Archive for the 'Essays' Category

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On The Sky At Night

The sky at night is darker than the sky during the day. You probably know why this is the case, so I will not bother explaining it to you. Twinkling stars, visible in the dark sky at night, seem to vanish in the daylight. But of course they are still there, in their appointed places. Only a nitwit would think otherwise. It is simply that they do not twinkle in the daytime. They save that for the night, when they can help nocturnal travellers find their way.

Such a traveller would of course have to have some idea what he was looking at, neck arched to peer up at the night sky. He would need to have a practised ability to discern patterns, otherwise the myriad stars can look like a chaotic splattering of twinklings across the sky. If all the traveller sees is chaos, he is likely to get lost, for at night the sky is dark and there is little light and many of the signs and landmarks he may use to orient himself in the daytime cannot be seen clearly. But if, when he looks up at the stars, he is confounded by the sight, that is not going to help him.

So if, in the night, you are wending your way home and you meet a traveller who is lost, you can play the good Samaritan by explaining the patterns to him. You might even have, stuffed into your pocket, a map or a diagram of the stars, and this you can give to the traveller. Or you might want to sell it to him, if you are penniless, and he is not.

But let us say you are the traveller, the star-ignorant fellow abroad in the night when you would be better off tucked up in bed. We can only guess at your reasons for being out and about, plunged in darkness, without a clue where you are. Perhaps you set out on a mission of mercy, or on an errand so urgent it could not wait until daybreak. Or you may have been suddenly overcome with wanderlust, and crashed out of the door in the middle of the night without even stopping to put on your boots.

Something similar happened to my maternal grandfather. He came home from the pub one night, in Ghent, in 1936, fired with drunken revolutionary zeal, and determined to go and fight in the Spanish Civil War. It is possible, of course, to walk directly from Belgium to Spain, and so without giving it further thought he crashed out of the door of his house in Haardstedestraat in Ghent, in the middle of the night. It is unlikely that he had a star map to guide him. The precise route he took is unknown, but a couple of days later he woke up in a Belgian ditch with a fever, and was brought home.

In our hypothetical situation, you are the lost traveller abroad in the night. We shall try to save you from the ditch. Baffled by the stars in the sky, you are having second thoughts about your mission of mercy or urgent errand or wanderlust or fighting talk, when of a sudden you meet a local person wending his familiar way home. He is a good Samaritan, and takes from his pocket a map of the stars. But he is a penniless Samaritan and he wheedles out of you an outrageous price for the map. Armed with it, however, you are bursting with confidence that you will be able to find your way, so you consider it money well spent.

The Samaritan disappears into the shadows, and you are left standing on the lane, or in the field. You unfold the star map and gaze at it, and then look up at the twinkling stars in the sky. You look from map to sky to map to sky to map to sky and try to correlate the two, and realise you are holding the map the wrong way round. You turn it, and try the correlation again. Now you are able to spot certain patterns, alignments of twinklings which seem similar, if not quite identical, upon the map and in the sky. You are, you think, getting somewhere.

I am afraid to say you are getting nowhere. So deep-seated is your star-ignorance that you are faced with the myriad chaos of stars splattered across the sky, and the myriad chaos of pencil-markings splattered across the paper. The fact that you have identified similarities between the two makes them no less chaotic. Indeed it might be said that all you have achieved is to double the chaos. The best thing you can do now is to walk until you find a ditch, and lie down in the ditch, and rue the cost of the map, and fall asleep until daybreak. You will, when you wake, regret that you paid so little attention, when you were a tot, to the astronomy lessons given by Dr Von Straubenzee, in the cold bleak village schoolroom.

The sky at night is darker than the sky during the day. Splattered across the sky are teeming billions of twinkling stars, so far away that you would be very very old, or more likely dead, before you ever reached them, even in the fastest and most advanced space age intergalactic voyager. Gaze at them, in the night, gaze and gaze until you have learned their allotted places, their appointed courses. Learn their disposition across the firmament so well that you can draw their positions with pencil on paper from memory. Where now you see chaotic splattering, learn to see patterns and alignments. Learn the stars! And the sky at night will be your guide.

Those were the words of Dr Von Straubenzee to which you did not listen, preoccupied as you were with tiddlywinks and crumpled up blotting paper and other childish things. Had you listened, you would not, like my grandfather, be sprawled in a ditch at daybreak in the Belgian rain.

On An Alphabet Of Beasts

I have been thinking for some time now that it would be a very good idea to publish a bestiary. The Hooting Yard Book o’ Beasts would be an ornament to any library. Of course, before publishing it I would have to write the thing, but it may be that I could compile an anthology based on extant texts. (A similar approach, taking selected extracts from my work to illuminate particular subject matter, is currently being pursued by the artist James Beckett. His lavish book of “Works”, subtitled “With constant interjections by Frank Key”, is currently in preparation, due out early next year. I will keep you informed.)

The best format for my bestiary, I think, would be to follow an alphabetic scheme, thus A is for Anaconda, B is for Bird, C is for Cow, etc. Let us consider, for a moment, just those three. It strikes me that I may not have mentioned, anywhere in my teeming morass of verbiage, the anaconda. So I might have to make up something new and snakey. With birds, however, I am on firmer ground. Indeed, I have to admit that one of the compelling motives for compiling a bestiary in the first place is the opportunity it would give me to show off my quite startling – and starling – ornithological knowledge. I know for a fact that I have several readers who only come here, daily, for what they call the “birdy stuff”, and who grow quite impatient if I neglect to make mention of birds for any period of time. They tend to write intemperate letters, packed with invective, making known their disapproval. Often I find, within the envelopes, vestiges of feather, and the occasional regurgitated owl pellet.

Somebody less conscientious would crumple these letters and toss them into a wastepaper basket unread. Not me. I read and reread them, several times, making annotations in the margins with a propelling pencil, and then I file them away in a large and imposing padlocked filing cabinet. Let me give you an example of one such letter. I have redacted the whingey whiny complaining bit where my correspondent moans that I haven’t mentioned birds for a few days, leaving the part I wish to advert to, which demonstrates how valuable a resource Hooting Yard can prove to be for the otherwise bird-ignorant.

Dear Mr Key, [dozens of pages redacted]. Before I read Hooting Yard, I used to be mystified by the sight of things with wings and beaks and feathers and talons flying around in the air, sometimes swooping, sometimes gliding. I had no idea what they were. Occasionally one of these things would come to rest on the branch of a tree or on a fencepost, and then I would try to take a closer look, but at my approach, panting and snorting and stamping towards it in my big heavy boots, it would invariably take to the air again and fly away, to the point of invisibility. As the years went by I became increasingly fretful and flummoxed, and I consulted both opticians, in case there was something wrong with my eyesight, and brain doctors, in case there was something wrong with my brain. Then, a couple of weeks ago, I had a curious dream in which the words “Hooting” and “Yard” were repeatedly shouted into my ear by a dwarf named Crepusco. I am exceedingly tall, but Crepusco was standing on a stool. When I woke up, the words were still echoing inside my head, so I looked them up in a large and imposing leather-bound reference book. Individually, they did not appear to signal anything significant. I determined to forget about the dream and to concern myself with more pressing matters, such as eating my breakfast and paying my gas bill. But I could not shake the words out of my bonce. Anyway, to cut a long story short, I eventually discovered your website and proceeded to read everything you have written over the past nine years. Then I read it all again, making annotations in a jotting pad with a propelling pencil. I have been amazed to learn so much, so so much!, about those things with wings and beaks and feathers and talons flying around in the air, sometimes swooping, sometimes gliding, sometimes perched on tree branches or fenceposts, which I now realise are birds. For that I am eternally grateful to you, Mr Key, and I just wish you would stop wasting your time, and mine, by prattling on about other, non-avian, subject matter.

That is fairly typical of the sort of letters birdy enthusiasts send me, including the reference to dreams of the dwarf Crepusco, which turns up with a frequency I am beginning to worry about. In spite of these pleas, however, I am not persuaded to ditch all non-avian subject matter from the broad magnificent sweep of what we might call Hooting Yard praxis. It is tempting to do so, and to become a sort of one stop shop for encyclopaedic ornithological wisdom, but it is a temptation I resist.

