Unspeakable

Browsing in the basement of a dust-choked and unkempt secondhand bookshop, I found on the floor a slim pamphlet entitled A Guide To The Care And Feeding Of The Internal Combustion Monkey. The author’s name was not given, but there was a picture of him below the title, a cad, a cad wearing a cravat, with a Terry-Thomas moustache and a glint in his eye. That glint, I assumed, that cad’s glint, was the glint that led him to envisage, and then to invent, the internal combustion monkey. Why did he not wish to crow his name from the rooftops, or at least to print it on his pamphlet?

I picked up the pamphlet, and purchased it (thruppence), and made it my life’s work, from that hour, to find out exactly who this cad was, to give him a name, to slot him into his deserved place in the history of this our island’s glory.

I began with the cravat. In the picture on the pamphlet it was black and white, but I felt sure the real thing, when tucked around the neck of the cad, had been bursting with colours. Which colours? I made multiple photocopies of the picture, and spent two years, armed with crayons and watercolours and state-of-the-art pigment-staining technology, working out the colour combinations most likely to have emblazoned the cravat of the cad. It was thirsty work, and I drank a well dry. This did not sit well with the well’s owner, a florid bumpkin plagued with whitlows, who evicted me from my chalet anent the well. And so I roamed the hills, reduced to just a few crayons, but with my portfolio of photocopied hand-coloured cad portraits intact, tucked in a satchel slung over my good shoulder.

There was, up in the hills, the salon of a cravatteuse, and I made no bones about badgering her. One by one I waved in front of her the photocopies, much as a conjuror might deploy a deck of playing cards for a magic trick, until, at last, she stopped me, by pointing her finger decisively at the photocopy of the cad in which I had coloured his cravat in swirling curlicues of baize-green and fire-ant-red and Lee Harvey Oswald beige, with a few subtle tints of indigo, cerise, puce, chartreuse, mauve, mauve, and more mauve.

That is his cravat!”, she cried.

And who is or was he?” I asked.

Her eyes narrowed. Her lips puckered. Her dog, sitting at her feet, snarled. I felt a sudden mortification of the bowels.

He was an unspeakable cad!” she cried, and she had her dog chase me out of the salon, and further up into the hills, where the air was thin, and the promontories dizzying. I had left my satchel and crayons and sheaf of photocopies at the salon, but clutched in my good hand the only photocopy that mattered, the one with the accurate rendition of the colour scheme of the cravat sported by the cad. And I knew, now, what I had not known before, that his name was unspeakable.

I remained in the hills for several years, living on rainwater and birds felled with well-aimed pebbles. Slowly, gradually, I came to understand that, if the name of the cad was unspeakable, then it had never been spoken, that nobody knew what it was, leading to the inescapable conclusion that, thus unknown, it could not be written down, which was why it did not appear, printed in big bold black letters on the cover of the pamphlet the cad had written about the care and feeding of the internal combustion monkey.

And so I came down from the hills, and adopted a new life as a bargee on an unimportant canal, and I sprouted a Terry-Thomas moustache, and, yes, yes!, I too wore a cravat, of baize-green and fire-ant-red and Lee Harvey Oswald beige, with a few subtle tints of indigo, cerise, puce, chartreuse, mauve, mauve, and more mauve, and whenever I was asked my name, by other bargees or by, say, canalside picnic persons. I shut my mouth, and kept it shut, and said nothing.

Choruses For Doris

I was discussing the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen with the ghost of his first wife, Doris.

Is it true” I asked, “That Stockhausen was covertly funded by the CIA in an attempt to demoralise German culture after the Second World War?”

Doris was one of those mute ghosts we’ve been hearing so much about lately but I hoped she would either nod or shake her head in reply. But her phantom head remained motionless atop her phantom neck, jutting at a disconcerting angle from between her phantom shoulders, draped in a shawl of surpassing loveliness which was all too real, as I knew because I had touched it, when gently pressing her down into her chair.

Well, not her chair, but a chair, the chair into which I press all my ghostly visitors. Unless you get them firmly nestled, they have a tendency to float and flit about the room, and even to splay themselves across the ceiling. Not all ghosts come when I summon them, but Doris did. A few seconds after my ear-splitting incantation, there was a faint tapping at my door. I opened it, and there, already, was the ghost of Doris Stockhausen. She handed over my fifty-pfennig fee, in cash that was pleasingly of this too too solid world – I checked – and allowed herself to be ushered in, and settled in the chair.

