Archive for the 'Essays' Category

On Parsnips And Kalashnikovs And Cows

Sometimes you just have to wake up and start tippy-tapping and see what happens. It’s all very well sitting staring into space, or out of the window, trying desperately to summon up a subject of interest, but that butters no parsnips. What an odd phrase that is. I mean, you know where you are with, say, worse things happen at sea. The truth of that is self-evident, as I have demonstrated, while at the same time proving the complete untruth of all goats cause mayhem. But what is the point of saying that something, some deed or action or intervention or whatever butters no parsnips? Very few actions do, so few that we could say the only deed that butters parsnips is the actual buttering of parsnips, that is, spreading butter on parsnips with a butter-knife. And there are not many circumstances in which we would want to do that. You can count them on the fingers of one hand, probably. Even that assumes you like parsnips, in preference to other root vegetables.

Irrespective of whether one likes them or not, the word “parsnip” itself is very pleasing. It has that snippy element. It would be interesting to know how our forebears, upon digging one out of the muck, progressed from designating it by an inarticulate grunt to a “parsnip”. I could look that up, but at the moment I do not feel impelled to do so. I have other things on my mind, of more pressing import.

Actually, that is not entirely true. It would be more accurate to say that I am conscious of an impending attack of vacancy-between-the-ears. I once knew a Quaker who announced, quite excitedly, that he was feeling absolutely wonderful because, for a period of about a fortnight, nothing much had been happening in his brain. For the onlie begetter of Hooting Yard, that would be a calamity rather than a cause for celebration. If nothing happened in my brain for two weeks, can you imagine the global meltdown? All around the world, devoted and indeed fanatical Hooting Yard readers would be up in arms, crazed and caterwauling, unable to cope with the silence that had descended upon their favourite website.

“Oh woe are we!” they would cry, possibly firing off Kalashnikovs into the sky in the manner of upset Middle Eastern persons, “Daily we check Hooting Yard but Mr Key posts nothing!”

I cannot let that happen, can I? I have responsibilities to my flock, possibly more onerous than had I been appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. At least in that case I would have been given a curious pointy hat to wear on ceremonial occasions. Not one of my readers has thought to send me a pointy hat. But I do not complain. I simply press on, indefatigably, like a maniac.

Speaking of the firing of Kalashnikovs into the sky, you do realise that all those bullets have to come down somewhere, don’t you? They go up and up and up, but eventually, in accordance with the laws of science, they slow down, stop, and start to fall, at great speed. I once read an interesting magazine article about people who had been killed or maimed by such falling bullets, which can land remarkably far away from the upset Middle Eastern person who fired them into the air. You would think they would realise that what goes up must come down.

That saying, like worse things happen at sea, is true. But we cannot say what goes to must go fro. Some things do go fro after going to, like pendulums and metronomes and seaside holidaymakers. But it is entirely possible just to go to, and to stay to, without ever going fro. I need not furnish you with exempla, as I am sure you can come up with your own. That’s the thing, you see, I respect my readers’ intelligence. I don’t pelt you with a barrage of babble about matters you can easily work out for yourselves. You rely on me to tell you about things you wouldn’t otherwise know.

Admittedly, I can also use this non-pelting tactic to cover for my own areas of ignorance, which are profound and fathomless. Consider : it may be that I cannot for the life of me think of an example of going to without in turn going fro. By airily suggesting that the matter is so damnably obvious that I need not bother, I trick you into thinking I have a sheaf of exempla in a pocket file, which I could transcribe for you if I so wished.

“Gosh! Mr Key is so clever!” you say, putting down your Kalashnikov for a moment as your jaw drops in wonderment, “Truly let it be bruited from nation unto nation that there is nothing he does not know!”

I am quite happy for readers to gain this impression, but it is very wide of the mark. If I listed all my ignorances we would be here until the cows come home. That is another odd phrase, suggesting either that cows never come home or, if they do, their arrival is a long long time in the future. There is within it a hint that cows might go to but not fro. I suppose occasionally a cow might not come home at all, if it is out in a faraway field, chewing the cud and gazing stupidly at nothing, when all of a sudden it is felled by a Kalashnikov bullet plummeting out of a clear blue sky directly on to its big cow head. Poor cow. But it is a quick death, unlike that of the lobster in the early story by Samuel Beckett.

Perhaps tomorrow I should work on a revised version of the tale. “Belacqua And The Cow”, perhaps, or “Belacqua And The Parsnips”. But I will have to reread the original first, if I have the time, what with one thing and another, in this vale of tears.

On Mountains And Suitcases

There was a review in today’s Grauniad of a concert by a popstrel called Emeli Sandé, which included the following observation…

Excuse me a moment while I interrupt myself. A splendid feature of The Listener, which I extolled the other day, was that it did not concern itself with popular culture, or if it did, only very rarely. (I think in its latter days John Peel wrote an occasional column, but that was about as “pop” as it got, i.e., not very far.) The same was of course true of the broadsheet newspapers, until about twenty years ago. They did not deign to notice the existence of pop pap, and would certainly never have sent a reviewer to the 1970s equivalent of an Emeli Sandé concert. Now, I am not Peter Hitchens. I did not stop listening to pop and rock music at the age of 22, and I retain a keen interest in certain corners of popular culture. But I cannot help thinking that it was a more edifying age when coverage of young persons’ music was left to the young persons’ music press, and did not invade every cranny of the media. If, when I was a teenperson, you had told me that the NME’s Charles Shaar Murray would one day write for the Daily Telegraph, my jaw would have dropped. As, I suspect, would Charles Shaar Murray’s.

Anyway, back to that review. It reports that

Although Sandé’s lyrics can be refreshingly daft . . . many of them endlessly string together cliches and platitudes. Mountains are moved or climbed and lovers pack suitcases – although, to her credit, she has so far managed to avoid crying in the rain.

Reading this, it occurred to me to wonder if something similar could be said about Dobson, the titanic out of print pamphleteer of the twentieth century. If we swap “Dobson” for “Sandé”, and “pamphlets” for “lyrics”, can we say, with even a hint of accuracy,

Although Dobson’s pamphlets can be refreshingly daft . . . many of them endlessly string together cliches and platitudes. Mountains are moved or climbed and lovers pack suitcases – although, to his credit, he has so far managed to avoid crying in the rain.

(followed, to be grammatically correct, by) ? Well, can we?

That first phrase is almost unarguable. We might question how “refreshing” the daftness is, but of the daftness itself there can be no doubt. In his definitive categorisation of the pamphlets, the greatest of all Dobsonists, Aloysius Nestingbird, divided the canon into Daft, Valiant, Coruscating, Sensible, Shoddy, Hysterical, Majestic, Ornithological, Searing, and Illegible. “Daft” is by far the largest group, by a long chalk. And even if we wish to cavil with the scholar, we have Dobson’s own judgement. In Things To Shove Through A Funnel Into A Jar (out of print), he wrote, in an aside,

Some say many, if not most, of my pamphlets are daft. They may well be right. Who am I to argue? But just because I do not argue, and indeed largely accept the view, that does not mean it does not cause me untold grief. Only the other day, for example, as I trudged along the towpath of the filthy old canal on my way to the newsagent’s, I recalled that James Cake, in a review of one of my pamphlets, described it as ‘”irredeemably daft”, and my heart burst with misery and I began to sob. So copious were my tears that my vision was occluded. I was so overcome with dejection that I had to sprawl on a canalside bench until the weeping subsided. It was pouring with rain.

This is an interesting passage, in that it plainly shows the pamphleteer crying in the rain. It is not, then, something he has “managed to avoid”. But what about mountains being moved, mountains being climbed, and lovers packing suitcases? Can we find instances of these, dotted here and there, in the collected works? As Barack Obama used to say, so mystifyingly, “Yes we can!” Indeed, we can find so many instances that, extracted from their sources and cobbled together into a separate text, the passages would form a huge fat book rather than a mere pamphlet.

Dobson is forever prattling on about mountains, in spite of the fact that as far as we know he never actually climbed one, nor indeed lived anywhere near one. And he certainly never moved one, though if pamphlets such as A Few Tips On Mountain-Moving, With Shovel And Bucket (out of print) are to be believed, it was something he busied himself with every Thursday afternoon during the 1960s. We must be grateful, again, to Aloysius Nestingbird, who demonstrates conclusively that Dobson was either hallucinating or lying.

