Laundry Bag Boy

I have never been a fan of comic books, nor have I developed a taste for graphic novels. I can admire the skill and inventiveness, but somehow I can’t drum up genuine enthusiasm. Of course, as a child, I had my weekly diet of comics, including Pipsy Papsy, Factorum Et Dictorum Memorabilium, and The Dinky, but when I discovered proper books I was smitten by prose, and there was no turning back.

Until last week, that is, when I discovered a fantastic comic featuring the cartoon superhero Laundry Bag Boy. I have to admit it has been a revelation, and I am smitten all over again, this time by crude and cack-handed drawings and by storylines which have surely been devised by a dribbling toddler. Yet there is a majestic genius about Laundry Bag Boy, his adventures, his scrapes, his pratfalls, his laundry bag, that I find irresistible. The comic I picked up, absent-mindedly, from where it had been discarded on a bench under a sycamore by a path in a park, was fat and dog-eared and threatened by rainfall. I thought no more than to carry it to the nearest municipal waste bin and consign it to oblivion, but the waste bins had been commandeered by an avant garde arts project organised by a man called Simon, whose name was Peter, just like one of the apostles of Christ. But whereas the apostles were, as Charles Bradlaugh (1833-1891) observed, “illiterate half-starved visionaries in some dark corner of a Graeco-Syrian slum”, the artist Simon and his pals were goatee-bearded trendies from Shoreditch destined to rot in hell. Before they rotted, they had filled all the municipal waste bins in the park with some kind of compacted orange substance, hard as concrete, rendering the bins unusable. According to leaflets available from a temporary kiosk, this “art intervention” was a “courageous statement about Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror”. Much as I would have liked to wander through the park from bin to bin contemplating this thought-provoking work, I found that my thoughts were paralysed rather than provoked, so instead I took shelter from the downpour under a derelict bandstand and began to leaf through the comic. I am so glad I did.

Issue 10, Volume 34 of Laundry Bag Boy contained a couple of short strips about Douglas The Pig, who was, I learned, Laundry Bag Boy’s pet pig, and a few pages of adverts and promotions for other publications. The bulk of the comic, however, was a single full-length comic strip adventure called Laundry Bag Boy : The Shakatak Years. Now, just as in my adulthood I have never been a comics buff, nor have I ever cared much, or at all, for Shakatak, the British jazz-funk band who had hits in the 1980s with “Night Birds” and “Down On The Street”, among others. Frankly, their smooth pap left me cold when first I heard it, and still does, two decades on. Readers who disagree with me, and who wish to champion the music of Shakatak and show me the error of my ways, are invited to argue their case in the Comments, but I will only pay attention to contributions which shake me to the core and force me to reassess my entire Weltanschauung. Those are the stakes. Be very careful before you tap that keyboard and hit “Send”.

The plot of the story, such as it is, posits that for a period of seven years – precisely which years are maddeningly unspecified – Laundry Bag Boy acts as a kind of familiar to the dull as ditchwater jazz-funksters. They remain unaware of his presence, but he is always there, haunting them, watching over them, in a patch of shadow on stage or perched up in the rafters of the recording studio, breathing softly, clutching his laundry bag, which is sometimes empty but more often about two-thirds full of filthy unmentionables long overdue for the washing machine. With his yellow hair and blazing eyes, we, the readers, can always spot the superhero, but to the Shakatak personnel, including roadies, sound engineers and hangers-on, he might as well be invisible. You may wonder why none of them smell the pong emanating from his laundry bag, at times when it is about two-thirds full. This is because one of Laundry Bag Boy’s superpowers is an ability to pluck from the empty air a canister of air freshener and spray the contents of his noisome bag until it smells of roses and honey and lavender and poppy coral and citrus mango and pumpkin and neutradol and peach and apple and one other fragrance the name of which I cannot be bothered to look up right at this minute. More than one critic, reviewing a Shakatak concert, is claimed to have dubbed them the sweetest-smelling band in the world, although whether this really happened, outside the pages of the comic book, is not something I am competent to assert or deny, for I don’t care one way or the other. I am less interested in Shakatak than in Laundry Bag Boy himself. I have read mountains of prose in my time, books upon books upon books, but never have I fallen so deeply under the spell of a fictitious being. Despite looking, from some angles, like an incompetent portrait of the columnist Peter Hitchens, Laundry Bag Boy, with his aforementioned yellow hair and blazing eyes, and his pet pig Douglas, and his conjured-up air fresheners, and his laundry bag, stands, in my view, above the heads of Emma Bovary or Oscar Crease or Sancho Panza or Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, or Hans Castorp or Molly Bloom or Murphy or Molloy or Malone or Tyrone Slothrop or Doctor Slop or the Widow Wadman or Ishmael or Ahab or Pangloss or Percival Bartlebooth or Bartleby, the scrivener, or Trilby or Svengali or Hazel Blears or Gregor Samsa or Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina, or Batman or Robin, The Boy Wonder, or Robin Hood or Humphrey Clinker or Pip or Magwitch or Geoffrey Firmin or Asenath Waite or the Mad Arab Abdul Alhazred or Pinkie Brown or Charles Swann or Quentin Durward or Martin Chuzzlewit or Fu Manchu or thousands of other fictional characters. He is a true superhero, and yet has a humanity that is palpable. Not literally palpable, of course, that would be stretching my enthusiasm too far, but figuratively, or so I would aver, and had already averred, during that very first skim reading, sheltering from the rain under the ruined bandstand in the park, as I became transfixed by the adventures of Laundry Bag Boy’s Shakatak Years.

When I got home, I reread the comic with closer attention, three or four times I think. I learned more about Laundry Bag Boy, that he had many more superpowers, and ones that made the air freshener thing seem like a party trick. He could, for example, meld his brainwaves with those of Douglas the Pig, giving him an extrahuman perspective on any given situation. He could count the number of pins in a pin-cushion, with unerring accuracy, in a split second, from behind a drystone wall. His head, including the yellow hair and blazing eyes, could expand to four times its normal size for up to an hour at a time. Secret flaps on his laundry bag could be manipulated in such a way that it was turned into an inflatable dinghy, with plastic oars, a couple of emergency flares, a compass operative on this and other planets, and a waterproof cabin for the pig. Strictly speaking, possession of such a laundry bag is not a superpower as such. It smacks more of the kind of gadgetry deployed by fictional spies such as James Bond, who was, of course, named after an ornithologist, author of Birds Of The West Indies, first published in 1936 and, in its fifth edition, still in print today. On one page of the comic, Laundry Bag Boy is seen studying a copy of Bond’s book while loafing backstage at a Shakatak concert. This appears to be wholly gratuitous, as no important plot developments hinge upon it, and indeed there is a marked absence of any other ornithological content whatsoever. There are not even any birds seen in the sky, always depicted as a uniform pale blue, cloudless, flat and artificial.

I soon learned that such a sky is a constant throughout the canon, for I was so enthused by The Shakatak Years that I took myself off to a specialist supplier of comic books and bought as many other Laundry Bag Boy titles as I could fit into my own, non-laundry, bag. Regrettably, most if not quite all of the stories had a subplot related in some way to jazz funk, though not specifically to Shakatak, and yet this did not dim my glee. I deduced that either the writer or the artist, neither of whose names appeared in any of the comics as far as I could see, was a devotee of that devilish music, and lacked the self-control to expunge their aberrant leanings from the otherwise stupendous stories. Yet how often we forgive writers and artists for what are, after all, minor irritants. For example, I have never been able to stomach Dennis Beerpint’s infuriating habit of conflating dishcloths with other kinds of rags and sponges, yet I am still able to enjoy his verse for its vigour and punctilio. I feel the same about Laundry Bag Boy, much as I might wish that William Hurlstone’s Bassoon Sonata, say, could stand as a substitute for True Colours by Level 42.

