Hooting Yard Archive, July 2006

The Pointy Town Seabird Rescue Service, zonk-eyed boffins, clanging bells, Jethro Tull, Anthony Burgess, and the unspeakably squalid becrumplement of an unlikely fictional character. All this and more awaits the diligent archive-reader.


Sunday 30th July 2006
“Now, if the tuning hammer is placed…”
A Note on Pigs
Tuesday 25th July 2006
“Sophistry might shake, blandishment bend, sex-affinity blight,…”
Cake and Pastry Person
Monday 24th July 2006
“I see the children growing up. I…”
The Weird Spinney
God News
Ruth Pastry Writes, Again
Saturday 22nd July 2006
“The political system is designed to be…”
The Unspeakably Squalid Becrumplement of Tadzio Gobbo
Thursday 20th July 2006
“As I searched feebly among the unmaterial…”
Reader Profile
Ruth Pastry Writes
Tuesday 18th July 2006
“Turner's head ached. He felt of his…”
Docent With a Speech Impediment
Testimony of a Tundist : The End
Sunday 16th July 2006
“The poetry is drugged, and as we…”
A Boon for Scholars
Where Are They Now? No. 12 : Tad Wensleydale
And About Time Too…
Friday 14th July 2006
“[Charles II] smilingly remarked that it must…”
The Thing
My Hero
World of Birds
Tuesday 4th July 2006
“Once, in passing through my chamber, my…”
Splendidly Useful Definition

Sunday 30th July 2006

“Now, if the tuning hammer is placed upon the tuning pin with the handle straight upward, and it is pulled backward (from the tuner) just a little, before it is turned to the right, the tension will be increased somewhat before the pin is turned, as this motion, slight as it may seem, pulls the pin upward enough to draw the string through the upper bridge an infinitesimally small distance, but enough to be perceptible to the ear. Now if the hammer were removed, the tendency of the pin would be to yield to the pull of the string; but if the pin is turned enough to take up such amount of string as was pulled through the bridge, and, as it is turned, is allowed to yield downward toward the pull of the string, it will resume its balance and the string will stand at that pitch, provided it has been “rendered” properly over the bridges. We set forth these details that you may have a thorough understanding of what is meant by setting the pins, and while it is not always advisable to follow this method in tuning, there are some pianos that will stand more satisfactorily when treated in this way.“ - J Cree Fischer, Piano Tuning

A Note on Pigs

“From the grossness of his feeding, from the large amount of aliment he consumes, his gluttonous way of eating it, from his slothful habits, laziness, and indulgence in sleep, the pig is particularly liable to disease, and especially indigestion, heartburn and affections of the skin,” wrote Isaballa Beeton in her Book Of Household Management (1861), continuing to note “To counteract the consequence of a violation of the physical laws, a powerful monitor in the brain of a pig teaches him to seek for relief and medicine.”

When he read these words, exactly one hundred years after their publication, a firestorm convulsed Dobson's brain. He had never given much thought to pigs, but now he became obsessed with discovering the precise nature of that “powerful monitor”. If he could harness its power, who knew what wonders might be achieved?

“I am going to devote the rest of my life to what Mrs Beeton calls the ‘powerful monitor in the brain of a pig’” he announced to Marigold Chew one rainy Wednesday morning in 1961, as they walked across the sodden fields towards the old kiosk for their breakfast crackers, “And I will harness it!” he added, shouting.

“You are going to become half man, half pig?” asked Marigold Chew.

“Of course not,” countered the out of print pamphleteer, and went into one of his sulks.

Marigold Chew assumed that this latest fad of Dobson's would fizzle out within hours or days, and was disconcerted a week later to find dozens of pigs lolling around in the back garden. Standing in their midst was Dobson, holding a large metal cone from which wires and other gubbins trailed.

“Where did all these pigs come from and what's that your holding?” asked Marigold Chew.

“I borrowed the pigs from Old Farmer Geistigenacht, and this is a rudimentary brain scanning machine with which I intend to locate the powerful monitor contained in the brain of each and every pig. Isn't that obvious?”

So saying, Dobson approached the pig nearest him, a plump and dappled creature of I know not what breed of hog, and tried to affix one of the lengths of trailing wire to its head. Being a butterfingers, the pamphleteer-turned-pigman failed at even his umpteenth attempt, for the pig defied all attempts to be forcibly attached to the metal cone. Marigold Chew did not offer to help, instead returning to the house to make a cup of cocoa and to play a recording by the Bodger's Spinney Dance Orchestra at deafening volume to drown out the grunting and squealing noises from the garden.

Dobson came in about half an hour later, fractious and dishevelled, his hair in a frenzy and his cone dented.

“The monitors in the brains of these pigs,” he said, “Are more powerful than Mrs Beeton realised. Even though my splendid metal cone has been dented, and its trailing wires and other gubbins frayed, rent, or in some cases detached, initial readings indicate to me that extremely interesting vibrations are being emitted, especially by the plumpest and most dappled pigs. Not just vibrations, but rays!”

He took a hammer from a cupboard and began beating out the dents in the cone.

“Readings?” asked Marigold Chew.

Dobson stopped hammering and flailed a sheaf of papers at her. There were dozens of sheets - one for each pig - and each was covered with scribbled writing, graphs, diagrams, and lists of numbers.

“The human mind,” declaimed Dobson, “Cannot correlate this stream of pig-related data. That is why I intend to harness their powerful brain monitors for my own purposes. Future editions of Mrs Beeton's Book Of Household Management will be incomplete without my majestic addendum, which will probably run to twice the length of the book itself. When I have beaten out every last dent in this metal cone, I shall place it atop my own head, sit down at my escritoire, and set to work on a piece of writing that will outshine all my other pamphlets, and will shake the world!”

As Dobson picked up the hammer again, a rustic urchin appeared in the doorway.

“I've been sent by Old Farmer Geistigenacht,” he said, in an adenoidal bleat, “He says he wants all his pigs back by dusk, for they sleep easy in their sty and out in the open of your garden they will have nightmares. If you've ever seen dozens of pigs in the grip of night terrors, you'll do as he says.”

The boy led the pigs through the house out into the lane and led them gently home. Dobson sat with the cone on his head, sharpening his pencil. But the fire had gone out of him, and he scrawled only a few sad and broken words before slumping on to the floor, where Marigold Chew found him in the small hours of the morning, dreaming of pigs, and in his dreams the pigs were happy, they were oh so happy.

A pig running away from Dobson's brain scanner cone

Tuesday 25th July 2006

“Sophistry might shake, blandishment bend, sex-affinity blight, but Jerry would stand like an oak, its young leaves among the stars, its roots deep in mother earth. Marcia Van Wyck, her black damask boudoirs, her tinted finger tips, her Freud, Strindberg and all the rest of her modern trash - there would come a day when Jerry would laugh at them!” — George Gibbs, Paradise Garden : The Satirical Narrative of a Great Experiment

Cake and Pastry Person

Many, many years ago, so long ago that you were probably not yet born, there was a cake and pastry person who drove a van around Pang Hill and Blister Lane, tooting a horn in the summer afternoons, for it seemed the sun was always shining in those far away days. Those were times when children still bought cakes and pastries from a van, a big pantechnicon painted yellow and red and pink and mauve and black.

