Hooting Yard Archive, August 2006

The Song of the Grunty Man, much pig-related material, Katherine Mansfield, and howler monkeys. Fully illustrated.


Thursday 31th August 2006
“‘Your allotted time has long since expired,…”
Truant Nomenclature
Radio Transcript
Tuesday 8th August 2006
“Who alive, for instance, knows all the…”
Some Death Notices
Song of the Grunty Man
Friday 4th August 2006
“It is an easy matter for any…”
Days O' Bootpolish
Thursday 3rd August 2006
“He who begins with crutches will generally…”
A Further Note on Pigs
Wednesday 2nd August 2006
“…went to the most best museum this…”

Thursday 31th August 2006

“‘Your allotted time has long since expired, Thol of Gharphut,’ rasped a bulbous looking guard of the Garden of Mhersa, on Mars, eyeing my shocking nakedness with marked disapproval. ‘Go at once to the Laboratory and make your report, then present yourself to the Grand Ghazza of the Supreme Interplanetary Council’.“ - Don Juan, Don Juan Visits The Planet Mars

Truant Nomenclature

It is just over a year since the Hooting Yard Nomenclature Monitoring Panel alerted us to the sonorously-named Demi-Leigh Tweddle (see 22 August 2005). Now we have further proof that youthful Britons are being given startling monickers by their judicious parents.

A couple of weeks ago, the Guardian reported that a certain Mr & Mrs Haine had been sent to prison for four months because of their daughter's persistent truancy. And the name of the girl who won't go to school? Shlaine. Shlaine Haine. The couple's son is called Caine.

Radio Transcript

Here is a transcript of part of yesterday's Hooting Yard On The Air radio show. When the podcast becomes available, I shall add a link to it.

Regular listeners to Hooting Yard On The Air will know that I have been away for a couple of weeks. I wish I could say that I have been somewhere interesting - Aztec ruins, say, or the magic mountain, or even a chalet on the shingle beach at Pointy Town - but alas, I have been a pallid sickly wretch, suffering from risings in the spleen and the ague and black bile and the bloody flux and vapours in the cranial integuments. At times like these I tend to rely on the regular infusion of Baxter's Terrible Fluid, or Dr Gillespie's Vital Nerve Powders. The latter, sprinkled on to a plum or a conference pear, can work wonders on even the puniest constitution, and indeed, here I am back behind the microphone on a Wednesday afternoon, bringing the show to you live from the gleaming skyscraper which houses the ResonanceFM studio. Yes, I struggled my way through the weird pneumatic doors, I panted for breath as I staggered on to the moving walkway, there was a ringing in my ears as I slumped on the floor of the turbo-elevator which shot me to the top of the building in just four seconds, and I needed a bowl of energising vitamin soup before I could speak… but here I am, ready to provide you with half an hour of instructive prose to inspire your moral sentiments. Excuse me for a moment while I mop my still fevered brow.

There. Now, one consequence of lying abed groaning and whimpering in the throes of neurasthenic horrors is a disinclination to write. Some might choose to call this writer's block, or even idleness, but they know not whereof they speak. At least one acquaintance made this accusation in the past fortnight. As I tossed and turned in an agony of twitching fits, I became aware of a message on my metal tapping machine. Weakly, I reached for it, nearly falling from my rumpled pallet as I did so. And when I read the message, I was convulsed anew, as if ten thousand demons with ten thousand forks were pricking me ten thousand times.

“For crying out loud, Key!” I read through my tears, “Stop being such a milquetoast whinger. There is nothing wrong with you that a brisk walk around the duckpond in a hailstorm won't fix. Put on your boots and seize the day!”

I tossed my metal tapping machine on to the floor among the piles of rags, and sobbed. Some hours later, when I had stopped sobbing, I did indeed clamber from my sickbed, put on my boots, and I launched myself towards the duckpond. I got as far as the garden gate before collapsing in a mewling heap. I shuddered and shook, twitching and shattered, and hideous visions swam in my brain. I knew they were visions, because there are no giant golden poisonous toads in this neck of the woods, but still… even though I sensed they were the product of my fuming brain, they were frightening enough, particularly the one called Graham, which had more eyes than you normally see on a toad, even a giant golden poisonous toad, and each eye was quivering on the end of a stalk, which again is untoadlike, as far as I know, not that I have ever made a study of the world's toads, though it is on my list of Things to Do.

