Ten Tarleton Tales – V

I would sing to you of Tarleton, of the gleets, of the balcony, if I could. If I could sing I would. But how can I sing, mouth crammed with pebbles, penned in a pound, atop the tor? And what an irony that it was Tarleton who bustled me hence, arms flapping, half blinding me with the glint of his shiny shiny epaulettes? I would have sung of him surely, and without smirking. Cars passed below as we climbed the tor. I would have waved to them, to their drivers, for help, if I thought help would come. My mind was a chaos. The higher we climbed, the tinier the cars appeared, until they seemed like motes of dust. They put the pound at the top of the tor to discourage attempts to escape. As further discouragement, the fence was electrified. Tarleton had keys to the panel upon which a lever or knobs or whatever could be pulled or depressed or whatever to cut off the circuit, temporarily, to allow the gate to be opened. He crammed my mouth with pebbles before he pushed me into the pound. I thought of the gleets, and of Krakatoa.

Oh, Tarleton, Tarleton! What became of the balcony you? Things were so different then. Fresh from your Messerschmitt, not a hint of the gleets, eating a crab apple and suffering in silence. It was noble suffering. Even the crab apple was noble. Certainly your shiny shiny epaulettes gave you a noble cast. I wanted to fashion a laurel wreath for your brow, but there were no laurels. Just the bare balcony and a vista of snow. Nor did I sing then, though I could have done, I ought to have done, I wish I had done. I would have sung of you, Tarleton, and recorded it upon magnetic tape, and had a platter made of it, and it would have shot to the top of the hit parade. It would have dislodged Russ Conway.

Regrets, regrets. Now there are pebbles in my mouth, and I am penned in a pound, and you have stomped away back down the tor. You will get into your car, parked in a gully, tiny as a mote of dust, from up here, and you will drive away, or be driven away, by your chauffeur, his own epaulettes less shiny shiny than yours, ignoble epaulettes. And when you drive away, will you think of the gleets, the balcony, Tarleton? Or will your head be filled with flummery?

The dog in the pound on the tor is small and hairy and oriental. Its yap curdles my blood. Would that the pebbles had been crammed in my ears and not my mouth! Or as well as, for all the difference it would make. The sun passes behind a cloud. The electrified fence hums. I think, not sing, of Tarleton, of the gleets, of the balcony. And Boodles yaps.

Ten Tarleton Tales – IV

I was sprawled on the sofa, dozing off as I read the latest issue of The Truncheon Of Truth, when I was startled by an urgent pounding at the door.

Come in!” I shouted, for the door was not locked. As I tossed my magazine on to the floor and prepared to rise to greet my visitor, whoever it was, the door crashed open and a man wearing a frock coat and a bippety-boppety hat came striding in. I immediately recognised him as Tarleton, the amateur’s amateur.

Why, as I live and breathe, it is you, Tarleton!” I yelled. Strictly speaking, none of these words was actually necessary.

Spare me your unnecessary words,” rapped Tarleton, “Put on your coat and hat and boots and follow me. There is not a moment to lose!”

Thus began one of the more thrilling adventures of my long and, for the most part, undistinguished life. I had no idea, at the time, that I was to play a significant part in what became known as the affair of the Mitteleuropean Crown Prince, the missing jewellery box, the dachshund, the drainage ditch, and the freckle-faced lighthouse keeper. On that sopping wet Sunday morning I was preoccupied with the fact that Tarleton had interrupted my reading of an article in The Truncheon Of Truth on the subject of Blunkett.

I was in the middle of reading a very interesting piece about David Blunkett,” I protested to Tarleton as I hastened after him along the rain-swept streets of my bailiwick.

Save your breath, man!” rapped Tarleton, “And keep up! There is not a moment to lose!”

We turned down an alleyway next to the ice-cream kiosk, and then down another alleyway, and another, and yet another, until I realised that I was no longer in my familiar surroundings and had no idea where I was. In spite of the fact that each alleyway was narrower and darker and more foetid than the last, Tarleton kept up a cracking pace.

At the point when you knocked,” I panted, “Blunkett had just entered a field wherein a cow awaited him – a cow that, I think, was about to attack him, on his birthday to boot.”

