Where Are The Snows Of Yesteryear?

Until yesterday, the snows of yesteryear were being kept in bins in a remote and refrigerated storage facility. Due to a security alert, however, the bins were moved during the night. A fleet of trucks ferried the snow, in the bins, to a secret location. The trucks were refrigerated as, too, we must assume, is the secret location. Because it is secret, I cannot tell you where it is. I don’t even know myself. But what this means is that we cannot answer the question, where are the snows of yesteryear?

Obviously we can answer that they are in a secret, refrigerated, location, but that is hardly satisfactory. The more persistent reporters from the winter weather phenomena press are unlikely to return to their igloo offices only to face the wrath of their white-bearded, icicle-strewn editors. No, they will think up ever more cunning ways to phrase their questions, hoping to trip up the snow authorities.

The snows of yesteryear, where are they?, they might ask, or Yesteryear, the snows of, whatever happened to them? Sooner or later a dimwit on the panel will blurt out the precise coordinates of the secret location, and frenzy will ensue.

Snow frenzy is akin to snow fury, and we are reminded of the bestselling paperback Like A Woman Scorn’d by Ella Snowfury. It was in fact by Pebblehead, writing under a pseudonym. There is a rogue edition purporting to be by Ella Thnowfury, copies of which have fetched sums as high as 15 New Pence on eBay.

Pebblehead’s Book Of British Pebbles

Pebblehead’s Book Of British Pebbles is something of a departure for the bestselling paperback potboilerist. Best known for his fat airport-bookstall blockbusters with one-word titles ending in an exclamation mark, his latest tome is a picture book featuring hundreds of snaps of pebbles accompanied by sprightly and vivid explanatory texts.

“For many years I have been collecting pebbles,” said Pebblehead, sheltering from the rain under an umbrella outside a sordid backstreet bordello where he was buttonholed by an eager young cub reporter from a regional newspaper, “And it occurred to me to exploit my success as a writer of potboilers to bring the joy of pebbles to a wider audience. Pebbles are too often ignored and neglected in this day and age. I want people to notice them, admire them, pick them up and plop them in their pockets and take them home, then place them on their mantelpiece or windowsill and give them a good polish with a rag and a spraycan of Mr Brightly Dazzling propietary pebble polish from time to time. They are also very useful for chucking at swans if you have a fit of pique when taking a turn around your local duckpond.”

And with that, the indefatigable paperbackist clamped his pipe tighter between his jaws and flounced off in the rain towards some fresh hell.

Pebblehead Breaks New Ground

The latest issue of the weekly magazine Doings Of Pebblehead – The Weekly Magazine Devoted To The Doings Of The Paperback Potboilerist Pebblehead contains a fascinating interview with the paperback potboilerist Pebblehead. In it, he announces a brand new work in progress, which he is currently bashing out on his typewriter in his so-called chalet o’ prose, pipe clenched between his jaws.

“As you know,” he says, “I have written a tremendous number of police procedurals, many of them featuring maverick detective Detective Captain Cargpan. The other day, I was about to embark on another one when the thought occurred to me that perhaps it was time I wrote a different type of procedural. After all, why should the police be the only public servants whose procedures are examined in forensic and, let us not forget, thrilling detail by fiction writers? God knows how many paperbacks and television shows have been devoted to following police procedures. Well, I decided to break with convention and write a paperback potboiling blockbuster which, while decisively procedural, focusses on different procedures. As yet untitled, it will be a lollipop lady procedural, the first, I hope, of many.”

Outside of Britain and Australia, readers may not know what a lollipop lady is. Helpfully, then, the editors of Doings Of Pebblehead – The Weekly Magazine Devoted To The Doings Of The Paperback Potboilerist Pebblehead provide a footnote explaining that a lollipop lady is a lady armed with a circular placard, resembling a gigantic lollipop, who strides into the road and causes traffic to halt so that gaggles of tinies on their way to their schools self esteem ‘n’ diversity awareness hubs can cross the road without being squashed to death under the wheels of cars, vans, trucks, lorries, buses, coaches, and huge sinister smoke-belching tankers such as the one featured in Steven Spielberg’s second film, Duel (1971), starring Dennis Weaver.

