The last four books of the year.
The last four books of the year.
Early indications here (with more to come) that I was a young nitwit Corbynista avant le jeremy. Thankfully, my brain did not ossify.
I have maintained a list of every book I’ve read since 1982. (I did once have an earlier list, stretching back to the mid-seventies, but this was irretrievably lost at some point, and my memory is not good enough to recreate it.) I thought it would be a fine thing to create a gallery of the covers of these many, many books, where possible showing the edition I read – not always possible when I borrowed the book from a library. Here is a first stab at the project, showing the first six books I read in 1982. The next half-dozen will appear tomorrow.
Immediately adjacent to the Duntblau Wool Shop, on the main shopping parade, is the Duntblau Nougat Parlour. This is the chief source of nougat, not only in Duntblau, but for miles around.
The proprietor of the Nougat Parlour is a fellow called Jukka-Pekka [Illegible], who can best be described as a “capsized man”. That is how he was referred to in the most authoritative book on the subject, Pen-Portraits Of The Proprietors Of The Duntblau Nougat Parlour, From Its Foundation In 1882 To The Present Day.
The illegibility of his surname is but one, telling, sign of his capsized nature. Add to that the fact that he is often to be found upside down and soaking wet, even when behind the counter selling nougat to the more confectionery-bedazzled citizens of Duntblau.
His history is curious, if shadowy. It is also dark, sweeping, flinty, error-strewn, piquant, lode-bearing, toffee-nosed, hip, hep, and hapless. Some claim it is tacky. Whichever words are used to describe his history, they pale in comparison to the pencil-drawings and diagrams which often accompany them. Many, if not most of these were executed at a single marathon session by Duntblau’s civic penciliste, Maisie Binns.
Maisie Binns herself is a woman without a history.
“One day she was just there,” reported the town blabbermouth, “Sitting on a chair near the shopping parade, scribbling in her sketchpad with a pencil. It was as if she had simply dropped from heaven. The pencil whizzed over the paper, she turned out drawings and diagrams with a felicity that can only be marvelled at. She was there, and then, just as suddenly, pfft!, she was gone. They say we shall not see her like again, but this is incorrect, as a second penciliste will be appearing shortly, God willing, if my prayers have been answered. And why should they not be?”
There is something dismal about Duntblau once one wanders far from the shopping parade. Any sense of civic oomph is dispelled the further away one is from wool and nougat. But I suppose the same could be said of virtually any cluster of buildings, any human settlement, in any of the districts of any of the regions in any of the countries in any of the continents on any of the planets in any of the solar systems.
It cannot be said of the seas. The seas are very different from the lands. The seas are soaking wet, and riddled with fish, and cephalopods, and huge aquatic monsters which suddenly crash to the surface and overturn our puny human boats, capsizing them, and all who sail in them.
Nimrod Im Duntblau is an opera by Horst Gack, the contemporary composer famed for his startling bouffant, ill temper, and near-fatal coughing fits. It is both unfinished and unperformed. Several extracts have been recorded, at gunpoint, by the Loopy Von Straubenzee Jug Band accompanied by one-time popstrels Ingmar & Hetty, the so-called “terrifying singing twins”. Horst Gack himself pointed the gun.
In Act One, Scene One, Nimrod arrives in Duntblau. The “mighty hunter before the Lord” is, appropriately, on a hunting expedition. He sings that he has heard much about the fabled Chicken of Duntblau, which he means to hunt down, pinion, and strangle with his bare hands.
He is overheard by Schwindi, the Duntblau Postmistress, who is hiding behind an arras. When Nimrod exits, she appears and sings the plaintive ballad “Must we swim yet again in the blood of chickens?”
Horst Gack has yet to write scenes two and three, but in Act One, Scene Four we find Nimrod, alone in the graveyard of St Bibblybibdib’s church, leaning insouciantly against a tombstone, smoking a fag, and muttering to himself. Because the muttering is punctuated by occasional thumps of a kettledrum, Horst Gack counts this as an arietta.
The only other scene yet completed is Act Seven, Scene Forty-Two. Schwindi is standing outside the Duntblau Chicken Sanctuary, holding a placard and singing a dirge. Critics have been sharply divided over this lengthy number. In the Macclesfield Tomato Sellers’ Weekly, Trilby Baxter dubbed it “a dire dirge, the direst dirge I ever heard”. (This sentence was abstracted by Dennis Beerpint, who used it as the first line of one of his twee verses, where “heard” is rhymed with “bird”, “curd”, “furred”, “bird” again, and “erred”.)
On the other hand, writing in the journal Dirges By Gack, Giles Pipstraw commended the piece as “possibly the most magnificent dirge moaned by a postmistress holding a placard outside Duntblau Chicken Sanctuary ever committed to sheet music by your friend and mine, Horst Gack!” (The overexcited Pipstraw in fact added nine more exclamation marks, which I have omitted for reasons of space.)