As for lovers and their packed suitcases, the pamphleteer does not seem as preoccupied with them as he is with mountains, but one must not overlook his curious pamphlet A Searing, Coruscating Analysis Of Paul Simon’s Song “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover”, With Particular Attention Paid To 50 Different Techniques Of Suitcase-Packing, Each Illustrated With Instructive Diagrams With Pointy Arrows And Diagonal Lines (out of print). The pamphlet is curious in that it is one of the few occasions when Dobson turned his attention to popular culture. The story goes that he was sitting on a canalside bench, weeping – this was a different bench/weeping incident to the one alluded to above – when he was joined by a passer-by, a hairy young man who took pity on the aged pamphleteer and gave him a somewhat grubby napkin with which to wipe away his tears. They fell into conversation, during which the young man babbled excitedly about rock and pop music, of which Dobson knew nothing. He was intrigued, however, and accepted the young man’s gift of a cassette tape containing the Paul Simon song, to which he then listened when he got home.

Diligent research has recently revealed that the young man was present-day Daily Telegraph music writer Charles Shaar Murray. Murray has always denied meeting Dobson, and shudders at the mention of his name. Mind you, the same could be said for lots of people. Do not forget that the pamphleteer was a very “difficult” man.

On Crutched Friars

The other day I was walking through the City of London and as I turned on to Crutched Friars I almost collided with a friar on crutches.

“Oi! Watch where you’re going!” he shouted.

“I do beg your pardon,” I said, for I am always polite to friars, “I’m afraid I was, as so often, lost in a dreamy haze of preoccupation.”

The friar steadied himself on his crutches and fixed me with a piercing gaze, as if he were preparing to excavate my soul.

“With what were you preoccupied?” he asked. His tone was abrupt.

“Oh, nothing significant,” I said, “Current affairs, you know, turmoil at the BBC, ash dieback, the ongoing saga of Abu Qatada.”

“You have your finger on the pulse,” he said, “I know nothing of those things. As a member of the Order of the Fratres Cruciferi my mind is pointed towards the ineffable.”

“Away from the grubby world?” I asked, but he was already hoisting himself off down the street. Having nothing better to do, I turned about and followed him. There was something in that gaze that had dislodged my brain from its mundane concerns. Not being on crutches myself, I swiftly caught up with him.

“May I accompany you as you make your tottering progress along Crutched Friars?” I asked.

He spat on a flagstone in a very unfriarly way and grunted.

“I would like to know less about current affairs and more about the ineffable,” I said.

“I can tell you nothing of the ineffable that you do not already know, in the innermost core of your being,” he said, “You might be more interested to know why I am on crutches.”

We turned left on to Lloyd’s Avenue.

“Well I didn’t want to pry,” I said.

He cackled.

“Why do people always say they are reluctant to pry into the affairs of crutched friars?” he said, and without waiting for an answer, carried on. “They pry when they ought to pray. Do you pray?”

“Not often,” I admitted, “Though I have been known to raise my eyes to the heavens at times of emotional anguish.”

We were now on Fenchurch Street.

“I can see,” he said, “By looking at your legs that you have not suffered the emotional anguish of losing the use of your lower limbs and being forced to haul yourself along Fenchurch Street on crutches.”

“Well actually I did lose the use of my lower limbs for several weeks when I was seven years old,” I said, “And felt great emotional anguish, commensurate with my youthfulness at the time.”

“Ah, but did you hobble encrutched through the city?” He saw from my face that the answer was no. “No, you lay abed in the comfort of home, no doubt, fetched warm milk and biscuits by your mama.”

“Indeed so,” I said, “May I ask, then, why you do not lie abed in your friary, fetched warm milk and biscuits by your friary equivalent of a mama?”

“Because a crutched friar cannot rest when he has urgent business to attend!” he shouted.

We were now on Lombard Street.

“You cannot pray, so pry!” he went on, “Pry to find out why I am on crutches and why I am heading west and now very slightly north-west through the city!”

To be honest, I didn’t much care. I still wanted to hear about the ineffable. But it seemed rude not to ask, as he kept going on about his crutches, so I asked.

“Would you believe me,” he said in reply, “If I told you our friary has fallen victim to heathen voodoo interlopers?”

“I would if you furnished me with more detail,” I said.

“They came one wild and windy night,” he said, “And they were cleverly designed as crutched friars. They said they came from one of our houses in Belgium or Bohemia, I forget which, somewhere beginning with B. We gave them porridge to eat and bales of straw on which to rest. All seemed hunky dory, or as hunky dory as it ever gets in the friary. But soon enough odd things started to happen, odd and unseemly things. Things involving the ritual sacrifice of chickens, for example.”

“Gosh!” I said.

We passed on to Mansion House Street.

“There was an eerie shenanigans with the blood of ducks, too, and pins in dollies, eyeless, horrible dollies. Brother Whitlow’s head swelled to the size of a medicine ball. Brother Sandwich raved like a madman. Brother Nitty turned into a serpent. And I lost the use of my lower limbs.”

“It was voodoo?” I asked.

“That is my guess. And as a crutched friar I intend to fight fire with fire. Though I feel their heathen spell upon me. I hope it is not too late.”

“But surely you are safe from them, and their awful magic, here in the sun-dappled city streets?” I asked.

“Ha!” he cried, “Would that it were so! Their power is hideous and terrible. It is not only I who fear their damnable tricks. You have chosen to walk beside me, so you too, at any instant, could fall victim to their voodoo!”

And as he spoke, we both turned into Poultry.

crutched friars to poultry

On Why I Should Be The Next Director General Of The BBC

Having let the Archbishopric of Canterbury slip through my fingers, I am not going to make the same mistake with the other big job now unexpectedly on offer. George Entwistle’s resignation after just fifty-four days at the helm means the post of BBC Director General is vacant. As Leonard Cohen put it, “I’m your man”.

The present BBC is a huge and bloated organisation, preposterously so when we consider what it does. The clue is in the name: British Broadcasting Corporation. It broadcasts programmes on the telly and the radio. That’s all. So let us gain some perspective. It is not governing a country or fighting a war or sending a mission to Mars. (Someone on the Today programme this morning did refer to the imminent “Star Trek world of the 2020s”, but that is a topic for a separate postage.)

I have no idea what all those hopeless hapless BBC-lifer nonentities in the seemingly numberless tiers of management actually do, and nor, I suspect, in their heart of hearts, do they. I would immediately dispense with the lot of them. Do you know how ResonanceFM is run? There is a benevolent dictator, assisted by one person who knows how all the technical gubbins works and one person who makes sure they have enough programmes to fill the schedule. And that’s it. The BBC could easily be run on the same lines, perhaps doubling up on the numbers of assistants to reflect that there is a TV arm as well as a radio one.

Now let us look in more detail at each of those.

Television. I don’t know if you have read a tabloid newspaper recently. I have, and I can tell you that a terrifying percentage of the content is related directly to television. If you removed the TV-related stuff from the average tabloid you would be left with a few flimsy pages. I think what this shows is that television has had a lethal and degrading effect on the culture of the masses. Truly we live in an age of pap. So my first instinct would be to shut down the television service entirely. That, however, is probably an impossible dream, even for as dictatorial a Director General as I intend to be. What would be feasible, however, is to scrap all the current programming and show only Key-approved content. Call it elitism, if you will, but I know I know best, and I am sure after a short while everyone else will agree.

Thus, for example, if you had a choice between hour upon hour of Celebrity Antique Cookery Car Jungle Challenge or a season of classic Googie Withers films, which would you prefer? Not that you will be given the choice under my dominion. It will be Googie all the way, every day! And when we have exhausted the Googie canon we will show all of Jacques Rivette’s films, and then Guy Maddin’s, on rotation. There are of course other approved film persons other than Googie and Jacques and Guy, and they will get their slots.

But oi!, I hear you cry, that is cinema, not television. Television is a separate and distinct medium in its own right. To which I reply, maybe so, but there needs to be a moratorium while we bash some sense back into the heads of the masses. After, say, ten years of my limited schedule, it might be possible to reintroduce certain made-for-television programmes, chiefly Scandinavian police dramas and a show dedicated entirely to Dr Alan Statham from Green Wing.

Radio. I mentioned ResonanceFM above, and it seems to me the best thing to do is simply to adjust the current BBC wavelengths so they broadcast Resonance instead. This would do wonders for the nation’s morale. As I would be in charge, there would of course be a channel dedicated wholly to Hooting Yard On The Air. There are already hundreds of hours’ worth of me babbling into a microphone available as podcasts, so these could be put on an ever-repeating loop.