You looked as if you were dozing off when I arrived,” said Tarleton, “So you cannot have found the article that interesting. Now hush!” he added, and he made a melodramatic gesture, placing one silk-begloved finger vertically in front of his lips. We stood, soaked, in front of a doorway on which the paint was peeling, the wood was rotting, and the number 49 had been scratched as if by the claws of a maddened bear.

I was dozing off because the prose was leaden,” I said, “But the content in itself was absolutely fascinating.”

For God’s sake hush!” hissed Tarleton, and as he did so he pushed the door open gingerly. It creaked on its hinges nevertheless. “Follow me down this secret corridor,” he whispered.

The secret corridor was unlit, and when the door swung shut behind me, I was as blind as Blunkett in the pitch blackness. Recalling the article in The Truncheon Of Truth, I apprehended just how terrifying it would be to be attacked by a cow. I groped forward and clutched at the tail of Tarleton’s frock coat, and we stumbled forward in the Stygian gloom.

We are not likely to meet with a cow, I take it?” I whispered.

Tarleton hushed me for the third time.

In blackness and silence, like the message of Sylvia Plath’s yew tree, we made our way along the secret corridor for what seemed to me untold hours but was, when I looked later at my wristwatch, only a few minutes. We emerged eventually into the large and imposing pantry of a large and imposing hotel, and now I was Blunkett-blinded not by darkness but by the glare of several Klieg lights. Tarleton, ever prepared, snapped on a pair of sunglasses.

We are only just in time!” he cried.

There, chained to the pantry wall, gagged and dishevelled, was a Mitteleuropean Crown Prince, and on the floor at his feet a missing jewellery box. With one swift and decisive move, Tarleton smashed the chains with an axe. Then he helped the Crown Prince to his feet, pocketed the jewellery box, dusted down his frock coat, straightened the bippety-boppety hat on his head, and prepared to leave the pantry through a connecting door to a second, equally large and equally imposing pantry, from where we could make our way to the hotel lobby, and then out into daylight and safety and a majestic boulevard. As I made to follow, Tarleton turned, wagged a silk-begloved finger in my face, and said. “Wait here!”

I never saw Tarleton or the Mitteleuropean Crown Prince again. I kept myself occupied in the pantry, rearranging the pots and pans and packet soups on the shelves, and doing a little light dusting, until one day, weakened by hunger, I saw a hallucinatory cow intent on attacking me, and I realised it was time to leave. I made my way back through the secret corridor and out into the alleyway and the other alleyway and the other alleyway and the other alleyway until I got my bearings and made my way home. Several weeks’ copies of The Truncheon Of Truth were piled up on the doormat. I made myself an infusion of boiled lettucewater and sprawled on the sofa to catch up on my reading. There was an article recounting in great detail the affair of the Mitteleuropean Crown Prince, the missing jewellery box, the dachshund, the drainage ditch, and the freckle-faced lighthouse keeper. Tarleton was not mentioned, and nor was I – at least, not in the first few paragraphs. The piece was written in prose so leaden that before I read any further I dozed off.

I was startled by an urgent pounding at the door. But I had taken the precaution of locking it, and I ignored the pounding, and went back to sleep.

Ten Tarleton Tales – III

I remember as if it were yesterday my very first encounter with Tarleton. He was propping up the bar in a beige and dismal drinking den, beetle-browed and lantern-jawed and babbling to no one in particular. I sat on a stool beside him, ordered a sprangeloenkenkischt, and listened to what he had to say.

He was only recently back from a hush-hush mission in the East, and was worrying, like a dog with a sheep, at the impossibility of grasping the difference between the Near East, the Middle East, and the Far East. What seemed to bother him was that, whereas the location of the Middle East was as clear as dammit, between the Near and the Far, placing the Near and the Far was by no means as simple a matter. If you were slap bang in the middle of the Middle East, for example, the Near East and the Far East would be equidistant from where you stood, or sat, or lay sprawled in a hammock in the blistering noonday sun, going mad.

When he briefly paused to glug his kolokkengehemmelbe, I asked him which East, Near or Middle or Far, he had been in, on his hush-hush mission. Swallowing the dregs of the fiery liqueur, he spluttered and told me the point of a hush-hush mission was that it was hush-hush. I could not disagree with that. I bought him another drink. His tongue did not need loosening, but I was at a loose end, and he seemed to be a man of parts, well worth listening to.