Other critics have ignored the dirge entirely, waiting, some would say wisely, for the opera to be finished before they pronounce upon it.
CDs of the recorded extracts can be obtained at jumble sales, charity shops, and as part of the contents of a jamboree bag available from spivs lurking in insalubrious alleyways in certain ill-starred seaside resorts, but not in Duntblau.
Ingmar & Hetty are currently on tour with their “Eighty Years In Showbiz And Contemporary German Opera” special extravaganza.
The sun is a ball of flames. It feels like a torrid southern summer … I can see a port. People are strolling in the shade of the high harbour walls. Shop doors are open wide. Aromas of tropical fruit fill the air with their fragrance. Peaches, oranges, apricots, raisins, cloves, and pepper all give off their wonderful scents. The asphalt steams after being sprayed with water. I can hear the strident, guttural tones of Persian merchants offering their wares. My God! How marvellous it smells here! How pleasant is the tropical air!
Suddenly my foot tripped over my ski pole. I quickly steadied myself against the kayak, opened my eyes wide, and was dazzled by the sun. For a moment I did not know where I was. What had happened to my tropical port? How the devil had I been transported to this icy wasteland?
“What happened?” asked my companions. “Nothing,” I answered, “I tripped over my pole. The boreal landscape unfolded once more before me in an infinite expanse, and the sun which had fleetingly brought me such joy now sought only to blind and torture me.
Yet the hallucination did not completely vanish. My nose was still filled with the aromas of Mediterranean fruit. My companions were not conscious of my present condition. What did it mean? Was I ill? I shut my eyes tight once again. I was like an automaton, moving rhythmically with the pole in my right hand, and once again I could hear the monotonous tune: “Far to go, so very far!”
But what I had just experienced continued to trouble me. For strangely enough I had never liked those aromatic fruits. They had never tempted my palate.
Valerian Albanov, In The Land Of White Death : An Epic Story Of Survival In The Siberian Arctic (Pimlico, 2001)
It has been said that the sky above Duntblau is rife with fulmars, but I have never seen one. And I have gazed up at that sky for hours, more hours than I can count, lying on my back on a lawn outside a hotel, searching for fulmars. It’s what I do. Nobody pays me.
Now, about this hotel It is you know what?, quite honestly, what do you expect me to say about a hotel in Duntblau? It’s not as if I’ve ever stayed in it. I doubt they would let me in, in my foetid rags, without a hat to my name, and the whiff of soup-gone-bad on my breath.
I read somewhere a recipe for fulmar soup. As I recall, you first had to obtain a brace of fulmars, which is easier said than done, particularly if there is not a single one to be seen in the sky above the hotel you are lying on the lawn outside of. I think my grammar is impeccable there, though I wouldn’t swear to it, not that anybody is likely to make me.
The recipe was in a book called 26 Bird-Based Soups. I seem to recall it was an A to Z of birds, but I don’t remember what the other twenty-five were, whether A was for auk or albatross, B for budgerigar or bananaquit, you can fill in the rest, with the aid of a dictionary of ornithology, if you have one, or from whole cloth, if you haven’t.
I don’t have a dictionary of ornithology, but I am working on a dictionary of hotel lawns. Not all hotels have lawns attached, did you know that?, but the one in Duntblau does. I often lie on it looking up at the sky, hoping to spot a fulmar. That is the hotel lawn I have started to write the entry for in my dictionary. Others will follow. I hope to interest a publisher.
Publishers are a funny lot. They used to be men wearing tweed and smoking pipes. Now they all seem to be twelve-year-old girls. Do they even know what a fulmar is?
I can’t remember how old I was when first I learned about fulmars. Possibly eight. We had a teacher at my primary school who was simply mad about birds. He was mad about a few other things too, like kings and queens and cornflakes. He was meant to be teaching us forensic criminology, but he was always getting carried away with his pet subjects. I think he was drafted to Vietnam, and killed at Khe Sanh.
Birds have often played an important part in wars, particularly pigeons. What valiant birds! They risk their little lives for us, with no hope of reward save the occasional handful of millet.
It is a curious fact that, lying on the lawn outside the hotel in Duntblau, gazing at the sky, not only have I never seen a fulmar, but nor have I ever spotted a pigeon, and at least I am one hundred percent sure what they look like, which I have to admit is not quite true of fulmars, the precise lineaments of which I have never been certain, not even when I was eight, and Mr Uganugu raved about them during several forensic criminology lessons in a row, Thursday afternoons at 2.15.
Oh, life held such promise then! I was an eager pupil, and the world lay before me, rich and ripe with possibilities. I had yet to discover gin and floozies and high debauch.
