From Wivenhoe To Cuxhaven By Way Of Ponders End

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Note On The Animal Kingdom

Ahoy there, Frank!, writes Tim Thurn in his irritatingly over-familiar manner, I couldn’t help noticing that so far in this glorious new year you have treated us to your ruminations upon ducks, squirrels, and pelicans. This marks something of a change from your usual focus upon cows and pigs and bees, and I wonder if it signals an intention on your part to provide readers with an encyclopaedic survey of the entire animal kingdom over the coming twelvemonth. I would find this particularly useful, as, due to my education being interrupted by repeated concretions of the brain, much of my knowledge of the natural world has been gained by reading Hooting Yard. So I am well aware, for example, that pigs can be divided into two classes, real pigs and fictional pigs, and that pigs of both types can have the given name Popsy (or Popsie). I also know that goats can suffer from frequent fainting spells. However, I haven’t got a clue about, say, giraffes or bison or some of the tinier life-forms such as leafcutter ants and barely visible microscopic beings without eyes or even heads. Assuming my surmise is correct, I look forward to being well-versed in the world of beasts by January next, and all thanks to you! Yours ever, Tim.

Well, I hate to disappoint, but I fear Tim has jumped to an erroneous conclusion. The recent pieces on ducks and squirrels and pelicans were all occasioned by an abstruse formula for selecting subjects which I have been using for a couple of years now. It is theoretically possible that, within a year, the formula might throw up every single member of the animal kingdom, but that is as likely as a monkey typing out a novel by V S Naipaul.

By the way, I didn’t see a single squirrel today. Alack and alay!

Pebblehead’s Christmas Annual

The latest victim of crunchy credit conditions is Pebblehead’s Christmas Annual, due to be published tomorrow but now indefinitely postponed. The bestselling paperbackist has been issuing his annuals every Christmas Eve for as long as anybody can remember, so this is what is known, in the language of his potboilers, as a bitter blow. Indeed, one of the features of this year’s annual was to be an exciting tale of polar tragedy called “Captain Jarvis And His Starving Huskies Are Pressed Flat Against A Glacier By The Bitter Blows Of An Antarctic Blizzard”. I am sorry I am not going to be able to read that to my grandchildren as a bedtime story, nor indeed to act it out in the community hub frolicking compound, if necessary using bags of flour as a snow substitute should the weather continue balmy.

As ever, the annual was to contain dozens of stories Pebblehead dashed off this past year in between writing his tremendous novels. According to the publisher’s blurb, we were promised such gems as “Vanessa Redgrave And The Revolutionary Space Cadets”, “The Six Million Dollar Goat”, and “Ooh La La, As He Sinks Beneath The Waves, Captain Jarvis Recalls What Bliss Was It In That Dawn To Have A Mild Headache”. It is something of a mystery why Pebblehead has yet to write an entire novel about this Captain Jarvis character, who gets into all sorts of exciting scrapes in all sorts of locations, exotic and otherwise. Last year’s story, “Captain Jarvis Topples Out Of A Hot Air Balloon Piloted By Richard Branson” was particularly thrilling.

We could also have expected many pictures of bees, ducks, gaping chasms, weasels, kitchen utensils, frogpersons, eggs, Ludwig Wittgenstein, cardboard boxes, giraffe heads, and tweezers. Pebblehead has been criticised for retaining the same picture categories year after year, every single annual containing three cack-handed pencil drawings of each subject, all crammed into the endpapers, but I think this says a good deal about the man. He is reliable, he is consistent, he is a bestselling paperbackist, and he can’t draw for toffee.

This year’s factual articles were to include a potted history of potted fishpastes, an analysis of sulphurous woozy barbershop quartet demons, an annotated diagram of Christ’s wounds, and a reprint of Pebblehead’s classic pig paragraph.

Add to that the quiz and the cut-out board game and the coating of scum upon the dust jacket, and it is clear we shall all be bereft at this time of otherwise unbridled jollity.

Abominable, Sulphurous & Futile : A Footnote

By coincidence, the title of an earlier post, Abominable, Sulphurous & Futile, is the exact wording used by Blodgett whenever he is asked his opinion of ducks. Blodgett hates ducks. Scoter or shoveller, merganser or teal, he loathes them all. It is important to point out that this is not a phobia, an irrational fear, but rather a conscious, reasoned hatred, though the reasoning itself is flawed, as is Blodgett’s reasoning in pretty much every area of life save for matters of railway timetabling. Even then, his tendency to measure the speed of trains in nautical knots has led to all sorts of problems, but that is a topic for another time. I have already set aside this coming October for some thorough research into Blodgett and the railways.

Blodgett himself has always insisted that he hates ducks because ducks hate him. The evidence for this appears to be that, as a small child, he was attacked by a massed gaggle of red-crested pochards at the edge of a pond into which he was innocently tossing pebbles. Let us examine that claim in some detail.

