On The Infernal Gazebo

I was interested to note, when solving today’s cryptic crossword in the Grauniad, a felicitous conjunction of words. The column containing 7 and 19 down, third in from the right, reads INFERNAL GAZEBO. Indeed it was both felicitous and a jaw-dropping coincidence, for it had long been my intention to write today about the infernal gazebo at Plunkett Hall.

On our last visit to that grand baronial edifice, we learned how, one afternoon in the eighteenth century, Baron Plunkett confronted the Evil Thargon. It was several weeks later when the events historians call “the strange events in the infernal gazebo at Plunkett Hall” took place. There are a number of books and pamphlets and tracts and hysterical blood-stained ravings on the topic, all of which are worth reading, if you have the time and inclination. I have neither, to be quite honest, what with all the other calls on my attention, birds, ponds, smokers’ poptarts and what have you, so what follows is frankly ill-researched and possibly wrong, wrong, wrong in all particulars. But bear with me, because I think you will find it rewarding, in a Radio 4 Thought For The Dayish kind of way.

The gazebo in the grounds of Plunkett Hall was plonked upon one of the magnificent lawns not far from the ha-ha. Architecturally, it was an unremarkable gazebo, having been designed by the unremarkable architect Baffles Chippy, and built by a gaggle of snaggle-toothed and sullen labourers hired for a pittance from the derelict godforsaken villages thereabouts. None of these men of peasant stock had an inner life, which was just as well, or they might have been haunted forever after by the gazebo they built. Baffles Chippy did have an inner life, and a monstrous one, riddled with imps and demons and incubi and succubi and all sorts of other awful phantoms of hell that don’t bear thinking about. But think of them the architect did, constantly, to the point of phrenzy. And so, whenever he was commissioned to design a building, be it a gazebo or a folly or a seaside chalet, he strived to make it, in his words, “a home fit for heebie-jeebies”, the latter a catch-all term he used for the fiends throbbing in his demented brain. Unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately – Chippy was a somewhat cackhanded architect, and the buildings he designed rarely if ever reflected his intentions. They might be twee, or gingerbread, or stumpy, or base and brickish, but seldom did they look like the ghastly horrors he had in mind.

So it was with the Plunkett Hall gazebo, which, when finished, looked pretty much like any other eighteenth century gazebo in the grounds of a stately home. In spite of this, Chippy insisted it be called the infernal gazebo, and so it was, by all and sundry.

One afternoon in the eighteenth century, the ancient factotum Ned Slop came panting and staggering into the library of Plunkett Hall.

– Lawks-a-mercy!, baron, he croaked, There’s a right to-do over in the infernal gazebo by the ha-ha.

Baron Plunkett looked up from his book.

– Must you pester me, Slop, when you can see I am making a series of learned annotations in my leather-bound Pontoppidan?, snapped the baron.

– I beg pardon, baron, b-b-but…, said the factotum.

– Whatever the to-do is, I am sure you, with your untold decades of service and drudgery and fawning and drainage ditch draining can cope with it, Slop. Now be off with you, before I ring for the pincers-man to come and have at you with his terrible pincers!

And so Ned Slop bowed and staggered out of the library and along the corridors and through the great baronial hall and out into the magnificent grounds. He tottered slowly across the lawns towards the infernal gazebo. He was shaking more than usual, and dribbling with fear. But then he remembered he had seen the baron shake a stick at the Evil Thargon, just a few weeks ago, and that had seemed to do the trick. So he veered off towards a mighty yew and picked from the ground a fallen stick. Waving it in front of him, emboldened, he entered the infernal gazebo.

It was infested with bats and owls and moles and otters. And there, in their midst, stood the unremarkable figure of Baffles Chippy. Only now there was something remarkable about him. He was wearing a cape and a pointy hat and had sprouted horns and a tail and his feet were naked and cloven as those of a goat and his eyes were black black black globules of fathomless doom.

Poor Ned Slop waved his stick, but Chippy, or the thing Chippy had become, roared. It was an awful, deafening roar, and the stick burst into flames in Ned Slop’s wrinkled and cadaverous hand.

– Lawks-a-mercy!, he cried, not for the first time that day.

In his moth-eaten armchair in the library, Baron Plunkett scrawled a learned annotation in the margin of his leather-bound Pontoppidan. Had he not been as deaf as a post, he would have heard distant rumbling. A to-do of cosmic proportions was taking place at that very moment in the infernal gazebo. When it was over, there would be nothing left but a few owl-feathers and an otter’s shrivelled head and the charred remains of Ned Slop’s stick and a yawning crater, full of fire and vapours and shrieking, black and bottomless, the maw of hell.

The next day, apprised of the pit, Baron Plunkett ordered that the area be surrounded by another ha-ha, and a filbert hedge planted all around it. A gaggle of snaggle-toothed and sullen labourers hired for a pittance from the derelict godforsaken villages thereabouts toiled and dug, with only a smattering of them toppling into the pit. And when they were done, the second of the so-called “strange events in the infernal gazebo at Plunkett Hall” occurred. The gazebo, blackened and burned but intact, rose up out of the pit, and hovered awhile in the air, and then it shot upwards, at inexplicable speed, and vanished in the aether. And ten minutes later, dressed in a spacesuit like Felix Baumgartner’s, the ancient factotum Ned Slop fell to earth, bumping down in a drainage ditch, quite unharmed, but with a brand new and alien brain pulsating inside his skull….

On The Consequences Of The War

There have been many studies of the consequences of the war, so on the face of it yet another one would seem unnecessary. I feel compelled to add my own for two reasons. First, that the extant studies are uniformly mistaken, foolish, and sprawling. Secondly, this one is by me and is therefore fantastic. It is also considerably shorter than those sprawling studies, so you will be all clued up on the consequences of the war, and able to spout intelligently about them at cocktail parties, having spent only a fraction of the time needed to digest the mistaken foolish sprawls.

Well, you will not be able to spout at cocktail parties, of course, because one of the consequences of the war is that cocktail parties are a thing of the past. It is difficult to host a halfway decent cocktail party in a landscape that had been reduced to crumbling ruins. I have no idea what Beamish is going on about in his mistaken and foolish and sprawling study, Some Notes On The Consequences Of The War Vis A Vis Fashionable Cocktail Parties. He claims to have personally attended no fewer than five such elegant social occasions in the six weeks immediately after the cessation of hostilities, though I note he is very cagey, very cagey indeed, about where these events are supposed to have taken place. He only gives one definite postal address – 14b Hysteria Mews – and it did not take much research for me to discover that this is now the site of a foetid swamp bubbling with hazardous chemicals. The only standing structure for miles around is the old coastguard’s hut. Thinking that perhaps some brainsick noddies had snuck past the barbed wire to hold a cocktail party there, I donned protective clothing and made my way in, only to discover that the roof and the ceiling and the floor had all collapsed, and that the pit thus formed below ground was home to a family of savage mutant otters. By all means go hither and try sipping a cocktail while engaged in elegant chitchat if you dare. But don’t blame me if you emerge bitten and clawed and bloody and wishing for a quick death.

Beamish is also the author of Some Notes On The Consequences Of The War Vis A Vis The Fixture List For The Domestic Pole-Vaulting League. It astonishes me that this book sprawls over nine hundred pages, excluding the index and appendices. I would have only one “note” on the subject, and it would read as follows: “In the aftermath of the war, there are no fixtures”. Yes, one could expand upon that by recalling the heady days of the prewar pole-vaulting team meetings, and the contrast with the postwar scene, but there is only so much one can say. Beamish, poor deluded Beamish, seems to be under the impression that pole-vaulting events are still taking place on Saturday afternoons, all across the land. Perhaps he is hallucinating. Certainly a population of stunted beggars with withered limbs is in no fit state to pole-vault over even a tiny pile of pebbles, if, that is, one could find anywhere a pole-vaulting pole that had not been reduced to ashes and dust, or been commandeered to prop up something that would otherwise collapse, like an old coastguard’s hut.

But Beamish is hardly the worst offender. More mistaken, more foolish, and more sprawling is An A To Z Of The Consequences Of The War by Alonzo Zumbag. This weighs in at over two thousand closely-printed pages, with more than six hundred entries under the letter A alone. And what a lot of bosh it is! If we are to believe Mr Zumbag, the following things have improved considerably since the end of the war: apples, apricots, alabaster, amnesiacs, aircraft (both real and model), ants, aniseed, aspirin, the month of April (but not, curiously, August), antiques, art, aglets, air, and antimony. Not a shred of evidence is offered in support of such blithering claptrap as “One of the consequences of the war is that Airfix modelling glue for model aeroplanes is now hundreds of times more gluey and sticky than it was before the war. Truly it is the king of adhesive pastes!”