Anyway, there I was, cutting the opposite of a dash, when the postie bashed his way through the garden gate, clonking me on the head. The hallucinatory toads vanished, and I sat up on the gravel, rubbing the lump that was already swelling where I had been clonked.

“Oh, sorry I clonked you on the head,” said the postie, “Here, I have a letter for you.”

Even in the most trying of circumstances, I try to be polite, so as I took the envelope from the postie I thanked him. He recoiled from me, as if I had screeched some blasphemous execration, as indeed I had, for the clonk on my head had dislodged some of the nerve-wirings in my brain, and for the next three days whenever I spoke, whatever I tried to say, I spewed forth a tirade of foulness. Luckily a cure was affected before I had to do this show, otherwise ResonanceFM would be shut down by the authorities for broadcasting disgusting language in the middle of a Wednesday afternoon, when innocent and sensitive ears would be appalled, and rightly so.

I was able to treat the dislodged brain-wiring by myself, for though I have neglected to learn about the toads of the world, I do know a thing or two about the magnificent complexity of the human brain. I had a good teacher. Years ago I attended a two-day course at the Blotzmann Institute, where I learned, among other things, that if you immerse your head in a bucket of warm soapy water and do the Culpeper Manoeuvres until at the point of drowning, most of your brain problems will be solved. It certainly works for me.

Now, where was I? I took the letter from the postie and crawled back into the house, somehow managing to hoist myself into a chair at the kitchen table. I did not like the look of the handwriting on the envelope. It spoke to me of theft, spasms, and cruelty. It spoke of moral turpitude. It spoke of rubber truncheons and contempt. You might ask how I could read so much into the few scribbled lines of my name and address, but I am not going to tell you. Instead, I am going to sulk while we have a short interval.

+ + +

That's better. I'll get back to how I overcame what might have been writer's block, or might have been something far more lethal, something almost too awful to contemplate, in a moment. But I want to mention that, in between recovering from my neurasthenic terrors and coming in to do today's show, I went to see the film Snakes On A Plane. Most of the critics have - with their customary laziness - made a big deal of Samuel L Jackson's line “I'm sick and tired of these beep-ing snakes on this beep-ing plane!”, but for me there was a much better moment in the screenplay. One of the stewardesses enters the cockpit, where the co-pilot is trying to control the plane. (The captain has already been bitten by a poisonous snake.) She says: “What's with the oxygen mask deploying?” Now, put yourself in the scene. You are that stewardess. You are wondering why all the oxygen masks have been released, for no apparent purpose, so you go to the cockpit to find out. Come on now, think yourself into the situation. What do you say, what words come out of your mouth? “What's with the oxygen masks?” you might say, or at a push, “What's with the oxygen mask deployment?” But “What's with the oxygen mask deploying?” I think not. A great moment in a foolish but amusing film.