Another thing I have noticed about Laundry Bag Boy is that he never blinks. This may be a limitation of the cartoon strip medium, or it may be that his eyes are übereyes, piercing and all-seeing and never for a moment at rest. And there is a lot for him to look at. Although the quality of the drawing is scrappy and fumbled, occasionally looking as if created by a cretin on a damaged Etch-A-Sketch, throughout the series there is an incredible amount of detail. The sky may be shown as flat and birdless and cloudless, but everywhere else in these pictures is a magnificent clutter of things. To take a picture at random, consider the opening frame from Laundry Bag Boy Gets Into The Groove With Herbie Hancock (Issue 4, Volume 28). Examining this with a Winckelmannscope reveals, in a rectangle taking up half the page, potatoes, bloaters, the weirdstone of Brisingamen, fourteen owls, dental floss diagrams, cotton, pins, pork rind, fur balls, rotating things, custard, muck, shoelaces, coat-hangers, an aerodrome, flame retardant fabric samples, snappy-cap tin cans, a glazed bowl, a Viking helmet, a syrinx, a rickshaw, geese, pots and pans, Edvard Shevardnadze’s golden tooth mug, bunsen burners and other burners, a tea strainer, a fencepost, gravel, cloth, sand, effluvium, ectoplasm, railings, a Brothers Johnson compilation compact disc, basil, hornets, dust, tweaking mechanisms, a pail of lugworms, a dictaphone belt, sandpaper, grimy unpleasantness, winches and pulleys, talcum powder, country and western paraphernalia, lozenges, screwdrivers, shredded wheat, box cutters, Basho trug holders, shipping timetables, phosphorescence, a spider’s web, a fountain pen, mysterious hat-like objects which are not hats, a basin, a dimity scrap, a bathtub, a shoe tree, a bee, an ice bucket, an immortal, a puppet crow with one button eye dangling loose, a puppet cow, a tap and an outside spigot, a copy of The Protocols Of The Elders Of Pointy Town, dubbin, flock wallpaper, old man’s beard, Mary Westmacott’s cot, hinges, blubber, fruit, clamps, sugar, goo, pond life, a desk sergeant, a calendar, litmus paper, an Unanugu jumper (darned), salivating weasels, snapping turtles, basalt, tonic water, goat pens, hacks and traps and charabancs, Wolfe Tone’s death mask, an earwig, a selection of different berries ready for the crusher, and the berry crusher, and another crusher, and yet other crushers, and crushers galore. It really is extraordinarily packed with detail. Laundry Bag Boy himself does not appear in this opening frame of the cartoon, and nor does Herbie Hancock. Their absence at the beginning is a crucial part of the plot, but I will not spoil it for you by explaining why.

While I was buying up back numbers in the comics shop, I took the opportunity to pump the proprietor for more information about Laundry Bag Boy. Intriguingly, the shop was run not by a geeky nerdy nerd geek, the kind we tend to associate with such establishments, but by a batty crone with a Quakerly air about her. Her hair was white and wild and she had a decided plum in her mouth. She was kind enough to offer me, from a somewhat battered tin, a choice of arrowroot and Garibaldi biscuits to munch while I browsed the cardboard boxes packed with comics. Unlikely as it seemed, she knew everything there was to know about my new-found fictional hero, a walking encyclopaedia of Laundry Bag Boy lore and learning, arcana and imponderabilities, facts and figures. One thing she told me in particular had me quite perplexed. In spite of the popularity of the yellow-haired, blazing-eyed superhero, there was no official worldwide fan club to which I could apply. This seemed anomalous, when there are such organisations devoted to virtually everyone you can think of, from fictional detectives such as Sherlock Holmes and Solar Pons, to real detectives like Sir Ian Blair and Cargpan of the Yard, from Sir Granville Bantock to Rock Hudson, from Lascelles Abercrombie to Spiderman, from Mike Huckabee to Ayn Rand, from Brutus Maximus to Popeye, from Arianna Huffington to Ringo Starr, from Krishnan Guru-Murthy to Tuesday Weld. Yet in this seething maelstrom of often ill-advised fandom, there was an unfathomable void where Laundry Bag Boy ought to have been.

I have decided to correct this preposterous state of affairs. Tomorrow, at 5.15 a.m. sharp, I will be striding on to a podium by the perimeter fence of Pang Hill Owl Sanctuary, and announcing the formation of the Official Laundry Bag Boy Fan Club. If you are unable to be there, please write to me at, with “Gosh! It’s about time Laundry Bag Boy had his own fan club!” as the subject header, and nominate yourself for an official post in the organisation. You can make up your own grand-sounding title. A roster of Fan Club Officers will be posted on this site, and badges will be issued in due course.

NB :  Please check the Comments on this piece, for a particularly enlightening contribution from reader Randi Mooney.

Thousands Of Unusual And Arresting Facts About Birds

Thousands Of Unusual And Arresting Facts About Birds was one of the fattest pamphlets Dobson ever published. The title is something of a misnomer, for the remarkable thing about this work is that it contains not a single fact about birds whatsoever. Indeed, apart from the occasional passing mention of starlings (page 49), shrikelets (page 92) and a swan (page 119), birds are signally absent from the text. In spite of this, the pamphlet has been hailed by the upstart young Dobsonist Ted Cack as “the most informative text on ornithology that I have ever read”. Cack is not always the most intellectually agile of critics, though, so perhaps we should not take him too seriously, the way we might furrow our brows in deep concentration at even the merest squib from a theoretical colossus like, say, Terry Eagleton.

Dobson wrote the pamphlet at a time when he was preoccupied with moles. He was fascinated by their burrowing habits, near-blindness, and twitching snouts. Although the snouts of moles twitch less than those of shrews, particularly elephant shrews, Dobson was enamoured of what he considered the more “moley” twitching of the snouts of moles. Why, then, did he not essay a pamphlet of unusual and arresting facts about moles, rather than birds, when it was moles that intrigued him during this period? It should be noted that his tract makes no mention of [insert Latin tag for moles here] either.

A clue may be found in the fact that at the time of the pamphlet’s writing, Dobson was engaged in a feud with a bellicose undertaker from down Pointy Town way. No one can be quite sure any more what caused the vendetta, not even Ted Cack, who admits to utter beflummoxment about the whole matter. But there was an exchange of letters, among much else, and in one of these the out of print pamphleteer wrote as follows:

“Not only are you a singularly bellicose undertaker, sir, but you keep the seats in your death carriage in a very greasy condition. My dry cleaners had the devil of a job returning my trousers to their usual impeccability after last I sat upon those seats when attending the funeral rites of Thruxtonshaw Beppo, the noted mole- and bird-expert whose friendship I had come to treasure. It is true that I have not sought from you financial recompense for the cost of degreasing my trousers, but that is only because I have a more terrible revenge in mind.”

The authenticity of this letter has been questioned, chiefly because the last thing one tends to associate with Dobson is a pair of impeccable trousers. I am not suggesting that he was forever covered in grease, far from it, but a certain shabbiness, even grubbiness, was part of his general aura, even the aura detected by our psychic brethren and sistren, as attested by the redoubtable Madame Boubou, who sometimes did “readings” of the pamphleteer’s ethereal being. Dobson himself was unaware of these, as the turbanned Madame was given to following him about, skulking down alleyways or creeping after him as he reconnoitred picnicking spots in fields and parkland. She would target him, from behind, with her fearsome gaze, and make visible his aura for long enough to allow her to scribble a few notes into her psychic notepad. Often such notes contained the words “grubby”, “grimy”, “dishevelled”, and “splattered with muck”… and remember, that was his spiritual aura, not his solid, earthbound person.

Anyway, whether it is genuine or not, it is the reference in the letter to Thruxtonshaw Beppo that concerns us here. Dobson – or the counterfeiter pretending to be Dobson – correctly identifies the deceased Beppo as a mole- and bird-expert, as indeed he was, and one who the pamphleteer met often in the final days of his, the mole- and bird-expert’s, life. They first encountered each other at a football match (Red Star Hoon versus Pang Hill Academicals), where Dobson had gone to make a tape recording of turnstile-clacking noises and Beppo was present as a turnstile-clacking counter. It may seem to be unusual employment for a mole- and bird-expert, but Beppo was the kind of impoverished amateur who was perpetually short of cash, and on this particular day he was actually very close to starvation. It is thought that Dobson took pity on the skeletal clack-counter and tossed him a pastry from his bag, much as one might feed a zoo animal. The two men rapidly hit it off, and indeed there was something juvenile in their camaraderie. They addressed each other by foolish code-names, “Broadsword” and “Danny Boy”, using these soubriquets as an excuse to practice their impersonations of Richard Burton and Michael Hordern in the film Where Eagles Dare. Incidentally, the film’s screenplay, and the novel on which it is based, were written by the alcoholic Scottish writer Alistair MacLean, who is buried just yards away from Richard Burton in a Swiss graveyard. Several of MacLean’s novels include the phrase “the huddled shapelessness of the dead”, suggesting that this was an idée fixe lodged in the writer’s gin-soaked cranium, perhaps an unvanquishable memory from his war service in the Royal Navy, where he was involved in action in the Atlantic theatre, on two Arctic convoys and escorting carrier groups in operations against Tirpitz and other targets off the Norwegian coast; in 1944 in the Mediterranean theatre, as part of the invasion of southern France and in helping to sink blockade runners off Crete and bombard Milos in the Aegean Sea; and in 1945, in the Far East theatre, escorting carrier groups in operations against Japanese targets in Burma, Malaya, and Sumatra. MacLean’s late-in-life claims that he was captured by the Japanese and tortured have been dismissed by both his son and his biographer as drunken ravings. The Huddled Shapelessness Of The Dead is also the title of an exceedingly rare and out of print Dobson pamphlet, a piece of fluff about dead bees.