This is patently untrue. Last week, for example, I was foraging around in a waterlogged bomb crater hoping to find a sprig of nettles to keep me alive until teatime, when I came upon an almost intact Airfix model kit. It was a seventy-six piece miniature of a Swordfish 109 Plasmatron Fighter Jet, complete with a tube of modelling glue. To pass the time, and to distract myself from the pangs of hunger and thirst and from the hideous suppurations of my many and various sores and boils, I squatted in a puddle and put the model together. But when it came time to apply the glue, the stuff that squirted out of the tube was neither gluey nor sticky. What it was was highly acidic, like the blood of the alien in Alien, and it burned holes in my arms and legs and torso which ache like billy-o. If that is better than prewar Airfix modelling glue, then I am a Swiss cheese. Actually, I am beginning to resemble a Swiss cheese, what with all these burning acid holes.

So if you take my advice you will throw away any of those Consequences Of The War studies you have bought, and stick with this one. I will not pretend I have been going to elegant cocktail parties. I will not claim to have attended a pole-vaulting league match. And I will have nothing good to say about anything beginning with A, let alone with B or with the other letters of the alphabet, not all of which I can remember. I was such a butterfingers with that tube of so-called “king of adhesive pastes” that I managed to squirt a goodly dollop on to my head. It ate its way through the flesh and bone right into my brain and out the other side, and I must admit to feeling not quite myself ever since. I have even begun wondering if there actually was a war, before which this land was a sort of paradise. Maybe it is all a phantasm, and I have always, for my entire life, squatted in a puddle under a foul black sky, half blind from gas, and starving and withered of limb, scrubbling in the muck for a sprig of poisonous nettle, happy as a warlord.

On The Saints

Glory glory hallelujah! Glory glory hallelujah!

This is the appropriate verbal response when you see saints go marching in. It is not, admittedly, something you see very often, but it is best to be prepared, just in case, and to have the double “glory” and the “hallelujah” ready on your lips. You can even practise, in the absence of marching saints, to be on the safe side.

“Does it matter,” I have been asked, “into what the saints are marching?” Actually it is surprising how often I am asked this question. Only the other day I was buttonholed in the boulevard by not one, not two, but by three separate persons – a boy scout, a widow-woman, and an art wanker – each asking me, in varying tones of urgency and desperation, if they ought to concern themselves with the eventual destination of marching saints. In each case my answer was the same. “No,” I said, plainly and simply, hoping that would put an end to the matter and I could continue on my way, sashaying along towards the pie shop, or the pastry kiosk, or wherever it was I was going.

But neither the boy scout, the widow-woman, nor the art wanker was satisfied by my reply and they each had a supplementary question. These I felt duty bound to deal with. When one is the sort of person whose advice is sought in the matter of marching saints, one cannot merely shrug and dismiss those by whom one is importuned. To do so would be snippy, and I am not a snippy man.

Now, I am not going to relate to you precisely what those three supplementary questions were. We haven’t got time to get bogged down in minutiae, have we? What I will do is try to make some general points about marching saints, or more precisely the destinations into which we might find them marching. You will then be able to judge if your own questions on the matter have been answered. If not, you can either put your question in writing and send it to me c/o the Marching Saints Investigation Bureau, or you can smack yourself hard in the centre of your forehead and go about some other business, such as garden maintenance or changing the fuse in one of your electrical plugs.

There are innumerable situations into which saints might march. For instance, I have seen saints go marching in to mysterious remote storage facilities out in arid wastelands. I have seen them go marching in to certain death in the face of enemy machine gun fire. And I have seen them go marching in to the pie shop. In the latter case, I think they were intent not on buying pies but on making a complaint about pies bought the previous day, which turned out to be contaminated pies and gave them all a proper bellyache.

The thing is that saints tend to go marching about, in groups, rather than keeping themselves to themselves in isolated hermitages, convents, monasteries, and the like. Nobody is quite sure why that is. Obviously there is the issue of strength in numbers, but any saint worth their salt is brimful of inner strength. It is one of their saintly features. No matter what brickbats are thrown, nor perils confronted, a saint will cope with them due to their strength and sanctity. This much is true even of weedy or puny saints, of whom there are more than you might expect.

Still, for whatever reason, they like to gather together into a pack, like wolves, and go marching, usually with banners and drums and pipes to toot. I suppose it beats sitting around in a hermitage gazing at the bracken and gorse growing in the doorway. Once they are marching, they like to have somewhere to march to, something to march into. Otherwise they would just march and march and march, until they dropped from exhaustion or until they reached the limit of the land, and arrived at cliffs or a beach, and saw the sea. In a sense, then, it doesn’t matter into what they march. What is important is that, as they pass, those who see them doff their hats and lift their voices to heaven and cry “Glory glory hallelujah!”

The double “glory” is significant. Where only a single “glory” is cried, I have seen marching saints totter and stagger and in some cases fall flat on their faces. If the fallen saint is near the front of the pack, those behind can trip over them, and come clattering down themselves, dropping their drum or tooting pipe, causing a bigger obstacle to those further behind, and resulting in a chaotic heap of limb-flailing saints. Though this can be amusing to watch, it would be sinful to laugh, as I am sure you know. I once chuckled when I saw a collapsed pack of marching saints, and not long afterwards I was visited in the night by a horrible black swooping bat of penitence. I did not forget that in a hurry.

As with the double “glory” so with the “hallelujah”. You might want to practise your pronunciation of this cry. That ‘j’ can be treacherous. Remember that it is only Rastafarians who give it the common ‘j’ sound, as when they are babbling on about Jah and the sufferation in Babylon. As a consequence, “hallelujah” is sometimes spelled “halleluiah”, for the benefit of dimwits. As you can imagine, missing out “hallelujah” after “glory glory” can be even more calamitous than a single “glory”. As I explained, with inhuman patience, to the boy scout and the widow-woman and the art wanker, a night-time visit from a horrible black swooping bat of penitence would be the very least of your worries if you omitted the “hallelujah”. Take my word for it, you don’t want to know the awful details.

In our next article on marching saints, we will look in some detail at chronology. When exactly is the “when” when the saints go marching in? Before then, your homework is to list three such occasions, backed up by documentary evidence. To avoid confusion, give your times using the twenty-four hour clock.

On The Tosspot

I have been asked to compile a report on the Tosspot. It is a great honour and I hope to acquit myself with really fantastic splendour. That would be a feather in my cap. I decided the best way to approach the Tosspot is to tackle him fruit by fruit. It is not that fruit looms large in his tosspottery, but dimpus dempus, as they say in Latin, they being the Tosspot’s acolytes.

Before proceeding, with I hope fantastic splendour, it is meet to say a few words about those acolytes. Not every (lower case) tosspot has acolytes, but the definitively upper case Tosspot does. That goes without saying. So why did I say it? Aha! For the same reason that we are going to tackle him fruit by fruit. The Tosspot’s acolytes come in a variety of caps and colours, but what they all have in common is possession of a key to the hillside sanctum. It is as fine a sanctum as anybody in search of a sanctum could wish for. Set halfway up a hillside, concealed by serried beds of hollyhocks, it is both stony and capacious. There is a joke going the rounds that the Tosspot is himself stony and capacious, and the acolytes guffaw, though it is unclear what, if anything, it means. I guffawed myself, when I first heard it, to seem one of the in-crowd, but so many and various were my slips and fumbles in other respects that I was always marked as an outsider. That is perhaps why I have been entrusted to write this report. An acolyte would just witter adoringly, like a moonstruck calf.

With the fruit by fruit approach, it is essential to get the fruits in the correct order, otherwise even the most fantastically splendid report writer can get into all sorts of pickles. I know that to my cost. A while ago I was asked to write a report about bike wankers. You might think that is a topic that does not lend itself to the fruit by fruit approach, but you would be wrong, very very wrong. But I made the fatal mistake of starting off with plums, then bananas, and quite frankly after that I was done for. The report was binned, and justifiably so.

I am not going to make the same mistake again, which is why for my Tosspot report I decided to place the fruits in a very specific order, one derived from a close reading of certain obscure texts by Madame Blavatsky. HPB herself does not actually refer to any fruits in the passages I consulted, but that is the point of my close reading, to eke from her words meanings which may not have been apparent even to her. You cannot read just any old writer using this method and expect results. I have tried it, for example, with H. Rider Haggard, Marie Corelli, and Dennis Wheatley, and in each case I ended up in a perfect flap. Either my fruits were in a blithering chaotic order or there was no hint of fruit or, come to that, of order. I ended up having to visit a greengrocer and buy one of each fruit and align them by hand across the table, which took hours, and even then I had no idea if the order was appropriate to my purposes. But I know I can trust Madame Blavatsky, at least in this regard.

