A Dream

Josef K. was dreaming. Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you about it. Other people’s dreams are almost always insufferably boring. My heart sinks when somebody I barely know insists on telling me one of their dreams. It is akin to the horror I feel when buttonholed by somebody who is determined to read to me their “latest poem”. These poems are invariably codswallop. And so it is with dreams.

On the other hand we are, perhaps rightly, fascinated by our own dreams – as, I suppose, we are by our poems, if we are foolish enough to write them. Dreams churn up our memories, distort them, pluck them from where they belong and drop them into new and weird contexts. Because they belong to us, they are endlessly interesting. We try to wring sense from them, to act as our own Viennese quack and work out what the dream tells us about ourselves. Such navel-gazing is very pleasing, but you really don’t want to impose it on anybody else.

Pleasing, yes, but sometimes futile. God alone knows how I have wrestled with the deep, deep meaning of a dream I had a few years ago, in which I attacked the actor Roy Kinnear, bashing him over the head with a chair. I never met the late Mr Kinnear. It is, to date, his sole appearance in my dreamworld. I still have no idea what that dream meant, if it meant anything.

We might, if we are sufficiently engaged, find the dreams of fictional characters intriguing. I can’t remember the particular dream Josef K. had in A Dream by Franz Kafka, which is another reason I’m not telling you about it. But we ought to remember that fictional characters’ dreams aren’t real dreams – they’re made up by the author. They may well be based on actual dreams the author had, though there is no guarantee of that. In any case, you can bet on your sickly and wizened grandmother’s life that the author embroiders, and shapes the dream-narrative, through art.

Consider, as an example, the story in which fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol has a dream while taking a pre-polevaulting nap. As readers, we know that the dream has been planted in his (fictional) sleeping brain, probably by his coach, the cantankerous, chain-smoking, enovercoated, Homburg-hatted, and all too real Old Halob, a non-fictional character if ever there was one.

In the dream, Bobnit Tivol and Old Halob have somehow swapped identities. Thus, it is the coach who is polevaulting, an image so absurd and preposterous it is the epitome of dream-bizarrerie. This is what I mean by art. Fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol, meanwhile, in the persona of his coach, has gone to visit Old Halob’s sickly and wizened grandmother in her hovel. He explains to her, by thumps on her head, that he is going to gamble on her life in a sordid wager. The grandmother then takes off her thrum nightcap, and is revealed to be a large, fierce wolf, with gleaming and razor-sharp fangs.

Fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol screams. In real life, this is the point where a dreamer would be shocked awake. But in the story, the dream continues. Bobnit Tivol runs out of the hovel, runs and runs, and finds himself on a familiar running track. He runs round and round and round, in pursuit, now, of another runner, just ahead of him. Eventually the fictional athlete catches up with this runner, and they sprint across the finishing line at exactly the same moment. Panting, they turn to face each other, and Bobnit Tivol recognises his fellow-runner as the late actor Roy Kinnear.

Arm in arm, they repair to a sort of supersonic milk bar, where they order a couple of sort of supersonic milk-based drinks. They sit at a table. All of a sudden, the writer Frank Key comes charging in and attacks Roy Kinnear, bashing him over the head with a chair.

Frightened, Bobnit Tivol runs into a sort of supersonic milk bar pantry, locking the door behind him. He mops his fevered brow, first taking off his Homburg – remember, he is still in the guise of his coach Old Halob, who we assume is making up this dream. We might ask, then, at this point, whether the dream tells us more about (fictional) Bobnit Tivol or (non-fictional) Old Halob. We might ask the question of a Viennese quack, who would surely know the answer. But none is available, so instead, growing bored, we ask “how did the dream end?”

Having removed his Homburg, Bobnit Tivol, or Old Halob, looked down, and saw that his trouser-cuffs were dirty and his shoes were laced up wrong. Bending to retie the shoelaces, he bumped his head on a headbumper. So severe was the bump that stars appeared revolving around his fictional, dream head, as in an illustration in a children’s comic. They were such pretty stars! Oh, how they twinkled! Enchanted by the sight, he woke up.

The first sentence, and the last, were translated from the German by Willa and Edwin Muir. Everything in between was not.

A Snapshot From The History Of Athletics

Here is another potsage [sic] exhumed from the archive. It is from July 2005 and marks the very first appearance on these pages of fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol who, I am somewhat alarmed to note, I claimed was my father. What this might mean is for a quack brain doctor to unravel.

When I turn my mind to the great sprint champions of the past, I often think of Bobnit Tivol. He came from the Tyrol, and he was such a fast runner that it was said he could outrun an express train, which was a strange thing to say, for at that time there were no trains, express or otherwise, in the Tyrol. But of course Bobnit Tivol was famous throughout the world, and he often raced in foreign countries, so it is conceivable that he was tempted on one of his travels to compete against a railway train. His trainer was cranky old Halob, who himself had been a very great sprinter. Making his champion run in front of, rather than alongside, a speeding train is exactly the kind of technique Halob would have used. Once, it is said, he made Bobnit Tivol run an uphill double marathon wearing an iron vest, twice in one day.

One has only to consider the records broken by Bobnit Tivol to recognise him for the superb sprinter he was. Leafing through old athletics almanacks, his name appears again and again and again, invariably in capital letters, annotated by one, two, or even three stars, at the top of every list. They say he had to rent a warehouse to store all his cups and shields and trophies. To think that he had won all the major Tyrolean sprinting events before he was twenty years old is to gasp in wonder.

Could he have succeeded without old Halob? They made a striking pair, the whippet-like runner with his mop of golden hair and the wheezing, elderly man, who smoked four packets of Black Ague rolling tobacco every day, dressed always in his Stalinist cardigan, a stopwatch in each pocket, leaning on a stick he claimed to have broken off the Tree of Heaven.

If I shut my eyes I see them still, my father and his mentor, Bobnit Tivol and old Halob, heroic figures from a past I have had to invent anew, for none of it is true.

Bobnit Tivol’s Diary 9.1.26

Fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol is one of very few fictional athletes to have kept an entirely nonfictional diary, though quite how it came to be written is anybody’s guess. Here is what he got up to on this day in 1926:

Bounded out of bed spry and sprightly and cut two or three brisk Boswellian capers around the room before plunging my head into a pail of ice cold water. Then I was out at the cinder track. Being fictional, I do not need to travel from A to B, I can simply be in one place and then a moment later in another place. Generally speaking, that other place is the cinder track, unless I am taking part in a competition, when I might materialise in a field or a stadium. Nor do I need to eat breakfast, or indeed any other meal, except for fictional purposes, for example if a sense of drama is wrung from me having stomach cramps from overeating seconds before an important qualifying heat in an important sprint championship.

Today I was in training for just such a competition, the Pointy Town All-Comers High Speed Breathless Panting Round And Round A Cinder Track Trophy. Those who follow my fictional career know I placed in the top seventeen in this contest in 1922 and 1923 and 1924. Last year, of course, I was attacked by a swarm of hornets on the eve of the final and was unable to compete.

