Writer-In-Residence

The people of Pointy Town were once asked, in a referendum, if they wanted William S Burroughs as their writer-in-residence. Sensibly, they rejected him, arguing en masse that he was a gun-toting drug-addled nincompoop who took himself far too seriously and was, in turn, taken far too seriously by the kind of people who don’t actually read many books. That cut-up business may have won him some fashionable fans, but it’s just pictures of Jap girls in synthesis, innit? No, the Pointy Towners prefer their prose sequential and sparky, which is why they picked Pebblehead. But the bestselling paperbackist turned them down, for he was loth to live in Pointy Town, and residence therein was obviously a sine qua non for the position. There was a half-hearted plot to abduct Pebblehead from his “chalet o’ prose” high in the Swiss Alps and forcibly remove him to Pointy Town, but it fell apart by dint of timidity and awe.

The people then called for the appointment of Christopher Smart, author of Jubilate Agno. That great poem had recently become popular in Pointy Town as a method of organising civic behaviour. A line or two would be chosen at random each day, much in the manner of bibliomancy, but rather than foretelling the future the chosen text was, as far as possible, “acted out” by all literate Pointy Towners, and used as a sort of guide to their public conduct in the streets and boulevards. It had to be gently pointed out to them that Smart was long dead, and that while, at a pinch, it may have been possible to exhume whatever remained of him and have it reinterred in L’Etoile Du Pointy Town Cemetery, there could be no expectation of any new writing being done.

Pointy Town being a town without art, the panel next made the curious suggestion that the writer-in-residence post be offered to art critic Cosmo Hoxtonwanker. The thinking was that he might be able to identify this or that which could be considered as art, or could become art if viewed through artistic lenses. This idea was dismissed as foolhardy even faster than the rejection of Burroughs.

The next name out of the hat, as it were, though there was not actually a physical hat as such, was that of Jeanette Winterson. Although it was thought by many that she was far too important a writer to be persuaded to bother herself with a dismal provincial backwater like Pointy Town, initial inquiries proved positive. The people were divided, but a slim majority found in her favour, and the panel had gone so far as to evict all the guests from the Grand Hotel on the seafront so the even grander novelist could be installed there and have the building and its lovely gardens all to herself. Alas, negotiations fell through when the great author said she would refuse to write with the Pointy Pencil Of Pointy Town, considering it to be a phallocentric symbol.

At this point, quite unexpectedly, William S Burroughs, having heard the rumours, turned up in the town. He lurked on pathways like a ghoul of dreadful countenance, injecting himself with heroin and clearly lapping up being the cynosure of a certain cast of impressionable teenperson devoted to the “edgy”. His presence grew so tiresome that eventually he was pelted with pebbles and laughed at until he left town.

Still, though, Pointy Town was without a writer-in-residence. Even twee versifier Dennis Beerpint could not be persuaded to take on the job. And so the plan was quietly dropped… on the very day that, hoving into view on the horizon, huge and terrible and drooling, the Grunty Man approached! Could he wield the Pointy Pencil in his great clumsy fist? Inside that lumpen head, were there actually any thoughts that could be put down on paper, or even any thoughts at all? Was there in all Pointy Town a barn big enough to contain him in comfort?

Read on next week in Episode Two, in which the Grunty Man wrests editorship of the Pointy Town Clarion & Big Thumping Iron Hammer from milquetoast fop Gervase Weed!

Cupboard

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The picture above adorns the cover of the latest bestselling paperback by Pebblehead. Entitled Cupboard!, it is a fast-paced and thrill-packed adventure featuring Pebblehead’s recurring hero Dax Manley Hopkins, manly, winsome, beguiled and unflappable. Though the cupboard of the title is singular, there are hundreds, possibly thousands of cupboards in the book, some of which Dax opens to take a look inside at crucial moments in the plot. One such is the cupboard the contents of which are shown, neatly arranged, in the picture. It is called the “L Ron” Cupboard, for reasons which Pebblehead never quite makes explicit, unless I am misreading him. God knows it is easy enough to misread Pebblehead. For all the dash and verve of his effortless prose, the effect is sometimes as if one is reading an inept translation from a language if not quite dead, then at least sick and sprawled ungainly upon an invalid’s mattress.

The objects in the cupboard are, we are told, made of dough and painted with a coating of emulsion. Each has a function which is utterly baffling, at least to Dax, though he has managed to lay his hands on a set of laminated flash cards giving the name of each item. These names are enigmatic. Here they are:

Top shelf, left to right : 1. Bombs a’ Poe. 2. Luxembourg bales. 3. The Kreutzer Sonata. 4. Yoko Eno Bono.

Second shelf, left to right : 5. Eaten in Harbin. 6. La Condoleezza. 7. Gas giant.

Third shelf, left to right : 8. National Cylinder. 9. Weems. 10. Agony in the garden. 11. Gold Diggers of 1933.

Fourth shelf, left to right : 12. Alone and palely loitering. 13. Thou art Pierre Loti, innit.

Bottom shelf, left to right : 14. Bittern storm over Ulm 15. Yeast fixture.

I will not spoil the bestselling paperback for you by telling you what happens when Dax, so manly and winsome and beguiled and unflappable, first opens, then closes the cupboard. (The scene takes place on pp. 409-444.)

Or, the picture might be by Robinet Testard, an image from Matthaeus Platearius’s The Book of Simple Medicine, Ms. Fr. VI n. 1, fol. 166v., c. 1470, St. Petersburg National Library, which I found at Mapping The Marvellous.

