Yesterday’s episode of Hooting Yard On The Air (aka A General Air Of Decrepitude) was a packed show. Mr Key read the stories A Dream, At Night, and An Old Manuscript, and he was joined for a performance of the one-act play Overheard In A Supermarket by Miss Blossom Partridge, aka Pansy Cradledew, who also read The Coronation and joined Mr Key for a recital of In Gath. In addition, there was a brief discussion of Scritti Politti, an old French saying, and new verse by Dennis Beerpint.
For Good Friday, The Crucifixion by Horace Pippin (1943).
I sprawled in the mosque and thought about Allah.
Did he, I wonder, ever visit Valhalla?
Would the Vikings have allowed him to enter
And make it an Islamic Cultural Centre?
Or would they have smote him with axe and bludgeon
Violent in their Nordic dudgeon?
There is only one true God.
Requiem aeternam dona ei, Ken Dodd.
I was not at all certain whether I had any advocates, I could not find out anything definite about it, every face was unfriendly, most people who came toward me and whom I kept meeting in the corridors looked like fat old women; they had huge blue-and-white striped aprons covering their entire bodies, kept stroking their stomachs and swaying awkwardly to and fro. I had been told that at least three advocates would be assigned to represent me, but if so, where were they? And could the case proceed without them?
I wondered if I had somehow come to the wrong building. Perhaps this was not the law courts, but some other branch of some other institution of some other regime in some other country on some other continent. After all, there was a blank period of several hours, between my waking up on my pallet of straw in the barn annexe and my arrival here, several hours of which I could remember nothing save for the plaintive cry of a curlew, and a smashed saucer on the linoleum.
Dizzy in the head, I sat down on a bench and lit my pipe. People continued to mince and waddle along the corridor, seemingly with purpose. None of them spared me a glance. None of them announced themselves as my advocate. Perhaps I was in the right building but on the wrong floor? I had noticed, as I entered from the street, that the building was impossibly tall. The top of it was invisible, engulfed by clouds.
Puffing on my pipe ought to have calmed my nerves, but, like poor Neddie in Brand Upon The Brain! (Guy Maddin, 2006), I was a bundle of tics. The case – if it were ever heard and judged upon – could spell my ruin. I had been accused of plagiarism by the publishers of the weekly children’s comic The Hammer Of Christ. Among the most popular strips in that penny woeful was that recounting the adventures of Buster and Radbod. I was deemed to have stolen these characters when I began to issue my own weekly children’s comic, Buster And Radbod. It was true that, in all particulars, my Buster was identical to the original Buster, my Radbod to the original Radbod, and that some – well, all – of the adventures I related in my comic differed not a jot from adventures pursued by Buster and Radbod in The Hammer Of Christ. But apart from those wildly improbable coincidences – and is it not a feature of coincidences that they are wild and improbable? – there really was no comparison. The paper-size and pagination of the comics was different, my drawings were somewhat cack-handed, and the sale price of my publication was four times the price of the dreadful rag I was accused of copying.
In spite of this, and of my protestations of innocence, I had been summoned to the court to face the full wrath of the law. But how could I marshal a defence without my promised advocates? Slumped on the bench, it dawned on me that my predicament was not dissimilar to a situation faced by Buster and Radbod in one of their adventures, which had appeared in The Hammer Of Christ Vol. XLIV No. 8 and, coincidentally, in Buster And Radbod Vol. I No. 1.
What happened was that the frolicsome duo were summoned to the law court, an impossibly tall building, the top of which vanished in the clouds. They had to answer a charge brought against them, the essence of which was that they were false replicas, or doppelgangers, of the purported real Buster and real Radbod. It is a stupendously exciting and suspenseful story, as the pair roam the corridors on the many many floors of the building, knowing that at any moment they may come face to face with … themselves! Particularly enthralling – and psychologically complex for a children’s comic strip – is Buster and Radbod’s growing realisation that they may not be real, may be simply fictional two-dimensional simulacra. Complexity piles on paradox because, of course, neither Buster nor Radbod is real – they are comic strip characters. But so are the so-called real Buster and Radbod they will encounter, at some point in the story in the building in a corridor on a floor.
Somehow these reflections made my own situation less fraught. I tapped out my pipe, rose from the bench, and went in search of my advocates. It seemed to me now that I would be able to spot them easily among the teeming throng. They would look identical to me! All three of them! I hunted them along all the corridors on the floor, and then I tried the other corridors on the other floors, one by one. But before I found my advocates, I noticed a curious thing about the many steep and crowded staircases in this building. As long as you don’t stop climbing, the stairs won’t end, under your climbing feet they will go on growing upwards.
