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.

Along The Banks Of The Smem

“Many people have a prejudice against goat’s milk, thinking it has a peculiarly goaty flavour. This misapprehension has probably arisen from the experience of tourists in Switzerland and Italy where goat’s milk is in common use, and frequently offered in mugs or glasses which have not been properly cleaned.” – H S Holmes Pegler, “Goat-Keeping”, The Listener, Vol I No 16, 1st May 1929.

The engine gave a hoarse shriek; we had arrived at Pinpotting, or Pottingpan. The black coaches of the train waited a minute in the silvery light of the mountain, disgorging a miscellaneous collection of people and swallowing others. Peppery voices could be heard up and down the platform. Then the wheezy engine at the front squeaked again and drew the black chain rattling away into the cavernous tunnel. The broad sweep of country lay pure and peaceful once more, with its sharply etched backcloth scoured bright and clean by the damp wind. It was good to breathe the air. I was one of those who had disembarked from the train, and I stood waiting on the platform until it was empty but for the guard, who soon vanished into his hut.

I had come to this mountain village, with my peg-leg and my religious hysteria, on the advice, even the orders, of the family physician. In his twinkly shouting guttural manner, Dr Gobbo insisted that a six-month stay in the clean mountain air would restore to me the gusto I had lost. For my part, though I did as he suggested, I was unconvinced. My life thus far had been a catalogue of maladies, mishaps, and calamities. I had an ague shortly after I was born, and then, at about three or four years old, I had a grievous ague. I vomited for twelve hours every fortnight for years. This sickness nipt my strength in the bud. At eight years old I had an issue in the coronal sutor of my head which continued running until I was twenty-one. One October I had a violent fever, it was like to have carried me off, ’twas the most dangerous sickness that ever I had. At fifteen or sixteen I had the measles, but that was nothing, I was hardly sick. I had a dangerous fall from my uncle’s horse. The following year I had smallpox. When I was twenty I had a fall and broke one of my ribs, and was afraid it might cause an apostumation. Much later coming back from abroad I was like to be shipwrecked but no hurt done. The following year I had a terrible fit of the spleen and piles. Then I received laesio in testiculo, which was like to have been fatal. After that my affairs ran kim kam, there were treacheries against me. A couple of years later an impostume broke in my head. Also I was in danger of being run through with a sword, and in danger of being drowned twice. That year I was in great danger of being killed by a drunkard in the street, but one of his companions hindered his thrust. Now, standing on the deserted railway station platform, I mumbled a prayer to several saints, asking them to protect me from further harm. Perhaps Dr Gobbo was correct.

I set off towards my hotel, a mile or two distant on the banks of the Smem. Seldom had I seen a river so teeming with fish. I hoped to find, upon arrival at the hotel, that my room overlooked the river, that I might be able to spear fish from the comfort of my balcony. I had brought no spears with me, but could spend happy hours whittling sticks gathered in the gorgeous woodland. I would need to obtain some string, to attach to my whittled spears in order to be able to haul them back to the balcony, with, I hoped, a bream or gudgeon impaled upon them. I was confident, from my knowledge of Mitteleuropean mountain village hotels gleaned from various encyclopaedias, that string would be the sort of item available in a little shop attached to the hotel, much like a church repository. From my perch upon the balcony of my room, armed with string and sticks whittled into spears, I might well be able to provide myself with enough fish for my dinner each day, and thus be spared the ordeal of mucking in with the other guests in the dining room, whom I feared might snigger at my peg-leg and be dismissive of my religious hysteria. I knew only too well that Satan can lurk even in the bosom of the most innocent-seeming Mitteleuropean mountain village hotel guest.

These thoughts of succulent and private fish dinners made me peckish as I followed the path along the bank of the Smem. There was as yet no sign of the hotel, so as I approached a peasant’s hut I decided to stop and ask if I might be given a snack. I had not had the opportunity to change my bank draft into the coinage of this country, assuming that I could do so at the hotel, thus I readied myself to bestow grand and holy benisons upon the peasant through the power of my voice and by swinging a tin censer from my unwithered hand. Pausing by a clump of edelweiss, I lit the censer with my World War One platoon sergeant’s pump gaz lighter, then clonked up to the door of the hut and hammered upon it.

The peasant who appeared in answer to my knocking was, I am afraid to say, an irreligious lout who stank of goat. The sacred smoke from my swinging censer had absolutely no effect upon his morals. As I am sure you can appreciate, I was thoroughly perplexed at his immunity, and the consequent knotting of my tongue and clogging of my throat meant that I had much difficulty making myself understood. What ought to have been a simple snack request came out as a strangulated cry of spiritual desolation. To my surprise, however, he gestured for me to follow him into the gloom of his hut.