The order of fruits is one thing, however, while the broader ramifications of a report on the Tosspot are something else again. Quibbles aside, there is the question of tone. Though come to think of it, having mentioned quibbles, casting them to one side is easier said than done. My bike wankers report suffered from a surfeit of quibbles, quite apart from the fruit order debacle. Try as I might to shove them out of sight and out of mind, they kept rearing their heads, and snorting, sometimes deafeningly. I plugged my ears with cotton wool to no avail. Eventually I had to go out to a park bench to write my report, thinking that the sight of ducks in a duckpond across a lawn punctuated by beds of lupins would help me settle to the right frame of mind. It did, to some extent, but then it began to rain, and I do not recommend writing in the rain. Ink gets smudged.

Tone, though. Tone for the Tosspot. What should it be? Valedictory? Captious? Smitten? It would be easy enough to adopt a tosspottish tone, if one had a gift for such, but to do so would I think lack a certain dignity. And it would not sit well with the fruit by fruit approach which is, if it is anything, the pinnacle of dignity. I would defy anyone to write a report, on any subject under the sun, adopting a fruit by fruit approach, and not thereby impart to one’s text a measure of dignity unsurpassed. And let’s face it, the Tosspot himself presents a pretty undignified figure at the best of times. Those trousers alone are enough to turn the strongest of stomachs. I will not even begin to describe the socks. In fact, I am not going to mention the socks in my report. I shall go straight from undignified trousers to undignified boots, and it will be as if the socks never existed. That is the best way, believe me. I know whereof I speak.

Having given the matter much thought, and prodded that thought by gazing for several hours at Madame Blavatsky’s milky grey eyes in a photograph, I have concluded that the tone of my report ought to be set by what we call the fruit test. The idea with this technique is to get “inside” the fruit, as it were, and then to allow the fruit to dictate the tone of one’s text. It is absolutely critical, of course, that one selects the proper fruit for the task. Putting the fruits in the correct order is child’s play by comparison. Somewhat surprisingly, the very worst thing one can do is to use real items of fruit, bought from a greengrocer, lined up along the table, to make one’s selection. That is what a naïve young reporter would do. After all, it seems to make sense. But as my mentor said to me, from within the dark interior of his booth, in his booming voice, “Beware! Beware of real fruit!” The import of what he said was not clear to me then, but by heaven it is now, in spades, with brass knobs on.

And so I don my special gloves, and I cut some capers, and I prepare myself to pick the most important fruit I shall ever pick.

On Fig Newton

Of all the people named after biscuits, we ought to consider first Fig Newton. We should begin, candidly, with his head, that head of his, the peculiar Fig Newton head. But before we do, I think it is important to dispel the myth that has accreted around him, that his given name, Fig, was short for something longer, something like Figworth or Figgleton or Figland. It was not. It is telling, in this context, that there is rarely any agreement on what this longer Fig- word was. One would expect, if he had been named Figstrand or Figgleby or Figlop, that those bandying about the suggestion would be able to prove it one way or another, and there would be no doubting the matter. Here, they would say, brandishing some sort of certificate or registration coupon, look!, this is the evidence. But there is never any evidence, due to the simple fact that Fig Newton’s given name was just Fig. That was the simple three-letter word which his parents, with biscuits in mind, chose for him, and by which he was known to all and sundry throughout his pointless life.

I will be charged by some with pejorative intent in saying his life was pointless. But there is a sense in which all lives are pointless, at least in the grand scheme of things. It is on the scale of grandeur that I tend to operate, for better or worse, so you need read nothing more into it.

The same goes for my hint, just now, of his peculiar head. By this I did not mean that there was anything strange or remarkable about that head of his, Fig Newton’s head. I did not mean that it was akin to Neville Chamberlain’s head, which Lloyd George said was a “wrong-shaped head”. I meant merely that Fig Newton’s head was peculiar to him, it was his head and nobody else’s. That may seem obvious, as obvious as the pointlessness of all lives in the grand scheme of things, but I must speak plain, for words are treacherous things. They are as treacherous as ice.

An ice-head of Fig Newton’s head was made by an ice carver, once, and lodged for posterity in an industrial refrigeration facility. It is still there, reportedly, as cold and solid as the day it was carved, when Fig Newton himself was still alive and his brain still throbbed inside his head. Redolent as his name is of a type of biscuit, the head, whether flesh and bone or ice, is not. It could not look less like a biscuit. And I know, because I have studied biscuits, and I have studied heads, and I have studied ice. Not all at the same time, of course, that would be too much of a stretch. One can spread oneself too thin, when engaged in study, if one is not careful. Then the brain can become overheated, and a lethal casualness creep into one’s studies, so edges are blurred and details lost. A discrete fact about biscuits can get mixed up with one about heads or ice, or one about heads with one about biscuits or ice, or one about ice with one about biscuits or heads. And then all hope is lost, through cross-contamination. That is something else I know much about.

When I say I have studied heads I would not want it to be taken as a claim that I have studied Fig Newton’s head in particular. I have not. Nor have I studied the ice-head carved from the likeness of his head. Indeed, I confess I have never even clapped eyes on the ice-head, though not for want of trying. For several years, in between my other studies, I tried to track down the location of the industrial refrigeration facility where it is said to be kept. My search proved fruitless.

Now, while all lives are ultimately pointless in the grand scheme of things, it does not follow that all searches are fruitless. Grandeur of scale is an irrelevance. A simple example will suffice. Only the other day, I went looking for a plum, and I found one. It was a Carlsbad plum. I let out a yelp of triumph when I found it. I knew I had it somewhere, but could not remember where I had put it. In the normal run of things I would place a plum in my fruit bowl, but this particular plum I had put somewhere else, God knows why. When the signal impetus of my being was to lay my hands on that damnable plum, I went straight to the fruit bowl. I had completely forgotten that I had put the plum elsewhere. I could not then rest until I found it. But find it I did, in the fullness of time, after turning the house upside down until it looked as if it had been at the centre of a whirlwind. That was how desperately I wanted the plum, at the time. How easy it is to become so fixated. All thoughts of Fig Newton and biscuits and heads and ice and cross-contamination and other matters I have studied, or dabbled in, were expunged. Plum, plum, plum. The word tolled in my head like a cemetery bell. The tolling ceased only when I found the plum, in a basin in a cupboard under the sink, where I had put it for reasons I am still unable to fathom. The point I am making is that my search succeeded, it was not fruitless, though my life be pointless.

The plum is pertinent, too, because there were times when Fig Newton’s head, that head of his, was roughly the colour of a plum. In size it was of course bigger than a plum, much bigger, but in colour it could almost match the colour of a plum, when he was enraged. He was often enraged. He was an angry man, Fig Newton. It is one of the things everybody says about him. “He would fly off the handle at the merest provocation.” “He seethed with fury from the moment he woke up in the morning to the moment his head hit the pillow at bedtime.” “He was a hothead.” Those are three quotations taken from the archival records.

We might ponder the fact that a man named after a biscuit who is called a hothead has a copy of his head, stone cold, carved from ice, preserved for posterity in an industrial refrigeration facility. It certainly gives us something to think about. And it is always well to have things to think about while we winnow away our pointless lives.

On A Ha-Ha Brouhaha

Writers of science fiction are fond of the invisible force-field, an unseen barrier which unexpectedly stops a spaceman, or the evil Thargon, in his tracks. Landscape gardeners of the eighteenth century had much the same idea with the invention of the ha-ha. This is a sunken wall, its top at ground level, and bounded on the outer side by a ditch. From even a short distance, then, it cannot be seen, and the sweeping view of the gorgeous grounds is uninterrupted. It is an invisible force-field.

“Ha-ha” would seem to be a variant of the original French “ah-ah”, in which form it first appeared in English. Clearly it expresses the element of surprise, no different for the eighteenth century person strolling in the gardens of a stately home than for the spaceman or the evil Thargon bashing up against an invisible force-field in a distant galaxy in the forty-sixth century.

One such stroller, on an eighteenth century afternoon, was Ned Slop, a factotum in the service of Baron Plunkett of Plunkett Hall. Slop had been instructed to prune a filbert hedge, and was making his way towards it, armed with a pair of shears, when his course took him for a time along one side of the ha-ha. As a factotum of some eighty winters, Slop knew every inch of Plunkett Hall and its magnificent parkland, its ha-has and filbert hedges, so as he reached the ha-ha he had no grounds to be surprised. Nonetheless, on this particular afternoon, he did indeed cry “Ah! Ah!” upon arriving at the ha-ha, and he dropped his shears and hurried at once back to Plunkett Hall.