The first sentence, and the last, were translated from the German by Tania and James Stern. Everything in between was not.
Gus was pipped at the post. It was one of those huffington posts, recently erected at strategic points across the land, by diktat. They were named in honour of Puissance Huffington, the tiny orphan child who, by some inexplicable chain of accidents, now reigns over our realm. Nobody expected frail little Puissance to rule with an iron fist, but she does, and then some!
Like so many citizens, Gus had assumed that Puissance would be a benign queenlet. It was perhaps this naivete which led to his undoing, when he entered a contest in the weekly children’s comic The Terrible Wrath Of Christ Our Saviour. Readers were asked to supply a caption for a drawing which showed an innocent farmyard scene, typical of our country. Mischievous Gus wrote something disobliging about a hen, unaware that every single caption submitted to the comic would be scrutinised, personally, by Puissance Huffington. She could not read, of course, so pressed into service a man of letters who loitered somewhere in the bowels of the palace. When this sickly one-legged fellow read to Puissance the words written by Gus, she was outraged.
“I am very fond of hens,” she is reported to have said, “And I will not have disobliging things said of them, no siree!”
And she told the man of letters to aim his crutches in the direction of the Palace Git, conveying instructions to have Gus arrested. And so within hours of writing his unwise words, Gus found himself chained to one of the huffington posts in one of the less salubrious parts of the country, populated for the most part by ne’er-do-wells, halfwits, and Corbynistas. Eagerly, they pelted Gus with pips, as Puissance Huffington decreed.
In retrospect, we can appreciate just how fortunate Gus was to have committed his crime in the early days of the reign of Puissance. For her power made the little orphan child ever more vindictive and cruel, and it was not long before she declared that miscreants should be pelted, not with pips, but with plumstones.
Ah, the manifold complexities of the human brain! In my dreams, as I slept last night, there was a starring role for Rumer Godden. Quite what she was up to became unclear the moment I awoke, and now I remember nothing at all, save that she had a very important part to play in whatever was going on in my sleeping head.
But why? I have never read any of her books. I had to remind myself, with a tiny bit of morning research, that she was the author of (among much else) Black Narcissus. I know almost nothing about her. Yet here she was, unsummoned, at the forefront of my unconscious mind.
At least I did not bash her about with a wooden chair, as once – in dreams – I bashed Roy Kinnear …
Yesterday’s little winklepicker squib reminded me of a piece I wrote about the pier at Deal in July 2012. Here it is again:
Above is a photograph of the pier at Deal, on the coast of Kent. It is the last pier built in England, opened in 1954, replacing a derelict nineteenth-century predecessor. At its far end, it terminates in a large platform, lower than the main pier, and from this platform, on either side, a set of metal steps lead down into the sea. I think I am right in saying this is an unusual construction for a pier. It is a feature that sparked an idea in the brain of the writer Rayner Heppenstall (1911-1981), who spent the last few years of his life as a resident of Deal.
Early one morning in the late nineteen-seventies, Heppenstall disembarked from a boat and clambered up the steps at the end of the pier. He had come from France, brought across the channel by a somewhat rascally French sailor, who would collect him from the same spot on the evening of the same day. Heppenstall walked along the pier to shore, and through Deal’s dawn-deserted streets to his house. He was careful to ensure he was not seen. As far as friends and neighbours were concerned, he was on holiday in France. He spent the day, very quietly, at home, reading over his diaries of the last few years. Heppenstall was a diligent diarist all his life, and often used them as raw material for his fiction, after which he would destroy the originals. He had brought a packed lunch with him, so he would not need to prepare anything and thus create cooking smells. Similarly, when he smoked during the day he dispersed the fumes and removed the evidence from his ashtray. When the cleaner came, in the next few days, she would find no sign that Heppenstall had been there.
When evening came, and his neighbours had all returned home, Heppenstall took a loaded revolver, fitted with a silencer, and went next door, where he slaughtered the entire family. He then made his way back to the pier, where he was picked up from the steps at the end, and taken back to France.
Or rather, that is what he wished he had done. Many of the entries in his diaries of the time consisted of accounts of his neighbours’ behaviour. They were noisy. They were rambunctious. They were foul-mouthed. They were working class, or “common”. Beneath the cold forensic prose lies Heppenstall’s exasperation, his seething rage, his murderousness. These are the diary entries he transformed into his last, posthumously-published, novel, The Pier (1986). I suppose it is unlikely that the noisy rambunctious working class family in Deal ever read the book.