Clearly, however, in my planned alphabetic bestiary, B is for Bird is going to be a very lengthy section, so lengthy that it might well unbalance the book. If I worked on the basis of a volume of 260 pages, it would be sensible, and neat and tidy, to allot ten pages to each beast from A to Z. Ten pages might well exhaust my ability to say anything enlightening about the anaconda, and indeed the cow, but the bird? The bird? How could I hope to cram into a mere ten pages the full fruit of my birdy learning? Even if I used so tiny a typeface that you would ruin your eyesight trying to read it, still, it is a well nigh impossible task, a fool’s errand.

This present postage is in itself evidence of the difficulties I would face. Having set out to consider the anaconda, the bird, and the cow, I find I have babbled on about our feathered friends to the point where there is no space left to say anything remotely informative about the cow. Perhaps the bestiary is not such a good idea after all. The Hooting Yard Book o’ Birds, though, now that is a different matter . . .

On Distant Booms

I heard distant booming. Was it the sound of bombs or bitterns, warfare or ornithology? I decided I had to find out, for there was a great deal of difference between the two, as I am sure you realise. If it was the boom of exploding bombs, and war had been declared, then it was no comfort to me that the booms were distant. Today they might be, but I was in no doubt that the marauding and rapacious foe, having bombed land far away, would advance, and bomb ever closer to the agreeable faubourg where I lived, until they bombed my own neighbourhood, and me in it, unless I fled. Paradoxically, perhaps, before making the decision to flee I would have to do the opposite, to approach the distant booms, to discover if they were indeed the booms of bombs.

If, on the other hand, the booms were the booms of bitterns, I would have no need to flee. I could return happily to my faubourg without a care in the world. If anything, I would be happier than before, having learned of the presence of bitterns, albeit distant bitterns. If there were bitterns, I reasoned, there would be a lake, or a similar body of water. There are few things I like better than to go plashing about up to my knees in a lake, plunging my hands into the water now and again with scarcely credible rapidity, to pluck out a fish for my dinner. It is a skill I learned at my mother’s knee. She had studied the sudden darting movements of certain insects, and learned through long hard practice to imitate them. All I had to do, with equally long hard practice, was to imitate her.

Surely, you might ask, given my predilections I would know of the existence of a lake, albeit a distant one? It is a reasonable question. All I can say by way of explanation is that I had never before heard booms, booms that might be those of bitterns, from that direction, north-west, by the way. To which I would add that there has been a flurry of artificial lake and pond construction all across the land of late. The king is keen on bodies of water, and dreams of a land riddled with them. Some have joshed that if he gets his way there will be more water than land, just little ribbons and eyots dotted higgledy-piggledy in a great network of ponds and lakes connected by canals.

But the king is also a bellicose fellow with a seething hatred of . . . oh, you name it! His list of hatreds is long, and it includes the neighbouring lands, their kings and queens and armies and civilian populations. So it would be no surprise if the booms I heard were the booms of bombs. The king might well have declared war, almost as an afterthought or aside, or one of his shouty declamations from his balcony could have led a neighbour to declare war on him, which, by extension, means us, and me.

Given the king’s twin obsessions, I judged that the probability of the booms being bombs or bitterns was about fifty-fifty. That was in the absence of any other information. My faubourg is quite an isolated one, and we are often the last to hear any news of national import. Last time there was a war, for example, we only found out about it when there were pitched battles in the streets between our side and the marauding and rapacious foe. That foe had not made use of bombs. They were somewhat primitive barbarians armed with cutlasses and catapults. Nor do we tend to get news of the king’s latest lake-creation schemes. Generally what happens is that the plans are made in his chamber, by him alone, and then the bulldozers move in and villages are destroyed and a huge pit dug into which unimaginable gallons of water are poured. Fish and birds follow, drawn by nature.

Over the next week or so, I made preparations for my journey. I put my faubourg affairs in order as best I could, and prepared an enormous number of sandwiches. These I wrapped in greaseproof paper. I bought, at a discount, several multipacks of Squelcho!. I patched the odd hole in my knitwear, and had my hiking boots renovated by the best hiking boot renovator in the faubourg. I mention these things to demonstrate that I was serious in my endeavour, not a mere flibbertigibbet disconcerted by distant booms.

All the while, I could not help noticing that these distant booms were growing louder and thus, I reasoned, closer. This would tend to tip the balance in favour of the booming of bombs, but there was no knowing the level of fanaticism to which the king might take his body of water building activities, so there was still a fair chance that the booming was the booming of bitterns.

There came a day when I had nearly finished putting my affairs in order and had packed most of my supplies. By now the booms were so loud, and so close, that I began to doubt I would need to go investigating at all. So unlikely, now, was the prospect of my journey that I tucked in to several of the sandwiches and drank two cans of Squelcho!. No sooner had I shoved the crumpled greaseproof paper and the crushed cans down my waste chute, than a bomb crashed through the ceiling. It landed on my rug, and made a ticking noise. I reasoned that I had mere seconds to dash as far away as possible before it exploded with a boom. At least, I thought, I now know the provenance of the booms.

But as I made for the front door, ready to scarper, my ears were assailed by a deafening boom. Dizzy with panic, I pirouetted round and round like a man who has lost his senses. I was utterly befuddled that my chalet still stood, solid and safe and agreeable apart from the gaping hole in the ceiling. And then, as I peered out into the front garden, I saw a flock of bitterns had come to land next to my garden puddle, and they were booming, booming, booming.

On The Asp Mystery

Tarleton, the amateur’s amateur, was sat one evening in an armchair in his consulting rooms, constructing a working scale model of a hydroelectric power station out of matchsticks and cardboard and glue and fusewire and hydroelectric power, when there came a sudden urgent knocking, the door crashed open, and into the room came a man holding, at arm’s length, an asp.

“Are you Tarleton?” gasped the man. It was his last gasp, for as soon as the words were out of his mouth he collapsed upon the carpet. In death, his grip on the asp was necessarily relaxed, but the manner in which he fell meant that the asp was trapped under the weight of his corpse. Its head, however, poked free, and it hissed in an aspy way at Tarleton.

This, then, was the famous mystery of the asp, some say Tarleton’s finest hour. The mystery may be thought to have inhered in the identity of the man who had come carrying an asp into the consulting-rooms, his purpose in bringing the asp, and indeed in the provenance of the asp. There were certain other matters, too, to which Tarleton needed to turn the cranks of his powerful mind, but those mentioned are considered the main three. We might mention here that the dead man had a pudding-basin haircut.

Before solving the mystery, Tarleton determined to put the finishing touches to his model. He was unruffled by the hissing of the asp, for he had, years before, gained mastery of a mystic oriental technique for remaining unruffled in the presence of hissing asps, and indeed of other things that hiss. One inadvertent consequence of his mastery was that, on the one occasion Tarleton met Alger Hiss, the communist spy, he remained utterly unruffled, when a certain rufflement might have spurred him to action, and he could have taken steps to gather evidence of Hiss’s perfidy, and thus saved Whittaker Chambers a great deal of pother. Chambers, with his rotten infected teeth and shabby stained suit, never forgave Tarleton for his languid lack of concern, and sent the amateur’s amateur several poison pen letters in succeeding years. These have now been collected in The Correspondence Of Whittaker Chambers And Tarleton, The Amateur’s Amateur, a somewhat misleading title in that the word ‘correspondence’ suggests that Tarleton replied, which he did not. He could not bestir himself to do so, preferring to muck about with matchsticks and cardboard and glue and fusewire and hydroelectric power. Having made one working scale model of a hydroelectric power station, putting the finishing touches to it under the watchful eyes of a hissing asp, Tarleton was so delighted with it that he immediately set about making another. It was a hobby that kept him profitably occupied for a number of years.

Obviously, he had to take a break from his model-making from time to time, for example to sleep, to eat, to go for long hikes, to solve cases that perplexed the best minds of the police force, and not least, to do something about the asp. But before he could address the matter of the asp, Tarleton had to arrange for the disposal of the corpse of the man who had burst into his consulting rooms carrying the asp at arm’s length. He placed a call to the local rascally illegal disposer of corpses. One might ask why he did not seek to have the corpse disposed of in a manner commensurate with the law. One might ask, but to no avail, for Tarleton was notoriously tight-lipped about such things. Let us say it was not the first time he had had a corpse disposed of illegally, nor the first time said corpse had a pudding-bowl haircut. It was, however, the first time the removal of the corpse from his consulting rooms would release, from under its dead weight, a hissing asp.

To this end, after making arrangements with the rascal, Tarleton placed a second call, this one to an asp expert at a zoo.