True hurry was not within Slop’s gifts, however, for he was an ancient and creaking factotum whose movements were akin to those of a Beckettian tramp. Indeed it was almost dusk before he staggered into the library, where he found Baron Plunkett. The baron was a scholarly baron, and on this eighteenth century dusk he had his head buried in a huge leather bound copy of Pontoppidan’s Explanations. He looked up as Slop stood panting in the doorway.

– What is it, Slop? Are the filbert hedges duly pruned?, said the baron.

– Pant pant pant, panted Slop, Not yet sir, if it please your baronial magnificence, for before I was able to prune the filbert hedges I came upon something untoward at the ha-ha.

– Pray be more explicit, good Slop, said the baron.

– I don’t rightly know how to describe it, sir, except to say there was a bit of a brouhaha.

– It is not the first time there has been a brouhaha at the ha-ha, said the baron, I expect it is merely an intoxicated peasant or toppled poacher. Now, pray, leave me to my Pontoppidan.

– ‘Tis neither peasant nor poacher so far as I can descry, said Slop, I know full well the sorts of brouhahas they cause, what with their intoxication and illegal rabbits and so forth. No, sir, this is a brouhaha of quite another kidney and one I feel duty bound as a loyal factotum of some eighty winters to report to you, that you may take whatever steps you deem necessary to address it.

Baron Plunkett sighed and put down his Pontoppidan on a side table and heaved himself to his gout-ridden feet.

– Very well, Slop, fetch my stick, would you?

And so, in the dim dusk, the baron and his factotum went a-hobbling and a-creaking across the majestic lawns towards the ha-ha.

– Christ’s wounds!, cried the baron, when eventually they reached the spot, This is more than a mere brouhaha, Slop! This is an inexplicable calamity! You did well to alert me to it.

For before their eyes, the ha-ha was littered with the dead, distorted bodies of several peasants and poachers and widow-women, each twisted beyond recognition and horribly disembrangulated.

– So inexplicable a calamity, continued the baron, That I dare say not even my revered Pontoppidan could explain it in his Explanations.

– Ought I hie back to the library to fetch your tome, sir?, asked Slop.

– No, no, good Slop, that will not be necessary. For cast your eyes thither!

And Baron Plunkett pointed to the ground some yards away to the left, where, from the ha-ha, a trail of noisome green translucent foul bubbling slime stretched across the lawns towards the filbert hedges.

– Let us follow the trail, Slop, said the baron, And we shall discover who – or what – has wrought such hideous horror and disembrangulation.

– B-b-but will we not suffer the same awful fate as the peasants and poachers and widow-women there sprawled dead in the ha-ha?, wailed Slop.

– Fear not, Slop, said the baron, I am a baron and a gentleman and I am armed with a stick. None durst tangle with me. To do so would be socially unthinkable in this our eighteenth century.

So the baron and his factotum followed the trail, and that is how they came face to face with the evil Thargon, whose time-travelling voyage had suddenly and unexpectedly come clunk! to a halt. The space creature had hit an invisible force-field in the shape of the Plunkett Hall ha-ha.

As Ned Slop cowered and piddled in his pants, the baron strode forward and waved his stick at the vile shapeless jelly-like pulsating green and yellow and mauve monocular repellent many-antennae’d squelchy throbbing sucking and seething blob that was the evil Thargon.

– Get off my land at once, cried the baron, and he whacked the space monster with his stick, whereupon it dissolved in a disgusting belch of vapour.

– Come, Slop, let us return to the Hall. I shall read further in Pontoppidan, and you may spend the rest of the evening scrubbing boots and doing other tasks appropriate to your lowly station.

And far far away, distant in both time and space, the populations of several planetoids rejoiced at the defeat of the evil Thargon.

On Seven Fops For Seven Fopettes

Ingmar and Hetty are the first fop and fopette we meet in the smash hit musical Seven Fops For Seven Fopettes. Ingmar is standing on a hayrick, whistling, and Hetty enters stage left, carrying a lamb. In most productions the lamb is a mere bundle of cotton wool. There is nothing remotely foppish about either of them. Indeed, they might be mistaken for yokels.

Then Ingmar sings the smash hit number “On Luneberg Heath Did I Lay Down My Submachine Gun”, and Hetty replies with “Gut That Herring!”. By now the audience is utterly confused. Fops, yokels, militia men, fisherfolk? What is going on here?

The action now turns to the barn, from within which comes a cacophony of different noises, including clanking, siphoning, ragtime piano, hooters, the cries of triumphant pole-vaulters, oompah oompah music, and the like. Ingmar and Hetty enter the barn to investigate, and when they emerge, they have become foppish, indubitably so. Hetty sings “I Am A Fopette On Crutches After That Accident In The Barn”. They then become engaged and a Lutheran pastor beckons them from the wings.

The second fop and fopette to be introduced are Gladiolus and Gladiola. They are already wholly foppish as they descend from a balcony on strings. Yes, they are puppets! The orchestra strikes up a puppetty kind of tune, sprightly yet with mordant passages. Gladiolus torments a heron – also a puppet – in a languid manner. Gladiola rescues the heron from his clutches, and with a startling bit of stage trickery it is transformed into a real heron. The fop and the fopette profess their undying love for each other, and a Lutheran pastor beckons them from the wings.

Five other fop and fopette couples appear in turn during the next forty minutes. There are moments of melodrama and terror, bits of slapstick, a Dadaist interlude, and many smash hit songs before the curtain falls.

Act Two begins with the Lutheran pastor centre stage, alone at a lectern. He recites lengthy passages from Pontoppidan’s Explanations, while behind him mute blind love monkeys cavort in cardboard trees. The second half of Act Two is the audience participation section, always an unnerving experience. Usually, the rifles are loaded with blanks, and the piano wire is actually made from thin strands of easily breakable dough.

Act Three, with its famous airship sequence, has always proved a huge challenge to directors. While the orchestra plays Metamorphosen by Strauss, in the happy up-tempo version by Julius Uptempo, the audience has to be convinced that six fops and six fopettes parachute from the airship with seconds to spare before it explodes and is engulfed in flames. Ingmar and Hetty remain on board, and are assumed to have perished until the exciting finale.

Act Four has never been performed in public, for reasons given variously as stupidity and fire regulations.

In the exciting finale, the seven fops and fopettes are married in a ceremony performed by the Lutheran pastor. Ingmar and Hetty explain their escape from the burning airship in mime. Wilted flowers are tossed on to the stage by a stooge in the audience, and there is a rousing chorus of the smash hit “Thin Strands Of Easily Breakable Dough”.

Critics were unanimous in their praise of the musical from the outset. In Unanimous Praise Of Musicals magazine, Volume XVII, No. 7, July 1953, Bengt Bunglawala wrote:

I have often dreamed of seeing a musical featuring fops and fopettes and puppets and a Lutheran pastor and a mysterious barn and a heron and melodrama, terror, slapstick and a Dadaist interlude and audience participation and an exploding airship and mute blind love monkeys, all accompanied by smash hit songs and a happy up-tempo version of something by Strauss. In fact, it has been my recurring dream, from which I have awoken, biting my pillow in a frenzy, five or six nights a week since I was so high. Now it has become a reality, and it does not disappoint. My only cavil is that there was no place for either Jack Hulbert or Cicely Courtneidge in this production.

In Effusive Reviews Of Musicals magazine, the critic Tord Grip (no relation to the football coach) was effusive:

Boy oh boy! What a musical! My critical review of it is particularly effusive regarding the audience participation segment, when I contrived to substitute blanks for live ammunition and shot my great rival Bengt Bunglawala in the kneecaps. That will teach him to question my critical acumen!

A film adaptation of Seven Fops For Seven Fopettes, featuring Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews, is still in the throes of production, several decades after shooting began. No release date has yet been announced.

Tinie Tempah’s cover version of the smash hit from Act Three, “A Fopette Dons Her Parachute”, features on his next album, which may mercifully never be released due to a sudden and unexpected upsurge of good taste in the record-buying public.

Alain de Botton’s squib How I Based My Entire Life On What I Learned From “Seven Fops For Seven Fopettes” is available from all good airports.

On The Catalogue Of Ships

That unparalleled pamphleteer of the twentieth century, Dobson, was never shy about bruiting abroad his talent.

“It has occurred to me,” he said one morning, over breakfast, to his inamorata, “That I am probably the greatest writer since Homer. No, strike that ‘probably’. Really, there is no question about it.”

Marigold Chew dallied with a sausage skewered on her fork, and said, “That may be so, Dobson, but where in your accumulated pamphleteering work is there a passage to match the catalogue of ships given by Homer in Book Two of the Iliad?”

“What catalogue of ships would that be?” asked Dobson, who had never actually read Homer.

Marigold Chew leaned over to the bookcase, took from it a copy of the Iliad in the translation by Samuel Butler, and tossed it over to Dobson.

“Read and learn,” she said, “Read and learn.”