Five Years Ago

Exactly five years ago today, these words were posted in Hooting Yard:

“Remember, remember, the fifth of November, gunpowder, treason and plot. Remember, too, the case of the distressed pig, solved by Special Agent Blot. The distressed pig was found in a rowing boat crossing Tantarabim Lake. Agent Blot swam out to it and fed it with nutritious cake. As the pig grew becalmed Agent Blot took the oars and he rowed to the mud-splattered shore. He hoisted the pig right out of the boat and bedded it down in some straw. Then he plodded his way in his wellington boots to the pig farmer’s hut down the lane, and he felled the brute with a thwack of his fist and bound him up with a chain. Agent Blot dragged the pig farmer off to the prison, bang in the centre of town. And that is why, on November the fifth, the distressed pig did not drown.”

I am pleased to report that the tale so briefly told has been expanded, by bestselling paperbackist Pebblehead no less, into a thumping great airport bookstall paperback potboiler entitled Special Agent Blot And The Distressed Pig! : How A Distressed Pig Was Rescued By Special Agent Blot!

It seems Pebblehead is still managing to avoid the attentions of a copy editor. Those exclamation marks in the title are wholly uncalled-for. Obviously he is trying to drum up excitement in the casual airport bookstall browser, but surely he realises that the name “Pebblehead” alone, emblazoned in glittery glittering glitz upon the cover, is enough to cause perilous palpitations in the hardest of hearts?

Hooting Yard Rating : Sweeping & Magisterial

Pebblehead’s Picks On Spotify

God in heaven knows how he finds the time, but in between bashing out his innumerable bestselling paperbacks, bestselling paperbackist Pebblehead has managed to familiarise himself with Spotify. Not only that, but he has offered to share with Hooting Yard readers some of his so-called “Pebblehead’s Picks”.

So here is the first one. Those of you who are already Spotifyists can simply copy the code below and paste it into the “search” silo hub at the upper left of the Spotify screen:

spotify:user:pebblehead:playlist:3SNwkyCdDlxKEPJfBHXnZY

Pebblehead writes: “I am not going to tell you in advance what this is. Just copy and paste and hit play, and listen through to the end. Recorded and performed less frequently than some of the composer’s more popular works, it is, in my view, twenty-five minutes of transcendent genius.”

Pebblehead knows whereof he speaks.

Erk Gah

It is hard to think of an esoteric sect more hidden, more obscure, than the Erk Gah. We know virtually nothing of its membership, its ceremonies and rituals, its raiment and vestments, its perfumes, its symbols, its armaments cache, its hierarchy, its headgear, its idiosyncratic buttoning methods, its potions, its nostrums, its pomposity, its colour schemes, its texts, its insignia, its dietary stringencies, its bucket and spade seaside outings, or its ultimate purpose. Some have suggested that the Erk Gah does not even exist.

One wonders, then, what to make of Evaporated Milk & Ducks’ Blood, the latest bestselling paperback by Pebblehead, with its audacious subtitle The Truth About Erk Gah Revealed! As ever with his ventures into non-fiction, Pebblehead’s prose is breathless and slapdash and at times laughable, but he makes grand claims, and they deserve to be treated seriously. After all, we are unlikely to get a better guide to this mysterious sect, even if it is wholly spurious.

One thing Pebblehead refuses to tell us is from what sources he cobbled his 300-plus pages together. Indeed, one reviewer has already insisted that the book ought to be shelved alongside Fantasy Fiction, that Pebblehead has made the whole thing up. But how would anybody know one way or the other, unless they were a member of the Erk Gah? It may be pertinent that the reviewer in question disguised his identity behind a terrifically-wrought anagram.

But let us look at some of Pebblehead’s claims.

Membership. The Erk Gah has a finite number of members. When one dies – of which, more in a moment – they are replaced by a new recruit. How this newcomer is chosen is an ineffable mystery. It is possible that there are as few as twelve members at any one time, although other estimates give a figure of several thousand. Erk Gah members do not die in the sense that you or I would understand the term. Instead, they are “begusted into flimflam”. Pebblehead does not expand upon this.

Ceremonies And Rituals. The major Erk Gah ceremony is the so-called “knocking about of the ball with the puck”, which as far as one can gather may look to the innocent eye like hockey practice. “Thus,” intones Pebblehead, ominously, “does the sect conceal its existence by creating a facsimile of a well-loved sport which is part of the fabric of our everyday lives, if we are sporty persons of course”. There is another ritual, involving binoculars, promontories, and seabirds, which can be equally misconstrued by the ignorant.

Raiment And Vestments. Unutterably gorgeous, according to Pebblehead, and so stylish that Erk Gah members can be mistaken for dazzling stars of the Riviera set. Apparently, there is something called the cufflink code, but the details of that, too, are an ineffable mystery.

Perfumes. The Erk Gah can be sniffed out, we are told, if one is sensitive to certain vaporous effusions. Pebblehead gets rather tied up in knots trying to explain what on earth he is babbling on about here, and the passage is dense with footnotes. At one point he suggests the scents with which the Erk Gah spray themselves are odourless, which, if true, is either foolish in the extreme or perhaps yet another of those ineffable mysteries.

Symbols. Chiefly pelicans, silkworms, bowls of alphabet soup, chunks of gack, herons, old bakelite wireless sets, dust, corks, bats, cravat pins, big fat magnetic robots, chaffinches, oildrums, pulp, song thrushes, camphor sausages, toadflax, jibs, cloudbursts, mayonnaise, tin tabernacles, blots, mist, and Herculean effort. All these things, with their deep Erk Gah significance, are depicted on a gigantic shield, carted about the countryside at dead of night, by blind devotees. Or so Pebblehead would have us believe.

Armaments Cache. The Erk Gah are fond of Howitzers, and have been known to fire them when unprovoked. If you hear a mysterious explosion in the distance, on a Thursday at dusk, that might be the Erk Gah.

Hierarchy. “There are so many levels,” writes Pebblehead, “So many, many, many levels, gosh, my head is spinning!” Novelty Pebblehead dolls with spinnable heads went on sale in toyshops as part of the publicity for the book, presumably to give some credence to this assertion.