The magazine also includes a picture of a lollipop lady, similar to the one below, so the more dimwitted among the readers can grasp what Pebblehead is talking about.

“It seems to me,” continues Pebblehead in this fascinating interview, “That there is a great deal of thrilling fictional potential in a lollipop lady procedural following the procedures of a lollipop lady. She is a lone figure, striding out into the menace of the open road, into the path of cars, vans, trucks, lorries, buses, coaches, and huge sinister smoke-belching tankers such as the one featured in Steven Spielberg’s second film, Duel (1971), starring Dennis Weaver, and causing them to put on their brakes and slow to a halt through the sheer force of her personality, not forgetting her circular placard resembling a giant lollipop, so that tinies, who without her would almost certainly be squashed to death under the wheels of the speeding cars, vans, trucks, lorries, buses, coaches, and huge sinister smoke-belching tankers such as the one featured in Steven Spielberg’s second film, Duel (1971), starring Dennis Weaver, can safely reach their schools self esteem ‘n’ diversity awareness hubs. At the moment I am tussling with the name to give my heroine. I think I might call her Mrs Cargpan. Then readers will have the added frisson of wondering if she is the wife of the hero of many of my police procedurals, maverick detective Detective Captain Cargpan.”

So saying, the indefatigable paperback potboilerist clenched his pipe between his jaws and dismissed the callow cub reporter from Doings Of Pebblehead – The Weekly Magazine Devoted To The Doings Of The Paperback Potboilerist Pebblehead with a lordly wave of his surprisingly dainty hand.

The Stupid Milk

The Stupid Milk is the first in a new series of blockbuster paperback potboilers by Pebblehead. The threads linking the projected series of a dozen books are the protagonist, tiptop secret agent Jug Souptin, and the titles, each of which is a translation from the Welsh of a near-anagram of the name of a twentieth-century American female avant garde choreographer. The use of such an Oulipian constraint is something of a departure for Pebblehead, and we can perhaps see the influence of his new literary agent, International Woman of Mystery Primrose Dent.

Frau Dent has long conducted her mysterious affairs according to dazzlingly complicated rules derived, ultimately, from the kinds of constraints employed by the writers of the Oulipo. So inexplicable are her doings that few can work out what it is she actually does, let alone the constraints she applies. All we can say for certain is that many, if not most, of her enigmatic schemes involve the use of Fuller’s earth, Coddington lenses, and Leyden jars.

Certainly all of these materials have appeared, in varying quantities, in the grounds of Pebblehead’s so-called “chalet o’ prose” since he was taken under the wing of Primrose Dent. And it is surely no accident that, in his very first adventure, tiptop secret agent Jug Souptin is called upon to foil a dastardly plot conceived by a criminal maniac whose chief weapons are given as Fuller’s jars, Coddington earth, and Leyden lenses (pp. 46-49).

Souptin himself is a curiously bashful hero for a Pebblehead book. He is winsome, distracted, and pale, with impossibly dainty hands and girly eyelashes. On page 9, we learn that “he would not say boo to a goose”, and not long afterwards (p. 12) he indeed encounters a goose on a canal towpath and signally fails to say “boo” to it, instead skipping away to hide behind a splurge of lupins until the goose has gone away. (The goose reappears, incidentally, on page 149, marching at the head of a gaggle of its fellows, honking, in a thrilling scene which ends with the criminal maniac toppling into a crevasse.)

The stupid milk of the title is goaty milk into which has been injected a serum which renders stupid anybody who drinks it. As ever with Pebblehead, a great deal of research has gone into the book, and he provides a recipe for the serum which any of us could whip up in a lab in five minutes. For the purposes of this review I did just that, then injected the resulting serum into a carton of goaty milk and fed it to several guinea pigs, including a guinea pig, a stray cat, a guide dog, a leafcutter ant, and the Labour Party MP David Lammy. I can confirm that Pebblehead certainly seems to know his stuff, but luckily I am not a criminal maniac, so I have not, like Jug Souptin’s foe in the book, concocted millions of gallons of the stupid milk and poured it into important reservoirs around the globe.