Dobson and Beppo began to meet daily, commandeering a corner table in The Cow And Pins tavern, where they talked for hours about both birds and moles. The expert knew his days were numbered, as he had already been diagnosed with the invariably fatal Withered Innards Syndrome, and it may be that he wanted to pass on his knowledge before he died. Intriguingly, in his eight decades, Beppo had not once put pen to paper, and his matchless store of information about birds and moles he carried entirely in his head. And what a head it was! The versifier Dennis Beerpint once described it, in conversation rather than in a poem, as “Beppo’s head, that great block of human head, dense and solid and mottled like a potato”. He made this remark during one of his rare television appearances, on the Shadrach & Abednego chatshow, on which he was a guest in the week after Beppo’s death. There were others lined up to extol the bird- and mole-expert, including songstress Kathy Kirby and bowler-hatted Avengers star Patrick McNee, but Beerpint would not stop babbling, and in those days of live broadcasts and a more spontaneous approach, he was allowed to continue until the next programme – a three-hour silent black-and-white documentary about swans – was due to begin. It was, of course, on a different edition of the same chatshow that Beerpint became the first person to utter the word “Ubuntu” on television.

If either moles or birds were mentioned in Dobson’s pamphlet Thousands Of Unusual And Arresting Facts About Birds, we could draw the sensible conclusion that the pamphleteer had simply mixed up the fantastic amount of information pouring out of Beppo over that tavern table. But as we have seen, moles are not mentioned in the text at all, and birds only in passing. Wherein, then, lies the enigma of the seemingly gratuitous title? One possibility is that Dobson was using a code, akin to the childish “Broadsword” and “Danny Boy” with which the pair of ageing rascals addressed each other. If so, I do not think it is a code anyone is going to crack. Dobson left a teeming pile of notebooks and scribblings, catalogued by Aloysius Nestingbird and others with heroic diligence, and it seems to me that somewhere in that paper Kilimanjaro they would have found a scrap upon which the pamphleteer worked out his cipher, if cipher it was. The bumptious noodlehead and pretend Dobson scholar Emeric Vinvanvoo made a fool of himself with his claim that the pamphlet’s title was an anagram of Ubuntu And Dust Can Be No Fruits Of A Horrid SAS Salt Gas, chiefly because it isn’t. That did not stop him weaving a ludicrous fantasy that Dobson and Beppo were engaged in some kind of top secret paramilitary gas experimentation programme. Wittily, one commentator dismissed Vinvanvoo’s ravings as “like something out of an Alistair MacLean novel”, demonstrating a contextual grasp of the whole Dobson/Beppo affair which I quite envy.

I am doing my best, you see, but though I have studied the pamphlet for years now I can still make head nor tail of what Dobson was driving at. Usually, you know where you stand with his titles. How I Poked A Pointed Stick Into A Hedge is a pamphlet in which Dobson writes about poking a pointed stick into a hedge. Christ Stopped At Eboli is about Christ stopping at Eboli. Granted, in both these works, as with almost all his pamphlets, Dobson veers off into often surprising digressions, but generally speaking he takes his subject, his fad or whim of the moment, and wrings out of it all that can be wrung, and more. Even the youthful, callow Ted Cack has had the insight that “whatever the topic of his pamphlet, Dobson’s ambition was to have the last word, to make any further approach to the subject futile, for at least a century, and preferably longer. Whether writing about carpet beetles or electrical wiring systems or a dub version of the soundtrack to Carl Sagan’s television series Cosmos, Dobson worried away at his theme like a small predatory beast gnawing upon the limp body of a smaller, non-predatory beast from which the life was rapidly draining, as it were a tawny owl with a hamster, or a shrew with a newborn goat, for example.”

So if we take Ted Cack’s metaphor and think of Dobson as a tawny owl or a shrew, what kind of hamster or newborn goat is he tearing to pieces in Thousands Of Unusual And Arresting Facts About Birds? Is that a question to which we can ever give a sensible answer? Well, I think we can. Not today, maybe, and perhaps not tomorrow, nor even this week. Nor next week, nor next month, nay even unto Saint Loopy’s Day. But I will promise this much. By the time you are all celebrating the next Saint Loopy’s Day, I will publish the mighty tome on which I have laboured like an idiot for the last God knows how many years. I long ago lost count of the number of tallow candles I have burned to light my futuristic flame-resistant reinforced plastic writer’s cabin where I crouch, scrivening away, through days and nights, year after year, sustained only by a peculiar soup-based nutrient slop and by a blinding conviction that my privations are worthwhile because I shall, finally, pierce the shroud of ignorance enveloping Dobson’s fattest pamphlet. And when, on that merry day, The Annotated Pop-Up Edition Of ‘Thousands Of Unusual And Arresting Facts About Birds’ By Dobson, With A Preface, Introduction, Notes, Commentary, Afterword, Exegesis, Maps, Colour Plates, Exquisite Binding, Greaseproof Wrapper And Presentation Crate, Guaranteed Free Of Infestation By Microscopic Paper-Devouring Beings hits the shelves of your local supermarket, I shall smash my way out of my cabin and scamper through the meadows, flailing my arms and beaming with glee.

Pilgrimage To Pointy Town

Reports reach me of dismal doings at the Pointy Town Tourist Board. In an attempt to drum up visitor numbers, a faction on the Board is engaged in not just the rewriting of history, but its wholesale invention. The latest brochure invites me, and thousands like me, to take part in the so-called Pointy Town Pilgrimage Trail, experiencing “the sights and sounds and tastes and smells that greeted those ancient wayfarers who embarked upon the Pilgrimage to Pointy Town in days of yore”. This is shameless twaddle. In the ancient days to which the brochure refers, Pointy Town itself did not exist. All a wayfarer of yore would have found was an area of curiously pointy ground, with a few ponds on which ancient ducks and swans clamoured. It is true that the pointiness of the land led later to the erection of a town, but in ancient days there were not even any wattle-and-daub dwellings there, and the area has no caves to speak of in which ancestral Pointy Towners could have sheltered from the filthy weather.

The Tourist Board wants us to believe, if I am interpreting the illustrations correctly, that thousands of years ago saucy pilgrims with terrific hairstyles fetched up in Pointy Town from all over the land, and even from lands beyond, and celebrated the general pointiness of things by holding strange ancient ceremonies, traces of which can be found today. For example, there is a gaping pit around the corner from the present post office, and this is meant to be evidence not of botched contemporary roadworks but of a rite involving herons and vipers and bees and hairy men. Where all these herons and vipers and bees and hairy men are meant to have come from, and how they gathered around the pit, and what they did once there gathered, is all left a bit vague. As, to be frank, is the claim that the post office itself stands on the site of the Pointy Town Thing, an ancient parliament on the Icelandic model, and predating the Icelanders’ own Thing by a good few centuries. I am assured that next time I lick the reverse of a postage stamp at the post office counter, I am doing so at the very spot where an ancient Pointy Towner named Anaxacaractagrax proclaimed The Brimmings, whatever they are meant to be. This same Anaxacaractagrax is supposedly related, how we are not told, to Atossa, the imperious mother of Xerxes, which gets the Tourist Board into all sorts of chronological and geographical knots.

Indeed, there are so many knots, vagaries, and plain implausibilities in this invented history that only a fool would be taken in. That being so, it has to be said that there are plenty of foolish people around, for the Pointy Town Pilgrimage Trail is proving to be a thunderous success. Last week I decided to hie over there for the first time in years to see what was going on. I didn’t bother taking the brochure with me, for I had dropped it into a puddle and it was not yet dry. I wore galoshes and the hat of a peasant for my trip, and rather overdid breakfast in the dining carriage of the pneumatic railway train which wheezed, with many spluttering halts, through the horrible countryside towards Pointy Town, the pointy bits of which were visible long before we finally hissed into the station. Having memorised the tourist brochure as best I could, I was aware that the station was part of the pilgrimage trail. It was here, apparently, that the counting of birds took place, the tally posted on a flag hoisted high. What numeric system was used, what material the flag was woven from, and with what instrument the flag was marked: none of this was made clear. Those ancient folk may have had a sort of hemp, but we know for a fact that they had no ink. And, in any case, how did they get all the birds to stand still and be counted? I was already thoroughly exasperated as I made my way to the station canteen for one last plate of sausages and treacle and a bowl of cornflakes and a beaker of tea. Imagine my disgust when I saw that the beaker was stamped with a pilgrimage emblem, and an accompanying leaflet informed me that it was a reproduction of the beakers used by Pointy Town Pilgrims at celebratory feasts on the eve of the Docking Hack.