Within, all was filth and grease and squalor. Until now, I had harboured a hopelessly romantic view of the lives and habitations of Mitteleuropean mountain village peasantry, based to some extent upon my musings upon John Ruskin’s magnificent, yet sadly unwritten, study of Swiss towns and villages. I had also watched The Sound Of Music on more than one occasion, which explains why, despite being a botanical ignoramus, I was able correctly to identify the clump of edelweiss next to which I had paused just moments earlier.

The peasant was blundering about in the corner of his disgusting parlour, and now he emerged, bearing a beaker of milk. Though he was a sinful man, it was clear he was offering it to me as refreshment. What I wanted was something more substantial, involving pastry and salted fish and black cherries, but I supposed that some solid sweetmeats might follow, so I took the beaker and gulped down the contents in one go, to show my appreciation. Yuck. I was immediately reminded of those childhood days of fortnightly vomiting. The milk had a peculiar goaty flavour, which I ascribed to the fact that the beaker in which it came was, like everything else in the hut, the peasant included, unwashed. It would have been rude of me to suggest to the peasant that he and his beaker and each of his appurtenances would benefit from sponge and soap, so I held my tongue, now thickly coated with milk residue. I still hoped for food, even though whatever I was offered would, I supposed, be grubby and begrimed. But the peasant snatched back the beaker and flailed his arms as if shooing me away, like one of his goats. I gave the censer a desultory little swing, to waft some sanctity into the midden, gagged on the aftertaste of the goaty milk, and backed out of the door, which was immediately slammed shut. I had not even learned the peasant’s name.

I looked up at the mountains. These were the steep snow-covered slopes that fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol had sprinted up and down, for hours at a time, as part of the rigorous training regime devised by his coach Old Halob, in the early years before he won all those medals. Peg-legged, I could never hope to emulate the spindly wastrel, try as I might. I allowed myself to weep. And then I gathered myself, and turned, and headed off towards the hotel, and the worst horror of all.

Dobson’s Card Index

“Along the path, glued to the window panes or hung on the bushes or dangling from the ceiling, so that all free space was put to maximum use, hundreds of little placards were displayed. Each one carried a drawing, a photograph, or an inscription, and the whole constituted a veritable encyclopaedia of what we call ‘human knowledge’. A diagram of a plant cell, Mendeleieff’s periodic table of the elements, the keys to Chinese writing, a cross-section of the human heart, Lorentz’s transformation formulae, each planet and its characteristics, fossil remains of the horse species in series, Mayan hieroglyphics, economic and demographic statistics, musical phrases, samples of the principal plant and animal families, crystal specimens, the ground plan of the Great Pyramid, brain diagrams, logistic equations, phonetic charts of the sounds employed in all languages, maps, genealogies – everything in short which would fill the brain of a twentieth century Pico della Mirandola.” – René Daumal, Mount Analogue : A Novel Of Symbolically Authentic Non-Euclidean Adventures In Mountain Climbing, translated by Roger Shattuck (1952; 1959).

The astonishing thing about the “little placards” displayed by Father Sogol, the Professor of Mountaineering in Daumal’s novel, is how similar they are to the immense card index maintained by Dobson, upon which he relied when writing his out of print pamphlets. Dobson would have approved, too, the Professor’s method of displaying the cards – at least, sometimes. One of the pamphleteer’s more irritating characteristics was his inability to settle on the keeping of his cards. At times, like Sogol, he pinned them up on every available surface. Then a frenzy would take him and he would tear them all down and shove them into one of his innumerable cardboard boxes. Marigold Chew reports that Dobson spent hours upon hours arranging the cards when they were in their boxes, ordering and reordering them according to various abstruse cataloguing systems. No sooner was he done than he would once again tip them out of their boxes and pin them up on walls and screens and pinboards and what have you. And of course, all the time he was adding new cards to the collection.

Much of Dobson’s card collection perished in the Potato Building fire, and ever since researchers have been attempting to reconstruct it. This is probably an impossible task, but that doesn’t stop them trying. The reward would be to create a sort of cardboard model of the innards of Dobson’s pulsating brain – not to be confused with the cardboard model of the carapace of Dobson’s brain which is currently being carted around the globe by a devotee. According to the timetable posted on the Cardboard Brain Of Dobson World Tour website, the cart with its precious contents is en route to one of the –nesses at the moment, either Skeg- or Dunge- or Foul-.