My coach, the irascible chain-smoking Old Halob, who is as real as I am fictional, was nowhere to be seen on this fine cold January morning. I missed his reassuring presence, but did my practice sprint anyway. I ran round and round and round and round and round and round and round and round and round and round and round and round and round and round and round and round and round and round and round and round and round and round and round and round and round and round and round and round and round and round and round and round and round and round and round and round the cinder track at high speed, panting breathlessly, all day. This is where I have an advantage over nonfictional athletes, who would collapse in exhausted heaps after a few laps. Being insubstantial and, some have said, unkindly, one-dimensional, I only collapse if there is a sense of drama to be wrung from my doing so. This usually occurs in important races, such as the final of the Sawdust Bridge One Hundred Mile Flat-Out Sprinting Cup, and not when I am merely on a training run.

I would have kept on running round and round the cinder track after the sun went down, but it was at that point, as night o’erspread the sky and all was plunged in darkness, that Old Halob appeared. If he was not real I might think he was a vampire. He looked at his stopwatch and blew his whistle and coughed up an unseemly amount of catarrh and led me away to a nocturnal pole-vaulting area. I had completely forgotten that I also had to get in shape for the Pointy Town Nocturnal Pole-Vaulting Challenge Ribbon!

So all in all it was a pretty good day, and night, as my days and nights go. Eventually found myself tucked up in bed at 5.59 AM, just in time to spring out of bed spry and sprightly at 6.00 AM tomorrow.

On Bobnit Tivol, Mossad Agent

Mossad! They’re Israeli, they’re a secret intelligence service, their agents fan out across the globe engaging in skulduggery including the targeted assassinaton of ne’er-do-wells! What’s not to like? If I had my life over again, I think I’d like to have been a Mossad agent. Granted, I am not Jewish, I am a bit weedy and very myopic, and when once I attempted to play the online game based on the BBC serial Spooks I found it impossible to progress beyond the preliminary screen, but a man can dream.


Confidential papers recently released under the Release Of Confidential Papers Pertaining To Fictional Athletes Act reveal the startling information that none other than fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol was a Mossad agent. Who would have thought it? His all too real coach and mentor Old Halob would have been a more probable candidate, what with his murky past and trenchcoat and Homburg hat. Yet now we learn that all along it was the spindly fictional sprinter who was the Mossad agent. Old Halob had not the merest inkling of his protégé’s secret activities.

The world o’ sport is of course the perfect cover for espionage. A tiptop sprinter like Bobnit Tivol will be forever flying around the world from one athletics meet to another, an entourage in tow. When he is a pole-vaulter as well as a sprinter, he will have a good deal of “kit” to cart about with him. You might be surprised at just how many high-velocity sniper rifles, laid end to end, would equal the length of the average pole-vaulter’s pole.

Bobnit Tivol had the added advantage of being fictional, which meant that his Mossad “handlers” could easily invent brand new cover stories for him for each operation on which he was sent. In those days, athletics was still chiefly the realm of amateurs. Bobnit Tivol might fly into Helsinki, say, posing as a dentist and amateur sprinter and pole-vaulter, and while there, absent himself for a couple of hours from the cinder track to pop across town to a Helsinki hotbed of ne’er-do-wellery and, with ruthless Mossad efficiency, use a high-velocity sniper rifle to “take out” several Helsinki ne’er-do-wells who were, for whatever reason, on the Mossad hit-list. Or he might fly into Hobart, posing as an ornithologist and amateur sprinter and pole-vaulter, and while there, absent himself for a couple of hours from the cinder track to pop across town to a Hobart hotbed of ne’er-do-wellery and, with ruthless Mossad efficiency, use a razor-sharp hatchet to “take out” several Hobart ne’er-do-wells who were, for a similar reason, on the Mossad hit-list. In Helsinki and Hobart, his cover as an amateur athlete, taking part in a sprint and a vault at the same time as he was registered as a participant in a dentistry or ornithological conference, would pull the wool over the eyes of local law enforcement, who would scratch their heads in dimwitted consternation and be thankful that some of their home-grown ne’er-do-wells had been so ruthlessly and efficiently despatched. The very last person they would look for would be a spindly fictional athlete in baggy shorts.

Ironically, on several occasions suspicion did fall on Old Halob. With his murky past and trenchcoat and Homburg hat, and above all his brute non-fictional reality, he was the kind of person dimwitted local law enforcement officials would haul in for questioning when, for example, a gaggle of ne’er-do-wells were found garrotted in a cellar beneath a hotbed of ne’er-do-wellery in, say, Helsinki or Hobart. And wherever fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol went, his coach Old Halob would invariably be there too, stop-watch in hand, chain-smoking high-tar Serbian cigarettes. So it happened on more than one occasion that, while Bobnit Tivol was pounding round and round and round and round the running track, or vaulting over the bar into the sandpit, Old Halob would be dragged from the side of the track or the pit and bundled into the back of a police van.

Because he was not himself a Mossad agent, Mossad did not provide Old Halob with any kind of cover story. The sole account he was able to give of himself, in various Helsinki or Hobart interrogation chambers, was that he was the all too real coach and mentor of fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol. Look, he would splutter, in between catarrh-racked coughing fits, here is my stop-watch! Here is my fictional athletics meeting accreditation! I may look, sound, and act like a Stalinist secret policeman, as indeed I may once have been, possibly, but that does not make me a ruthlessly efficient Mossad agent! Unhand me this instant!

Sooner or later, the dimwitted local law enforcement officials would let him go. He usually had to find his own way back to the athletics stadium, and was thus in an even fouler temper than usual when he got back just in time to watch his protégé winning, or failing to win, a sprint race or pole-vault jump.

The release of these papers will allow diligent researchers to tidy up various unsolved killings of ne’er-do-wells around the globe over several decades. By matching the killings to fictional athletics meetings in which Bobnit Tivol participated, we might see the hand of Mossad where it has been least suspected. New light, too, should be cast on Bobnit Tivol’s fictional Memoirs. It goes without saying that the spindly fictional athlete never openly acknowledged his role as a Mossad agent – he was too ruthless and efficient ever to make such a slip – but a thorough rereading, and even more thorough rerereading, may grant us a new perspective on the history of the second half of the twentieth century. If nothing else, we might be able to cobble together a convincing explanation of the targeted assassination of Gliptow and his ne’er-do-well pals in their HQ slap bang next to the athletics stadium in Helsinki (or possibly Hobart) in May 1968, when the world’s attention was diverted by shouty students throwing pebbles at the gendarmerie.

On A Journey

Before we leave the Olympic Games behind, I must get something off my chest. I found myself aghast at the number of athletes who, when interviewed after their triumph – or failure – spoke of the “journey” they had been on. This journey was usually described as either amazing or incredible, or both. It is a similar, or identical, journey to the one apparently undertaken by just about anybody who appears in any kind of televised contest, be it a “talent” show or one of those weird programmes where they lock people up in a house for a few weeks. Somewhat terrifyingly, it is also the title of Tony Blair’s memoir.

What we are supposed to understand from all this guff is that the speaker has been on a journey of self-discovery. As John Lydon put it in Public Image, “I’m not the same as when I began”. No doubt this is true, if not for brain-dead television show contestants, certainly for Olympic athletes. What is profoundly depressing is that they all reach for precisely the same metaphor, automatically. It is not that I expect profundity, exactly, especially when the athlete is quizzed while still puffing and panting fresh from the running track or swimming pool. But there were times when I thought the BBC might have used a generic puffing-and-panting cardboard cutout for all the interviews, because they all said exactly the same thing. The questions were pretty witless, but why did they all – unprompted – blather about their incredible/amazing “journey”?