After breakfast, Dobson did so.

I will tell the captains of the ships and all the fleet together, he read, Peneleos, Leitus, Arcesilaus, Prothoenor, and Clonius were captains of the Boeotians. These were they that dwelt in Hyria and rocky Aulis, and who held Schoenus, Scolus, and the highlands of Eteonus, with Thespeia, Graia, and the fair city of Mycalessus. They also held Harma, Eilesium, and Erythrae; and they had Eleon, Hyle, and Peteon; Ocalea and the strong fortress of Medeon; Copae, Eutresis, and Thisbe the haunt of doves; Coronea, and the pastures of Haliartus; Plataea and Glisas; the fortress of Thebes the less; holy Onchestus with its famous grove of Neptune; Arne rich in vineyards; Midea, sacred Nisa, and Anthedon upon the sea. From these there came fifty ships, and in each there were a hundred and twenty young men of the Boeotians.

Ascalaphus and Ialmenus, sons of Mars, led the people that dwelt in Aspledon and Orchomenus the realm of Minyas. Astyoche a noble maiden bore them in the house of Actor son of Azeus; for she had gone with Mars secretly into an upper chamber, and he had lain with her. With these there came thirty ships.

The Phoceans were led by Schedius and Epistrophus, sons of mighty Iphitus the son of Naubolus. These were they that held Cyparissus, rocky Pytho, holy Crisa, Daulis, and Panopeus; they also that dwelt in Anemorea and Hyampolis, and about the waters of the river Cephissus, and Lilaea by the springs of the Cephissus; with their chieftains came forty ships, and they marshalled the forces of the Phoceans, which were stationed next to the Boeotians, on their left.

Ajax, the fleet son of Oileus, commanded the Locrians. He was not so great, nor nearly so great, as Ajax the son of Telamon. He was a little man, and his breastplate was made of linen, but in use of the spear he excelled all the Hellenes and the Achaeans. These dwelt in Cynus, Opous, Calliarus, Bessa, Scarphe, fair Augeae, Tarphe, and Thronium about the river Boagrius. With him there came forty ships of the Locrians who dwell beyond Euboea.

On and on it went, captain after captain, ship after ship, until Dobson calculated he had tallied up almost fifty captains and over a thousand ships. Then he returned the book to its place, pulled on his Bavarian Otter Hunter’s boots, and headed for the door.

“Where are you going?” asked Marigold Chew.

“I intend to take the bus to the ill-starred fishing village of O’Houlihan’s Wharf,” said Dobson, “Where I shall sit on the jetty armed with propelling pencil and paper, making notes.”

“Righty-ho,” said Marigold Chew, “What time can I expect you back?”

“When I have tallied up over fifty captains and at least one and a half thousand ships,” said Dobson, and he stamped out into the rain, slamming the door behind him.

Later, sitting on the jetty at O’Houlihan’s Wharf armed with propelling pencil and paper, the pamphleteer gazed upon the sloshing estuary. He had been here all day, and thus far had a tally of three captains, one of whom he suspected was a pantry boy in disguise, four fishing smacks, a tugboat, and a couple of rowing boats. It was still raining, and he caught the bus home in a foul temper.

“How did you get on?” asked Marigold Chew brightly.

“Don’t ask,” growled Dobson, “I am repairing to my escritoire and will join you later, when I have written up my catalogue of ships.”

I will tell the captains of the ships and all the fleet together, he wrote, as spotted from the jetty in the ill-starred fishing village of O’Houlihan’s Wharf on a wet Wednesday in October. First let it be said that I do not know how long Homer sat in some similar seaside spot counting captains and ships. But my own experience leads me to distrust his tally, and I think he was probably cheating, making things up, inventing captains and ships out of whole cloth. Well, two can play at that game.

I counted fifty-five captains, Bristow, Snippy, Vile, Glinka, Dipdap, Penge, Crowbar, Hoistermann, Buckle, Snedbury, Frowst, Pang, Gleet, Owlhead, the further names to be added later.

And I counted two thousand ships, including fishing smacks and tugboats and rowing boats, and I will list all their names after I have had a bite to eat.

This will become known as Dobson’s Catalogue Of Ships, and with the passage of time, several centuries’ worth, nobody will dare to doubt its veracity. Long after Homer is forgotten, and his captains and ships all blotted out, the name of Dobson will resound down the ages. Wherever two or three nautically-enthusiastic persons are gathered together, and feel impelled to recite lengthy lists of captains and ships, it is my catalogue they will turn to, and read aloud, declaiming the mighty names in mighty voices! But first, on this wet Wednesday evening, I shall partake of soup and sausages, and a cup of tea.

On Thog

See Thog. See Thog run. See Thog shape-shift.

I’m sorry, I was getting Thog mixed up with Spot. Spot we dealt with yesterday, and Thog we shall deal with today. I can only think I got the two confused, between yesterday and today, due to some weird rip in the space-time continuum. It is the kind of thing that happens all too often when having to cope with such as Thog, creatures who occupy the world we might best describe as science fiction or fantasy. Unlike Spot, who is merely an earthy dog, Thog is a being from another dimension, or possibly several other dimensions, most of which you cannot imagine and I would have the devil of a job to explicate. Fortunately for me, I cannot be bothered to do so.

My opening lines were doubly erroneous. Not only did I get Thog and Spot mixed up, but I suggested that one could “see” Thog. Whether this is true is very far from clear. It may be that much of the time Thog is not actually visible to the human eye. The same is true of Spot of course, given that he might be resting in his kennel or hiding behind a splurge of lupins, but generally speaking dogs are incontrovertibly visible. Not so Thog. Being a shape-shifting being from unknown and unimaginable other dimensions, Thog is not so easy to pin down.

Having said that, there is one tale – it is either an Astounding Tale or a Weird Tale, I forget which – where a mad boffin devises a so-called set of “Thog pins” special fantasy science fiction pins expressly designed to pin Thog as one might pin a butterfly, were one a butterfly collector. Duly pinned, Thog effects an escape by deploying “Thog power”. Impressive as this is, it is never coherently defined, so one cannot emulate Thog in one’s everyday life in the way one might emulate one’s other favourite fictional characters. The mad boffin, by the way, comes to a bad end, so one would not want to emulate him, either.

Coherence is not really a quality we are looking for when reading about Thog, and just as well. One of the best stories is also one of the least coherent. This is Thog On The Tyne, a thrilling science fiction adventure set in Newcastle, written entirely in Geordie dialect. For most of us, it is incomprehensible. But it has its special pleasures, and when I have worked out what they are I will tell you.

Because Thog himself – or, I suppose, itself – defeats easy definition, it is no surprise to learn that attempts to film the stories have met with consistent failure. There was a 1967 flick in which Thog arrives, in a spacecraft, at Alexandra Palace in London to take part in the 14-Hour Technicolour Dream. He does a variety of fantastical Thoggish things, and at one point can be spotted just behind John Lennon, but it is all a bit pedestrian. Of more interest, if equally unsuccessful at the box office, was the 1970s series of Thog films directed by Lindsay Anderson. What is noteworthy about them is that all the scenes involving Thog ended up on the cutting room floor. Anderson himself was said to be livid, but then he was reportedly quite a cantankerous chap at the best of times.

Unlike Spot, Thog has never been the protagonist of a children’s television series, though one is long overdue. A cartoon Thog might be quite a hit with the tinies. I am told that someone somewhere is developing a show called Spot And Thog, or possibly Thog And Spot. There are also unconfirmed reports that someone else somewhere else is working on a rival show in which Spot is merely one of the shapes into which Thog shifts, so that Thog and Spot are essentially one and the same.

Alain de Botton has written perceptively about the Spot-Thog dichotomy, if it is indeed a dichotomy, in his book 50 Things You Can Learn From Thog. It is a very thin book indeed. I would like to say deceptively so, but I am not going to. It is just very thin. In my view, for what it’s worth, the things the Swiss brainbox claims can be learned from Thog could equally well be learned by standing in a puddle out on a blasted heath, like Luneberg, in driving rain, on a bank holiday afternoon. I have tried this myself, on more than one occasion, and I learned many, many things, many more than fifty if truth be told. I needed neither Spot nor Thog nor Alain de Botton to help with these lessons. One day I shall impart to you, in resounding prose, exactly what I learned, and you will be by turns appalled, bewildered, cut up, despairing, eggbound, frolicsome, gooey, hysterical, implacable, jinxed, knackered, loopy, and murderous, and that only accounts for the first half of the alphabet. It also summarises only your likely reactions to one of the many things I learned on Luneberg Heath. Imagine, then, the sheer panoply of my emotions you will go through as you learn all the other things, more than fifty of them, and each one more coherent than anything you will read in the astounding and weird and uncanny and unnerving tales of Thog.