My temper did not improve as I lumbered slowly into town. There seemed to be not a single street, building, lamp-post or duckpond that had not been hijacked by the Tourist Board for its counterfeit history. Even when I popped into a snackbar for elevenses I could not escape. Sitting down to a hearty pan of pig haunches and suet, I was joined immediately by a local person sporting the hat of an indigent, who barely took time to introduce himself before regaling me with his theory that the ancient Pointy Town pilgrims were not freeborn men and women, but abductees, yoked together like farmyard creatures, driven to the town by brutish captors for purposes we modern sophisticates could only guess at. He had drawings, of course, which he took from an inner pocket of indescribable grubbiness and spread out on the snackbar table, almost knocking over my tumbler of fermenting berry slops as he did so. He talked me through each drawing with some excitement, explaining that the sketches had come to him in fits of entranced lucidity. I was not surprised to see spaceships patrolling the sky in about half of these scribbles, but, curiously, he made no reference to them in his babble. He was insistent that I go along with him to see one of the most pointy bits of Pointy Town, where, he promised, he would show me incontrovertible evidence of his abduction theory in the form of fragments of yoke and chain embedded in ancient shards of bitumen. But I was having none of it. When I had finished my snack, I knocked his hat off his head and swept his drawings off the table, stamping them into the floor as I left.

Back on the street, I checked my bearings by the eerie late morning light and headed towards the town centre, where I wanted to visit the Tourist Board Office. No one, it seemed, was willing to call into question the falsification of Pointy Town history. Emboldened by my breakfasts and elevenses, I determined to give the liars a piece of my mind. It was unlikely that, single-handed, I could dismantle the rash of ahistorical poop engulfing what had been my favourite town, but at least my spleen would be vented, as spleens require venting, preferably after a good lunch. As I pranced alongside the graveyard wall, I reflected on the disservice these bumptious numbskulls were doing to the true heroes of Pointy Town past, men like Ferenc Puskas, the legendary Hungarian football ace, who though he had no connection with the place whatsoever, and indeed had never even heard of Pointy Town, let alone ever visited it in life, was nonetheless a numinous presence in every park and garden and patch of mud, at least as far as I was concerned. It mattered not to me that the Pointy Towners themselves were blind to his ethereal dash and verve. Puskas, for me, was as much a presiding spirit of Pointy Town as was the medieval chieftain Bruno La Poubelle, who laid out the winding pathways of the old town, planted the grassy knoll, built the pergola and the schoolbook depository, and made some of the pointy bits even pointier than nature intended. But where was La Poubelle to be found in this new dispensation? It looked to me as if the Tourist Board had erased him, and it was with a sick heart and a sick brain that I crashed into the Café Spigot, next door to the Tourist Board Office, to have my lunch.

Tucking into a gigantic helping of jugged hare, lobster and branflakes, I rehearsed the uninvited lecture I planned to give to the wretched begetters of the Pilgrimage Trail. I was assuming that they would all be there, next door, skulking about, inventing fresh idiocies, counting the cash they had fleeced from the ignorant. Only during the cheese, sponge and nuts course did it occur to me that today was a public holiday, and the office was likely to be shut. Yet by now I felt impelled to make the lying gits feel the lash of my tongue. I would uphold the glory of the ghosts of Puskas and La Poubelle and dash their pasteboard chaff aside, or squash it underfoot, or crumple it in the palm of my hand, or whatever one does with chaff in Pointy Town. As I took dainty sips from my post-prandial cuppasoup, I remembered that Pebblehead had written a bestselling paperback called A Basic Survey Of Methods Of Pasteboard Chaff Disposal In Pointy Town, and resolved to break and enter the library to consult a copy. Armed with Pebblehead’s techniques, perhaps I could destroy the heritage horrors disfiguring the town and enwrap it once again in the protective blankets of La Poubelle and Puskas.

The library was out beyond the seven tiny warehouses and the fairground, which meant that I had to negotiate my way past the doll hospital, the most frightening place in Pointy Town. Ever since I had first visited it, decades ago, as an ambitious cub reporter sniffing out a story of gruesomeness, treachery, and doll-related frightfulness, it had been the locus of my nightmares. I never did write up the story, and resigned from the Pointy Town Herald & Thunderclap soon afterwards. Thus began my long exile from the town of my birth, my estrangement from all I held dear. The intervening decades have been hard on me, but as I swept along Midge Ure Boulevard I realised that time has been harder on the town itself. All I had cherished seemed to be either vanished or in decay, and even the pointy bits on the approach to the warehouses seemed blunter and less pointy. Was the Tourist Board solely responsible for the ruin, or were there other, wider, more sinister forces at work? I pulled my windcheater tighter around my torso and popped into a roadside tea room for a mug of tea and a jumbo packet of arrowroot biscuits.

The tea room, I learned, was annexed to the Pointy Town badger sanctuary, and imposed a surcharge on each biscuit sold to fund its badger work. Admirable as this initiative was, it made for a tremendously expensive snack, and I began to worry that I would not have cash enough in my pippy bag to afford supper before catching the train home. I also needed to drop into an ironmongery to buy, or rent, the tools necessary to effect my breaking into the library. I was counting out my remaining coins on the tea room’s formica tabletop when a moustachioed old timer sidled over to me. He wore the hat of an ingrate, and gave off a distinct aura of bitter gall. I was in no mood for another snackbar conversation with a conspiracy theorist, so without a word I turfed the oldster’s hat from his head, scooped my coinage back into my pippy bag, and made for the door.

I was halfway towards the ironmongery merchant when I realised that the elderly ingrate, now hatless, was following me, but making no attempt to catch up. I stopped, and he stopped too. I took one pace forward, and he took two. This was because I have a long, loping stride, whereas my pursuer took more cautious, rickety steps. I was surprised he did not topple over. Using binoculars, I scanned his face, to which I had paid little attention in the tea room. So bushy and magnificent was his moustache that it was difficult to see beyond it, but it struck me that there was something familiar about him. He tugged at a corner of my memory, but I could not yet place him. Tucking the binoculars back into their pouch, I walked on, occasionally checking to see if he still trailed me, and he did.

The afternoon sun blazed high in the sky as I reached the spot near the municipal flowerbeds where I expected to find the ironmongery. Many, many years had passed since last I was in Pointy Town, but I hardly expected to find this landmark emporium gone. It was, after all, the most inspiring ironmongery in the whole province, a magnet for bolt-cutting enthusiasts near and far. Yet no trace of it survived. In its place stood a plinth atop which was a hideous cement statue of a saucy pilgrim with a terrific hairstyle, holding a cement placard announcing that this was the end of the Pointy Town Pilgrim Trail. It was ugly, it was spurious, and a magnificent ironmongery shop had been bulldozed by the philistines on the Tourist Board to make way for it. I was livid. I was also dashed in my plan to buy, or rent, tools with which to jemmy the lock on the library door. What now?

I leaned against the railings surrounding the plinth and took from my pocket a bag of brisket and toffee. Munching on these would steady my nerves, and allow me time to think. Just as I bit off a mouthful of brisket, I was overcome by an aura of bitter gall, and the ingrate who had been tailing me suddenly materialised at my side, in a manner I was unable to comprehend and cannot describe. He simply stood there, lugubrious and mournful, with flies circling his hatless head. He was close enough that I had no need of binoculars to examine his face, and I forced my eyes to peer behind the moustache, trying to recall where I had seen him before.

I grew up in Pointy Town, and had an idyllic childhood. I remember tents and swans and dramatic hiking incidents. I remember flag days and sing-songs and buying my first, child-sized, bolt-cutters and other ironmongery items. I remember toads and pastries and gutta percha. I remember hearing the name Ferenc Puskas on the radio, and the sound of thousands cheering. And I remember lolloping home from the library clutching my favourite book, A Lavishly Illustrated History Of Pointy Town For Pointy Town Tinies. And I remember the frontispiece of the book, a mezzotint by the mezzotintist Rex Tint of the medieval Pointy Town chieftain Bruno La Poubelle, with his fantastically bushy moustache. He it was – or his wraith – who stood beside me now. No wonder he was engulfed in an aura of bitter gall, witnessing the desecration of the town he raised from a patch of pointy ground. I gaped at him, pop-eyed, nearly choking on my brisket. Then the sky, so sunny a moment ago, was plunged into an uncanny blackness, and I felt La Poubelle’s hands upon my shoulders, shrivelled yet firm, and I felt the rustle of his mighty moustache upon my forehead, and then I, too, was enveloped in his aura of bitter gall. But I felt most intensely an ennoblement of my spirit, and a startled recognition that with the potency of my brain alone I could smash to smithereens every vile Tourist Board Pilgrimage Trail bubo throbbing with venom in the Pointy Town I loved. I could obliterate them in an instant, if I wished. The blackness evaporated, the sun blazed again as it always did on this blessed town, and I dipped my hand into my bag of brisket and toffee, ready to offer a bite to Bruno La Poubelle. But the apparition had vanished. I was alone by the railings, beneath the cement statue of the spurious saucy pilgrim with the terrific hairstyle. I had the power to dash it to dust. How would I choose?