There was a flap of controversy some months ago when a previously unheard-of Dobsonist, one Bunko Chongue, claimed to have recreated an accurate cardboard box’s worth of index cards. After painstaking study of clues littered throughout the pamphleteer’s out of print works, and a visit to a stationery shop, the mysterious Chongue placed on display the results of his research. Purists’ suspicions were roused by the fact that one had to pay an exorbitant fee to get through the door of the Nissen hut where the exhibition was held. Inside, however, there was an attempt to reflect the pamphleteer’s indecision, with half the cards gummed to the walls and half crammed into a cardboard box. The cards themselves, too, demonstrated the variety that was characteristic of Dobson’s collection, as it was of Sogol’s. One visitor to the hut, later to denounce the show as a “despicable farrago of falsehood and Nissen hut windowlessness”, made a list of the cards he saw.

Instructions for the proper care of ostriches in captivity. Street map of Skegness. Photo of a duck escaped from Rouen. Pig brain diagram. Bootlace aglet comparisons. Lopped Pol Pot poptart. Torn and rent stuff. Widow’s buttons. Tips on bell ringing. Sandwich paste reviews. Drawing of ghost. Railway station smudge. Voltage statistics. Unsullied napkin from a remote canteen. Gunshot punctures. Drool from a pauper. Old Halob’s hat measurements. Imaginary portrait of Tecwen Whittock. Muggletonian dinner menu. Fatal microbes. Winnipeg pumpkineer’s cravat knot schema. Potter’s duffel bag toggle analysis. Starling feathers. Stalin brooch. Desiccated plum pulp. Rubberised atomic sackcloth scrap. Latch. Pins. Bolt. Set of amazing stains. Devotional card of St Abodwo, arguably the patron saint of monkeys. Periodic table of the crumplements. Gravy recipe. Tabulation of Orwellian egg count. Snapshot of Schubert’s grave. Mezzotint of Schubert’s boot. Handwritten screed of gibberish. Lock of Pontiff’s hair. Gummy ick. Definitions of flotsam and jetsam and plankton and krill and lemon meringue pie. The dust of death. The dewdrops of doom. Pointless scribblings.

The Dobsonist who made the list, whose name has never been made public, was initially impressed by the exhibition. A few days later, however, in a letter to the Daily Nisbet Spotter, he got into a fit of the vapours about the windowlessness of the Nissen hut, pointing out that, depending on the disposition of the purlins, it is quite simple to insert windows into the hut’s frame. It is rare for one who spends his life studying Dobson also to have expertise in the construction of huts, whether Nissen or not, and this suggests that we may be able to identify the writer, if anyone can be bothered to sift through the documentation in the register, if there is indeed such a register, as the rumour mill insists is the case, though of course its existence may be a wild fantasy. We know of such phenomena, of fictional imagined registers, not least because Dobson himself wrote so forcefully of them in his pamphlet Wild And Unhinged Fantasies Regarding The Existence Of Wholly Imaginary Registers (out of print). We can only guess how many index cards the pamphleteer used during the writing of this frankly blithering text, which Marigold Chew for some reason typeset to make it look like a pipsy-popsy book for infants.

Following the writing of his letter to the press, our unidentified Dobsonist had second thoughts about the exhibition. Where he had been positive, he now heaped execrations upon it, at first privately, shouting at his reflection in a mirror. He seems to have been oddly reluctant to bruit his views abroad. This changed after he spent a prolonged stay in a sensory deprivation tank and emerged hopelessly bonkers. He was seen wandering around various post offices babbling at anybody who would listen, and then he was seen scampering like a mad thing in the hills, and then he was seen weeping and rending his garments at the graveside of fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol. Then he vanished. He was missing during the dog days of the year, emerging as they petered out to publish his magnificent counterblast to Bunko Chongue, which I cited above.

By quoting his words, I do not necessarily lend them my imprimatur. For one thing, I did not see Bunko’s show myself, so I cannot say whether he grasped the essence of the Dobson card index in all its lost glory. And for another thing, I rarely lend my imprimatur to anything. It can be rented at a cost, usually a cost involving blood and body parts, and undying fealty, and one or two tangerines, and seeds, and the plasticine head of a wolf on a stick.

Old Halob, Ant God

It has taken me a while to catch up with this, but recently at The Lumber Room elberry wrote “Being worshipped by ants is nothing to be proud of”. I can see “where he’s coming from”, as the airheads put it, but he is clearly unaware of the curious case of Old Halob, the coach and mentor of fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol.