On Spot


See Spot. See Spot run. Hear Spot yap. Yap yap yap, says Spot. What a din Spot makes! Noisy Spot. See the grump. See the grump throw a pebble at Spot. Hear Spot howl. See Spot run.

See the grump put the kettle on. See the grump look for teabags in the cupboard. Hear the grump moan. See the grump don his coat and hat and boots. See the grump go to the corner shop.

See the corner shop. See Spot outside the door. See dozens of other dogs next to Spot. See the dogs slaver. See their fangs. See the grump approach. See the pack set upon the grump. See blood and sinew.

Hear the ambulance bell clanging. See Spot preen.

See Lars. Lars likes tanks. See Lars at the Communist Party meeting. See Lars listen to a very very very very very long speech. Rant might be better than speech. See Lars clap. See Lars agree with the denunciation of imperialist running dogs. See Lars leave the meeting.

See Spot. See Spot run. See Lars see Spot. See Lars put two and two together. See Lars run. See Lars catch up with Spot. See Lars trap Spot in a net. Hear Spot yap. Yap yap yap, says Spot. Noisy Spot. See Lars shove Spot into the back of a van. See Lars drive off.

See Spot’s pack of pals. See them slaver. See their fangs. See them run after the van. See the van disappear over the horizon. See Spot’s pals pant. See Spot’s pals overcome with hopeless canine despair.

See Lars park the van outside a camp. See the sign on the camp fence. “Political Re-education Camp” says the sign. See Lars drag Spot into the camp. See Spot politically re-educated.


That is one of the stories from a compendium of tales for infants published by the Unreconstructed Stalinist Press. It is packed with splendid stories, well worth reading aloud to your infant, if you have one, or to the wild wind, if not. The tale of Spot is at a rather advanced level, but some of the stories in the book are aimed at even tinier infants. Among them is a very very very very simple, and simple-minded, Life of Eric Hobsbawm. I have not been able to gain permission to reprint it here, though numerous extracts have been splattered across the pages of the Grauniad over the past week.


As readers will know, my annual plan is to bash out a Stakhanovite thousand(ish) words per day, under a heading beginning with the word “On”. One problem with this approach is that certain pieces can outstay their welcome, as I pad them out with needless extra paragraphs just to meet the word-count. I am not going to make that mistake with “On Spot”, which, frankly, has made its point.

Instead, I could witter on about something else, something either significant or insignificant, newsworthy or otherwise. Or, of course, I could just shut up. That might be a blessing, and not a blessing in disguise, merely a blessing.

I recently finished reading Francis Spufford’s new book Unapologetic, with its somewhat unwieldy subtitle Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense. In an afterword, Mr Spufford tells us that he wrote most of the book while sitting at a corner table in a Cambridge branch of Costa Coffee. He tells us this for two reasons, one to acknowledge his thanks to the staff, which shows admirable good manners, but also to alert us to the fact that, as he goes on to say, his book is not the product of any research or scholarship, but more a fairly spontaneous outpouring of the thoughts in his head. I have never attempted to write in a public space, in that manner, apart from on very rare occasions. Being a Diogenesian recluse, I always write at home, or home from home. But with the Spufford example before me, I am beginning to wonder if I ought not take my trusty laptop and install myself in a coffee bar or on a park bench, and do my tippy-tapping there.

It further occurs to me that, were I to do so, I could obtain a flat cap as beloved by our beggars, and place it upside down next to me, accompanied by a sign saying something along the lines of “Impoverished Scribbler. Please Give Generously.” Though I suppose a truly impoverished scribbler would not come armed with a laptop. Perhaps I shall have to revert to my practice of the last century, and write by hand, in a mighty ledger. Add a few strands of straw to my hair, and dribble a little, and who knows how many bright coins would be tossed into my cap?

I am still far from my thousand(ish) words goal, but that is quite enough for today. I am going to put the kettle on and make a cup of tea, hoping there are teabags in the cupboard, and I do not have to don coat and hat and boots and go out to the corner shop, there to be set upon by Spot and his slavering pack of pals, and left for dead.

On A Talisman

There is a big damp building and at the top of the building there is an attic and in the attic are stacked some wooden crates and in one of the crates, wrapped up in yellowing newspaper, there is a talisman of great significance.

The talisman in this case takes the form of a pewter dog. Neither the pewter nor the simulacrum of a dog is in itself significant, nor the combination of the two. There is a sense in which the talisman might as well be a plasticine shoggoth. The talismanic property of the pewter dog inheres in its significance, not in its physical form. That form is, in any case, ephemeral, for everything crumbles, everything on earth, eventually. The earth itself will crumble. We are speaking of unimaginable stretches of time, the consecutive life-spans of millions and billions, oh! uncountable, gnats.

The pewter dog in the crate has a terrible power. It has been forgotten, wrapped up and stored away in a crate among other crates in an attic in a big damp building now abandoned and, eek!, slated for demolition. So says the sign tied with tough plastic tags to a post outside the building. The word CONDEMNED is prominent, in big bold black block capitals. Bulldozers will be appearing any day now, grumbling along the street first thing in the morning, in the mist.

But who should come clumping along the street this moment, on a windy afternoon? Why, it is Tiny Enid! The plucky tot with the club foot, in her polka dot dress, has heard tell of the pewter dog. Do not ask how, for there are mysteries within mysteries where the doings of Tiny Enid are concerned. As she clumps along the street she is swinging a crowbar. She is going to break into the big damp building and rummage through its rooms until she finds the talisman.

Also coming along the street, from the opposite direction, is a copper. Constable Globule is an old-fashioned copper with a bristly moustache and an avuncular manner. He is also a man suffused with a terrible righteousness. He is a lay preacher in a small and peculiar religious sect, for whom a vast swathe of human behaviour is sinful and unforgiveable. Breaking into an empty big damp building with a crowbar, for example, consigns the perpetrator to eternal hellfire.

Tiny Enid does not believe in hell. Nor does she believe in heaven. It is difficult to say what she does believe in, other than her own heroics, and perhaps one or two tenets of fascist ideology. We could say, then, that the imminent meeting of Tiny Enid and Constable Globule, both approaching the big damp building from opposite directions, is equivalent to the meeting of an immovable object and an irresistible force. Which represents which is not a question we are qualified to answer.

Before they meet, however, there is a moment of congruence when, if we were to draw imaginary lines between Tiny Enid and Constable Globule and the pewter dog talisman in the crate, they would form an equilateral triangle. Hold on to your hats!, for this will prove to be a decisive moment in the history of the world. Were the triangle to be drawn between Tiny Enid and Constable Globule and any other object, any other object whatsoever, we would not be bandying about such a dramatic claim. But the talisman, remember, is significant, even if we are not sure wherein its significance lies. All we know, at this stage, is that somehow its significance is connected, in some unfathomable yet decisive manner, with both Tiny Enid and Constable Globule.

Interestingly, neither the plucky tot nor the copper are aware of any of this. Tiny Enid’s thoughts are bent on breaking and entering, with the aid of her shiny new crowbar. Constable Globule’s brain is filled with prayer, a silent prayer, one beloved of his sect. He is also on the alert for any signs of wrongdoing.

Now watch, as the tot and the copper move inexorably towards the points on the street where they will make up an equilateral triangle with the pewter dog in the crate in the attic of the big damp building. Do not cover your eyes, do not plug your ears with cotton wool. Be not afraid, for there is nothing to fear. The decisive moment is fast approaching. There will be wonders.

Oops! Tiny Enid has taken a tumble. She has a club foot, remember, and sometimes totters, for example if the paving slabs of a pathway have not settled flat, due to shoddy workmanship by paviours. And Constable Globule has spotted a misdemeanour. An urchin has discarded a toffee apple wrapper on the street. The copper swerves off his allotted course, to cross the street to apprehend the urchin and give him a ticking off. Then he will march him to a litter bin and have him dispose of his wrapper lawfully.

Now the triangle will never be formed. The future of the world will take a different course. Tiny Enid, winded from her tumble, and her crowbar having fallen down a drain, decides to return home. Constable Globule, having ticked off the urchin, goes to tick off further urchins. And far far away, in the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight.

On The Mummy’s Curse

It was shortly after he excavated the tomb of King Memhenhop that the renowned archaeologist Sir Bedsore Peeve realised he had been cursed. Armed as he was with a copy of The Bog People by P. V. Glob – a book and an author I would have had to invent did they not already exist – Peeve was hoping to exhume a bog person, or at the very least a beaker person. The last corpse he expected to find was one that was ancient and Egyptian and kingly and mummified.


“Gosh, chaps!”, he said to the chaps who were helping with the digging, “This doesn’t look like a bog or beaker person to me. It looks like an Egyptian mummy, and a royal one to boot!”