When The Pier appeared, it was taken as further evidence that Heppenstall had “gone mad”. Certainly what we read is the lethal fantasy of a man driven crackers by little more than whistling, games of kickabout football, loud conversation, and noisy bouts of DIY. One of the reasons he and his wife – who becomes his sister in the novel – moved to Deal was that their last home in London was a flat above a launderette, the din of which he found unbearable. Yet I suspect the real reason he was considered to have gone bonkers was the turn his politics took.
Originally from Yorkshire, Heppenstall had always been a tribal Labour voter, a “progressive”. Since the end of the Second World War, he had worked as a talks producer for BBC Radio. He lived in a literary intellectual milieu. In the nineteen-thirties he shared a flat with George Orwell. He was a regular drinking companion of Dylan Thomas’. He made the first translation into English of Raymond Roussel (with his daughter, Lindy Foord). He published several experimental novels and, in the nineteen-sixties was considered a sort of godfather by younger writers such as Ann Quin and B S Johnson. Both Quin and Johnson, incidentally, committed suicide in 1973. Heppenstall didn’t, but considered doing so. For more than three decades he kept concealed behind his bookshelves a phial of crushed pink pills diluted in water, which he regularly refreshed to maintain its potency. It was his guarantee that death was always in his reach. In the end, he never took it. He died of a stroke.
It was around the time of his retirement from the BBC, in 1973, and his move to Deal the following year, that Heppenstall began to describe himself as a “freelance reactionary”. Come 1979, he even considered voting Conservative, though he very probably did not vote at all. But the break from the world and the mindset he had inhabited is all too clear in some of his diary entries. It is unlikely his colleagues in the BBC canteen or the London drinking clubs would have taken kindly to his analysis of the Middle East, that “the Jews are a civilised race, whereas the Arabs are basically savages”. He came increasingly to loathe the modern world.
Was this madness? The reactionary views, the suicide phial, the murderous fantasy? Perhaps it was something in the air in Deal, home to other London exiles such as the alcoholic Charles Hawtrey (thrown out of every pub in town at one time or another) and Simon Raven. Hawtrey’s house bears a blue plaque, but there is no commemoration of Rayner Heppenstall. His neighbours, the annoying children now adults, may still be living in the same house, all unaware that the elderly, withdrawn, ill-tempered writer who once lived next door plotted to kill them all.
I walked along the pier at Deal yesterday, to the steps where ghost-Heppenstall came and went on his fantasy killing spree. I passed some loud, foul-mouthed, working class people, and also a few well-dressed elderly gents taking an afternoon stroll. I wondered if I might see a small French motorboat tied up at the end of the pier. But the steps were empty, descending into the sloshing sea.
Oh! How I pine for those winklepicker days
On the pier at Deal
Like Ingmar Bergman’s camera’s gaze
In The Seventh Seal
Yes, I played chess on Deal pier
Against Death dressed in black
But I was shod in winklepickers
And they took Death aback
I saw envy on his pale white face
Envy for my shoon
And I bested Death on the pier at Deal
Under a Kentish moon
I have occasionally muttered in exasperation when the world o’ Hooting Yard is described as “surreal” or “weird”, given that the so-called real world is often so much stranger. Just the other day, there was that business about the (all too real) Valeska Gert anticipating the (wholly fictional) world-famous food-splattered Jesuit.
Neil Armstrong (no, not that Neil Armstrong) reviewing Secret Pigeon Service: Operation Columba, Resistance and the Struggle to Liberate Europe by Gordon Corera in the latest edition of Literary Review:
Among others, we meet Viscount Tredegar, an occultist and friend of Aleister Crowley. He was for a time in charge of the section of the army that supplied MI14(d) with birds but was eventually court-martialled for gossiping about Columba’s work. His defence cited his unhappy childhood and the fact that his mentally ill mother had built herself a large bird’s nest in the living room and sat in it wearing a beak.
Members of the self-righteous wanker community often make the boast that they Speak Truth To Power. Far more valuable, I think, is my own practice of Telling Fibs To Impuissance.
For example, the other day I was prancing along the canal towpath when I saw, lugging himself towards me on crutches, a penniless crippled orphan dressed in rags.
“Ahoy there, young wretch!” I cried, imparting as much condescension and contempt into my words as possible, “Did you know that the earth is as flat as a pancake?”