I would, however, retain two programmes from the current BBC schedules, the shipping forecast and Farming Today. For the latter, the existing roster of presenters would be ditched (ha ha!) and replaced by some proper peasants.

Other Activities. BBC persons witter on at length about a multi-platform approach. Basically, all this means is making the TV and radio programmes available on computers and laptops and iFaffs and other digital devices. All you need is a computer-literate teenperson to sort that out.

My finest achievement, however, would be to resurrect The Listener. Younger readers may be unaware that from 1929 to 1991 the BBC published the best weekly periodical I have ever read. It was an intelligent general interest magazine of the kind now absent from our newsagents’ shelves. (Both The Spectator and The New Statesman have a political axe to grind; The Listener didn’t.) As a teenperson, I used to read it every week from cover to cover, and learned more from it than from any other single source. I knew the rot had set in when it was closed down two decades ago, a decision I can still not forgive.

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It is clear from the above that I am the best possible Director General the BBC could possibly have. I await “Lord” Patten’s call (assuming he is still in post at the BBC Trust when you read this. If not, I’ll take his job too, and I won’t need ennobling.)

On The Sea

Let us conduct an experiment. I would like you to make a mental list of, say, three or four of the most awful things you can possibly imagine. Do not stint, do not shy away from the power of your mind to summon horrors. For our purposes, your mental flights should be vivid enough for you to feel, physically, in your innards, terror or disgust or nausea or panic or whatever else is appropriate to the hideous visions swimming before you.

Done? Now I will show you how I can offer succour and solace and wipe away your terror or disgust or nausea or panic in an instant. All I need say is: worse things happen at sea. See? At once, however awful your imaginings, you are comforted by the thought that they could be much, much worse, because worse things happen at sea. This must be true, for it is a saw or a saying, it has gained currency by containing at least a germ of truth. That is how a phrase becomes a saying. People repeat it because they recognise a deep truth within it. Oft repeated, it becomes common, familiar to all. So nobody would repeat the phrase worse things happen at sea if it were not true, if, however awful a thing one might imagine, yet something even more awful would happen at sea.

We can easily demonstrate this by comparing it with a different combination of words, a phrase that is never repeated, has not become a saw or saying. All goats cause mayhem, for instance. It is simply said, a doddle to memorise, and in its syntactic structure identical to many a well-known saying. We can imagine it in the mouth of a countryside character speaking in a generic BBC peasant accent. Yet it is not said, because it is not true. Some goats cause mayhem, in particular circumstances, but many more goats do not. So all goats cause mayhem is not a saying. Worse things happen at sea is.

There is one flaw in the design of my experiment. In summoning to mind three or four of the most awful things you could possibly imagine, one or more of them might have been maritime. A shipwreck, for example, or a boy stood on a burning deck, or the emergence from the depths of the many-tentacled gigantic slime-covered monster known as the Kraken. In these cases, for me to say worse things happen at sea would offer no succour nor solace whatsoever. I am, in my terrible imaginings, already at sea, you clot!, you would cry, and justifiably so. Next time I conduct the experiment I will rephrase the premise. I would like you to make a mental list of, say, three or four of the most awful things you can possibly imagine happening on land, perhaps. Though the more astute among the class might guess where I am going with that one.

There is a pleasing universality to the idea that, whatever horror you may imagine or, if you are unlucky, actually experience, you can take solace from the fact that worse things happen at sea. By universality I mean that it is true in all cases. This ought not surprise us when we consider how mind-numbingly vast the sea is. It covers seven-tenths of our pretty globe. We speak sometimes of the seven seas, but in truth there is only one, vast, as I have said, and salty, and wet. Here and there, jutting out from it are land-masses, big and small, from continents to eyots, but they are insignificant in comparison to the sea. It is only to be expected that worse things than you can possibly imagine occur in the vast salty wet briny deep.

The last time I conducted this experiment was to a class of tots at a school community self-esteem ‘n’ diversity-awareness hub to which I had been invited to distribute prizes. Before handing out the gewgaws, I had the tots give vent to their wildest and most horrible imaginings. Hysteria ensued and a paramedic from a nearby clinic had to be rushed to the hall to inject the more frantic tinies. This annoyed me, as I had hoped to bring a sense of calm and the peace that passeth all understanding simply by telling them that worse things happen at sea. Unfortunately, before I had the chance to do so, one precocious tot shot his hand up, begging to say something.

“Yes, yes, what is it?” I shouted in the exasperated voice I tend to assume with precocious tots.

“One of the three or four awful things I have been imagining in my mind’s eye is the Grunty Man. I don’t care what you say, he is equally if not more terrifying than the Kraken.”

“Nonsense!” I rapped back, “The Kraken is a many-tentacled and gigantic and slime-covered monster which comes oozing up from the briny deep and lays waste anything it can lash out at with its many tentacles and it is so huge it can swallow great container ships whole!”

“Yes, I know,” said the infuriating tot, “But the Grunty Man is huge and horrible and hairy and comes forth from his cave or lair and lays waste everything in his path and his roaring is so loud that birds fall dead from the sky.”

“Yes,” said a second tot, without putting his hand up, “And what about the lumbering walrus-moustached psychopathic serial killer Babinsky? I have been imagining him as one of my three or four awful things, and I am so petrified that I have piddled in my pants. And I am known as the bravest, most courageous tot in the community self-esteem ‘n’ diversity-awareness hub and I am captane of everything and winer of the mrs joyful prize for rafia work.”

“Now look here -” I snapped, but such was the hubbub, the screaming, the hysterics, the gnashing of teeth, the rending of garments, the piddling in the pants, that I was drowned out.

Worse things happen at sea,” I bellowed, unheard. And for the very first time, I wondered if the saw or saying really was true. The scene before me was more awful than anything else I have ever experienced, and we were far inland, very far indeed from the vast wet salty sea.

On Why I Should Have Been The Next Archbishop Of Canterbury

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In choosing Justin Welby as the new Archbishop of Canterbury, the Church of England has made a grievous mistake. Mea culpa. I blame myself. I ought to have made it clear that I was available to take up the post. I don’t doubt that the appointments commission worked on the assumption that Hooting Yard kept me far too busy. Thus by hiding my light under a bushel, I kept myself out of the running. Welby it is, rather than Mr Key.

Some readers may be under the impression that I was, in any case, not qualified to take command of the see of Canterbury. It is true that I am not now, nor ever have been, a member of the Anglican church. Nor have I taken holy orders and served as a priest or vicar in any Christian denomination. Nor am I a regular churchgoer. But I would argue that these objections are mere fiddle-faddle. I was clearly the best candidate for the job. My fatal error was not to make clear that I actually was a candidate. In the circumstances, they can be forgiven for overlooking me. I shall not send thunderbolts crashing about their ears in vengeance. Not just yet, anyway.

The raining of righteous, holy thunderbolts upon the heads of the people would have been one of my chief activities as archbishop. I think I am correct in saying that appointment to the post confers upon the incumbent the ability to do so. That most, if not indeed all, recent archbishops have refrained from casting thunderbolts is a matter of sore regret. It is one of the reasons the Church of England is considered wishy-washy. Well, that would not have been a term anybody would have dared use had I been installed at Lambeth Palace!

After donning the pointy mitre and golden robes, my first act would have been to declaim my sermon on the plains of Gath. I would have had the congregation kneeling and trembling and terror-struck, which in my view is the only proper response. There would be none of that queasy smiling and shaking of hands and hugging. No pap from me about “gentle Jesus”. No, it would be fire and brimstone, fear and penitence. All the so-called “issues” which get the present church entangled in endless hand-wringing blather – women bishops, gay vicars, blah blah – would be forgotten, because the Anglican communion, worldwide, would be marching to a different drum, a drum pounded, relentlessly and violently, by Mr Key. I would call on sinners to repent, and if there was the merest whiff of shilly-shallying, I would boom that stuff about the plains of Gath into their ears, over and over again, until they damned well did repent. With knobs on.

Obviously, once a week I would take time off from my episcopal duties to pop into the Resonance studios to broadcast Hooting Yard On The Air. The staff would just have to get used to bowing their heads at my approach, no, not just bowing, prostrating themselves on their bellies upon my arrival, in fear and trembling. I would wave my sceptre threateningly, and cast holy thunderbolts crashing about the studio. I think we are going to have to wait a long time for Justin Welby to do likewise. I hear he has never even appeared on Resonance. And now he is the Archbishop of Canterbury! No wonder this country is going to hell in a handcart.

