Archive for the 'A-Z' Category

A To Z At W And T

Although I have been described as a Diogenesian recluse, I have been out and about a few times recently, first to look at tiles, then to perform with Lepke B. at the Resonance104.4FM tenth birthday party, and, last night to the opening of an exhibition – Jane Colling’s A to Z screenprints at Woolfson & Tay. I thoroughly recommend this to all London-based Hooting Yardists, and indeed non-Londoners, who can fly in from around the globe.

Representing a quarter century of work, the twenty-six prints take us through the alphabet from “After Armageddon Ambivalent Ape Attests Ark’s Arrival. Animals Amble Ashore, Approaching Apricot Arbour As Arcane Arm Allows Adam An Apple. Archeopteryx Arrogates Andromeda & Aries, Aztecs Appropriate Adobe And An Aeroplane Appears” to “Zirna Zings, Zeus Zaps Zedders Zavouring Zuns Zinfandel Zest. Zinjanthropus’ Zephyrs Zero-In. Zydecodancers Zig-Zag Zigguratwards”.

At the opening, the captions were recited by Peter Blegvad and Sarah Reilly, standing behind alphabetically decorated podia. The exhibition runs until 27 May, so hie thee hence!

collingaz

Z

During the last splutters of the Harold Wilson years, I had occasion to read a slim book entitled Zen Buddhism, which consisted simply of a series of what I think are called kōans, anecdotes or parables designed to assist one in striving towards enlightenment. I do not recall any particular kōan in detail, but they all seemed very similar, and tucked away in my memory there is a sort of generic kōan, which goes something like this:

One day Bin-Bag was fishing in a stream, and he caught a pike. He decided to take it to his Master as a gift.

“Here, Master, I have brought you a pike,” he said.

Bin-Bag’s Master took the pike, and then he picked up a stick and bashed his pupil about the head with it.

“Ouch!” wailed Bin-Bag. “Why are you hitting me when I have brought you a pike?”

The Master pushed Bin-Bag down a slope and resumed his meditation. Bin-Bag rubbed his head and understood he was one step further towards Enlightenment.

I was young and impressionable, but even then I could see that this was complete twaddle. Compared to Zen, Roman Catholicism seemed sensible and coherent. I decided to have no truck with Eastern mysticism in future.

Years later, however, I was glad I had read the book. I was commissioned to write a potted biography of the Woohoohoodiwoo Woman, and struggled to find an angle from which to approach the subject. Then I realised that the witless kōans provided an ideal model. I was able to scribble dozens of short yarns about the Woohoohoodiwoo Woman, based on my faltering recollection of Zen kōans. The only changes I had to make were to substitute the Zen Master’s bashing and shoving with the Woohoohoodiwoo Woman’s technique of making haphazard gesticulations at a robin, or at a flock of sparrows, or, in extremis, when faced with a particularly recalcitrant acolyte, wandering woozily off to a nearby kiosk to buy herself a toffee apple.

And that brings us smartly to the end of our alphabet.

Y

Y is for Yachtsman

Some years ago, were one strolling in a marina or a harbour, it would be quite common to hear a bunch of tinies chanting a rhyme as they danced, hand in hand, in a ring around a collapsed and comatose seaside sot.

See the drunken yachtsman, vomit on his blazer / It is Mijnheer Blötzmann, zap him with your Taser!

There are several problems with this, and we are indebted to Arturo Himmelfarbarb, the noted collector of children’s gruesome seaside songs, who recently published a research paper in which he tabulates the perplexities on an abstruse graph, with pointy bits and no doubt expensive four-colour printing. As is the way with good old Arturo, a draconian embargo has been placed on the graph, so I cannot reproduce it here. Instead, I will do my best to summarise the points he makes, using plain words rather than exciting graphic hullabaloo.

First, Blötzmann is given the Dutch honorific “Mijnheer”, in spite of the fact that all the available evidence suggests he was Swiss. Though there have been arguments, of deathly tedium, questioning his nationality, nobody has ever claimed Blötzmann was a Netherlander, or even a Belgian. As for the so-called “Afrikaaner Cradle-In-The-Nursery Conjecture”, that nonsense was comprehensively demolished long, long ago, by yours truly, on primetime television no less, thanks to the good offices of Russell Harty.