It was also, of course, the time when people worshipped the hideous bat-god Fatso, and walked the earth in fear of his flapping wings and his shrill squeaking that churned up the innards and pierced the soul. Where, in other lands, the roads would be lined by milestones telling the distance to an important town or port, here there were hundreds and hundreds of huge stone carvings of Fatso, the visible reminder of his terrible, and terribly haphazard, power. Children were protected from the worst of his wrath, for Fatso the bat-god did not fully reveal himself until a person reached adulthood. For tinies, the stone statues were simply part of the landscape, like trees or kiosks or pneumatic power towers.

Although the bat-god is forgotten today, everyone remembers the resin hoops that were the favourite plaything of young and old alike. I am sure you know the words to the old song. “We skip and frolic and loop the loops / Along Pang Hill with our resin hoops / We skip and frolic on Blister Lane / With our resin hoops we loop again.” Sometimes children would play at tossing their hoops over a Fatso statue, giving the bat-god a necklace. Everyone knew that a hoop's resin, once resting around the stone neck of the god, would begin immediately to rot, and that by the next morning nothing would remain but a squelchy, foul-smelling string of glutinous goo, drippety-dripping on to the ground, where soon vile prickly poisonous weeds would sprout.

These were the roads up and down which the cake and pastry person's van would trundle, slowing to a halt whenever a little crowd of tinies gathered, each child clutching a cake and pastry token. In an excited gaggle, the children would exchange their tokens for cakes and pastries, and the cake and pastry person would collect the tokens in his token tin, which rattled when he shook it, and shake it he did, to hear that pleasing rattle. He beamed at the children as he handed out his cakes and pastries and took their tokens and rattled his token tin, but an acute observer might see that the beam was a false, rictus grin, for the cake and pastry person was plunged in melancholy. He remembered the innocent times when he, too, had been able to eat cakes and pastries without a care. Now, like every adult in the land, his days were consumed by a desperate need to placate Fatso the hideous bat-god. It seemed that Fatso needed more and more tokens every day, and the cake and pastry person was seldom satisfied until his tin was so crammed with tokens that it no longer rattled. Only then could he cease driving his pantechnicon round and round the roads, and park by the perimeter fence of the swan sanctuary, and take his tin, on foot, along the lane to Fatso's cave, and wait, with all the other supplicants, for night to fall and for the bat-god's lieutenants to shimmer into view. When at last his turn came, he would empty the tin into the outstretched paws of a greedy and grasping lieutenant, and plead for benediction, but benediction rarely came. Tomorrow, a bigger tin, more tokens. Thus was he commanded, in the horrible high-pitched squeals of Fatso's inhuman myrmidons. One by one, then, they would flit away with their booty into the deepest, darkest recesses of the cave, and the cake and pastry person and all the other hunched and sorry believers would traipse away, back to their huts and shacks and cabins, and try to snatch a few brief hours of sleep before dawn broke and they faced a new day with redoubled effort. As they slept, the resin hoops rotted on the statues of their bat-god, poisonous weeds crept and curled along the ground, and in the nurseries, under cover of the night, tiny children giggled with delight, happy that they had bolstered Fatso's power for another day, sure in the knowledge that tomorrow would bring more looping the loop with their resin hoops, more sunshine, and more cakes and pastries from the cake and pastry person's yellow and red and pink and mauve and black cake and pastry van.

Monday 24th July 2006

“I see the children growing up. I see the girls droop and pine in this dreary parsonage, where the winds nip, and the miasma from the churchyard chokes them. I see the handsome promising boy going to the devil - slowly at first, then by strides. As their hope fades from his sisters' faces, he drinks and takes to opium-eating - and worse. He comes home from a short absence, wrecked in body and soul. After this there is no rest in the house. He sleeps in the room with that small, persistent father of his, and often there are sounds of horrible strugglings within it. And the girls lie awake, sick with fear, listening, till their ears grow heavy and dull, for the report of their father's pistol.” — Arthur Quiller-Couch, Noughts And Crosses

The Weird Spinney

There is something very weird about this spinney, but I have a toothache, so I am oblivious to the weirdness. I have come to the spinney at the suggestion of my dentist. She is a so-called “new dentist”, one of a growing band of revolutionary tooth interventionists who have torn up the rule book.

“Go home,” she said, ushering me out of her waiting room none too gently, “Boil up a paste of sorghum, goat's milk and raspberry jam, sprinkle with hundreds and thousands, mould it into a brazil nut sized blob, and tuck it into a tiny muslin bag tied at the top with butcher's string. Go to the weird spinney and put the bag on the ground near one of the beech or sycamore trees, then go and conceal yourself behind shrubbery. In due time a squirrel will come to get the bag to add to its winter store. Oh, I forgot to tell you to have your camera with you. Grab a snapshot of the squirrel as it frisks away with your bag of paste. When you have developed the photo, make it the centrepiece of a shrine in your living room. You may add to the shrine whatever festoonments take your fancy. Four times a day, prostrate yourself before the squirrel-shrine and plead to have your toothache taken away. I have written down on this card the recommended form of words for your pleading. Now off you go.”

With that, she propelled me out into the street. Now here I am in the weird spinney, and a squirrel has taken away the bag of paste I prepared exactly as my “new dentist” prescribed. I have taken the photograph, but rather than sprinting home, I am somehow compelled to stay here, squatting in the shrubs. Perhaps that is why it is called ‘the weird spinney’, because of this overpowering sense that I am rooted to the spot, unable to leave, that somehow great peril is in store should I try to stride away across the heath to home.

I take my portable metal tapping machine from my jacket pocket and try to make contact with my dentist, but all I am able to receive are eerie howling noises, like a mighty wind announcing the apocalypse. I am about to try again when I notice that I am surrounded by squirrels, hundreds upon hundreds of them, savage squirrels with sharpened claws, ghost squirrels from an unimaginable past, phantoms in a phantom spinney, and the aching in my tooth redoubles, and the sun is blotted out and the sky is black.

God News

If, like me, you harbour ambitions to be a sort of 21st century Madame Blavatsky figure, offering an all-embracing synthesis of belief systems to the credulous and wealthy, it is worth keeping an eye on the Religion News Blog. After all, in a god-eat-god world, you can stay one step ahead by clutching every new twitching tendril of faith to your capacious Blavatskyesque bosom as soon as it appears. Recent news items alert us to some must-have additions to your cult.

So, for example, ensure that your sect incorporates a ‘blot’, a sacrificial meat offering to the ancient Norse Gods as practised by adherents of Asatru. You might also want to smash statues and tear up baptismal gowns and wedding veils like the devotees of Creciendo En Gracia, for whom 59-year-old Puerto Rican José Luis De Jesus Miranda is Christ. Like Jesus of Nazareth, he wears fine suits and diamond-encrusted rings, drives a 7 Series BMW, and, until recently, lived in a 5000-square-foot Miramar home with Corinthian columns and vaulted ceilings. He also travels with a battalion of guards who wear dark suits and conspicuous earpieces, but the running cost of this security detail is only about $300,000 per annum, so is completely affordable if you tithe your followers at the appropriate level.