I retraced my steps to the town centre, beaming as I passed the ducks and swans clamouring on the pond and tipping my peasant’s hat to the demonstrators from Gorgeous George Galloway’s Respect Party who were marching against something or other, or in favour of something else. A beetle-browed university lecturer dodged out of the demo and pressed a shoddy newspaper upon me, so I tested out my new powers by swatting him aside merely by raising an eyebrow. I was pleased to note that as he hurtled over the horizon at inhuman speed, his pile of newspapers burst into flames. I went back to the Café Spigot and ordered a dish of bloaters and spam and goose grease and fudge sundae, and as I sat waiting, I decided that I would let the evening train leave without me. I had come back to Pointy Town, and now I had work to do.

Joost Van Dongelbraacke’s Peppery Constitution

Joost Van Dongelbraacke’s peppery constitution is the subject of not one, not two, but three new publications, a book, a pamphlet, and a monthly magazine. One might think that the constitution of a suburban shaman is too thin a topic to support a regular periodical, particularly such a fat and glossy one, but that is to discount the monomania of its editor, Tilly Whelkstallholder. Tilly is a woman of considerable intellectual energy. Early in life, her ambition was to become, like Eva Crane, a pivotal figure in the world of beekeeping for half a century, but she had to abandon this plan when it became clear that, try as she might, she simply could not get her head around the difference between bees, wasps and hornets. She would stare for hours at photographs, or illustrations, or dead bees, wasps and hornets suspended in aspic or a similar jelly, but all that happened was that her brain became a fuddled and fuming thing, and she had to go to the canteen at Hubermann’s department store for a reviving cup of tea.

It was over one such refreshment that she first encountered the name Joost Van Dongelbraacke. The suburban shaman had been invited to respond to a Q & A in that week’s issue of Dashed Beekeeping Ambitions magazine, and Tilly found some of his answers fascinating. For example, asked who he would invite to his ideal dinner party, Van Dongelbraacke listed Jack and Bobby Charlton, Jack and Bobby Kennedy, Jack Teagarden, Bobby Previte, and Eva Crane, among some two hundred guests. In response to the question “O Joost, why hast thou forsaken me?”, he reportedly answered with a stream of heavily sub-edited invective. What really took Tilly’s fancy, though, was the revelation that Van Dongelbraacke had a peppery constitution. Downing what remained of her cup of tea, she hurried out of the canteen, popped in to a kiosk to buy a bus ticket and a carton of expensive Paraguayan cigarettes, and dawdled impatiently at the bus shelter until the number 5724938 arrived. Settling herself in the seat just behind the driver, she plotted the first edition of Joost Van Dongelbraacke’s Peppery Constitution Monthly Magazine as the bus juddered along the muddy lane out of town, past the swimming pool and the heron enclosure, down through the big frightening tunnel and out onto the sycamore- and lupin-lined highway, picking up speed as it screeched through villages named after French film directors, swerved off towards the Blister Lane Bypass, then thundered inexorably downhill parallel with the derelict funicular railway until it reached the bus depot on the outskirts of the tiny and gruesome fishing village where Tilly rented half a barn during the summer months. It was winter, so she had no key, and had to clamber in though a funnel at the back of the other half of the barn and then smash down the connecting door with an axe. A week later, the first issue of her magazine appeared on the shelves of Old Ma Purgative’s pie shop and newsagent’s.

It sold out within minutes, for the grubby fisherfolk of the village had a seemingly unquenchable enthusiasm for the work of Simon Schama and, ever canny, Tilly had persuaded the historian to contribute a cover story. Schama had never even heard of Van Dongelbraacke, but Tilly had given him free rein to write whatever he liked, and then edited the piece by inserting the suburban shaman’s name, and references to his peppery constitution, at whim. If Simon Schama complained, she reasoned, the threat of her axe to his spectacles would silence him. As we have seen, Tilly was a dab hand with that axe of hers.

Another reason for the sales blitz was that Tilly gave away one of Old Ma Purgative’s homemade celery and beetroot pies with each copy of the first issue. Now, the Old Ma was as tight-fisted a crone as you could imagine, and Tilly had to pay for every single pie out of her own pocket. Having spent the last florin of her offshore hedge fund to produce the magazine, and as ignorant of complex financial instruments as she was of the difference between bees and wasps and hornets, Tilly was forced to go to her bank manager to beg for a loan. Like the emptied hedge fund, her bank was based offshore for legal, or possibly criminal, reasons, and the scuppered trawler in the cabin of which the bank manager held court like a latterday Neptune was a day’s hard rowing out at sea. By dint of an oar mishap, Tilly’s little boat ran aground on Scroonhoonpooge Sands, invariably described as “treacherous” by those in the maritime know. She wasted a precious week living off rainwater and eels until rescued by a floating zoo. By chance, the zookeeper captain was both the uncle of the bank manager and a lifelong devotee of Joost Van Dongelbraacke, and he gave Tilly a handful of cash to buy sufficient pies from Old Ma Purgative. It is a minor tragedy that Tilly never spoke to the captain about her dashed beekeeping ambitions, for by a further eerie coincidence, this polymathic nautical zookeeper had, some years past, devised a completely idiot-proof method for telling apart bees and wasps and hornets, which even Tilly might have understood.

All that was a few months ago, and even though there are no more free pies, and Simon Schama has refused ever to write for it again, Tilly’s magazine continues to befuddle those marketing experts who predicted ruin. It is now on sale not only in Old Ma Purgative’s pie shop and newsagent’s, but also in Hubermann’s, and copies can be consulted in the Library of Congress, although Tilly becomes tight-lipped when asked precisely which Library of which Congress, and some suspect she may be referrring to a cupboard belonging to the Pang Hill Butchers’ Shops Trade Association.

I began by saying that Tilly’s magazine was one of three new publications devoted to Joost Van Dongelbraacke’s peppery constitution, the others being a book and a pamphlet. I realise now that I misread an item in the latest newsletter from the Pang Hill Butchers’ Shops Trade Association, and that neither the book nor the pamphlet exist. I don’t know about you, but I’m getting sick and tired of irresponsible butchers peddling falsehoods or ambiguities in their trade publications. And don’t get me started on grocers, fishmongers, and pastry shop proprietors. It’s time something was done. Start writing your placards!

Matters Pertaining To Bees (19th Century)

Richard Carter of Gruts has kindly drawn my attention to this splendid passage from an autobiographical sketch by Thomas Henry Huxley:


I was born about eight o’clock in the morning on the 4th of May, 1825, at Ealing, which was, at that time, as quiet a little country village as could be found within half a dozen miles of Hyde Park Corner. Now it is a suburb of London with, I believe, 30,000 inhabitants. My father was one of the masters in a large semi-public school which at one time had a high reputation. I am not aware that any portents preceded my arrival in this world; but, in my childhood, I remember hearing a traditional account of the manner in which I lost the chance of an endowment of great practical value. The windows of my mother’s room were open, in consequence of the unusual warmth of the weather. For the same reason, probably, a neighbouring bee-hive had swarmed, and the new colony, pitching on the window-sill, was making its way into the room when the horrified nurse shut down the sash. If that well-meaning woman had only abstained from her ill-timed interference, the swarm might have settled on my lips, and I should have been endowed with that mellifluous eloquence which, in this country, leads far more surely than worth, capacity, or honest work, to the highest places in Church and State. But the opportunity was lost, and I have been obliged to content myself through life with saying what I mean in the plainest of plain language; than which, I suppose, there is no habit more ruinous to a man’s prospects of advancement.

Modern Snipe

Now, where was I? Away in a haze, probably. But I really must tell you about the time Dobson wangled himself a job on Modern Snipe magazine. It is a wonder that a pamphleteer with so shaky a grasp of ornithology should seek employ on such a title, but Dobson had his reasons. Well, reason. In the course of a conversation with a regular down at the Cow & Pins, Dobson learned that the name of the editor of Modern Snipe was an anagram of Marigold Chew, and he chose to see in this some sort of mystical significance. Ten minutes later, he was hammering in a decidedly non-mystical manner on the office door of Grimlaw Chode.

The offices of Modern Snipe were at that time a suite of rooms on the top floor of a massive and efficient laundry building. Steam billowed from open windows and pipes and ducts, and an overpowering odour of boiling shirts and soap powder pervaded the neighbourhood. Never the most observant of men, Dobson did not look up as he approached to see if any birds perched on the roof, but had he done so he would have seen but a solitary crow, and not a snipe in sight.


We do not know how Dobson convinced Grimlaw Chode to take him on at once as a special rapporteur, but we do know that Chode, like the United Nations, was given to bandying about the word rapporteur rather than reporter. There was no element of pretension in this. Chode came from a family of international diplomats, and had modelled the editorial structure of Modern Snipe on that of a mixture of huge transnational organisations, of which the UN was only one. OPEC and CAFCON and SMERSH were in there, too. He gave Dobson a blue helmet to wear, and told him to go away and write something exciting about snipe.