“Tell me about asps,” he said.

The asp expert took the call at a busy time, when he was engaged in tackling some kind of zoo asp mayhem. It is the kind of thing that happens all the time even at the best regulated zoos, and it is best you know nothing more. The upshot, however, was that the expert could not afford the time to spout all he knew of asps to Tarleton, as that would have taken several hours, hours he did not have as he strained every sinew to avert zoo asp mayhem. All he managed to splutter was some nonsense about the first asps having been created from the spilled blood of the head of Medusa, borne aloft by Perseus on his flight to Mount Olympus. He then slammed the phone down, leaving Tarleton little wiser than he was before.

All this while, the mystery of the asp remained unsolved. Yet we know there are those who say it was Tarleton’s finest hour. Why would they say such a thing? He sat there, faffing with matchsticks and cardboard and glue and fusewire and hydroelectric power, and placing a couple of calls, occasionally glancing over at the trapped hissing asp, and hissing back at it. Perhaps that in itself in the mystery.

When, later in the evening, the rascal appeared, to make illegal disposal of the corpse, he spotted the asp and licked his lips and asked Tarleton if he might remove, not just the corpse, but the asp into the bargain. Tarleton nodded.

“Thankee kindly, sir,” said the rascal, doffing his cap, “There’s nothing I like better for a nightcap than a tot of asp’s blood.” and he whacked the asp on its head with a lead-weighted sap, and dragged it from under the corpse, and popped it in his pocket. We might mention here that the rascal had a pudding-basin haircut atop a countenance that was the spit and image of Alger Hiss.

Mugs(14)

On The Return Of Pabstus Tack

Pabstus Tack came back! He’d been away to sea. The sea was vast and wet. That is what he told them, at the symposium held to mark his return. He was not believed, at first. How could anything be so vast?, so wet?, they asked. He had an implausible air, and a ratty moustache. The moustache was new.

And so began the doubts. There was whispered talk, in corridors and on horseback. Was it truly Pabstus Tack who had come back? Or was it another? With his wild talk of the sea and his ratty moustache and his cravat and his canvas shoes, could this really be the same Pabstus Tack as the Pabstus Tack of old?

The villagers put it to him directly. He said yes, he was, look! And he lifted his shirt to show a birthmark on his back. It was a purple splotch more or less the shape of a steam iron. Had Pabstus Tack had such a splotch?, they asked each other, in a conclave. But none could remember. Let us winkle more of his story from him, they agreed.

This sea, they said, so vast, so wet, where is it? Over yonder beyond the Huge Impassable Mountains, was his reply. The mountains loomed over the village. There were, from time to time, avalanches and calamities. Now they felt sure this was not Pabstus Tack. They arraigned him before a plenipotentiary. It was a long hard trial.

In his dungeon the implausible fellow with the ratty moustache drew pictures of the sea. He coloured it blue and green. The pictures were vast, almost as vast as the sea he spoke of. One of the guards smuggled them out, sheet by sheet, rolled up in the hollow of his Alpenstock. He pasted the sheets together and hung them in an atrium, where villagers came to gaze at them with goggle eyes.

These pictures of the so-called sea are vast but they are not wet, thundered an editorial in the village paper. They will be wet if it rains, said a wag. They will not, said another, for the atrium is sheltered from the rains by its pitched roof. The rain runs into gutters and then down into drains and comes to rest far beneath the earth. Is that, then,where the sea is?, asked an inquisitive villager, who had not yet given up hope that Pabstus Tack really had come back.

The plenipotentiary hauled the implausible man back before his panel. Withdraw your phantasm of having crossed the Huge Impassable Mountains, he said, come clean. Did you reach this vast wet sea by toppling down a drain? But the man who would be Pabstus Tack stuck to his story. His dungeon door clanged shut once more.

One day there appeared in the village square a pedlar. He had for sale a basket full of strange elongated beasts, each with a ribbon running along its back formed from the fusing of dorsal, anal, and caudal fins. What have you got there?, asked the villagers. Eels, lovely eels!, cried the pedlar. There was much befuddlement in the village when, closely questioned, the pedlar said his so-called eels came from the sea.

This sea, they asked, is it vast and wet? The pedlar affirmed that it was so. He repeated this with the palm of his hand pressed upon a Bible. There was a kerfuffle. They showed him two sketches of the man who claimed to be Pabstus Tack, face and profile. Have you seen this man?, they asked, Do you know him? Why, as I live and breathe!, said the pedlar, That is Pabstus Tack! Say that again with the palm of your hand pressed upon the Bible, they commanded. And he did.

Then they took him to the atrium and showed him the vast blue and green coloured pictures pasted together from many sheets. Is this the sea?, they asked. It is, he said, though the real sea is wet as well as vast.

The dungeon door was opened, and Pabstus Tack set free. They gave him a slap-up meal of eels. Another symposium was held, and he told again his tales of the sea. This time he added that he had seen eels, swimming, all sorts of eels, the false and mud and spaghetti, the moray and thin and worm, the conger and the longneck, the pike and duckbill and snake, the snipe, the sawtooth and the cutthroat. He told them too of eels that were not eels, the electric eels.

Electric?, asked the inquisitive villager, his hand shot up above his head. And Pabstus Tack told of a distant land beyond the vast wet sea, a land of electric power and light. There was further kerfuffle, such a kerfuffle that the earlier kerfuffle seemed like a spinsters’ tea party. This land, they babbled, the people there are eels? They are, said Pabstus Tack, the rascal, but nobody thought to get him to repeat it with the palm of his hand pressed upon the Bible.

Having doubted him before, now they lapped up everything he told them. Yes, he said, the Huge Impassable Mountains were passable. Yes, beyond them was a vast wet sea. Yes, the sea teemed with eels. Yes, beyond the sea was a land of electric power and light where eels roamed the wide magnificent boulevards.

At the symposium’s end, Pabstus Tack and the pedlar slunk off together. They were last seen heading towards the atrium in the dusk. Rain began to fall, and the village bellsman clanged his bells, and beyond the atrium Pabstus Tack and the pedlar toppled down the drain, and fell and fell, until they splashed into the vast wet subterranean sea, where there are no eels, and there is no light.

On Becoming Vibrant

Dear Mr Key
Down the pub the other night – the Cow & Pins, if you want to know – me and my mates fell to discussing Hooting Yard. Though we broadly approve of your work, we all agreed that, going forward, you need to be more diverse ‘n’ vibrant, in keeping with the diversity ‘n’ vibrancy everybody keeps going on about these days. So what are you going to do about it, chummy?
Tim Thurn

Dear Mr Thurn
Thank you for your measured letter. You may not have bothered to measure it before sending, but I took a tape measure to it as soon as I opened the envelope. It pains me to say it, but I suspect you are correct about the need to be more diverse ‘n’ vibrant. This is partly out of self-interest, as I am sure that if I could prove my diversity ‘n’ vibrancy I might become eligible for lots of grants from the kinds of organisations that hand out grants to diverse ‘n’ vibrant initiatives. Then I would be rolling in cash and could put my feet up while the diverse ‘n’ vibrant elves got on with all the hard work and drudgery that makes Hooting Yard such a well-loved community resource. I am stymied, however, by not knowing quite how to become diverse ‘n’ vibrant. Perhaps you and your mates could give me some tips?
Frank Key

Dear Mr Key
We had a good old natter about your letter down at the Cow & Pins last night. We all agreed that elves were a good start if you intend to be more diverse going forward. A diverse intake of elves would be even better, so try to recruit different types. Somewhere there is a list of goblin types, and I’m sure you could adapt this for elves. Well done, and keep up the good work!
Tim Thurn

Dear Mr Thurn
I think you have misunderstood, perhaps wilfully, my earlier letter. I cannot afford to recruit a single elf until I get one of those lavish grants awarded to diverse ‘n’ vibrant community initiatives, but I can’t get a lavish grant until I prove how diverse ‘n’ vibrant I am. What a dilemma! Please resolve it.
Frank Key

Dear Mr Key
I feel your pain, I really do. We all do, sat here in the snug of the Cow & Pins downing our pints. We had a long and detailed discussion about your case, and came to the view that you might be able to get a grant if you were vibrant. Then you could pay for some elves, and hey presto!, you’d be diverse too! Everybody wins.
Tim Thurn