Meanwhile, don't forget to co-opt Kathleen McGowan on to the shadowy ruling council of your sect. She has read Dan Brown's preposterous The D* V***i C*de very, very carefully, and has announced that she is a direct descendant of the aforementioned Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene. Of course, I am too, but I try not to make a big thing of it.

Right, Madame Blavatsky. Left, the new Jesus

Ruth Pastry Writes, Again

Another letter arrives from Dr Ruth Pastry, following her missive of 20th July (see below):

Ahoy there, Key! Once again you are up to your neck in an oozing sump of moral turpitude. In my previous letter, I selflessly offered you a series of articles on booster technologies. This is the kind of material that other websites would give hens' teeth to publish. And what do you do? Tip the wink to that Tristan Shuddery person, who barely pauses for breath before trotting out a specious, inaccurate, and thoroughly shoddy so-called history of The Age of Boosters.

Much as I would like to pick apart every last assertion in his essay, I will content myself with pointing out just one glaring inadequacy. Shuddery refers to Curpin, Todge & Tack's factory, and claims that “today, the wretched factory is a home for screeching birds and howling Wergos, who whirl and whirr ignorant of the wonders that once made its soot-blackened foundry the pride of Hoon”. Recent studies by tiptop boffins give conclusive proof that both the birds (chiefly parakeets, starlings and swans) and the Wergos (lead-lined, plastic, or composed of an unknown pulsating organic substance) are fully aware of the factory's past, for like all birds and Wergos in the vicinity, they were exposed to an exciting purple mist like something out of an M P Shiel novel and their memories (avian and pneumatic) grew godlike. No doubt you and Mr Shuddery will be nonplussed by this revelation, for you do not keep up with the latest news in the Tiptop Boffin Bulletin, as I do.

In closing, let me quote Augustus Toplady, who wrote the first version of Rock of Ages on a set of playing cards while sheltering from a storm in Cheddar Gorge in 1776. “When my eye-strings break in death, When I soar to worlds unknown,” he wrote, to which I would add, “I will soar thence on my booster-pack, happy in the knowledge that I know more about booster technology than you or Mr Shuddery will ever learn, had you ten million years in which to apply your puny brains to the topic”.

Passionately yours, Ruth Pastry.

Saturday 22nd July 2006

“The political system is designed to be dull. If anything exciting, interesting or dramatic ever happens in Dutch politics, it means that something's gone horribly wrong.” — Michiel Schwartz, quoted in David Winner, Brilliant Orange : The Neurotic Genius Of Dutch Football

The Unspeakably Squalid Becrumplement of Tadzio Gobbo

Intriguing news from the world of letters, where weedy poet Dennis Beerpint has turned his hand to a work of prose fiction. We have received a review copy of the novel, entitled The Unspeakably Squalid Becrumplement Of Tadzio Gobbo, presumably on the basis that we will give it a favourable notice and thus boost Mr Beerpint's bank balance, albeit flimsily.

“An immense mass of clotted nonsense”. That was the verdict of the magazine Teachers' World upon the first publication of Ulysses by James Joyce, and I am tempted to say the same about this Beerpint book, and leave it at that. Astonishingly, however, this thousand-page tome has already been made a set book for schools, colleges, and orphanages throughout the land, which means that your tots, if you have any, or you, if you are a tot, will have to become familiar with it. When examination time comes round, everyone's knowledge of Dennis Beerpint's fictional farrago will be tested to the full. And so, public-spirited as ever, I am going to try to save you from wasting your precious time actually reading the damn thing, by telling you what you need to know.

Plot : Tadzio Gobbo is a princeling in a fictional Renaissance city state, clearly meant to remind us of the setting of a Jacobean drama such as The Courier's Tragedy by Richard Wharfinger. As the novel opens, Gobbo is pristine, even, and uncreased. “If he were a piece of cardboard,” writes Beerpint, “he would not be of the corrugated kind.” Chapter by chapter we watch as the princeling becomes ever more becrumpled in a variety of unspeakably squalid ways, until at the end there is a deus ex machina and he is unfolded and ironed out.

Characters : Tadzio Gobbo is a crude self-portrait of the author, sharing his weediness, neurasthenia, predilection for twee verse, and hypochondria. Many of his becrumplements are accompanied by the onset of an imagined disease, such as yaws, the bindings, ague, flux, black bile, bitter colic and the strangury. Beerpint attempts to play up a certain devil-may-care foppishness, but this is never convincing. In fact it is laughably inept.

There is a host of secondary characters, the most important being Lugubrio, the princeling's mad, stiletto-wielding uncle. Beerpint is constantly harping on about his “frantic black eyebrows”, which soon becomes tiresome. Lugubrio's sole motive for all his actions, from eating his breakfast to murdering a crippled beggar, is revenge, but what or whom he is avenging is never made clear to the reader.

Other characters in the novel are a mixture of fictional, legendary, and real historical figures. Among the latter are Anthony Burgess, Edward G Robinson, Emily Dickinson, L Ron Hubbard and Veronica Lake. Beerpint thinks he is being clever by setting some of the scenes in a so-called ‘Scientology tent’ on the banks of ‘Lake Veronica’, but the effect is simply witless, and the reader will struggle not to throw the book into the fireplace.

Imagery : As a poet, Beerpint has been praised for his imagery (although I cannot think why) and The Unspeakably Squalid Becrumplement Of Tadzio Gobbo is jam-packed with all his old favourites. Crows, cows, burnt toast, pencil-cases, weather systems, the blood-spotted handkerchief of a tuberculosis patient, chaffinches, hedgerows, the horn of plenty and the Garden of Gethsemane, mud, chutes, Mudchute, potato recipes and pastry fillings, starlings, pigs, more starlings, more pigs, a nightmarish albino hen and the Munich Air Disaster are all evoked at one time or another in imagistic ways, as the princeling become ever further becrumpled.

Does the book have heft? : Yes it does.

Structure : The book is divided into forty nine chapters, fairly uniform in length. Each chapter ends with a reminder, as if the reader needed one, that a further stage of unspeakably squalid becrumplement has taken place, except for the last chapter, to which I have already referred. Beerpint is clearly fond of the practice found in the picaresque novel of summarising the plot in his chapter headings. To take a random example, Chapter XXVI is titled: “In which the becrumpling of Tadzio Gobbo proceeds apace, as his mad uncle Lugubrio unleashes a swarm of killer bees into the sports arena during a wrestling contest, and a false eclipse of the sun leads to rioting and flux; together with some notes on the flocking of chaffinches and the nesting habits of starlings, an aside in which a missing punctuation mark spells doom for an apothecary, and the reappearance of Lugubrio's lobster.”

Plagiarism or quotations : Certain passages in the book appear to have been copied verbatim from novels by Barbara Taylor Bradford, Elias Canetti, Dan Brown, and the sociopathic ex-jailbird Jeffrey Archer. Dennis Beerpint presumably considers this to be postmodernist irony, a dangerous medical condition best treated by having one's brain sluiced out with a violent purgative.

Narrative sloppiness : Untold oodles of it. It is a sloppy, flabby and slapdash book from first to last. At its core is a burning jewel of flummery and poppycock.

Brow : Neither high, middle, nor low. Not even no-brow. This book's brow is frantic and black (see above).