We need, I think, to ask some hard questions. Where was this pond? Was it truly a pond, rather than, say, a puddle or a cwm or a tarn or a mere or a lake or even the edge of a mighty and unknown sea? As for the pebbles, were they indeed pebbles or were they dangerously large rocks with very sharp edges that could slice through the neck of a passing pochard or smew? By his own account, Blodgett was a mere tot when this incident took place, so how had he learned to distinguish between different types of duck? What sort of pedagogy would teach infants to identify teal before they learned to read and write and count and tell the time and tie their shoelaces? In a duck-strewn domain, of course, such methods may make sense, but from what we know of the land where Blodgett was raised we can safely say that its duck population was average and unremarkable. The same is true of its ponds and pond-like bodies of water, tallies of which were, and still are, kept by pond-counting persons employed by the local potentate. Make no mistake, pond-counting used to be an honourable profession, one to which any citizen possessed of good eyesight, sturdy limbs, and possession of a notched stick could aspire. Blodgett’s own mother trained as a pond-counter, but a promising career was curtailed when she choked on a pip and came down with Van Bronckhorst’s Syndrome.

Getting back to those pebbles for a moment, what is the truth of Blodgett’s claim that he was tossing them into the pond innocently? One does not need to believe in the doctrine of Original Sin to be aware that oftentimes tiny children carry out acts of the most grievous moral turpitude. And though we may have difficulty grasping exactly what goes on in the brains of a gaggle of pochards, it is surely not beyond our wit to consider that, for a duck, the tossing of pebbles into a pond could be seen as an act of brute destruction. The psychology of ducks may not be a subject on the curriculum of the standard infant community hub, but if the tinies are taught to tell the difference between a smew and a merganser, might they not also be given a grounding in the hopes and fears, the joys and terrors, of these aquatic birds?

Thus we need also to ask what sort of education the young Blodgett was given if we are to ascertain the truth of his claims. Are we to assume it was skewed in favour of the study of ducks? And if so, what would account for such an idiosyncratic approach? We all know that there are pedagogues with manias, obsessions, and tunnel vision. The deranged tutor is a staple of a certain type of fiction. One thinks, for example of the sinister schoolmaster Weems in the 1907 potboiler The Sinister Schoolmaster Weems by Peverel Greasebox, or the frankly batty provost of the cathedral school in Archibald Glubb’s long-running serial for the Dotty Capers For Boys comic. Did the tot Blodgett fall into the clutches of such a nutcase, or could it be that his own childhood memories were filtered through his readings of Greasebox and Glubb, if indeed he ever did read them? If he spent so much time learning about ducks, when could he have learned to read in the first place?

By asking such questions, we begin to pick away at Blodgett’s tale, casting doubt on it. And do I need to explain why to do so is of such vital importance? The man is a scoundrel and a rogue, not in a likeable gap-toothed and moustachioed Terry-Thomas manner, but in a way far more damaging to our national fabric. Remember that Blodgett has tried his utmost to appear on flags and postage stamps and even on coinage. He would have us believe he is a model of probity. He likes to be seen on horseback at parades, wearing a helmet with feathers. The airbags in certain makes of car bear his imprimatur, and most recently he has had no fewer than five different soups named after him. These power-crazed shenanigans have to be curbed, for if Blodgett ever gets a toehold on power I fear for the future of our country’s ducks. He is a spiteful man. Already it seems we are in danger of losing our bees. Let us make sure we keep our ducks.

This piece originally appeared in A Counterblast To Blodgettism, a Gestetnered pamphlet sold for tuppence at some point in the last century.

The Unspeakably Squalid Becrumplement Of Tadzio Gobbo

This piece first appeared in July 2006.

Intriguing news from the world of letters, where weedy poet Dennis Beerpint has turned his hand to a work of prose fiction. We have received a review copy of the novel, entitled The Unspeakably Squalid Becrumplement Of Tadzio Gobbo, presumably on the basis that we will give it a favourable notice and thus boost Mr Beerpint’s bank balance, albeit flimsily.

“An immense mass of clotted nonsense”. That was the verdict of the magazine Teachers’ World upon the first publication of Ulysses* by James Joyce, and I am tempted to say the same about this Beerpint book, and leave it at that. Astonishingly, however, this thousand-page tome has already been made a set book for schools, colleges, and orphanages throughout the land, which means that your tots, if you have any, or you, if you are a tot, will have to become familiar with it. When examination time comes round, everyone’s knowledge of Dennis Beerpint’s fictional farrago will be tested to the full. And so, public-spirited as ever, I am going to try to save you from wasting your precious time actually reading the damn thing, by telling you what you need to know.

Plot : Tadzio Gobbo is a princeling in a fictional Renaissance city state, clearly meant to remind us of the setting of a Jacobean drama such as The Courier’s Tragedy by Richard Wharfinger. As the novel opens, Gobbo is pristine, even, and uncreased. “If he were a piece of cardboard,” writes Beerpint, “he would not be of the corrugated kind.” Chapter by chapter we watch as the princeling becomes ever more becrumpled in a variety of unspeakably squalid ways, until at the end there is a deus ex machina and he is unfolded and ironed out.

Characters : Tadzio Gobbo is a crude self-portrait of the author, sharing his weediness, neurasthenia, predilection for twee verse, and hypochondria. Many of his becrumplements are accompanied by the onset of an imagined disease, such as yaws, the bindings, ague, flux, black bile, bitter colic and the strangury. Beerpint attempts to play up a certain devil-may-care foppishness, but this is never convincing. In fact it is laughably inept.