I was wrong. For the next two hours, he gabbled on and on and on, without cease, trying but failing to settle the matter of the three Easts, Near and Middle and Far, now and then pulling from his pocket a crumpled map, hand-drawn with a leaky biro on a filthy napkin, on which he had tried, tried and failed, tried again and failed again, like the best or worst of Beckettians, to hammer home the geography of the East, to pin it down, definitively, so that he would no longer need to think about it. That, he said, in among his witterings, was what he could not stand – that no matter how hard he tried, the East would remain forever beyond his grasp.

Eventually he staggered off to the lavatory to vomit. He had left the napkin map on the counter. Idly, I picked it up. I turned it this way and that, and then, feeling the breath of God on the back of my neck, I crumpled it up and uncrumpled it and turned it upside down and back to front. I laid it back on the counter and smoothed it out, downed the last of my goospelkschnittzern, wrapped my muffler tight about my neck, and tottered out into the icy blizzard. As I followed the tractor-tracks back towards my chalet, I heard from inside the bar a scream, at once hysterical and tragic and unhinged and ecstatic. I lit my pipe, as snowflakes fell.

Ten Tarleton Tales – II

Tarleton, the amateur’s amateur, was sat one evening in an armchair in his consulting rooms, constructing a working scale model of a hydroelectric power station out of matchsticks and cardboard and glue and fusewire and hydroelectric power, when there came a sudden urgent knocking, the door crashed open, and into the room came a man holding, at arm’s length, an asp.

Are you Tarleton?” gasped the man. It was his last gasp, for as soon as the words were out of his mouth he collapsed upon the carpet. In death, his grip on the asp was necessarily relaxed, but the manner in which he fell meant that the asp was trapped under the weight of his corpse. Its head, however, poked free, and it hissed in an aspy way at Tarleton.

This, then, was the famous mystery of the asp, some say Tarleton’s finest hour. The mystery may be thought to have inhered in the identity of the man who had come carrying an asp into the consulting-rooms, his purpose in bringing the asp, and indeed in the provenance of the asp. There were certain other matters, too, to which Tarleton needed to turn the cranks of his powerful mind, but those mentioned are considered the main three. We might mention here that the dead man had a pudding-basin haircut.

Before solving the mystery, Tarleton determined to put the finishing touches to his model. He was unruffled by the hissing of the asp, for he had, years before, gained mastery of a mystic oriental technique for remaining unruffled in the presence of hissing asps, and indeed of other things that hiss. One inadvertent consequence of his mastery was that, on the one occasion Tarleton met Alger Hiss, the communist spy, he remained utterly unruffled, when a certain rufflement might have spurred him to action, and he could have taken steps to gather evidence of Hiss’s perfidy, and thus saved Whittaker Chambers a great deal of pother. Chambers, with his rotten infected teeth and shabby stained suit, never forgave Tarleton for his languid lack of concern, and sent the amateur’s amateur several poison pen letters in succeeding years. These have now been collected in The Correspondence Of Whittaker Chambers And Tarleton, The Amateur’s Amateur, a somewhat misleading title in that the word ‘correspondence’ suggests that Tarleton replied, which he did not. He could not bestir himself to do so, preferring to muck about with matchsticks and cardboard and glue and fusewire and hydroelectric power. Having made one working scale model of a hydroelectric power station, putting the finishing touches to it under the watchful eyes of a hissing asp, Tarleton was so delighted with it that he immediately set about making another. It was a hobby that kept him profitably occupied for a number of years.

Obviously, he had to take a break from his model-making from time to time, for example to sleep, to eat, to go for long hikes, to solve cases that perplexed the best minds of the police force, and not least, to do something about the asp. But before he could address the matter of the asp, Tarleton had to arrange for the disposal of the corpse of the man who had burst into his consulting rooms carrying the asp at arm’s length. He placed a call to the local rascally illegal disposer of corpses. One might ask why he did not seek to have the corpse disposed of in a manner commensurate with the law. One might ask, but to no avail, for Tarleton was notoriously tight-lipped about such things. Let us say it was not the first time he had had a corpse disposed of illegally, nor the first time said corpse had a pudding-basin haircut. It was, however, the first time the removal of the corpse from his consulting rooms would release, from under its dead weight, a hissing asp.