Our medallists would do well to listen, as I have done, to an old tape-recording of fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol. It was made in the days before television, of course, and before round-the-clock news and mass media attention. The interviewer was a hack from a local newspaper, and the race fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol had just won was the second heat of a qualifier for the quarter finals of the Blister Lane Bypass Amateur Athletics Reserves Jamboree ten mile dash. You will note that nowhere does the fictional champ mention a “journey”.

Hack – Fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol, you’ve just won the second heat qualifier for the quarter finals of the Blister Lane Bypass Amateur Athletics Reserves Jamboree ten mile dash. Congratulations!

Fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol – Puff. Pant.

Hack – It was a tremendous race. How do you feel, having won it?

Fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol – Puffed out and faintly nauseous.

Hack – For a moment there on the sixteenth lap when your laces came undone things looked decidedly calamitous.

Fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol – I would agree. But this was an occurrence I had been through with my coach, the all too real Old Halob. He drummed into me the need to stop, kneel down, retie my laces, give them a little tug to ensure they were sufficiently tight, and then stand up and start running again, but faster than I had been running before the calamity.

Hack – A lesson it seems you learned well.

Fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol – Indeed so. As I say, we went through it time and time again during my rigorous training sprints, usually before dawn, across the moors, pursued by packs of wolves and other savage and speedy creatures Old Halob keeps caged and half-starved and then releases to chase me across the moors before dawn with chunks of raw meat tied to my heels as part of my rigorous training sprints in preparation for races such as this one which I have just won.

Hack – What are the other savage and speedy creatures, other than wolves?

Fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol – It depends on what Old Halob can procure from the local menagerie. Yapping dogs, gazelles, stoats . . .

Hack – And which cuts of meat are tied to your heels?

Fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol – That is between Old Halob and his favourite butcher.

Hack – I am sure the readers of the Blister Lane Bypass Amateur Athletics Reserves Jamboree Annual Newsletter And Recipe Leaflet would be fascinated to know who that butcher is.

Fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol – Old Halob would probably tell you if you paid him a stipend.

Hack – I might just do that. Where can I find him?

Fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol – As I crossed the finishing line in front of the other runners – sorry, I mean runner – I think I saw him trudging off towards that kiosk over there to buy a carton of cigarettes. If you run a bit faster than I was running just now you might catch up with him before he heads off to the owl sanctuary to indulge in his usual post-race activity of communing with owls while smoking heavily.

Hack – Righty-ho! Well done again, fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol!

Fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol – Thank you, hack. Now I must do several laps of honour before sprinting off across the moors pursued by packs of wolves and other savage and speedy creatures with chunks of raw meat tied to my heels as part of my rigorous training regime.

What strikes us about this scratchy and hissy old magnetic tape-recording is the complete absence of the words amazing and incredible and, indeed, journey. It is worth noting, too, that as far as we can tell fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol sheds no tears, and indeed does not even seem to be welling up. It is of course possible that he began sobbing as soon as the hack set off in pursuit of Old Halob, but spectacularly unlikely.

The tape continues, and we hear the hack hailing Old Halob somewhere between the cigarette kiosk and the owl sanctuary. His hailing is followed by a series of thumps, which acoustic analysis suggests are the sound of a catarrh-racked irascible athletics coach’s fist repeatedly meeting the jaw of a hack employed by the Blister Lane Bypass Amateur Athletics Reserves Jamboree Annual Newsletter And Recipe Leaflet. There is then the sound of various owls hooting.

On Having The Prize Within One’s Grasp

Thump thump thump. What is that sound? It is the sound of a human heart, stimulated by excitement, beating harder and more rapidly than it is wont to do when the body or the brain is at rest. I am sure you can think of dozens, if not hundreds, of circumstances in which the human heart will go thump thump thump, but today I wish to concern myself with but one. Interestingly, however, it is a circumstance which can take wildly divergent forms. The thumping result on the human heart is the same – the outward appearances could not be more different.

It may be easier for you to cotton on to what I am blathering about if we devise a couple of vignettes, as illustrative of my point.

Let us first consider fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol, sprinting as fast as he can round and round and round a running track. He is, in this instance, competing in the second qualifying heat to gain a place in the semi-final of the Pointy Town All-Comers Super Duper Athletico Jamboree. No, scrub that. My argument falls flat on its face if it is a qualifying heat. So we must imagine fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol has already qualified for the semi-final, and not only that, but he has whizzed his way triumphantly through that semi-final, egged on by his redoubtable coach, catarrh-racked Old Halob, there at the side of the cinder track in his raincoat and Homburg hat, and our vignette is actually of the spindly Wunderkind sprinting round and round and round in the final itself. The sky is grey, there is a mild breeze, meteorologists have forecast a blizzard later. Certain birds are perched on the branches of certain trees, singing their tiny birdy hearts out. The birds’ hearts too may be going thump thump thump, but that will be for a different reason, one that need not concern us here, id est avian metabolism. The trees line one side of the field commandeered by the organisers of the Pointy Town All-Comers Super Duper Athletico Jamboree. Usually, cows loiter here, but they have been driven away, with shouting and sticks, to a neighbouring field. Once the cows were gone, at the crack of dawn, a fellow wheeled a canister filled with whitewash round and round the field, painting the lines of a running track, and other athletically significant lines, by releasing whitewash from the wheeled canister through a nozzle. While he was about this business, fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol was already limbering up, puffing and panting in the lee of a pavilion, wherein sat Old Halob smoking his way through his first pack of gaspers of the day. Now all that limbering up and puffing and panting and triumphant victories, or at least placement in the top three, in several qualifying heats and in the semi-final, have led the baggy-shorted sprinter to the moment caught in our vignette. He is whizzing towards the tape. His heart is pounding thump thump thump. He has the prize within his grasp.

Our second vignette could not be more different. There are no trees, no birds, no cows, no whitewash. There is no fictional athlete nor his Stalinist coach. We are not outdoors, in a field, but indoors, in what might best be described as a hovel. The interior is gloomy, lit by sputtering tallow candles because the electricity bill has gone unpaid. There are several eggs and a packet of breakfast cereal in the larder, but little sign of other food save for a discarded toffee apple wrapper in the waste paper bin. The wrapper sits atop a heap of similarly discarded sheets of paper torn from a notepad, crumpled and scrunched up and tossed to oblivion. There is scratchy writing on each sheet, but we shall never read it. The waste paper bin rests on rotting linoleum next to an escritoire. Sitting at the escritoire, slumped, despairing, blighted by miseries unnumbered, is Dobson, the twentieth century’s titanic pamphleteer. He has come to a stop in the composition of his latest screed, stricken with vacancy-between-the-ears. He takes a gulp from a smudged beaker of aerated lettucewater and peers dispiritedly out of an even more smudged window at nothing. Where in our previous vignette we had speed and motion and activity, to the point where one might consider it suitable subject matter for a Futurist painting, here all is still, silent, beige, crumpled, woebegone. But of a sudden the silence is shattered by an ungodly buzzing. The pamphleteer’s metal tapping machine is processing an incoming message. Dobson stirs on his stool and gropes his way through the gloom to the worm-eaten sideboard upon which the metal tapping machine sits. The message is quite astonishing. It is a tip-off that Dobson is to be announced as the winner of this year’s Nobel Prize for Economics. Dobson is perplexed, for he knows nothing of economics, yet the source is trustworthy, and unimpeachable. Well, that is what Dobson believes, for he does not realise he is being twitted by a mischief maker. Instead, mistaking the sender of the message for his most trustworthy and unimpeachable pal, his eyes shine brightly, and he pictures himself, besuited and natty, being given a cheque for a vast amount of money by some Norwegian persons. His heart is pounding thump thump thump. He has the prize within his grasp.