On a scale of fabness, I would deem this blockbuster to be tremendously fab. It has its faults, of course, particularly in Pebblehead’s portrait of the goose, which is unlike any goose one might meet in the real world. Indeed, I am not convinced the author knows exactly what a goose is. But we have been here before with Pebblehead. For all the diligence of his research and fact-checking in non-ornithological matters, he seems to have a blind spot when it comes to birds. Who can forget the tiny airborne ostriches which marred the otherwise excellent potboiler Tiny Airborne Ostriches!? Or the talking linnet in The Talking Linnet?

Interestingly, that linnet speaks Welsh. It may be worth going back to the book to see if anything it says is a near-anagram of the name of a twentieth-century American female avant garde choreographer. Then we might be able to make educated guesses at the forthcoming further adventures of tip top secret agent Jug Souptin!

Eerie Mavis

Readers will be familiar with the plucky fascist tot Tiny Enid, but I have only recently learned of the existence of her cousin and sometime playmate, Eerie Mavis.

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Eerie Mavis spent much of her time loitering in a barn, mucking about with lengths of string and rotting fruit and pliers. She is said to have had an affinity with jackdaws, though it is not clear how this manifested itself. Eerie she may have been, but she did not have the power of flight, and her speaking voice was more akin to the mutter than the caw. Indeed, one of the eeriest things about Eerie Mavis was her constant, incomprehensible, and somehow menacing muttering, which began as soon as she woke from sleep on her straw pallet in the barn, and continued all bloody day until, in eventual exhaustion, she flung herself back on the pallet, and the Land of Nod. Even then, she was known to mutter in her sleep.

You could trust Eerie Mavis with a box of matches. She showed no signs of pyromania, and indeed could be counted on to douse any conflagrations which may erupt in the farmyard. She never seemed to be far from a spigot, and showed both delicacy and determination when handling a hosepipe.

She was not a musical tot – the eternal muttering put paid to any ambitions she may have had as a songstress – but could be spellbound by the sound of electric guitars played in the screeching heavy metal style, and also by the softer toots of the piccolo. When so spellbound, she would drop her string and fruit and pliers, and stand stock still, close by a spigot, in her slightly lopsided way, and shut her eyes, and levitate, an inch or so off the ground. Her muttering did not entirely cease at such times, but it became quieter.

Her slight lopsidedness had no apparent physical cause. She did not, unlike her cousin Tiny Enid, have a club foot, and wore no corrective boot. Passing farmyard adults would occasionally try to straighten her up, by means of gentle coaxing, to no avail. In a tape recorded interview, conducted decades later when she had become a crone, Eerie Mavis revealed that she had always stood bolt upright, and it was the farmyard itself that was lopsided. Alas, it had by then long been covered by concrete, and no land surveyor could attest to the truth of her claim.

A double biography of Eerie Mavis and Tiny Enid is long overdue. There is one in the works, from the pen of Pebblehead, but many obstacles lie in his path, not least the fact that each time he completes a page, no sooner has it rolled off his typewriter than it is snatched and borne away in the beak of a jackdaw, up into the blue Alpine skies, irretrievable, irretrievable, lost, lost, lost.

More About Pebblehead’s Typewriter

The picture of Pebblehead’s typewriter posted yesterday prompted a bulging postbag, with numerous readers clamouring for further particulars of the bestselling paperbackist’s working practices. Among the commoner questions were: How does Pebblehead manage to bash out so many potboilers? How many typewriters does he get through in an average week? Is he capable of writing a word without having that pipe, crammed with acrid Serbian tobacco, clamped between his teeth? Does he employ a team of monkey typists?

I was about to write, “Alas, we may never know…”, when all of a sudden, a moment ago, Alan the postal crow flew in through the crow-vent with a press release clutched in his beak. I gave him some millet, and he relinquished the paper, upon which the following was printed, by the looks of it on a wonky Gestetner machine:

Raymond Roussel told us How I Wrote Certain Of My Books in 1932. Now, Pebblehead promises to tell us How I Wrote Certain Of My Potboilers. This will undoubtedly be the publishing sensation of 2013, or 2014, or whenever Pebblehead manages to deliver the manuscript, in between bashing out hundreds more potboilers and destroying quite a few typewriters in the process, while monkeys cavort around him in his chalet o’ prose.