During a period in his life when he was not yet as old as he was due to become, Old Halob found his prowess as an egger-on of sporty feats under severe strain. This was in the days before he had turned the spindly, albeit fictional, Bobnit Tivol into a champion sprinter, and to date much of his work had been concentrated in the field of ice hockey puck brandishing technique. His record was patchy, but he had taken more than one raggle-taggle team of amateurs through cup competitions, in one case reaching the quarter-finals. It was his attempt to broaden his scope to the training of racing starlings that shattered his confidence. This was Old Halob’s first and only intervention in non-human, or inhuman, sport, and he quickly realised he was out of his depth. He found it well nigh impossible to communicate his vision of sportiness to birds, despite filling his pockets with millet and curtailing his habit of throwing rocks at swans.

Casting around for tips, he fell in one day, upon a sandbank, with an animal behaviourist of great repute. This fellow, who may actually have been a charlatan, advised Old Halob to start by working with ants, work his way up through stoats and weasels, and only when he knew what he was doing to tackle the starlings. This argument was not without merit, for even a sports coach of genius, as Old Halob undoubtedly was, has to have a full understanding of ants and stoats and weasels, their habits and appetites, their anatomies and peccadillos, before hoping to work effectively with either birds or fictional athletes.

Thus the irascible chain-smoking coach took up lodgings at the edge of an ant farm, and spent hours upon hours every day drilling the ants in all sorts of sporty disciplines. So fantastic was his rapport with the tiny insects that they came to worship him as a god, one who wore a Homburg hat and spat out much phlegm. Their weird alien insect brains underwent some kind of Old Haloby modification, and he became their single, simple focus, their one and only, their world.

It was through his work with the ants that Old Halob honed the techniques which would make him a legend, and thus, contrary to elberry’s rash statement, he was always proud to be worshipped by them, as well he might be. Unfortunately, he did not go on to wreak his magic with either stoats of weasels or starlings, for one day he was out walking when he toppled into a ditch and was put in a clinic for a year or two. As the history books tell us, it was in that clinic, from his bed upon the balcony, that Old Halob learned of the existence of fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol. The future was set fair.

Food For Sport

There has been much press coverage of the frankly bonkers dietary regime followed by Olympic uberchamp Michael Phelps. It is instructive to compare the swimmer’s daily food intake with that of fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol, the sprinter and pole-vaulter who thrilled the masses during the last century.

We are fortunate, then, that the fictional athlete’s coach and mentor, the all-too-real and non-fictional Old Halob, devoted many pages of his Memoirs to this very topic. Old Halob himself grew up in paupery, and often had little else to eat but birdseed stolen from bird-tables on the lawns of bird-obsessed villagers in his bird-choked village. Later in life, dining in expensive restaurants, he would often demand a bowl of millet as a side helping, and, being Old Halob, he always got what he wanted.

When it came to devising a diet for his sporting protégé, the irascible and chain-smoking coach paid heed to the theories of the nutritionist Catnip Wedge, who was himself a top bobsleigh competitor, though never a champion. Wedge was convinced that he could have won a mantelpiece’s worth of cups and medals had he eaten more “Laughing Cow” brand processed cheese triangles during his active bobsleighing years, backing up this theory with abstruse charts and diagrams. Old Halob could make head nor tail of these, but was won over by a certain hectoring tone in the nutritionist’s prose. As he wrote in the Memoirs:

I could make head nor tail of Wedge’s abstruse charts and diagrams, but there was something in his hectoring prose that convinced me he must be correct. Thus it was that when I took fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol under my capacious wing, I insisted that he eat a dozen packs of “Laughing Cow” brand processed cheese triangles for breakfast every day, including the packaging, with the tinfoil and that little red thread ostensibly designed to unseal each portion. Within a fortnight, he came second in the Bodger’s Spinney Athletics Club’s Annual Rainsoaked Five Hundred Yard Sprint Practice. In all his previous attempts at this race, the spindly fictional athlete had toppled to the ground in a swoon at the report of the starting pistol. It was the first time I realised that I had a future champion on my hands.

Old Halob’s hands, by the way, were hairy and curiously fat, but that need not concern us here. He sought out the more obscure writings of Catnip Wedge and, though he did not really understand them, as the translations were unreliable, he soon had prescriptions for Bobnit Tivol’s lunches and dinners as well as his breakfasts:

Lunch, he wrote, consisted of curd and balls of suet and reconstituted meat slices on a bed of sponge and fish innards, washed down with two big tumblers of aerated malt vinegar sprinkled with plenty of pips, followed by a slab of seed cake and a toffee apple. Dinner was a whole vegan pig substitute boiled in linseed oil, with a drizzle of cognac, two bowls of raw ears of wheat with paprika and enriched mulch, duck brains, cornflakes, hedge clippings, roast potatoes, cabbage and sugarsnap peas, and a dozen smokers’ poptarts, plus pails of water siphoned from a distant eerie pond. If he had a race coming up the next day, I insisted that the fictional athlete tuck in to an extra supper of innumerable sausages in sausagey sauce straight from the saucepan.