+ + +

So I sat at my table, glaring at this envelope with its repellent handwriting. I plucked a plum from my plum bowl, sprinkled it with Dr Gillespie's Vital Nerve Powders, took a bite, and glared at the envelope some more. I turned it over to see if there was a return address, and there was, but it was badly smudged and illegible. I cursed the postie. I flapped my arms, as if I were a bird, a big, legendary bird, like a roc. I pulled a piece of straw out of my hair. I pondered the implications of that anonymous 18th century suicide note which read, in its entirety, “All this buttoning and unbuttoning!” I couldn't remember if there was an exclamation mark appended to it, so I tottered to my feet and headed for the bookshelves whereon nestled a dictionary of quotations. I never made it across the room, because as I took a few unsteady steps I was confronted by a phantom. It may have been a ghoul, but I think it was a phantom. It was grey and ethereal and shimmering and damp and cold and mournful, and it was clutching in its slender bloodless hand the key to a hotel room. Through some kind of ghostly thought-transference, it told me that the hotel it belonged to was far away, in Winnipeg, and that I must go there immediately. I tried a bit of thought transference myself, to explain that my passport had expired and that I was too sick to go to Winnipeg in any case, but I made a botch of it, and transferred my thoughts not to the phantom but to a carpet beetle near the skirting board, which was so traumatised by being suddenly zapped with alien thought processes that it had a heart attack and perished, flipping on to its back and wiggling its many, many little legs hopelessly in the air. Can carpet beetles have heart attacks, or did I misread the signs? Who knows, apart from entomologists? What I do know is that the carpet beetle was dead and the phantom was still looming there, reproachful and anguished. It was, by the way, a Dutch phantom, a Rotterdam phantom, one of the phantoms of Rotterdam. What was it doing in my house? Why was it imploring me to go to a hotel in Winnipeg? What awaited me in the hotel room? I tried to remove a sliver of plum peel that was caught in my teeth, without success. The Rotterdam phantom shifted suddenly, spine-tinglingly. Now it was behind me. I span around. The phantom was dissolving, slowly, but it had left the Winnipeg hotel key on the mantelpiece.

I opened a window. From my neighbour's house I could hear the strains of “20 Great TV Themes” by the Dennis Drivel Accordion And Pan-Pipe Orchestra. I realised it was the limited edition version, including the theme from “It Shouldn't Happen To A Vet”. My head cleared. Everything seemed to fall into place. I had been sick, but now I was well. I flapped my arms again, like wings, but not like the wings of a legendary bird like a roc. I flapped my arms as if they were angel's wings, and I was being borne to heaven, and I took the dead carpet beetle with me, for why should insects not share in the rapture of paradise?

Tuesday 8th August 2006

“Who alive, for instance, knows all the moles of Sussex? I confess I got my first sight of one a few days ago, and, though I had seen dead moles hanging from trees and had read descriptions of moles, the living creature was as unexpected as if one had come on it silent upon a peak in Darien.” — Robert Lynd, The Pleasures Of Ignorance

Some Death Notices

I ran across a selection of 19th century death notices from a Michigan newspaper. Here are a few for your perusal:

Thursday, May 12, 1887 Mrs. Chas. Martin, wife of a farmer living near Grand Rapids, poisoned herself and two of her children on the 3d, with “rough on rats.”

Thursday, May 12, 1887 A terrible accident occurred in the rolling mill of the Hubbard Iron company, at Hubbard, Ohio, shortly after 2 o'clock on the morning of the 6th. Engineer Griffith Phillipps, aged 29 years, in passing around the ore crusher oiling the bearings, was caught in the wheels and dragged into the crusher. He was mangled out of all semblance of humanity, the flesh adhering to the clogs. He leaves a wife and 3 children.

Thursday, June 2, 1887 At Canton, Ohio, last week, Charles Danseizen, a bricklayer, went home drunk and, picking up a butcher-knife six inches long, murdered his wife by stabbing her in the throat. He says she drove him to the deed because she joined the Salvation Army.

Thursday, November 24, 1887 It is said on the street that Miss Ida Carew, who mashed the patrons of the variety theatre by her song, “You can't do it, you know”, died at New Orleans lately.

Saturday, April 14, 1888 Miss Metta Fordham, of Bronson, a music teacher and exceedingly bright young lady, died with measles. When the disease first seized her she told her friends she would never get well.

Saturday, May 12, 1888 John Winter, who died recently at Grand Rapids, is alleged to have said with his dying breath that his wife poisoned him. The woman and her neighbors agree that he died of dissolute habits.

Song of the Grunty Man

Apparently, the Grunty Man, that figure of childhood nightmares, has a song. It begins:

I grunt at the sun, I grunt at the moon, my grunts do not follow a tune. I grunt at the stars, I grunt at the sky, my grunting makes household pets die.

One day in March 1967, the Grunty Man went into a recording studio. He was accompanied by a hand-picked gaggle of musicians who later became some of the biggest names in prog rock, including future members of Yes, Emerson Lake & Palmer, and Spooky Tooth. Also present was the youthful Gordon Sumner, now known to the world as ‘Stig’ [sic], who was drafted in for his ability to whine in a high-pitched caterwaul. I say they were hand-picked, but in fact the Grunty Man arranged for each muso to be plucked from their mundane doldrums by the Claw of Gack. It was an experience none of them ever forgot.