Bookcase location : Finding the right spot for this volume on your bookcase or bookshelf is likely to be fraught with difficulty. Dobson's invaluable pamphlet on the shelving of books, which is sadly out of print, will not help you, even if you manage to track down a copy, for as the titanic pamphleteer readily admits, “There are certain books, especially those written by twee poets such as Dennis Beerpint, which resist proper shelving on even the most well-ordered of bookcases. Top left corner? No. Squeezed in among the drivel and tat on the bottom shelf? Hardly. Shoved behind the collected works of Edward Upward and quietly forgotten? Certainly not, because you will always remember that it is there, and its hidden presence will reproach you every time you go anywhere near the bookcase, and you will be as the lowest worm or beetle or that which creepeth on its belly in the foulest muck of the earth.” Maddeningly, Dobson goes no further, he leaves us in the lurch, he refuses to say what I think he means - set fire to the damn thing in your garden, just as Burgess biographer Roger Lewis was tempted to do with a rival Life of the absurd Mancunian polymath.

Marketing ploy : Each copy of The Unspeakably Squalid Becrumplement Of Tadzio Gobbo comes with a free gift, viz. a paper bag of badger food. For that reason alone, I recommend that you buy a copy at once.

Burgess : rival biography on bonfire

Thursday 20th July 2006

“As I searched feebly among the unmaterial transparencies that were growing more and more evanescent, I saw the symbol of the little shabby figure from the road, staring in at the window. Amid a turmoil of strange gyrations, I caught a sight of him in that zinc box, huddled knees to chin like a prehistoric corpse - there was yet enough water left to cover him. Afterwards I floated for unrealised years in immensity.” — J D Beresford, Nineteen Impressions

Reader Profile

Who is the typical reader of Hooting Yard? This is a question I asked myself a few months ago, and I decided to find out. My initial thought was to do a readers' survey and subject the results to careful analysis, but instead I employed a so-called “consultant”, a private detective named Zoltan Cuspidor. What attracted me to Zoltan was that he was cheap (he asked only that I keep him supplied with breakfast cereal and butchers' pencils), indefatigable (having had his skull trepanned, he never needed to sleep), and a man of limitless charm (no examples provided).

We arranged to meet in a cow-strewn field during a thunderstorm, talked for over an hour, and later exchanged letters, which I shall reproduce here.

Dear Zoltan, I wrote, It was a great pleasure to meet you in a cow-strewn field during a thunderstorm. I am looking forward to the results of your investigation. I enclose some vouchers which you can take to that kiosk near the baking soda factory and exchange for breakfast cereal and butchers' pencils. Let me know when you need to replenish your supplies.

Dear Frank, he replied, Thank you for the vouchers. Already I have made great strides. I am reluctant to divulge my methods, but you should be aware that they are sinister, perilous, hugely complicated, troubling, fiendish, unfailingly accurate, and dastardly. Rest assured that not one of your readers will ever suspect that a clever piece of software I took the liberty of installing on your website sends an invisible pneumatic beam shooting out of the screen straight into their brains. I have much material to assess, and in fact my printer is still chugging out reams upon reams of neuro-data. One finding you ought to be aware of is that MindMap® wizard Tony Buzan is not the typical Hooting Yard reader. Indeed, he does not appear to be a Hooting Yard reader at all, an anomaly even I find perplexing, but I am sure I will get to the bottom of it.

At the beginning of May, Zoltan requested another meeting, this time at an abandoned ice rink. The ice had melted, and knots of bracken and bindweed were spreading over the site.

“There will be cows here soon,” observed Zoltan, in whose beard I could see tads of Special K, Coco-pops and Kellogg's cornflakes. I handed him some more vouchers.

“I have news,” he added.I was unreasonably excited by this, and began to jump about.

“The pneumatic brain-beam software is clogged,” said Zoltan, “It's been completely clogged up for the past three weeks, and when it gets clogged the data becomes contaminated and useless. I knew something was wrong when I tried a test and the typical Hooting Yard reader profile came out as Ghanaian football hero John Pantsil. I know for a fact he has never read a word of the site, as he is a confirmed Proustian with leanings towards Widdecombe.”

“Widdecombe?” I asked. As you can imagine, I was no longer jumping about. I was peering into the distance, watching as a few timid cows lumbered towards us, just as Zoltan had predicted.

“Ann Widdecombe, also known as Doris Karloff, the combative Conservative Member of Parliament and sometime novelist. Her debut, The Clematis Tree, was well-received, but it is not exactly what we would call a Dobsonian ubertext. Anyway, fear not! I shall unclog that which is clogged and press on with my invaluable work. I just wanted to keep you informed. And thank you for the vouchers!”

That was the last time I saw Zoltan Cuspidor. A month later, I received another letter.

Dear Frank, he wrote, Something happened when I unclogged the clogging that increased the effectiveness of my program in unexpected ways. That is why I am able to send you my definitive results so soon. You do not have just one typical reader, but a family of eighteen! This group is so homogenous that I cannot pluck one of them away from the others without bringing the whole house of cards crashing down, if you see what I mean. And so to my announcement. The typical Hooting Yard readers are a family of God-fearing Republicans from the state of Arkansas. They are Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar and their children Joshua, Jana, John-David, Jill, Jessa, Jinger, Joseph, Josiah, Joy-Anna, Jedidiah, Jeremiah, Jason, James, Justin, Jackson and Johannah. If you visit their website, splendidly named www.jimbob.info, I think you will agree that they are wholesome, toothsome and quite, quite lovely in every way. I was a little perturbed that they make no mention of their fanatical devotion to all things Hooting Yard on their site, until it occurred to me that even the happiest of families has a dark secret gnawing away at their vitals, and for the Duggars it is clearly Dobson, Blodgett, fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol, the gods of Gaar and all your other amusing characters. My work is done, but another stack of breakfast cereal and butchers' pencil vouchers wouldn't go amiss.

Jim Bob, Michelle, and fourteen out of sixteen children whose names begin with the letter J.

Ruth Pastry Writes

A package arrives from Dr Ruth Pastry. It contains a wodge of cosmetic samples accompanied by the following letter:

Ahoy there, Key! I read with interest the piece about your shrivelled docent (see below, 18 July) and I think you are barking up a gum tree, or whatever that saying is, with your conjectures about what happened to him. Forget Honved, or bees, or the grassy knoll. The clue is in that contraption he used instead of spectacles, in particular that it made use of “light-reflecting” mirrors and lenses. Something about that phrase set me thinking, so I went to have a lie down on my day-bed on my veranda in the baking heat, shaded by many parasols brought back from far Cathay. From time to time I took dainty sips from a tumbler of iced nettle and hawthorn cordial, while my cat, Boutros Boutros-Ghali IV, frisked among the hollyhocks with a ball of wool and a small, lost toad which had wandered far from its pond.

I kept mulling over the words “light-reflecting” until I had a eureka moment. Of course! “Light-reflecting booster technology”, the crucial ingredient of one of L'Oreal's much-advertised shampoo preparations! No one knows what this actually means, least of all the craven expense-account-addled plop-heads at the advertising company, but I have always been an aficionado of booster technology in all its forms, whether light-reflecting or not.

Now, my question is, did your docent ever show any interest in extreme right wing politics? The founders of L'Oreal were known for their Nazi sympathies, and in fact used a confiscated Jewish property as their HQ in the Vichy years. Could your docent have thrown in his lot with the nascent cosmetics giant and been the onlie begetter of light-reflecting booster technology? I think we should be told.