But I had not reckoned on her being a mute ghost. She sat across from me, fixing me with her baleful countenance, silent as the grave from which I had summoned her. With no prospect of the conversation I had so looked forward to, I went to rummage among my cassettes until I found the tape of her ex-husband’s Stimmung. I wondered if, hearing it again after all these years, Doris might be in some measure animated.

When I returned to the room, Doris had escaped her chair and was splayed across the ceiling. The surpassingly lovely shawl was hanging from her phantom shoulders, so I gave it a tug, hoping to dislodge her. And indeed, she lost contact with the ceiling, hovering in mid-air for a moment before darting this way and that, finally settling atop a toffee cable. Oops, I mean a coffee table. Using thumb-tacks, I secured the shawl to the table, holding Doris in place. The table was one of those fashionably distressed coffee tables, so the addition of a dozen tack-pricks would only add to its faux dilapidation.

There was every possibility that the ghost of Doris could slip or waft from beneath the shawl and go skittering about. I slotted the cassette into the cassette player, pressed “Play”, and cranked up the volume.

Let us listen to Stimmung, Frau Stockhausen!” I cried, with perhaps an excess of jollity.

The tape hissed, and then the room was filled with the sound of a German man moaning melodiouslyish. Startled, I saw Doris suddenly clap her ghostly hands over her ghostly ears. Then she began to vibrate, horribly. I turned the music off, but it was too late. With a whoosh!, Doris shot up to the ceiling, taking the surpassingly lovely shawl and the coffee table with her.

Try as I might, I could not coax her down. Not only was I unable to use my coffee table to display my coffee table books, of which I owned oodles, but soon enough Doris outstayed her allotted time in the realm of the living afforded by the fifty-pfennig fee. Six weeks later she was still there, clinging to my ceiling, the shawl and table swinging gently beneath her in time with her ghostly panting. I had not realised how violently ghosts pant, particularly the mute ones.

At my wits’ end, I consulted a local spirit medium who specialised in the demoralisation of German culture in the aftermath of World War Two. He was a rather curious fellow. His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion, and his straight black lips. His voice was booming and monotonous, empty of human expression and lacking any variation in tone or cadence.

Hand. Me. That. Cassette. Player.” he boomed, standing directly beneath the ghost of Doris and the shawl and the coffee table.

I did his bidding, and he took from his pocket a battered cassette tape. I shall never forget what happened next. He plopped the cassette into the machine, pressed “Play”, and cranked up the volume. There was the familiar hiss, and then the sound of a capella German voices warbling melodiously, with no ish about it, the first of the Choruses For Doris, by Doris’ ex-husband Karlheinz Stockhausen.

The spirit medium stepped – or rather, lumbered grotesquely – to one side, and the ghost of Doris let go of the ceiling and wafted elegantly down, shawl and coffee table and all, the table landing with a slight bump on the floor. As the chorus continued, the medium removed the thumb-tacks one by one. The ghost of Doris rose slghtly, hovering just above the coffee table, shimmered for a few seconds, and then seemed to dissolve before my eyes. Weirdly, that indubitably real unghostly shawl, of surpassing loveliness, dissolved with her. Then, even more weirdly, the spirit medium dissolved too, taking a handful of my thumb-tacks with him into ethereal realms beyond my puny understanding.

I was alone in my room, listening to the Choruses For Doris, and thinking to myself that postwar German culture had not, after all, been demoralised, in spite of the alleged efforts of the CIA.

Forgotten Head : A Childhood Memoir

On this day, six years ago, I posted this memoir of childhood. Rereading it just now made me laugh. I hope it will make you lot laugh too.

There is a phrase I recall from my childhood, regularly used by my mother (above) when I – dippy and dreamy – was getting ready for school in the mornings.

One of dese days,” she would say, in her Flemish accent, “You will go out widout your own head.”

Pish!, I thought, That is alarmist talk!

But then one winter’s morning my mother’s prediction came true. I set off for school in the wind and snow, having left my head snoozing on the pillow. I suspect the people I passed in the street must have been astonished at the sight of a boy without a head, but I cannot say for sure, because of course I was completely unaware of them. My ears and eyes, lodged as they were in my head, were warm and snug and still abed.

