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

The Brass-Necked Goose

There is a story I remember from my childhood called “The Brass-Necked Goose”. Or rather, I remember the title, but not much of the story itself. As far as I recall it involved a goose that was ordinary in all particulars except that its neck was made of brass. One accepts such improbabilities as a child, as indeed one continues to accept them, when grown, if the spinner of improbable tales is a skilled one.

If, for instance, a Latin American magical realist with a clutch of literary awards under his or her belt introduces into a fat novel a goose with a neck of brass, we might have a moment where we say “pish!” or “pshaw!”, we might even chuck the book across the room into the fireplace, but more likely, given the laurels with which the writer is garlanded, we will accept the goose and read on, dazzled by the author’s inventiveness.

On the other hand, if we are reading a book by some lesser-known writer, and one, say, whose infelicities of style and bone-headed stupidity have already tempted us to chuck the book into the fireplace, and then, as we are growing increasingly exasperated, a goose with a brass neck is introduced for no compelling reason on page 114, then “pish!” or “pshaw!” are going to be the mildest expletives with which we will erupt, accompanied no doubt by curses unsuitable for delicate ears. We will also be likely not only to give in to the temptation and to chuck the book into the fireplace after all, but to ensure that a roaring fire is blazing therein, the better to obliterate this farrago of printed nonsense from our memories.

But as children, we do not care two pins for the literary reputation of the writer, and we are immune to infelicities of style and even to bone-headed stupidity. As children, we are caught up in the story, however improbable, however ill-written. For one thing, we are probably not reading but being read to, by Mama, as we lie tucked snug in bed, our bellies warm with milk, our eyes fixed on the paper stars glued to our bedroom ceiling. When we are told that Ipsy Dipsy, limping along the lane, meets a goose with a brass neck, we simply accept that this is the kind of thing that happens to Ipsy Dipsy, and might even happen to us, if ever we find ourselves walking along a country lane, unlikely as that may be given that we live in a hideous urban sprawl with barely a sprig of greenery to be seen.

I said I could not recall the story, but see! see!, I have remembered Ipsy Dipsy and the lane. Little details reappear in my mind’s eye. I remember Ipsy Dipsy’s pointy red hat, and the callipers on his legs, for Ipsy Dipsy was a cripple, at least at the beginning of the story. I remember the lane, it was a lane like the avenue at Middelharnis painted by Hobbema. Was Ipsy Dipsy Dutch, or Flemish? Was he still wearing the callipers at the story’s end, or had he been able to cast them aside, to throw them happily into a ditch, on account of some magical cure effected by the goose? Did the goose’s magic powers inhere in his brass neck?

As quickly as the memories come shimmering, like the paper stars on the ceiling long ago, so, equally quickly, they fade, like the stars will fade in the heavens. The night sky will be black, and vast, and pitiless. And I will totter about, fumbling in the darkness, aged and exhausted, knowing that there will be no brass-necked goose to save me from extinction.

Originally posted in 2014.