Sucking on his pipe, its bowl stuffed with acrid Serbian tobacco, the bestselling paperbackist said: “Begone, Krishnan Guru-Murthy! I have no idea what you and your camera crew from Channel 4 News think you’re doing, camped out in front of my chalet o’ prose. You are interrupting the creative process of the most tireless potboilerist in the world, and if you do not leave immediately I shall have you set upon by Alpine zombies in tattered Nazi uniforms brandishing ray guns from outer space!”

If and when How I Wrote Certain Of My Potboilers is ever actually published, review copies will be sent out via Alan the postal crow. Make sure your crow-vent is clear and free from sordid and unseemly detritus, bones of voles, etcetera.

Pebblehead’s Diary 19.1.92

The bestselling paperbackist Pebblehead’s diary for this day in 1992:

To the launch party for my new paperback potboiler Mabel! Mabel! Mabel! Mabel! Mabel! Mabel! Mabel! Mabel! I took the title from Ronald Firbank’s 1916 novel Inclinations, and I am pleased to think that this may be the first time in the history of fiction that an entire chapter of an existing work has been quoted as the title of a new one. (It was Chapter XX, for anybody who wants to check.) My Mabel bears scant resemblance to Firbank’s. She was young and not a little ditzy, while mine is a crone. In fact, for a while I thought of giving the book the title Crone With A Sponge! until, about half way through, I encountered intractable technical potboiler difficulties and had to ditch the sponge entirely, eradicating all mention of it from the opening chapters. It is, I think, a better book as a result, certainly a better potboiler.

I attended the launch party incognito, got up as a baffled bus conductor down on his luck. My disguise was almost wholly successful, and not even my own mother recognised me. What on earth she was doing at the party is a surpassing mystery. I must have words with the warden of the Bewilderment Home. Though nobody actually knew me for who I am, one fathead mistook me for the lumbering psychopathic walrus-moustached serial killer Babinsky, and called the coppers. They arrived just as I was cramming cream crackers from the buffet into the pocket of my bus conductor’s jacket. Never overlook free cream crackers, by the way – follow that advice and you can sail through life more or less unhindered.

Not so this evening, alas, as the coppers, led by doughty Detective Captain Cargpan, whacked me on the head several times with a lead-weighted sap, removed the cream crackers from my pocket and put them back on the buffet table, and bundled me into the back of their van. I assumed I would be taken down to the station, but instead we drove out into the blasted and inhospitable winter countryside. At a godforsaken spinney, the van screeched to a halt and the coppers dragged me out and tied me to the trunk of a yew tree. The yew tree pointed up, it had a Gothic shape. My eyes lifted after it and found the moon. I noticed that fumy, spiritous mists inhabited this place, and there was a row of headstones.

“I have decided that the only way to stop you, Babinsky, is to engage in a spot of extra-judicial killing,” said Cargpan. Then, “Ned, get the axe and the shovel,” he added, to one of his henchmen.

“But I am not Babinsky!” I cried, “I am the bestselling paperbackist Pebblehead!”

“Prove it,” said Cargpan, darkly.

“My hands are tied to the trunk of this pointy yew tree so I cannot rummage in my pockets, but if you do so, in among the crumbs of cream crackers you will find my jotter, in which are jotted down notes for my next half dozen bestselling paperback potboilers,” I said.

Cargpan rummaged, and a look of wonderment lit up his countenance.

“Bloody hell, boys, this isn’t Babinsky, it’s Pebblehead!” he cried, and he immediately freed me from my bonds and sat me down on a camping stool and gave me a cup of tea from a flask.

“We are all big fans of yours,” he said, as his little band of coppers all nodded, “We’ve got every single one of your books down at the station. If we take you back there, will you sign them for us?”

“Of course I will,” I said, “If, afterwards, you will return me to the launch party for Mabel! Mabel! Mabel! Mabel! Mabel! Mabel! Mabel! Mabel!

“Better than that,” said Cargpan, “We will throw a party for you ourselves. I don’t know if you have ever been to a coppers’ party, Mr P., but we can guarantee you a splendid time.”

And so it turned out that I ended the evening absolutely stuffed with cream crackers, wearing a paper hat, and regaling a basement full of coppers with piquant anecdotes of the literary life. More to the point, I gathered invaluable material for my forthcoming bestselling paperback potboiler Tied To A Yew Tree By Coppers! (working title), which I should have finished by late tomorrow afternoon.