Headgear. Less Riviera set, more grimy peasant. Shapeless, filthy rags puckered up and scrunched and plopped atop the pate. Beetles and other black creeping things scurry among the folds. They can hardly be called hats, but are made by milliners contracted individually by some kind of Erk Gah hat emissary. Whereabouts this position fits within the Hierarchy is moot. Pebblehead’s head was presumably spinning far too rapidly for him to be able to enlighten us. And was the paperbackist himself wearing a sordid Erk Gah hat as he wrote? There are, after all, plenty of corrupt milliners setting up shop in our streets, more’s the pity.

Idiosyncratic Buttoning Methods. “All this buttoning and unbuttoning!” wrote the anonymous 18th century suicide. Was he or she a member of the Erk Gah, practising auto-begustment into flimflam? Pebblehead does not tell us, probably because he doesn’t know. But he does devote an excruciating forty pages of his book to the matter of buttons and buttoning and unbuttoning and unbuttons. Excruciating, because here his prose it at its sloppiest, and it is impossible to make head nor tail of what he is trying to say. I, for one, would have been interested in the Erk Gah concept of the unbutton, for example, “that which is not, and cannot be, a button, on any possible planet”.

Potions. The most popular of Erk Gah potions appears to be a decoction of evaporated milk and ducks’ blood, hence the title of Pebblehead’s tome. This mixture is drunk from lovely goblets, or from paper cups, depending upon the alignment of the stars and the idiosyncratic buttoning method in use at the time. Where the devotees get all the ducks’ blood from is an ineffable mystery, as they seem not to approve of the slaughter of ducks or of anything else which paddles in ponds. There is another potion, of evaporated milk without the commingling of ducks’ blood, of which the Erk Gah are equally fond.

Nostrums. Pebblehead alludes to a bulky collection of nostrums which the Erk Gah are said to apply to common agues. Many of these remedies are of a purgative effect, which I am afraid conjures up the image of a troop of sectaries throwing up all over the place, and an overpowering stink of regurgitated evaporated milk and ducks’ blood. I looked up “mops” and “disinfectant” in the index, but neither word appears there. In fact, the index is a very shoddy piece of work, and I think it may have been taken from another book entirely. Pebblehead has done this before, of course, through either indolence or stupidity.

Pomposity. There is an inherent pomposity in most occult and esoteric sects, acting as a sort of protective veneer. Without pomp, the edifice might crumble, and crumblement must be avoided at all costs.

Colour Schemes. Mostly sepia.

Texts. One of Pebblehead’s most startling discoveries is that a list of the foundational texts of the Erk Gah is identical in every particular to a list of volumes stolen over a period of five years from the Tundist Owl Library. We know that the Tundists were so enraged by the thefts that they sent a gang of merciless cut-throats in search of the culprits, but the fact that the books were never returned to the library suggests that the Erk Gah, if indeed the thieves were among their number, must have outwitted the Tundist avengers. This ought not be surprising, Recent studies have shown that, contrary to myth, the Tundists were a witless and noodle-brained bunch, many of whom did not even know what an owl was, despite the comprehensive collection of owly prose in their library. But if the basic texts of the Erk Gah are indeed originally Tundist, are they a mere subsect? That is a question to which, one hopes, a writer more scholarly and less populist than Pebblehead will address themselves, though the survival rate of authors investigating Tundism is calamitously low, and much blood has been spilt, not all of it the blood of ducks.

Insignia. Pebblehead makes a cack-handed attempt to sketch the insignia of the Erk Gah on the frontispiece of his book. It looks as if he used crayons. A six-year-old would have made a better fist of it.

Dietary Stringencies. What foodstuffs, we might ask, do the Erk Gah wash down with their evaporated milk and ducks’ blood potions? The answer, according to Pebblehead, is “anything from the tuber family” and “anything with a –hip or –wort suffix”. That seems pretty stringent to me, but then I’ll eat anything, as will Pebblehead himself. I had dinner with him a few weeks ago and we scoffed a surfeit of lampreys and more bloaters than his dining table could support. He had to have it shored up with cast iron props.

Bucket And Spade Seaside Outings. An endearing feature of the Erk Gah is their predilection for bucket and spade seaside outings. Less endearing – much less endearing – is that their favoured destination is the foul and filthy fishing port of O’Houlihan’s Wharf. It is a curious place to rattle towards on the train, waving one’s bucket and spade cheerily out the window, for of course there is no sandy beach there, merely a couple of rotting jetties built upon squelchy oozing mud, mud that is home to disgusting squirmy wriggling things which are surely abominations in the sight of God. And yet year after year the Erk Gah descend upon this briny hellhole, mad with glee. What they actually do with their buckets and spades when they get there does not bear thinking about. The most Pebblehead will divulge is that shutters go up in the whelk-encrusted hovels, the streets empty, and a fug of eerie mist falls upon the port.

Ultimate Purpose. This, of course, as Pebblehead readily admits, is the final ineffable mystery of the Erk Gah. It brings his book to a limp and unsatisfactory ending, which he tries to bolster by dazzling the reader with vividness. But Pebblehead doesn’t really do vivid, at least not in his non-fiction, and the resulting closing paragraphs are pitiable. The reader senses that he knows this, which is why in a last desperate lunge at thrillsomeness, Pebblehead chucks in an extremely potted pen-portrait of his favourite pig. It is, he says, “a committed pig”.

Further Reading. A rival account of the Erk Gah, which differs from Pebblehead’s book in every single detail, can be found here.

Unconscious Squirrel!

Readers will recall Unconscious Squirrel!, the unsuccessful cartoon strip about an unconscious squirrel created, and then abandoned, by Lamont Pinochet. One hesitates to say that the character is much-lamented, as nobody took much notice of the strip when it appeared, and Pinochet himself found it tiresome, so much so that he used to fall asleep while drawing it.