So familiar was I with the route to school, along the lane and past the duckpond and the fireworks factory and through the tunnel under the motorway and then along the canal towpath and past the aerodrome and the vinegar works, that I had no need of my head to get me there. It was only when I sat down at my desk in the classroom that things went awry.

In those days, you see, we were taught such piffle as reading and writing and arithmetic and Latin and history, so my not having a head sent the teachers into a kerfuffle. I’m told there was some kind of emergency meeting in the staffroom – a fug of pipe-smoke then, of course – and I was put in isolation in the sickroom while they worked out what to do. How much more enlightened would things be today! Head or no head, I am sure there would be no attempt to exclude me from the diversity and self-esteem lessons. Indeed, my headless presence would be seen as a benefit, both to myself and to my fellow pupils, and to the teachers themselves. In fact, I would probably get a prize, just for not having a head. On the rare occasions prizes were dished out in those far off days, they were invariably book tokens, and I would certainly not have got one for not having a head. Now, I could expect something useful like a new app for my iPap, or a voucher for Pizza Kabin.

But back then I was kept locked in the sickroom, excluded and with my self-esteem crushed, all because I’d come to school without my head. I would like to say that I sat there reflecting ruefully that my mother had been right all along, but any reflection, rueful or otherwise, wasn’t possible without my head, resting happily on the pillow back home.

What happened was that the school called in a local doctor, who made a snap diagnosis after looking at me for about three seconds. He didn’t even use his stethoscope. Puffing on his pipe, he informed the headmaster in a grave doctorly voice that I showed all the symptoms of not having a head, and the best treatment was brisk exercise in the open air. So they sent me running round and round the athletics track all day, until the bell rang at home time. I got a ticking off from the gym teacher, to which I was thankfully oblivious, and then I was pointed in the direction of the canal towpath and told not to forget my head again or there would be ramifications. Yes, they used to use long words like “ramifications” even with headless tinies! What a different world it was.

I trudged home in the wind and snow, went up to my bedroom, plopped my head back on to my neck, and sat down to warm myself in front of the gas fire. How could it be, I wondered, that the school was even open in such inclement weather?

Soon it was time for tea. We had sausages and mash. It was only as I sat down at the table and tucked my serviette under my chin that I realised I’d put my head on back to front.

Babbling About Puppetry

Listen here to yesterday’s edition of Hooting Yard On The Air which devotes much time to puppets, both shadow- and glove-, neither of which are usually found on the radio, for obvious reasons. The show includes rather ramshackle recitations of From The Mountains To The Sea, A Family Of Goatherds Unparalleled In Their Rapacity, Two Sparrows, A Person Of Unhinged Mien, Tuesday Weld Goes Berserk, and New Verse By Dennis Beerpint.

Juvenilia

One day late in the last century I acted as amanuensis to my son Sam, then a tiny tot. He told me a story. I wrote it down. Then I typed it out and made it into a pamphlet entitled The Story Of The Castle, The Knight, & The Dragon (out of print). Here is that story.

Once there was a brave knight and the brave knight heard a sort of dragon noise.

And when he heard it he went to tell his gang of knights to search for the dragon and kill it. And they couldn’t find it.

Well, in the end they found it and they killed it and they went to tell the king and queen and the prince and the princess and all the other people in the kingdom – when they found there was another dragon!

And the king ran up to the chain and he pulled the drawbridge up so the dragon couldn’t get in. And the queen looked out of the window to see if the dragon fell into the water round the castle (the moat).

And the dragon had flown over the mountains and ran back as fast as it could and butted the drawbridge open.

And suddenly the king and queen were surprised, because the brave knight put a spear into the dragon’s tummy and the dragon was dead. So the knight went to tell the people in the kingdom.

Then they saw that the dragon came alive again. And it was a magic spell when the dragon came alive again because the dragon was nice really.

And they found out that it could speak and it said to them that it would do everything for them in the kingdom. It would even find the cannonballs for them. And that’s the end.

Hendiadys In Mudchute

And further, let it be known, known and digested, known and digested and regurgitated, regurgitated in the form of words, that it be known better, that in the last century Mudchute was the home of a monomaniac. Actually, to call Caspian Sea Spanglebag a monomaniac is not strictly true, for he had not one but two abiding obsessions.