It is instructive, is it not, that two such shockingly dissimilar vignettes can yet end with identical sentences? Were we to stay with our two protagonists, and to follow them through the next minutes and hours, we would find that, though they had the same thump thump thump stimulation to their hearts, for the same reasons, when the thumping subsided their destinies were as different as their vignettes. For fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol won his race, and grasped his prize, but Dobson learned that he had been made a fool of, and had never even been shortlisted for the Economics Nobel, and so he did not grasp his prize.

It would be well to reflect on this, next time your human heart goes thump thump thump, whatever the cause of the stimulation that makes it thump so.

On Voodoo Athletics

This being an Olympic year, it is perhaps time to scotch a rumour that has swirled persistently around the world of fictional athletics for decades. You will recall that fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol is alleged to have left a written record of the gifts he received one Christmastide from his all too real coach, Old Halob. If we are to credit this list, the wily and cantankerous chain smoker had, by the twelfth day of Christmas, presented his protégé with – and it would be well to take a deep breath here – no fewer than a dozen apiece of vipers, shrews, bees, and gormless orphans, twenty-two cardboard pigs and the same number of cornflake cartons, thirty each of poptarts and rusty nozzles, thirty-six dead chaffinches and thirty-six paper sickbags, forty tufts of bindweed, plus forty-two hideous bat gods, forty-two mordant herons, and an incalculable amount of ectoplasm. I think I have done my sums correctly, but please check them if you don’t trust me.

Now, what sane person would give somebody such an array of gifts? And let us be quite clear that no non-fictional athletics coach was ever as sane as Old Halob, in spite of the chain smoking, the strangulated catarrh-racked coughing, the trenchcoat, the Homburg hat, and the irascible demeanour. Sporty historian Prudence Cindertrack confirms as much when she writes “the thing about Old Halob was that no brain doctor ever succeeded in having him sectioned to a madhouse”. I wish I could lay my hands on the source of that reference, but right this minute I can’t for the life of me remember in which of Miss Cindertrack’s sporty bagatelles I read it, so, just like my sums, you will have to take it on trust.

Of course, the authenticity of fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol’s list was called into question. Leaving aside his fictional status, it was inconceivable to many that he could ever have found time to put pen to paper, when the rigorous training regime instituted by Old Halob had him sprinting round and round and round a running track in all the hours God sends, except for those hours when he was bidden to pole-vault repeatedly over a wooden bar set ever and ever higher. Even if he was occasionally granted a breather, he would have been shaking with exhaustion and terror and unable to grasp a pen or pencil or even a crayon in his fictional fist.

For the rumour-mongers, however, these germane points could be swept aside much as an ogre might sweep aside a gnat. (I have borrowed that simile from Prudence Cindertrack, who employs it more than once in her entertaining Reader’s Digest article on the sport of gnat-swatting. I am afraid I can’t remember which issue of the magazine her piece appeared in. You might be able to find it in your local library, if it keeps a full run of bound volumes of Reader’s Digest, perhaps in the cellar or boiler-room.)

The first inkling that somebody believed Old Halob really had given fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol twelve vipers, twelve shrews, twelve bees, twenty-two cardboard pigs, thirty poptarts, thirty-six dead chaffinches, forty-two hideous bat gods, forty-two mordant herons, forty tufts of bindweed, thirty-six paper sickbags, thirty rusty nozzles, twenty-two cornflake cartons, twelve gormless orphans, and an incalculable amount of ectoplasm in a twelve-day period came when sporty priest Father “Spikes” Vestnumber gave a sermon before a vast crowd gathered in a large and important stadium. Let us remind ourselves of what he said by quoting from Prudence Cindertrack’s contemporary newspaper report.

The vast crowd in this large and important stadium gasped as one when Father “Spikes” Vestnumber declared that the reason fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol kept winning so many sprint races and pole-vaulting events was because his coach, Old Halob, was practising a blasphemous form of fictional athletics coaching based on voodoo. He challenged Old Halob to deny the charge, in public, before a vast crowd in a large and important stadium, while tethered to a post and undergoing an exorcism, with lots of poking with pointy sticks, dousing with holy water, and the insertion of burning incense sticks into various orifices. By the time the priest finished shouting, the crowd had been provoked into a seething angry mob, baying for the death of the legendary non-fictional athletics coach.

I should point out here that Miss Cindertrack’s report was cut to ribbons by an overenthusiastic sub-editor, and I have reconstructed the gist of her piece from memory and by communicating with the spirit realm.

Old Halob, being Old Halob, took absolutely no notice of the man he would no doubt have dismissed as “a turbulent priest” had he been capable of coherent speech in between expectorating copious amounts of phlegm, sputum, and bile into his surprisingly dainty napkin. But as I indicated at the beginning, the rumours have never gone away, and you will still hear, at sporty gatherings, somebody or other casually referring to “Old Halob, the voodoo athletics coach”. What these rascals never bother to explain is to precisely what voodoo use the collected items – plus an incalculable amount of ectoplasm – were meant to be put. From my breathtakingly encyclopaedic knowledge of voodoo – garnered in the main from a series of feature articles by Prudence Cindertrack in the scholarly journal Chaps In Shorts Running And Jumping And Throwing Things – it seems to me that the feathers and innards of dead chaffinches might come in handy, as might tufts of bindweed, and, at a push, mordant herons and orphans, and perhaps paper sickbags, but as for the rest of the stuff, it serves no imaginable voodoo purpose whatsoever, although some might argue that cardboard pigs, and the cardboard from cornflake cartons, and indeed bat gods and nozzles and poptarts, not to mention vipers and shrews and bees and ectoplasm, have their part to play in some of the more arcane manifestations of voodoo practice, particularly, it must be said, in the field of fictional athletics, when performed by a non-fictional athletics coach.

I am glad we have cleared that up once and for all.

Athlete Wrestling With A Python

On a frosty winter’s morning in the middle of the twentieth century, legendary athletics coach Old Halob stood at the side of a running track, stopwatch in hand, Homburg on head, racked with catarrh and puffing a cigarette. He was much perturbed. His protégé, fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol, was pounding round and round the track at ever higher speeds, but Old Halob’s brain was a whirling chaos. He had not slept for weeks, and he was even more bad tempered than usual. The spindly fictional sprinter whizzing past him was causing the one-time secret policeman much vexation. He was running faster than ever, and when pole-vaulting he was pole-vaulting higher than ever. He was winning medals and cups in all sorts of fictional athletics meetings, not least the Gloriously Shining Medallion Of Gack, awarded to the champ of champs in the Pointy Town Auxiliary Substandard Jumping About League Reserve Heats. But for Old Halob, all this was as nought. For what he most desired for Bobnit Tivol was fame, and fame eluded him.