Now, in a bold move, the unconscious squirrel has been revived in a new potboiler by Pebblehead. The Nuts Of Narcolepsy is set in a woodland idyll, where an unsuspecting squirrel eats some poisoned or contaminated nuts which cause it to swoon into unconsciousness. As ever, the bestselling paperbackist handles his material in a bravura manner, investing his simple tale with stylistic flourishes and cracking dialogue, displaying an enviable command of the exclamation mark. Early reviews have been positive, with Lex Pilg in the Daily Hubbub Monitor praising it as “a real page-turner of the sort we expect from Pebblehead, with thrills and spills aplenty”, while the angling magazine Minnows In Nets noted with approval its lack of clunk.

Curiously, The Nuts Of Narcolepsy is dedicated to the memory of Eric Fogg (1903-1939), the English composer who fell, or possibly threw himself, under a tube train at Waterloo station on the eve of his second marriage. An open verdict was recorded. There is no evidence that Fogg had a thing about squirrels, and Pebblehead has never expressed any previous interest in him, nor about English music in general. The paperbackist is known to be an enthusiast for noisy aggressive Germans. We shall have to await the deliberations of those dedicated folk who compile the annual Register Of Dedicatees Of Potboilers for enlightenment.

Interviewed on the porch steps of a particularly sordid bordello, Pebblehead dropped hints that we will be seeing more of the unconscious squirrel.

“I find,” he said, “There comes a point when my characters take on a life of their own. It is almost as if I am a reporter, or a biographer, rather than a novelist. You will recall Digby Smew, the fascist podcaster who first appeared in my book The Assassination Of Stephen Fry. Sometimes I fancy he is sitting at breakfast with me, slurping porridge with disgusting table manners. I can’t even remember writing the other forty potboilers of which he is the protagonist. The words come unsummoned. I have an inkling that something similar will happen with the unconscious squirrel. Now that the basic lineaments of his character have been established – that he is a squirrel, that he is unconscious – already he seems freed from the confines of my own pulsating writerly cranium. I swear to God he took on corporeal form this morning. I was eating my breakfast, and across the table there was Digby Smew, and he was staring at something, something behind me, and I turned to look and got a fugitive glimpse of a narcoleptic squirrel snuggled against the wainscot, shimmering in a hallucinogenic haze for a moment before the vision dissolved. But I know he will be back, and I have already felt impelled to dash off twenty thousand words of a second Unconscious Squirrel! potboiler. I don’t want to give too much away, but in this one he plays a leading role in the Hindenburg Disaster.”

When he was able to get a word in edgeways, Pebblehead’s interviewer taxed him with the point that he had not in fact created the unconscious squirrel, but taken him, in all his particulars, from an almost forgotten cartoon strip by the creator of Magnet Boy! The Boy Magnet.

“That is indeed true,” said the paperbackist, having now unfurled his umbrella against an unprecedented downpour, “And I have never tried to conceal the fact. If you knew anything about my work, you would know I have revived and reinvented existing fictional characters before, many a time. I have written, at the last count, twenty-six short stories about Doctor Slop, from The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne, and a trilogy of sci-fi adventures featuring Brave Driver Josef Bong from The Good Soldier Å vejk by Jaroslav HaÅ¡ek. They too, have become very real to me, though for some reason neither of them ever comes to breakfast. Doctor Slop is usually hovering on the landing, and Josef Bong sits in the potting shed on my allotment, whistling.”

The revelation that Pebblehead maintains an allotment will come as a shock to his readers. How in the name of all that is holy, one wonders, does so indefatigable a paperbackist find time to grow radishes and kohlrabi and tomatoes and potatoes and bugloss and beetroot and hollyhocks, not only to grow them but to keep them free of hideous diseases and the predations of tiny parasitic creeping things? Annoyingly, the interviewer did not pursue this fascinating line of inquiry. Dismayed by rainfall, he left Pebblehead standing alone on the steps of the bordello, tucked his notepad into an inner pocket, gave his pencil to a vagrant, and ducked into the shelter of a railway station, descending the escalator to catch a train back to his office. All the more perplexing when one considers that he was working for a magazine entitled Potboilers And Allotments And The Social Glue That Binds Them.

In an echo of the past, the railway station into which the rainsoaked reporter hurried was Waterloo, and he fell, or possibly threw himself, under a train from the very same platform from which Eric Fogg fell, or threw himself, seventy years ago to the day.

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The Freezing Coachman

“Tolstoy tells the story of an aristocratic woman at the theatre weeping at the imaginary tragedy enacted on the stage. At the same time, outside in the cold, a real tragedy is taking place: her old and faithful coachman, awaiting her in the bitter winter night, is freezing to death.”

Raymond Tallis, “The Freezing Coachman : Some Reflections On Art & Morality”, in Newton’s Sleep (Macmillan, 1995), abridged version in Theorrhoea And After (Macmillan, 1999)

Countless readers, coming upon the words “the freezing coachman”, will think of neither Tolstoy nor Tallis, but of the indefatigable paperbackist Pebblehead. It is well nigh impossible to keep track of the short stories featuring the eponymous frozen hero he taps out on that battered old typewriter of his, pipe packed with scraggy Montenegrin tobacco clamped Simenon-like in his jaws. Unlike Tolstoy’s character, Pebblehead’s freezing coachman remains alive, a ghoulish figure covered in ice, with a reproachful gaze and a booming monotone. In many, but not all stories, he has a Dutch accent.

Pebblehead has been criticised, by the snooty and the hare-brained, for the wild inconsistency of his coachman. In The Freezing Coachman And The Blunkett Cow Attack, for example, he is a sort of mystic cow-whisperer, a gentle and benevolent soul with a heart of gold. Cold gold, but gold nonetheless. In The Freezing Coachman And The Carpets Of Madness, by contrast, he is evil personified, so evil that Beelzebub himself is reduced to a quivering gibbering wreck in his presence. And then of course there is the famous story The Freezing Coachman Goes Rogue, and we all know what happens in that one!