Yours running on all systems go, Ruth Pastry.

PS : If you would like me to write a series of pieces about enthralling booster technologies for Hooting Yard, just say the word.

Tuesday 18th July 2006

“Turner's head ached. He felt of his hair. Blood was matted there. It was cold. The injury had occured too long ago to have been caused by the plane. Something had struck him before it came crashing through the trees. Part of the plane wreckage burst into flames, casting an eerie glow over the marshland, and making dancing, fantastic figures out of tree shadows. John Turner stood up. The plane had cut a clean path through the saplings and undergrowth. Parts of human bodies were scattered along in the narrow opening. Sawgrass was splotched with blood. He found it possible to move now, but his feet sank ankle deep in the mire.” — Lazar Levi, Mistress Of The Undead

Docent With a Speech Impediment

When I was young, and they packed me off to school, and they taught me how to begin prose pieces with quotations from Jethro Tull songs*, I came under the spell of a remarkable docent. He was a shrivelled, partly collapsed person with hair the colour of a gorgeous sunset over the Serengeti - I think he used dye - and his bloodless lips were always puckered. He wore ill-fitting suits woven from the wool of rare goats, eschewed spectacles in favour of some floor-mounted light-reflecting contraption of many mirrors and lenses, and never varied in his lunchtime preferences, which were pie-related and frankly unspeakable. Sometimes he sported a moustache. Sometimes, when his duty was to clang bells, he clanged bells with a vigour which belied his frail health. For this docent was in fact clinging to life by a straw, had we but known it.

He was the finest teacher I ever had, and yet I never understood a word he said, for he had a jarring speech impediment. A fuse in his head had snapped, I think, so that somewhere between his brain and his mouth perfectly sensible words were turned into gibberish.

“Gnaar snad poot horbungo!!” he might say, or “Nuuurg… gaa! … pipitpipitpipit cruntuntun,” for example. Sometimes it was as if he was reciting a list of monstrous beings from the works of H P Lovecraft. “Glub glub glub,” he would mutter, “Azathoth! Nyarlothep! Shoggoth! Asenath Waite!”. If he entered the classroom with a sickly pallor, you could almost guarantee that the only sound to issue forth would be a low, growled, monotonous “goonhoooooon… goonhoooooon…. goonhoooooon”.

It was never entirely clear to me whether the docent realised that when he thought he was saying, “Let us now examine in formidable detail the film career of Hedy Lamarr”, what his listeners heard was “Durgon. Podcast. Gummo gummo. Phnag!”

In a sense, it doesn't matter. What made him such a superb educator were the diagrams he would chalk on the blackboard as he gibbered, majestic, sweeping concatenations of lines and arcs and shapes and colours and arrows and letters and numbers and boxes and circles and triangles and cross-hatching and dots and dashes and angles and planes and squiggles and tonybuzanities, fearsomely complicated yet at the same time explaining every last spark of human thought to a room full of tinies like myself. What a wonder he was.

He only taught at the school for a week, and then he was gone. It was said by some that he was poached by the Hungarian football club Honved, where he wielded the magic sponge and taught legendary striker Ferenc Puskas everything he knew. Others claimed that the docent, like Sherlock Holmes, devoted his final years to beekeeping. As for me, whenever I look at the Zapruder Footage, there seems to be something very, very familiar about Umbrella Man…

Right : Umbrella Man. Left : Fish Farm Man.

*NOTE : “Wind Up”, from Aqualung (1971), words and music by noted fish farm proprietor Ian Anderson.

Testimony of a Tundist : The End

Here is the final instalment of our thrilling serial.

The March, then, of my forty third birthday. On the first Monday in the month, in the windy afternoon, a youngster in the full flush of his hobbledehoyhood rang the bell of an imposing house in Blister Lane, a hundred yards from the Bodger's Spinney Hotel. The lad picked his nose while he waited. No one answering, and noting that the door was ajar, he crept inside, roaming cautiously through the hallway, the parlour, the ping pong room, and the larders, thinking he might find some theftworthy item in what appeared to be a deserted household. Tiptoe, he went from pantry to washroom; opened a creaking door and entered a large lounge, in which he was amazed to find a display of objects which his tatterdemalion brain could not quite grasp: a quartz wigwam; eggs of rubber tied by a thong to a yolk; an urn upon an ingot of ochre; a punnet of aspirin; a sprig of dahlia encased in a fluoride and gum hod; a jam-smeared khaki lozenge, zipped to a xylonite cake; a vellum bladder; a nugget of marzipan; a metal nose on a bust of Voltaire; a collection of x-rays depicting the zygoma of a lapdog; a kemp jupon; hyssop germinating on a fescue drill; a siphon of ambergris; pods of onyx in an ingle; an udder of yapp, the trophy of resurrectionists; and an embrocation made of wax and quince. In the midst of these startling exotica, sprawled across the carpet in a pool of his own gore, lay the corpse of the philatelist Istvan Plunkett.

The boy ran from the house to the police station. A constable ran from the police station to the house. The constable made a telephone call. A detective ran from an ice hockey stadium to the house. Imagine here the bluster and disappointment of constabulary spadework. The detective rubs his chin.

“There is only one thing for it, constable,” he mutters.

“Sir?” asks the constable.

“To the telephone, man!” cries the detective, “This is a job for Plankton Chews!”

Chews arrived some days later, accompanied as ever by the preposterous Dr Boilbag. After a brief visit to the police station, where they were fed chocolate pudding by the constable, they checked in to the Bodger's Spinney Hotel. I was carrying my bongos through the lobby, about to wheel myself into the dancehall, when I saw the unmistakeably corvine figure of my Tundist mentor, carefully examining a minuscule stain on the carpet.

“What is it, Chews?” Boilbag was asking.

“Human saliva, my dear Boilbag,” replied the sleuth, “And if I am not mistaken, the human in question is a man in his mid to late sixties, rather overweight, who wears a maroon blazer, works in a sordid insurance office, visits his dentist with alarming regularity, subscribes to The Daily Lantern, has a dachshund named Spinach, continually mislays his library tickets, once pondered becoming a Jesuit priest, will have no truck with new-fangled kitchen utensils, swats energetically at flies, uses a box camera on his sightseeing tours, and is fond of radishes. Oh, and his wife has left him and run off to join a circus.”

“By heaven, Chews!” spluttered Boilbag, “How on earth - ?”

“Come, come Boilbag, you know my methods. Apply them,” said Chews.

Fortunately for the reader, it was at this point that I interrupted. Casting aside my bongos, I called across the lobby to my mentor, overjoyed to see him. Leaving the doctor to puzzle over his inhuman genius, Chews bounded over to me. We embraced.

“Chews, Chews, what are you doing here?” I babbled.

