Archive for the 'Pang Hill Orphanage' Category

On Fact Checking

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again : reportage is the lifeblood of Hooting Yard. The reason I say it again is to drum it into your heads. There is a distressing number of readers who seem to believe that I make all of this stuff up. Quite apart from the sheer foolishness of doing so, I am ever mindful of B. S. Johnson’s dictum “Telling stories is telling lies”. And, as Lennox and Stewart put it so cogently, “Would I lie to you?” You need not attempt to answer that now, just read on, mes braves!

To bolster Hooting Yard’s reputation as a respectable space age information provider, I have decided to appoint a Fact Check Team. They will go about their business independently, without fear or favour, digging and rummaging and fossicking where their piercingly-honed instincts take them. If it should so happen that they come upon an instance of inaccuracy or outright lying, I will accept their ruling and remove the offending postage, replacing it with a correction written by the team. I will even so arrange things that the correction appears in big bright red bold capital letters, accompanied perhaps by a skull-and-crossbones symbol such as one sometimes finds on bottles of poison. That should liven things up!

So let me introduce you to the team. There are three members, each of whom graduated, if that is the word I want, from Pang Hill Orphanage. Bim and Bam and Little Nitty each have long experience of the kind of painstaking drudgery necessary to hunt down the facts, although in their case the painstaking drudgery they experienced was sewing mailbags in a dank cellar by the light of a single Toc H lamp. I have always been a great believer in transferable skills.

I am also a great believer in the benefits of fresh air and hiking and long jaunts in the open air. That is why Bim and Bam and Little Nitty will do their fact-checking in “the field” or “on the ground”, out and about. In any case, I do not want them cluttering up my chalet o’ prose and whimpering and eating me out of house and home. They can forage for nuts and berries and fresh puddlewater when they are in the field or on the ground.

In order to decide what the trio should investigate first, I conducted a lightning readers’ poll. “On what topic,” I asked, “can Bim and Bam and Little Nitty cut their chops as a tiptop fact check team?” Typical of the response I received – sorry, I mean to say “responses” plural, because I did ask more than one reader, honestly, cross my heart and hope to ascend in glory to the ethereal realms – was this, from one T. Thurn:

Dear Mr Key,
Last night I lay awake tossing and turning and biting and pummelling my Plumpo!™ pillow, bereft of even a second of shut-eye because I am so desperate to know if the orchard and hotel and squirrels referred to in Alfred Pigtosser’s autobiography I, Alfred Pigtosser actually exist. And if they do, I have supplementary questions, not so much about the squirrels but regarding the orchard and hotel. They can wait, however, until Bim and Bam and Little Nitty have ascertained the brute reality or otherwise of the orchard and the hotel and the squirrels and reported back, exhausted from their hike or jaunt, having cut their chops.
Yours with bated but minty breath,
T. Thurn

I think you would have liked the next scene. “Bim! Bam! Little Nitty!” I called, in my most stentorian boom. They shuffled in, spindly and unkempt and dribbling. Terry-Thomas would have dismissed them as an absolute shower!, but I had every confidence in my fact check team. “Here,” I said, “Take these three partly prepaid bus tickets, go to the bus stop, and wait for a bus. When eventually a bus arrives, board it and take it as far out into the countryside as it goes. Then ring the bell and alight and go in search of the orchard and hotel and squirrels mentioned in Alfred Pigtosser’s autobiography I, Alfred Pigtosser. And don’t get up to any mischief or it’s back to Pang Hill Orphanage with you!”

“Please Mr Key,” whimpered one of them, Bim or Bam or Little Nitty, in a weak thin quavering voice, “How are we to survive in the countryside when we are used to being given a bowl of gruel once a day at grueltime?”

I gave each of them a hefty slap on the back and boomed “Fear not! The Lord will provide! And if He does not, because your prayers are insufficiently abject, then I am sure you will find opportunities to forage for nuts and berries and fresh puddlewater! Now off you go, before I summon the beadle to drag you back to the orphanage!”

The last I saw of them, they were trudging disconsolately to the bus stop. I have no doubt, however, that at this very moment they are far away on some bleak blasted heath or moor, their vitals stimulated by all that unaccustomed fresh air, diligently seeking signs of an orchard and a hotel and some squirrels. As soon as they report back, assuming they can cobble together the bus fares for the return journey, I will let you know. And I will publish their report in full. It will, I am sure, confirm the existence of that orchard and that hotel and those squirrels. Then T. Thurn can fire at me as many supplementary questions as he likes.