But the variations in his character are as nothing when compared to the bewildering number of guises under which the “coach” of which he has charge appears. It is described, in one Freezing Coachman story or another, as a coach or a carriage or a landau or a landaulette or a britzka or a gig or a trap or a charabanc or a float or a buggy or a hansom or a shandrydan or a post chaise or a brougham or a droshky or a berlin or a wagon or a calash or a jitney or a pony cart or a minibus or a caboose or a caravan or a sleigh or a fiacre or a dray or a jeep or a lorry or a sulky or a cab or a van or a brake or a crate or a taxi or a rattletrap or a sedan chair or a bus or a tin lizzie or a carriole or a curricle or a dustcart or a stanhope or a quadriga or a phaeton or a trolley or a tumbrel or a troika or a saloon or a hearse or a diligence or a bubblecar or a fourgon or a flivver or a clarence or a growler or a conveyance or a roadster or a tilbury or a runabout or a jalopy or a calash or an oxcart or a hackney cab or a tarantass or a black maria or a barouche or a tractor or a tonga or a tank. This may be a case of Pebblehead being slapdash, or playful, or simply not having a clue what he is talking about, given that some of these vehicles can hardly be described as a “coach” by any sensible person.

The moral of Tolstoy’s tale, that an appreciation of great art does not necessarily make one a good person, is obvious. Equally, nearly all of Pebblehead’s stories have a clear moral point to make. We are told that one should never bury a dog while it is still alive, never accept toffee apples from spooky strangers, always rain curses upon a cow that attacks a blind Member of Parliament, or upon a blind Member of Parliament who attacks a cow, depending on which version of the story you believe, never walk widdershins three times around a kirk, never push a boy scout into a crevasse, don’t count your chickens, eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day according to government guidelines, never put all your eggs in one basket, always check the accuracy of George Orwell’s daily egg count, always uphold the ineffable majesty of the tinpot king of the land of Gaar, never get too close to the edge of the bottomless viper pit of Shoeburyness, and don’t ever, ever wave a towel in the face of an Ampleforth Jesuit. It is true that sometimes we put aside a Freezing Coachman story feeling that Pebblehead has lectured us rather than entertained us, and some of the lessons we are taught are fit only for five-year-olds, but at their best these tales can be both unforgettable and devastating.

I am thinking, for example, of The Freezing Coachman Sorts The Abstract Expressionist Wheat From The Chaff, a thinly-disguised and blistering attack upon the adolescent cod-mystic witterings of Barnett Newman, who tried to imbue his big flat boring daubs with universal and eternal significance. There is an irresistible urge to clap with glee when, in the final paragraph, the Freezing Coachman steps out of his cabriolet and upturns a pot of emulsion over the head of the ludicrous painter “Bennett Nerman”, before beating him with a spade, poking him with a stick, and tying him fast to railway tracks upon which the 4.45 non-stop express to Uttoxeter is due to thunder within the next couple of minutes.

It may well be the finest of all the Freezing Coachman stories, but do not take my word for it. Read every single one of them, the brilliant and the witless, and make up your own mind.

In The Vestibule

On the day Hattie Jacques died, Dobson was slumped in the vestibule of a large and shabby hotel, to which he had been summoned by a captain of industry. The out of print pamphleteer was on the verge his dotage, but was not quite there yet. If anything, his lucidity was terrifying. There were egg stains on his cravat.

The captain of industry failed to turn up, leaving Dobson in the lurch. At a loose end, and with barely a penny in his pockets, he slumped in the vestibule. The hotel did not have a commissionaire, or indeed anybody who cared that a pamphleteer was blocking the entrance, smelling faintly of egg.

Hattie Jacques died of a heart attack on the sixth of October 1980. The captain of industry whom Dobson was expecting to meet had died a day earlier. Nobody thought to look in his appointments diary. Even if they had, it would have beflummoxed them, for the captain of industry used an unbreakable code. He did this to lend himself an air of importance.

Of Norman Wisdom, with whom she appeared in The Square Peg and Follow A Star, Hattie Jacques said he was “difficult and self-centred”. The same could be said of Dobson. Indeed, he wrote as much, in a pamphlet entitled Why I Can Be Difficult And Self-Centred (out of print). Presenting an obstacle to anyone who wanted to enter or leave the semidilapidated hotel that afternoon was but one instance of this.

A number of people stepped over the slumped pamphleteer that day. Some even trod on him, so frantic was their haste. Dobson did not complain, for he was past caring. He was composing an essay in his head, as he often did, so that when he returned eventually to his escritoire he could scribble away at high speed. Sometimes he wrote so quickly that he scorched his notepaper.

The dead captain of industry had arranged to meet Dobson because he wanted the pamphleteer to write his biography. As we have seen, he had a massive and delusional sense of his own importance, and felt that only a master of majestic sweeping prose such as Dobson could do justice to his life. By any objective measure it had been a colourless and godawful life, devoted almost entirely to the manufacture and sale of buttons.

Hattie Jacques sported many buttons made by the captain of industry’s button company during the second world war, when she worked as an arc welder. The company provided the welding factory with all its buttons, and made its fortune in so doing. It was in the factory that Hattie Jacques nurtured her comic talents.

Dobson had been apprised of the reason for his abortive meeting, and, slumped in the vestibule, was tussling with a title. The Life Of A Buttoneer appealed to him, but there was already a book of that name, an adventure story by the bestselling paperbackist Pebblehead set in Wivenhoe and Cuxhaven. “A rip-roaring and emotionally wrenching rollercoaster ride!” exclaimed the review in Book Reviews With Lots of Exclamation Marks magazine.