Dear Mr Thurn
Many thanks for your considered advice. I would act on it immediately if I had the merest clue of what ‘vibrancy’ consists, precisely. The word is bandied about willy-nilly, but I confess I have never understood what on earth it means. Please explain.
Frank Key

Dear Mr Key
You don’t need to know what it means, you just need to get with the programme, buster!
Tim Thurn

Dear Mr Thurn
Point taken. How?
Frank Key

Dear Mr Key
I hope the following information is of help. Costa Coffee planned to open a branch in Totnes, home of the vilified undertakers’ mute. The company has now withdrawn from the fray after meeting objections from middle-class people. However, while their plans were still active, they issued a press statement saying they aimed “to add to the vibrancy of the town and support the local community … by adding vibrancy”. That is clear enough, Mr Key, so what’s stopping you?
Tim Thurn

Dear Mr Thurn
Now I have received your latest letter, all that is stopping me from becoming vibrant is my woeful lack of design skills. If I had the wit, I would immediately change the logo at the top of the page to read “Hooting Yard : A Website By Frank Key : Now With Added Vibrancy!” (I thought the addition of the exclamation mark would be a particularly vibrant masterstroke.) If I understand you correctly, I could then apply for a grant, on the basis of my vibrancy, then use that money to employ a gaggle of elves, if of course ‘gaggle’ is the correct collective noun for plural elves. I would then be both diverse ‘n’ vibrant and money would pour in to my coffers. Is that right?
Frank Key

Dear Mr Key
Yes.
Tim Thurn

Dear Grant-Awarding Body
Hooting Yard is a diverse ‘n’ vibrant website going forward. Can I have a large amount of money please?
Frank Key

Dear Mr Key
No you may not. In order to qualify for a grant, you must not only be diverse ‘n’ vibrant going forward but robust ‘n’ transparent to boot.
A. Git

Dear Mr Thurn
Please see the enclosed letter from A. Git. I have an intractable problem, in that I am both puny and opaque. Do you have any suggestions?
Frank Key

But answer came there none. . .

On Shackleton’s Extra Man

400

Who is the third who always walks beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you.

T. S. Eliot’s note on these lines from The Waste Land explains that they “were stimulated by the account of one of the Antarctic expeditions . . . that the party of explorers, at the extremity of their strength, had the constant delusion that there was one more member than could actually be counted”.

The account was by Ernest Shackleton, of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914–17. The explorer was reluctant to speak of the extra man, who, “during that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia, it seemed to me” joined him and his companions. It has long been believed that he – it? – was an incorporeal being, a spirit guide, summoned by Shackleton’s brain through “monotony, darkness, barren landscapes, isolation, cold, injury, dehydration, hunger, fatigue and fear”, as Michael Shermer put it in an article in the Scientific American. A similar delusion is said to have affected others, including the transatlantic pilot and accidental baby-killer* Charles Lindbergh, who sensed the presence of a ghostly co-pilot on his solo flight.

A recent discovery by boffins in Antarctica, however, suggests that there actually was an extra man with Shackleton’s party. A manuscript, entitled I Was Shackleton’s Extra Man, was found encased in ice on a stray floe somewhere between South Georgia and the Antarctic ice-mass. It was so well preserved that, when thawed out, the ink was still not dry. Unfortunately, slapdash handling by an over-eager boffin resulted in smudging, rendering parts of the text illegible. What follows are passages from this historic document.

Good evening. My name is [smudged]. You do not know me. You have never known me. You will never know me. But if ever you trek with sledge and husky across the great ice continent of the south, you might see me. There! That is me, up ahead of the rest of the group, trudging through the snow. That is me, lolling behind, never quite catching up with the main party. That is me, over to the side, left or right, just out of earshot. I am always with you but never quite with you. But I am no figment. I am all too real.

I first arrived in Antarctica in [smudged], the first man ever to set foot here. I was here before Scott, before Amundsen, before Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. I was here when the world was young. I cannot remember quite how I found myself here. One minute I was lounging in a hammock in the daffodil-strewn garden of [smudged], then I was out at sea on some kind of raft, and it was cold, and I shivered, and everything was white, the sky and the sea and the ice.

I made landfall. The raft was crushed by pack ice. I headed for the interior, but soon enough I was walking around in circles, my mind both numbed and unhinged by monotony, darkness, the barren landscape, isolation, cold, injury, dehydration, hunger, fatigue and fear. I would have gone to pieces, but at the end of my tether I was befriended by penguins, who took me to their colony and nursed me back to health on a diet of fish and algae and a rigorous exercise regime of swimming and flapping my arms and legs.

The years passed in a white ice haze, and I was content. But one day I woke up and I was filled with a hankering for home. I longed for the daffodil-strewn garden, the hammock, and suddenly memories came flooding back, of [smudged] and Captain Nitty and the betting shop and [smudged] and the riotous parties up at the Big House and crates of negus and [smudged] and bouquets of enormous genetically modified crocuses. I had to return. With tears in my eyes, tears which turned instantly to icicles, I bid farewell to my penguin friends and trudged away across the ice and snow.

It was weeks later when I came across a group of explorers. I was no longer used to the company of men, so while I shadowed them I kept my distance, always enough distance to avoid having to speak, to explain myself, to tell my story. What was there to tell? Nothing of note ever happens here. Time stops. I had no idea how many years had passed, seven or seventy or seven hundred.

When the explorers were asleep in their tents, I crept closer and went rummaging in the stores lashed to their sledges, the cases packed with monogrammed silver cutlery, backgammon boards, cigar cases, clothes brushes, tins of button polish, and copies of The Vicar Of Wakefield. I confess I helped myself to certain items, but never stole anything important.

And then one day I went a bit too far ahead, or fell too far behind, I cannot remember which, and the explorers vanished in the mist, and I never saw them again.

But luckily this was the golden age of polar exploration, and soon enough there was another raggle-taggle band of doughty chaps struggling with sledges and huskies across the ice. I joined them, too, in my just-out-of-reach way, hoping if I followed them we would arrive back at their ship, and I could stow away upon it, and return at last to [smudged] and daffodils.

Yet so incompetent were all these chaps that I ended up as I had begun, going round and round in hopeless circles. I am still here, lost in the ice, hankering for home, salty icicles dripping down my cheeks.

Tomorrow I shall get a gun and shoot an albatross.

* NOTE : See Crime Of The Century : The Lindbergh Kidnapping Hoax by Gregory Ahlgren and Stephen Monier (1993)

On Tea

Thomas de Quincey said that tea was the favoured beverage of intellectuals. I have made it my life’s work to test every claim ever made by de Quincey, so to this end I decided to gather a smattering of intellectuals and plop cups of tea in front of them to see what would happen.

If de Quincey was right, each intellectual would lift the cup to their lips and drink deep and thereafter emit an “aah!” of satisfaction. At least one would say something along the lines of “there is nothing quite like a nice cup of tea”.

Conversely, if de Quincey was wrong, then the intellectuals would pick up the cups, pour the tea into the gutter, and fill the now empty cups with hooch from a flask taken from their pockets. They would then glug the hooch before emitting the same “aah!” of satisfaction, this time accompanied by a belch of alcoholic fumes strong enough to fell an ox.

I was interested to see what would happen.

But before distributing the cups of tea, I realised that I had to make absolutely sure the persons I gathered, at the trestle table in the field under the viaduct, were indeed intellectuals. My experiment would be hopelessly compromised if just one of them was a dimwit or peasant or was otherwise unintellectual. My assistant, Mungo, he of the hunchback and twisted face and slobber, had given me a very sensible piece of advice.

“Uurggh, Master!” he had slobbered, the day before, “Just because someone has a beard and is French and bespectacled and gesticulates wildly when speaking of things you do not understand is no guarantee that they are an intellectual.”

I took this to heart. How easily the wool could have been pulled over my eyes had I not listened to Mungo!

Incidentally, in case you were wondering, Mungo himself does not drink tea. His favoured beverage is brackish water from a spigot, gulped from a battered tin beaker. But he does not claim to be an intellectual. Quite the opposite. Mungo has often told me that he has only half a brain, and that half befuddled. He is, however, absolutely invaluable as an assistant, when I can persuade him to come down from the belfry where he likes to cavort and lollop with his pet owls and bats and scorpions.

Mindful of Mungo’s advice, I went roaming the streets on the lookout for possible intellectuals. At first I buttonholed anybody whose head resembled an egg. As I grabbed their collars, I fired at each of these persons a question.

“Are you an intellectual?” I cried.