On The Inspector Of Nuisances

I went for a morning trudge around Nameless Pond and, having completed a circumnavigation, I sat on a bench for a breather. I lit a cigarette and contemplated the ducks. Foolishly, I had left my iDuck at home, so I had no idea whether I was contemplating teal or mergansers, or indeed quite other types of duck. After some minutes, I was joined on the bench by an ancient and withered gent whose approach I had not been aware of. He had an air of the shabby genteel about him, and milky eyes.

“Good morning,” he said, without looking at me.

“Hello,” I replied, hoping that would be the extent of our conversation. But no.

“I see you are contemplating the ducks on the pond,” he went on, “An activity to which I myself have devoted many hours over the years. Many, many hours over many, many years, for as you can see I am ancient and withered. I am almost as old as Methuselah. That is not a name you come across very often nowadays, is it?” He did not pause to allow a response. “In fact I cannot think of a single Methuselah I have ever met, and I have met an enormous number of people. I used to be quite a gadabout before the stiffness and withering slowed me down. I gadded hither and thither and met people from all walks of life, but never a Methuselah. Unless of course that is your name?”

“I’m afraid not,” I said, “I am Mr Key.”

“I am very pleased to meet you, Mr Key. I am Mr Creeke, C. C. Creeke. The funny thing is, my parents never divulged what the Cs stand for, and my birth certificate was rendered illegible in one of those overturned bleach bottle mishaps one occasionally reads about in the popular press. My father was a musician and my mother was a Marxist-Leninist, so I have long suspected that I was named after Cornelius Cardew, the composer of 10,000 Nails In The Coffin Of Imperialism, among other works, or possibly after Chris Cutler, the drummer and percussionist in Henry Cow and roughly six hundred and forty-five other bands and combos and one-off projects. Given my ancientness either may be chronologically dubious, as parental choices, but the world is a very mysterious place, Mr Key, as I am sure you have noticed.”

Again he continued to babble on without awaiting any kind of reply.

“In a world of such mystery and bafflement it is well to have at least one fixed point of clarity and order. I found it at Pang Hill Orphanage, where for many years I was retained as the Inspector of Nuisances. I see you are raising your eyebrows.”

I was not, and in any case he was still not looking at me.

“It surprises you to learn that any of the orphans at Pang Hill could ever have been deemed nuisances. When would they ever have had the time to be mischievous and pesky and scampish?, you wonder. Confined at night to their iron cots, and in the daytime huddled in the cellar labouring away by the dim light of a single Toc H lamp, betweentimes scoffing their gruel and having compulsory singsongs and prostrating themselves before strange voodoo idols and all the other activities of the orphanage day, they would surely have been too exhausted to be nuisances. So you think. But believe me, Mr Key, when I made my weekly visits, clanging my bell, there would be a parade of nuisances whom it was my duty to inspect. And inspect them I did, with magnifying lenses and calipers and measuring tape, and then I wrote my report for the beadle. What became of my reports I never knew, and never asked. I had other things on my plate.

“For Pang Hill Orphanage and its nuisances demanded my attention on only one day of the week. The rest of the time I was engaged on the first ever survey of Pointy Town. I surveyed as many of the pointy bits as a man could reasonably be expected to survey in one working lifetime. But whereas Pang Hill was a fixed point of clarity and order, Pointy Town was quite the opposite. Indeed, surveying all those pointy bits drove me crackers. There was no end to them, nor any sense to them, and it wore me down, slowly but surely. That is why I am now so withered. Oh, look! A pochard!”

And indeed, a pochard had come dabbling close to the bank of the pond, so close I could have leaned forward and grabbed it and wrung its neck, had I been so minded. But I have put my duck-strangling days behind me. It was always a foolish and unpleasant hobby.

While my attention was on the pochard, C. C. Creeke vanished. I cannot put it more plainly than that. Just as he had appeared on the bench without my noticing his advent, so he left it. I looked around, wildly, but there was no trace of him. I was baffled, but the world is indeed a very mysterious place.

It was time to go home. I got up and trudged on my way, and then I spotted, half hidden in the sordid undergrowth beside the pond, a plinth. Brushing the nettles aside, I read:

nuisances

The foliage was too thickly entangled for me to discover what was atop the plinth. And when I returned, the next day, armed with a pair of secateurs, I was unable to find it again. I searched and searched, but eventually I gave up, and sat on the bench, and smoked, and contemplated the ducks.