In the narrow, enclosed world of fictional athletics Bobnit Tivol was of course a name to be reckoned with. Yet in the wider world he remained unknown. It had long been the dream of Old Halob that his protégé be the cynosure of all eyes, a titan worshipped not just by fictional athletics fans but by all and sundry, the great and good and the hoi polloi. It may be, as some cynics liked to snigger, that the wily old coach wished to exploit the sprinter for financial gain. Worldwide fame would bring the money pouring in, whether it be for hiring out his image to be emblazoned on cardboard breakfast cereal packets or for personal appearances at the opening of fairgrounds. Nowadays we are used to such commercial shenanigans, but half a century ago they were almost unheard of. Old Halob remains an old fashioned figure in many ways, but he always saw himself as a man o’ the future, and in pursuit of that vision he strained every sinew, sclerotic though his sinews may have been, if there is such a thing as a sclerotic sinew.

So on that frosty, icy morning, Old Halob took one last puff on his acrid Serbian cigarette, and, barking a command to the fictional athlete to keep sprinting faster and faster round the running track until his return, he trudged away. He headed for an insalubrious part of town where he might find solace in rotgut hooch and squalor. And it was as he was about to turn down a particularly dismal alleyway that he was accosted by an urchin hawking grubby wares.

“Oi, mister, I’m your urchin if you need some spent matches or tattered bootlaces or chewed-up dog biscuits or leaking batteries or contaminated sausages or poisoned cans of Squelcho! or regurgitated hairballs or back copies of the Reader’s Digest! Everything’s a half-crown!”

“Your wares are preposterously expensive,” said Old Halob, “But here is a half-crown for a back copy of the Reader’s Digest. I shall want something to read while I benumb my brain with hooch.”

Later, sitting in the dinge of an ill-starred tavern glugging from a bottle of 90% proof Monsignor’s Spasm, Old Halob flicked through the pages of the magazine hoping to find something that might take his mind off his woes. There was an article entitled “I Am John’s Head” which diverted him briefly, as did a piece about a heroic anti-communist housewife. He made a stab at a quiz based on anagrams of “Ayn Rand”. Then he came upon a picture spread of artworks by Sir Frederic Leighton (1830-1896), and saw something that made fireworks go off in his brain. It was a photograph of a sculpture by Leighton entitled Athlete Wrestling With A Python (1877). Old Halob was transfixed. He ordered another bottle of hooch, and began to formulate a scheme.

athlete python

Leighton’s sculpture had been a great popular success in its day. Why, then, if Old Halob were to create a modern adaptation, Fictional Athlete Wrestling With A Real Python, would that not equally astound the public? What could better propel fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol to universal acclaim than the sight of him doing battle with an all too real python, and winning?

Draining his second bottle and reeling out of the tavern into the ghastly streets, Old Halob decided to leave his spindly protégé haring round the track for the time being while he set off to find a python. There was a zoo and a number of menageries in the town, but they were all shut, it being a Thursday. Tacked up on a lamppost he saw a notice about a newly opened snakepit, and boarded a tram to take him there, but the tram crashed into a parade of horses and Old Halob was among a number of tram passengers and equestriennes who were ferried to a clinic on stretchers. It was nightfall before he was released, bloody and bandaged, and he made his way to the running track where, in dusk and drizzle, fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol, as close to exhaustion as a fictional athlete can be, was still zooming round and round. Old Halob parped his whistle, and young Bobnit collapsed in a fictional heap upon the cinders.

“Great news!” shouted Old Halob, “Tomorrow you shall wrestle a real python, and the world will be agog!”

“Gack,” panted Bobnit Tivol, collapsing still further.

The next day dawned with more frost and ice and drizzle. Old Halob dragged his fictional protégé to the pole-vaulting practice pit and told him to practise pole-vaulting until such time as he returned bearing a python. The catarrh-racked coach then trudged off to the zoo, to find that it was shut, being a Friday. He soon discovered the menageries were likewise shut, and that following the tram crash of the day before, no trams were running. Passing the lamppost where he had seen the sign announcing the opening of the snakepit, he saw it had been altered, the opening having been cancelled by dint of civic pomposity.

“Where oh where am I to find a python?” wailed Old Halob.

At once, from the gloom of a gruesome nook, a figure appeared, like Harry Lime in The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949). But he looked nothing like Orson Welles. His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion, and his straight black lips. His voice, when at last he spoke, was booming and monotonous, empty of human expression and lacking any variation in tone or cadence.

“You will find no pythons here,” he boomed, “But hie thee to the Bottomless Viper Pit of Gaar. There you will find vipers.”

And with that, the gruesome nook was again engulfed in gloom, and the figure vanished.

As he trudged to the railway station to catch the stopping train to Gaar, Old Halob wondered if perhaps, from time to time, a python might stray into the bottomless viper pit. Failing that, he supposed he could obtain a viper and disguise it as a python or, in extremis, rely upon the ophiological stupidity of the great unwashed. Spitting into a bramble-bush, Old Halob reflected that the masses, presented with the fantastic spectacle of a fictional athlete wrestling with a real snake, would be unlikely to worry their pointy little heads about precisely what kind of snake it was. He would say it was a python, and lo!, a python it would be.

It happened that the stopping train to Gaar stopped not only at every single damned station along the branch line, but also, repeatedly, in sidings, for hours and even days at a time. The delay thus caused was to prove fatal to Old Halob’s otherwise flawless plan. And flawless indeed did it seem when, arriving eventually at the bottomless viper pit, the man in the Homburg hat was greeted by the Duty Viperist, brandishing a net in which writhed a living python.

“What ho!” said this fellow, who bore a striking resemblance to Orson Welles, “I have just ennetted a python that had somehow strayed into the bottomless viper pit. Luckily, I spotted it while it was still near the top of the bottomless pit, otherwise who knows what manner of slithery hissy funny business might have transpired down towards the earth’s molten core. An asp got down there once and caused quite a kerfuffle among the vipers. But tsk tsk here’s me carrying on like a garrulous bon vivant good and proper! How may I help you on this frosty icy drizzly day in Gaar?”

“Give the python to me,” rapped Old Halob.

“I ought really return it to the Nest o’ Writhing Pythons just downaways past the viaduct,” said the Viperist, “But I have just had my breakfast and I am mad with cornflakes, so here, the python is yours.”

On the way back to Pointy Town, the stopping train stopped even more often than it had on the outward journey. But at last, long overdue, it chugged into the railway station. Old Halob retrieved the python from where he had stowed it in the goods carriage and trudged off in frost and ice and drizzle to the pole-vaulting practice pit. He was pleased to see that fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol was still, relentlessly, pole-vaulting ever higher and higher. He parped his whistle and the spindly youngster collapsed in a heap in the sandpit.