There is a host of secondary characters, the most important being Lugubrio, the princeling’s mad, stiletto-wielding uncle. Beerpint is constantly harping on about his “frantic black eyebrows”, which soon becomes tiresome. Lugubrio’s sole motive for all his actions, from eating his breakfast to murdering a crippled beggar, is revenge, but what or whom he is avenging is never made clear to the reader.

Other characters in the novel are a mixture of fictional, legendary, and real historical figures. Among the latter are Anthony Burgess, Edward G Robinson, Emily Dickinson, L Ron Hubbard and Veronica Lake. Beerpint thinks he is being clever by setting some of the scenes in a so-called ‘Scientology tent’ on the banks of ‘Lake Veronica‘, but the effect is simply witless, and the reader will struggle not to throw the book into the fireplace.

Imagery : As a poet, Beerpint has been praised for his imagery (although I cannot think why) and The Unspeakably Squalid Becrumplement Of Tadzio Gobbo is jam-packed with all his old favourites. Crows, cows, burnt toast, pencil-cases, weather systems, the blood-spotted handkerchief of a tuberculosis patient, chaffinches, hedgerows, the horn of plenty and the Garden of Gethsemane, mud, chutes, Mudchute, potato recipes and pastry fillings, starlings, pigs, more starlings, more pigs, a nightmarish albino hen and the Munich Air Disaster are all evoked at one time or another in imagistic ways, as the princeling become ever further becrumpled.

Does the book have heft? : Yes it does.

Structure : The book is divided into forty nine chapters, fairly uniform in length. Each chapter ends with a reminder, as if the reader needed one, that a further stage of unspeakably squalid becrumplement has taken place, except for the last chapter, to which I have already referred. Beerpint is clearly fond of the practice found in the picaresque novel of summarising the plot in his chapter headings. To take a random example, Chapter XXVI is titled: “In which the becrumpling of Tadzio Gobbo proceeds apace, as his mad uncle Lugubrio unleashes a swarm of killer bees into the sports arena during a wrestling contest, and a false eclipse of the sun leads to rioting and flux; together with some notes on the flocking of chaffinches and the nesting habits of starlings, an aside in which a missing punctuation mark spells doom for an apothecary, and the reappearance of Lugubrio’s lobster.”

Plagiarism or quotations : Certain passages in the book appear to have been copied verbatim from novels by Barbara Taylor Bradford, Elias Canetti, Dan Brown, and the sociopathic ex-jailbird Jeffrey Archer. Dennis Beerpint presumably considers this to be postmodernist irony, a dangerous medical condition best treated by having one’s brain sluiced out with a violent purgative.

Narrative sloppiness : Untold oodles of it. It is a sloppy, flabby and slapdash book from first to last. At its core is a burning jewel of flummery and poppycock.

Brow : Neither high, middle, nor low. Not even no-brow. This book’s brow is frantic and black (see above).

Bookcase location : Finding the right spot for this volume on your bookcase or bookshelf is likely to be fraught with difficulty. Dobson’s invaluable pamphlet on the shelving of books, which is sadly out of print, will not help you, even if you manage to track down a copy, for as the titanic pamphleteer readily admits, “There are certain books, especially those written by twee poets such as Dennis Beerpint, which resist proper shelving on even the most well-ordered of bookcases. Top left corner? No. Squeezed in among the drivel and tat on the bottom shelf? Hardly. Shoved behind the collected works of Edward Upward and quietly forgotten? Certainly not, because you will always remember that it is there, and its hidden presence will reproach you every time you go anywhere near the bookcase, and you will be as the lowest worm or beetle or that which creepeth on its belly in the foulest muck of the earth.” Maddeningly, Dobson goes no further, he leaves us in the lurch, he refuses to say what I think he means – set fire to the damn thing in your garden, just as Burgess biographer Roger Lewis was tempted to do with a rival Life of the absurd Mancunian polymath.

Marketing ploy : Each copy of The Unspeakably Squalid Becrumplement Of Tadzio Gobbo comes with a free gift, viz. a paper bag of badger food. For that reason alone, I recommend that you buy a copy at once.

*NOTE : James Joyce always pronounced it as “Oolisiss”.

Three Examples Of Uncontrollable Flapping About And Twitching

Our first example of uncontrollable flapping about and twitching took place in a pantry cluttered with jars in much disorder. Some of the jars contained goo or curd or pips or suet, in varying quantities, and some of the jars were empty. None were clean. All the jars had a coating of grime, as if they had lain untouched for many moons, as indeed they had, for this was an abandoned pantry. The lids of the jars would not have been easy to loosen had a determined person entered the pantry bent upon loosening the lid of any one of the jars, perhaps to eke out some goo or curd or pips or suet, or perhaps to pour into one of the empty jars a new and exciting substance. And hark! Here comes such a person, a wheezing person stomping down the passage towards the pantry and kicking the door in. He is a liveried attendant gone to seed and become a brute and he is holding a hammer. He has come to smash all the jars in the pantry for he has lost all sense of decorum. And then an Angel of the Lord appears, all a-shimmer, and commands him to lay down his hammer and leave the cluttered jars untouched. This is when the person begins flapping about and twitching uncontrollably, for about thirty seconds, in fear and shame, before fleeing the abandoned pantry. That happened on a Thursday.