The hobbledehoy was baffled and distraught at this news, pleasingly so, and I continued.
“Not only that, but the Munich Air Disaster took place in 1962, the Tet Offensive was something to do with King Canute, and gooseberries fall from heaven upon the wide Sargasso Sea, from where they are harvested by trained cormorants.”
Tugging his greasy forelock, the orphan child said “Thankee kindly, sir, when I arrive at my self-esteem ‘n’ diversity learning centre I shall pass on these nuggets of wisdom in the exam paper I am sitting today.”
“You will pass with flying colours!” I replied, chortling inwardly as I pictured the impuissant youth weeping copious tears upon learning that he has failed his exam with the lowest of all possible scores.
Then I snatched away his crutches and pushed him into the canal, before passing on to an unbelievably luxurious cafeteria for a slap-up breakfast.
I did not prance along the canal towpath. I did not encounter a crippled orphan. I did not have a slap-up breakfast.
The noted mezzotintist Dot Tint was born in the Year Dot. Some researchers argue that she was named for the year in which she was born, while others, conversely, claim the year was so named in honour of her. On the face ot it, the latter seems unlikely. Noted Dot Tint may be, but do enough people care enough about mezzotints or their makers to start naming entire years after them? But those who take this side of the argument are indefatigable, relentless, and occasionally physically violent when propounding their case.
And admittedly, they have a number of points in their favour. No one knows what the Year Dot was called before it was designated the Year Dot. They are also able to point to the Year Kuryakin, which all authorities agree was named after Ilya Kuryakin, the Russian agent in the television seiies The Man From U.N.C.L.E. played by the Scottish-American actor David McCallum. Poignantly, there is not, and never has been, a Year McCallum. Thus, the calendar recognises his fictional persona rather than the man himself.
A question well worth asking, whichever side of the Dot Tint fence you are on, is : what kind of blather is this?
I ordered my horse to be brought from the stables. His name is Alan. He is an elegant horse, but tubercular. His shanks are admirable, and he has as fine a mane as any horse in Christendom.
The stable-boy, a pockmarked little squirt who bore a distinct resemblance to the young Stalin, came limping out. His face was drained of all colour.
“Alan is gone, gone, vanished, as if in a puff of smoke!” he cried, and began to weep.
I cannot bear the sight of a weeping stable-boy.
“I cannot bear the sight of a weeping stable-boy!” I cried, “Stop snivelling!”
And I jabbed a finger sharply into one of his pocks. I found this immensely satisfying, so I jabbed my other seven fingers, one by one, into seven of his other pocks.
“Now,” I said, “You will go and find Alan. The mobile library is parked outside the birdseed shop on Lower Goat Lane. In the library, you will find a horse-atlas. Borrow it, using your library ticket. The horse-atlas contains many maps showing those parts where horses of different complexions and beauty are located. It is likely Alan has galloped to one such part of our land. Work out which, using the horse-knowledge you have acquired as a stable-boy, get thee hence, and fetch him back, using a lasso if need be.”
I was pleased with this little speech, almost as pleased as I was jabbing my fingers into his pocks, so I took myself off to the tavern for well-deserved refreshment. When I arrived at the tavern, on Upper Goat Lane, I discovered that it was under new management and had been turned into a trendy milk bar, within which dozens of beatniks were playing bongos and reciting terrible poetry.
As I sipped my tumbler of milk, I jotted down the words of one of the poems I heard.
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
Because their horses had gone missing from the stables
But they were in luck because they could send pockmarked stable-boys who looked like the young Stalin
Off in search of their horses armed with a horse-atlas from the mobile library.
For some reason, I found that this poem spoke to me in a way the other beatnik twaddle did not. Perhaps it was because I was one of the best minds of my generation. I had a trophy to prove it, a cup I had been given in my infant school. The full wording etched on the cup was another poem:
Best mind your cup, oh child so tiny
If you break it you will be whiney
And if you whine on Saint Spivack’s Day
The Grunty Man will take you away!
I had actually been taken away by the fearsome and awful Grunty Man at the age of six, but he grew so exasperated by my constant whining that he brought me back again later the same day. As I sat in the groovy milk bar, I could only hope that the stable-boy would bring Alan the horse back just as quickly.
He duly turned up several hours later, by which time I had drunk so much milk, and listened to so much terrible poetry accompanied by bongos, that I was burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night, who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz.
The stable-boy had brought me a horse, but it was not Alan. It was neither elegant nor tubercular, its shanks were despicable, and its mane was nothing to write home about.
