This being an Olympic year, it is perhaps time to scotch a rumour that has swirled persistently around the world of fictional athletics for decades. You will recall that fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol is alleged to have left a written record of the gifts he received one Christmastide from his all too real coach, Old Halob. If we are to credit this list, the wily and cantankerous chain smoker had, by the twelfth day of Christmas, presented his protégé with – and it would be well to take a deep breath here – no fewer than a dozen apiece of vipers, shrews, bees, and gormless orphans, twenty-two cardboard pigs and the same number of cornflake cartons, thirty each of poptarts and rusty nozzles, thirty-six dead chaffinches and thirty-six paper sickbags, forty tufts of bindweed, plus forty-two hideous bat gods, forty-two mordant herons, and an incalculable amount of ectoplasm. I think I have done my sums correctly, but please check them if you don’t trust me.
Now, what sane person would give somebody such an array of gifts? And let us be quite clear that no non-fictional athletics coach was ever as sane as Old Halob, in spite of the chain smoking, the strangulated catarrh-racked coughing, the trenchcoat, the Homburg hat, and the irascible demeanour. Sporty historian Prudence Cindertrack confirms as much when she writes “the thing about Old Halob was that no brain doctor ever succeeded in having him sectioned to a madhouse”. I wish I could lay my hands on the source of that reference, but right this minute I can’t for the life of me remember in which of Miss Cindertrack’s sporty bagatelles I read it, so, just like my sums, you will have to take it on trust.
Of course, the authenticity of fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol’s list was called into question. Leaving aside his fictional status, it was inconceivable to many that he could ever have found time to put pen to paper, when the rigorous training regime instituted by Old Halob had him sprinting round and round and round a running track in all the hours God sends, except for those hours when he was bidden to pole-vault repeatedly over a wooden bar set ever and ever higher. Even if he was occasionally granted a breather, he would have been shaking with exhaustion and terror and unable to grasp a pen or pencil or even a crayon in his fictional fist.
For the rumour-mongers, however, these germane points could be swept aside much as an ogre might sweep aside a gnat. (I have borrowed that simile from Prudence Cindertrack, who employs it more than once in her entertaining Reader’s Digest article on the sport of gnat-swatting. I am afraid I can’t remember which issue of the magazine her piece appeared in. You might be able to find it in your local library, if it keeps a full run of bound volumes of Reader’s Digest, perhaps in the cellar or boiler-room.)
The first inkling that somebody believed Old Halob really had given fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol twelve vipers, twelve shrews, twelve bees, twenty-two cardboard pigs, thirty poptarts, thirty-six dead chaffinches, forty-two hideous bat gods, forty-two mordant herons, forty tufts of bindweed, thirty-six paper sickbags, thirty rusty nozzles, twenty-two cornflake cartons, twelve gormless orphans, and an incalculable amount of ectoplasm in a twelve-day period came when sporty priest Father “Spikes” Vestnumber gave a sermon before a vast crowd gathered in a large and important stadium. Let us remind ourselves of what he said by quoting from Prudence Cindertrack’s contemporary newspaper report.
The vast crowd in this large and important stadium gasped as one when Father “Spikes” Vestnumber declared that the reason fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol kept winning so many sprint races and pole-vaulting events was because his coach, Old Halob, was practising a blasphemous form of fictional athletics coaching based on voodoo. He challenged Old Halob to deny the charge, in public, before a vast crowd in a large and important stadium, while tethered to a post and undergoing an exorcism, with lots of poking with pointy sticks, dousing with holy water, and the insertion of burning incense sticks into various orifices. By the time the priest finished shouting, the crowd had been provoked into a seething angry mob, baying for the death of the legendary non-fictional athletics coach.
I should point out here that Miss Cindertrack’s report was cut to ribbons by an overenthusiastic sub-editor, and I have reconstructed the gist of her piece from memory and by communicating with the spirit realm.
Old Halob, being Old Halob, took absolutely no notice of the man he would no doubt have dismissed as “a turbulent priest” had he been capable of coherent speech in between expectorating copious amounts of phlegm, sputum, and bile into his surprisingly dainty napkin. But as I indicated at the beginning, the rumours have never gone away, and you will still hear, at sporty gatherings, somebody or other casually referring to “Old Halob, the voodoo athletics coach”. What these rascals never bother to explain is to precisely what voodoo use the collected items – plus an incalculable amount of ectoplasm – were meant to be put. From my breathtakingly encyclopaedic knowledge of voodoo – garnered in the main from a series of feature articles by Prudence Cindertrack in the scholarly journal Chaps In Shorts Running And Jumping And Throwing Things – it seems to me that the feathers and innards of dead chaffinches might come in handy, as might tufts of bindweed, and, at a push, mordant herons and orphans, and perhaps paper sickbags, but as for the rest of the stuff, it serves no imaginable voodoo purpose whatsoever, although some might argue that cardboard pigs, and the cardboard from cornflake cartons, and indeed bat gods and nozzles and poptarts, not to mention vipers and shrews and bees and ectoplasm, have their part to play in some of the more arcane manifestations of voodoo practice, particularly, it must be said, in the field of fictional athletics, when performed by a non-fictional athletics coach.
I am glad we have cleared that up once and for all.