The second example involves a peasant and a cow and many bees. It was a Saturday. The peasant had trudged into the field to take a close look at the cow, for the cow had been fractious and the peasant was concerned. Though unlettered, the peasant had a goodly store of country wisdom and was confident that if the cow was sick he would be able to identify the nature of its malady and cure it. Like many a tragic hero in fiction, the peasant sought redemption for an enormity in his past, an enormity committed due to a character flaw. Careful study of tragic heroes will reveal that they often have such a flaw. One thinks of Coriolanus, for example, or Dobson. Neither the nature of the peasant’s fatal flaw, nor of the enormity for which he sought redemption, need concern us here, for this is not a tragedy, it is just an example of uncontrollable flapping about and twitching. In any case, it is reportage rather than fiction. That being so, the reader is entitled to hard facts, rigorously researched, and the winnowing out of all fluffiness. That is why I have employed a Hooting Yard Fact-Checker so you can be absolutely sure that what you read here is the pure and unvarnished truth. Obviously you need to have confidence in the person charged with the fact-checking, and that is why I fought hard to get someone for the job who I know can be relied upon. Yes, it is easy to laugh at an ex-schoolteacher pushing sixty who still wishes to be known as “Sting”, but this was the man, remember, who first pointed out to the world that “Russians love their children too”. It is just such acuity of insight that makes him perfect for the job I have employed him to do, and for which I pay him a pittance each month. “Sting” has promised to set up a separate Hooting Yard Fact Check website, so we can all look forward to that.

I ought to point out here that, just as you can rely on me (and “Sting”) to provide you with big tough facts, so in return I expect a degree of attentiveness from you. Toe-tapping, head-scratching, and sloshing out of the ears with some sort of wax-crumbling fluid, these can surely wait until my report is done. That is the bargain we strike.

Now we’ve got that cleared up, like a rash, we can return to the peasant and the cow and the bees. But wait! You will want to be sure that they are bees, and not hornets, or wasps. Wait for a minute while I fire off a quick instruction to “Sting” to check up on that. Hmm. I have just realised how apposite his absurd nickname is for such a task.

OK. I have sent my missive and imagine that, as I write, “Sting” is checking his encyclopaedias and databases and whatnot. Unless I tell you otherwise, you can assume that the bees we are about to encounter in our second example of uncontrollable flapping about and twitching are indeed bees.

So the peasant with the tragic flaw trudged into the field to look at the cow, hoping to ascertain the nature of its sickness. Because it was a Saturday, the field was muddier than usual. The cow was standing more or less in the centre of the field, gazing at nothingness in a cow-like way. Its hocks had lost their shine, and the cardboard tag stapled to one of its ears was smudged. In this day and age, it is quite common for cows to have pieces of cardboard or plastic stapled to their ears, serving a number of purposes, and the staplers used are not so different from the staplers used in offices up and down the land. “Sting” told me that.

As he approached the cow, the peasant tried to dredge from his brain some of the folk wisdom with which it had been crammed since infancy. He remembered “If your cow is sick on a Monday morning / Go and spit upon a spade just as the day is dawning”, but that was no use to him, as it was Saturday. He remembered “Cow, cow, blotchy and stiff / Spray it with a bottle of Jif”, but that particular spell lost its efficacy when Jif products were renamed Cif as part of a marketing exercise early in the 21st century. And he remembered “Your cow is sick, it’s got bird flu / But the Russians love their children too”. As a piece of countryside lore this was useless, of course, as it did not suggest any remedies for the sick cow, but it is evidence of the extent to which the terrific profundities spouted by my fact-checking employee have entered the collective wisdom of the world.

Be that as it may, before the peasant got a chance to inspect the cow, a swarm of bees came in from the west, and buzzed menacingly about his head. Cue his uncontrollable flapping about and twitching, perfectly understandable in the circumstances. The bees harried the peasant until he turned tail and fled the field on that Saturday morning. The cow, by the way, had only a minor ailment, from which it recovered without human intervention, although I understand that it is currently in a cow-based twelve-step programme in an adjoining field. As for the peasant, he would have to await a new challenge to redeem himself from the peccadillos of his past, whatever they were.

We move on now, breathlessly but with vigour, to the third of our examples of uncontrollable flapping about and twitching. Forget pantries, forget peasants, this is a case of unearthly sci-fi stuff, set on a spaceship roaring through galaxies unimaginably distant, on a Tuesday evening. Captain Biff Bucklebim is at the controls on the deck of the USS Milquetoast Jesuit. He is a bit like Captain James T Kirk from Star Trek, but has a larger head and a speech impediment. As he likes to joke, it has been no impediment to his rise through the ranks of Starship Command, which has been meteoric. Captain Biff is still only twelve years old, although such are the warps and wefts of intergalactic travel that he is simultaneously ten thousand years old, and yet unborn, and akin to a god. Hard to get your head round, I know, and probably too much of a challenge for “Sting”, who is still working on those bees.