[Thanks to Outa_Spaceman for the snap,]

Pang Hill Plop Pit

Upon Pang Hill, there is a plaque, battered and burnished and copper and commemorative, affixed to a stone marking the spot once occupied by the Pang Hill Plop Pit, the pit into which generations of tinies from Pang Hill Orphanage plopped things discarded and abandoned. Incessant rainfall in those parts meant that there was forever a puddle at the bottom of the pit, and the presence of the puddle meant that when a thing discarded or abandoned was tossed into it, the thing made a plop as, tossed and falling, it landed in the puddle. Oft times the depth of the puddle was such that the plopping thing was wholly submerged under the rainwater. Sometimes, when rainfall was light, was but a drizzle, much of the puddle water would leach into the muck, and the puddle become shallow, and then the thing discarded or lost would remain visible, to those who looked, until a storm came, and the puddle level rose, and the waters covered the tossed-away abandonee.

Once a week, on Thursday mornings, the Pang Hill Plop Pit became a bubbling fizzing fuming frothing gaseous pit. The Orphanage Janitor emptied into it numerous pailfuls of nigh-impossibly corrosive acid, which dissolved all the items tossed and plopped into the puddle during the previous seven days. By dusk on Thursdays the acid had done its work and further rainfall served to dilute the puddle and it ceased to bubble and fizz and fume and froth.

We have a record of all that was tossed away to plop into the Plop Pit, for the orphans were charged to maintain log books. Here are some telling extracts, from a recent compilation published by the Pang Hill Orphanage Documentary Archive. I have obliterated the dates, through a lack of pernicketiness.

Orphan Carstairs. Chucked into the plop pit several lobster pots of no further use since the imposition of the revised sea creature protocol.

Orphan Brandt. Up bright and early that day, feeling awful, and out to take a turn by the Pang Hill Plop Pit, and tossed into it cheesecloth trousers rent in many places following bramble bush and hornets mishap.

Orphan Cuddy. Into the pit plopped wrench, awl, adze, cutters and pincers.

Orphan Furbelow. Dun flap o’ tarp, eggs o’ larks, talc ‘n’ seed sprinkler, Jap keg lid, sconce ‘n’ punnet. All thrown into the Pit o’ Plops, all sank in the puddle, to be forgot.

Yet due to the log books, nothing is forgotten. Tossed away, plopped into the pit, discarded and abandoned and eaten by the janitor’s acid, every last item is granted immortality. The orphans themselves have perished, the long line of janitors too, the Orphanage crumbled to ruin, even the battered and burnished and copper and commemorative sign hangs from a single rusty nail and will one day fall and be buried in the muck. Pang Hill itself will be flattened by tectonic shifts or cataclysm. The sound of the plops, though, travels on, across unimaginable distances, in space and time, and with it the memory of all that was discarded, of all that was abandoned, of all things.

The Polyglots

It is quite something to witness tongues of pentecostal fire lapping and flickering around the head of a monoglot, quite something indeed. And then to hear the monoglot babble in languages previously unknown to him, that is even more extraordinary. There has been but one disappointment, thus far, in the course of my experiments, and it is that not one of the languages inspired by the flames is identifiable as a genuine foreign tongue.

When I decided to embark upon this important religio-linguistic hoo-hah, a year ago, my first step was to have constructed for me, by decent honest tradesmen, a chamber, the ceiling of which was so designed that serried ranks of Bunsen burners could be installed in it, pointing downwards. It was not enough, you see, that the heads of my monoglots be lapped by flames. Being of pentecostal fire, the flames must descend from on high, upon the heads below. I next had to make adjustments to the burners themselves. Much as I would like to, I cannot divulge the exact nature of my tweakings and tinkerings. Suffice to say that my assistants at this stage were not the decent honest tradesmen but figures plucked from various ranks in the ecclesiastical hierarchy, plus a couple of fire scientists. Well I knew that ordinary flames could hardly be expected to prompt a monoglot to speak in a foreign language. My burners must blast forth true pentecostal fire.

Obtaining an old reel-to-reel tape recorder to keep a permanent record of the languages uttered by my test subjects was a simple enough matter. There is a boy with a barrow in the marketplace from whom such items can be bought. I purchased two, just to be on the safe side, and a mountain of reels of magnetic tape.