Under my rule – sadly now but a figment – all those handcarts would have been turned about and heading for heaven. The heaven in question would be a peculiarly Hooting Yard kind of heaven. I would sit there, enthroned, casting thunderbolts and sending forth bolts of lightning from my fingertips. Serried ranks of seraphim and cherubim and ophanim and dominions and virtues and powers and principalities and archangels and angels would surround me, chanting ethereal chants, strumming on harps, and engaging in a variety of other angelic activities. Meanwhile, the great mass of Anglicans, plus of course all those poor benighted peoples across the earth of other faiths and none, would be gathered together poring over the collected works of Dobson, miraculously back in print!, pointing out flocks of birds in the sky, and picnicking upon sausages and smokers’ poptarts and cans of special heavenly Squelcho!.

Unrepentant sinners, meanwhile, those who remained impervious to the power of my booming sermon on the plains of Gath, would be consigned to the fiery pit. It is a pit too awful to contemplate, fiery and sulphurous and pitch black, a pit surrounded by vast walls of iron and lead, so thick, so high, that the signal from the Resonance radio mast cannot pierce them. Next time you are tempted to sin, think of that. Think of an eternity of spiritual agony where you are condemned to a pit where you can never ever hope to listen to Hooting Yard On The Air, or indeed to any of the many enticing programmes on Resonance. You will tread the path of righteousness, will you not?, to avoid such a terrible fate.

Still, I would not wish it to be thought that I am munching sour grapes. I am even minded to wish Justin Welby well. And, as I say, I have only myself to blame. As soon as beardy Rowan Williams announced he was stepping down, I ought to have presented myself at Lambeth Palace, engarbed in golden robes and a pointy mitre, and simply taken over. I could have locked the beardy one in a janitor’s cupboard and proclaimed that I was now in charge. It was an opportunity missed, and one I shall regret for the rest of my life. But I will not regret it as much as the Anglican communion. Those teeming millions of worshippers have no idea what they’re missing.

Perhaps I should return instead to the faith of my fathers. The Pope is an aged fellow, and he will have to be replaced sooner or later. I should make myself ready to assume command of the Roman Catholic church instead. Watch this space.

On Homburg

“I am going to Switzerland,” announced Dobson at breakfast one morning in the 1950s.

“Oh?” asked Marigold Chew, chewing on a sausage.

“For some time now I have been keen to wear a Homburg hat on my head,” said the greatest out of print pamphleteer of the twentieth century, “And I thought there would be no better place to obtain the hat than in Homburg itself, which I have learned is a municipality in the Swiss canton of Thurgau. So that is where I shall go, as soon as I have managed to complete the extremely intricate lacing up of these Guatemalan traffic policeman’s boots.”

“Before you go,” said Marigold Chew, “It might be helpful for you to know that the Homburg hat originated not in the Swiss Homburg of which you speak, but in Bad Homburg vor der Höhe in the Hochtaunuskreis district of Hesse in Germany. King Edward VII came back from a jaunt there sporting the hat, and made it popular.”

But Dobson was so intent on the complicated lacing of his boots that he did not listen to his inamorata, and before she could stop him he had donned his long Tzipi Gulbenkian overcoat and crashed out of the door into the autumnal 1950s downpour.

When, later, much later, he arrived in the Swiss municipality of Homburg, it did not take him long to discover he was in the wrong Homburg. The conversation he had with the proprietor of a Swiss hat shop has not been recorded, but we do know that Dobson blew a gasket and spent several hours in the custody of Homburg law enforcement officers. Released after promising that he would leave the town immediately and never, ever return, Dobson headed for Bad Homburg vor der Höhe. Having only enough cash to buy a hat, he had to walk. It was raining in both Switzerland and Germany at that time, and as he trudged north, for two hundred and forty miles, his temper grew ever fouler.

By the time he arrived at the home of the hat he was exhausted and filthy and sopping wet. He slumped on a municipal bench and scribbled some notes in his jotter, notes which later formed the basis of his magnificent pamphlet Thoughts Upon A Rain-soaked Trudge From Homburg To Homburg (out of print). They were not pretty thoughts. A gaggle of Bad Homburg tots were out on an instructional walk with their governess, and when they stopped to stare at the bedraggled pamphleteer he threw pebbles at them. This led to an altercation with the tots and their governess and several German law enforcement officers, from which Dobson only managed to extricate himself by promising to write a pamphlet in praise of Bad Homburg tots and governesses and law enforcement officers. No trace of such a work has ever been found among his papers, but diligent Dobsonists continue to rummage. Perhaps one day it will be unearthed.

Quenching his thirst with water from a puddle – into which he had earlier inadvertently sploshed up to his ankles – Dobson set off in search of a hat shop. He soon found one, and managed to buy a hat without causing a rumpus. He was, for a few moments, happy.

“I cannot wait to get home!” he said to himself, “Marigold Chew will be resmitten, all over again, when she sees me sporting my Homburg hat on my head!”

The idyll did not last. Barely had the pamphleteer set foot outside the hat shop than he was accosted by a German person wearing some kind of uniform, who jabbed him on the shoulder and shouted.

“Your trouser cuffs are dirty and your shoes are laced up wrong. You’d better take off your Homburg, ‘cos your overcoat is too long.”

“I beg your pardon?” spluttered Dobson. The man repeated himself word for word.

“Now look here,” said the pamphleteer, “First, my trouser cuffs are only dirty because I have walked two hundred and forty miles to get here, and stepped in many a puddle along the way. Second, these are not shoes but boots, specifically Guatemalan traffic policeman’s boots. The lacing of them is an extremely intricate business, and I would challenge anybody to lace them up correctly at the first attempt. Third, this overcoat is not too long. Yes, it is long, for it is of the stylish cut designed by tiptop overcoat designer Tzipi Gulbenkian. Ladies have been known to swoon at the sight of its decisive and urgent swish as I sashay along the boulevards engarbed in it. And no, I will not remove my brand new Homburg hat, nor doff it, to you or to any other man.”

“Then I must place you under immediate arrest,” said his accoster.

“And who might you be, and what agency does that uniform signify?” asked Dobson.

“I am Obergruppengit Von Höhenzollernschweswigstockhausenstimmung of the Bad Homburg vor der Höhe Sartorial Standards Enforcement Police,” he said, “And if you do not come quietly I will thump you several times with unimaginable brutality until you sob for your mama.”

Dobson was not a physical coward, but nor was he a fool.

“What if I take my hat off and put it in a carrier bag until I leave your delightful spa town with its delightful tots and delightful governesses and delightful law enforcement officers?” he whimpered.

“That will be acceptable, said the Obergruppengit.

So Dobson put his Homburg hat in a carrier bag, and the rain poured down upon his bare unhatted bonce. As he did so, the town clock in the Bad Homburg market square stood waiting for the hour, when its hands they both turned backwards, and on meeting they devoured both themselves and also any fool who dared to tell the time. As we have learned, Dobson was not a fool. He trudged, in the rain, out of Bad Homburg vor der Höhe, headed for home. And the sun and moon shattered, and the signposts ceased to sign.

On Why Mitt Romney Lost

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There will be much soul-searching among US Republicans as they seek to account for their defeat in the presidential election. A variety of factors will be blamed, a variety of prescriptions for future strategy put forward. They could save themselves much time and much agonising by paying heed to Hooting Yard. The reason Mitt Romney lost is clear. As with so many things, oh! so many, there is a simple ornithological explanation.

Readers will probably be aware that hot on the heels of the US election, the Chinese too are ushering in their new leadership. As is the way with people’s republics, the people themselves have absolutely no say in the matter. The Chinese government is appointed, every ten years, by the all-powerful Party. As communists, the Party bigwigs clearly know what is best for the little people, hence the absence of such bourgeois twaddle as voting booths and ballot boxes.

As part of this authoritarian approach, the Party is keen to ensure the people do not get any funny ideas about possible alternatives. Thus the BBC Today programme this morning reported that an instruction has been issued nationwide. All Chinese pigeons are to be kept encaged until the end of the Party Congress, to foil the possibility of pigeons being used to carry propaganda leaflets from place to place, thus stirring unrest.

Now, we know the Asiatic peoples are extremely fond of their birds and poultry, and it is undoubtedly the case that the domestic pet pigeon population of China is far, far greater than its United States equivalent. Nevertheless, we should not discount the tremendous power of propaganda in the form of a leaflet tied to the leg of a pigeon swooping down from the sky. Which of us would be immune to the message borne to us by so spectacular an agency? Television, the press, Het Internet, the mass media in general may overwhelm us, but nothing can approach the sheer spellbinding thrill of a communiqué delivered to us tied to the leg of an avian herald swooping down from the wide blue empyrean. The Chinese Communist Party understands this.