The USS Milquetoast Jesuit is sponsored by L’Oreal, and is powered by light-reflecting booster technology, just like Andi MacDowell’s hair. Captain Biff is contractually bound to use various L’Oreal hair products, but if he had his way he would smear his ginger mop with grease from the engine room. He is that kind of captain. When danger threatens, as it often does, he tousles his mop with one hand while punching the starship’s complicated control panel expertly with the other, all the while barking out commands to his crew. His accent is a curious mixture of Wyoming, Luxembourg, and vampire. He is extremely fond of Janacek’s String Quartet Number One, “The Kreutzer Sonata”, and likes to have it played by the starship band at moments of high peril. When they are otherwise engaged, for example if they have been beamed down to a newly discovered planetoid to give an impromptu concert of Thomas Beecham Lollipops, Captain Biff loses his rag and flies into a temper tantrum, with much uncontrollable flapping about and twitching.

I hope you have found these three examples helpful. Please add your own in the Comments. And please note that as soon as “Sting” gets back to me about the bees, I will add his findings here as a post scriptum.

A Cowboy Story

Bristow, Cuddy and I were out on the trail. It pleased me that the shanks and withers of my horse were clearly superior to those of my companions’ horses. Were we to gallop to a gulch I felt sure that I would get there first. But we were in no hurry. I was the only one with a working knowledge of the importance of vitamins, so I was in charge of our picnic arrangements, as usual. My plan was for us to chow down at sunset, further up the trail, once we’d passed Binsey Poplars. There ain’t no poplars at Binsey, just scrub and tumbleweed, but the place is sainted to the memory of Gerard Manley Hopkins, so that’s why the folk there call it what they do. A lot of those folk are monks who spend their days grunting over illuminated manuscripts in the scriptorium, but there’s a fair smattering of cowpokes and wranglers and ornery cuss-mouthed old biddies too. You’d need some kind of vade mecum to keep track of all the shenanigans they get up to, and that includes the monks.

Bristow was originally from Finland. His real name had lots of double ‘i’s and double ‘k’s in it, it was too much of a mouthful, so he was known as Bristow. Back in Helsinki, or Helsingfors, he had a wife, name of Theodora, who wallowed in a swamp of moral turpitude. She had a way of tilting her head at a particular angle that drove Bristow hobgoblin crazy, and that was why he’d left Finnish shores and was beside me now, on his horse, heading along the trail. He was so daze-brained that he thought he knew more about vitamins than I did, but I had him down as a cornpone and buckwheat kind of man, and I was rarely wrong.

I’d been wrong about Cuddy, true enough. Cuddy was a talented countertenor who’d sung a few arias in his time, back east. But then he got infected tonsils and suffered all sorts of disasters. He lost an eye and some of his bones and could no longer pay the rent on his flophouse room, so he hitched a ride on the Big Old Golem Railroad and fetched up on the prairie with nothing but a pair of spurs and a bottle of mouthwash. His hair was yellow and he had gruesome personal habits, but I gave him a horse and let him ride with me. Sometimes a man needs a helping hand.

Cuddy sang as we rode along the trail. “Oh Mama,” he sang, “What colour will the lights be? Will they turn blue on me?” It was a song that Wacko Jimmy Osterburg would record on the phonograph years down the line, but even with his ravaged tonsils I always preferred Cuddy’s take on it. You could tell he’d once wowed the plutocrats at the opera house. But those days were gone, and Cuddy knew it. Maybe that’s why he never bothered polishing his spurs. My spurs were glistening. I had them made specially, from pewter, by a pewter spur maker back in Choctaw country. They were fastened to the heels of my Bingle boots. The Bingle company makes the sturdiest boots you’re ever likely to wear, and I know I’m going to die with my Bingle boots on. They’re advertised as “the boots of destiny”, and even if you have no idea what your destiny will be, they’re the boots you’ll want to be shod in when you meet it.

It was hot on the trail. We came to a place where to one side of us was a swarm of flies and to the other side was a swarm of bees. Cuddy stopped singing, took from his holster his self-loading repeater Chabrol Truffaut-Rivette and shot them all dead, one by one.

The Mormons have a home-made hooch called leopard sweat. You can look that up if you don’t believe me. I’m no kind of saint, let alone a Latter Day one, but I had a flask of the firewater in my pochette. The hooch was a gift from a Mormon prophet we’d met yesterday. He was out in what he called the wilderness and had got himself hopelessly entangled in a thorn bush. Bristow and Cuddy wanted to rob him and taunt him with rattlesnakes, but I advised mercy, and I was listened to, so we rescued him from the thicket and got a flaskful of leopard sweat as a result. I was damned if I was going to share it with my companeros. They could make do with their own spit. The pochette, by the way, was a delicately embroidered reticule made for me by a good time girl name of Maud from Old Ma Purgative’s Whorehouse back in Vinegarville. This Maud had a way of tilting her head at a particular angle that reminded Bristow of his Helsinki Theodora, so we got out of there quick before he got the jeepers. I was keeping a close eye on him, and sometimes two eyes, through binoculars, if he strayed too far ahead or dallied too far behind. Bristow’s horse suffered from sleep apnoea and hysterics, and he sat askew on his saddle, so that was causing us no end of problems.