On The Abnormal Butcher

The Abnormal Butcher is the first in a series of potboilers bashed out by Pebblehead in a frenzied fortnight of potboiling. He wrote a complete novel each day for thirteen days and then, as he put it, “on the fourteenth day, I rested”. It is not the first time Pebblehead has blasphemously compared himself to the Almighty God, and it will not be the last.

The central character in the series is Ned Mossop, the so-called “gluten-intolerant private eye”. The matter of his gluten intolerance is not explored by Pebblehead, merely stated. This is not the only exasperating thing about the books. Were I to list the other exasperations it would come to many more than thirteen items so, time being short, instead I shall give a full list of all the titles in the series.

They are, in order of both composition and publication, The Abnormal Butcher, The Cow Detective, The Egg Freak, The Greasy Hinges, The Idiot Jar, The Knackered Latvian, The Mud-caked Nuns, The Oblivious Pipsqueak, The Queasy Ratcatcher, The Snodgrass Thermometer, The Uncanny Vase, The Wax Xylophone, and The Yobbo Zoo.

Although, as the central character, Ned Mossop is the only one to appear in all thirteen books, others crop up here and there, having walk-on parts or popping their heads above the parapet or being glimpsed in the distance getting up to some sort of mischief. Thus for example, in The Snodgrass Thermometer, when Ned Mossop and Caligula Snodgrass are engaged in a fight to the death on the edge of an Alpine crevasse, Pebblehead turns his attention, for several pages, to Sister Assumpta, one of the mud-caked nuns we met in the novel of that title. She is picking edelweiss a hundred yards away from the crevasse, on a slightly higher slope. As readers, all we care about is finding out who wins the impromptu boxing match between Mossop and Snodgrass. It is thus highly exasperating of Pebblehead to prattle on about a mud-caked nun to no apparent purpose. Why does he do it?

There are critics who claim that Pebblehead is brilliantly undermining the conventions of the detective fiction genre. Consider, for example, this excerpt from a review by Blossom Partridge, which appeared in Miss Blossom Partridge’s Weekly Digest:

In his new series of novels featuring the gluten-intolerant private eye Ned Mossop, Pebblehead brilliantly undermines the conventions of the detective fiction genre. For example, in The Queasy Ratcatcher, Mossop is engaged in a fight to the death with the queasy ratcatcher on the edge of an Alpine crevasse when Pebblehead magnificently turns his attention, for several pages, to a clump of edelweiss on a slightly higher slope a hundred yards away. The flowers are being examined, through some sort of optical scope contraption, by Arpad Bogojugis, the knackered Latvian we met in the novel of that title. As readers, all we are meant to care about is the outcome of the impromptu boxing match on the edge of the crevasse, a hundred yards away and on a slightly lower slope. By diverting our attention in this way, by frustrating our desires, Pebblehead exasperates us to such an extent that we fling the paperback across the room into the fireplace, or drop it into the bath, or rip it to shreds with our bare hands, or otherwise damage it severely enough to render it unreadable.

Later, when we have calmed down over a nice cup of tea and some macaroons or Garibaldi biscuits, we regret our fit of temper and begin to wonder (a) what Arpad Bogojugis learned about the clump of edelweiss and (b) who won the impromptu boxing match. Try as we might, we can get neither scene out of our head. Finally, draining our dainty teacup and scoffing the last of the macaroons or Garibaldi biscuits, we put on our stout walking boots and our windcheater and we sally forth into the storm which is raging outside and go straight to the airport bookstall to buy a replacement copy of The Queasy Ratcatcher. And we note there is a special offer whereby we can purchase all thirteen volumes for the price of a baker’s dozen, so we snap them up, and pad out our shopping basket with a carton of teabags and a packet of either macaroons or Garibaldi biscuits, and we head home, in the teeth of a howling gale. Then we put the kettle on and look forward to reading the rest of Pebblehead’s utterly magnificent potboiler.