Secondly, Blötzmann was famously teetotal, and never allowed a drop of spiritous liquor to pass his lips. The idea that he would be found lying ruined by drink at a marina is laughable. It is true he was fond of the sea, which he memorably described as “that soaking wet immensity stretching to the horizon and beyond”, and often skulked about ports and harbours and quaysides and marinas, doing his Blötzmanny doings, but those doings were always done sober, have no doubt about that. To which one might add that his love of coastal purlieux did not extend to the sea itself, for he was a boat-scared man all his life. That he would ever have gone yachting is inconceivable.

In a different section of his fantastic graph, Arturo demonstrates that at the time the children’s ditty was recorded, the Taser had not yet been invented. In those days, if one wanted to fell a malefactor, one used a club or a bludgeon. The Taser itself, in its initial form, dates from 1974, the year of Potus Richard Nixon’s disgrace and resignation. In any case, as the upper right segment of the graph demonstrates with admirable clarity, one needs neither Taser nor club nor bludgeon to subdue a sot in a coma whose collapse is due to his having glugged an unconscionable amount of hooch.

In sum, then, the rhyme makes no sense whatsoever. Hot-brained Gallic postmodernist Jacques Postmod has attempted to “undo”, as he puts it, Arturo’s tremendous diagram, but nobody takes him seriously anymore, thank heaven.

Which all goes to show that the life can be sucked out of even the jauntiest children’s chant when the leeches of academe are properly applied.

X

It will become apparent what X stands for if you read on…

‘Twas midnight as I crept through the graveyard. The sky was pitch black, the stars obscured by clouds. My Toc H lamp shed only meagre light, and I stumbled many times over the rough and ravaged ground. Somewhere an owl hooted. I hooted in reply, mischievously, for even in so macabre a circumstance I retained my joie de vivre. Well, you have to, don’t you, when surrounded by doom ‘n’ death ‘n’ memento mori?

Perched on a promontory overlooking the awful sea, the graveyard was whipped by winds. How they howled! So, so many of the tombstones had toppled, over the years, over the centuries, and the salt wind had crumbled them. As I had hooted at the owl, so I howled at the wind. I hooted, I howled, and then I chuckled insouciantly, like the dandy I can be, at my best, and I held my lamp aloft as I peered into the black. Somewhere hereabouts was the ossuary, where bones were stacked, innumerable, abandoned. Within the vault, not a single bone, I’d been told, had a tag that might identify it, that could have led to it rejoining the other bones with which, once, as a skeletal structure, it had lurked inside a body, with breath and blood and life. Lonely abandoned bones lay in stacks in the ossuary – and here I come, at dead of night!

On Thursday, during a rainstorm, I took shelter in the library. Unlike most modern libraries, this one still had some books in it. By some miracle, they had not been consigned in their hundreds of thousands to a lime-pit. Browsing the shelves, I lit upon a tome entitled The academy of armoury, or a storehouse of armoury and blazon : containing the several variety of created beings, and how born in coats of arms, both foreign and domestick : with the instruments used in all trades and sciences, together with their terms of art : also the etymologies, definitions, and historical observations on the same, explicated and explained according to our modern language : very useful for all gentlemen, scholars, divines, and all such as desire any knowledge in arts and sciences by Randle Holme. It was over three hundred years old, having been published in 1688, and if the slip pasted in the frontispiece was to be believed, no one had borrowed it from the library since 1819, the year John Ruskin was born. Gosh, I thought, sweeping a hand through my terrific hairstyle. Now armouries I can take or leave, but I have ever been fascinated, to the point of loosened bowels, by blazons. It is the kind of chap I am, simply put. Don’t ask me why. Better by far, I’d say, to be a blazonist than a vinkenier. In any case, I am only half Flemish. Later, perhaps, I will tell you about the other half of my ancestry. Both halves are mostly bones, now, bones rotten and crumbled to dust, but then that is true of every man jack of us, isn’t it?, so it is hardly worth saying.