We were still hours away from Binsey Poplars when the trail was blocked by an incomprehensible and gigantic and hard and rectangular and monolithic slab of pure black iron. It was so huge that we were engulfed in its shadow long before we reached it. Bristow’s horse shook with terror and Cuddy’s horse went all wobbly. My own horse, with its superior withers and shanks, trotted bravely towards the slab, but it was obvious there was no way to pass it. I tapped at the metal with a tuning fork and out rang a tone at once sweet and sinister. I thought the sound might prompt Cuddy to sing again, but he was busy chewing a prune.

Fatefully, but of necessity, we left the trail, detouring off into unknown country and hoping to rejoin it beyond Stovepipe Hat Gulch. Before we got that far, though, we came to a cluster of ruined and rotting shacks. The horses were thirsty, so we dismounted and took them to a burbling rivulet. As we did so, a group of people emerged from the shacks. There were men, women, and children, all of them slobbering inbred halfwits and all of them armed with Mannlicher Carcano rifles. This, you will recall, was the cheap mail order firearm later to be used by Lee Harvey Oswald to shoot President Kennedy in November ’63. I could see Cuddy reaching for his gun so I socked him on the jaw, knocking him to the ground. I wanted, if I could, to avoid a shootout.

The leader of the slobbering inbred halfwits came towards me. His stride was uncertain and spavined, and as he got closer I saw that his eyes were milky and sightless. Then he tilted his head at a particular angle and, behind me, Bristow let out a horrible scream. I turned and saw that he was aiming his Balzac at the halfwit, but he was shaking too much to be able to make a steady shot. I ran back and knocked the revolver from his paw.

If you read the literature, you will find that cowboys often found themselves in predicaments. Such predicaments may differ in circumstance and detail from those you face in your everyday, contemporary lives, but you are still able to place yourselves, through an imaginative leap, in predicaments distant in time and place. So let us briefly exchange places, you and I. I will leave you with Bristow and Cuddy, the one gibbering at the memory of his Theodora and the other unconscious, while you are set upon by armed and slobbering inbred halfwits in a hot and hostile desert landscape away from the trail, and I shall sit on a bendy bus slewing through rainy windswept streets, bearing me god knows where, and god knows why.

Absence Of Swans

There were barrage balloons in the sky on the morning when I decided to mesmerise a swan. I had been thinking of doing so for some time, for months in fact. The idea of having so savage a bird as a swan within my power enthralled me. Gerard Manley Hopkins famously mesmerised a duck, on the twenty-seventh of April 1871, but I was going to go one better, and entrance a large white swan. I filled my pockets with pebbles, and pranced towards the pond, where I fully expected to find a few swans swanning about, one of which I would choose as my mesmeric subject swan. I looked up at the barrage balloons, wondering why there were so many of them, in huddles, just below cloud level. Was that the correct altitude for barrage balloons? I knew not.

I had neglected, that morning, to wash my hair, and I am afraid to say that it was disgustingly greasy as a consequence. And a further consequence was that as I made my way towards the pond I was jeered at by a little tangle of hoodies, who used the greasiness of my hair as a pretext to abuse me. I suspect that, had I washed my hair, they would have lit upon some other feature, my carriage or my garments or the scars on my face where I had been bitten by birds. Now, I have always found that the most effective way to deal with hoodies and similar riffraff is to visit upon them sudden, ferocious and inexplicable violence. So packed with pebbles were my pockets that I had no room, that morning, for hand grenades or pepper-sprays or petrol-soaked rags, so my usual avenues of hoodie-terrorising were closed. Instead, I ran at them, whirling my arms and screeching as loud as a sedge of bitterns. The bittern is one of the noisiest birds in the avian panoply, and its loud, booming call is one of the farthest travelling of all bird songs. The male calls relentlessly both day and night from deep within his reed bed, hoping to attract a female into his territory. My purpose, of course, was to repel rather than to attract, and in this I was successful. The hoodies fled from me, as I expect you would have done, for when I am frightening I am very frightening.

Composing myself, I turned back to the path and continued towards the pond. It was a fine pond, as ponds go, the shape of a frying-pan when viewed from above, as I had viewed it many times, from hot air balloons and aerostats. It is many years now since I have been aloft. My physician identified a peculiar substance in my head which throbbed and became inflamed if I travelled much above sea level, so I took her advice, moved to a flat part of the country, and, with some regret, curtailed my aerial exploits. I feared that my close study of birds would be in jeopardy now I was forced, for medical reasons, to hunker close to the ground, but it soon became apparent that I still had numberless ornithological opportunities, given that many birds stick pretty close to the ground themselves, a lot of the time, swans among them.

To my utmost dismay, upon arrival at the pond I saw no swans at all. This was most unusual, but I rapidly connected the absence of swans to the sight of black and yellow police tape reeled all the way round the pond, fastened to what I hoped were temporary perpendicular metal poles. Sometimes police tape is blue and white, and sometimes, as on this occasion, it is black and yellow. My idle fancy has always been that the latter colours are picked by a police bee enthusiast, but I am sure there is a more sensible reason. I certainly wanted to know the reason for the appearance of the tape on the very morning when I planned to mesmerise a swan, and I looked around for a police officer whom I could bombard with questions. At the far side of the pond I was delighted to see PC Nisbet, who was known to me personally. We belonged to the same branch of the Beige Cardigan And Trousers club, and often sat within shouting distance of each other at club picnics. I shouted at him now, using my bittern boom, though in a friendlier way than I had deployed it against the hoodies, and saw PC Nisbet cover his ears in shock. My, what large, irregular ears the man had! If he had been unfortunate enough to be born in an earlier and more brutish age, his ears would surely have been exhibited by a mountebank for money. I think he must have had a specially modified police helmet to accommodate them, but if so it was a very clever modification, not apparent to a casual observer.