The beadle at Pang Hill Orphanage was of immense help to me in procuring volunteers. He gave me his personal guarantee that each one of them was a monoglot, and I never had reason to doubt his word, especially when I saw the grubby drooling halfwit urchins he regularly delivered to me on his cart, drawn by horses as inelegant as his cargo. Indeed, it was a wonder to me that some among these tatterdemalion hobbledehoys had ever mastered their mother tongue.

Ushered into the chamber, where the reel-to-reel tape recorders were already whirring away, each volunteer was strapped into a chair. Nothing if not rigorous, I had each of them utter a few words, to provide recorded evidence of their spoken language before the pentecostal fire was unleashed upon them. Some had to be prompted to speak by being poked at with sticks. I owe a debt of gratitude to my hunchbacked assistant Mungo for expediting this part of the process.

Mungo and I then left the chamber, locking and bolting the door behind us, and fastening it further with a length of heavy iron chain. I took my place in an armchair, while Mungo scrambled up on to the roof of the chamber in his spidery way and set the Bunsen burners roaring, spitting out pentecostal fire upon the heads of my monoglot volunteers.

On the following day, the beadle came rolling up in his cart to collect the newly-minted polyglots, taking some back to Pang Hill Orphanage, some to a clinic discreetly hidden in the mountains, and some to the graveyard. With Mungo at my side, I transcribed the recorded utterances from the tapes while snacking on loganberries and fried dab.

I have now filled thousands upon thousands of pages with polyglot speech inspired by pentecostal fire, and every single word of it is incomprehensible babble and raving. But if I have not my faith, I have nothing. I know, deep in my holy bones, that sooner or later one of my little orphan volunteers is going to pipe up in pure unalloyed Swedish, or Tagalog, or Vlaams. For through the pentecostal flames speaks the Spirit. If, thus far, it has not made clear its intentions for the people of the earth, prattling gibberish instead of sense, then I must wait, wait with inhuman patience, and continue to funnel monoglots into my chamber, and have Mungo set the burners in the ceiling belching fire down below.

A Note On Pedagogy

A new academic year will begin soon, and all across the land anxious parents will watch as fresh clumps of tinies skip through the school gates for the first time. By now, most places have been allocated. But I am still receiving letters seeking judicious Hooting Yard advice on what type of school is best. Often, my correspondents seem deluded, for they bang on about so-called “faith” schools, or Montessori schools, or even Steiner schools. Please remember that the latter are based on the ideas of a man who believed in invisible gnomes.

There is of course only one type of institution to which the wet-behind-the-ears infant ought to be entrusted, and that is a Dobson school. Named after the titanic twentieth century out of print pamphleteer, these academies use pedagogic methods devised, not by Dobson himself, but by Desdemona Ferncraze, a brilliant bluestocking who was for many years responsible for the instruction of the inmates of Pang Hill Orphanage.

Shortly after her arrival at Pang Hill, Dr Ferncraze, a voracious reader of everything she could lay her hands on, contracted a common ague which led to water on the brain, after which she became convinced that the sum of all human – and inhuman – knowledge was to be found in the pages of Dobson’s pamphlets. Even the pamphleteer himself did not make such a claim, though he came close to doing so in his slim work of 1953 The Death Of Stalin Has Led Me By Dense Entangled Byways To The Unshakeable Conviction That A Complete And Thorough Pedagogic System Can Be Based Entirely Upon My Own Pamphlets (out of print). Curiously, it seems this was one work of Dobson’s which Desdemona Ferncraze never read. She developed her “method” while lying in her sickbed on an upper balcony of Pang Hill Orphanage, having instructed the gruesome brute Pepstow to dispose of her entire library, save for the Dobson items, by shredding the books and feeding them bit by bit to gulls and other scavenging birds. This he did, despite his qualms, for he burned with a secret passion for the stricken bluestocking. Pepstow was at his least gruesome and brutish when in her presence, though such was his yearning that he became tongue-tied and could only grunt at her unintelligibly. Dr Ferncraze herself was utterly oblivious to his blandishments, before and after her ague, a circumstance of such pathos that it has been adapted for the screen under the title Desperate Pang Hill Orphanage Brutes. For dramatic purposes, a fictional rival brute has been inserted into the story, hence the plural.