It seems quite clear that the first thing Mitt Romney ought to have done, having won his party’s nomination to run for president, was to arrange for the encaging of the entire American pigeon population. Ah, you will argue, but Romney was merely the candidate, without the necessary powers. I say, Pish! Politics is a dark art, and such technicalities should not be used as excuses. All the Man in the Mormon Underpants need have done is to have his backroom team devise forged official announcements.

Americans, of course, do not take kindly to orders from central government, so a hardline approach would not have worked. A command such as “Cage your pigeon now, on pain of death for both you and the pigeon!” would have been torn up and cast into the waste chute by the majority of pigeon-owners. A more subtle approach, appealing to traditional American values, would be far more effective. “A caged and flight-inhibited pigeon is an American pigeon!” is a slogan that might work, as is “In the land of the free, pigeons stay cooped up!”

Without such a plan, with every day that passed, no doubt the Obama campaign was busy tying messages to the legs of pigeons in every hamlet and town and city in every state across the land, from sea to shining sea. By the time election day dawned, the damage was done.

Instead of grounding the birds in their coops and cages, could Romney have countered with his own troop of pigeons, carrying the Republican message? After all, pigeons themselves have no party affiliation, or indeed any affiliation whatsoever other than a fondness for pecking millet, making somewhat sinister burbly cooing noises, flying hither and thither, and defecating copiously. Tie a message to a pigeon’s leg, either in writing or pictograms, and the bird will not actually try to read it. Remember, they have incredibly tiny brains in their tiny birdy heads. They will simply soar away into the sky and carry the message wherever they are sent. So, yes, in theory, the Republicans could have stolen a march on their rivals by harnessing pigeon propaganda power. Why didn’t they?

It is no accident, I think, that there is absolutely no reference to pigeons in the Book of Mormon. I have checked in An Exhaustive Concordance of the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price (1977), which helpfully lists all the words – 5,596 of them – and the number of times each one appears in that very sensible book. Given Mitt Romney’s sincere devotion to his faith, we can conclude that he is very probably unaware of the existence of pigeons. If Joseph Smith had no occasion to mention them when he transcribed the contents of the golden plates, then they are clearly outwith God’s plan, and can be ignored, even actively shunned. Thus were the seeds sewn of Romney’s defeat.

This, then, is the single crucial lesson the Republicans must learn before the election of 2016. They have to bite the bullet and acknowledge the existence of pigeons. That is the first step. Take that step, and all else follows. They can then decide to campaign on the basis of nationwide pet pigeon encaging and encooping, or tie their own messages to the legs of these filthy avian pariahs and let them fly free. But they must do one or another. It is the pigeons who will win the election, as they have just demonstrated.

On Picnic Panic

Psychiatrists, phrenologists, and other brain doctors have identified a common mind-malaise known as picnic panic. This distressing condition afflicts picnickers who fly into a panic when picnicking. It can be terribly, terribly debilitating, and ruins many an otherwise splendid bucolic picnicking idyll.

Consider the following case study. Ned B_____, a hale and hearty moustachioed jolly type of fellow, fond of rowing boats and bird slaughter, was exactly the type of person you might find attending a picnic in the 1930s. And attend several picnics he did. At each one, however, he fell victim to picnic panic, the panic increasing in severity to the point where, at his final picnic, he ran screaming into a nearby forest and was found, weeks later, a gibbering maniac beyond all hope of redemption. He was confined to an Asylum for the Hopelessly Bewildered until 1963.

Upon his release, Ned B_____ was found accommodation in a dilapidated seaside resort, far from the field where once he had picnicked. A carer was appointed, a retired aviatrix named Mavis Handbasin, a very sensible woman with impeccable references. Among other responsibilities, she was charged with ensuring that Ned B_____ never consumed a single crumb of food nor slurp of drink when out of doors. It was thought, with good reason, that if ever he did so traumatic memories of picnics past might well up in his brain, and lead to further calamity. For this reason, too, he was kept away from all kinds of rugs and blankets, even when indoors.

For several years, all was well. Ned B______ passed his days happily enough, in standard dilapidated seaside resort fashion. He was even known to chuckle occasionally, at some amusement or other. He began a stamp collection, and adopted a pudding-basin hairstyle. He often dreamed of slaughtering seagulls, but they were only dreams. It was not thought advisable to allow him a firearm.

In the summer of 1968, however, during the third phase of the Tet Offensive, disaster struck. That good woman Mavis Handbasin arrived one morning at Ned B______’s squalid seafront boarding house to find him gone. On the wall of his kitchenette, scrawled in bright red crayon the colour of blood, were the letters PICN, followed by a long mad vertical line trailing off, down towards the wainscot. It had almost certainly been intended as a second letter I. Mavis Handbasin intuited the ghost of a final letter C, and her head began to spin. Somehow, something had inserted the idea of picnics into Ned B______’s poor shattered brain. She must find him before he did himself a mischief, or caused mayhem and havoc.

She found him soon enough. There he was, upon the pebbly beach, just yards from his door. He was sat upon a raincoat he had spread out upon the pebbles, in imitation of a picnic blanket in a field. He was eating a sausage. As she approached, Mavis Handbasin saw that his eyes were glazed and his countenance stuck in a rictus of terror. His pudding-basin haircut was in a state of the utmost dishevelment. His flesh was the colour of curd. Miss Handbasin was neither a psychiatrist nor a phrenologist nor any kind of brain doctor, but she had been awarded a certificate of attendance at the module of a training course designed to teach amateurs to recognise the telltale signs of picnic panic. Looking at Ned B______, on the beach with a sausage on that summer’s day, she thought she had never in her life seen a more vivid exemplum of the malady.

And as she looked, the once hale and hearty moustachioed jolly fellow, now reduced to a wreck, swallowed the last bit of sausage. He began to flap his arms, desperately, his head uptilted, mad eyes gazing at the sky. His carer knew all too well what this meant. Panicked by his impromptu picnic, Ned B______’s wild brain told him to flee, and he was trying to flee by flying. He was turning into a seagull.

She took from its sling her Mannlicher-Carcano rifle, cocked it, aimed, and shot him dead.

Such is the instructive case of Ned B______. It is important to note, however, that not all authorities agree that death by sniper’s bullet is the inevitable outcome in every case of picnic panic. Mistakes were made in this case, not least allowing Ned B______ simultaneous access to a beach, a raincoat, and a sausage. One, or even two, of those he could have coped with, if carefully monitored. It was the combination of all three that proved  fatal.

Source : “The Terrifically Exciting Doings Of Mavis Handbasin”, Episode 43, in Miss Blossom Partridge’s Weekly Digest, Vol. XXXIII, No. 7. No author is given, and it is thought the “doings” are a thinly-disguised autobiography penned by Mavis Handbasin herself, from her attic room in an Asylum for the Hopelessly Bewildered perched on a hillside on the outskirts of Pointy Town. Visitors report that Miss Handbasin enjoys weekly picnics, in all weathers, and has never shown the slightest sign of picnic panic.

On My Picnic Button

My panic button was not the only button I lost to the predations of a bird. My picnic button, too, was pecked and snatched and carried away by a crow. For all I know, it might have been the same crew that took my panic button. Perhaps there is a separate piece to be written about lost buttons, for I have lost many buttons, so many, I had not thought crows had undone so many.

My picnic button was an heirloom, as you will probably have guessed. You do not see so many of them these days. They were popular in the interwar years. Their exact purpose is no longer clear, but at the time there was scarce a picnic embarked upon in these isles where a picnic button was not taken along, in the hamper, or in the pocket of one of the picnickers. We will investigate further after I have told you the story of how I came to be in possession of one, until it was cruelly snatched away from me, by a crow.

My uncle Quentin was a world-famous and bad-tempered yet loveable scientist from Kirrin Island. When he died, we found his entire worldly goods stored in four supermarket carrier bags. It was a heteroclite jumble, including the skull of a hare, an envelope from L. Garvin, Honey Merchants, containing grey mullet scales, a cheese box containing a puffin’s beak, together with a Windsor & Newton leaflet containing advice on the control of moth damage to paint brushes, an envelope containing snow bunting feathers, a list of mills from Merionethshire, an envelope containing bits of silver foil (’from Aunt Ethel’), a book of telephone numbers – containing none, an exercise book containing a hair prescription from a Dr Ferguson of Bromsgrove, a large photo of sheep in a slate pen, various brown envelopes (empty), an envelope containing a single dead prawn, and a picnic button. Curiously, the picnic button apart, this collection of bits and bobs was identical to the contents of the four supermarket carrier bags containing the worldly goods of the late R.S. Thomas and his wife, as noted in Byron Rogers’ biography of the poet. [I am indebted to Nige for alerting me to this.]