I did not want to have to boom my catalogue of questions across the pond, so I began walking around it, towards the PC, and he too began walking in his policemanly way towards me, so we met up halfway, where there was a kiosk selling refreshments. I plumped for a tin of Squelcho!, and PC Nisbet, who confessed to being peckish, bought a tub of boiled fish-parts. We settled on a bench next to the kiosk, but before I could ask him about the police tape and the absence of swans, he remarked upon the disgusting greasiness of my hair, and I had to explain that it had gone unwashed that morning as I was pressed for time. After upbraiding me, and giving a long-winded alarum about the dangers of excess grease in the hair, he began babbling about the barrage balloons, which still loomed in the sky above us. I was impatient to change the subject, but PC Nisbet was a fiendishly difficult man to interrupt, for he never seemed to need to pause for breath, the words tumbling out of his mouth one after another like bats from a cave. Somehow he was managing to eat his boiled fish-parts at the same time, which made his jabbering even harder to understand than usual. I began to despair, and wondered if I could stop him by pretending to swoon, so I dropped my Squelcho! and toppled off the bench into the muck at the pond’s edge. This had the desired effect, although it meant that the grease in my hair was now mingled with mud, beetles and slime.

“Why is police tape reeled around the pond and where are the swans?” I rapped, as I clambered back on to the bench.

PC Nisbet took a deep breath and rebabbled. He told me that a terrible crime had been committed and that shortly forensic officers in skindiving equipment would arrive to drag the pond. The swans had been removed to what he called a place of safety. I wanted to know where this was, so I could pursue my swan mesmerisation plan without further delay, but the PC claimed not to know. Before dawn, he said, a squadron of bird management officers, trained in swan removal techniques, had descended upon the pond and removed the swans, using the techniques in which they had been trained, but where the swans had been removed to, and if or when they would ever be returned to the pond, and if indeed the place of safety was truly safe, for swans, these were matters it was thought best not to divulge to an ordinary copper.

From his fantastic ears to his unstoppable jabbering, there was little that was ordinary about PC Nisbet, but I took his point. If I were put in charge of a pond crime and attendant swan removal, I would not see the need to tell every last detail of the operation to a lowly functionary. But clearly I needed to eke from PC Nisbet the name and whereabouts of the officer in charge of the case. After much more babbling, I learned that this was Detective Captain Cargpan, and that he was, at that very moment, back at the station roughing up a malefactor. I bid PC Nisbet farewell and set off hotfoot for the station.

I was puffed out when I got there, and when I slumped against the front desk, was outraged to find myself placed under immediate arrest by the desk sergeant, a florid character with the eyes of a pig and the nose of a crow. I protested that I was a fine upstanding member of the local community and a committee member of the Beige Cardigan And Trousers club, to no avail. Snapping a pair of manacles on me and shoving me into a cell, the florid sergeant told me he was arresting me for entering a police station with grease, mud, beetles, and slime in my hair, and for probably having something to do with the appearance of untold numbers of barrage balloons in the sky that morning. My request to send a desperate, heartfelt message to David Blunkett by metal tapping machine was met with a punch on the side of my head. This dislodged at least one of the beetles from my hair as the cell door clanged shut.

What a predicament! I had got out of bed that morning with the innocent intention of mesmerising a swan, and now I found myself locked up in a grimy police cell and quite possibly due to be bashed about by Detective Captain Cargpan. I would have to admit the first charge, of course, but how would I be able to prove that I had nothing to do with the barrage balloons? I fretted and fumed, and then I remembered the pebbles packed in my pockets. So eager had the desk sergeant been to bang me up that he had not bothered to search me and to confiscate my pebbles. I realised that if I deployed them in a very clever way, I would not only be able to avert a roughing up by Cargpan, but I might very well manage to escape the police station entirely.

There are thousands of very clever things one can do with pocketfuls of pebbles. That is the title, more or less, of an invaluable but out of print pamphlet by Dobson, which I have read many times, and have almost by heart. For example, my pebbles were an essential part of the mesmerising of a swan, which is why my pockets were packed with them. Now, though, they would have to serve a different purpose. Having devised my very clever scheme, I did not waste a second, and deployed the pebbles accordingly. Ten minutes later I was scampering along the winding lane from the police station into the forest, a free man again. I made my way to the densest part of the woods, where the foliage was so thick that I could no longer see the sky. Nor, as a result, could I see the barrage balloons, and this afforded me some relief. Their looming presence had cast a pall over the morning.

