children's Prize Gift Book of the Great Exhibition of 1851; Describing the Beautiful Inventions and Manufactures Exhibited Therein; with Pretty Stories about the People Who Have Made and Sent Them; and How They Live When at Home

Tiny Enid Confronts the Russian Bear

Tiny Enid put down her book and sighed. She was reading, I think, one of the later novels of Daphne Du Maurier, and it was beginning to irritate her. She decided to go and check on the gloxinia in her garden. Stepping out through the french windows, she saw that the great Russian bear was prowling around at the bottom of her garden. When it saw Tiny Enid, it let out a fierce bellow.

Tiny Enid sat down in her ugly but highly-polished stainless steel garden chair, the one she had rescued from a burning building all those years ago. She lit a cheroot, inhaled deeply, and fixed the Russian bear with a supercilious, sneering look. She wondered if this was the same Russian bear that had mauled to death Vitaly Nikolayenko, one of Russia's best-known bear researchers and a man who spent twenty-five years living with the enormous brown bears of the wild Kamchatka peninsula. He had been found dead in an apparent bear mauling. The body of Nikolayenko, sixty-six, whose lonely journeys allowed him to compile one of the most exhaustive documentaries on the giant, nine-foot cousins of the North American grizzly, was found at a lake near his remote one-room hut on the Tikhaya River. The six-and-a-half-inch pawprint of a medium-sized male bear was found next to his body, along with an empty can of pepper spray with which Nikolayenko had apparently tried to defend himself.

Just two months before, American bear researcher Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend were killed by a bear in Alaska's Katmai National Park.

The diminutive Nikolayenko, a self-educated researcher and photographer, walked more than six hundred and twenty miles a year through the remote river valleys and coastal plains of Kamchatka, whose giant brown bears were under increasing threat from foreign hunters and poachers. A senior ranger on the Kronotsky Wildlife Reserve, Nikolayenko battled illegal hunting and fishing in the reserve. His patrols kept him in the wilderness for months on end. He spent each day from dawn to dusk following bears, documenting their feeding, mating, and social habits. By night, he would return to his hut, light a kerosene lamp and fill what became hundreds of journals, a body of work that eventually became one of the most important biographical records of brown bear behaviour in existence. He documented an average of eight hundred bear contacts each year, according to Los Angeles Times reporter Kim Murphy.

“Did you maul Vitaly Nikolayenko to death?” asked Tiny Enid. The Russian bear was now lumbering across the lawn towards her, but when it heard her high-pitched voice, redolent of a terrified crow, it stopped and thwacked its mighty paws against its own head. It is not easy for a Russian bear to look shamefaced and coy, but the one in Tiny Enid's garden did so.

“Now get along with you,” she said, stubbing out her cheroot under her jet black Manolo Blahnik pump, “Go and do something useful like grubbing for worms in the muck by yonder pond.”

The Russian bear turned and fled. Tiny Enid got up and crossed the lawn to shut the garden gate. Then she went to the airport to catch her flight to Madagascar, or possibly to Plovdiv, I am not quite sure where she went that day.

In Loopy Copse

In Loopy Copse, when I was young, all golden were the shrubs and trees. All golden I remember them, and Bonkers Maisie from the farm. Maisie was unkempt and mad, just like her brother and her dad. Her sister left them long ago. She went to join a music hall. She made it as a chorus girl and then she graced the silent screen. She looked like Edna Purviance and had a hat named after her. But Bonkers Maisie never did, for she was always dressed in rags.

The golden trees of Loopy Copse in those blue summers long ago, oh I remember them with woe as I sit here twirling my moustache. My woe is such that I may sob and mop my tears with my jacket cuff. But both my cuffs are smeared with grease, I dipped them in the soup tureen. I don't know why, I don't know when, I don't know who knocks at my door. This bombed hotel has stale air. The other guests are rakes and fops. I'm sitting in my rocking chair recalling the gold of Loopy Copse.

Edna Purviance

Edna Purviance, daughter of Madison Gates Purviance. Read all about her at the splendid www.ednapurviance.org