Eschewing the use of a producer or sound engineer, the Grunty Man barred and bolted the studio doors and whirled about in a grunting frenzy until all the musicians were suitably cowed. It would be unkind to state which of the ELP trio was so frightened that he hid in a cupboard and piddled in his loon pants until coaxed out with the promise of garibaldi biscuits.

Ten thousand years old and covered in sores, the Grunty Man had recently started to use a guide dog. This dog, Alan, was some kind of beagle, and was hopelessly inadequate for its task. It was blind itself, in one eye, suffered from muscle spasms and liver failure, and harboured a doggy desire to take part in the space programme rather than have to drag around with the Grunty Man. It spent most of the recording session curled up inside Carl Palmer's bass drum, dreaming of the stars.

The Grunty Man decided to call his one-off band Ruddiman's Rudiments, after the Latin primer used by generations of schoolchildren. With such a name, he thought, he would not be dismissed merely as a grotesque grunting ogre from the earth's primeval past, but as a somewhat more sophisticated being. Having a hit record would give him even more charisma, and his long-cherished desire to win social acceptance would be fulfilled. Perhaps he wanted too much.

Certainly the auspices were not good, as the band huddled in a corner of the studio quaking with terror, Alan snoozed, and no one bothered to locate the light switches. When little Sumner whimpered that they would need at least some light to work by, the Grunty Man unleashed great bellows of his sulphurous, phosphorescent breath. The studio was lit by a dim green mist which hung in the air, and the band stumbled reluctantly to their positions.They ran through the music a few times, but never to the Grunty Man's satisfaction.

“Less Herman's Hermits! More Scriabin!” he shouted, and as they could not understand his grunts, he clawed the words onto the walls with his talons. But none of the band, not even the bombastically-inclined future Emerson Lake & Palmer, were familiar with the works of the Russian composer*, and they stuck to a toothsome sort of pop pap. The Grunty Man kept bellowing to maintain the phosphorescent light levels. Alan woke up briefly and savaged Carl Palmer's piddle-stained loon pants. And then a janitor arrived.

The janitor, Old Ted Cargpan

Old Ted Cargpan's intention was to throw the intruders out of the studio. In the event, he saved the situation. Completely calm in the face of the hideous Grunty Man, and contemptuous of the young musicians, he at once sized up the scene, set the tapes running, and put the whole lot of them through their paces. Even the Grunty Man deferred to the janitor, retreating to a spot up in the rafters and allowing the little Sumner boy to take on the lead vocal, while Alan the guide dog, refreshed after his nap, howled backing.The instrumentalists, too, seemed energised by the crusty old janitor's presence, Greg Lake in particular demonstrating the sort of skills that would, in a few years time, make Brain Salad Surgery such a millstone. Sorry, I meant to type ‘milestone’.

The track finished, Old Ted Cargpan sent the musicians packing and brought the Grunty Man down from his perch near the ceiling to record the B-side, a duet with Alan the guide dog. The Grunty Man grunted, Alan slobbered, and the janitor moulded their din into a majestic three minute miniature rock opera, subsequently plagiarised by everybody from Ultravox to swan-eating Peter Maxwell Davies.

So whatever happened to the recordings? Some say that the adult Gordon Sumner, wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice but still, as a middle-aged man, calling himself ‘Stig’, opposed any reissue of the disc and even had the master tapes destroyed. Another rumour has it that Alan the guide dog somehow managed, in 1977, to get himself blasted towards Saturn on a space rocket, and took the tapes with him. The Grunty Man himself remains silent on the subject, merely grunting horribly in his cave, or next to his pond, haunting the nightmares of tiny children, tuneless once more, and resigned to his immortal fate.

*NOTE : For more about puny neurasthenic Alexander Scriabin and his tiny hands, see 29th January 2006.