I was famished, and hankered for kippers, but I had to make do with berries and grubs. How long would I have to remain in hiding? I was sure that Cargpan would send a gaggle of bluebottles to flush me out. I had used all my pebbles in escaping from him, and the forest floor duff was singularly lacking in further pebbles. I ate some more berries and grubs and racked my brains for a plan, but I could not stop thinking about kippers. I wished I had bought a spare tin of Squelcho! back at the kiosk, for I was thirsty as well as hungry. I sucked some moisture from a leaf. If only I had thought to bring my portable metal tapping machine, I could have sent a message to PC Nisbet. That man had a heart almost as big as one of his massive ears, and in spite of his infuriating babbling he was steadfast and reliable. I recalled that he had once told me of his dallyings with telepathy, conducted after nightfall in his allotment shed. His sole success had been what he described as a rather unsatisfactory conversation with a weasel half-savaged by an owl, but I wondered if he had made further progress since that breakthrough. Furrowing my brow, and peering vaguely in the direction I thought PC Nisbet would be, were he still patrolling the pond, I aimed a message at him, imploring him to come and rescue me from the forest, to protect me from Detective Captain Cargpan’s fists, and to feed me with kippers.

An entire day passed before I was ready to admit to myself that the exercise was completely futile. At least, I think it was a day. I was not wearing a timepiece and I was enshrouded in the forest’s gloom, so I became unsure of the passage of time. By my possibly inaccurate reckoning, I have been here for three months now. Every so often I have had to hide from one of Cargpan’s thuggish patrols. They pass through the forest beating the trees with their truncheons and shouting my name. Once, I was tempted to give myself up, and to take what was coming to me, however unjust it was, but at the last moment I rallied my burning sense of foolhardy valour, and hid myself deep in a brambly thicket. I am surviving remarkably well on a diet of berries and grubs and what moisture I can suck from leaves, although my cravings for kippers and Squelcho! are undimmed and I suffer greatly, like a medieval saint. But I have a plan. I know that, buried under the duff on the forest floor, there must be pebbles somewhere. Every day now I dig for hours with my hands, and at the last count my stockpile had grown to six reasonably pebbly pebbles. It is only a matter of time before I have enough to pack my pockets full, and then I shall deploy them in a very clever way and emerge from the forest, and I shall stride majestically home, and wash my hair, and then I shall refill my pockets with a fresh supply of pebbles and march to where I shall find some swans, and I shall mesmerise one of them and have it in my power. It will be interesting to see if barrage balloons still loom in the sky, just below the clouds, or whether they have vanished away and left the sky clear and bright, an expanse of implausible blue.

The Path Of Pollen

Mr Key wishes to announce that henceforth he will be following the Path of Pollen. As you may already know, this Path is an important and ancient tradition of bee shamanism. Like Naomi Lewis, I will be bounding out of bed at dawn and doing the lemniscatic walk. It looks like walking in a figure of eight. When bees come back from foraging, they do this to tell the hive where the best nectar is, and so on. The walk is seen to give one access to infinite knowledge and vitality.

You might wonder what precisely is implied by that “and so on”, as if there is some kind of fluffy vagueness about the Path of Pollen, but I can assure you this is not so. I am confident that, as infinite knowledge and vitality begin to suffuse every last chink of Hooting Yard, you, as readers, will be thankful that bee shamanism is being practised here, and you may indeed take up lemniscatic walking yourselves.

Incidentally, I have been asked a number of times over the years if Joost Van Dongelbraacke, the suburban shaman, was in fact a suburban bee shaman, but I am afraid my researches to date have thrown only a very pale light on the matter. While some authorities claim that he shed bits of beeswax as he roamed his shamanic suburb, others counter that they were simply bits of earwax falling from his admittedly rather grubby head. I do not yet know enough to pronounce on the question, for I have only been following the Path of Pollen since this morning, and so my knowledge is not yet infinite. I am hoping it will be so by about Thursday week.

Derailed By Bees

How right I was to predict that the Beecam would derail my harebrained scheme to make Hooting Yard a daily blog! Here is what happened yesterday:

5.15 AM : Leap out of bed and plump myself in front of the beecam. Become enthralled.

7.24 AM : Consider basic needs, such as washing and dressing and eating a hearty breakfast of kedgeree and bloaters and smokers’ poptarts, but am so overwhelmed by the beecam that I postpone any activity.

11.45 AM : Bee-haunted.

3.00 PM : Numb to the human world. Beginning to think like a bee. Making occasional buzzing noises.

3.14 PM : Nip away from the beecam momentarily to don yellow-and-black striped leotard and black hat with antennae.

7.52 PM : Recall that I planned to write something daily for the Hooting Yard page. Am too transfixed by the beecam to move.

11.35 PM : Realise that I have spent the entire day observing either bees or the absence of bees on the beecam. Suffused with a warm glow of bee-ness. Continue to watch bees with now bleary eyes. Make a mental note to explain to readers that “bleary-eyed” has nothing to do with terrifying diminutive MP Hazel Blears.

1.07 AM : Drag myself reluctantly from beecam to bed. As I fall asleep, reflect upon the fact that I have never had so bee-centred a day as the day just gone. Resolve to be even more bee-minded in future.


What was that I was saying about turning Hooting Yard into a daily blog? Two days into the new year and I fear my plans are scuppered. I am just not going to have time, am I? I am going to be far too busy watching bees!

The ever-reliable Mustard Plaster alerts us to the Natural History Museum’s live beecam – or possibly beecast, they haven’t quite made up their minds what to call it. Either way, I know what I am going to be doing with my every waking hour for the foreseeable future.