I propped the Holme tome on a lectern, and, as the downpour continued to beat relentlessly upon the smudged and grubby windows, and the sky darkened, I leafed through the pages. The book smelled, for some reason, of vinegar. What could the reason be? I pictured to myself a nineteenth century blazonist, perhaps a rather caddish one in Regency trews, tossing the book into a trough of vinegar as he sallied towards a pump room. Did they have troughs filled with vinegar in those days, for a purpose beyond my ken? I knew not, and Randle Holme wasn’t going to tell me. He was going to tell me about armouries and blazons.

But he was also going to tell me something else, something of great import for this present essay. What he told me, in the failing light, at the lectern in the library, in liber III, page 429, paragraph 1, was this : Raspatorium, Rasping hookes; ..Scraping Instruments to shave and scrape filthy and scaly bones. It’s called also Xyster.

I  knew what I had to do. I slammed the book shut, replaced it on the shelf where I found it, and I strode – no, I minced – out into what I thought was rain, only to have myriad tiny hailstones pinging on to my bonce. As luck would have it, there was a surgical instrument ‘n’ appliance shop bang next door to the library. I ducked inside, out of the hail, and made immediate purchase of a xyster.

“What do you want it for?” asked the shopkeeper, a surly sort whose parents, I surmised, had never coddled him.

“For the scraping of filthy and scaly bones!” I cried, using my theatrical training.

“All well and good,” he replied, somewhat crestfallen. I think he was less interested in making a sale than in outwitting me, for some skewed psychological frolic of his own.

“Wrap it for me,” I commanded, “With pastry paper and butcher’s string.”

He did as he was bid, a broken shopkeeper.

I took my xyster home, and waited for the darkness to fall. Then I changed into garb appropriate for the practice of creeping among toppled tombstones, and I stole out of my chalet and climbed towards the promontory, and I scaled the graveyard gates and made for the ossuary, the xyster clutched tightly in my dainty, dainty, yellow-begloved hand.

W

If you are a certain type of folk singer, or vicar, or countryside rambler, you will as likely as not be wearing a jumper or sweater or pullover made of wool. It may conceivably be a polo neck. You more than anyone will know that there is good wool and there is bad wool. I would go so far as to say that, in the matter of wool, there is no middle ground, no grey area. Either the wool is good, or it is bad, and there’s an end on’t.

If your jumper or sweater or pullover has been knitted from good wool, you should count your blessings. Depending on where you live, good wool can be hard to come by. You may have had to send away to some far distant woolly apparel concern to have one of their catalogue items delivered to you through the mails, in a packet. The costs of transportation and packaging will have added to the basic price of your chosen jumper or sweater or pullover, but the outlay is justified when it is guaranteed that the knitwork was done with good wool.

But woe betide you if for some reason you are forced to wear something made from bad wool. Bad wool comes from bad sheep. They may be diseased, or repugnant, or unseemly, or all three. That does not stop unscrupulous shearers from shearing the wool from them and selling it on to equally unscrupulous wool merchants, who in turn have it processed and knitted into garments. It is both sad and astounding what reserves of human skill can be deployed into making something out of bad wool. Spotting a garment on a market stall, or for sale from the barrow of a barrow boy, it may not be immediately apparent whether the wool is good wool or bad wool. It may not even become evident when you put it on, pulling it over your head and inserting your arms and tucking it about yourself. But if it is made from bad wool it will contaminate you, as surely as night follows day. That is the thing about garb knitted from bad wool. The knitting was bad and the garb is bad, because of the bad wool. And, disporting it upon your frame, sashaying along the boulevards of your faubourg, it will make you bad too.

It is a wonder that bad wool has not been made illegal. Perhaps there are happy lands where that is the case. Is that not a pleasing thought, a happy land where all the wool is good, and none of it bad? Alas, it is an impossible dream. For there will always be bad sheep, and bad shearers, and unscrupulous merchants, and ne’er-do-well traders and barrow boys.