“Your police, my dear, are idiots,” he replied, “This Plunkett business has them running around like ballbearings on the deck of a ship in a storm. Incapable of solving the case, they had no option but to call me in. As I wolfed down the chocolate pudding they kindly provided for me and my assistant here” — Boilbag had now joined us, and was boswelling frantically in his notebook with a cheap biro - “they furnished me with the details of the murder. The philatelist Plunkett had been found, shot through the brain, in the large lounge of his high house in Blister Lane. He had been dead for about four hours when the corpse was discovered by an urchin bent on felony. An examination of the house yielded nothing of consequence. Chopped up in the mortuary, the cadaver elicited on item of interest - an undigested turnip eked from the stomach. The police made a note of it, but its significance eluded them. Ha! It is always thus. Halfway through their bumbling account of the murder, I had already solved it.”

“Hell's teeth, Chews!” exploded Boilbag, dropping his biro, “Are you saying that you know the identity of the fiendish and merciless killer?”

“Come, doctor, we are both in possession of the facts. I have merely deduced from them the only possible solution. You could do the same, using the ratiocinative method.”

Boilbag spluttered and frothed.

“It is a simple enough case,” continued Chews, “Although it has one or two singular features which amuse me. Shall we repair to the hotel bar so that I can show off over a pint of brandy?”

Boilbag and I assented, and once we were sat around our table, Chews with his brandy, the doctor with a tumbler of cranston, and me with my habitual decoction of fuming slops, the amateur detective held forth. Oh, he went on and on and on, with an excruciatingly tedious self-preening tidal wave of drivel. Stamp collecting and turnips, Ecuadorian banditti, the process of digestion, a plot to disgrace an exiled monarch… it made no sense whatsoever, but there was the loyal Boilbag, scribbling it all down at ferocious speed.

I had to pay attention at the end, however. Clamping his hand on my shoulder, Chews announced that I was the culprit, and sent Boilbag off to fetch the coppers. Minutes later, Woolworth, Shuddery and Beerpint duly crashed into the bar, brandishing their handcuffs and knuckledusters. I was dragged off to prison, where I stewed for six years, until I was released following a clerical error which inadvertently included my name in an amnesty.

There is no need here to protest my innocence. Plankton Chews is dead now, and the reputation he once had is largely forgotten. That he was a great Tundist I still avow. But I never forgave him, and I never saw him again.

Let that be the end. The wind is coming in, and I have work to do.

Sunday 16th July 2006

“The poetry is drugged, and as we read [Francis Thompson's] poems through in the order of their publication, we feel the power of the poppy more and more. At last the hand seems to lose its power and the will its control, though in flashes of sheer flame the imagination shows wild and beautiful as ever. His gorgeousness is beyond that of the Orient. The eccentric and arresting words that constantly amaze the ear, bring with them a sense of things occult yet dazzling, as if we were assisting at some mystic rite, in a ritual which demanded language choice and strange.” — John Kelman, Among Famous Books

A Boon for Scholars

Reader, raconteur, wit, and Resonance FM podcasting maestro Salim Fadhley has kindly provided the technologically hopeless ingrates at Haemoglobin Towers with a Hooting Yard search facility, which you will have noted above. Harnessing the mighty power of the Dobson™ search engine, those zonk-eyed boffins at Google™ came up with an [insert mumbo jumbo] which allows you, my dear readers, to cut through all the twaddle and home in on precisely the information you require as you study for your doctorate in Hooting Yard studies.

That scalliwag Pansy Cradledew has already put this amazing new feature to the test. She writes: I have long been of the opinion that 99% of Hooting Yard is the sort of drivel I can well do without. Imagine my delight, then, to find that I can pinpoint with unerring accuracy all mentions of Little Severin the Mystic Badger, about whom I am writing a monograph.

In keeping with this new gung ho approach, I have added to the top of the page an at-a-glance note of the date of the most recent update. What will we think of next?

Where Are They Now? No. 12 : Tad Wensleydale

A haggard, wizened old man, impossibly ancient, creaks across the stage, barely able to support himself on his battered crutches, which give off a powerful stench of linseed oil and dubbin. One of his eyes is dull, even dead. The other gleams with ferocity. The lights dim, and he crumples to the floor. Curtain.

This is, of course, the end of I Was Puny Vercingetorix, a play forever associated with the great child Method actor Tad Wensleydale. Some still find it hard to credit that a tiny tot of six could be so convincing as the one hundred and forty year old antihero.

But whatever happened to Tad? Did he, like so many child actors, succumb to booze and pills before taking up an important post in the diplomatic service or the United Nations? Did he attempt to revitalise his acting career later in life by accepting cameo roles in witless films? Did he get a ghost to write a confessional autobiography freighted with implausible scenes of childhood misery?

Tad did none of these things. It is well known that he retired from stage and screen at the age of nine, after his barnstorming appearance as the demimondaine flapper in The Barn In The Storm, an award-winning drama about an old barn reduced to matchwood after being engulfed by a violent storm. As he took his umpteenth curtain call, the diminutive thespian announced that he would never appear in public again, and swept melodramatically off the stage. And indeed, it was as if he had vanished forevermore. As days turned to weeks turned to years with not a jot of news of the mighty stage-mite, so inevitably did speculative stories begin to circulate.

It was said that Tad had become a full-time Buzz Aldrin impersonator, in a scheme cooked up by the astronaut himself, a rumour regularly scotched by Aldrin, who socked more than one inquiring busybody on the jaw. Another tale had Tad grown mad and bad, filleting his foes with a shiv in a dive, a master of disguise with murderous eyes and mustard breath. Some said he had fallen in with goblins, and lived among them as their King, in a sort of goblin-pod, now underground, now high in the sky, but this was clearly codswallop.

The truth was more prosaic. Tad changed his name to Gussie Ditch, opened a pie shop in Pang Hill, and lived out the rest of his days baking and selling Pang Hill pies to the pie-eating people of Pang Hill. It was an unremarkable and irreproachable life, banal even, a life filled with pies and pie-fillings. Tad - or Gussie - rarely alluded to the meteor that was those first nine years, an infant actorly glory comparable only to the career of William Betty, “the Young Roscius”, whose grave in Highgate Cemetery is now sadly overgrown.

Tad Wensleydale's own tomb, on which a solitary chaffinch is always perched, is, as he wished, a “baroque excrescence in questionable taste”, in the words of his own last will and testament, a remarkable document baked in pastry letters, filled with raspberry jam and lemon curd, and put into a pie.

William Betty(1791-1874), the proto-Tad, “not yet mature, but matchless”, a “British tragedian with feeling and propriety, he astonishes the judicious observers of human nature”.

And About Time Too…

Episodes one to five of our exciting serial story Testimony Of A Tundist appeared between 29 April and 14 May. Due to stupidity, the continuation of this unbearably exciting yarn had to be postponed. Now at long last we are ready to proceed. Herewith, then, episode six…

Owls done with, I was ready to begin the second, more rigorous stage of my pretundistship. On a March morning frightful with gales, Plankton Chews collected me from my room and took me to an abandoned quarry. Planting me in the midst of the ghostly landscape rife with broken rocks, he took out from his pocket and held before me on the open palm of his left hand a beetle. It had an astonishing number of legs, and appeared to be sickly. We remained thus for over an hour: see Binder, chapter ninety two.

At this point in my memoir I am twenty four years old. A further two years will pass before I become a Tundist proper. I have set out to tell you something of myself, and how I was impelled to wear the Vest. That task is more or less done. I could regale you with further details of my studies, but you would begin to yawn, and flip impatiently through the pages looking for the exciting scene where I attend my first Tundist dandelion and burdock tasting.Instead, I wish to leap forward two decades. Twice, I think, I have mentioned that during my forties I was confined to a dungeon for a half dozen years. Strictly speaking the circumstances which led to that disaster are unrelated to Tundism, but I hope I will not be trying your patience if I devote my remaining paragraphs to them.