If they answered in the affirmative, I asked a supplementary question, to wit; “What abstruse theorem would you posit to account for the unconscionable delay in the completion of the roadworks on the Blister Lane bypass?”

If the egghead claimed to be above such petty everyday concerns as roadworks, and to never have even heard of Blister Lane, I dismissed them. A true intellectual, I reasoned, while being above such petty everyday concerns as roadworks, and never having even heard of Blister Lane, would nonetheless have an abstruse theorem to posit, even though it might be utterly meaningless to a mere mortal such as myself who knew the roadworks and the bypass and the delay like the back of his hand.

By this tactic, I found it devilishly difficult to find a single intellectual. My Thomas de Quincey tea experiment was unravelling before it had even begun! I decided to broaden the scope of my search and to accost those persons whose heads did not look much like eggs, though I stopped short of questioning anybody whose head resembled a potato, for obvious reasons.

This was to be my undoing. Seeing me approach various persons sashaying about the streets but pointedly ignoring him, a man with a potato-shaped head lumbered towards me and cornered me in the doorway of a butcher’s shop.

“Oi!” he said, “You are stopping all sorts of people to ask if they are intellectuals, but you have pointedly ignored me.”

I blathered some rubbish. He whacked me on the windpipe and bundled me into the back of a van. He then drove off at speed.

Some time later, the van screeched to a halt. He dragged me out and, threatening me with his fist, commanded me to follow him. He had parked at the edge of a forest, and it was into the dense trees we now went. I was terrified, and wished Mungo were with me. But I had left him in his belfry, brewing a large pot of tea.

Eventually my abductor and I arrived at a clearing. There was a bonfire, around which sat a group of men each of whom had a potato-head, some even more potatoey than the man who had brought me here. One of these rogues looked up at me, and spoke.

“Welcome,” he said, “We are the woodland chapter of the Potato-Headed League of Acolytes of Alain de Botton. A denser concentration of intellectuals you could not hope to find for miles and miles hereabouts.”

All I could say in reply was “Gosh!”

I noted that they all had well-thumbed and heavily annotated copies of A Week At The Airport (2009), the Swiss sage’s book based on his stint as writer-in-residence at Heathrow Airport and one of the decisive intellectual tours de force of the past hundred years. If I needed any proof that these potato-heads were intellectuals, here it was!

“Perhaps you’d care to join us for a nice cup of – ” said the leader. But I did not hear the last word, because at that moment a flock of woodland birds began to shriek, deafeningly, from their perches in the trees.

On Buttons Versus Toggles

Oh!, how the past shrivels and vanishes, so we can scarce believe it was ever quick and throbbing and so very alive. When we cast back but fifty years, how hard it is to understand the passions that impelled our so recent forebears. Who, now, would get in a tizz about an issue that divided the nation half a century ago? Yet at the time, kin were set against kin, men of the cloth fulminated from the pulpit, all was clash and strife. I speak of course of that great controversy, button versus toggle.

We may respond, today, with wry chuckles. Few if any of us would now identify ourselves as, exclusively, buttoneers or togglists. But that is how it was, then, for a brief but seething period. The method you chose to fasten your coat took on fantastical importance. And you did wear a coat, at all times, in all weathers. It might have been a raincoat or a duffel coat, but you did not step outdoors unclad in it. Many wore their coats indoors too, the more fanatical, those who sought to proclaim their buttoneering or togglism the loudest.

It is instructive, when we consider such historical flaps, to consult the photographic evidence, where that is possible. In this case we are fortunate to have at least one riveting snap which shows how one family was caught up in the madness.

VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED29

These are the four children of Mr and Mrs Turpitude of Shoeburyness. From left to right, they are Ulf, Ulg, Clothgard, and Urk. What is immediately apparent is that Ulg is a buttoneer and his brother Urk a togglist. Ulf and Clothgard are partly hidden behind their siblings, but nevertheless clearly visible are two buttons (Ulf) and one button (Clothgard). What we have, then, is the progeny of a single family riven by the great controversy of the day.

Further study of the snap raises all sorts of questions. We note the eerie countenances of the four tinies, their blank yet somehow threatening gazes. If we were to put them in order of malevolence, from most malevolent to least, we might say Ulg then Urk then Clothgard then Ulf. Obviously there is room for manoeuvre and we may wish to swap them about. But what is plain is that each of their gazes is fixed upon the same target, out of shot, next to or just behind the shoulder of the snapper. This is contrary to what we would expect, which would be for Ulf and Ulg and Clothgard to be lined up in a terrible row of buttoneers against the lone togglist Urk. Internecine conflict was commonplace at the time, and it is surely odd to find the Turpitude tinies arrayed together, the three with buttons and the one with toggles, seemingly in unison.

It is of course entirely plausible that within seconds of the snap being taken, Ulf and Ulg and Clothgard turned on Urk and beat him to death with a garden spade, then using the spade to dig a pit in which to bury his battered corpse. There is evidence that such an enormity took place among a group of siblings in a ness other than Shoeburyness, possibly Foulness or Dungeness, around this time. (See ‘Togglist tot beaten to death with spade by siblings’, News o’ the Ness, p.7, 23 October 1962, available in all good Nessy newspaper archives.) That the same thing happened up and down the land is not unlikely, though it was tragic, and spawned several novels, plays, ballets, opera bouffes, and art installations.

We might also pause to study the alignment of buttons on Ulg’s coat and of toggles on Urk’s. Let us take them in alphabetical order. I think it is fair to say that Ulg must have been a zealot among buttoneers. Not only are his buttons aligned with impeccable neatness and regularity but, tellingly, only three of them actually serve as buttons. That is, a mere fifty per cent of his buttons are used to fasten his coat. The remaining three serve absolutely no purpose whatsoever. We might dub them ‘redundant’ or ‘dummy’ or ‘toy’ buttons. It was a mark of the more fanatical buttoneers that they would often sport pointless buttons upon their coats. This was not always done with the sense of neatness and balance demonstrated by Ulg. There were wild stories of buttoneers displaying a chaotic mass of buttons higgledy-piggledy upon their coats. We can surmise that Ulg was a buttoneer of the kind who wished to disguise his toy buttons as real ones. Certainly if one passed him on the pavement as he swept by, without looking too closely, it would be possible to “see” buttonholes where in fact there were none.

The comparison with Urk and his toggles is intriguing. Rather than the regular disposition of buttons we see on Ulg, with Urk we have something stranger. There is a stray “top” toggle and, further down, there appears to be that most anomalous of features, a missing toggle. The untoggled loop of cloth on his coat is clearly visible. One explanation for this is that a fight between the siblings had already begun before they stopped to pose for the camera. In that fight, Urk’s missing toggle could have been ripp’d from his coat by Ulf or Ulg or Clothgard. If so, where is it? It may have fallen on the ground, or it may be that Ulf or Ulg or Clothgard, at the approach of the snapper, popped it into their mouth. Can we see a telltale bulge in the cheek of any of the three? I think we can! Look very very closely at Ulf. His right cheek seems decidedly puffier than his left. There, I would maintain, is the missing toggle. When the snapper departs, and the buttoneers take the spade to set about Urk, Ulf spits the toggle out on to the ground and grinds it under his boot.

Such were the frenzies of that distant time. Weirdly, at the turn of the year, in the depth of that frozen winter of 1962-63, when people really did need to wrap up warm in their coats, the mania passed as suddenly as it had begun, and nobody cared two figs about buttons and toggles ever again. Instead, they got all worked up about figs. But that is another tale for another day.

On Bonken And Asp

I have been watching Wallander. More precisely, I have been watching series two of the Swedish TV version featuring Krister Henriksson as the somewhat grumpy detective. It has many pleasures, not the least of which is the performance of Ingmar Bergman’s son Mats as forensics expert Nyberg.

The stories are set in the small southern Swedish town of Ystad which appears to be absolutely riddled with crime and littered with corpses. As it happens, Pansy Cradledew has been to Ystad, and she reports that during her stay there it was uncannily quiet. She did not encounter a single deranged serial killer, drug smuggler, East European mafia thug, unhinged maniac, nor indeed any ne’er-do-wells whatsoever. According to Ms Cradledew, whose word I accept as gospel, so tiny and peaceable is Ystad that, were a murder to be committed, any detective worth their salt would have a pretty good hunch of the identity of the malefactor right away. They would be banged up in one of the agreeable hotels that pass for Scandinavian prisons before their victim’s corpse was cold.