The first, which is of little interest to us, was his conviction that the tyrant of the Soviet Union was called Josef Starling, while the heroine of Thomas Harris’ The Silence Of The Lambs was named Clarice Stalin. Being bonkers, Spanglebag was unmoved by the facts that the moustachioed and heavily pockmarked dictator chose the pseudonym “Man of Steel” in preference to his real name of Djugashvili, and that the troubled FBI rookie is a fictional character.

But it was the Mudchute man’s belief that hendiadys is a disease afflicting poultry, rather than a figure of speech, which consumed most of his energies. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Spanglebag declared war on the makers of dictionaries, lexicons, grammars and encyclopaedias. Most of the major publishers of reference books have somewhere in their archives a fat file containing letters with that Mudchute postmark, all written by pencil in tiny, tiny handwriting, their tone varying from mild complaint to violent menace. One example will suffice.

I purchased the latest edition of your wordbook, writes Spanglebag on 23rd June 1989, and was surprised to see you define hendiadys as “a figure of speech in which two words connected by a conjunction are used to express a single notion that would normally be expressed by an adjective and a substantive; the use of two conjoined nouns instead of a noun and modifier”. You then go on to list instances from the Bible, such as “a mouth and wisdom” in Luke 21:15, and “the hope and resurrection of the dead” in Acts 23:6. I do not take kindly to spending money on such drivel, and have torn your worthless book to shreds, and I would have scattered those shreds to the winds from atop a hill, were there any high hills in Mudchute, which there are not, so instead I steeped the shreds in buckets of water until they were but pulp, yes! pulp. Please correct your gruesome error in future editions, or I will ensure you become the laughing stocks of the reference book world, and you will weep with shame.

Note that Spanglebag sees no reason to advance his own belief that hendiadys has something to do with sick poultry. To him, it would have been to point out the obvious, like saying that water is wet, that the Pope is Catholic, or that Hooting Yard is by far the loveliest thing on the wuh-wuh-wuh, and not just by far, but far and away, away with the fairies, tiny delicate shimmering beings with wings, which, if they exist, exist only in Cottingley, where they are made of paper, and held in place in the garden by means of pins.

How pertinent is the fact that this odd little man, Spanglebag, lived his whole life in Mudchute, only rarely roaming farther afield? I think it is crucial. It made him what he was, even before the construction of the Docklands Light Railway. It is as if he embodied the spirit of the place, Mudchute’s mud and Mudchute’s chute, the caked, black, stinking mud and the gleaming metal chute down which it slides and slithers and tumbles, into god knows what foul pit of hideousness and eeuurrgghh.

[This is a mildly tweaked version of a piece which originally appeared in August 2005. Can it really be so long ago? Yes, it can. It is.]

Peep, Bo : Lecture Transcript

Good evening, and thank you for your warm welcome. Well, warm-ish. The clapping petered out rather quickly, and I must say that other audiences, in other auditoria, have shown a sight more enthusiasm. But there we go. I am not complaining. This lecturing lark is much preferable to being out and about in all weathers in the company of sheep, dim-witted and fearful beasts that they are. It is more lucrative too.

But I should introduce myself. My name is Bo Peep. I am often known as “Little” Bo Peep by dint of my diminutive stature. I don’t mind being called “Little”. It has an affectionate ring. But I do object when some newspapers compare me to a dwarf from a Wagner opera. Clearly, the organisers of tonight’s event expected me to be smaller than I am. What a tiny lectern!

The one thing most of you will know about me is that I lost my sheep. I do not deny it. Quite why it caused such a kerfuffle in the press is a mystery to me. I became the poster girl for neglectful and inept shepherdesses, and even now I can barely leave my cottage without some mucky little country urchin calling out to me to ask where my sheep are. It is a trying existence.

Thus I welcome this opportunity to tell my side of the story. It all happened on one of those blustery misty wuthery weathery days, in some godawful rustic backwater. As usual, I was sitting in a field, supervising several sheep. My childhood ambition of intergalactic space travel, of boldly going where no Peep had gone before, seemed as far off as ever. Bored out of my considerably acute mind, I drifted into a doze. And as I dozed, I dreamed.