I have a great deal of time for Blossom Partridge, and I never miss an issue of her Weekly Digest, but in the case of Pebblehead I think she is wrong. What we are dealing with, I would argue, is simple narrative ineptitude. In fact, I have argued precisely this in an article I submitted to Miss Blossom Partridge’s Weekly Digest, in which I claim that success and blockbuster sales have gone to Pebblehead’s head, and that he sits there puffing on his pipe in his so-called “chalet o’ prose”, bashing out his potboilers at reckless speed, not caring one jot whether what he writes is even minimally coherent or, indeed, readable. He knows that anything he produces will sell in the millions. It has undone him.

POSTSCRIPT : Blossom Partridge has returned the piece I wrote for her Weekly Digest. Her accompanying letter reads as follows:

Dear Mr Key,

Much as I was riveted, really really riveted, by your Pebblehead piece, I am afraid I must reject it for publication because there is no space available in the Weekly Digest. The next several issues are given over wholly to my extended essay entitled Why I Have Had To Build A Large Storage Facility Adjacent To My Modest Nook In Order To Contain My Ever-Growing Collection Of Duplicate Copies Of Pebblehead Potboilers, Now Numbering In The Hundreds Of Thousands. I would add a polite note to express my sincere regret, but I am afraid I must dash as I have to head out in this terrible storm to the airport bookstall to purchase a few dozen further Pebblehead paperbacks.

Yours in haste,

Blossom Partridge (Miss)

On The Antipipsqueak

The publishing event of the year – unless Jeanette Winterson hurls another thunderbolt from the mountaintop – is the long-awaited appearance of Pebblehead’s latest blockbuster. The indefatigable potboilerist has been uncharacteristically tardy. It is thought that he spent at least six weeks on this new work, twelve times as long as it commonly takes him to bash out a fat bestselling paperback with a gaudy cover. But at last, tomorrow it will be here. I have even managed to nab myself an invitation to the launch party, where I hope to rub shoulders with the great man. Last time I came within spitting distance of him was at a sophisticated literary soirée. Well, not “at”, exactly, but outside, where I fawned in a doorway before being Tasered by the Pebblehead security contingent, every man jack of them as big as a grizzly bear, and as savage. Tomorrow night things will be different. I have a ticket. It is a counterfeit ticket, forged for me by a ne’er-do-well of unsurpassed forging skills, or so I am told. He has even managed to copy the magnetic strip on the swipecard with which one gains access to the subterranean bunker where the party guests will gather before being ferried, one by one, in specially adapted rubber bodybags with breathing holes, by pneumatic tube to the equally subterranean bunker serving as a holding pen in which guests will be vetted, and their tickets subjected to forensic anti-forgery testing. I am brimming with confidence that I will make it through. I’ll let you know.

But what of the book itself? Advance copies have not been made available, so I have not even seen its gaudy cover, let alone read the blockbusting contents. I did engage the services of a ne’er-do-well with unsurpassed thieving skills, hoping he could pilfer a copy from the printers, but so tight was the security that my thief is now chained in an oubliette nursing a splitting headache, a bruised noggin, the after-effects of a severe electric shock, and with his bootlaces tied together. Clearly his skills were not as unsurpassed as I had been led to believe by the ne’er-do-well fixer of unsurpassed fixing skills who put me in touch with him. It is a frustrating business, traffick with ne’er-do-wells, let me tell you. A dangerous business, too, though not nearly as dangerous as dealing with Pebblehead’s retinue, who would strike fear into the boldest and mightiest of souls.

Which brings me neatly to the subject of the as-yet-unseen book, for Pebblehead has written the first ever biography of Rudyard Boot, the so-called Antipipsqueak, as bold and mighty a soul as ever bestrode the streets of Pointy Town and its environs. It will be interesting to see what Pebblehead makes of this enigmatic figure. For all that he was a colossus and a titan, at least in the minds of Pointy Townites, very little is actually known about him. I have something of an advantage over the teeming millions of general readers here, for I have a family connection to Boot – or “Das” as he was known to all and sundry. An aunt of mine, before she married my uncle, walked out with Rudyard Boot. Most if not all of their walks were around the reservoir after which, like Rudyard Kipling, he was named. According to my aunt’s stories, the young Boot was no Antipipsqueak. Indeed, he was very much a pipsqueak, and a milquetoast pipsqueak at that.