Friday 4th August 2006

“It is an easy matter for any sane man or woman to understand why an immoral priest, and one who has no regard for honour, has such an easy task in accomplishing the ruin of those whom he seeks to destroy. The paradise of the priestcraft is inky darkness, as they prefer darkness to light, and by their actions, their everyday lives take on the hue of midnight.” — Bernard Fresenborg, Thirty Years In Hell

Days O' Bootpolish

It was in the Days o' Bootpolish that I was banished from the palace. I had done nothing wrong, but one Thursday morning they came for me in my cubicle and tore the paperwork from my elegant hands and told me that I was to be banished. I was led to a cupboard where I was told to deposit my pencils and my hats, and then to another cupboard where there were many, many shelves stacked oh so high with packets of nuts. They told me I could take six packets, two each of peanuts and hazelnuts, one of pine nuts and one of brazil nuts. I was to cram them into my pockets and pat the flaps down. It was made very clear to me that my pockets would be rummaged through as I stepped outside the palace to begin my banishment, and that if I had more than six packets of nuts about my person, banishment from the palace would be the least of my worries. It was not entirely clear to me what this meant, but it was not meant to be clear to me, it was intended that I be stricken with terror and have my imagination run riot at the prospect of some gruesome fate. In truth, I did not get myself into a little flap, for I have always been law-abiding, and I had no intention of taking more than my allotment of nuts. I have twice mentioned flaps, material flaps and emotional flaps, and before I am through I may refer to other flaps. We shall see.

Once I had packed my pockets with my six packets of nuts and patted down the flaps, they told me to come out of the cupboard, and as soon as I was in the corridor they slammed the cupboard door shut with such unnecessary violence that I jumped into the air for a second. The ceiling was high enough that I did not crack my head on it. I understood why they had instructed me to pat down my pocket flaps, because had I not done so, one or more of the packets of nuts may have fallen from my pockets during my inadvertent little jump. I got the impression, waiting for their next move, that they had expected me to jump.

Around the corner of the corridor one of them now appeared, wheeling a gurney. They told me to clamber on to it and to lie down on my back, and then they strapped me to it with a series of buckled woolen belts. It was explained to me that this was all part of the standard banishment procedure and that I should read nothing sinister into it, so I didn't. I felt quite relaxed, staring at the grimy yellow ceiling of the corridor as I was wheeled along. I mused about the Days o' Bootpolish, and wondered if they were coming to an end. It was hard to tell.

First howler monkey

We arrived at a junction and turned into another corridor. This one had a ceiling that was also yellow, but much less grimy. After a while my gurney juddered to a stop, I was unbuckled, and they told me to get off it and stand up. I did as I was told, and saw that I was in a part of the palace that I had never seen before, butthis did not surprise me, for I always knew that I was kept to only certain areas of what must have been a tremendously large building. Now I was going to be thrown out of it altogether, with six packets of nuts to see me on my way. I did find this all very curious, but they showed no sign of giving me any explanation, so I kept my mouth shut.

There was a cold rush of air to my left, and I looked around and saw that a sliding door had swooshed open, and beyond it was open air, a field, some shrivelled vegetation, distant cows, and a magnificent blue sky. I had not seen the like since before the Days o' Bootpolish, and for the first time since they ejected me from my cubicle I spoke.

“Gosh,” I said.

One of them whacked me on the windpipe with a tally stick, and I crumpled to the floor. My patted-down pocket flaps kept my six packets of nuts safe from spillage. It took me some while to get my breath back, and then they lifted me to my feet. I heard an ungodly beeping noise. This was coming from a wall-panel which formed part of the stupendously complicated palace communication system, installed at the very beginnings of the Days o' Bootpolish, when inventions were still welcomed. I knew it ran on electricity and pneumatics, but beyond that its workings were a mystery to me. The beeping turned out to be a signal confirming my banishment. They turned out my pockets, and as soon as they were satisfied that I was carrying no more than six packets of nuts, I was shoved in the small of the back, out into the field, and the sliding door swooshed shut behind me.