I dreamt of the moon and a yew tree. The light was blue. Grasses prickled my ankles, and I simply could not see where to get to through the fumy, spiritous mists. The moon dragged the sea after it like a dark crime. Bells startled the sky, eight great tongues affirming the Resurrection bonged out their names. The yew tree pointed up. It had a Gothic shape. The moon was my mother. Her blue garments unloosed small bats and owls. She was bald and wild. The message of the yew tree was blackness, blackness and silence. I started awake, rubbed my eyes, and saw that the sheep I was meant to be shepherdessing were gone.

My immediate hunch was that they had been abducted by a band of roaming Wagnerian dwarves. I had read of several such crimes in the Daily Nibelungenlied And Countryside Advertiser. So, with the gung ho approach for which we Peeps are universally admired, or if not universally then at least in and around Sibodnedabshire, I hoisted my crook and marched off to the newsagent’s kiosk, under those pollarded willows by the canal just before the level crossing at Ketchworth.

It was not the Advertiser I was looking for. It so happened that this newsagent kept in stock various seventeenth-century tracts, including Dagons-Downfall; or The great IDOL digged up Root and Branch by Roger Crabb, A Fiery Flying Roll by Abiezer Coppe, and The Neck of the Quakers Broken by Lodowicke Muggleton. The one I wanted – obviously – was The Lost Sheep Found by Laurence Clarkson. After a close reading of this pamphlet, I felt sure I would be able to locate my sheep, and they would no longer be lost.

I purchased a copy and repaired to a bosky arbour to read it. I had barely digested the opening paragraph when I was set upon by a vulgar mechanic. He was a repellent and vile and filthy fellow, not unlike a Wagnerian dwarf, though considerably taller. I cried “Unhand me, sir!”, and smashed him in the face with my shepherdess’s crook, neatly breaking his jaw. “Woe betide those who mess with a Peep!” I added, kicking him in the head as he lay sprawled and whimpering beneath a plum tree’s slender shade. Above us, in the shining summer heaven, there was a cloud my eyes dwelled long upon. It was quite white and very high above us, then I looked up and found that it had gone, just like my sheep.

In the course of bashing up the vulgar mechanic, I had inadvertently dropped my seventeenth century tract into a puddle, and not just any puddle, no siree, but a muddy puddle, the muddiest of muddy puddles it had ever been my misfortune in which to inadvertently drop a seventeenth century tract. Laurence Clarkson’s timeless sheep-finding words were rendered wholly illegible. What was a poor Peep to do?

It was at this point, just as I was venting my vehemence upon the sprawled mechanic by biffing him several more times with my crook, that I heard distant baas. Now, in my experience as a shepherdess in and around Sibodnedwabshire, this sound could mean only one thing. It meant there were sheep in the distance!

Like a mad thing, I galumphed towards the sound of baas, and as I approached, I spotted, fleeing, a band of Wagnerian dwarves. It may have been the sight of me bearing down on them with my crook that caused them to scamper so swiftly away. More likely, I think, is that they had belatedly realised the unutterable tedium occasioned by the company of sheep.

It is a tedium I know well. Or, should I say, knew well. For the unexpected outcome of my notoriety as an inept shepherdess who loses her sheep is that not a single farmer will any longer entrust me with his flock. At first, this was a harrowing turn of events. I fell into penury and need. But as my story spread, and songs were sung about me, so infamy uncurdled into fame. I began to be invited on to television chat shows, notably an appearance on Russell Harty Plus. Colour supplements published fawning profiles of me, all warts removed. Now, with these lecture tours, I am raking it in. And I don’t mean the sort of peasant raking that the likes of Huw Halfbacon are doomed to for eternity, in an eerie ever-repeating cycle of fate. No, I am raking in the moolah-boolah, and soon I hope to have saved enough to realise my childhood ambition, and be the first Peep in outer space, lost, like my sheep, but unlike them lost in the stars, lost out here in the stars. little stars, big stars, blowing through the night, and I’m lost out here in the stars …

Thirty Years Ago

Another thing I found in my recent rummage was a small batch of cuttings from the legendary Factsheet Five magazine. Indefatigable editor Mike Gunderloy was a generous reviewer of my (now) out of print Malice Aforethought Press pamphlets and books. Here are some of his observations:

House Of Turps. A curious and delightful little booklet. Key writes in a sort of manic academic style, tracing the life of the obscure chemist-chieftain Slobodan Curpin as he staggers through the early days of the scientific revolution. Experimental windsocks, poultice-making, and a civilisation beneath the Arctic ice all make perfect sense here. Much better than the usual dreary textbook treatment of this sort of thing. Maddeningly sensible and discordant at the same time.