Like Hattie Jacques’ ex-husband John Le Mesurier, the captain of industry had arranged his own death notice to appear in the newspaper. It read “Decisively Important Maker Of Buttons Is Dead. Keep buying his buttons so his name lives on for thousands of years.” One of the people who trod on Dobson in the hotel vestibule dropped his newspaper as he did so, and the page with the buttoneer’s death notice came to rest upon the pamphleteer’s egg stained cravat. He made no attempt to move it.

Hattie Jacques was buried in St Paul’s Churchyard in London. The captain of industry’s body lay undiscovered in his captainy penthouse flat, where it was gnawed by rats and mice. Eventually it was tossed into a furnace by a feckless janitor. The shabby hotel vestibule was not Dobson’s final resting place, thank god. At some point in the evening of that October day, he bestirred himself, scrunched up the newspaper that had fallen on him and shoved it into his pocket, finessed the cravat about his neck, and plodded home, difficult and self-centred, like Norman Wisdom, along lamplit streets. He had a while left before his dotage descended upon him.

lemesurier

 

My Favourite Pigsty

The title for this year’s Old Farmer Frack Memorial Essay has been announced. Entrants will be challenged to write fifty thousand words under the heading “My Favourite Pigsty”. This follows on from previous years where there was terrific interest in subjects such as “My Favourite Cow Byre”, “My Favourite Hen Coop”, and “Startle the poor sheep back! is the shipwrack then a harvest, does tempest carry the grain for thee?”

As usual, the rules of the contest are onerous. To commemorate Old Farmer Frack, essayists must use his own methods, which is to say that their fifty thousand words have to be either scraped on slates with a pointed stick, or done as Powerpoint presentations. Entrants have to assemble in a dilapidated barn in one of Old Farmer Frack’s fields before dawn on the designated date, and before putting stick to slate or fingertip to keyboard, each takes it in turn to drive the surviving cows down to the drainage ditch and back, bellowing all the while. The barn will be lit by a single Toc H lamp hanging from the rafters.

As soon as it starts to rain, entrants can begin their essays, and must continue writing indefatigably save for picnic breaks. These will take place at allotted picnicking times, under tarpaulins, in one of the puddle-riddled fields. Contestants may not discuss the progress, content, general thrust, or stylistic flourishes of their essays during the picnics, but confine themselves to talk of how great Old Farmer Frack was. It is permitted to suggest he was mad, but not too forcefully.

Judges for this year’s competition, who will also act as invigilators in the barn, include Wilf Self, Wilf Amis, Wilfette Winterson and Pebblehead, the bestselling paperbackist who has been commissioned to write the authorised biography of Old Farmer Frack and is a previous winner of the Memorial Essay prize. He won in the year the subject was “My Favourite Pebble”.

Entry is open to peasants, their friends and families. and those with whom they have been embroiled in rustic blood feuds reaching back for untold generations. The winner will be announced on the Muggletonian Little Holiday, the nineteenth of July.

This year’s prize is a muffin, and a pair of loaded pistols. 

Planet Of The Cloth-Eared Bears

Indefatigable paperbackist Pebblehead has yet another new book out this week. Planet Of The Cloth-Eared Bears is a sci-fi potboiler featuring heroic spaceman Captain Biffo Melvynbragg.

The story begins with the captain’s spaceship forced to crashland on a remote planet, populated entirely by bears who are hard of hearing. Scorched beyond repair, the spaceship’s engines attract the attention of some of the bears, who communicate with each other by a complex system of paw manipulation. Captain Biffo, who has among his accomplishments a diploma in earth-bear behavioural studies, is beflummoxed when he realises he cannot fathom the space-bears’ lingua franca.

Using his space-spade, the captain digs a pit in the spectacularly gruesome soil of the planet’s surface, hoping to trap at least one of the bears in it. But these are wily space-bears, and they wait for the captain to finish digging his pit before dissolving his space-spade using their exciting rayguns. Then they push Biffo himself into the pit.

Forty pages of the paperback are then taken up with the captain’s musings about his predicament, which include passages of blatant plagiarism from writers such as W N P Barbellion, Stefan Zweig, Sylvia Townsend Warner, and Prudence Foxglove. Pebblehead has either forgotten about the rest of the spaceship’s crew or wishes us to believe that Captain Biffo was flying a solo mission. The latter is highly unlikely, given the nature of interplanetary protocols at the time, described carefully and at length in a prolegomenon, the sort of thing Pebblehead can dash off as breezily as the rest of us would write a shopping list, if we still had shops to go to, in this wasteland.

Eventually, the cloth-eared space-bears haul Captain Biffo out of the pit with a winch, and subject him to a personality profile questionnaire. This is given in multiple choice format, which allows Pebblehead to play around, quite foolishly, with the conventions of multiple choice personality profile questionnaires. It transpires that Biffo is a “drugged-up chaffinch” type, the most dangerous personality profile as far as the space-bears are concerned. They put Biffo back in the pit and hold a bear-moot. Pebblehead has great fun with this, probably more so than his readers.

At the end of the moot, half of the planet’s suns explode, for no apparent reason. Biffo exploits the resulting mayhem and confusion to clamber out of the pit and to sprint towards his hobbled spaceship. Just before he gets there, a cloth-eared space-bear zaps him with a different type of exciting raygun. Biffo does not dissolve, but instead is himself transformed into one of the space-bears. Somehow, his hearing is not impaired by this metamorphosis, and he becomes a valued member of the community, even though he never quite masters the paw manipulation technique.

In the final pages, Pebblehead describes with exquisite dullness the slow rusting and disintegration of the spaceship, over many planet-years, until not a trace of it remains. And then, just as we are thinking what a waste of time the whole book has been, Captain Biffo, or rather the space-bear he has become, goes into a kind of spasmodic fit, sheds his space-bear characteristics in a form of ecdysis, knocks together a brand new spaceship out of space-cardboard boxes and space-twigs and space-gum, weirdly transmogrifies the planet’s atmosphere so the space-bears can hear properly, and blasts off into the boundless firmament, heading for his next adventure.