But as he turned his head to look at the chaps to whom he was speaking, he saw that they were all running away very very fast. He could not see their faces, which were stricken with terror. Peeve grunted and let a bit of soil trail through his fingers and lit his pipe. He patted the mummy on its bandaged bonce and then walked back to his hotel, where he spent a pleasant evening on the balcony of the bar, getting sloshed.

While he was getting sloshed, Peeve browsed through a copy of the Reader’s Digest which was lying around, and happened upon an article about King Memhenhop.

Memhenhop, he read, was an exceedingly unpopular king, on account of his unseemly personal habits, disgusting table manners, and pomposity. Added to which, he detested cats, and among his favourite pastimes was the drowning of kittens. This did not go down well with the cat-worshipping Ancient Egyptians. It was the kittens who went down the well, several at a time, tied up in a sack. Eventually his satraps rose up against King Memhenhop, and they tied him into a sack while they debated what to do with him. From within the sack, the King jabbered a stream of curses and imprecations. Though his voice was muffled, one particularly sharp-eared satrap was able to catch the gist of his babbling, and he wrote it down upon an Ancient Egyptian papyrus. This text has become known as the Curse of Memhenhop, and is feared as much as the Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred.

The satraps decided to throw the ensacked King down the well in which he had drowned so many kittens. The next day, however, the new King, Memhophen, decreed that his predecessor should be mummified and buried in a bog. Thus it was that his corpse was hoisted out of the well, taken out of the sack, mummified, and buried in a bog. The location of that bog has never been discovered, and it is thought that if it ever is, the Curse of Memhenhop will fall upon he who exhumes the dead King.

“Oo-er, missus,” said Peeve to himself when he finished reading. As he got up to replace the copy of the Reader’s Digest on a side table, he sprained his ankle. But it was by now very late, and he was very sloshed, and he did not notice.

It was only when he woke up the next morning, and felt the pain in his ankle, and banged his head on the bedpost, and suffered a minor heart attack, and saw in the mirror the plague of boils with which his face was covered, that the archaeologist began to suspect that he had fallen victim to the Curse of Memhenhop. He was confirmed in this view when, staggering as best he was able down to the breakfast parlour, he found the room to be filled with a swarm of locusts which had devoured every last croissant and sausage.

“No wonder the chaps ran away screaming yesterday!” he said, and as he did so he found that his tongue did cleave to the roof of his mouth.

Swatting the locusts away, Peeve made his way to the balcony bar to retrieve the Reader’s Digest. It was the kind of magazine, he thought, that might well contain a helpful article, written perhaps by a qualified doctor or exorcist, on the best way to undo the effects of an Ancient Egyptian curse. Alas, he found the balcony in flames, and the charred pages of the Reader’s Digest flapping in the wind, a wind that grew in force until it became a gale, so terrific that it pitched the hapless archaeologist over the edge of the blazing balcony and into a bog below.

This was a different bog to the one in which he had dug up King Memhenhop. It was a peculiarly stinking bog, seething with hideous slimy blind albino wriggling beings. Poor Peeve wondered if things could possibly get any worse. Then it began to rain, and the soggy bog became even soggier.

It was at this point that a deus ex machina appeared, in the form of one of the chaps. He came running up, and pulled the archaeologist out of the bog. They repaired to a nearby snack bar which had not yet been attacked by the locust swarm.

“You have fallen victim to the Curse of Memhenhop!”, said the chap.

“So it seems,” said Peeve, plucking a hideous slimy blind albino wriggling being out of his majestic archaeologist’s bouffant.

“We have to get you out of here to a place of safety,” said the chap, “Luckily, I have a spare plane ticket. Manchester United are flying back to Blighty following the second leg of their 1958 European Cup tie against Red Star Belgrade. There is just one seat left, and it’s yours.”

“Thank God!”, said Peeve, “I shall be relieved to return to Blighty!”

“I’m sure you will,” said the chap, “Though don’t forget that the plane is stopping off at Munich to refuel.”

“Righty ho!” said Peeve, and he pocketed the plane ticket, and made his way to the airport, pursued by invisible fiends unleashed by the mummy’s curse!

On A Colossus

It has been said that Dobson, the out of print pamphleteer, bestrode the 20th century like a colossus. This claim was first made by Dobson himself, when still a young man. At the age of twenty, he published a pamphlet resoundingly titled Why I Shall Bestride This Century Like A Colossus. It is a curious work, out of print of course, a thin tract with a picture of a whooper swan on the cover. It begins thus:

I shall bestride this century like a colossus. My name will ring out like a clarion. In years to come, whenever two or three are gathered together to discuss pamphleteers, there will be but one name on their lips: Dobson!

Such self-belief, in so callow a youth, is touching. Looking back, in his dotage, Dobson found it touching too, and he took to sitting with his one remaining copy of the pamphlet clutched to his chest, sobbing uncontrollably for hours on end. When Marigold Chew found him thus, she flung open the windows, whatever the weather, and stamped around the room singing loud, tuneless sea shanties, ones that involved pirates, cutlasses, bilgewater, tattered sailcloth, salt, seaweed, hard tack biscuits, foghorns, sirens, rigging, anchors, and shipwreck. Invariably, Dobson’s self-pitying lassitude would be broken, and he would hurl the curiously pristine pamphlet towards the fireplace, wipe away his tears, don his Bolivian military boots and his Stalinist cardigan, and crash out of the house to go on one of his jaunts.

Dobson’s jaunts, in the latter part of his life, usually took him to the nearest pig sty, but there was one occasion when he headed off in a different direction. He walked so far that day that he came upon a shining city on a hill, a city where all the streets had two names, one both illegible and unpronounceable, and the other devised by Yoko Ono as part of an art project to promote world peace. Postal delivery persons in that city were required by law to learn all the double street names by heart, or to face summary dismissal if they failed. Often, those who did fail – and there were many – would flounce around on the outskirts of the city warning travellers away. It was a paltry sort of revenge, and seldom succeeded, for the delights of that shining city on a hill attracted wayfarers from near and far, daily, in their thousands. It is a wonder that Dobson had never been there before this particular Tuesday.

A dismissed postal delivery person stopped the out of print pamphleteer as he was about to cross a pontoon bridge that would take him in to the most boisterous quarter of the city.

“Go no further, old man,” said this vengeful figure, whose yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath. His hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion, and his straight black lips. His voice was booming and monotonous, empty of human expression and lacking any variation in tone or cadence. “This city you approach is no place for out of print pamphleteers.”

Ever sensitive to warnings from spooks and wraiths, Dobson turned around and went home. He found Marigold Chew in the back garden, drilling holes in an enormous sheet of corrugated cardboard.

“I was warned away from a shining city on a hill,” he said, “Is it a city you have visited?”

Marigold Chew stopped drilling, reset the safety catch, and removed her protective goggles.

“You are a foolish old man in your dotage, Dobson,” she said, though there was kindness in her voice, “And it is well you were warned away, for that city you think you saw is illusory. Some say the hill it sits atop is hollow, and harbours within it heaven, and some say hell. Either way, I am pleased to see you home. Let us clear the nettles from the vegetable patch.”

That was what happened on that Tuesday towards the end of the 20th century. Did Dobson indeed bestride it as a colossus? He was not the only person to think so, but the names of the others escape me for the time being. When I remember them, I will tell you.


That piece, which first appeared almost exactly five years ago today, has been chosen as a set text for the entrance examinations to Bodger’s Spinney Infant School. Here are some sample questions likely to be faced by the tiny candidates:

1. Imagine you are the dismissed postal delivery person who encounters Dobson by the pontoon bridge. Would you have handled the situation in the same way? Think about what you would have said to the out of print pamphleteer, then translate it into Latin.

2. Do you think Yoko Ono’s unnecessary double-naming of the streets in the shining city on the hill would make a significant contribution to world peace? Give reasons for your answer in terse, cogent prose, then translate that into Latin too.

3. Give a brief account of the career of David Blunkett, with special reference to his second resignation speech and tearful use of the phrase “the little lad”. Or was that the first resignation speech?

4. If you could bestride a century like a colossus, which century would you choose so to bestride, and why? Extra marks will be awarded if you turn pale, gnaw the end of your pencil in desperation, and crumple to the floor, twitching and shattered.

On My Favourite Jesuit

I was very excited the other day to receive a letter inviting me to take part in the television programme My Favourite Jesuit. Some of you may not be familiar with the show, which is broadcast on Channel Ignatius Loyola on weekday evenings at 7.00 PM. In each episode, three guests are given a slot to make the case for their favourite Jesuit. There is then a viewers’ poll and one of the three priests is named Top Jesuit. And that’s it! No prizes, no beatifications, just the joy, for the winning panellist, of having made the most persuasive case, and the consolation, for the two losing panellists, of having done their best, and garnered at least a few votes.