The Immense Duckpond Pamphlet. More bizarre prose from the fevered mind of Frank Key. This is a sort of murder mystery, replete with an ogre who proves to be a detective, soup recipes, signs from bizarre pubs, potato science, and even duckponds. Frank has a style all his own, which most of us could not approach even with the use of large quantities of illicit drugs.

Twitching And Shattered. This is a collection of many of Frank’s shorter works, including the infamous “Tales of Hoon” and his series of dustjackets for forthcoming books. It also contains the wildly funny “Some Lesser-Known Editions Of The Bible”, an exercise in parodied scholarship that had me rolling on the floor. I like Frank’s writing quite a bit. He has a perfectly deadpan style that can string together the most utter nonsense and make it fascinating. Personally, I find this style delicious, whether Frank is writing of mysterious foreign agents, trips to Iceland, or bicycles and earwigs. If you’re fond of relatively sophisticated and curious humour, you too should own a copy.

Ah, those were the small press days, in the pre-www world. Now you get the outpourings of my allegedly “fevered mind” absolutely free, on an almost daily basis. That being so, remember you can always send a donation by hitting that Paypal link over to your right …

Monday Music

Seasons” by Future Islands. I picked this not so much for the music as for the, er, idiosyncratic performance by singer Stanley Kowalski – sorry, I mean Samuel T. Herring. At 3:28 he executes an almost perfect impersonation of the Grunty Man.

Another House Of Turps

Older readers will recall House Of Turps as an out of print pamphlet published by the Malice Aforethought Press in 1989. That’s how I recall it myself. But yesterday, rummaging in a midden, I came upon several sheets of buff paper, the typed manuscript of a piece also called House Of Turps. It bears no resemblance to the published text. It is the “Prologue” to what I clearly intended as a lengthy narrative poem which, equally clearly, I thereafter abandoned. For the benefit of scholars who, I know, devote their waking lives to poring over every syllable I have ever written, here is that fragment of the lost (until yesterday) House Of Turps

 Welcome to the House of Turps,
Riddled with visionaries, idiots, twerps,
Bores, poltroons, maniacs, cranks,
Of the highest and the lowest ranks;
Raised and ruined, rich and poor –
What brings them all to the same door?
A vision of a visionary world.

Each year a pennant is unfurled
From the very top of the House’s walls,
In howling wind, as the mercury falls,
As winter bites. Ice grips the land.
Each member of our demented band
Bids fare thee well to home, kith, kin,
And with a doomed and gritty grin
Sets forth upon a long slow trudge
Towards a circular bank of sludge.
This sludge-bank bars the trudgers’ way.
To cross it takes near half a day,
Weighed down by netting, pig-iron shoes,
Tourniquets, gum, a supply of booze,
Branches, forks, baize and bait –
All gifts for the Keeper at the gate,
The unfurler of the Winter Flag.
He’s eighty-nine. His name is Cragg.
The House of Turps depends on him.
His countenance is pale and grim.
His history’s shadowy and obscure.
He’s lived here since the age of four.

As each guest lurches from the slime
Cragg makes a note of name and time
Scraped on the page with a blood-stained hook
In his huge registration book.
He slams it shut then barks: “Go flee
To room nineteen!” or “twenty-three!”.
The guests head off on a path of gravel
For they have not yet ceased to travel.
The House looms a further six miles’ trudge
Over gravel and pebbles, not slime or sludge.
Cragg remains, hard by the gate,
Until he’s counted in all eight.
We’ll leave him there, improbably dressed,
As we consider each mad guest.

POTATO SMITH is sick at heart,
Festooned with rotten sacking.
He made a fortune in fine art.
His sense of humour’s lacking.
Curt and shrivelled, eighty-five,
He likes to suck wood-splinters.
He is only just alive,
But comes here every winter.

PRIMROSE LEEK, a friend to ants,
Is only thirty-two.
She wears black hat, black coat, black pants,
She’s also known as Sue.
Though dumb in summer, at the House
She speaks the lingua franca.
She murdered Hector Lockjaw Frowse,
The international banker.

Then there’s DR RUFUS GLUBB,
The noted bandage-stainer.
His head looks like a bakelite tub
Topped by a bent tea-strainer.
His belly has grown to a pot
From eating too much custard.
The other guests loathe him a lot
But think he cuts the mustard.