Word has it that Pebblehead has already written three-quarters of the sequel, but he is keeping under his hat whether it will be about Captain Biffo or about the no longer cloth-eared bears. If you want to know more about Pebblehead’s hat, and what else he keeps under it, you will soon be able to register for a newsletter, in paper form, delivered to your door by the postie once in a blue moon, or when the cows come home.

What Was “The Cruel Sea” All About?

I ought to have explained that the piece entitled The Cruel Sea was simply a list of titles of the books currently being written by bestselling paperbackist Pebblehead. He always has a number of works on the go at any one time, expertly juggling everything in that big baked potato-like head of his. Hooting Yard reader Dr Ruth Pastry tells me that she is drawing a diagram of Pebblehead’s head, or more precisely of the innards of his head, which she wants me to post here when it is finished. That means we will all have a better, and long overdue, insight into the great paperbackist’s fantastic brain, in diagrammatic form, with arrows.

NOTE : Dr Pastry says her diagram will be without arrows.

Lars Porsena Of Clusium

Lars Porsena of Clusium, by the Nine Gods he swore that the great house of Tarquin should suffer wrong no more. Over in Rome, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus had been overthrown, and he asked Lars, as a fellow Etruscan, for help. Lars thought about it for a bit, and it was when he decided to march to Tarquinius’ aid that he did the sweary bit with the Nine Gods. That took a good deal of time, as some among the Gods demanded that when they were sworn by, the swearing had to be an elaborate invocation of rolling phrases, complex rhymes, and repetitive beseeching. Lars Porsena was well-prepared, taking a packed lunch and a big flask filled with a foamy hallucinogenic potation up into the Etruscan hills where he planned to do his swearing.

There has been some debate about the precise identities of the Nine Gods. E Cobham Brewer has them as Juno, Minerva and Tinia, or Tin, or Tina, the three chief Etruscan Gods, joined by Vulcan, Mars, Saturn, Hercules, Summanus, and Vedius. But his list finds no place for such exciting Etruscan deities as Catha and Usil, Selvans, Turan and Laran, nor Thalna, Turms and Fufluns, sometimes known as Puphluns. It seems scarcely credible that a king like Lars Porsena would leave Fufluns out of his swearing on a hillside. We might want to consider the alternative godly roll-call given by Pebblehead in his bestselling paperback Lars!, where he gives pride of place to Tina and Fufluns, and chucks in seven others mentioned above. It is true that his book is a novel rather than a history, and that he veers off into a subplot about Tina and Fufluns canoodling in the Etruscan forests, but Pebblehead has studied these things and has the benefit of a number of scholarly works published since Brewer’s day, including Dobson’s pamphlet The Sane Person’s Guide To Swearing By The Etruscan Gods (out of print).

So there was Lars, a few days before he set out for Rome, up in the hills under a louring sky. He ate some bite-size cottage pie-style snacky chunks and washed them down with several gulps from his flask, ensuring that his brain underwent preliminary dislodgement. Then he gathered some sticks and tied to each stick a colourful ribbon he had brought with him in his kingly Etruscan pippy bag, and he poked the sticks into the hillside muck to form a magick pattern, nine sticks in all, one for each God. He took a few more swigs from his flask, further shattering his reason, and then he sprawled in front of the stick tied with a beige ribbon, representing the God Usil, and began screaming his head off.

“Usil, Usil, Usil!” he bawled, “Ooooo! Sil! Ooooo! Sil! Grant me the will to kill, Usil! Let me not dilly dally nor be ill, Usil! If I catch a chill, Usil, up in these hills, give me some pills, Usil! Oooo! Sil!”

And so it went on, for hours, with an occasional pause for more foaming hallucinogenic potation from the flask, until Lars Porsena was completely cracked and exhausted. The God Usil let it be known that it was satisfied with the king’s swearing by sending a shower of sparks to dance around his head and half-blind him. Lars Porsena fumbled about, untying the ribbon from the Usil stick, and burning both the ribbon and the stick, and stamping unsteadily upon the embers, and he ate another bite-size cottage pie-style snacky chunk and gulped from his flask, and then he took a nap. One God down, eight more to swear by.

We shall not bother to run through in detail the other swearings, although it has to be said that when it was Fufluns’ turn Lars Porsena outdid himself. It took the best part of a day to complete what was the sweariest of the swearings by any stretch of the imagination. So wild and loud and crazed did the king become that he attracted the attention of a little knot of Etruscan peasants who were heading down the hillside after a hike. They recognised Lars Porsena by his kingly garb and were shocked to see him in so demented a state, alternately screeching fantastic ululations at a stick in the ground and shovelling mouthfuls of soil down his gob.

“One wonders what will become of Clusium, ruled by such a king,” said one peasant.

“I fear that it may be swallowed up by the nascent Roman republic and vanish from history,” said another peasant.

The third peasant in the knot chivvied his colleagues to continue down the hillside into downtown Clusium so that they were home in time for their Etruscan supper.

There was no such comfort for Lars Porsena. He still had two more Gods to swear by, and, having eaten the last of his bite-size cottage pie-style snacky chunks, had to grub about in the muck for barely edible roots before taking his next nap. By now, of course, his brain had been bent and cranked to such an extent by his potation, of which much still remained in his huge flask, that his naps were accompanied by strange and terrible dreams. He dreamed he was a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas. He dreamed he saw his head, grown slightly bald, brought in upon a platter. He dreamed he was in rats’ alley where the dead men lost their bones. And he dreamed twit twit twit jug jug jug jug jug jug.