“When I knew him, he wouldn’t say boo to a goose,” said my aunt on one of her tape-recordings, “Once when we were walking out together, around the reservoir, we were set upon by a pack of geese. I know ‘pack’ is the collective noun for wolves rather than geese, but as far as Boot was concerned the geese might as well have been wolves, even werewolves, even zombified werewolves, even zombified werewolves injected with a serum causing their murderous bloodlust to be magnified a thousandfold. At their approach, he squeaked, a milquetoast squeak, and ran away, leaving me to deal with them, which of course I did in a sensible matter-of-fact manner, being a goose-familiar kind of girl. Later that day I wrote a letter to him in which I chided him for his pipsqueak goose-frit milksoppery, and I broke off our engagement. I think, for him, receipt of my letter was a turning point.”

And what a turning point it was! Having lost the heart of my aunt, Boot determined to transform himself, body and soul, from a pipsqueak into its antithesis – the Antipipsqueak. The wonder is that he effected the transformation in the space of little more than a fortnight. Alas, it was already too late to win back my aunt who, walking around the reservoir by herself the next day, was swept off her feet by my Uncle Quentin, a world-famous and bad-tempered yet loveable scientist from Kirrin Island. The dashing of his romantic hopes simply spurred Boot on in his new persona as the Antipipsqueak. He became a sort of superhero avant le lettre, doing battle with ferocious wild animals, fire ants, swarms of killer bees, pit vipers, and with human foes too, among them ne’er-do-wells and malefactors and organised criminal gangs from the far Carpathians. And all the time he wore, over his heart, a locket containing a miniature portrait of my aunt. It was a drawing rather than a photograph, a cack-handed drawing done by a weak-brained patient in a lunatic asylum, and it looked more like Otto von Bismarck than it did my aunt, who bore no resemblance to the guns-before-butter man, none at all.

Given the personal connection, I had occasionally thought about writing a biography of Rudyard Boot myself. Knowing of my interest, my aunt bequeathed to me her Boot-related memorabilia, including several hundred hours’ worth of tape recordings, piles upon piles of tear-stained scribblings, a photo album, scrapbooks containing Boot’s bus- train-, library-, and fairground-tickets, and, most prized of all, the medicine balls which it is believed he flung around in a gymnasium in those two weeks when he turned himself from a pipsqueak into the Antipipsqueak. Armed with such a mass of material, I was obviously in a position to write the definitive biography. I ought to have guessed that Pebblehead would engage the services, through a ne’er-do-well, of hired thugs. There were seventeen of them, and after loading my Boot archive in to an articulated lorry and speeding away to their rendezvous with Pebblehead, four stayed behind, bundled me into the boot of a car, and drove me to the reservoir. They tied me to a block of cement and chucked me in. They must have thought I was a milquetoast pipsqueak. How wrong they were. I freed myself and bobbed to the surface. Then, soaking wet, I sprinted to the gymnasium and began to fling medicine balls around. And tomorrow, Tasers notwithstanding, I shall come face to face with Pebblehead.

On Soviet Hen Coops

Soviet Hen Coops is the latest bestseller by blockbuster paperbackist Pebblehead, a sweeping and magisterial cross-cultural history of poultry under Communism. On the face of it, this seems an unlikely subject for a book which has been flying off the shelves of airport bookstalls and has, in the past week alone, earned Pebblehead more money in royalties than J K Rowling has had hot dinners. But then, in the hands of the potboilerist, the most unpromising material is handled with such mastery and aplomb that, in places, it reads like the most nerve-wrenching and nail-biting and heart attack-inducing of thrillers.

So I am told, in any case, as I have not yet read it myself. A while ago, I set myself the task of reading the entire Pebblehead canon, to date, in chronological order, and I do not wish to cheat. Thus far I have reached the autumn of 1972 (Swarthy Fiends In Dungeons Grim) and have a couple of hundred titles to get through before I catch up with the latest tome. Thus I have relied on a specially-empanelled panel of readers to report to me their responses to Soviet Hen Coops. In choosing the panel, I was careful to exclude those with expert knowledge either of Soviet Communism or of hens, for Pebblehead is nothing if not a populist, and it is the general reader, and indeed the barely literate halfwit, for whom the bulk of his output is intended.