Our fourth pal has a widow’s peak,
Looks not unlike a panda.
C. T. PUCK’s part-Dutch, part-Greek,
Half-blind and part-Greenlander.
She lives on a diet of gruel and slops
And vats of sour beer.
You can’t buy those things in the shops,
But Cragg supplies them here.

LASCELLES DISTEMPER JARLEY
Has no sense of direction.
He is a proper Charlie
And has a cork collection.
He says “by Jove!” and “golly gosh!”
And other dumbkopf phrases.
He talks a huge amount of tosh
And he is prone to crazes.

OLD DOGMOUTH’s fits are legion.
He broke his wooden legs.
Like others from his region
He sets fire to hard-boiled eggs.
Cragg and he are so alike
They could share the same mother,
But Cragg was once an orphan tyke
And Dogmouth has no brother.

SISTER GERTIE of the Cross
Is a religious nutter.
She roams the land astride her “Hoss”,
A goat, a fractious butter.
Moths have fluttered round her head,
Its incandescent light
Proof that she is not quite dead
But shining, dazzling bright.

The last of the guests at the turpentine House
Has crutches painted yellow.
His head is cracked, he’s such a louse,
He’s such a grotesque fellow.
Watch him grow warts upon his ears,
Watch him act agitator.
He’s quite as vile as he appears –
NED HELLHOUND, your narrator.

So now we’ve met this motley crew,
On with our tale of derring-do.

Paging Doctor Stephen Lynn

Number Umpteen in our series of Inconsequential Yet Somehow Arresting Facts.

Stephen Lynn (above) is the doctor whose flat Alec borrows for his “inexpressibly vulgar” (and abortive) assignation with Laura in Brief Encounter (1945).

Stephen Lynn (below) is the doctor who was Director of the Emergency Room at Roosevelt Hospital in New York and who tried (and failed) to resuscitate John Lennon (1980).

O, Cuxhaven!

Dear Hooting Yard, writes “A Traveller”, We understand that your admirable website likes to feature readers’ holiday snaps, and have pleasure in attaching this specimen for your editorial team’s consideration.

Oh, such an evocative snap! It took me back, back to this, which originally appeared nine long years ago, in 2008 …

I went from Wivenhoe to Cuxhaven by way of Ponders End. For the journey, I wore upon my head a hat woven from the hair of gorgeous hairy beasts, and a pair of goggles. Otherwise, I was dressed in the sort of suit you might see Edward G Robinson wearing in a film noir, with accompanying spats. It was suggested to me that I might take in Nunhead and Snodland along the way, but I had no time, I had no time.

Other than the sea crossing, for which I commandeered a skiff and its skiffer, I walked the entire route. Whenever I became exhausted, I slept upon the ground, under the bowl of night. I would like to say that I grew familiar with the stars, but I did not. Unless it was cloudy, as it often was, I could see countless stars twinkling above me, but they appeared randomly scattered, and I was never able to discern any patterns. I always woke up with strands of hay in my hair, wherever I had slept. I used my gorgeous woven hat of hair as a pillow.

Though I was walking, rather than cycling, I carried with me a bicycle pump. Often I pumped it, pointing it ahead of me, as an exercise drill, and also as a means of dispersing gangs of gnats or midges hovering in the air. Sometimes I fancied I could hear their faint insect shrieks as they were whooshed out of my path. I refreshed myself with water from duckponds.

I tried to keep a steady pace. There were times when I felt the bile rising in my throat. Whenever this happened, I stopped walking, sat on the ground, took my journal from the pocket of my film noir suit, and wrote a memorandum. Here is an example,

I am no longer in Wivenhoe. Ten minutes ago, walking along a bosky lane lined by what I think are plane trees, I pumped the pump at a cloud of midges, scattering them. Shortly afterwards, I felt the bile rising in my throat. Above me the sky is wonderfully blue and dotted with linnets, swooping. Tonight it will be dotted with stars. The stars do not swoop, they stay where they are, far away in the cold universe, so far away that the linnets can never reach them, and nor can I. But I can reach Cuxhaven, by way of Ponders End, and must do so quickly, while there is still time.