After my uncle’s funeral – where, according to his wishes, his corpse was encased in a gigantic wicker man and set ablaze – my siblings and cousins and I divvied up the contents of the carrier bags. We realised, after aligning the items on a baize tabletop and counting them, that their number matched exactly those of us there gathered. So we decided upon a raffle. It was by this means that I acquired the picnic button and bore it away, in a pocket of my Tyrolean sports-casual jacket, which I wore to the funeral in defiance of all etiquette. Everybody else was dressed in the correct black, from head to toe. I like to think Uncle Quentin would have approved of my jacket-decision, for he was a great fan of The Sound Of Music (Robert Wise, 1965), and would softly sing “Edelweiss”, word-imperfect, on the rare occasions when he was not in a bad temper.

As soon as I got home, I took down from the bookcase The Encyclopaedia Of Buttons and read up on my newly acquired picnic button. This is what I discovered:

During the interwar years, no picnic in these isles was complete without a picnic button. One among any complement of picnickers would be designated the buttoneer, and be charged with bringing the picnic button to the picnic. It would either be carried in the hamper or in the buttoneer’s pocket. Written picnic reminiscences are sparse on detail of the button, and today, in the postwar years, there are two rival theories regarding the purpose of the picnic button. These may be scientifically summarised as follows:

The picnic button was always a bright and glittery button, and was placed at edge of the picnic blanket. Its brightness and glitter were designed to attract the attention of, for example, swooping crows or similar picnic predators. It was thought that, dazzled by the button, any swooping crow (or similar) would have its attention distracted from picnic essentials such as cream crackers, sausages, or cans of Squelcho!, which it might otherwise grasp in its savage talons and carry away in flight. Thus a picnic button was very rarely among the items needing to be packed up and loaded on to the brake at the end of the picnic. Keen picnickers of the era kept a huge supply of picnic buttons for this very reason.

This theory has been comprehensively demolished by Wigmarole et al in A Discursive Analysis Of The Picnic Button 1918-1939, wherein it is argued that the picnic button was merely a so-called “spare button” taken to the picnic in case one of the participating ladies’ or gentlemen’s buttons became snagged on a thorn or similar pointy brambly bit of vegetation, and thus loosed, and thus detached, and thus lost, upon the ground, or in a puddle.

Dinsby, the picnic historian, fired back with a broadside arguing that such a button would only have ever been called a spare button, and not a picnic button. At time of writing [1962] the controversy has yet to be resolved.

And fifty years later, that remains the case. All I am able to say on the matter is based on my own experience. The week after Uncle Quentin’s funeral, I went on a picnic in the field where the charred remains of the wicker man still smouldered. I placed my heirloom picnic button on the edge of the picnic blanket. Before I even had time to remove from the hamper the cream crackers and sausages and cans of Squelcho!, down swooped a crow and snatched the button in its beak, and flew away into the wild blue yonder. I have not had the heart to have a picnic since that terrible day.

On My Panic Button

When she observed that I was boggle-eyed and twitching and panting, I explained to my lifestyle coach that I suffered from debilitating panic attacks.

By the way, if you do not have a lifestyle coach, I strongly recommend that you acquire one. Mine is peculiarly expensive, but I think some come at a discount. I can say without fear of contradiction that since hiring my lifestyle coach I have become a butterfly where once I was a caterpillar. I fly where once I crawled. Actually, it is not true that I say that without fear of contradiction. Plenty of people will line up to contradict me, to charge that I more closely resemble a creature crawling upon its belly upon the earth. Hence my panic attacks.

“What you need,” said my lifestyle coach, “is a panic button.”

Happily, she had a box full of such buttons in her desk drawer, and sold one to me there and then. It was peculiarly expensive, for a button, and there was no discount available.

When I got home, I sewed the button on to my jacket, roughly in the vicinity of my heart. The idea was that, whenever I felt a panic attack coming upon me, I should clutch at the button desperately. To avert the risk of ripping the button loose, in my desperation, I sewed it on using a good deal of extremely strong thread, as my lifestyle coach advised. I need hardly add that the jacket to which I chose to affix my panic button was of Tyrolean sports-casual cut, similar to that worn by Christopher Plummer in The Sound Of Music (Robert Wise, 1965). It is my jacket du jour, every jour.

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Tyrolean sports-casual jacket, prior to affixation of the panic button

Now it is a curious fact that many people think they know much about buttons without really knowing the first thing about them. To the untrained eye, for example, my panic button looked like a stray button inexplicably sewn on to my jacket more or less over where my heart was pounding like a steam hammer. The button-ignorant might posit the slapdash handiwork of a myopic or distracted sempstress. Thus, prancing along the boulevard in the autumnal sunshine for the first time since affixing my panic button, I was emotionally prepared for the barrage of catcalls and brickbats I was sure to receive. If and when an urchin pointed at my heart and shouted “Oi, mister! You’ve got a stray button there on your Tyrolean sports-casual jacket! Looks like it was sewn on by a half-blind sempstress!”, I would not need to clutch at my button in desperation to stave off a panic attack. Already it seemed to be working its magic, helping to keep a sense of gibbering terror welling up and undoing me.

As it happened, on that first outing with the panic button, I had no cause to clutch at it at all. It was if, with the reassurance of its presence, all the usual prods to my panic vanished. Louring clouds, misaligned paving slabs, yapping puppies, bookshop window displays piled high with Jeanette Winterson paperbacks . . . where usually I would shriek and stagger boggle-eyed and twitching and panting through the streets, I was a picture of calmness and insouciance. I may even have essayed a whistle, a chirpy tune half-remembered from a childhood jamboree.

On the corner of Ringo Starr Street and Erebus & Terror Mews, I bumped unexpectedly into my lifestyle coach. She was sitting on a bench feeding birds with stale bread from a greaseproof paper bag.

“I have to say,” I had to say, “This panic button you sold me is worth every penny! I have been out and about now for ten minutes and not once have I felt even the merest pang of panic. I have not had to clutch at it in desperation once!”

She turned her head to look at me and there was an eerie cast to her countenance.

“Feed the birds, tuppence a bag, tuppence, tuppence, tuppence a bag,” she said.

I looked at her more closely and realised she was not my lifestyle coach after all. Or, if she was, she had aged by several decades since I saw her the day before. I felt a sudden tremor of fear.

“Feed the birds, tuppence a bag, tuppence, tuppence, tuppence a bag,” she said again, gazing straight into my eyes with a look I could now see was a hideous admixture of amusement and fathomless malevolence.

Birds were swooping around us in teeming profusion, crows and linnets and sparrows and starlings and tippihedrens and peewits. Instinctively, I knew the moment had come to clutch at my panic button. But as I raised my hand towards my heart, where the button glittered on my Tyrolean sports-casual jacket, one of the birds swooped in and pecked it clean away. I had used extremely strong thread, but it was no match for the sharp savage beak of the crow. The bird flew up and up, carrying my panic button away into the sky, the sky where I ought to have been fluttering like a butterfly. Instead, in my panic I tottered and fell to the ground, upon misaligned paving slabs, down on my belly like a caterpillar. I clutched at the strand of broken thread where my button had been. My lifestyle coach, or the aged biddy who had taken her place, stood up from the bench, and trod upon the small of my back as she shambled away with her now empty greaseproof paper bag. The louring clouds broke, and a deluge poured down upon me. I was unbuttoned and undone.

On Maddened Janitors

Janitors can become maddened for a variety of reasons. It is important to learn to recognise the telltale signs, among which are an empurpled face, wild dishevelled hair, and grunting. If you find yourself in a locked building with a maddened janitor, the best thing to do is to confine him in a cupboard while you desperately seek a key to the locked door, thus allowing you to flee.

There are several accounts of people upending the janitor’s bucket and cramming it over his head. The idea seems to be that, robbed of sight, with an upturned bucket on his head, the maddened janitor will be rendered harmless. This is absolutely wrong. In these circumstances, the janitor merely becomes more maddened, and brandishes his mop the more menacingly, plodding sightless along the corridors of the locked building like unto a zombie. If he manages to corner you, and whack you on the bonce with his mop, you will fall unconscious, and when you awake you too will have become a maddened janitor, destined to roam the corridors and cubbies of the locked building forever more.