When he woke up, in the hills, it was raining. Hard fat drops of Etruscan rainfall hammered upon the king’s head. It did not take him long to swear by Turms, for Turms was an easily-assuaged God. Lars Porsena remembered with brilliant clarity the words he had learned as an infant at his Royal Etruscan Faith-Based Community Education Hub. He had had an excellent teacher, a beardy robed figure with a squeaky voice and a genius for arresting similes. “The God Turms,” he had said, “Is like a silken girl bringing sherbet and at the same time like a camel man cursing and grumbling.” Lars had never forgotten that, it had been beaten into him with a stick, a stick rather bigger than the stick he now burned upon the hillside together with the ribbon he had unfastened from it. He had one more God to go, and when all nine sticks and their ribbons had been burned to nothingness he would be ready to follow the peasants’ trail down the hillside and march off in aid of Lucius Tarquinius Superbus.

As he glugged another draught of foamy hallucinogenic potation, Lars wondered if, in ages to come, he too might be known as Superbus. Lars Porsena Superbus. Or even Lars Porsena Ubersuperbus. It had a ring to it. He imagined that there might come a time when a future princeling, preparing to wage war upon a foe, might come to these very same hills and swear by him, by Lars, and burn a beribboned stick in his name, and be thus emboldened and blessed. It was not beyond the bounds of Etruscan possibility that he might become a God. Would Clusium be a fit stamping ground for a deity? He would have to ensure when he made the transformation from mortal to divine that his bodily remnants were placed in an elaborate tomb in or under the city he ruled, with a fifteen-metre high rectangular base and sides ninety metres long, adorned by pyramids and massive bells.

He polished off the sweary stuff with the final God, burned the final ribbon and the final stick, and emptied what was left in the huge flask down his throat. And then Lars Porsena stumbled away down the hillside, rain-battered and brain-bedizened, leaving behind him a pile of ashes. Soon he would hasten to Rome, and come face to face with heroic one-eyed Horatius Cocles, and make history.

Curiously, in his bestselling paperback Lars!, Pebblehead has absolutely nothing to say about this history. The novel ends with Tina and Fufluns doing goddy things in the ethereal realm, the eponymous king quite forgotten, and not remotely Superbus.

Pebblehead’s Christmas Annual

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

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

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

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

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

Tint When Tiny

This picture shows the mezzotintist Rex Tint, as a child, painting a portrait of his sister Dot Tint, chronicler of vampiric sea shanties and much else besides. Rex had great pretensions, in his curdled youth, to becoming a painter of note, rather than a mezzotintist, and he executed innumerable daubs, of which the portrait of Dot is but one. Several art critics have tugged at their beards and fiddled with their hornrimmed spectacles as they struggle to understand why Rex Tint abandoned paint and set out on the path to mezzotinty glory. Now the tale can be told. Well, not “can be” but “has been”, in Pebblehead’s latest bestselling paperback How The Secret Police Confiscated Rex Tint’s Paintbox And How He Sobbed And Whimpered Until A Kindly Butcher’s Shop Assistant Gave Him A Secondhand Mezzotinting Kit. Annoyingly, the prize-winning paperbackist does not tell us the reason why the secret police targeted the tiny painter. Had he perhaps daubed a less than flattering portrait of Prince Fulgencio? Or, on one of his plein air excursions, had he unwittingly painted a top secret experimental brain-incapacitating nerve gas facility? It really would help if Pebblehead could do some proper research for a change, but I expect he is too busy bashing out his next bestseller on that antique typewriter of his, looking up occasionally at the picture of Anthony Burgess drawingpinned to his cork board and pretending it is a mirror.

 

The Dimwit And The Winter Sports Enthusiast

Bobsleigh and curling were the great enthusiasms of the winter sports enthusiast. His enthusiasm was that of a spectator rather than a participant, his body being too gangly and chaotic for him to accomplish even the simplest athletic technique with any measure of success. As a youth, he had fancied himself as the sort of person who could throw himself off a high diving board and perform breathtaking pirouettes before plunging, straight as an arrow, into the municipal swimming pool, but his efforts were laughable. After dozens of attempts, he saw sense, slinking away from the pool and indeed away from the town, heading north until he reached snow and ice, where he felt at home, and where winter sports were engaged in all year round, and he became a fan of bobsleigh and curling, and he bought a pair of sunglasses and a season ticket to events.

It was in a stadium watching a curling quarter-final that the enthusiast met the dimwit. The dimwit was an important figure in this cold country, having risen, as so many dimwits do, to civic office. He had his own box in the stadium, as he had boxes in all the stadia thereabouts, for though he knew nothing of the rules and drama of curling or of any other sport, winter or otherwise, the dimwit liked to be seen out and about, being important, a golden chain of office slung around his neck, and a cap upon his head.

The enthusiast and the dimwit bumped into each other as they both made for the automated snack dispenser in the lobby of the stadium. The enthusiast recognised the dimwit, for the latter’s photograph was regularly published in newspapers and magazines and propaganda sheets, and he often appeared on television, against a backdrop of ice-girt palaces and official buildings.

“Gosh!” said the winter sports enthusiast, “You are Bogdan Vingo, the minister of broad sweeping policy pronouncements!”

“I am indeed, little gangly chaotic person,” replied the dimwit, buffing his chain with the cuff of his coat.

And so began a surprising friendship that was to last as long as they both lived, for the winter sports enthusiast and the dimwit discovered they had much in common, not least that, in a certain light, they could be taken for twins. They were not twins, of course, but the resemblance was close enough to disconcert the visually impaired citizens of that freezing land, and both used it to their advantage, in advancing their separate schemes and plots.

If you were to chance upon your Doppelgänger, you might wish it wasn’t a dimwit, but needs must when the devil drives. And the devil did drive the winter sports enthusiast, for as he realised the opportunities for mischief and shenanigans afforded by his striking likeness to the dimwit, he dug himself ever deeper into a pit of moral turpitude, and by the time he was racked by remorse and wished to clamber out of it, it was far too late.

Source : The Dimwit Doppelgänger & Other Cautionary Anecdotes From The Freezing Cold Country In The North by Pebblehead.