After reading the letter, and emitting a whoop!, and filing it in my letter-filing system under J for Jesuit and then sub-filing it under T for television shows pertaining to Jesuits, it took me about thirty seconds to decide which Jesuit’s cause I would champion. My first, and immediate, thought was of course Gerard Manley Hopkins. But then I removed the letter from its sub-file and read it again, and noted in the small print that the producers had barred Father Hopkins as a candidate. If we were allowed to pick him, apparently, he would feature in every single episode and be voted Top Jesuit time and time again. This seems to me a perfectly sensible outcome, which possibly explains why I am not a television producer.

Still, it didn’t take me long to work out who my second choice would be. It was Ninian MacNamara, who was the chaplain at my school for the latter half of my time there. He couldn’t hold a candle to Hopkins, of course, but he was in his own way a quite magnificent Jesuit.

In spite of the Irishry of his surname, Father MacNamara was a superbly English gent. He had the look, and the manner, of the MP Jacob Rees-Mogg – himself a Catholic – with the addition of a pair of rimless spectacles which lent him the air of a cartoon Nazi villain from the films. His voice, though not quite as posh as “Vox populi, vox Dei” Rees-Mogg, was a fine and resounding instrument. It had a tendency towards the high-pitched and declamatory, rather like Michael Palin’s voice in his “Oh Lord, ooh you are so big” sermon in The Meaning Of Life.

Though his chief concern was, no doubt, our immortal souls, most of his energies were devoted to our cultural improvement. Father Ninian, you see, like so many English Jesuits, was an intellectual. The only thing was, he did not seem to know very much. However, ignorance did not stop him from enriching our little brains, and I am thankful that, unlike Rita Byrne Tull’s trainee teacher friend, he never tried to convince us that the murderous psychopath Che Guevara was somehow kin to Christ. I do not recall Father Ninian ever mentioning politics at all – or, indeed, Christ, come to that.

His great contribution, for the sixth formers, was what I recall was dubbed the Culture Club. (I need hardly add that this was in the days before Boy George was a household name.) This was a weekly after school club where our chaplain would lead us in pursuits such as listening to classical music, reciting poetry, and discussing art. My charge that he did not seem to know much is based on one particular Club meeting, where he gave us a slide-show of portraits of writers, whom we were then invited to identify. Father Ninian didn’t seem to recognise many of them himself – though in retrospect perhaps he was (very skilfully) dissembling for our benefit. If so, he was a damned good actor.

My favourite session of the Culture Club, and one which is quite frankly unforgettable, was when he asked us to choose our favourite poets. But we were not asked to recite their poems – being a natural performer, Father Ninian took that duty on board himself. Now, this being the 1970s, there was of course one earnest young sixth-former whose brain had been frazzled by too much Bob Dylan. Before Sir Christopher Ricks and others took up the Dylan-as-great-poet baton, my schoolmate was already there. Dylan, he opined, stood alongside Wordsworth and Tennyson and all those dead fuddy-duddies, in fact he was probably the greatest poet of this or any other age.

Father Ninian, who was decisively unhip, seemed mildly amused by this encomium. To his credit, however, he treated it with respect, and, taking from my friend his well-thumbed and dog-eared copy of Writings And Drawings (1973), he picked a lyric to recite to us. His choice fell on A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall, and he proceeded to declaim it to us, the whole damn thing, verses and chorus, very slowly and “significantly”, in that Michael Palin voice. It was at the same time one of the funniest and most excruciating episodes of my life. How I wish I’d had a concealed tape recorder!

After leaving school I never saw Father MacNamara again and, in truth, seldom gave him any thought. Yet to this day I cannot listen to A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall without hearing his voice and recalling my desperately stifled giggles. For that reason alone he is a worthy candidate to be my favourite Jesuit, and if you watch the show, I hope you will vote for him and make him, for twenty-four hours at least, Top Jesuit.

On The Vagabonds’ Regatta

So we have had to put up with Wimbledon and Euro 2012 and the Olympics and the Paralympics and the Ryder Cup and the Lord knows what other so called sporting events over the past few months, when all along there are those of us who have been waiting for the big one. I speak of course of the Vagabonds’ Regatta. By tradition, this takes place annually at roughly the same time as the Picnic For Detectives. And it really is the most splendid of all vagabonds’ regattas. It is not just me who says that. The late Eric Hobsbawm thought so too. In an interview some years ago, he is reported to have said:

I think twenty million deaths, give or take the odd million, was a price worth paying to usher in the glorious utopia of Soviet communism. But I must dash now, because I have my complimentary Hampstead intellectual’s ticket for the Vagabonds’ Regatta, and I wouldn’t miss it for the world! It really is the most splendid of all vagabonds’ regattas!

Of course, Hobsbawm was living in lala land when he claimed to be in possession of a complimentary Hampstead intellectual’s ticket. The organisers of the Vagabonds’ Regatta do not, and I repeat, do not hand out free tickets to elderly north London leftie academics living in book-lined houses who have never met an actual working class person in their lives. No, they have to get their tickets the way everybody else does, by scrabbling in a bran tub in an often violent free for all. Indeed, the acquisition of tickets can be every bit as exciting as the regatta itself. Up and down the land, farmers are paid to throw open their barns, outside which queues form at dawn. Inside each barn is a bran tub, filled with bran and straw and slurry and muck, and somewhere within the filth, one or two tickets for the Vagabonds’ Regatta. Some people pay just to watch the unseemly scramble, the punchings and kickings and gougings and stabbings of the desperate aspirant spectators. I think I would have paid to see Eric Hobsbawm get a good kicking, had I known which barn to attend, though if he did have a ticket it would not surprise me to learn that he hired a proxy prole to enter the melée on his behalf. We know that was the ruse employed by that other elderly north London leftie academic living in a book-lined house who never met an actual working class person in his life, Ralph Miliband. Happily, he was barred from the Vagabonds’ Regatta when the ticket his proxy obtained was found to be counterfeit.

If you are lucky enough to get a non-counterfeit ticket and still be in possession of all your limbs, you are certainly in for a treat! Down to the riverside you go, past the field where the Picnic For Detectives is in full swing. The spectators’ area on the riverbank is muddy and sloshy and the stink of unnameable effluence wafts through the foul air. There are the rowing boats! They are empty, of course, at this stage, just before dawn on the day of the regatta. You tuck in to your official regatta snack of compressed reconstituted meat ‘n’ gristle slices on a bed of contaminated lettuce leaves in a basket. Headphones jammed into your ears, you listen to your iFry, tuned in to Stephen Fry’s pre-regatta commentary. In recent years there have been moves to replace Fry with someone less ubiquitous, but, as so many others have learned, resistance is futile. You slurp your can of Squelcho! You leaf through the official programme, sponsored by Dignitas, casting your eye over the beautifully-executed mezzotints of the vagabonds, reading up on their form.

“Ned Grimes”, for example, “No fixed address. Toothless, brain-blasted, pronounced limp. Rags and tatters. Noxious pong. Vermin in bouffant. Never been anywhere near a boat. Utters shrill cries when confronted by stretches of water.”

Then, when night is almost done, and sunrise grows so near that we can touch the spaces, it’s time to smooth the hair and get the dimples ready, for here come the vagabonds! Driven down to the riverbank by the official Regatta Brutes, they are shoved one by one through the mud into the water, and must make it as best they can to midstream, and clamber each aboard the boat smeared with a decoction of his own particular stench. Then the hooter is sounded, and as if by magic the vagabonds grasp the oars and begin to row! It is not magic, of course, but the result of long weeks of Pavlovian conditioning. And so they row, chaotically, bumping into each other, getting their oars entangled in thickets of water weed, going round in circles eerily akin to the closing scene of Aguirre, The Wrath Of God, but without the monkeys. One or two of the vagabonds might somehow manage to make it as far as the lethal high-voltage cable strung across the river upstream, and then the sparks fly!

After several hours of this fun and frolic, the hooter sounds again. This is the signal for the snipers perched in trees to riddle the rowing boats with bullet holes. Yes, it’s Sieve Time! It’s well worth shoving the earphones back into your lugholes to listen to Stephen Fry again, as he keeps a tally of which vagabonds go down courageously with their boats and which splosh in ungainly fashion back to the riverbank mud.

After that, there is a communal singsong, and the surviving vagabonds, if any, are given a penny. By tradition, this is an old penny, a 1d. rather than a 1p. coin, and thus not legal tender, so utterly worthless. But you should see their shattered faces light up with glee! It is a sight that encapsulates all that is glorious about the Vagabonds’ Regatta, more glorious even than the utopia of Soviet communism.