Bobnit Tivol’s performances, both on the track and in the pole-vault, underwent a dramatic improvement, but he failed to become an outright winner until Old Halob made a significant and unexpected addition to his diet.

All else would have been as naught, he wrote, had I not experienced a mental thunderclap one Thursday morning. I had good reason to be thankful to Catnip Wedge for showing me how to shovel food down fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol’s gullet, but for him to be a perennial runner-up was not good enough. That morning, as I hacked and spluttered my way through a coughing fit brought on by my umpteenth cigarette of the day, the supply of oxygen to my pulsating cranium was temporarily cut off, and, during the resulting spasms, I think I had some sort of abnormal hallucinatory insight. Whatever it was, when I came to, writhing on the linoleum with sputum dribbling down my goatee, it was crystal clear to me that what was missing from all of Wedge’s advice was guidance upon elevenses. Now, for any athlete, fictional or otherwise, elevenses is the most important meal of the day. I realised I would have to devise something for my protégé, a toothsome snack that would make him into the world-beater I knew he could be.

And so began a series of experiments. Over the next few months, Old Halob tried out a bewildering variety of elevenses recipes on the lanky runner, including Bath Olivers, distilled ditchwater, lettuce ‘n’ castor sugar flan, jugged stoat, fish in pastry, contaminated yoghurt (pronounced yoh-hoort), chocolate swiss roll, greasy partridge pie, milk of magnesia through a straw, and the bone marrow of sacrificially slaughtered Toggenberg goats. Some of these snacks knocked seconds off Bobnit Tivol’s sprinting times, but some made him windy or sluggish or hysterical. None seemed to work consistently. The breakthrough came on the eve of the fictional athlete’s most important race to date. Back to the Memoirs:

The breakthrough came on the eve of the Blister Lane Exciting Tiptop Sprinting In Inclement Weather Challenge Ribbon. I desperately wanted Bobnit Tivol to be able to twine that legendary ribbon around his legendary – albeit fictional – forehead, and I was so fraught that I collapsed into a coma. Unsupervised, the fictional athlete spent the whole day snacking on elevenses, neglecting his breakfast, lunch and dinner. Not only did he scoff down my various recommended elevenses, but he got out the pots and pans and cobbled together some of his own, such as a delicious lemon meringue pie with eels. The next day, at Blister Lane, he triumphed. We never looked back.

I don’t know about you, but I find these memories almost unbearably moving, so much so that I am going to sob into my napkin. Michael Phelps may be the most successful Olympian in history, but he has not been coached by Old Halob, and compared to fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol he is just a weedy milksop.

Mystic Woo

It’s easy to be cynical about the idea of reincarnation, and even easier to mock the countless websites devoted to mystic woo in all its forms. But today I had what platitudinists would term a “wake up call”. At Past Life Analysis, you will find a simple “analysis program” to answer the question “Who were you in your last life?” It looks idiotic, and I do not recommend reading the Disclaimer, but when I entered my birthdate I was flabbergasted to get this result:

Your past life diagnosis:
I don’t know how you feel about it, but you were male in your last earthly incarnation. You were a fictional athlete, a sprinter and pole-vaulter named Bobnit Tivol, and you won many tin medals under the guidance of a cantankerous chain-smoking coach called Old Halob.

Your brief psychological profile in your past life:
Seeker of cakes and celery pie. You could have had great insight into ancient Etruscan soap-making techniques. Others perceived you as a pioneering prophet of Edward De Bono’s revolutionary “Six Hats Thinking System”, even though you only had two hats.

The lesson that your last past life brought to your present incarnation:
You fulfil your lesson by taking well-earned naps. You came to this life to learn to brim with compassionate intensity whenever you contemplate the spindly inmates of Pang Hill Orphanage.

Do you remember now?

To which the answer is : Great Heavens to Betsy, I do!

Game On

Dear Mr Key, writes Tim Thurn, I am a huge fan of Hooting Yard and an even huger fan of computer and console games. Can you tell me if there are plans afoot for a Hooting Yard-based game I will be able to play on my Gameboy, Wii, or what have you?

Oh dear, is all I can say. I can only assume that Tim is a teenage boy, for only teenage boys ought to be playing computer games. (Teenage girls are busy editing the features pages of The Guardian.) That so many adults spend their time “gaming” is clear evidence of the culture of infantilisation which we see all around us. I recommend compulsory reading of The Anatomy Of Melancholy and enforced contemplation of the paintings of Oskar Kokoschka, as a start.