Still, potsum pansum, as they say. My purpose today is to draw attention to two of the minor characters in the series. One is the rookie detective with perhaps the finest name in all Scandinavian police drama set in Ystad, Pontus Asp, played by Sverrir Gudnason. Pontus Asp! It is a name to conjure with, and I think it only right that he be given a spin-off series of his own. If the crime statistics in Wallander are any guide, there ought to be no lack of killings, bludgeonings, abductions, carvings up, corruption, malfeasance, and assorted mischief for him to deal with.

asp

But all good fictional detectives need a sidekick. Who better, for Pontus Asp, than Bonken, the character who appeared in the most recent episode I watched? As far as I can tell, Bonken is a little hamster, though he is never shown clearly enough for that to be definitive. All that can be said for certain is that he lives in a small cage padded with excelsior and is fed crumbly biscuits by a tot. Bonken played a sort-of-pivotal role in the episode, though I would have to watch it again (and again!) to be quite sure about the nature of the pivot.

bonken1

Given that, as a hamster, Bonken would presumably be safest staying in his cage while Pontus Asp goes roaming the mean streets of Ystad outwitting its teeming population of criminals, it might make more sense to make Bonken the chief detective and Pontus Asp the sidekick. We might find an important part, too, for Mats Bergman as Nyberg. Perhaps all the cases in which Bonken and Asp get involved could be based on Ingmar Bergman films?

bonken2

In fact, how much wit would it take to simply work our way through Bergman père’s collected screenplays and rewrite each one as an episode of Bonken And Asp? All we would need to do is begin each adaptation with a grisly murder, a few shots of Bergman fils fretting over the forensics, and then Bonken cogitating sagely as he munches a crumbly biscuit in his cage full of excelsior. Cut to some original Ingmar footage for half an hour or so, then insert scenes of Pontus Asp driving wildly around Ystad with sirens blaring, or searching by torchlight one of the myriad large dark abandoned warehouses with which the outskirts of town are riddled. Back to Ingmar, then, for a spot of summer interludes or lessons in love or smiles of a summer night or seventh seals or wild strawberries or virgin springs or pleasure gardens or personae or cries and whispers or scenes from a marriage or serpent’s eggs or autumn sonatas or lives of marionettes or private confessions or sarabands or what have you, intercut with shots of Bonken cogitating sagely as he munches a crumbly biscuit in his cage full of excelsior and Pontus Asp interrogating ne’er-do-wells and Nyberg fiddling with test tubes and probes, and wrap the whole thing up with a lingering shot of the waves lapping the shore of the beach while gulls shriek in Swedish. I think this would make a tiptop TV series.

Once we’d exhausted the Ingmar canon, and with audiences clamouring for a new series, we could work the same magic with the screenplays of other Scandinavian film directors and with those of notable Ingmarites like Woody Allen. That should keep us going for years, until Pontus Asp is old and grey. I may have to look into the average life-span of Swedish hamsters to check whether we would need to get a replacement actor to play Bonken at some stage.

On Bugloss And Vipers

There is a patch of ground I often pass, when I am walking from the chalet to the bins, and it is rife with bugloss and vipers. I composed, in my head, a little song about it. The lyrics were as follows:

There is a patch of ground I pass
It’s rife with bugloss ‘n’ vipers
Bugloss is a rough-haired herb, it is akin to borage
Just in case you didn’t know, the latter rhymes with ‘courage’
The viper, like an asp, crawls the earth upon its belly
If you have not courage, your legs will turn to jelly
Vipers and bugloss in that patch
Let us sing our jolly catch
Bugloss and vipers ‘twixt chalet and bins
Let us confess our several sins
Lust! Envy! Pride! Wrath!
Gluttony! Greed! And! Sloth!

I devised a simple tune to which the words could be sung, but let’s face it, I do not have a musical bone in my body. What I heard in my head was pleasing enough, and made my little potters between chalet and bins a highlight of my otherwise soul-sickening days. But I knew that if my song were ever to be professionally recorded, and become a smash hit single, and be performed in packed stadia to adoring crowds waving the flames of their lit cigarette lighters, it would need a better singer than me, and a better tune than the one I had given it. And so I went in search of a collaborator.

One evening I left the chalet and passed the patch of ground rife with bugloss and vipers, but I did not stop when I reached the bins. No! I pressed on, indefatigably, until I arrived, about an hour later, at the folk club. Here, I thought, I was likely to find a person with musical talent who could set my words to a memorable and globally-adored tune. I sat down on a wooden chair near the back and listened to various folk sing various folk songs. There was much fol de rol and rusticism, repeated references to abstruse agricultural implements, and a smattering of disaster in mineshaft and on the sea.

During the interval, I approached one or two persons whose songs had brought tears to my eyes. I wanted to ascertain that my future collaborator had a “feel” for both bugloss and vipers. I cannot put it more precisely than that. It was not that they needed to be obsessive, maniacal, about the herb and the snake, more that they harboured due appreciation of both, knew a sprig of bugloss when they saw it, could tell a viper from an asp or a boa constrictor. To winkle out of my putative collaborators whether or not they met my requirements, I had prepared a couple of questions.

“What do you know of bugloss?” I said to the first folkie I buttonholed. He was an hairy man with a lairy eye, who had earlier sung a lengthy dirge about hedging and ditching.

“The herb related to comfrey and hounds-tongue and borage?” he rapped back. I noted that he pronounced the latter to rhyme with ‘porridge’, and my heart sank.

“Yes, that bugloss, none other,” I said.

“Not much,” he said, “Other than that there is a type of bugloss called viper’s bugloss, also known as blueweed.”

This was news to me. My jaw dropped and my heart began to beat very fast.

“What about vipers?” I babbled, “What know you of vipers?”

“Funny you should ask that,” he said, “For when I am not strumming my banjo and wailing mournful dirges in folk clubs up and down the land I am often to be found haunting the bottomless viper pits of both Gaar and Shoeburyness. I have kiosks at both viper pits, selling a variety of souvenirs and knick-knacks.”

I fainted.

When I came to, it was to find a jet of ice cold water being sprayed into my face. I was lying on the sawdusty floor of the folk club, a gaggle of concerned folkies gathered about me. My collar had been loosed, my hair mussed, my forehead rubbed. None of the faces gazing at me was that of the hairy man with the lairy eye.

“That man I was talking to . . .” I managed to mumble, “Where is he?”

But nobody seemed to know who I was talking about. I began to wonder if he had been a figment of my pre-swoon imagination. I staggered to my feet and charged about the folk club in search of him, and then outside, in the pitch dark, in the middle of nowhere. Not knowing his name, I cried “Hairy man! Hairy man!” repeatedly, into the night, in vain.

At dawn I returned to the chalet. Almost there, I passed by the bins, and then the patch of ground rife with bugloss and vipers. In my mind’s eye I saw the swaying crowds in the stadium, lighters held aloft, hypnotised. And I heard, in my head, a melody so beautiful, and one that fit my words so perfectly, that I burst into tears, and sank to my knees. Unfortunately I sank slap bang in the middle of the patch, and an enraged viper uncoiled itself and stabbed its fangs right through the tweed of my trousers and into my soft soft flesh, just above the knee.

“Ouch!” I cried.

As the venom coursed through my veins, and I began to lose consciousness, a vision of an hairy man with a lairy eye swam before my eyes. He had a banjo, upon which he began to strum a beauteous melody, and then he began to sing . . .

On The Autobiography Of A Leafcutter Ant

Call me Tzipi. I am a leafcutter ant. I was born to a queen in a colony in an area of Central America rich in vegetation. I do not know who my father was, exactly, because like most winged female ants my mother the queen had hundreds of mates to collect the three hundred million or so sperm she needed during her revuada.

When my mother lost her wings she settled on a patch of rich vegetation near a citrus plantation to found the colony. She had a little store of mycelium from the parental fungus garden in her infrabuccal pocket, and that got us started.