Hence, if you are wearing good wool, I repeat, count your blessings, count them until kingdom come, and then count them over again. And if you are wearing bad wool, reflect upon the circumstance, ask what you have done to deserve bad wool. It is likely that you have brought the bad wool upon yourself, through your own contamination, for bad attracts bad, in persons and wool as in other phenomena of the boundless universe.

V

V is for Vinkensport, surely one of the most foolish – and tedious – sports ever devised. I make no apologies for lifting the following description directly from the Wikipedia (with minor tamperings and omissions):

“Vinkensport (Dutch for “finch sport”) is a competitive animal sport in which male chaffinches are made to compete for the highest number of bird calls in an hour. Also called vinkenzetting (Dutch for “finch sitting”), it is primarily active in the Dutch-speaking Flanders region of Belgium.

“Vinkensport traces its origins to competitions held by Flemish merchants in 1596, and is considered part of traditional Flemish culture. As of 2007, it is estimated that there were over 13,000 enthusiasts, called vinkeniers (”finchers”), breeding 10,000 birds every year. Animal rights activists have opposed the sport for much of its history.

“In a contest, a row of small cages, each housing a single male finch, is lined up approximately six feet apart along a street. A timekeeper begins and ends the contest with a red flag. Every time a bird sings a correct terminating flourish to their call—most often transcribed as susk-e-wiet—a tally mark in chalk is made on a long wooden stick. The bird singing its song the most times during one hour wins the contest.

“The earliest known records of vinkeniers are from 1596. By the late nineteenth century, vinkenzetting’s popularity had diminished significantly, but it saw a resurgence after the First World War.

“Vinkeniers use a variety of methods to increase the number of calls in their birds. Techniques to develop singing aptitude include selective breeding programs, high-protein diets, and stimulating them with music and recordings of bird song. As wild finches generally begin singing during the spring mating season, keepers may also use artificial lights placed in aviaries to encourage increased song.

“Some vinkeniers claim that finches from the different regions of Belgium sing in different dialects, with birds from Flanders singing “in Dutch” and those from Wallonia singing undesirably “in French”. While minute regional differences in song have been observed in the chaffinch (though not within Belgium), the differences have only been reliably distinguishable by the use of sonograms. Taxonomically, there are no officially-recognized subspecies of chaffinch within Belgium.

“As with other sports, vinkensport has had its cheating scandals, as well as accusations of artificial enhancement. One finch sang a record 1,278 susk-e-weits in one hour, and the owner was later accused of doping the bird with testosterone. After one contestant sang the exact same number of calls in two rounds, the box was opened and a mini CD player was discovered within.”

There is further material in the original article about various cruelties practised by vinkeniers, which you may go and read if you wish. I have not included it here because I know deep in my heart that there is not a single Hooting Yard reader who would ever countenance cruelty to our avian pals, and I do not wish to nauseate you.

If you are thinking of taking up competitive Vinkensport, might I suggest that you may need to be incarcerated in a mercy home for those plagued by criminal insanity directed towards birds?

U

U is for Unbutton. I have written at length about the unbutton, that which is not a button, but there is so much more to be said, so much more. You would be surprised, I think, had you studied the unbutton to the extent and to the depth I have, just how much can be written on the subject. Stuffed in a drawer somewhere I have a stack of notebooks in which are scribbled page after page of my notes, notes I made diligently during my studies of the unbutton. I am glad I made the notes, for I have a mind like a sieve and have actually forgotten most of what I learned. Unfortunately I have also forgotten the location of the drawer in which the notebooks are stuffed, so I shall have to hunt that down before I can familiarise myself with the material. I say ‘material’ as that is a generic term, because I have never been sure whether to refer to my notes as data or lore or even, in extremis, ravings.

It is also unhelpful that my unbutton studies, and thus my note-taking, took place at a time when I was under the spell, the considerable spell, of the note-taking and hand-writing gourou Jim Pock. In addition to his grand pronouncements upon note-taking and hand-writing, Jim Pock was given to insisting, his countenance growing more florid by the second, upon certain idiosyncratic spellings, of which ‘gourou’, with inserted ‘o’s, was one. Actually, I cannot think of any others. What I do recall, so vividly that my heart almost bursts, is his screeching command – he called it a ukase, as if he were a Tsar – to have no truck with legibility. In his world, legibility was a crime. He never explained why this was so, swatting the queries of his devotees aside like flies. He did not actually refer to his method as ’speed scribbling’, but that is a pretty good description of what he taught, from his podium, with his gesticulations. What it means is that all those thousands of notebooks I filled while studying the unbutton are unreadable, even if I could find the drawer in which I stuffed them, when I abandoned my unbutton studies, around the time of the Tet Offensive.