Meanwhile, somewhat shamefacedly, I do have to confess that I have granted a licence to a Japanese software development company to create a thoroughly enticing game based on certain Hooting Yard characters. The working title for the game is Fictional Athlete Bobnit Tivol Magnificent Sprinting And Polevaulting Golden Ṻberchallenge. As far as I can understand such things, the titular challenge for players is to lead a little pixellated fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol avatar through a series of increasingly difficult virtual sporting tournaments. As one progresses through each level, cantankerous trainer Old Halob is on hand (coughing and spluttering on a variety of high tar cigarettes) to offer tips and advice. The further along the player goes, of course, the less help is available from Old Halob, and at the highest levels he occupies a corner of the screen languishing in what looks like a sanatorium.

The putative teenage purchaser of the game can choose from various options. You can play as fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol, or compete against him. In this mode, Old Halob acts as a fiendish adversary, given to such tactics as poisoning your pre-sprint cornflakes, blinding you with pepper spray, or breaking your legs. You can also select different locations for the stadia in which the contests take place, including ancient Latvia, the Essex seaside town of Jaywick, and the mystic and frankly terrifying Land of Gaar, alive with nightmarish monsters and things that creep upon the face of the earth. The only game setting which is fixed and unchangeable is the colour scheme, which as you would expect is sepia.

The developers hope to gain some celebrity endorsements before the game is released, and I understand that they have already made tentative approaches to such luminaries as Chris de Burhg [sic] and David Blunkett MP. According to marketing strategists, a touchy-feely version for the blind is predicted to outsell the sighted edition.

Soap Flakes In A Box

Dear Mr Key, writes Tim Thurn, I couldn’t help noticing that in the piece about fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol’s training regime, Dobson repeatedly refers to “soap flakes in a box”, without telling us which brand of soap flakes the champion sprinter used. This is a pity. I cannot be alone among your readers in having world-shuddering sporting ambitions, and I try to replicate the fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol approach in every particular. I have gone so far as to make my coach wear an East European raincoat and to chain smoke at the side of the track while I scamper round it. I grant you that she looks absolutely nothing like Old Halob, and is about half a century younger than he was at his peak, but you’d be surprised how effective the illusion can be, especially when she starts hawking up gobbets of phlegm just like the cantankerous old rogue.

Incidentally, I am on the lookout for a black Homburg she can wear to make her look even more like Old Halob, so if any of your readers know where I might get a genuine 1940s Homburg, perhaps they could contact me through your Comments section. I’m afraid I do not know my coach’s hat size, and nor, I suspect, does she. Gone are the days when people were as familiar with their hat size as with their shoe size. It is all chips and PINs now, but that doesn’t wash with me. I still sprinkle cash about, whenever I go roaming, not that I have much time to roam given my busy fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol-like training schedule.

Which brings me back to the matter at hand, namely those soap flakes in a box. Was Dobson leery of advertising a brand name, or what? I am aware that he was, or at least tried to be, a pamphleteer of considerable moral fibre, but that seems to be taking things a bit far. I am sure his legion of fans would have thought no less of him if he had bandied brands like Omo or Daz in his pamphlets. When you consider that towering intellectual figures of our own day such as Isaiah Berlin regularly turn up on television to peddle Twinings tea… no, that’s wrong, it’s Stephen Fry, isn’t it? So easy to confuse two such rigorous überbrains. Anyway, it is time for me to pound around that running track like a mad pursued thing, so I’ll stop there. But if you can winkle out of the archives any information about those soap flakes in a box, I would be extremely grateful. Passionately yours, Tim Thurn, “going for gold!”