I am a leafcutter ant of the type known as a media, a general forager. Among my siblings are other mediae, and minims, minors and majors. Shortly after I came into the world I set about doing my bit for the colony. In a column of other mediae, I marched from our little fungus garden towards the citrus plantation. It was an arduous journey, as we had to negotiate treacherous terrain and at the same time fend off attacks by phorid flies which, given half the chance, would lay their parasitic eggs in the crevices of our heads. When we got to the citrus plantation we lined up and took it in turns to cut a little section of leaf from the foliage, not so small that it was barely worth the bother, but not so big that we would become exhausted from carrying it. Then we made our way back the way we had come, marching across treacherous terrain and fending off the phorid flies with the help of our little minims sitting on our backs. When we got back to the colony we deposited our leaf-fragments in the fungus garden, and turned around, and then again we marched from our little fungus garden towards the citrus plantation. It was an arduous journey, as we had to negotiate treacherous terrain and at the same time fend off attacks by phorid flies which, given half the chance, would lay their parasitic eggs in the crevices of our heads. When we got to the citrus plantation we lined up and took it in turns to cut a little section of leaf from the foliage, not so small that it was barely worth the bother, but not so big that we would become exhausted from carrying it. Then we made our way back the way we had come, marching across treacherous terrain and fending off the phorid flies with the help of our little minims sitting on our backs. When we got back to the colony we deposited our leaf-fragments in the fungus garden, and turned around, and then again we marched from our little fungus garden towards the citrus plantation. It was an arduous journey, as we had to negotiate treacherous terrain and at the same time fend off attacks by phorid flies which, given half the chance, would lay their parasitic eggs in the crevices of our heads. When we got to the citrus plantation we lined up and took it in turns to cut a little section of leaf from the foliage, not so small that it was barely worth the bother, but not so big that we would become exhausted from carrying it. Then we made our way back the way we had come, marching across treacherous terrain and fending off the phorid flies with the help of our little minims sitting on our backs. When we got back to the colony we deposited our leaf-fragments in the fungus garden, and turned around, and then again we marched from our little fungus garden towards the citrus plantation.

After about twenty-four hours we had managed to completely defoliate an entire citrus tree, so on our next visit to the plantation we veered off from our previous course and began cutting bits of leaves from a new tree. Unfortunately, the Central American citrus fruit farmer whose plantation we were trespassing upon, and gradually destroying, had noticed our depredations. He was livid. He stomped off back to his casa, presumably to fetch some form of leafcutter ant slaughtering device. We quickly took a bit of leaf each from the new tree and marched back to the colony.

There we found chaos, in the form of a virulent strain of Escovopsis, a necrotic parasite. It threatened our food source and, thus, the colony itself. Luckily, just in the nick of time, we were all able to secrete Actinobacteria, genus Pseudonocardia from our metapleural glands, and that protected us. Given that this Actinobacteria is the source of virtually all antibiotics used by humans, it struck me that the citrus fruit farmer was being a bit ungrateful.

Anyway, after all this marching and carrying and secreting we were quite tired, so we sat about munching on stuff from the fungal garden. Mother looked on contentedly. It grew dark, and we heard all sorts of nocturnal birds and beasts screeching and howling.

The next morning, we decided to avoid the plantation of the livid citrus fruit farmer. The splendid thing about this part of the world is that there is such a sheer profusion of vegetation. We headed off to a neighbouring citrus plantation. It was an arduous journey, as we had to negotiate treacherous terrain and at the same time fend off attacks by phorid flies which, given half the chance, would lay their parasitic eggs in the crevices of our heads. When we got to the new citrus plantation we lined up and took it in turns to cut a little section of leaf from the foliage, not so small that it was barely worth the bother, but not so big that we would become exhausted from carrying it. Then we made our way back the way we had come, marching across treacherous terrain and fending off the phorid flies with the help of our little minims sitting on our backs. When we got back to the colony we deposited our leaf-fragments in the fungus garden. Such is life.

On The Bark And The Sap

One of the simplest concepts to grasp, when embarking on the study of trees, is the difference between the bark and the sap. Indeed it is so simple that I am not going to bother explaining it to you. You almost certainly know the difference yourself, and have known it for so long that I strongly suspect you cannot remember when first you learned it. Cast your mind back. Can you honestly say, with any precision, when your conscious mind became aware that bark was bark and sap was sap? No, you cannot. I told you so.

This does leave me with something of a quandary, however. In keeping with the abstruse yet brilliant method I have devised to select a daily topic for these essays, today, October the nineteenth, was always going to be devoted to the bark and the sap of trees. I could have chucked out my scheme, of course, and chosen a completely different topic at random, such as the Merovingian kings or the Munich Air Disaster or Peter, Paul, and Mary or the Oxford comma. But I was, I am, very reluctant to do so, for fear of inviting the blind toads of mental havoc into my head. Sticking with the method keeps those fearsome creatures at bay. Through the constraint imposed on me by the method, not only do I not have to think for a second what I am going to write about, but my brain remains in a state of sweet and lovely calm. If once I allow those blind toads in, God and all his angels help me, that’s all I can say.

So first thing this morning I got the bucket and the pliers and the tarpaulin and the pebble, and I did the thing with the dainty teaspoon, and then I ran my finger along the row and down the column, and scribbled the number in my jotter, and checked the number against the print-out, and returned the bucket and the pliers and the tarpaulin and the pebble to their respective places, and gazed into the frosted glass, and after a few further procedures I arrived at the bark and the sap as today’s topic. So far so good.

But then I thought, everybody knows the difference between the bark and the sap, don’t they? I can’t tell them anything they don’t know already. So closely interknit are the lives of human beings and trees, at least in this land, green and pleasant, that we learn to know bark as bark and sap as sap, and bark from sap and sap from bark, very early, so early that we cannot remember when it lodged within our brains. I suppose it might well be different for people who grow up in treeless landscapes, deserts for example, or ice-girt polar wastelands. They might find out about trees at a comparatively later stage in their development, late enough to recall. But even those people still know, so me banging on about the subject would still be pointless.

I briefly amused myself by inserting a hidden ‘bark’ into my opening sentence, within the word ‘embarking’, and pondered doing the same with ’sap’ before realising that such tomfoolery might open a door or slit or vent or duct through which the blind toads of mental havoc could come hopping into my head. That I must avoid at all costs.

The topic determined through the method, though, made no mention of trees. The bark and the sap may not be tree bark and tree sap but quite other barks and saps entirely. The bark, for instance, might be the barking of a dog, and the sap might be the lead-weighted leather thumping instrument with which malefactors fell innocents in certain episodes of criminality in alleyways in the night-time. Such saps are often deployed in the film noir genre. Thinking of crime, and more precisely of crime fiction, we might posit that a malefactor is sapping an innocent in a night-time alleyway while, just a few yards away, a dog is not barking. This is of course a reference to the Conan Doyle story “Silver Blaze” (1892), in which Sherlock Holmes alludes to “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time”.

We might make the malefactor Babinsky, the lumbering, walrus-moustached, psychopathic serial killer. He usually goes rampaging about with an axe or a big slicing thing rather than a sap, but we can assume on this occasion he is varying his modus operandi to throw the coppers off the scent. Who should we choose for our innocent? It could be anybody from Ned Slop – newly installed with an alien brain from outer space – to Tiny Enid, though it is unlikely that the plucky fascist tot would ever allow herself to be outwitted by Babinsky. Still, we are getting somewhere.

The dog, though, remains something of a problem. It is only here because it is a beast that barks, and if it does not bark then, according to the method, we have failed to address the topic. One can sense the blind toads gathering at the edges of our reason.

In the circumstances, it might be best to ditch Babinsky and the innocent and the silent dog, the dark alleyway in the night-time, and to return to daylight, and trees, tree bark and tree sap, a copse, a spinney, a forest, or a lone pine or plane tall upon a promontory, silhouetted against a blazing sky, windswept and forlorn. We would have to concede the near-impossibility of bashing out a thousandish words on the bark and the sap, but we could rest easier knowing that the blind toads of mental havoc had been banished from our head, on today of all days, Friday the nineteenth of October in the year of Our Lord MMXII.

On Breakfast

Dear Mr Key, writes Poppy Nisbet, I like to think I am the world’s leading authority on Hooting Yard. I spend at least four hours a day reading and rereading – and rerereading! – your work, and try to fit in a further two hours listening, or relistening, (or rerelistening!) to a few of the hundreds of podcasts available from Resonance104.4FM. A couple of years ago I made the wise decision not to bother ever reading anybody else, and tossed on to a bonfire various books I had accumulated, including all my signed first editions of Jeanette Winterson. I have never regretted that decision, and indeed I took several snapshots of the flames consuming the La Winterson tomes, and made a tape recording of the crackling blaze. These are intended as mementoes for my grandchildren, to teach them a valuable lesson about life and literature.