In any town or city you are likely to see buildings shuttered and abandoned, boarded up or slated for demolition. These are the haunts of whole colonies of maddened janitors, roaming eternally in the darkness. Sometimes one of them might stumble upon a bunch of keys, and rattle them, and seek to find a door they will unlock. To date, no maddened janitors have ever managed to escape into the open streets. It is thought they would perish at the instant of leaving their building, but nobody is quite sure. That is why boardings-up are made as fast as possible, not just with hardboard but with planks of wood and chains and electric alarm systems and, in some cases, patrolling dogs.

It can happen that one of the smaller and stupider patrol dogs will find its way into the building through a duct or flap. It is unlikely ever to emerge, for it will be set upon by the maddened janitors with their mops, and no matter how shrill its yapping, it is doomed. To what purpose the maddened janitors put the battered corpses of small and stupid patrol dogs is a matter of conjecture, one which we may not wish to dwell on if we are ever to get a good night’s sleep.

Several bright minds have pondered the possibility of somehow unmaddening a maddened janitor. Can they be proffered gifts, perhaps, to placate them? One brave researcher worked his way through a hamper full of possible offerings, including buns, biscuits, ice cubes, pre-stunned puppies, new mop handles, linctus, and feathers. The results varied. Maddened janitors by turns quaked, groaned, had convulsive fits, or thumped their heads repeatedly against walls. But not one was unmaddened.

It might be thought demolition of the building housing a maddened janitor colony would finish them off. But no. Often, from the rubble, in the night, groans can be heard, and the clank of mop handle against bucket, and the faint rattling of a bunch of keys. They are down there somewhere, furious now, madder than ever, waiting only to rise up. But as they cannot bear the open air, they wait, and wait, until such time as a new building rises in place of the old. Its gleaming new corridors and space age swishy automatic doors and CCTV cameras promise a new dispensation. Tenants are not hard to find, sprightly young dotcom startups for example.

One night, a few months after the company has moved in, an eager young whippersnapper is working late at his desk, sweeping his fingertips back and forth across the screen of his iFaff, generating a revenue stream. He is tiring, and in need of coffee, so heads off along the corridor to the hot drink dispenser. The only sound is the low hum of nocturnal light and power. As he approaches the machine he rummages in his pocket for coinage. The clinking of metal is enough to rouse, from the subterranean depths of the building, a maddened janitor. He is one who had a bucket upturned over his head. He brandishes his mop, and clambers from the pit, into the boiler room, and along the basement corridors, through the fuse cupboard, to the stairs. And up he comes, sightless because of his bucket, implacable, grunting, feeling his way forward with his outstretched mop. Were you there, a fly on the wall, you might just be able to see bits of small and stupid dog entangled in the strands of the mop.

The keen young web entrepreneur has made his selection from the numberless coffee choices available, and is listening to it hiss and glug into a paper cup. It is the last thing he will ever hear, because he is an inattentive young man who knows nothing of the hidden world.

But you do, now. And you will not be inattentive, as you trudge in the autumn rain along the boarded-up high streets of your dismal town. You will hurry your pace, your collar pulled up, puffing on a gasper, listening for the yap of patrol dogs, muttering a prayer.

On Cav And Pag

Cav and Pag went up the hill to sing a gorgeous aria. Cav fell down and broke his crown and Pag came tumbling after. Cav and Pag lay in the muck at the foot of the hill with dented heads. They sang a siren song, hoping to attract an ambulance with a proper blaring siren. This is a technique known as sympathetic singing. You sing making the sounds of what you wish for. It doesn’t always work, but today it did, and Cav and Pag were halfway through the second verse of their siren song when along came an ambulance. Its blaring siren drowned out their singing.

The paramedics deployed goo and bandages and pills and bundled Cav and Pag into the back of the ambulance. For bureaucratic reasons they were taken to two different clinics, Cav to a rustic wellbeing centre and Pag to a clown hospital. Lying in their beds, many miles apart, Cav and Pag sang a duet. Each could hear the other’s part through hidden earpieces. But other patients on their wards, hearing only half a song, grew restive, and chucked things at them, hoping thereby to shut them up. The rustic patients showered Cav with rotten fruit and vegetables, and the clowns chucked pails of water over Pag.

Both of them stopped singing, and now all they could hear in their hidden earpieces was a low electronic hum. Cav and Pag began to hum in unison, but this served to exasperate the sick and recuperating rustics and clowns even further. The rustics rang their bells and the clowns parped their hooters to summon brutes, who turfed Cav out of the rustic wellbeing centre and Pag out of the clown hospital more or less instantaneously.

The singers sat, with bandaged heads, on pathways many miles apart. They struck up another duet, a gorgeous one, and began, tentatively, to make their ways towards each other. Both had head injuries, and were somewhat disorientated, and discovered, as they staggered along their pathways, that their sense of balance had been affected, and they kept toppling over. Eventually the strain of singing and moving at the same time became too much. Cav lay down to rest in a ditch, and Pag found a park bench upon which to sprawl. They fell silent. Their earpieces hummed.

Unbeknown either to Cav or Pag, the humming of their earpieces was picked up by a Blötzmann mast towering over a top secret national security facility, a cluster of deceptively ramshackle huts surrounded by a tall wire fence. It took an operative sat at his scanner in one of the huts mere seconds to locate, precisely, Cav’s ditch and Pag’s park bench. Mere seconds later, a gate in the fence buzzed open and a pair of bulky armoured vehicles trundled out, their drivers taking them in opposite directions.

They picked Cav up first. He was asleep, and they injected him with a serum to ensure he did not wake. Pag proved less tractable. He had dozed, but was woken by birdsong, and when they came to get him he was clowning around, still bandaged, still disorientated. He tried to escape their clutches by doing pratfalls on banana skins. They had to Taser him.

Cav and Pag were held in separate but adjoining rooms in a subterranean part of the facility. Their hidden earpieces were removed and taken to a lab for analysis. Data was extracted and transferred to old fashioned magnetic tape. The resulting recordings were then piped in to their separate holding cells through huge loudspeakers. Sat on stools, provided with beakers of vitamin-enhanced tap water, Cav was made to listen to Pag and Pag to Cav.

At first, they heard a gorgeous aria. But at the control desk in the Blötzmannite nerve centre, a sinister operative began a series of tape manipulations he had learned from various argumentative German composers in the 1950s. Cav and Pag heard each other backwards, at double speed, with distorted pitch, and with all sorts of other modifications. And always, as a running undertone, that electronic hum.

Their brains were already dislodged from their tumblings down the hill, and the tape recordings served only to derange them further. On day six, when they were taken out of their holding cells, both Cav and Pag, though outwardly right as rain, their bandages removed, were inwardly doolally.

It was at this point they were taken back to the foot of the hill, and injected with a serum that put them back to sleep. When they awoke, in the muck, they would remember nothing. Their tumblings, their broken crowns, the paramedics, the clinics, the rustics and clowns and rotten fruit and vegetables and pails of water and the top secret facility, the manipulated tape recordings, all forgotten.

Cav woke first, and shook Pag to wake him too. They rubbed their heads, in consternation and perplexity rather than from any physical cause.

“I am not sure where we are,” sang Cav, gorgeously, “But I feel curiously impelled, impelled, oh! impelled, tra-la, tra-lee, to go to Dallas, Texas.”

“Me too, me too, me too!” sang Pag, equally gorgeously.

“I shall take a Mannlicher-Carcano sniper’s rifle with me, to the Texas Schoolbook Depositor-eee!” sang Cav.

“And I shall keep watch, holding an umbrella, upon the grassy knoll, fol de rol!” sang Pag.

And so the pair set out on their journey, and they climbed every mountain and forded every stream, singing their hearts out, oh so gorgeously.

On Owls

I Heard The Owl Call My Name was a bestseller in the 1970s, alongside such now neglected titles as Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance. What all three had in common was a concern with the ultimate meaning of existence, or at least the meaning of existence in the specific context of blissed-out self-obsessed post-hippy North America. I actually read the latter two titles, in my misguided teendom, though thankfully I seem to have recovered from the experience with no ill effects. But I never got round to I Heard The Owl Call My Name, and thus it continues to intrigue me. Well, not to a debilitating extent. I do not wake up every morning fretting about it, nor have I sought to obtain a copy. What intrigues me is the title.