Jim Pock himself knew nothing about the unbutton. In fact, every time I let slip my field of studies, he became rattled. Once I was even expelled from the yurt until I promised to refrain from raising the subject. For all his visionary visionariness, Jim Pock was stuck in the mundane world of buttons, solid and comprehensible and utilitarian. He could not, or would not, see that striving, however blindly, towards an apprehension of the unbutton could lead us into realms undreamed of, had we but the courage to sniff out the clues, like hogs in search of truffles.

Looking back, it is all too clear to me that I took a wrong turn at the beginning of the Vietnamese year of the monkey (Tết Mậu Thân). Mentally, at least, I consigned the unbutton to an unscrapheap, and pointed my brain towards less abstruse matters. Only now, over forty years later, has the unbutton come back to haunt me, like the familiar in the story by J Sheridan Le Fanu. Jim Pock would be rolling in his grave, if he had one, but as far as I know he did not die. Rather, he was transfigured, somehow, onto a higher, or lopsided, plane, from where I dare say he still issues ukases on illegibility, and other matters of questionable import, from his ethereal podium, with his phantom gesticulations.

T

T is for Taylor, more precisely Joseph Taylor, author of Apparitions or, The Mystery of Ghosts, Hobgoblins, and Haunted Houses Developed. Being A Collection Of Entertaining Stories, Founded On Fact, And Selected For The Purpose Of Eradicating Those Fears, Which The Ignorant, The Weak, And The Superstitious, Are But Too Apt To Encourage, For Want Of Properly Examining Into The Causes Of Such Absurd Impositions (1815), wherein he remarks, inter alia, “idiots in general are remarkably fond of any thing relative to a funeral procession”. Well worth bearing in mind, I think.

S

S is for Saints

Well, just one saint, actually, Saint Bibblybibdib, the church dedicated to whom stands, in partial ruin, in sunlight that is forever dappled, as was Saint Bibblybibdib himself, usually, by all accounts. It may have been that Gerard Manley Hopkins was thinking of St Bibblybibdib when he wrote “Glory be to God for dappled things” in Pied Beauty, though in praising “all things counter, original, spare, strange” the Jesuit does not actually mention the saint by name, or indeed by inference, and it may be that I am just indulging in wishful thinking. It would not be for the first time.

His dappledom, whatever may have caused it, is one of the few things we know about St Bibblybibdib. As with many, though not all, saints, his life is more myth than history, and it is arguable that he never existed at all, being rather an amalgam of several shadowy figures obscured by the mists of time. Who those figures might be is open to conjecture. One recent hagiographer posits the possibility that the saint we think of as “Saint Bibblybibdib” is a combination of over two hundred persons of mediaeval times or earlier, who all got cobbled together through an error in the illumination of a codex in the scriptorium of an abbey perched on a declivity in the foothills of a large and important mountain range during a ferocious twelfth-century thunderstorm.

But just as I prefer to imagine Father Hopkins sprawled on the grass among the tombstones of Saint Bibblybibdib’s churchyard on a gorgeous springtime afternoon, contemplating the saint and writing his sprung rhythms, so I like to imagine a real, corporeal, dappled saint, roaming mediaeval fields and riversides, dressed in some sort of ecclesiastical garb, a battered halo hovering above his bonce, being saintly.