I will shortly be appearing on the television quiz show Socially Inept Brainbox Challenge, where of course I shall be taking Hooting Yard as my special subject. I have every confidence that I will achieve the top score of 92 out of 92, but to be on the safe side I am poring over your works with even greater diligence and concentration than ever, making many notes in my jotter pad. Incidentally, this jotter pad I will also be bequeathing to my grandchildren. They do not know how lucky they are.

All this is by way of preamble to explain my consternation upon reading your piece yesterday on cornflakes. For round six of Socially Inept Brainbox Challenge I have chosen as my intensive grilling topic Breakfast At Hooting Yard. I am all too aware that breakfast is almost the only meal of the day ever mentioned in your work. Nobody seems to have luncheon or dinner or supper, at least not with any regularity. But you harp on about breakfast all the time, and a quick search elicits over one hundred separate pieces in which it is mentioned in greater or lesser detail. The thing is, these multitudinous breakfasts are almost always eggy, and when they are not they often involve smokers’ poptarts or some sort of fish-based preparation. While we read occasionally of breakfast cereal cartons, said cartons have usually been torn up and the cardboard used for scribbling upon, or for the construction of toy squirrels, etcetera. We rarely find anyone actually eating breakfast cereal, and when they do it is as likely as not Special K.

I was therefore not merely in a state of consternation but actively flabbergasted to read a piece in which cornflakes were an all-consuming passion. It seems to me that this is without precedent in your work. Now, we can take this in a number of ways. It may signal a bold new direction, and a not unwelcome one. Those of us whose lives beat to a Hooting Yard pulse are always ready to learn a new rhythm. At least, I think so, though I suppose I can only speak for myself. Conversely it may be that a sudden shift from eggy breakfasts to cornflakes leaves certain readers feeling unmoored, bewildered by a tangle of unfamiliar signposts. I admit this was my own initial response. I found myself having to reread all your breakfast-related babblings to tally up the eggs and smokers’ poptarts and kippers and so on, wondering if I had lost my wits. It certainly put me off my stride in terms of my prep for Socially Inept Brainbox Challenge, so bear in mind that if my score is less than the highest possible 92 I am going to hold you personally responsible, Mr Key.

What I need to know, before the charabanc arrives to take me to the television studios for the recording of the quiz, is whether the cornflakes mania to which you devoted yesterday’s piece is an anomaly, or whether we ought to prepare ourselves for further breakfast unhingements. Or are we to find that cornflakes are now on the standard Hooting Yard breakfast menu? If the latter, I think you owe it to your readers to make a compelling case for cornflakes over Special K, an alternative cereal which, I would aver, fits more snugly into the glorious and only semi-fictional world of Hooting Yard.

I await your considered response with bated breath. Not that I am aware quite how I might bate my breath. I am gravely disappointed that nowhere in the entire Hooting Yard canon can I find any guidance on the matter. As I never read anything else, I suppose I must remain in a state of dire ignorance (and unbated breath) until such time as you choose to address the topic. And while you are about it, you might also turn your attention to giraffes, of which you have had very little to say, and that little not particularly enlightening.

I remain, yours etc.

Poppy Nisbet

By way of reply, I would direct Ms Nisbet to World Wide Words, which gives as concise and informative an explanation of bated breath as one could wish for. As for cornflakes, I don’t know what to say. Yesterday I was merely reporting what I had heard on the grapevine about Pepinstow. I may have misheard, or it might have been garbled, and it may well be that Pepinstow’s mania was indeed for Special K rather than cornflakes. But in order to find out, I would have to track down my informant, and that would be no easy matter. Pepinstow’s tale was told to me by a very elderly gent I met down at the quayside. He was, by his own description, an ancient mariner, and I noted that he had an albatross – not, sadly, a giraffe – slung around his neck, like a necklace. He jabbered the Pepinstow business at me before embarking on a boat, bound for distant shores the whereabouts of which I know not. That is the thing with albatross-disporting ancient mariners, in my experience you cannot always rely on them, more’s the pity.

On The World Of Cornflakes

The world of cornflakes is a world of cartons. It is hard to imagine one without the other. Pepinstow tried and failed. That was his tragedy. It was less tragic than some other tragedies that could have befallen him, but even so, even so. It did for him. They found him slumped on the cold hard floor of a pantry, weeping. He had made a cackhanded stab at cutting his own hair with a pair of garden shears. With a big black bold indelible marker pen he had scrawled a word on his forearm, an amateur tattoo that would, eventually, oh eventually, with enough soap and water, be washed away. The word was CORNFLAKES.

Pepinstow could not recall when first he became wholly, hopelessly immersed in the world of that particular breakfast cereal. He did know that there had been a time when he had other interests. He had been a keen stamp collector. On Saturdays he often took a pair of binoculars and went out to peer at birds. He was on his way to becoming a leading authority on Ford Madox Ford, or Ford Madox Brown, one of the Ford Madoxes in any case. He was a dab hand with a badminton racquet.

Then one day he was staying in an insalubrious hotel at a seaside resort. Early in the morning, shortly after sunrise, he crept down to the breakfast parlour. All his thoughts were concentrated on kippers. He was a kippers-for-breakfast man, was Pepinstow, through thick and thin. And thin times he had had, with a vengeance, yet always managed to procure at least a kipper, or in extremis half a kipper, for his breakfast. But at that seaside resort in that insalubrious hotel in that breakfast parlour on that day, around the time of the Tet Offensive, Pepinstow’s world changed.

- Good morning, sir, I trust you had a restful night?, said the hotelier.

He was a lanky man with a walrus moustache and crumpled clothing,

- I did indeed, thank you, said Pepinstow, the bed was suitably hard, the walls did not shake, and I was lulled to sleep by the sound of the sea sucking on the pebble-strewn beach. Now I am ready for my kippers!

The hotelier’s moustache drooped, and he adopted an expression of hopeless grief.

- I am sorry to say, sir, that toxin specialists from a nearby facility called before dawn, and pronounced our kippers poisonous. It seems a madcap serial killer is on the loose hereabouts. He must have broken in to the hotel at dead of night, when you and I and all God’s children were in the land of Nod. He appears to have injected every single kipper in the hotel with a lethal toxin.

Pepinstow’s legs turned to jelly and he tottered towards the mantelpiece to hold himself upright.

- I’m afraid all I can offer you for breakfast this morning is a bowl of cornflakes, said the hotelier.

Things were never the same for Pepinstow. Reluctantly, but then with increasing relish, he tucked in to the cornflakes. What a breakfast!, he thought, What have I been missing all these years, stuffing my gob with kippers? He was a man transformed. Later, sitting on the pier, staring at the sea, he found his thoughts turning again and again to cornflakes,

Soon enough it was time to leave the seaside resort and to head for an inland bailiwick, a rustic place of cows and wheat, and a shabby guest-house in a shabbier village. Here he was delighted to find cornflakes on the breakfast menu. By the time he moved on again, to a mountainous region of thin crisp air and yodelling goatherds, he was a lost cause. He was a man in thrall to cornflakes, mad with them. He neglected his stamp collection, gave up peering at birds, forgot all he knew of Ford Madox Ford or Ford Madox Brown, and no longer whacked a shuttlecock with his badminton racquet. His brain was utterly consumed by cornflakes.

For years, Pepinstow only ever saw cornflakes in a bowl, served and ready for the addition of milk from a jug. Where they sprung from he knew not, though he spent much time and mental effort in wild conjecture. Were they caught in nets in the sea, like kippers? Were they laid in coops by hens, like eggs? Did they come fully-formed into the world, in their bowls, by an Act of God?

Then one day during John Major’s first term of office, Pepinstow found himself in a huge urban sprawl, in a massive hotel. When he crept down to breakfast, he was alarmed – it would be better to say he was unhinged – to discover that he had to serve himself, from a buffet. He gazed along the tables at the panoply of breakfast items, but could see no cornflakes. He jabbered frantically at another guest, who pointed out the carton. And so poor Pepinstow lost his wits.

From that day on, cornflakes and cartons became horribly entangled in his brain. That is why they found him, slumped on the cold hard floor of a pantry, weeping. He had made a cackhanded stab at cutting his own hair with a pair of garden shears. With a big black bold indelible marker pen he had scrawled a word on his forearm, an amateur tattoo that would, eventually, oh eventually, with enough soap and water, be washed away. The word was CORNFLAKES.