I was born in Duntblau, above the wool shop, at the beginning of our night that lasts for half a year. The alignment of the stars in the sky over Duntblau did not augur well. Shortly after my birth, the Woohoohoodiwoo Woman paid her visit, creaking up the fire escape to my parents’ flat above the wool shop. She cast her twigs and pebbles upon the floor, and descried signs in the steam rising from her bowl of boiling ducks’ blood. She announced that, though I was not exactly a cursèd child, still, I was a tot inwardly hobbled, morally and comprehensively. There was no force in the universe that could ever come to my aid. Mama poured the ducks’ blood down the drain while Papa paid the Woohoohoodiwoo Woman her stipend. As she creaked away down the fire escape, my infant wailing woke every sleeping soul in Duntblau.
Three decades and three more years passed, with little or nothing of remark, until one day Papa called me down to the back room of the wool shop.
“Shambeko,” he said, “You have now reached the age Christ Jesus was when he was so cruelly nailed to his cross. It is time you left Duntblau, to make your way in the world.”
I begged Papa to allow me to postpone my leaving for six months, when there would be daylight, but his mind was made up. I was to quit the wool shop immediately, and Duntblau as soon as possible thereafter. As I minced out of the door, Mama handed me a snack and a bag of whatnots.
When I was out of sight of the wool shop, I collapsed on to the pavement and ate my snack, a fish-paste whirl and a plum. Then I rummaged through the whatnots in the bag, but my fingers were sticky, so I tipped the contents on to the pavement the better to grasp their quiddities. Suddenly dozens of birds swooped from the Duntblau sky, grabbing the whatnots in their beaks, and soaring away, up, up, until they vanished into the black starless night.
After a while I rose to my feet and continued along the street, or rather, boulevard. This was one of the main thoroughfares of central Duntblau, and was named after Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick, and Tich, huge cement statues of whom stood, upon tawdry plinths, at intervals from east to west. It so happened that, a couple of schtapps past the Beaky statue, where I had snacked and had my whatnots abstracted by birds, there was an alleyway leading off the boulevard to the left, and down this alleyway was the kiosk of the Woohoohoodiwoo Woman. I was minded to go and have a word with her, but just as I was readying my legs to make the required turn, I was set upon by an assailant.
It was not the first time in my thirty-three years to heaven that I felt the bash of a bludgeon on my bonce. Violence stalks Duntblau in the long night. But I had never before been knocked unconscious for such a protracted period of time. When I came to, sprawled in the gutter, I heard the toots and bangs and bellowing of improvised oompah band music, and saw the massed papier-mâché puppets of Duntblau noteworthies being carried aloft. It was the Saint Bibblybibdib’s Day Parade! I must have been lying in the gutter for a fortnight!
I knew Papa would expect me to be a lot further away by now, possibly gone from Duntblau entirely. I knew, too, that he was likely to have employed the private detectives Perkins & Throwback to scour the streets for any sign of me. He was that kind of Papa – rigorous, righteous, mad. I had to make myself scarce.
I scuttled off down an alleyway. It was a different alleyway to the one where the Woohoohoodiwoo Woman had her kiosk, but there is that old saying in Duntblau “All alleyways [something something] / But [something] a ha’porth for a kiosk”. Above me the shroud of night lay heavy upon the souls of embittered men and their wan, pale wives. The alleyway was scattered with dustbins and corrugated cardboard and dead or dying kittens. A dribbling sot lurked in a doorway, shaking his fist at nothing. I pulled up my collar as I passed him by. How does that song go?
I pulled up my collar as I passed him by,
Little suspecting he was a private eye,
Either Perkins or Throwback, hired by my dad.
The end of this story is going to be sad.
The end of this story is going to be sad. No longer feigning sottishness and the dribbling that accompanies it, Perkins, or it might have been Throwback, grabbed me by the shoulders and pulled a sack over my head. I was overcome by the pong of bladderwrack. The private eye prodded me in the back and told me to start walking. So, sightless, I walked, or tottered, Perkins or Throwback guiding me like a dog.
Also like a dog, indeed so much like a dog that it actually was a dog, was a dog that started trotting alongside us after we had been walking for, oh, I don’t know, call it a few miles. At some point we began to go uphill, at a steeper and steeper gradient. I was panting. The dog was yapping. Perkins or Throwback seemed tireless, humming a varied selection of tunes by Rodgers & Hammerstein, Rodgers & Hart, Leiber & Stoller, Brecht & Eisler, Ashford & Simpson, Flanders & Swann, Goffin & King, and Holland, Dozier, Holland, Dozier, Dozier, Holland, Holland, Dozier, Holland, Dozier, Dozier, Holland.
Eventually, we stopped. The private eye muttered something menacing, and I heard him trudging away. When I thought it safe to do so, I pulled the sack off my head and looked around. We were high up in an important mountain range, muffled by snow, and ice, and a thick, swirling, freezing mist, a white nothingness. The dog had stopped yapping and was gazing up at me adoringly.
“Toto,” I said, ” I’ve a feeling we’re not in Duntblau anymore.”