It is tempting here to veer off into a digression about Dobson and hats, a topic of endless fascination to some of us. But I fear things would get out of hand, particularly if I began to babble on about Dobson’s Homburg, itself a single hat that evokes a world of allusions and references, from James Mason to Procol Harum. Better that we address such matters at another time, and content ourselves now with the image of the pamphleteer trudging home along the towpath of the canal, a gleaming blue helmet atop his cranium, and the brain inside that cranium throbbing with an inchoate tangle of cerebral gibberish, at the dim centre of which lurked the signal fact that Dobson knew nothing whatsoever about snipe.

Marigold Chew was in the back garden, training bees at the trellis, when the pamphleteer arrived home. He tossed his blue helmet onto a hat-peg with surprising aplomb, and sat down immediately at his escritoire. Pencil sharpened and with a fresh notebook open before him, he wrote:

How fine a bird the snipe is! But first, consider this: he who wishes for the cloths of heaven may find his hopes dashed and his garb but rags and tatters. Yet there be not woe in this, for is it not the stamp of such a man that he looks out upon a darkling plain and pitches forth his wishes into a well where one day pennies will be spilled?

At this point Marigold Chew came in from the garden. She had one of her trained bees on her shoulder, like a pirate’s miniature parrot. “What on earth is that blue helmet hooked on to the hat-peg?” she asked. Dobson explained.

Marigold Chew was aghast. “I have nothing but admiration for your talents as a penny-catch-all pamphleteer,” she announced, as her trained bee swapped shoulders, “But the job of special rapporteur on Modern Snipe will prove your undoing!” And she swept dramatically out of the door, and headed off in the rain to Huberman’s department store, to make enquiries about bee baskets. Dobson returned to his notebook.

As your special rapporteur, he scribbled, it is my job to bring to readers new and unexpected perspectives on the travails of the modern snipe. That much I shall do, without fear. I once had custody of a clairvoyant pig, and in a very short time it taught me many things. One lesson I recall was sweet indeed. At that time I was fond of wearing my Homburg hat. It was the hat I wore when studying the Hittites, and now I wore the hat to study the pig. One day, walking across a field with the pig in tow, I stopped to mop my brow, and removed my hat and placed it on a stone. At once, out of the sky swooped a big-beaked bird and perched upon my Homburg. Was it a snipe? It may have been. I looked at the bird, and then I turned to look at the pig, and I realised with a start that the pig saw neither me nor the bird, for being a clairvoyant pig it could see only the future, centuries hence, when where we stood was a darkling plain, and the spot where I laid my hat was a deep dark well, at the bottom of which was a mountain of pennies chucked in hope by generation upon generation of the disappointed. And I further realised that all that hope was embodied in the form of the bird perched on my Homburg. And I affirm that, yes, it was a snipe.

The last sentence was a complete lie, of course, as Dobson could affirm no such thing. But he was extremely pleased with his initial foray in to the heady world of contemporary ornithological journalism. Slapping the blue helmet back on his head, he stuffed the notebook into his satchel and crashed out of the door. On the canal towpath, he met Marigold Chew. She was carrying half a dozen bee baskets and the evening newspaper.

“Look at this,” she said.

Dobson read the headline on the just-published Evening Dachshund. He was not a man who often goggled, but he goggled now. SNIPE MAN SLAIN, it read. Within the last hour, Grimlaw Chode had been shot dead. By a sniper. And so ended Dobson’s career as a birdy rapporteur.

The Lion Of The Olympics

I have been giving further thought to that logo – or brand – for the 2012 Olympics. Clearly the £400,000 design is a hideous mistake and will have to be ditched and replaced at some point within the next five years. My own view is that the organising committee ought to take a cheerful, jolly image from an already proven successful brand, slap the Olympic rings on it somewhere, and have done with it. What could be better than a picture of a lion being attacked by a swarm of Africanised killer bees?


The Sick Pig

Once upon a time there was a pig. It was a sick pig. Now, in a town far away across the hills there lived a vet. The vet had undergone many years of training in the veterinary sciences, and numerous diplomas in frames hung on the walls of his surgery. The surgery was a clean bright building in the middle of a row of slightly shabbier buildings in the centre of the town far away across the hills from the sty where the sick pig ailed. Next to the surgery was a pie shop, and next to the pie shop was a haberdashery and next to the haberdashery was the town hall annexe. On the other side of the vet’s surgery from the pie shop was a second pie shop, and next to that was the library, and squeezed in next to that was a kiosk selling tickets for local events and entertainments and next to that was an ironmongery. Beyond the ironmongery was the bus station.

The frames in which the vet’s many diplomas were displayed had been made by a framer on the other side of town. One day, the vet rolled up all his diplomas and shoved them into a cardboard cylinder, and waited at the bus station. He caught the number 666 to the other side of town and gave the cylinder to the person behind the counter at the framers’, who filled in a receipt from a pad of receipts and gave it to the vet, who put it in his pocket. Six weeks later the vet went to collect his many diplomas, now beautifully framed, and he carried them back to his surgery on the 666 bus and hammered nails into the walls of his surgery and hung the frames on the nails. Now he had all his diplomas on display.

If the diplomas were to be believed, the vet had demonstrated the ability to cure the ills of horses and bats and birds and toads and cats and killer bees and shrews and weasels and ducks and chickens and otters and badgers and field mice and cows and bears and hamsters and even giraffes, but not one of his diplomas had a word to say about pigs.

Now, the piggery person whose pig was sick, upon discovering the pig’s sickness, tried out a number of folk remedies, old and new. He sprinkled the pigsty with tansy and frangipani and gloxinia. He went to see the Woohoowoodihoo Woman, who gave him a spell to cast. He set up a loudspeaker in the pig sty and played In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida by Iron Butterfly, over and over again. He took tips from books by Tony Buzan. But the pig stayed sick. In fact it got worse. The piggery person was at his wits’ end. Then he remembered hearing about the vet in a town far away across the hills.

Leaving the assistant piggery person in charge, the piggery person set off on the long journey across the hills. On the first day he met a man dressed all in green who set him a challenge. The piggery person bashed him about with a bludgeon and went on his way. On the second day he was engulfed in a vaporous mist and had to use his torch to find his way through it. On the third day the man dressed all in green stood in his path again, so this time the piggery person felled him with a Goon Fang manoeuvre. On the fourth day, from the very top of the high hills, he saw the town nestling in the verdant vale below and a gigantic, mythical bird, a bit like Sinbad’s Roc but bigger, plucked him with its talons and soared down into the town and deposited him in front of the vet’s surgery.

The vet was out on call at an owl sanctuary, so while waiting for his return the piggery person studied the many diplomas hanging in their frames on the walls. He was dismayed to note that not one of the diplomas announced the vet’s skills at curing sick pigs. He resolved not to fret, but to question closely the vet upon the vet’s return to his surgery. He sat down in the waiting room and leafed through some of the Dobson pamphlets scattered higgledy-piggledy on the table. He became so engrossed in a pamphlet entitled The Man Who Put The Bee In Beelzebub that he did not notice the vet skipping jauntily back into the surgery, even though his entrance set a bell a-jangling. When the piggery person looked up from the pamphlet, the vet was looming over him. It was the man dressed all in green he had twice encountered on his journey!

“Twice we met and twice you knocked me aside, now here you are where I abide,” rhymed the vet, in a voice high-pitched, wheedling and malevolent. The piggery person shrivelled in his seat.

“Your pig is sick, and I shall cure it, but you will have to pay a forfeit,” said the vet.

He pointed his long bony finger at the piggery person, and sparks flashed, and there was a puff of inexplicable roseate vapour. When it dispersed, the seat where the piggery person had been sat shrivelling was revealed to be empty. At the same moment, far away across the hills at the piggery, the assistant piggery person was beflummoxed to see the sick pig cured, cured and thriving. It grunted happily and trotted out to scrubble in the muck. There was a big black beetle in the muck.

The Pabstus Tack Trilogy

What better way to spend a wet Bank Holiday afternoon than to curl up in front of the television to watch a trilogy of films by one of the great unsung auteurs of the silent screen? The cable channel UK Golden Pap is to be congratulated for screening the masterworks of the great – and greatly misunderstood – Pabstus Tack. When Tack’s films are mentioned, which is rarely, they are dismissed as fey, twee confections for children, in an age when childhood was seen as a time of purity and innocence. Thus the damning rebuke of a cravat-wearing, pipe-smoking, goatee-bearded critic like Jean-Luc Boff, who wrote: “With these insipid pieces of froth, Tack not only drains his films of sound and colour, but also of plot, tension, engagement, disturbance, of life and death and sex.”

What Boff says is true, yet he fails to understand just how radical an approach Tack took. Yes, these films are indeed fey and twee, yet at the same time they are cloying and saccharine, miraculously inoffensive, whimsical in the most nauseating sense of the word.

The first in the trilogy is Pippi The Pony Goes To The Paddling Pool. The part of Pippi was played by Tack’s own pony, Poopy, a placid, well-groomed little darling with gossamer ribbons flowing from its mane. In silent black and white, we watch as Pippi canters towards a paddling pool and splashes about, gently and charmingly. There are no fancy camera angles, no clever-clever montage. “Look,” Tack is saying, “A pony in a paddling pool.”