My mentor Plankton Chews was a dedicated and faultless Tundist, one of the few to have passed the Tundist and Strob Noun Test at the first attempt. As a detective, however, he was unbelievably incompetent. Whenever I think about his career as a “solver[!] of those singular mysteries which perplexed the best minds of the professional police force” my jaw drops, and my brain is dizened. (The quotation, by the by, is from Dr Boilbag, slavish chronicler of every last deductive stupidity committed by Chews. For a long time I thought that the doctor embroidered, embellished, even knowingly distorted his fatuous recollections of Chews' “exploits”. Harsh experience taught me that the credulous Boilbag was an even greater fool than his idol.)

The “singular case” that resulted in my imprisonment is recounted in The Ratiocinative Genius Of Plankton Chews (Pigbath & Spew, 19--), the seventh volume of Boilbag's ridiculous series, where it appears under the title “The Strange Affair Of The Undigested Turnip”. Simpleminded readers likely to be convinced by Boilbag's version should stop reading now, and throw this book into a furnace: there. Now, I trust that those of you still with me will give more credence to my narrative than to Boilbag's asinine pratings.

It was March again, the March of my forty third birthday. I was a Tundist of long standing, proudly wearing the Vest, and making my living at the time by playing bongos and celeste in the dance band of the Bodger's Spinney Hotel. I had not seen Chews for, oh, ten years. He had been a tireless and astute mentor, and even today I have to acknowledge that without him I may have reached the age of thirty, forty, perhaps even seventy before I was worthy of my Tundist Vest. My Tundism was nurtured by Chews, and his rigour, gusto, and sprightliness still shape the Tundist I am today, in my ninetieth year. He was there to rehearse me through the Noun Test. He was there when I sewed the string on to my punnet. He mussed my hair when I successfully located the wafers. When, at last, I donned the Vest, it was Chews who cooked the pie. And in the first few years of my Tundism, he was there as a prop, an ear, a rudder. Then I moved to Bodger's Spinney, and he was called to a distant land. We exchanged letters for a year or two, then cards on Tundist gala-days, then silence. I was busy with bongo practice, he with goodness knows what absurdities.

To be continued …

Friday 14th July 2006

“[Charles II] smilingly remarked that it must surely have been his own fault that he did not come back sooner, for he saw no one who did not protest that he had always longed for his return. One Dobson, a miller at Charlton, in Kent, burnt his windmill as a bonfire for joy.” — Professor Meikeljohn, The History Of England And Great Britain (Thanks, Max)

The Thing

It was blue, it rotated, and it smelled of birds. The blue was cerulean, the rotation was slow and juddery. It was a general sort of bird smell, one could not with any certainty say ‘ostrich!’ or ‘guillemot!’, much as one might wish to. That slow, juddery rotation was accompanied by a very faint clanking noise, so faint that a passer-by, huffing and puffing up the hill, might think he imagined it, as he reached the top, put down his bag, and lit his pipe, perplexity furrowing his forehead as he puffed on the savagely bitter cheap Serbian tobacco, the flesh around his piggy eyes crinkling. If moles or other burrowing creatures had created a temporary tussock on the hilltop, the passer-by might sit on it a while to rest his legs, perhaps take off his big boots and socks, and pick in a desultory way at the sock wool before examining his feet with greater diligence. Flesh the colour of curd, little red sores on his toes, but his eyes would be drawn to that cerulean blue, and he would forget his feet. His socks were blue, too, but that was just a coincidence. His boots were dappled and dun, like a cow's colouring might be, in a land where there were cows to be seen, unlike this land.

If fog came down and swirled about our passer-by, he would be reluctant to move. With his piggy-eyed vision occluded, that clanking noise would seem less faint, as his hearing grew sharper. Perhaps, too, once he had tapped out his pipe on a stone and the last wisps of the acrid Serbian smoke dispersed, he would become aware of the smell of birds, where there were no birds' nests.

At the bottom of the hill there is a sordid tavern where miscreants and ne'er-do-wells plot acts of the utmost fiendishness, and cackle as they do so. The tavern's walls are trimmed with gimp passementerie. It is Shrove Tuesday, so pancakes are being served. Unfortunately, the pancakes have been made with contaminated flour, and in days to come this scene will be referred to as The Mass Poisoning Horror Of Cackpod, Cackpod being the name of the village at the bottom of the hill, or one of its names, for it has others, in other tongues, this being a country of ten different languages, some of them spoken by only a smattering of citizens, and that smattering in its collective dotage.

Our traveller, with his foul pipe tobacco, is not in his dotage, and he crashes excitedly through the tavern door, having scurried down the hillside at the first hint of the fog lifting. There is something in his manner that suggests he is unused to the company of ruffians. There is a throbbing in his pituitary gland and beads of sweat upon his brow. He has of course put back on his socks and boots, and tucked his pipe into the breast pocket of his Austrian Postal Service jacket. Standing at the bar of this repulsive tavern, he asks the landlady for a refreshing, minty potage, with foam on top. He is thinking about cerulean blue, juddery rotation, and the smell of birds, and in his frazzled mind he is swept back to that day years and years ago when he danced a fandangoid hoocha with a floozie who wore a cerulean blue frock and span around like a wild thing as she danced, and though she did not smell of birds she had something of the look of a crow, bright black eyes and a corvine nose, and, yes, her hat was made of feathers, was it not?

The ne'er-do-wells ignore the newcomer, for they are too busy gobbling down the poisoned pancakes which, within hours, will find them writhing and groaning in the sawdust of the tavern floor. Emboldened by the first few sips of his foamy potation, however, the traveller asks the landlady, “I say, what is that thing on top of yon hill, that blue rotating thing that smells of birds?”

His voice is loud, and resounds in the stifling fug of the tavern, and there is a sudden silence. The landlady busies herself, pointedly polishing a tankard with a rag. Every single rapscallion stops chewing on his pancake. A dog that had been curled asleep at the foot of the pianola gets to its feet and pads slowly out of sight into a dark back room. The clock above the bar stops ticking. All is still, and silent, and heavy with menace.

Eventually - it seems as if hours have passed - the ancient dog reappears, and lies down in the doorway. The sounds of chewing and munching and clinking tankards start up again. The landlady flings her rag on to the floor and dishes up more plates piled with pancakes. Queasily aware that he has said something untoward, the traveller slurps down his potage and takes his leave, edging past the sleeping hound. He does not know that within hours all the pancake eaters will be dead and gone, that the dog is tormented by nightmares, that the tavern will be condemned and fall to ruin.

He steps outside. The sky is black. He peers with piggy eyes up to the top of the hill, but the blue rotating thing that smells of birds is engulfed in darkness and no longer visible. He turns to trudge towards Cackpod railway station. The image of that floozie flickers before him, and now he remembers how she winched him onto a ship from the rock where he had been abandoned for forty days, and how they danced and danced the tarantella, and how her frock was blue, and how she span, and how as midnight struck on the tavern clock she turned into a crow.