What else do we know about him? Not much. His symbolic attributes include a toasting-fork, a funerary urn, a finch and a robin, half a wolf, a bloody sword, a corrective boot and a medallion of beaten tin. These are arrayed around him, clockwise in alphabetical order, in his icons, some of which date as far back as 1937, when he was canonised, on the same day, coincidentally, as the Hindenburg disaster. That hagiographer I mentioned posits something else, as it happens. He claims the Hindenburg exploded in gigantic balls of flaming gas because one of the crew was heard to curse Saint Bibblybibdib as the airship approached Lakehurst Naval Air Station for its high landing, known as a “flying moor” because it would be moored to a high mooring point, and then winched down to ground level. As we know, there was to be no winching of an airship on that fateful day. The hagiographer provides no evidence for this grave charge, which must cause considerable pain to any living relatives of the cursing crewman, and which, it must be said, paints Saint Bibblybibdib himself as a petulant and vengeful saint, flying into a rage at the merest slight. I am sure there must be at least a few saints of whom that might be a fitting character sketch, but surely not dear old Saint Bibblybibdib! I prefer to think of him dappled, with his attributes, bestowing his patronage hither and thither. Alas, as far as I have been able to ascertain, Saint Bibblybibdib is the patron saint of nothing, of nothing or no one at all.

R

R is for “Remembering Marie A.” David Bowie performs Bertolt Brecht’s splendid song in the 1982 production of Baal.

ADDENDUM : I realise that, by rights, R should have stood for R, Hooting Yard’s indefatigable anagrammatist-commenter. No doubt he is hard at work on an anagram as I write. But an anagram of what?

Q

Few experiences are as alarming as sinking up to your waist in a quagmire. Having blundered into a quagmire, because you were not looking where you were going, your immediate reaction will probably be to shout your head off, calling for help, and to flail your arms in a haphazard manner, hoping perhaps to summon rescue by visual as well as auditory means. Unfortunately, it so happens that the overwhelming majority of quagmires are to be found in rustic settings, with low population density, rather than in the hurly burly of our crowded cities, where you could confidently expect at least one passer-by in the teeming urban throng to notice your pickle and dash to your assistance, perhaps with a winch. Out in the countryside, depending upon how remote from human habitation it is, hours or days or even weeks might elapse before some wayfarer comes striding past the quagmire to witness your plight. That is not to say that urban quagmires do not exist, but they tend to be spiritual ones, quags of moral turpitude, and they need not concern us here.

If it was shortly after dawn that you sank into your quagmire, bleary-eyed on a morning hike, you at least know that you have many hours of light ahead, and this knowledge should help you to keep your pecker up. After all, statistically, the longer the daylight, the more chance there is of a peasant passing by. I have not studied statistics, and of course there are all sorts of variables to take into account, but I think I can safely say that you have more reason for optimism if you have sunk into a quagmire early in the morning rather than at dusk, as the sun sinks in the west and the sky turns black. You can adjust the intensity of your hope or hopelessness based on what o’ clock it is when you sink, for of course it may be neither dawn nor dusk but two-thirty in the afternoon or one minute past midnight. If the latter, should you survive your ordeal, you would be well-advised to review your decision to go marching about the bleak countryside in the middle of the night, and resolve not to do so in future, if it can at all be avoided.

For the purposes of our blathering, let us assume it is mid-morning, and summer, and thus many hours of daylight lie ahead. You have spent, I would guess, about ten minutes bellowing and waving, to no avail, before you apprehend the futility of doing so. The effort you have expended has served to exhaust you. You are tempted to weep. Around you, the countryside is still and silent, save for a breeze rustling the leaves of the trees, the chirrup and tweet and caw and boom of birds, the scurrying in the undergrowth of busy moles and other habitués of field and mud and duff. For the countryside is never truly still, nor truly silent.

And the pong! I have not yet mentioned that. One of the salient features of the average quagmire is that foul mephitic fumes rise from it. You would naturally want to cover your nose with the embroidered linen handkerchief you keep in your trouser pocket, but of course both pocket and handkerchief, and indeed trousers, are submerged in the quagmire. You have no choice but to snuff up the noisome stench. After an hour or so, you will get used to it, so there is another reason to look on the bright side.