He followed this up with Biffy The Africanised Killer Bee Joins A Swarm. In this, possibly the finest of the three films, Biffy – played by Tack’s pet Africanised killer bee, Letitia – is shown buzzing around a municipal flowerbed, then going off to join a swarm of her fellows. Tack’s camera is static except at the very end, where it pans to show Biffy’s journey from solitude to companionship.

The last film is the one where Tack takes the greatest risk with his creative vision. With Schmoopy The Vampire Bat Sucks The Life-Blood From A Consumptive Orphan the task of retaining a quintessentially Tackesque tweeness must at times have seemed impossible. But once again, the auteur in Tack pulls it off, in a magnificently sugar-coated fairy cake of a film. Schmoopy, by the way, was played by Tack’s own vampire bat, Flopsy, while the part of the consumptive orphan went to a doe-eyed – and consumptive – orphan the director found swooning and crumpled, clutching weakly at the railings of Pang Hill Orphanage during a blizzard.

If there is a better way to spend eleven hours on a wet Bank Holiday than watching these films, I for one am at a loss to think what it might be.

Pebblehead Versus Pebblehead

“The annotation has been carried out on a scale which is necessarily extensive but which seeks at the same time to be as economical as possible in face of the twin challenges of Browning’s wide range of curious information and his immense and flexible vocabulary. Without the prior labours of A K Cook to draw upon, preparation of the body of notes would have been an even more formidable task than it in fact was. Despite all that has been transported to the present site from Cook’s Commentary, a great deal of ore remains in that capacious mine.”

So wrote Richard D Altick in his introduction to the Penguin English Poets edition of Robert Browning’s The Ring And The Book, which appeared in 1971. Curiously, in the very same year, exactly the same words were used – with “Dobson” instead of “Browning”, and “Pebblehead” in place of “Cook” – in the first edition of the mighty Complete Annotated Dobson edited by Ted Cack. The title was a misnomer, of course, because at that time Dobson still had a few years left, during which he penned some of his most awe-inspiring pamphlets. In fact recent Dobsonian scholarship has shown that, if anything, Cack’s tome might better have been called the Thoroughly Incomplete Annotated Dobson. That is not to cast aspersions on what remains a truly engaging work, and the first serious attempt to annotate Dobson in a systematic way.

The Pebblehead Cack refers to, the author of the “capacious mine” of Commentary wherein lies a great deal of ore yet to be recovered, was the father of Pebblehead the writer of all those bestselling paperbacks you find at airport bookstalls. It is regrettable in some ways that the achievements of Pebblehead père have been roundly eclipsed by the fame of Pebblehead fils, to the point where, today, the old man’s majestic Commentary on Dobson is forgotten by all but a few, and those few all in their dotage, dribbling and drooling, brains wizened and minds twitching and shattered. Ted Cack’s work, too, which as he acknowledges draws so heavily upon the elder Pebblehead, seems destined for the scrapheap, not least because the younger Pebblehead, king of the paperback potboiler, seems bent on obliterating all printed traces of his pa. He uses the considerable wealth he has accrued from the transient guff he peddles to buy up and burn on bonfires not just his pa’s own work, but any books, periodicals, journals, chapbooks, pamphlets, videocassettes and DVDs which so much as mention his name.

It is not for me to propose a psychological explanation for this preposterous campaign of Pebblehead’s, which smacks of atavistic impulse and ancient myth. Plenty of amateurs have tried their hands at doing so, with laughable results. Only last week there was some codswallop in the Daily Unhingement, claiming that an incident from the younger Pebblehead’s infancy, involving a sewing kit, a swarm of Africanised killer bees, and a newspaper report of the Munich Air Disaster, was at the root of the matter. As usual, there was no proof, no evidence, merely the blithering of a witless hack trying to jump-start their career.

As a corrective to such drivel, I have decided to set up a fighting fund to rescue the work of Pebblehead père from oblivion, while simultaneously urging a boycott of Pebblehead fils’ bestselling paperbacks. Among those already signed up are Carlos Santana, Lembit Opik, Dale Winton, Dustin Hoffman, and some of the top names in football, including Tord Grip, Pantsil, Crouch and Kaka. I hope you will join them.

Blötzmann Manoeuvres

Ever mindful of the need to trim the wicks of his tallow candles, Dobson employed for the purpose a tiny pair of shears which he deployed using the so-called Blötzmann Manoeuvres.

I took against electricity from an early age, he wrote, lying shamelessly, and often found myself in a quandary because untrimmed wicks set my teeth on edge. For a long time I thought the remedy for this was to imbue my teeth with greater strength, foolish young pup that I was. I crunched nuts morning, noon, and night, nuts of many different kinds. I had no favourites in the nut world, although of course the harder the nut, and the greater the effort needed to crunch it into a digestible pap, the hardier my teeth became, and the better they could withstand being set on edge by the appearance of untrimmed wicks on the tallow candles I used to illuminate my habitat.

By his own account, a temporary nut shortage forced Dobson to readdress the problem, but official statistics give the lie to this. Indeed, at the point where the pamphleteer adopted the Blötzmann Manoeuvres, there was a nut glut in the land. According to Pocock & Gabbitas, the squirrel population had been decimated by unexpected lupine savagery, leaving millions of nuts unhidden. If there was no lack of nuts, what made Dobson nail his colours to Blötzmann’s mast? It is significant that at this time, unlike later, Dobson’s colours were cherry and dun, and that a new Blötzmann mast had been erected atop Pilgarlic Hill, not far from the pig farmer’s hut where Dobson had regular sunrise gleanings. The siting of the mast, illegal then as now, was a stroke of genius by the Blötzmannist Erno Von Straubenzee, who had smuggled himself into the country aboard a packet steamer some months earlier.

Intriguingly, no sooner had Von Straubenzee disembarked from the boat, the Googie Withers, than its captain scuppered it, set it ablaze, and promptly vanished. Some say he still haunts the warehouses down at the harbour, rattling an old tin cup and begging for alms from the rough tough sailors thereabouts. Other stories have the one time packet steamer captain retired to the countryside keeping bees, like Sherlock Holmes. All that is known for certain is that a single charred plank dredged from the quayside was all that survived of the Googie Withers, and it was incorporated into a wooden altarpiece in St Bibblybibdib’s church, where it can be seen today, if you buy a ticket from the sexton, a monkey-faced man who sits in a little canvas kiosk in the churchyard each Thursday afternoon, awaiting redemption.

From the lych-gate of St Bibblybibdib’s, looking westward, on a clear day one can see the top of the Blötzmann mast, with its cherry and dun pennants. Turning to the east, the prospect is of fields rippling with wheat and rhubarb and hollyhocks and stinkwort, punctuated by ha-has and the occasional scarecrow. No wild jabbering pigs are to be seen, for they were eradicated by the same unexpected lupine savagery which did for the squirrels during the nut glut, just at the time Dobson falsely claimed a nut shortage led to his adoption of the Blötzmann Manoeuvres as his favoured way of trimming the tallow candle wicks the untrimmedness of which set his teeth on edge so.

But why did Dobson forever deny his association with Erno Von Straubenzee? Decades later, when it was put to the pamphleteer that he and the untidy Blötzmannite had been fast friends, often cooped up together for days on end in the pig farmer’s hut on the hill, scheming and plotting and cackling and letting sawdust trail through their fingers, reading the runes, Dobson blushed as he protested that the name Von Straubenzee meant nothing to him. He came up with improbable tales to account for his whereabouts on certain days when it was suspected the Blötzmann mast had been activated. And he was never able to explain how he had learned to trim his wicks so deftly with the tiny shears essential to the Blötzmann Manoeuvres. The one time he mentions the shears in a pamphlet, he is curiously abrupt.

In Ten Short Essays On Chopping And Cutting And Hacking, he gives full vent to his thoughts on scissors and scimitars and pastry-cutters, for example, devoting over twenty pages to the latter alone. There is detail here aplenty for the student who wishes to learn from scratch how to cut up bits of pastry in hundreds of different ways. Yet not only is there not a separate essay about the tiny shears, they are only mentioned in a footnote, and in such small type that only the most assiduous of readers is likely to be bothered with it. I freely admit that I have not read it myself, and rely entirely upon the account of the footnote given in the latest issue of Marginalia Dobsonia, the scholarly journal edited by Aloysius Nestingird.