To this end, after making arrangements with the rascal, Tarleton placed a second call, this one to an asp expert at a zoo.

Tell me about asps,” he said.

The asp expert took the call at a busy time, when he was engaged in tackling some kind of zoo asp mayhem. It is the kind of thing that happens all the time even at the best regulated zoos, and it is best you know nothing more. The upshot, however, was that the expert could not afford the time to spout all he knew of asps to Tarleton, as that would have taken several hours, hours he did not have as he strained every sinew to avert zoo asp mayhem. All he managed to splutter was some nonsense about the first asps having been created from the spilled blood of the head of Medusa, borne aloft by Perseus on his flight to Mount Olympus. He then slammed the phone down, leaving Tarleton little wiser than he was before.

All this while, the mystery of the asp remained unsolved. Yet we know there are those who say it was Tarleton’s finest hour. Why would they say such a thing? He sat there, faffing with matchsticks and cardboard and glue and fusewire and hydroelectric power, and placing a couple of calls, occasionally glancing over at the trapped hissing asp, and hissing back at it. Perhaps that in itself is the mystery.

When, later in the evening, the rascal appeared, to make illegal disposal of the corpse, he spotted the asp and licked his lips and asked Tarleton if he might remove, not just the corpse, but the asp into the bargain. Tarleton nodded.

Thankee kindly, sir,” said the rascal, doffing his cap, “There’s nothing I like better for a nightcap than a tot of asp’s blood.” and he whacked the asp on its head with a lead-weighted sap, and dragged it from under the corpse, and popped it in his pocket. We might mention here that the rascal had a pudding-basin haircut atop a countenance that was the spit and image of Alger Hiss.

Ten Tarleton Tales – I

Note : Tarleton plays only a bit part in this first of Ten Tarleton Tales. But what a bit!

At an advanced stage, the gunk is scraped off with a tallow-knife, collected in a pot, reduced by steaming and fed to seahorses. After several days the seahorses begin to display intricate and abnormal behaviour patterns. These patterns can be traced on graph paper with propelling-pencils and a ruler. Comparison with earlier graphs, done under a double blind test, has proved immensely illuminating. So lustrous, indeed, that copied out onto onion-skin paper and crumpled up, they can be inserted into glass bulbs and light a long corridor in a large building for upwards of four days. By the fourth day, they are dimming, there is a dying of the light, and sensitive persons mourn, as mourn they might.

Having disposed of the gunk as described, the main bulk is best fed through a sieve. The most effective sieve to use is one with so-called “Swedenborgian angel” holes. These are not generally available in the shops, but can be ordered direct by post from the manufacturers, thus keeping costs surprisingly low. You might want to purchase two or three at one time. The fragile nature of the sieve means that it will not, alas, survive much use. It is easily distressed, especially when you try to force stuff through the holes, as certain boisterous and reckless persons tend to do. If you have such a person on your team, it is a good idea to keep them away from the sieves by telling them to go and keep an eye on the seahorses.

Other pesky or exasperating team members can be usefully employed – and kept out of your hair – by laying the plumb line. This should consist of tent-pegs and butcher’s string and stretch as far as the eye can see. The line should ideally be at the height of an average hollyhock, the calculation being made by consulting the tables at the back of the Annual Hollyhock Height Register. A copy of this ought to be in your local reference library, but will usually not be available for borrowing, so a literate and numerate member of the team, with a valid library ticket, should be delegated to copy out the required details. They can use the back of the graph paper on which the behaviour patterns of the seahorses have earlier been inscribed in majestic sweeping lines and arcs of unsurpassed beauty.

Meanwhile, having fed the main bulk through the sieve into a bucket, the bucket can now be ferried to the platform. This should stand on sturdy props, the sturdier the better. Do not on any account use balsa wood. You are probably familiar with the case of Tarleton, and what transpired with his balsa wood props. If necessary, test the sturdiness using the standard tests of sturdiness which appear as Appendix VII in your pamphlet. Otherwise, proceed directly to the siphon and funnel palaver.