“Later today,” announced Old Halob, “Your name will ring out from sea to shining sea, and beyond, possibly even to planets and worldlets yet uncharted in the immensity of the boundless universe. Yes, fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol, you are to wrestle this python I have slung around my shoulders. At the moment it is in an induced coma. But I shall awaken it as soon as I have rented a large canvas tent and a wrestling ring and put up posters and sounded a klaxon to bring the great and the good and the hoi polloi in their teeming masses to witness a spectacle unlike anything the world has seen since 1877 when Sir Frederic Leighton unveiled his sculpture Athlete Wrestling With A Python! Think of the fame that will accrue to your spindly frame as you overpower the vicious serpent and crush it beneath your fictional running spikes! I feel sure your image will appear on cardboard breakfast cereal packets and you will be invited to open fairgrounds before this day is done!”

“Gack,” panted Bobnit Tivol, collapsing still further.

Half a century later, we might still be babbling excitedly about Old Halob’s visionary doodah. The tent and ring were rented, the posters put up, the klaxon sounded. The python was woken from its coma and placed in a ringside python-holding-unit of netting and bamboo. Fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol was limbering up in his fictional ringside limberarium. Puffing on his high tar cigarette, Old Halob looked out from the tent flap, expecting to see the teeming throngs come hurrying across the fields, an excited hubbub. Yet the fields were deserted, apart from a few dejected and immobile cows.

Such had been the delays occasioned by the stopping train to Gaar, on its wheezing journeys there and back, that frosty icy January had turned to frosty icy February. And today it was the sixth of February 1958, and the news had swept across town of the Munich Air Disaster, and the deaths of the Busby Babes, and all of Pointy Town was in mourning. On such a black day for sport, the last thing anybody wanted to see was a fictional athlete wrestling with a real python.

Fictitious Sports

It is monumentally curious, is it not, that fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol won renown in sports which are not, themselves, remotely fictional? Polevaulting and haring round and round a running track are both activities in which plenty of non-fictional athletes have taken part, in the past as in the present day. Now, the release of previously repressed passages from the Memoirs of Bobnit Tivol’s coach and mentor, the catarrh-wracked, Homburg-wearing Old Halob, show how sporting history might have taken a different path.

Unlike his protégé, Old Halob was of course all too terrifyingly real, yet he harboured a deep love for fictitious sports. While Bobnit Tivol was scampering round and round those cinder running tracks following his punishing training regime, Old Halob, we now learn, was dreaming of pitting his champion against Markus Geissler, the big Austrian, in a Guyball match. It remained a dream, for all the cantankerous trainer’s attempts to enrol the fictional athlete in a Guyball team came to naught through a series of mishaps. Telegrams went astray, railway timetables proved to be forgeries, buses crashed, the addresses on envelopes were smudged to illegibility by rainfall… those sorts of mishap dogged Old Halob.

Later in the same year, he was in secret talks with John Tetrad and Max Quad in an attempt to have Bobnit Tivol join their fennel team. In this case, it seems negotiations were far advanced, and only fell apart when nobody could find a fictional pen with which the fictional athlete could sign on the fictional dotted line of a fictional contract. This prompted the strange, almost hallucinatory passage in the repressed Memoirs where Old Halob blathers on for page after page bemoaning the non-existence of a well-stocked fictional stationery shop.

Take it from me, the Repressed Memoirs Of Old Halob is suitable reading for repressed sport enthusiasts of any stripe.

Hamstrung, Pointy & Downcast

The rebranding exercise applied to the seven dwarves, of Snow White’s acquaintance, has by any measure been a PR triumph. Everyone is familiar with their names. Would that were so with Hamstrung, Pointy and Downcast, a trio now largely forgotten, so much so that even the cleverest brainboxes would be hard pressed to say whether they were a music hall act, a set of cartoon strip characters, or if they occupied some other corner of popular culture. There is uncertainty, too, regarding the identity of the third member, who is sometimes referred to as Downcast and at other times as Mordant.

References to them are scattered here and there in the records of the past, in biographies and memoirs, old newspaper clippings, scrapbooks, letters, official and unofficial reports, and salvaged ephemeral bittybobs. Yet Hamstrung, Pointy and Downcast somehow refuse to swim into focus. They remain impossible to pin down, each seeming “fact” contradicted, or even erased, by the next.

Consider, as one example, the nature of their living quarters. Based on a glancing and none too clear bit of footnotery in a photocopy of a manuscript by Pabstow, many people are of the view that Hamstrung, Pointy and Downcast inhabited a sweatlodge. At least, Pointy is said to have used the word “lodge” when filling in forms, and the three of them emitted copious amounts of sweat, to the extent that they collected it in sealed jars which they then tried to market as some sort of medicinal potion, though the details of that little enterprise are so disgusting that we would best not dwell upon them. Yet elsewhere (Gobbing, The Vileness Of Seaside Resorts) it is suggested that Hamstrung and Pointy, if not Downcast – whose name is given here as Mordant – lived permanently in the sand and silt and bilge beneath a jetty, and were semi-amphibious to boot. The evidence for this appears to be a scribble in the margin of a police report prepared by legendary copper Detective Captain Cargpan, but whether the scribble is in his hand or that of one of his brutish subordinates is not made clear. Like so much else in the matter of Hamstrung, Pointy and Downcast, we are left clutching haplessly at straws, straws that snap or are borne away on a gust of fierce and sudden wind.

Of necessity, we have to read between the lines, and sometimes not just between them but behind them, or at an angle to them H P Lovecraft might have described as belonging to an abnormal geometry loathsomely redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from ours. When we do that, we may come no closer to gaining a proper conceptual grasp of the trio, but we can appreciate, I think, that there was a time when Hamstrung, Pointy and Downcast were as famous as Josef Stalin or Martin Tupper or Xavier Cugat, and as culturally significant.

Perhaps we ought to recall that passage in the Memoirs of Old Halob, the coach and mentor of fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol, where he writes I went out to the kiosk to buy a carton of high tar cigarettes, and as I clattered along the street it seemed to me the ground, the sky, the air, by Christ every atom in Creation, was somehow shouting out the names of that illustrious threesome, safe and snug in their sweatlodge or under the jetty, in sand and silt and bilge. It is telling that this sentence was expunged from the published version of the Memoirs for reasons never divulged to the hoi polloi.

Bobnit Tivol : The Lost Interview

Poking about in a clogged flue with a wire brush, the noted historian of athletic pursuits Alonzo Potentate was intrigued to find a reel of magnetic tape. Caked as it was with the gunk of ages, he had it cleaned by professionals. And boy oh boy were they professional! Operating from a cabin on a perilously steep incline, the bods at Ancient Reels Of Magnetic Tape Cleaned Up Good And Proper With Swarfega And Jets Of Steam R Us took seven years to restore the tape to “good and proper” condition, by which time Potentate had grown a dashing moustache, bitten his nails to the quick, and sat in many stadia watching many sporting events. The day came, at last, when he could collect his find from the cabin on the incline, and he hurried home to listen to it. To his delight, through hiss and crackle, he heard the only interview ever to have been conducted with fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol. Here is a transcript of that historic exchange. Sadly, we have no idea of the identity of the interviewer.