Second howler monkey

I walked away from the palace, in more or less a straight line, for about an hour. Then the sky was filled suddenly with dozens of Swordfish jet planes with military markings, dozens of planes, skitting and swooping, making a terrible din. I clapped my elegant hands over my equally elegant ears to stifle the racket, without much success. While I was standing there being a bit weedy, one of the planes came into land about fifty cements away and disgorged a troop of howler monkeys, who immediately came charging towards me, howling and howling. They grabbed my arms and legs, lifted me off my feet, bundled me into a tarpaulin, and carried me off towards the plane. I noticed a solitary starling in the blue sky.

Once inside the plane, which took off again as soon as I had been ferried aboard, I was tossed from the tarpaulin onto a surprisingly comfortable bunk and injected with a serum. This gave me a splitting headache but also caused me to begin babbling in urgent and breathless gulping sobs everything I knew about the palace and the Days o' Bootpolish. I couldn't stop myself, even when one of the howler monkeys passed me a tumbler of refreshing milkshake. I ended up spitting most of it onto the floor, so desperate was I to tell everything I could dredge up from the deepest nooks of my brain. It was all quite involuntary. None of the howler monkeys was taking notes, in fact they did not seem particularly interested in what I had to tell. I prattled on for at least a day, if not more, before falling back on the bunk completely spent. They gave me some more milkshake, and this time I drained my tumbler with lip-smacking relish. Then I fell asleep.

That was last week. This week, the howler monkeys have asked me to help them to make a scale model of the palace out of corrugated cardboard. I will give them what help I can. I have already given them the six packets of nuts that were the tokens of my banishment. The Days o' Bootpolish are over now, at long last, and I for one will not miss them. I have enough on my plate, ushering in the Days o' Cellophane to a colony of a hundred thousand howler monkeys, learning to howl just like them, but perhaps with a touch more elegance.

Third howler monkey

Thursday 3rd August 2006

“He who begins with crutches will generally end with crutches… The world is full of human lobsters.” — John L Huelshof, Reading Made Easy For Foreigners

A Further Note on Pigs

Yesterday I made passing mention of Popsy The Pig, and I have been asked to point out that said pig is a fictional pig rather than a real, living, breathing pig of flesh and blood. One might think this was obvious. Not so, as far as serial Hooting Yard correspondent Dr Ruth Pastry is concerned.

O Key! she writes, in yet another frantically typed missive from wherever it is she lives, I have been concerned for some time that you do not make plain what is fact and what is fiction. We all know that educational standards are falling apart, that tinies today are sent to “community education hubs” rather than schools, and that they learn nothing because the blinkered nitwits who oversee things are far too busy rolling out and embedding robust initiatives and driving forward 360-degree change interfaces under the direction of a faith-based challenge champion. These are the kind of people, remember, who see an arrow and call it a “graphic directional pointing emblem”. Regrettable though it is, you need to bear in mind that your future readership will need explicit guidance to distinguish a pretend pig from a real one. To apprehend the full import of your words, readers have to be absolutely clear what you are talking about. It goes without saying that they need to have confidence that you know what you're talking about in the first place. It does sometimes seem to me that you have about as much idea about real pigs as you do about birds. In future I suggest that you use some kind of colour coding system. Plain black text for facts, red italics for things you have made up, and bold green type for when you are wittering on about the many, many subjects of which you are profoundly ignorant. That should sort the wheat from the chaff, and I suspect there will be a huge amount of chaff. Yours in Christ, Ruth Pastry (Dr).

Entertaining though such rants may be, I have no intention of taking Dr Pastry's advice. Unlike her, I respect my readers' intelligence, and I think it unlikely that anyone would confuse the fictional Popsy-with-a-'y' The Pig and the real Popsie-with-an-'i'-and-an-'e' The Pig. The latter pig was, of course, enstyed in the grounds of the pneumatic power tower on the other side of the fields beyond the Big Unexplained Building On The Hill, where it was regularly visited by Dobson, who fed it with an enticing variety of fallen fruits and items of confectionery. Though he pretended a convincing gruffness, Dobson had a soft spot for Popsie The Pig, who could reduce him to tears by, for example, grunting, or wallowing in a particular patch of mud. In the autumn of 1955, Dobson trudged across the fields to the pig sty twice a day, his pockets filled with pig treats for Popsie.