“That horse is not Alan!” I cried, “It is neither elegant nor tubercular, its shanks are despicable, and its mane is nothing to write home about!”
“Sorry,” said the stable-boy, “I visited many many many of the places on the maps in the horse-atlas, and this is the best I could do.”
I was minded to jab my fingers in his pocks again, but I restrained myself.
“Take the new horse to the stables and saddle it up,” I said, “I will be along shortly, for I have miles to go before I vomit up all this milk and go to sleep.”
The stable-boy plodded off with the horse in tow, and I drank another tumbler of milk and listened to another godawful poem accompanied by bongos.
When I made to leave, I found my way barred by a huge bouncer-beatnik.
“What gives, daddy-o?” he said, “You don’t want to leave this groovy milk bar. Anyway, we won’t let you. You’re the kind of cat we’d love to have hitting those bongos morning noon and night. You really fry my wig. Yes, you’ll stay here forever, drinking milk and thumping bongos. Where would you go, anyway?”
“Out of here – that’s my goal.”
The first sentence, and the last, were translated from the German by Tania and James Stern. Everything in between was not.
The row between Twittery Corbynistas and the BBC over Jeremy Corbyn’s hat – a row some have dubbed Hatgate – reminded me that during the late 1960s, at the height of the Cold War, my father sported a Russian-style winter hat. This led some neighbours on our council estate to surmise that my Pa was a Soviet spy. The fact that he regularly popped in to the newsagent’s to pick up a copy of the Morning Star probably added to their suspicions. Unfortunately I don’t have a photograph, doctored or otherwise, of my father in his Communist headgear.
One of the amusing things about all the nitwit fans losing their marbles over supposed BBC perfidy is that there must be thousands of photographs of Corbyn wearing self-styled “revolutionary” attire. Remember that the dear leader’s politics are still those of an earnest teenager circa 1968. Before becoming Labour leader, he was regularly pictured wearing Leninist workers’ caps or one of those scarves the Palestinian death cult maniacs are so fond of.
OK, now I’m off to the political re-education camp to learn the errors of my ways.
GAEL ANDERSON, the bride-to-be
ANDREW CLUTTERBUCK, her suitor
IAN ANDERSON, minstrel & father of Gael
Scene: A mansion in the countryside
Enter GAEL and ANDREW
GAEL : Oh darling! I am so thrilled at the prospect of our imminent betrothal!
ANDREW : As I am too, my poppet. [A dark cloud passes over his brow.] But first I must ask your father for your hand in marriage. I fear he may place hurdles in our path.
GAEL : It is true he can be an exacting man, darling, but I feel sure you will win him over.
ANDREW : Well, we shall find out soon enough. Hark! I hear him approach!
Enter IAN ANDERSON
IAN : Hello Gael, hello young fellow-me-lad.
GAEL : Hello Papa!
ANDREW : Hello Ian … I may call you Ian?
IAN : No you may not. Address me as J-Tull Dot Com, as in the title of the 1999 album release by my rock band.
ANDREW : Oh … okay.
IAN : [Laughing] But I jest with you! By all means call me Ian. And what brings you to my country pile on this lovely summer’s day, sonny?
ANDREW : Well, I, er, um …
GAEL : Go on, darling, ask him!
ANDREW : I come to ask for the fair and dainty hand of your daughter in marriage.
IAN : I see. And are you a worthy suitor?
GAEL : He is, Papa, he is!
IAN : To be worthy of my daughter, a man must be able to play the flute while standing on one leg. Can you do that, son?
ANDREW : [Crestfallen] I’m not sure.
GAEL : But Papa, Andrew has other special skills. He has fought many zombies, and has a string of triumphs over the walking dead!
IAN : Really? I have not heard anything so preposterous since Crest Of A Knave, the 1987 album release by my rock band.
GAEL : Yes, really, Papa! Have you not seen the post-apocalyptic television drama The Walking Dead? Every week, Andrew gives those zombies the what-for!
IAN : My poor sweet child, you are confusing Mr Clutterbuck here with Andrew Lincoln, the zombie-battling star of that show.
ANDREW : Be it known that I am Andrew Lincoln! Born a Clutterbuck, I dropped that foolish surname when I embarked upon my glittering thespian career.
IAN : Is that so? Well then, I give my consent!
GAEL : Oh thank you Papa!
ANDREW : Thank you, J-Tull Dot Com sir!
IAN : Let us celebrate by singing a few snatches from Aqualung, the 1971 album release by my rock band.
They sing & wassail.