Another thing I have not mentioned is the possibility that, stricken with panic, you may have struggled to kick your legs, down there in the filthy gloop. This is a very bad idea indeed. If you do manage to move your lower limbs about, even a tiny bit, the resulting dislodgement of some of the sludge may make you sink further. It is bad enough having sunk up to your waist. Imagine how much more alarming it would be if you plunged in further, up to your neck. Actually, do not imagine that, because it will make you terrified, and it is absolutely critical that you keep your wits about you. A person in a quagmire is still a person.

It is a great pity that only in fairy stories do we find talking animals. As the day passes, any number of creatures may come to gaze upon you, their curiosity stirred, their tiny stupid brains wondering if you might be food. Squirrels, reindeer, puff adders, or, from above, vultures, to give just four examples. Would that one of them could comprehend human speech and relay a message on your behalf! Some beasts are more intelligent than others, such as dolphins and pigs and crows, but even they cannot speak the Queen’s English. You can at least take comfort that none of the animals that come to look at you is prepared to scamper or creep or crawl or slither or slink across the quagmire, there to devour you, flesh and bone.

From time to time, especially as the evening draws on, it is a good idea to resume your shouting and gesticulating, just in case a countryside person happens to be passing, on foot or by bicycle or astride a horse pulling a cart. But what if nobody comes?

What if nobody comes? One thing we can be sure of is that the sun will set, the sky will turn black, myriad stars will twinkle upon you, in your quagmire.

P

P is for Piffle

Some people do spout the most extraordinary piffle, and I suppose we should expect the words of politicians to be particularly piffle-strewn. Consider this, reported in today’s Grauniad:

“One of his shadow cabinet allies insisted Ed Miliband was growing in stature as a leader by the hour.”

By the hour? He became the Labour Party leader on Saturday afternoon, and if we grant that to get elected in the first place he must already have demonstrated just a teensiest smidgen of leadership quality, what on earth must he be like by now, and what will he be like in a week’s and a month’s time? Assuming the next general election takes place in 2015, and his stature continues to grow by the hour, he will have become a mighty potentate, a modern Ozymandias, King of Kings!

ed-miliband-extra_1006964f

Young Ned Miliband, soon-to-be Supreme And Majestic Potentate Of The Universe

O

O is for Ozymandias

“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings, / Look on my Works ye Mighty, and despair!”

Now as it happens, I am mighty, and I was hanging around one Thursday morning on the boundless and bare lone and level sands, and I took the opportunity to look on the works of the King of Kings, and I did not despair. What I did was guffaw. Well, first I belched, for I had just finished eating a big pie, two dozen blackbirds baked in puff pastry, with a side helping of spring onions and marmalade. I belched, and then I guffawed. Not everyone is able to emit a full-throated guffaw, in all its glory, but I can. I used to be a chuckler, but that was before I embraced my mightiness, and developed a guffaw to go with it. I was taught it by a mountebank, on a seaside pier, far away from the sands on which I was prancing on that Thursday morning.

I had been sent to inspect the works of Ozymandias by one mightier than myself, if you can imagine such a personage. This unbelievably mighty wight was so mighty he would have flicked Ozymandias from his mighty presence as if the King of Kings were a mere fly, or a bluebottle. He, my mighty employer, had not had a moment to spare to go and see the works of Ozymandias, but he had heard reports, and was aware of the accepted wisdom that looking on them could plunge him into despair. Such a prospect confounded his mighty brain, so he took me on as a sort of surveyor-emissary, at a handsome salary.

“Go thou and look upon the works of Ozymandias, King of Kings!” he boomed in his mighty baritone at the conclusion of my interview, “And make haste to return to my mighty office on the top floor of this mighty skyscraper, and tell me of your findings. Though you are a mere speck of weediness in comparison to me, you are yet sufficiently mighty to be in a position to test the authenticity of Ozymandias’ claim.”

Before leaving the skyscraper, I called in to the PX to collect a wadge of pie-coupons. As I was counting them, and calculating how many blackbird pies I would be able to devour during my survey, it so happened that the mountebank who had taught me to guffaw popped in.

“I hear you are going to look on the works of Ozymandias, King of Kings,” he said.

“Gosh, news travels mightily fast in this skyscraper,” I replied.