Now here’s the thing. Parish records seem to show that Nestingbird is directly related to Erno Von Straubenzee, may indeed be his grandson. If true, it would explain a lot, although I am not entirely sure what precisely is explained, and Nestingbird has never replied to any of my letters. Last week I fired off a sort of questionnaire to him, demanding what they call full and frank answers to over a dozen accusations. I wanted to know if he had copies of the construction plans for the Blötzmann mast, or for any similar mast, if he ever worshipped at the wooden altar in St Bibblybibdib’s and, if he did, what god he worshipped there, and did he worship standing up, sitting, kneeling, or sprawled prostrate on the cold stone floor. I pumped him for an answer to the important question of whether he knew the name of the captain of the packet steamer Googie Withers, and what had become of that mysterious old sea dog. I threw in a sneaky query about the accounting procedures of his scholarly journal, convinced as I am that the profits are being salted away to fund the salt mines from which far-flung members of the Nestingird clan draw their dubious salaries. I asked all this and more, but of course got nothing in return, not even the threats I have become used to from the badly-dressed buffoon. I know for a fact that it is Nestingbird, or one of his cronies, who has sullied my reputation with the electricity people, and with the gas people too, and that both utilities have cut off supplies to my seaside cabin, and that is why I, like Dobson before me, now rely upon candlelight, and well-trimmed wicks. To date, I have not had to resort to the Blötzmann Manoeuvres, for wicks not neatly trimmed have yet to set my teeth on edge. If they do, with much bluster I shall begin to crunch nuts, and Nestingbird will be laughing on the other side of his pasty face. I will crunch nuts, and cackle, and be righteous and roopty-toot.

Found At A Jumble Sale

At a jumble sale last week, I was delighted to pick up a bundle of Dennis Beerpint poetry books for less than the price of a toffee apple. Well, I say books, but these are leaflets really, of between four and twelve pages each, printed with a Gestetner machine in the early 1970s. Here at Hooting Yard we think Beerpint is a criminally overlooked versifier, often subjected to critical maulings when he ought justly be garlanded with laurels.

Much of the material in these forgotten publications sees Beerpint finding his voice, and admittedly that voice was still a little shaky at this early stage in his career. I was struck, however, by the odd gem such as Illness, which begins:

Oh how dark the night is / When you’ve got meningitis

and by Being A Bee, with its wonderfully evocative couplet

I do as I do and I does as I does / And what I do and does is buzz

I think it is lines like these that fool people into thinking Beerpint “twee”, or a peddler of doggerel. This seems a particularly fatuous accusation when one considers titanic works of poesy such as Lines Upon The Death Of Dag Hammarskjöld In A Plane Crash (September 1961), with its vibrant “pluckety-pluck” rhythms, massive resonance, reach, vigour, gargantuan ambition, deliberately blurred vision, knock-kneed tremblement, sourness, decisively windswept atmosphere, implacability, tartness, muscular bounding strides, and bravery in confronting, head-on, conundrums of global significance. It ends with this Beerpintian flourish:

O Dag! Alenda lux ubi orta libertas / I’ve reserved a pew at your Requiem Mass

Who else could have written that?

“He Which Is Filthy, Let Him Be Filthy Still”

“The principal function of Biblical exegesis”, wrote Dobson in jaunty mood one morning, “is for me to look with disdain upon the minnows who have trod these paths before me.”

It’s hard to know whether the pamphleteer was being deliberately muddle-headed with his image of walking minnows, but as I said, he was in a jaunty mood, and at such times his prose could be perplexing. There is no doubt, however, about the sincerity of his view that he had an unrivalled grasp of the Bible. He did not write all that much about the holy book, but he never lost an opportunity to pour scorn on scholars of the past such as Theodore of Mopsuestia, Ludolph of Saxony, Pelagius, Tirinus of Antwerp, Manuel Sa, indeed more scholars than you could shake a stick at, were you minded so to do. Dobson, incidentally, was perhaps over-fond of shaking a stick at people or things of which he disapproved, and attached an infant’s rattle to one of his sticks the better to make his point. His point was not always clear, either to him or to the object of his stick-shaking, and eventually he was able to suppress this aspect of his behaviour by attending a long course of therapy in a mountainous sanatorium where the air was pure, the porridge was plain, and the calisthenics were invigorating.

The finest of Dobson’s exercises in Biblical scholarship is his pamphlet The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse… Or Were They? (out of print). The title is a tad puzzling, but not for long, for in the very first sentence Dobson states his case. “I avow,” he wrote “that there were no horsemen of the Apocalypse, nor, if there had been, were they four in number.” In the sixty pages that follow, he argued that a combination of mistranslation, forgery, and carelessness had altered the original text, so that “four” was correctly “two”, and “horsemen” was properly Englished as “cows”, or possibly “bees”.

Challenged by the local papal nuncio after publication as to how two cows or two bees could symbolise famine, war, pestilence and death, Dobson countered with a theological sally, probably the greatest of his sallies, theological or otherwise. Sadly, there is no record of what he said, for Marigold Chew’s recently-purchased Boswellite tape recorder was out of order, having been placed too close to the toaster that morning, and consequently smothered in a particularly toothsome marmalade.

Killer Hornets!

We like to keep abreast of the latest bee, wasp, and hornet news here at Hooting Yard. According to The Telegraph our plucky British honeybees are at risk from swarms of killer hornets. The fiendish Vespa velutinae have reached France, where “thousands of football-shaped hornet nests are now dotted all over the forests of Aquitaine”. We will be setting up a Hornet Patrol soon, so drop us a line if you wish to volunteer. Badge, cap, and whistle provided.

Tremendous Potato Urgency

One morning Tiny Enid awoke from uneasy dreams with a sense of tremendous urgency related to potatoes. She was based in Winnipeg at the time, and had taken a room in a motel of undoubted seediness. “I could not pinpoint the reasons for my sense of breathless urgency on that grim March morning,” she wrote, many years later, in her Memoirs, “All I knew was that potatoes had something to do with it.”

The heroic young adventuress eschewed the motel breakfast, a Winnipeg-style egg ‘n’ dough platter, sneaking out of a side entrance to avoid the man with the twisted lip at the front desk. The city was still new to her, and she had yet to locate any of the potato-related premises she felt such a tremendous urgency to visit. She limped across the plaza to her rented booster car and threw off its tarpaulin in one elegant sweep. Tiny Enid had been practising her elegant sweeping arm movements for some weeks, and the superb elegance with which she swept the tarpaulin off the car won her a round of applause from a nearby line of patient pastry persons queuing outside a pastry shop.

Before revving up the engine of her booster car, Tiny Enid tramped over to the queue. She wanted to find out if she would sense an aura of potato urgency here, so close to her motel. It was possible, after all, that among the pastries sold by the pastry shop could be pastries with a potato filling. Was that urgency that cracked her awake a premonition that a Winnipeg-based criminal mad person had poisoned the potato pastries? If so, it would make sense for her to be bang on the scene rather than having to speed around the city, lost, unnerved, and not knowing quite what she was seeking, nor why. So many of the adventures of the tiny adventuress had begun from these moments of curious intuition.

But it was still early in the day, and the pastry shop proprietor had not yet hoisted the shutters, hence the queue. Tiny Enid was hopeless at small talk, and she was at a loss how to engage with the still-clapping queue which was so impressed with the elegance of her sweeping arm movements. She pulled her sprightly black gold green crushed crepe hat down low, and pretended an interest in pebbles piled close to the pastry shop shutters. If her instincts were correct, she must be first into the shop when the shutters went up, before a poor innocent Winnipegite was felled by a poisoned potato pastry pie. Tiny Enid was a girl of impeccable manners, and she flushed with shame in anticipation of having to push aside the unkempt hobbledehoy who was first in the queue and who looked as if he had not eaten for a month.

Luckily, as the pastry shop proprietor appeared with a hook on the end of a wooden pole with which by some shenanigans he hoisted the shutters, there was a distraction. Over by the statue of prominent Winnipegite Elias Conklin, who had been the city’s mayor in 1881, a swarm of killer bees appeared out of the blue and set upon a defenceless old woman wearing her widow’s weeds. The massed buzzing of the bees was nauseatingly loud, and the reaction of the pastry shop queue was instantaneous. Even the starving hobbledehoy forgot his grumbling belly as the line broke up, sprinting over to the Conklin statue flailing impromptu bee-scarifiers.

Our tiny heroine took the opportunity to sneak into the pastry shop. Thumping the proprietor in the guts with her girly bludgeon, she incapacitated him with a few kicks to the head, swiftly located behind the counter every single piping hot pastry with a potato ingredient, and stuffed the lot of them into a canvas sack. She dragged the sack over to her rented booster car, chucked it into the boot, and sped away, just in time, for the killer bees had been confounded, the widow woman was safe, and the patient pastry people were heading back to the pastry shop with coinage clutched in their fists.

An hour or so later, having dumped the canvas sack of potato pastries into the river at the Forks, where the Red River meets the Assiniboine, and then driven around until she found verdant parkland, Tiny Enid slumped onto a tuffet, dusted off her sprightly black gold green crushed crepe hat, and lit one of her high tar Paraguayan cigarettes. Soon, she knew, she would have to hunt down the criminal mad person and bash them about, but for now, the world could take a pause, and she could sit on her tuffet and smoke and watch the coots and moorhens for whom a Winnipeg pond was home.