Boot Bath

He washed his boots in the bath with a scrubbing brush. That is what he did when he got mud on his boots. He took off his boots and placed them on a mat and he filled the bath with boiling water. Then he plunged his boots into the bath. He put on a pair of gloves before he plunged his boots so the flesh on his hands would not burn. When the boots were in the bath he sprinkled soap flakes from a box on the surface of the boiling water. Then he went to fetch the scrubbing brush. The scrubbing brush was nowhere near the bath, he had to go up and down stairs to get it from its hook. There was a hole drilled in the handle of the scrubbing brush so it could be held by the hook. The hook was fixed to the wall. It was a fixture and fitting. The scrubbing brush was not. It was an appurtenance. He neither knew nor cared which was a fixture and fitting and which was an appurtenance. His only concern was to get the mud off his boots. He scrubbed his boots with the scrubbing brush while the boots were submerged in the bathwater to which he had added soap flakes from a box. The mud came off his boots in chunks. When the last flecks of mud had been scrubbed off his boots he took the boots out of the bath and placed them back on the mat. The mat was made of rubber. He pulled the plug out of the plughole in the bottom of the bath and the bathwater drained away. While the water drained he took the scrubbing brush up and down stairs and put it back on its hook. He tore off his gloves and threw them down a chute. At the bottom of the chute was a pile of other gloves and such things as shirts and socks and tunics. Once a week the pile was swept into a hamper and taken off to be washed. But not today. He went up and down stairs to the room with the bath in it and looked at his boots on the mat until they were dry. Then he put on his boots. Just in time! He heard the toot of a whistle. He sprinted up and down stairs and past the place where the scrubbing brush hung on its hook and carried on out of the door and through the garden gate and he sprinted round and round the running track until the whistle tooted again. He stopped and panted and looked expectantly at the whistle tooting person. The whistle tooting person was studying his stopwatch. O how he hoped that this time he had sprinted round and round the running track faster than the last time he had sprinted round and round the running track! Then he had had mud on his boots but now he had washed them in the boiling hot bath with a scrubbing brush and soap flakes from a box and there was no longer any mud on his boots. A nod from the whistle tooting person told him he had sprinted round and round the running track faster than before. He was O so happy!

From The Happy Sprinter : An Eye-Witness Account Of The Training Schedule Of Fictional Athlete Bobnit Tivol Under The Direction Of His Coach, Old Halob by Dobson (out of print)

Old Halob : A Biographical Note

Before winning fame – or perhaps notoriety – as the coach of fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol, the chain-smoking miseryguts we know and love as Old Halob led a purposeless and indigent existence. The familiar image of him, in that raincoat, grim and windswept and coughing up catarrh, standing at the side of a running track spurring his fictional protégé on to ever greater sprinting triumphs, had not yet been beamed through television screens across the globe back in the days when only a cluster of hovels stood on the site that would one day become the Old Halob Stadium Of Sporting Triumph And Prowess.

In his bestselling paperback Old Halob And Petula Clark : Are They The Same Person?, Pebblehead posits the theory that the (possibly) East European coach and the English songstress are the same person. He points to the well-documented fact that both, as children, sang in the entrance hall of Bentalls Department Store in Kingston-upon-Thames in exchange for a tin of toffee and a gold wristwatch. In addition, like Petula Clark, Old Halob released a CD entitled L’essentiel – 20 Succès Inoubliables. This is where his argument fails to convince, for where the aged pop diva’s album contained songs, and was a chart hit in Belgium, Old Halob’s CD consisted of a recording of him eating his breakfast and grumbling about his moth-eaten raincoat, and was an international, rather than merely a local, success.

Pebblehead’s twaddle is thoroughly demolished, of course, if we consider that for the first fifty two years of his life, Old Halob did little except refill bird feeders in the grounds of a Home for the Deranged, a job for which he was paid with a daily bowl of gruel and slops. His parents were fabulously wealthy, and lived the life of Riley in a big forbidding castle, but their son lacked ambition, and they disowned him when, at the age of nine, he rejected their birthday gifts of a booster pack, the elixir of life, a modelling contract with L’Oreal, and a populated planet in a far distant galaxy to treat as his plaything.

No one, not even Pebblehead, knows what happened to transform the dull-witted bird feeder maintenance man into an athletics coach of legend. Perhaps a clue lies in his change of diet. Shortly after Old Halob’s fiftieth birthday, the management of the Derangement Home was restructured following a report from consultants Pricewatergatecoopersfreemanhardywillis. As part of their recommendations, Old Halob stopped eating gruel and slops and was instead fed on whelks and barnacles. The evidence is not conclusive, but future biographers would be stupid to ignore it.

And that is all I have to say about Old Halob today.

Good King Wenceslas Impersonation Incident

“Hearken ye, stooped mendicant at my gate! I am Good King Wenceslas, and I am looking out, and I can see you, poor and shivering in your rags, for the snow is deep and crisp and even. There are not even any tracks in the frozen white expanse, such as would be made by wolves or bears. Wait there at my gate, O wretch, and shortly I shall descend from my castle ramparts and join you in the snow!”