Initial reactions were overwhelmingly positive, with the panel giving the book an overall rating of “Fantastic!”. Converted into numerals, this worked out as 10 out of 10, though a couple of panel members were keen to go up to 11. As a sample of a detailed critique, I have plucked this from the pile of written reports:

Having never read a Pebblehead book before, or indeed any books at all, I was absolutely riveted to my armchair. Knowing nothing of Russia and its satellite states in the years between 1917 and 1992, the whole Communism thing was new to me, as was the stuff about poultry, for I have never been near a hen coop in my life, suffering as I do from an allergy to bird feathers. At times it was like reading an adventure story, or as I imagine it might be to read an adventure story. I had to grip the arms of my armchair and cling on by my fingertips, because I got so excited I thought I might topple out of it and fall on the floor. And because  I was holding on so tight to the armchair I could not at the same time hold the book, so I had to have a sort of makeshift lectern erected in front of me, to rest the book upon, and I had to employ an unpaid intern from a nearby orphanage to turn the pages for me. And turn the pages they did, for this book is a real page turner! If I have one criticism, it is that Pebblehead does not tell us anything whatsoever about the state of hens and hen coops in the immediate pre-Soviet era, so we cannot place the state and circumstances and milieu of the Communist hen in any context.

I should interrupt the critique here to let slip some inside knowledge. I have it on good authority that Pebblehead is currently hard at work, in his so-called chalet o’ prose, on a prequel tentatively entitled Tsarist Hen Coops. Clearly, he did not wish to duplicate his material.

One chapter I found particularly thrilling was that which deals, in spellbinding detail, with the sudden and complete transformation of Cheka hen coops into OGPU hen coops on the sixth of February 1922. The footnote which lists other notable events to happen on the sixth of February, including, in 1958, the Munich Air Disaster, is the best footnote I have ever read. It is true I have only read half a dozen footnotes in toto, the ones in this book, but of those six this one is by far the best.

Another passage which had me gulping for air and requiring urgent medical attention was the part about the creation of Potemkin hen coops designed to pull the wool over the eyes of useful poultry idiots, the hen equivalents of Sidney and Beatrice Webb. Reports went back to West European and American hens about the idyllic lives of their Soviet sisters, leading to unrest and kerfuffle in a number of farmyards. I would have liked to learn more about Soviet eggs, but

I am going to interrupt here again, to point out that Pebblehead’s next scheduled blockbuster, when he has finished writing Tsarist Hen Coops, will almost certainly be a fat doorstopper entitled Eggs In The Soviet Union.

Actually, I think we have had quite enough of that readers’ report. I think it is clear from her enthusiasm that yet again Pebblehead has pulled out all the stops and produced a rollicking rollercoaster of a narrative. I just wish I knew how he does it. Day in, day out, he sits there in his Alpine fastness, pipe clenched between his jaws, pounding the keys of that battered Fabiocapello typewriter, which long ago, in 1977, lost its J and K keys and as a result forced on him a complete rethink of his prose style.

Please note that Soviet Hen Coops is entirely devoted to hen coops in the Soviet Union, and nowhere concerns itself with the card game Soviet Hen Coop. My spies tell me that Pebblehead will turn his attention to this exciting pastime once he has bashed out Tsarist Hen Coops and Eggs In The Soviet Union and one or two other books he has in the pipeline. It will certainly be a title to look forward to, not least because Pebblehead himself has been called the king of Soviet Hen Coop players, regularly winning tournaments and having his name engraved over and over and over again on several golden and pewter trophies which he keeps lined up on the mantelpiece in his chalet o’ prose, and dusts with a rag on the rare occasions he can tear himself away from his typewriter.

The Dabbler (Actual Size)

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Critically important advice, in my cupboard at The Dabbler, on correct apprehension of the dimensions of sea beasties. I claim no credit, as the piece is basically a paraphrase of Pebblehead, from one of his innumerable bestselling paperbacks.

Over the years, many readers have written to ask if there is any truth in the rumour that, long before Frost/Nixon, there was a project entitled Frost/Pebblehead, or even Pebblehead/Nixon, which had to be abandoned due to pelf and priggishness and panic and other things beginning with P. Many readers have asked, and none has been answered, for I chuck all such enquiries into a waste chute, down which they fall, rolling and tumbling, until they reach the fires of hell, where they burn to a crisp. Some things are better left uninvestigated, unresearched, unsaid.