“Out, vile jelly! Where is thy lustre now?”
This is a line from Shakespeare I have declaimed many times. But I am no actor. I have spoken the line in my role as a judge of jellies, for I am a jelly judge. I am accredited as such by the Jelly Judge And Jury Empanelment Board, the official body which regulates jelly judges throughout the land and oversees our activities. If ever you have a jelly to be judged, do make sure you look out for the badge of accreditation worn by all authorised jelly judges when on duty. If it is not displayed upon the lapel, insist on having it produced from the pocket or reticule of the person claiming to judge your jelly. You might be surprised at how many rogue jelly judges infest the jelly judging world. Be on your guard.
Also surprising, at least to the neophyte, is just how often a jelly judge has to boom that line spoken by the Duke of Cornwall in Act III Scene VII of The Tragedy Of King Lear. Sadly, in my many years of jelly judging I have learned that there is almost invariably at least one vile jelly among the jellies lined up, on a cloth-covered tabletop, to be judged. It is the jelly I try to identify first, before turning my attention to the others. I cast my jelly-alert eye over the line-up, I prod and I snort, and the vile jelly will usually become apparent. It can then be cast out and the proper business got down to. Sometimes, however, the vileness of a vile jelly can be camouflaged, by various stratagems of subterfuge or legerdemain, and in these cases the experienced jelly judge shows their true mettle. I would be mad to give away any trade secrets. Suffice to say that the vile jelly will out, by hook or by crook.
There are other unacceptable jellies, though none so vile as the vile jelly. Still, these below par jellies are the next to be winnowed out. They may be, for example, hideous or gruesome or insipid or lacking in wobbliness. Again, the experienced jelly judge, with his or her panoply of jelly judgement techniques and strategies, can swiftly consign the horrible jellies to the jelly bin, leaving only those few splendid, or alpha, jellies to be ranked. It is no easy task, and carries with it a weight of responsibility that might give the ordinary man or woman a heart attack, or worse. Hence the years of apprenticeship, and the many intermediate levels one must work through before becoming a fully qualified jelly judge and receiving accreditation, and that all-important lapel badge.
I am often asked to give talks at their community self-esteem and diversity hubs to young persons wishing to pursue careers in jelly judgement. Often they sense a generational disadvantage, in that they have not been brought up in a world where jelly and ice cream is seen as the very pinnacle of toothsome desserts, as it was when I was a tot. I was lucky if I was given a few spoonfuls of jelly twice a year, on special occasions such as the king’s birthday. These poor contemporary barbarians have been fed all sorts of puddings and treats, packed with additives and flavourings, to the point where they consider a bowl of jelly, even with a dollop of ice cream, as akin to prison rations. Teaching the young the pleasures of jelly can thus be fraught with obstacles, not least the fact that, on the rare occasions they are given jelly, it may well turn out to be vile jelly. I do not know why this is so, but I have seen it – and prodded it, and snorted it – myself, more times than I can count, in the kitchens and canteens of rich and poor alike.
My own nascent appreciation of jelly emerged not during my tinytotdom when, as I say, I had so little opportunity to feast on jelly. It came during my teenage years, specifically after my fourteenth birthday, when I received as a gift a copy of the double LP Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart And The Magic Band. Those of you familiar with the record will know how ears-widening it can be. Brought up in a home with a musical diet of Russ Conway and Kathy Kirby, I had never heard anything like it. I was transfixed. One particular track soon became my favourite, the song “Old Fart At Play”. Actually it is not so much a song as a spoken-word recitation with musical accompaniment. It was recently revived in a cover version for the television series Lark Rise To Candleford, performed in a generic BBC peasant accent, and can be listened to here.
Although the eponymous old fart claims our attention, as he breathes freely “from his perfume bottle atomiser air bulb invention”, I became increasingly fascinated by the smells which he sniffs through “his important breather holes”. The sources of these smells are listed, and the last mentioned are “special jellies”. What, I wondered, were these “special” jellies?
Over a period of months I subjected the lyrics to close, if not demented, textual analysis. I wrote all the words out in alphabetical order, then in qwerty keyboard order. I constructed anagrams, acrostics, lipograms and all sorts of other wordy flimflam. I pestered the father of one of my schoolmates, a continental postmodernist with a beard and an open-necked shirt and a pair of hornrimmed spectacles. All to no avail – I could still not fathom what was special about the special jellies. Eventually I wrote to the Captain himself, Don Van Vliet, hoping to wheedle my way into his affections by commending him on his pluck when, as a young man working as a door-to-door salesman, he tried to sell a vacuum cleaner to the astonishingly tall, half-blind, California resident English writer Aldous Huxley, shortly before the latter’s death on the twenty-second of November 1963, the day of the Kennedy assassination in Dallas. Mr Van Vliet did not reply to my letter, nor to any subsequent ones I wrote. Much later I was to discover that I had sent them all to the wrong address.
I never did find out the nature of the special jellies in “Old Fart At Play”, but my interest in jellies of all kinds was sparked. Even before I embarked on the long years of study to qualify as a jelly judge, I had become acknowledged as an expert on the jelly of jellied eels, combining my two passions, jelly and eels. I will write about eels on another day, though here I might just mention that one of the pseudonyms adopted by a member of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band, Elliot Ingber, was Winged Eel Fingerling. It is probably a good thing he joined the band only after the recording of Trout Mask Replica, or I would have had to devote further fruitless months of study to ascertaining the significance of his alias, and whether there was any connection between winged eels and special jellies.