The act of writing in my journal always made the bile subside, and I was able to press on. When it was humid, my goggles steamed up. I carried on walking, as if in a mist. When I came to a stream or a rill I would take off the goggles and dip them briefly in the water, and wipe them dry on one of my film noir sleeves. Sometimes a true, engulfing mist would descend. Then I would get down on my knees, even if where I was was muddy, and take from my pocket my little wooden god, and prop it against a stone, and beseech it. Here is an example of such beseeching:

O little wooden god propped up against a stone, I beseech you to sweep away this engulfing mist and to make visible my path, so that I may walk on fearlessly towards Cuxhaven by way of Ponders End. Ooba gooba himmelfarb farbagooba!

The last four word were my incantation, designed to assuage my little wooden god and have it do my bidding. My bidding was always done, for the air would clear, sooner or later, and if the land was flat I could see for miles. One day I was able to see Ponders End far in the distance, and on another day I saw the sea, and once I was on the sea, being skiffed across it by an energetic skiffer in his skiff, I saw Cuxhaven, just in time.

I paid the skiffer to skiff me across the sea. He refused to skiff me otherwise. I had no cash, no chequebook, no debit nor credit card, not even shells or beads or trinkets, but I had honey. Along my journey from Wivenhoe to the coast by way of Ponders End, I had paused whenever I passed an apiary and snaffled honey from beehives. I collected it in pouches strung around my waist attached to a cord, hidden under my film noir suit. Some of the honey I ate to keep myself from fainting, but I was careful to keep some aside, for I did not expect to be skiffed across the sea for nothing. My offer to pay the skiffer in honey was met with great civility, even glee.

I knew that, if ever I made the return journey from Cuxhaven to Wivenhoe by way of Ponders End, perhaps able to take in Nunhead and Snodland given that I would no longer be pressed for time, I would be accosted by several irate beekeepers demanding recompense for their stolen honey. I had time enough, in Cuxhaven, to work out a way to repay them. If time passed and my head remained empty of ideas, I could prop my little wooden god against a Cuxhaven stone and beseech it for a brainwave. If all else failed, I could stay in Cuxhaven, and never go back to Wivenhoe through all the days of my life.

Yet conscience told me this was wrong. It was one thing to be holed up in Cuxhaven, quite another to be holed up in Cuxhaven tormented by guilt that good honest beekeepers had been robbed by my own honey-snaffling hands. Yes, it was true that I bore the bee-stings, but I had sucked the venom and spat it out and rubbed my hands with dock leaves. I still had dock in my pocket, should the bees of Cuxhaven have at me with their stings. I hoped they would not, for I resolved not to take their honey. In Cuxhaven, I had sausages.

Picture Yourself

Picture yourself in a boat on a river, with tangerine trees and marmalade skies. You are wearing a pair of round gold-rimmed “granny” glasses. Beside you in the boat is your wife, an avant-garde artist from faraway Japan. You turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream. Then you turn your mind back on, just a tad, just enough to imagine no possessions. You wonder if now would be an opportune moment to raise with your wife that malarkey about her acquiring a second apartment solely for the storage of her collection of fur coats. You open your mouth to speak, but what comes out is gibberish. “Goo-goo-g’joob”, you blurt. Your wife looks at you as if you have taken leave of your senses, which, to be frank, you probably have. Perhaps Bernard Levin was right when he wrote that there was nothing wrong with you that could not be cured by standing you upside down and shaking you gently until whatever is inside your head falls out.

It strikes you that such a manoeuvre would be perilous if performed in a boat on a river. Your wife, who would have to turn you upside down, is diminutive, and it is likely that if she made the attempt both of you would topple over, capsizing the boat, and forcing you to swim to the riverbank.

There are, apparently, tales of the riverbank, but you did not write them. Nor did you write tales of topographic oceans. But you did write about that famed ocean-going sailor Sir Walter Raleigh, who you described as a stupid git. You pronounced Raleigh as Rally. Nowadays, people usually pronounce it as Rahley. But in his own time his name was universally pronounced Rawley.

The pronunciation of surnames is important. I have heard tell that an alarming number of young persons confuse you with the Bolshevik psychopath Lenin. These are presumably the same young persons who confuse Clarice Starling, the FBI agent played by Jodie Foster in The Silence Of The Lambs, with your successor Stalin.

Oops! I meant Lenin’s successor, not yours. Now I’m getting things all mixed up in my head. Just like you. Well, you wrote a lot of nonsense too.