It was on one such trudge, a dawn one, as winter began to bite, that the out of print pamphleteer was accosted by the local Inspector Of Pig, Squirrel, And Goat Food, with his pointy cap and gleaming golden blazer buttons.

“My name is Piccolo, and my mind is a chaos,” said this man, pointing a futuristic ray gun at Dobson's head, “And I am the local Inspector Of Pig, Squirrel, And Goat Food. My word is law in these parts. Empty your pockets.”

Dobson had been threatened with ray gunsbefore, but never at dawn in the middle of a field, so reluctantly he did as he was bid, tossing fallen fruits and items of confectionery on to the ground. A partly-gnawed toffee apple struck the boot of the Inspector and rolled into a ditch.

“Get into the ditch and retrieve that partly-gnawed toffee apple,” shouted the Inspector, waving his ray gun in a haphazard way that betrayed his unfamiliarity with it. Dobson ducked and shimmied and swiftly disarmed him, dislodged his pointy cap and pushed him into the ditch.

“My ankle is sprained,” whined the Inspector.

Dobson eyed him with contempt and picked up the fallen fruits and items of confectionery one by one.

“Listen to me, Inspector Of Pig, Squirrel, And Goat Food, or whoever you are,” said Dobson, “I am going to continue trudging across the field until I reach the pig sty. Then I will feed these fallen fruits and items of confectionery to the pig known throughout this land as Popsie The Pig. That is Popsie with an 'i' and an 'e', a real pig of flesh and blood and bone and muscle, no mere fictional pretend pig of someone's fancy. Fictional pigs need no feeding, Inspector, as your superiors must have made plain to you when they handed you a requisition slip for that futuristic ray gun and sent you here. While I am gone, eat of that partly-gnawed toffee apple, and fill in your forms. When I return, I will fashion a makeshift stretcher out of branches and leaves, and I will drag you across the fields to my home, and I will install you on the sofa in the sitting room, and I will feed you with moretoffee apples, and with soup, until your sprained ankle is sprained no more, and then you may go on your way, armed once more with your ray gun, with your pointy cap set straight upon your head, and your pockets stuffed with certain of my pamphlets which you are to bring to the attention of your superiors, works in which I have addressed in enormous detail the topic of the proper feeding of not only pigs, and squirrels, and goats, but also cows and horses and stoats and crows and weasels and cormorants and guillemots and badgers, both real and fictional. The overwhelming genius of my recommendations has been ignored until now, and this has caused me anguish that you can barely imagine from your position sprawled in a ditch with a sprained ankle and only a partly-gnawed toffee apple for sustenance. But you will do me this service, and by doing so your name will live forever in the hearts of those who, from St Francis of Assisi onwards, have striven to strengthen the links that bind us to the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and those creatures that creep upon their bellies, and those that slither and wriggle in the muck, the real ones and those that are fictional, like Popsy The Pig when Popsy is spelled with a 'y'. It is you who will be remembered, Inspector, not me, for I am but a mere out of print pamphleteer. I have no pointy cap, as you do, nor a blazer with gleaming golden buttons, nor do I covet them. Mark my words, and mark them well. And now I must trudge onward to the pig sty.”

Alas, when Dobson returned to the ditch, the Inspector Of Pig, Squirrel, And Goat Food had scarpered. He had only ever been a phantom from another world and another time, and as Dobson threw the futuristic ray gun into a nearby waste chute, he realised with a mixture of despair and disgust that his words had been wasted, and that when he got home, as the bleak winter sun rose higher in the sky, he would find those pamphlets which addressed in enormous detail the proper feeding of pigs and squirrels and goats and cows and horses and stoats and crows and weasels and cormorants and guillemots and badgers, both real and fictional, still lying unread in the drawer of his writing desk, and he had no one to give them to, no one to carry them away, far away, to distant buildings in distant lands where important people made important decisions about the feeding of Popsie The Pig and all the other creatures upon this planet that Carl Sagan called a pale blue dot.