My Hero

This is BBC weatherman Daniel Corbett. You owe it to yourself to watch his broadcasts, tape them, and watch them again and again, in a state of bliss.

World of Birds

Dear Mr Key, writes one of the cast members of Lost, who does not wish to be identified further, I am a keen listener to your radio show on Resonance FM, and I could not help noticing that for the past two weeks you have been talking about birds, to the exclusion of virtually all other topics. A fortnight ago you regaled listeners with A Catalogue Of Fifty Three Birds, and this week you devoted your entire allotment of half an hour to the recitation of a list of over six hundred birds*. Are you a top ornithologist, or are you trying to pull the wool over our eyes by pretending knowledge where there is only a stagnant pond of ignorance?

It is always nice to receive letters from the cast members of Lost, even when - as here - there seems to be an inference that I don't know what I'm talking about. And I have to say that this is not the first time my ornithological credentials have been called into question. It is an accusation I am getting used to, sadly. Many writers of an avian bent would throw in the towel if they faced this sort of needling, day in, day out, but I am a man of almost saintly forbearance, and I shrug off such pinpricks - especially, it has to be said, when they come from people who spend their time pretending to be members of a frankly unbelievable fictional rock & roll band called something like Crankshaft, and whose guitar strumming is tuneless and vapid.

Perhaps I can end the malicious gossip once and for all by summarising my ornithological experience. My first paid job, after leaving school - it was still called a ‘school’ in those days, rather than a ‘community education hub’ - was as a filing clerk for the Pointy Town Seabird Rescue Service. Pointy Town is, of course, a long, long way from the sea, so during my three exciting years there only a handful of seabird rescues took place. I remember - oh, vividly, vividly! - a guillemot that became entangled in many bright crepe paper ribbons and was set free by judicious snipping with a pair of embroidery scissors.

(Incidentally, speaking of guillemots, I certainly know more about them than the Guardian writer who seems unaware that they are a type of bird. Does the paper employ anyone over the age of twelve these days?)

As a filing clerk I became familiar with all sorts of seabirds, not just guillemots. Terns, auks, skuas, kittiwakes and hundreds of different types of gulls came within my purview.

Then, I am ashamed to say, I fell in with a low crowd and rapidly became a denizen of the underworld. Luckily, this did not put a stop to my ornithological education, as I became involved in a numbers racket. Eh?, you ask, isn't that a non sequitur? It would be, of course, except that the numbers in our numbers racket were based on bird populations. Every morning I was bidden to go out and about counting starlings, wrens, linnets, and what have you, thus arriving at that day's numbers for the racket.

After a brush with some very tough coppers, I decided to go straight. I applied for a job as personal chef to Peter Maxwell Davies, the eminent composer, thinking that this would provide me with an opportunity to find out all about swans - including how to cook them - but he turned me down in favour of some uppity kitchen person who is now a famous television personality. I mooched about idly for a while, and then enrolled on a course of Bird Recognition Skills at the Van Dongelbraacke School Of Bird-Related Studies in Tantarabim. To meet the tutorial fees and supplement my income I worked at nights for a company that carried out owl investigations, thus extending my knowledge to birds of prey. It was around this time, too, that I had a number of singular encounters with cassowaries.

I passed the Van Dongelbraacke course with distinction, umpteen gold stars, and a badge with a profile view of a trumpeter swan in silhouette, and thus secured a position as Assistant Bird Counting Person at the newly-established Haemoglobin Towers Bird Counting Institute, generously funded with a grant from Yoko Ono. One Thursday morning we learned that the Senior Bird Counting Person had been pushed by an unknown malefactor into the path of an out-of-control pneumatic railway train. By Thursday afternoon I was installed in his place, and given his talismanic feather-and-bird-bone necklace. Subsequent investigations by the very same tough coppers who had once pummelled me under a spotlight in an underground cellar failed to prove that I was the unknown malefactor, thank heaven.

A couple of weeks later the Gubernatorial Board of the Institute recommended that my job title be changed to Uber-Omniscient Bird Chieftain. The bleached skull of a vulture was added to my talismanic necklace. I was given a personal hen, whose clucks warned me of the approach of unauthorised visitors to my palatial suite of offices at the pinnacle of Haemoglobin Towers.

My binoculars are encrusted with gemstones. Tiny hummingbirds peck grains of wheat from my hand. A booby nests in my tremendous bouffant. Soon I will become indistinguishable from the Ancient Egyptian Bird God Horus, and thou shalt bow down, bow down before me and thou shalt tremble.

*NOTE : To be precise, I read out a list of five film directors, two jazzmen, one astronomer, one newsreader (Brent Sadler), thirty four stars of stage, screen and television, and six hundred and one birds. There ought to have been six hundred and two birds, but one was inadvertently duplicated.

Tuesday 4th July 2006

“Once, in passing through my chamber, my attention was so strongly fixed on an absent person that I was not only vividly conscious of his form, but also of his voice and gestures, so that I was amazed by the lively image brought before me. I could adduce other instances from my own experience and that of others to show that in a waking and altogether normal state we may believe in the reality of the image as we do in dreams. This vivid and momentary realization of images is very common in the lower classes.” — Tito Vignoli, Myth And Science

Splendidly Useful Definition

Regular readers will have gathered that the bulk of the prose in Hooting Yard is the result of many, many hours of painstaking research. Before writing Pipistrelle Pursuivant, for example - see below, 25th June - I needed to know a lot more about heraldic bats than I did when I woke up that morning. Indeed, I had much to learn about bats, and even more about heraldry. To gain a precarious foothold in the latter, one of my sources was Pimbley's Dictionary of Heraldry. I must say, having read it in full, that this is the very model of what a dictionary can be. Seldom have I found such a rigorous approach to the act of definition. Pimbley's are clear, succinct, and remarkable. Take this, as just one example: there you are, thumbing through your heraldic dictionary, wanting - even needing - to know what is meant by the phrase ‘Barry bendy dexter and sinister’. Pimbley defines it as ‘a combination of barry and bendy dexter and sinister’. Isn't that perfect? You close the book, thump your fist on your escritoire, and furrow your brow, older and wiser than you were but a minute ago.


His name was Ned and he was a cad and a rascal. Given half a chance, he would rip a bodice while flashing his wolfish teeth. Ned had not got the hang of correct bodice-ripping, however, for he failed to understand that the bodices he ripped were meant to have fey damsels inside them. Ned simply headed for the nearest bodice warehouse, jemmied the lock, and, once inside, ripped all the bodices stored there by whichever needleworkers had made them. This made Ned hugely unpopular with the bodice-makers, and they ran him out of town.

So Ned found himself sat on a stone in the middle of a field, all rustic and rural. Here there seemed little opportunity for him to be caddish or rascally. There was not a bodice in sight, only some cows and a few hens and a pigsty down the way. Ned was disconsolate.

What he needed was a picaresque adventure. But such rollicking antics were not to be found in Tantarabim in days of yore, so Ned shredded cabbage instead. Whether or not you are fond of coleslaw, you have Ned to thank for its presence on your plate, or in your bowl, next to the cold mashed potatoes and the jumbo size sausages, as you sit in the canteen of your 26th century spaceship hurtling towards the weirdly crumpled planet where your destiny awaits.