So said Old Halob, on the feast of Stephen, for he had rented a room in a castle and was getting carried away by his new surroundings. Those of you who have been paying attention will know that Old Halob was the cantankerous training manager of fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol, and thus far more likely to be found puffing cigarettes at the side of a running track than lording it from the tower of a splendid Mitteleuropean castle. Yet here he was, a battered tin crown atop his potato-shaped head, pretending to be monarch of all he surveyed, though all he could survey was covered in snow, including the mendicant. It was not true, however, that the snow was deep and crisp and even. It was certainly the first two, but no one could in all conscience call it even, for here and there the snow had drifted into clumps, some as high as a swan, and it was beside such a swan-sized clump that the mendicant stooped. Now, unbeknown to Old Halob, this mendicant was known as the Natterjack Man, and he was well known in the vicinity of the castle. He had earned his sobriquet because he had the face and manners of a toad, though none of the hallucinatory properties of a toad’s skin, which, if licked, can provoke visions, depending, of course, on the type of toad.

Up in his rented chambers, Old Halob straightened the crown on his head and prised his feet into a pair of galoshes. Between these extremities, his garb or raiment was such that we shall pass over it in silence, for we do not wish to frighten the tinies. Clutching a lanthorn in his grimy fist, and coughing violently, the legendary athletics coach stumbled down a stone staircase, impeded every few steps by the crows, bats and badgers whose domain this was. It was that kind of castle. Reaching the grand entrance hall at long last, toes crushed by the constricting galoshes, Old Halob took a moment to gather himself. He was not a sentimental man, but he felt a dull pang in his breast as he pictured himself standing at the edge of the race track at O’Houlihan’s Wharf, around which fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol would sprint, round and round and round, unstoppable. Rashly, the coach had paid six months’ rent in advance for his castle chamber, and sent Bobnit Tivol off to a basketry-weaving compound high in some distant hills, where his sprained ankle would be rested and righted. The old tyrant had not foreseen how grievously he would miss his fictional charge, nor that he would spend his castle days moping and splenetic and endlessly removing the crows which perched on his tin crown, as one perched now, cawing at ear-splitting volume. Old Halob reached up and grabbed the bird by its black throat and tossed it none too gently towards the stairwell. Then he aimed and activated his pocket pod and the huge iron doors of the castle swung open, eerily silent, and he thumped out into the snow on the feast of Stephen.

The Natterjack Man still stooped by the swan-high clump of snow, awaiting the man he thought was Good King Wenceslas. For a begging bowl, he carried a plastic beaker which he had found discarded outside the pie shop and canteen at the end of the lane that led from the castle to the stinking cluster of hovels where the local mendicants spent much of their time lying around groaning and whimpering. In truth, they were rather well-appointed hovels, each with its own spigot and catflap and guttering, the latter of gleaming new stainless steel, installed by the local stainless steel guttering chaps, and paid for by the mendicants themselves with the proceeds from the sale of their hot salty tears to a sinister ex-princess who haunted the wild and horrible woods beyond the hovels.

“Hail, stooping mendicant!” yelled Old Halob, in what he thought was a kingly tone, “Stoop no more, for I bring thee succour!”

The Natterjack Man unstooped, and pushed his plastic beaker towards the ‘king’.

“By God, you look like a toad!” cried Old Halob, aghast. Then he collected himself and remembered his manners. “Still, that is no reason why you cannot become a top championship athlete, eh?”

For the succour the wily old coach had in mind was that he could take this wretched beggar and transform him, through a rigorous exercise regime, into a world-beating sporting legend, weighed down with medals and trophies. The Natterjack Man made no reply, but pointed to his withered leg, and then to his other withered leg, and then to his withered arm, and then to his other withered arm, and then sort of disported himself in such a way that his general witheredness was gruesomely apparent. The counterfeit Good King Wenceslas laughed in his face.

“I am the king!” he shouted, “Do you think for one minute, you puny wretch, that I have not the power to turn you into a pole-vaulting champion of global renown? I have no doubt in my astonishingly incisive mind that you can become a credit to Team Halob!”

And he grabbed hold of the Natterjack Man’s ragged sleeve and propelled him towards the nearest athletics stadium, twenty miles distant, and put him through his paces. It is a curious fact that only upon his deathbed, thirty years later, the winner of no fewer than sixteen pole-vaulting gold medals, famed beyond common sense throughout Tantarabim and Pointy Town and all points westward, learned for the first time that his benefactor was not, nor ever had been, Good King Wenceslas, but was none other than the irascible and chain smoking Old Halob. The surprise felled him, or would have felled him had he not already been lying on his back, close to death, muffled by bandages, in the bedroom of his converted hovel in the shadows of the castle upon which snow had fallen, in which crows and bats and badgers had swooped and scuffled, where a tin crown and a pair of galoshes could still be found, high on the highest shelf in the highest chamber, higher than even the Natterjack Man had ever vaulted in his prime.