“That it does, that it does,” said the mountebank, “But remember, this skyscraper, mighty as it is, will one day topple, or be toppled, and be nought but dust and ashes. In fact, I have it on good authority that such topplement may well occur before you have time to return from the boundless and bare lone and level sands for which you are headed.”

“Really?” I asked.

The mountebank tapped a finger on the side of his nose in the universal gesture of conspiratorial scalliwaggery, and then he swept away, his cape billowing behind him with controlled urgency and stylish élan.

And that is why, on that Thursday morning some weeks later, I guffawed as I looked on the works of Ozymandias, King of Kings. For the mighty skyscraper had toppled, and in its topplement my mighty employer had perished. I had my fat salary, and half my wadge of pie-coupons, and a belly full of blackbird pie and spring onions and marmalade, and I need never return from the boundless and bare lone and level sands. Here I could build my own mighty works, and guffaw at the universe! Now there was none mightier than me!

N

We enter the second half of our alphabet with N, which could have been for Nebuchadnezzar, had we not dealt with that king’s wild manias under M for Mead and Medica Sacra. That being so, N is for Nothing.

“Oh what horror to bite on nothing”, sang Peter Blegvad, once upon a time. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Our next letter, O, could be taken for Nothing, too, if it were to be misread as 0, or zero, which it can be, if you are not looking carefully and don’t give a damn about context. Iggy Pop claims that his band, The Stooges, has the best band-name ever, simply because of that “oo” in the middle. But the “oo” sound, written down, can also be interpreted as a double-zero, a double nothingness, as in, for example, the surname of the poet Rupert Brooke, propelled into the nothingness of death by a gnat-bite to his lip, as he sailed towards the Dardanelles, and Gallipoli. Edgar Allan Poe has just the one O at the centre of his surname, the O of a maelstrom, such as the maelstrom that lies in wait for Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket as he vanishes into a white nothingness. Iggy, too, has a central O in his surname, coupled by the O of his real surname, Osterburg.

But I ought not be babbling about all these Os now, when we are speaking of N, when we are speaking of Nothing.

M

250px-Richard_Mead

M is for Mead, that is Dr Richard Mead (1673-1754), and also for his Medica Sacra : Or, A Commentary On The Most Remarkable Diseases Mentioned In The Holy Scriptures (1748, posthumously reprinted 1755). Here you can read about the diseases of Job, Jehoram, Judas, Herod, and others, also of palsy, demoniacs, and “the bloody sweat of Christ”. The full text is online, and to whet your appetite here is part of Mead’s chapter on the disease of our old pal King Nebuchadnezzar:

“Those things, which are related of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, appear so surprizing and contrary to nature, that some interpreters have imagined that he was really transformed into a beast. For ‘being driven from the company of men for seven years, his dwelling was with the beasts of the field, he fed on grass as oxen; his body was wetted with the dew of heaven; his hair and nails were grown like those of birds. At length at the end of that space of time, his understanding was restored to him, and he was established in his kingdom, and excellent majesty was added unto him. Now his crime was pride and the contempt of God’ [See Daniel, Chap. iv. and v.]

“All these circumstances agree so perfectly well with hypochondriacal madness, that to me it appears evident, that Nebuchadnezzar was seized with this distemper, and under its influence ran wild into the fields: and that, fancying himself transformed into an ox, he fed on grass in the manner of cattle. For every sort of madness is, as I shall specify more particularly hereafter, a disease of a disturbed imagination; which this unhappy man laboured under full seven years. And thro’ neglect of taking proper care of himself, his hair and nails grew to an excessive length; whereby the latter growing thicker and crooked, resembled the claws of birds. Now, the ancients called persons affected with this species of madness [Greek: lykanthrôpoi] or [Greek: kynanthrôpoi]; because they went abroad in the night, imitating wolves or dogs; particularly intent upon opening the sepulchres of the dead, and had their legs much ulcerated either by frequent falls, or the bites of dogs.”

ADDENDUM : I suppose, given the day, that M ought to have stood for Miliband. Thereagain, if we are to have an M Addendum, I would prefer that it be this quotation from Charles Darwin, from one of his letters : “Would anyone trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind?”