Siphon the stuff out of the bucket, working slowly and methodically and seamlessly. As it passes through the funnel, take snapshots at one-minute intervals from the designated angles. These need not be full colour snapshots, unless they have been explicitly specified in the contract. That is certainly an unusual clause nowadays, and if it does appear, it is worth checking. The contract might, after all, have been drawn up by a halfwit. Try to ensure that no seahorses are visible in the background of the snapshots.

The whole lot, save for the scraped-off gunk, should now have been transferred into beakers, without spillage. Align the beakers along the plumb-line. Once they are in place, and only when they are in place, attach the snap-on, snap-off lids. Using a thick bold black indelible marker pen, draw identifying symbols on the lids. For examples of apt symbols, see Appendix IX. Make sure each one is different. There is often a temptation to repeat the seahorse symbol because it is so fetching. Fight against this temptation with all your might, like Christ in the wilderness.

In case of rainfall, it will be necessary to cover both beakers and plumb line with tarpaulin(s). The approved colour is an almost transparent light blue. Any other colour is likely to result in fewer points being awarded, without the right of appeal. Again, the case of Tarleton should give you pause if you are thinking of using black or yellow tarpaulin or, God forbid, a particularly opaque one. It was not amusing when Tarleton had to account for himself before the panel.

The seahorses’ tiny brains will by now be utterly ravaged. Scoop them from the tank with a standard angler’s net and deposit them on the slab. One by one, using a very sharp kitchen knife, remove the brain from each seahorse. If you feel pangs of pity in your soul you are pursuing the wrong hobby and would be better off taking up ping pong. Place the brains in a brown paper bag. Twist the top of the bag to seal it and then swing it around your head several times while ululating an incantation. It is important to note that this step is essentially meaningless, so you need not put a great deal of effort into it. But it is always a good idea to show willing. You do not know who is watching.

Holding the bag in your right hand, walk the length of the plumb line, pausing at each beaker. At each pause, gaze mournfully into the middle distance, your lips trembling. Some of the feathers in your headdress may fall to the ground. You should disregard them, while at the same time being very careful not to tread on them as you resume your walk towards the next beaker along the line. That is unless they are sparrow feathers, in which case you should pick them up and put them in your pocket. But that of course should go without saying, as it is blindingly obvious, if you have got this far.

[Extract from The Book Of Significant Tomfoolery by “The Master”.]

Jubilate Agno Revisited

It is ten long years since ResonanceFM broadcast the historic reading of Christopher Smart’s magnificent Jubilate Agno. To mark the occasion, I am delighted to announce that the station will be repeating the programme – all three hours of it – on Boxing Day at 2.00 PM. Sluice out the valves on your wireless, tune in, and listen to Mr Key & Germander Speedwell read this utterly mesmerising poem.

Christmas At Hooting Yard

Tomorrow at the crack of dawn I shall be heading off to a foreign land, where I shall prance about like a fool until New Year’s Eve Eve. But fear not! You lot will not be left bereft and weeping, tormented by a Hooting Yard-shaped hole in your souls. Through the [something or other] of technology, daily potsages [sic] will be appearing here, even as your favourite impecunious scribbler is thousands of miles away from his escritoire.

Not only will our Advent Calendar continue to tock towards Christmas every morning, but from Thursday until 30 December you will be treated to Ten Tarleton Tales, one for each day. These are reposts rather than new stories, but they take on a fresh – and possibly alarming – significance when bundled together as a sort of box set.

Meanwhile, nearly all surviving episodes of Hooting Yard On The Air from 2004 are now available on YouTube, or you can go to Mixcloud for an archive of more recent shows.

Taken together, all of that should keep you lot occupied until I return. And though all of this bounty is offered freely, it might well be that you feel compelled to offer up a prayer of gratitude, invoking the twisted spine of St Spivack, and chucking oodles of cash into Mr Key’s Paypal coffers.

A very happy Christmas to you all, and may the Lord have mercy on your souls.

Translated From Memory

An old Latvian folk song, translated from memory. To be sung when gathered round a blazing hearth on a bitter winter’s night.

There is a shepherd in the hills
There is a [something] green
But black is the crow in the [something] tree
And forked lightning blasts the sky
The shepherd’s lass has golden hair
She [something something] milk
But the crow has flown away, my love
And the ducks have left the lake