Interviewer : I am so pleased you have agreed to be interviewed for my radio programme Magnetic Tape Recordings Of Athletes, Fictional And Otherwise, Mr Tivol. May I call you Bobnit?

Bobnit Tivol : Puff puff puff.

Interviewer : You seem a bit out of breath.

Bobnit Tivol : Pant.

Interviewer : I expect your training session sprinting round and round this running track for hours upon end has winded you somewhat.

Bobnit Tivol : Gack.

[At this point the interview is interrupted by guttural shouting. Alonzo Potentate suggests this is the sound of fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol’s all too real coach and mentor Old Halob, demanding that the spindly sprinter essay another fifty laps of the running track. The long stretch of hiss and crackle which follows indicates that he does so, leaving the interviewer presumably waiting trackside, looking on in awe.]

Interviewer : So tell me, Mr Tivol, or Bobnit, would you say that your fictional status has been a benefit to your career, or a drawback?

Bobnit Tivol : [Groaning sounds, interspersed with retching.]

Interviewer : I have heard it parlayed about that the tension between your wholly fictive existence and the undeniable flesh and blood presence of Old Halob is what has spurred you on to such achievement unparalleled in the field of provincial amateur athletics. Would you agree?

Bobnit Tivol : [Gasping and spluttering.]

[Again the interview is interrupted by the catarrh-wracked bellowing of Old Halob, who this time thrusts a polevaulting pole into his charge’s hands, and commands him to vault over a dizzyingly high bar, over and over again. There is a further half hour of hiss.]

Interviewer : You knocked the bar down a few times there, failing to clear the jump. How did that make you feel, if indeed you are capable of feeling, being a fictional athlete?

Bobnit Tivol : Pant pant pant.

Interviewer : Some say your coach Old Halob, over there in his trenchcoat and Homburg, is quite a hard taskmaster, particularly given his background as a secret policeman in one of the more rigorous East European Communist regimes. Is that true, or does he treat you with kid gloves?

Bobnit Tivol : Gack.

Interviewer : [To audience] And with that, the fictional athlete goes haring off again, round and round the track in the gathering dusk. I did try to get a word in with his coach and mentor, but I’m afraid Old Halob has staggered off to a distant kiosk to get a carton of cigarettes. Such are the ways of this legendary non-fictional athletics coach.

Alonzo Potentate has taken his transcript to Hollywood, where he is in talks to turn it into a screenplay for a blockbuster movie. Word has it that Kevin Costner has expressed an interest, though that seems unlikely, as the Kevster has a very limited range of expressions, and they are, without exception, wooden.

The Star On The Vest

Dear Mr Key, writes Dagmar Glossop from Shoeburyness, I recently came upon this terrific photograph at My Ear-Trumpet Has Been Struck By Lightning (where a much, much larger version can be seen), and I fell to wondering if it might be a rare snapshot of fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol. Please enlighten me.


Dear Ms Glossop, I can see immediately why you thought this might be fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol. It’s that star on his vest. The whizzo sprinter and pole-vaulter never appeared in public without such a star, on the instructions of his catarrh-wracked coach, Old Halob, for whom it had some kind of mystical quality. Unfortunately, however, the dashing young chap in the photograph is not fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol. I say this with due authority, based on two unarguable points. One, fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol, being fictional, was never snapped by any camera wrought by human hand. Two, it is common knowledge that fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol’s athletics kit, as well as being emblazoned with a star, was much baggier than the kit seen here. In fact it was inordinately baggy.

Rare Bobnit Tivol Mezzotints

You will be perplexed, or perhaps even sick with worry, at the unaccustomed lack of postages over the past few days. Has Hooting Yard been ravaged by some kind of toxic gas? Has Mr Key fallen down a mineshaft? Readers, fear not. All is well, but I have been terribly, terribly distracted, and in the best possible way.

On Saturday, as is my habit, I sat down at my escritoire, or its computer age equivalent, before dawn. I wrote:

There is a tavern in the town.

The tavern was the Cow & Pins, the town was Pointy Town. I was going to embark upon a quite breathtaking architectural survey of the tavern, its beams and rafters, its cornices and lintels, but before I crafted the second sentence my attention was caught by the singing of a siskin outside my window. According to the Royal Society For The Protection Of Birds, the siskin is an attractive little finch, small and lively. Obviously I was keen not simply to listen to the bird, but to commune with it, in what might be termed a Frank Key-bird-mind-meld. So I jumped up creakily from my chair, slipped on a pair of trendy footwear items, and headed out, making for the tree where I thought the siskin was perched, singing. Alas, I stepped in a patch of filth, and was disconcerted. Rummaging in the pockets of my windcheater to see if I had upon my person a rag suitable for wiping the filth from my footwear, I chanced upon a forgotten scrap of paper on which I had once copied out a Spirograph™ drawing, the one devised by the mentalist Gaston Freakorb. Yes, that one, the drawing that plunges the viewer into a fugue state. I made the mistake of uncrumpling the paper and peering at the drawing for three seconds. Thus did my Saturday morning become unmoored from reason, from common sense, indeed from memory. The architectural glories of the Cow & Pins were forgotten, as was the attractive little finch singing its heart out on a sycamore branch.

When I snapped out of the so-called Freakorb Mind Miasma, it was midday on Sunday and I was standing in a queue. To my distress I noticed that both of my trendy footwear items were now covered in filth. Luckily, there was a Regency bootscraper right next to me, so I scraped and scraped. By God, it was fun. I thoroughly recommend the scraping of filth off one’s footwear on a Regency bootscraper, particularly when one’s footwear is as trendy as mine.

There was no sign of the scrap of paper bearing the Spirograph™ drawing, so I was fairly sure I could keep my wits about me. I wondered what I was queuing for. Glancing up and down the line, I noticed that an alarming number of my fellow queuers were wearing cummerbunds. Was I about to enter a Spandau Ballet revival meeting? Then I recalled having read somewhere that the cummerbund was part of the uniform designed for “new modern technicians” to which the Prime Minister would refer in his upcoming conference speech. But I am a scribbler, not a technician, new and modern or otherwise. I had no business here, surely.

It turned out to be a complete coincidence. I learned that some of the cummerbundiasts were indeed new modern technicians-to-be, some were raddled old New Romantics, and some simply sported the cummerbund as, in their own witless words, a “lifestyle choice”. To find all this out, I had to interrogate each person individually, making notes with my pneumatic notemaking contraption, and in so doing I lost my place in the queue. Rejoining it, I found myself standing behind a twinkly elfin chap dressed all in green, though minus a cummerbund. Suddenly he spun around to face me, and he cackled, and shouted in a weird reedy voice.

“Guess my name and I’ll tell you / What you’re doing in this queue. / If you guess amiss three times / I will cease to talk in rhymes. / I will scream and shriek and howl / And you’ll be turned into an owl.”

Then he cackled again, daring me to challenge him. I did a stage yawn. I think I did it rather well.

“I suspect,” I said, “Your name is Rumpelstiltskin. Am I correct?”