Wednesday 2nd August 2006

“…went to the most best museum this side of the Pitt Rivers (a woven pram next to an altar, proudly displayed old soap, a beehive cooler, an array of shoe moulds, two copies of ‘Veneering And Its Possibilities’)…” — Ric Morris and John Gower, in a letter from Australia to Jonathan Coleclough


Fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol won fame as a sprinter, and it is not commonly known that he was also a champion player of mansfield. It is likely that his cantankerous trainer, Old Halob, kept this quiet, for mansfield is a brutal and dangerous contact sport played with agricultural shovels. It is also illegal.

To the untrained eye, a mansfield match is indistinguishable from a whirling tangle of peasants smashing each other in the face with their shovels. Jaws get broken, blood flows from head-wounds, eyes are put out, and all sorts of other head injuries are the inevitable result of a well-fought tie. There is a lot of shouting, and a lot of groaning and howling in agony. Volunteer ambulance services are usually on hand, and keen young medical students offer triage at the side of the pitch.

It is the pitch itself that tells us we are witnessing a proper sport, with codes and rules, and not just a fight in a muddy field, and it is the form of the pitch which explains why the sport is called mansfield. As with other sports, the rules developed gradually, and for many years mansfield was little more than an excuse for roaming bands of countryside persons to bash each other about with shovels, spades, hoes and rakes. Often it seems that games resulted from rivalry between one farm and another, or were a way of settling disputes about hedges, duckponds, and hen coops.

Legend has it that a passing fortune teller one day watched a particularly violent brawl in which over a hundred peasants were embroiled, a fight so blood-drenched that vultures circled overhead, and carrion crows swept in from the west. Unusually for a magus for whom the stars in the firmament were as simple to read as an infant's story about Popsy The Pig, the fortune teller had a passion for bureaucracy. As much as he could appreciate the celestial order of the universe, he was equally, if not more, concerned with the lower level order of rules and timetables and regulations, often arbitrary and senseless. They had their own beauty for him, and he was a very mundane magus.

So it was that, watching toothless and mud-begrimed peasants whacking each other brainless with a jumble of different farm implements, the fortune teller saw what no one else could see. He peered into the future and saw an organised sport, still a brutal, impassioned fight, but one which would adhere to a coherent system, a sport like lacrosse or water polo or, his favourite, ping pong. The mundane magus sat down on a tuffet of spurge and rummaged in his magus-bag, pulling out an astrological birth chart for the writer Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923). Its central circle showed a number of lines, crosses, squares and triangles, in green and red, which struck him as the perfect pitch-markings for the sport he foresaw, and are of course now familiar to mansfield aficionados in rural backwaters across the globe, wherever the game is played. On the back of the chart, he scribbled down with a thumbelina pencil a swathe of rules, ditching all farm implements but the shovels, insisting that each side belimited to forty players apiece, sketching the Katherine Mansfield bob-wigs they must all wear at the starting whistle, and adding such enticing details as the offside rule and the so-called Pantsil gambit.

Intriguingly, the magus was busy on his tuffet codifying the rules of the game on the very day in October 1922 that Katherine Mansfield fetched up at Gurdjieff's Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in Fontainebleau, where she was hoping to find treatment for the tuberculosis that was killing her. And she did find treatment, for Gurdjieff, the one time carpet salesman and ridiculous old fraud, had her chopping up carrots in the middle of the night and sleeping, when he allowed her to sleep, in a loft above the cow-barn, reasoning that the heady stench of gathered cows would benefit her. She was dead by January.

By another uncanny coincidence, she died on the day that the mundane magus blew a whistle to begin the first ever mansfield tournament where the game was played in its modern form. In the final, the Blister Lane Gaggle o' Peasantry beat the Pang Hill Orphanage Groundsmen convincingly, with a tally of forty three broken bones to six, more than double the bloodshed when measured in pails, and three players' entrails eaten by vultures as opposed to twelve.

Next week we will be looking at various tactical tips, including the notorious double-shovel to the windpipe, and how the top teams limber up for a needle match by reading Katherine Mansfield's In A German Pension aloud, huddled around a gas stove on a wild winter night.

Katherine Mansfield