The book was written by Margaret Craven. Now, over the years I have listened to numberless owls, and not one of them has ever uttered the cry “Margaret Craven”, nor any sound remotely akin to it, no matter how strangulated the voice in which we pronounce it in an attempt to mimic an owl. Aha!, I hear you say, but I Heard The Owl Call My Name is a novel, is it not?, so perhaps the name the owl calls is that of a fictional narrator, rather than of a non-fictional author. This is a persuasive argument until one does a spot of research and discovers that the book concerns a dying Anglican vicar named Mark Brian. Again, “Mark Brian” is not by any stretch of the imagination the sort of sound made by any owl it has ever been my pleasure to hear, as I crunch through the duff on the forest floor in the dead of night, my lantern occasionally picking out the fugitive sight of a small scurrying mammal, its heart pounding in terror. It is in such a place, at such a time, that one is likely to hear owls hooting.

We use the onomatopoeic word “hoot” to represent the call of an owl, or, if we are writing a children’s book, we might deploy “too-wit, too-woo”. We will not, ever, use “Margaret Craven” or “Mark Brian”, and if we ever had a dramatic brain-embranglement and did so, we would befuddle our readers utterly, to the point where they would probably toss our book aside in exasperation, and who would blame them for so doing?

Now as I say, I have not read the book, so there is every possibility that perhaps the dying vicar has a parishioner named Biff Hoot or Ted Toowit or Sacheverell Toowoo, and it is this person who hears their name called by the owl, while crunching through the duff on the forest floor in the dead of night, their lantern occasionally picking out the fugitive sight of a small scurrying mammal, its heart pounding in terror. Biff, or Ted, or Sacheverell then scampers to the church to tell the vicar of this exciting turn of events, and to seek his judicious religious advice on what it might portend, in terms of the meaning of existence, only to find the vicar sprawled on the floorboards in front of the altar, dying.

Why is he dying? Has he been attacked by owls, pecking at him with their beaks and slashing at him with their talons? Owls are more likely to set upon the small scurrying mammals in the nocturnal forest, rather than a human vicar in a candlelit church. So what might account for such a palaver? It could be that, rather than being a stereotypical beardy Anglican vicar, Mark Brian is an effeminate cross-dressing vicar who bears a startling resemblance to Tippi Hedren. In this scenario, the owls would simply be attempting to reenact a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s documentary The Birds (1963). Or we might posit that, on the other side of the forest there is a sinister military-industrial hazchem facility, leakage from which the owls have been exposed to, transforming them from common or garden owls to science fiction monster owls of unbridled savagery.

His life ebbing away, the vicar moans weakly for help, at which point Biff or Ted or Sacheverell comes scampering up the nave. He cradles Mark Brian’s torn and bloody head in his arms, and whispers, “I heard the owl call my name”. The vicar’s eyelids flutter and his breath rattles. Does he still have strength enough to speak, and to reveal to his needy parishioner the ultimate meaning of existence? We would hope so, this being a 1970s bestseller.

I Heard The Owl Call My Name (1967) predates both Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1970) and Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974). Could it be that both Richard Bach and Robert M. Pirsig were shameless plagiarists? Is the wisdom in their books lifted wholesale from Margaret Craven, who has the dying vicar vouchsafe to Biff or Ted or Sacheverell what it all means?

“You say the owl called your name?”, he gasps, “It is a sign. I understand the language of owls, and I think I know what it would have said next had you stayed to listen, instead of sprinting pell mell out of the forest and through the village and into the church and along the nave to come and cradle me in your arms in my dying moments.”

Biff or Ted or Sacheverell dabs at the vicar’s brow with a dampened rag, trying his best to comfort him, desperate to keep him alive long enough that he might impart the wisdom of the owl.

“You must repair your motorcycle,” groans Mark Brian, “And you must zoom upon it down to the seaside. There you will find a different form of bird life, seagulls rather than owls. The seagull will not call your name. It will swoop and scavenge and soar. Watch it carefully, in the dappled sunlight. Then…”

But before he can complete the sentence – and thus divulge the ultimate meaning of 1970s existence – the vicar collapses and dies.

I hope this is an adequate summary of a book I have never read. If it isn’t, it damned well ought to be.

On Vespasian

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The dying words of the Roman Emperor Vespasian (9-79 AD) were “Væ, puto deus fio”, or “Oh! I am becoming a god”. And so it proved, with the foundation shortly thereafter of the Vespasianite church. Initially successful, numbers of adherents gradually dwindled, and there were the inevitable splits and schisms. Like Muggletonianism, however, Vespasianism proved surprisingly resilient, and today there are thought to be as many as a dozen discrete offshoots of the church scattered across the globe.

Each of the various groupuscules considers itself the inheritor of the one true Vespasianite faith, and untangling the history of the splits and schisms is fraught with difficulty. There are the Roman Vespasianites, the New Roman Vespasianites, the Blairite Third Way Vespasianites, the Reformed Vespasianites, the True Reformed Vespasianites, the Wee Free Vespasianites, and a half dozen others. As with all good schismatic religions, they hate and execrate and persecute each other far more energetically than they hate and execrate and persecute those of other faiths entirely.

So disparate are the grouplets that any general statement of the tenets of the church is well nigh impossible. Almost the only thing they have in common is veneration of Vespasian as God. Interestingly, though the mortal emperor himself suggested he was becoming merely a god, one among many, within a hundred years of his death most if not all Vespasianites of whatever stripe arrived at a monotheistic interpretation of his divinity. This remains the case today, particularly among Fundamentalist Vespasianites, whose doctrine holds that, upon becoming a god, Vespasian slaughtered all other gods, known and unknown, past, present, and future, and continues to strangle at birth any godlike being that comes tottering over the horizon. Some other Vespasianites suggest that the other gods which did exist in 79 AD slunk away, or dissolved themselves, or exploded in puffs of vapour, when they saw how fantastic and magnificent Vespasian was.

A second feature common to all the different subgroupuscules is the importance placed on the public urinal as a place of worship. While a living emperor, Vespasian placed a tax on urine, useful for its ammoniac content. This led to his name being appropriated for urinals in several languages, for example the French vespasienne. Generally speaking, among Vespasianites, any public toilet is a holy place, and specially built ones are used for their church services. Again, Fundamentalist Vespasianites take a more hardline view, and consider all toilets, public or private, from super Japanese advanced technology toilets to primitive ditches and pits, to be sacred.

The literature of Vespasianism is sparse. Though as emperor Vespasian was generous to men of letters in general, he despised philosophers, who he saw as unmanly complainers who talked too much. Some strands of modern Vespasianites, in particular the New Unreformed Quiet Vespasianites, use this to justify their vows of silence. According to their creed, it is only permitted to speak when pissing in a holy toilet. There are thought to be only six or seven New Unreformed Quiet Vespasianites still at large in the world, though it is said they hope for an increase in their numbers following the advent of mobile telephony.

Though worldwide there is a steady decline in the number of practising Vespasianites, in one or two little pockets the faith is thriving. A relatively new offshoot, the New Reinvigorated Proselytising Vespasianites, is very active in the twin worlds of both celebrity and sanitation, with the Hollywood branch claiming several high profile converts. Yet infighting continues, with punch-ups common, particularly in the vicinity of toilets, where loud noisy New Reinvigorated Proselytising Vespasianites often come to blows with New Unreformed Quiet Vespasianites. Such incidents are rarely categorised by law enforcement officials as religious crimes, though that may change.

Inevitably, perhaps, Vespasianites of all colours have become the target of ridicule and contempt by New Atheists. Richard Dawkins is said to have funded a body calling itself the Federation of Enlightened Ex-Vespasianites, while before his untimely death Christopher Hitchens was bashing out a paperback provisionally entitled 500 Pages Of Ridicule And Contempt Heaped Upon The Head Of Vespasian. Critics alleged that the drink-sodden ex-Trotskyist popinjay was deliberately confusing Vespasian with the Vespasianites in a patent act of provocation. Hitchens himself did not claim to be becoming a god on his death bed, although his status among the American college student population is approaching divinity, as with the still-living Noam Chomsky.

What would Vespasian himself have made of all this? He was celebrated, in life, for his ready wit, and many think his dying words were actually a joke. Could it be that a religion with a pedigree of two thousand years was founded on a quip? Certainly Vespasianites throughout history have not been noted for their sense of humour. Whether New or Roman or True or Wee Free or Quiet or Blairite Third Way or Reinvigorated and Proselytising, Vespasianites are a dour and grim-faced bunch, and if ever you encounter one in a toilet the best thing to do is to bash them on the head with a thick hardback volume of intractable German philosophy. You never know, it might knock some sense into them.