The little chap shrieked, then, but it was not a shriek of triumph. Far from it. I had rumbled him and his feeble fairytale poltroonery, and his shriek was one of becrushment. Just before he scampered away with smoke billowing out of his pointy ears, he told me what I was queuing for. I was delighted to discover that I was in line for an auction of rare Bobnit Tivol mezzotints. I was even more delighted when, fumbling in my pockets, I found a wallet crammed with banknotes. It had not been there when I left the house to commune with the singing siskin, so it must have come into my possession during my fugue state. I made a mental note to write a thank you letter to Gaston Freakorb when I got home, and slowly made my way towards the front.

I was, of course, aware of the set of mezzotints of fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol made by the noted mezzotintist Rex Tint at the very beginning of his career. Commissioned by the fictional athlete’s coach Old Halob, paid for with the proceeds from an orchard-planting scam, the twenty-six mezzotints were no sooner completed than they were scattered to the four winds, and had never since been gathered together. Nor were they now, alas, but it was quite something to have three of them up for sale, along with an even rarer mezzotint purporting to be of Old Halob himself. I had so much cash in my fugue-wallet that I easily outbid everyone, even the creepy agents deployed by Rex Tint’s sworn enemy, he who is the man they call “Sting”. I admit I was rather dismayed to be handed the mezzotints rolled up into a cheap cardboard tube, but it has to be said it was a fairly slovenly auction house, as auction houses go.

Anyway, when I got home I flattened each of the mezzotints out on my kitchenette table, and spent hours upon hours poring over them, while outside the siskin, that attractive little finch, sang and sang. That is why I have not had time to post anything. I have been transfixed by my mezzotints. So let me show them to you, in the form of rough copies I have made, just in case the pebbles weighing them down are dislodged and they are scattered once again, to the four winds.


Here we see fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol as a Christ-like figure, flanked by a couple of thieves, just as in the crucifixion. It is thought the mezzotintist Rex Tint made some sort of arrangement with his local prison to have a pair of miscreants pose for him, hence the startling pelfeusement of the portraiture. As for fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol, he’s just great, isn’t he?


In this mezzotint, Rex Tint has captured the one occasion when the fictional athlete was disqualified for cheating. It shows him winning the fourth heat of the qualifiers for the 1926 Scroonhoonpooge Farmyard Polevaulting Tin Cup, where, notoriously, he vaulted without using a pole.


Rex Tint uses his vivid imagination to show how things might have been, depicting the same vault but pretending fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol had used his pole. Old Halob tried to use this mezzotint as evidence when seeking to overturn his protégé’s disqualification, a ruse which failed and led to the cantankerous coach being locked up in the eerie barn at Scroonhoonpooge farmyard for half an hour. He was never the same man thereafter.


It is claimed that this mezzotint shows Old Halob himself, pausing on the way to his favourite tobacconist.

Ask The Artificial Brain!

Ubermungo™ is Hooting Yard’s terrifically lifelike artificial brain, built out of dough and string and wax and coathangers and processed cheese triangles and fig newtons and titanium. Every Sunday, it answers readers’ questions.

Dear Ubermungo™. I am a flapper. When I flap with too great enthusiasm, my cloche hat becomes dislodged. What advice would you give? – Poopy Clingclang

Well, Poopy, if you glue your hat to your head with a proprietary hat-head adhesive, future dislodgements will be rarer than albino Stalinists, and you can flap the night away to your heart’s content.

Dear Ubermungo™. What in the name of god is a nudibranch? – P V Bib

Wait while my innards process the question, P V.

Dear Ubermungo™. Yesterday I tied a yellow ribbon round an old oak tree. Today I am searching for the hero inside myself. Tomorrow I am thinking it might be a good idea to find out if my friends are electric. Are any of these activities valid? – S Fry

Stephen – No, they are not. Go and boil your head.

Dear Ubermungo™. Who won the FA Cup Final in 1968? – Bathsheba Gubbins (Mrs)

My innards are still whirring and buzzing away at P V Bib’s question, Mrs Gubbins, but the answer is something like West Bromwich Noblia. You may wish to check that.

Dear Ubermungo™. Shortly after taking part in the Tet Offensive, I was sitting on a balcony in a foreign capital city when my attention was drawn ineluctably to a toad sitting on a neighbouring balcony. Like many toads, it had a jewel embedded in its head, a jewel that glittered so brightly it was visible through the toad’s translucent green skin. My balcony was covered with an awning, so when a violent rainstorm began, I was untroubled. But the toad’s balcony had no awning, and despite its amphibious nature the toad appeared disconcerted by the rain, and it hopped away, out of my sight. The thing is, in the years that followed, I have been haunted by that brief vision, and more particularly, unmoored from peace and reason by my ignorance of precisely what sort of precious stone was lodged in the head of the toad. If I were to draw, with a pencil, from memory, a sketch showing the way the soon-to-be expunged sunlight glistened, through the skin, upon the jewel, the angles it cast, the tints and textures of the light, do you think you might be able to ascertain whether it was, say, a ruby or an emerald or an amethyst? – “Phnom Penh Vet”

Dear Tet Vet, All would depend on the skill with which you wield a pencil. You should also bear in mind that I am a mere artificial brain, and have no eyes, and thus cannot see. What I can do, at last, is tell P V Bib that a nudibranch is a sea slug.

Dear Ubermungo™. What is life but a vale of affliction? – Old Halob

Life can also be an opportunity to stand at the side of a running track, coughing up catarrh and keeping a beady eye on a stopwatch, dressed in a sordid raincoat and a Homburg hat. You should know that better than anybody, Old Halob!

Big Damp Castle

According to the Gazetteer Of The Bailiwicks Of Pointy Town, Big Damp Castle is “a singularly fine example of an enormous foetid fortification covered in mould”. As its name would suggest, the castle is both big and damp. It has always been damp, ever since it was built hundreds of years ago slap bang next to the marshes. The baron who built it was convinced that, were he to be attacked, it was from the marshes that his foe would emerge. He was assured of this by his prognosticating woo-hoo wizardy man, who had seen the marshy foe in his dreams and in his dark glass and in his pictogram cards and in the entrails of his slaughtered poultry. Like most barons in those far-off times, the builder of Big Damp Castle had implicit faith in the woo-hoo spouted by the man in the pointy hat, who was always at his side.

Fumes and vapours and gases rose from the marshes and seeped into the very fabric of the castle, and it was covered in mould by the time the baron held a grand opening party to which he invited all the local peasantry. Many of them died of agues and maladies contracted in the foul damp atmosphere of the castle. The baron and his woo-hoo wizard seemed immune, and suffered no ill effects, though they spent much of their time creeping around the crenellations, on the lookout for the foe who would emerge from the marshes.

How different it is today. The marshes have been drained, and the land is now home to the Fictional Athlete Bobnit Tivol Memorial Running Track And Pole-Vaulting Pit & Pavilion. Every weekend, picnickers gather here in the rain to commune with the ghosts of the fictional athlete and his all-too-real coach and mentor, Old Halob. And above their picnics loom the filthy mould-covered towering walls of Big Damp Castle, big and damp and singularly fine.

The picnickers would run screaming for their lives, if they but knew that the marshy foe seen by the woo-hoo wizardy man all those centuries ago was still there, just out of sight, biding its time, awaiting the necessary conjunction of stars and vapours and drizzle to come howling and slashing into the picnic dimension. Whoever wrote the Gazetteer remains silent on that score. I wonder why.