When sufficient water on her brain had been evaporated using the Gillespie Head-Steaming Procedure, Desdemona Ferncraze leapt from her sickbed and set about drilling the Pang Hill orphans according to her new lights. Out went the wall-friezes of alphabets and numbers and fluffy farmyard animals, out went the Good Citizenship And High Self-Esteem Module Workbooks, and out went the Tuesday morning caterwauling. Instead, each week was devoted to the memorising of the complete text of a Dobson pamphlet. By midnight on Friday, scratching at their slates, every single tiny was expected to be able to write out an accurate copy, including any marginalia that their wild-eyed teacher saw fit to add. Those who failed were handed over to Pepstow, who wreaked his gruesome brutality upon them down at the drainage ditch.

Dr Ferncraze’s astonishing discovery was that a firm grounding in the pamphlets of Dobson, memorised in whatever order, fitted the orphans perfectly for lives as bumbling, distracted polymaths given to lengthy walks along canal towpaths, chucking pebbles at swans, just like the pamphleteer himself. With her boundless energy, she set up a network of similar Dobson schools in and around Pang Hill, in derelict buildings and abandoned campsites. They are still flourishing, if that is the word I am looking for, though it probably isn’t. Such a school is, without a jot of doubt, the perfect place for the progeny of Hooting Yard readers.

Pang Hill Picture

From the far Antipodes, Glyn Webster writes:

Frank! What I am looking at here is Prudence Foxglove visiting the Pang Hill Orphanage. The little fellow in the middle is wearing his pippy bag. Please do not tell me I am wrong.

He is not.

orphants2

The Branch Line Less Travelled

Every now and then I receive letters from readers asking me to give some account of the geography of Hooting Yard and its hinterland. I have a standard reply to such requests, which is to say that through diligent study of the writings you could draw a map yourself. It would involve very close reading, being on the alert for clues and pointers, but all the information any half-competent cartographer needs is present in the texts.

Today, I am going to make things a little easier for aspiring mappers by saying a few words about the train journey from Hooting Yard to that ill-starred fishing village O’Houlihan’s Wharf. Last week it would have been fairly pointless to do so, but the exciting news is that the branch line, long fallen into desuetude, is running again. Using the proceeds from a winning raffle ticket (number 666, beige) a team of volunteers has reopened the line as a cross between a “countryside heritage family leisure facility” and a “cutting-edge arts praxis installation”. I have taken those two phrases from their brochure, a shabby piece of work duplicated on a Gestetner machine, designed perhaps to look like one of Dobson’s out of print pamphlets. Someone has gone to the trouble of hand-colouring all the covers, though, which shows the fanatical devotion of these enthusiasts.

brochure-450x4481

I am not one of these nutters myself, but I know the journey as well as I know the first three books of Paradise Lost, so take my hand, encased in a butcher’s mitten, and I shall lead you along the way.

hy-station-sign

Our thrilling railway excursion begins, naturally enough, at Hooting Yard. What was once a gigantic terminus alive with hubbub is now a ruin which serves mostly as a roost for sparrows. However, the volunteers have recreated a very convincing facsimile of one of the original platforms, and it is from here that the decrepit steam engine creaks into gear.

civic-platform

It is, of course, the Civic Platform. It had been hoped to place a commemorative copy of the Central Lever at one end, but Hazel Blears put the kibosh on that with a series of threatening letters. Diminutive and bumptious she may be, but she – or her officials – can certainly write poisonous prose. The branch line volunteer who opens the post has been admitted to a clinic for neurasthenics and has taken to wandering the grounds in a daze, like Ronald Colman at the beginning of Random Harvest, without the military uniform, of course, but with the pencil moustache. Anyway, off we go!

blister-lane

The first stop, some five hours down the line on a good day, is Blister Lane. When I say “on a good day”, I mean on a day when the train does not sputter to a halt about twenty yards out of Hooting Yard because the track is blocked by cows. This can happen distressingly often, for the fields hereabouts are teeming with cows, thousands of cows, and though they may be content to stand still staring at nothing, the likelihood is that mad Old Farmer Frack will come bellowing and waving his stick and drive them back and forth across the railway line for his own, no doubt profound, purposes. He is not a farmer who can be bribed, so if he is doing his thing with the cows, the train just has to wait.

hoon

From Blister Lane we head on to Hoon. There are many who contend that Hoon is a place of myth, like Atlantis or Lemuria. Even if they are right – and remember, there is no definitive evidence either way – that is no reason Hoon cannot have its own railway station. The station itself shimmers, as if in mist, even on a clear day, and eerie sounds echo about its turrets and crenellations, for the station building is both turreted and crenellated, if blurry. It is not advisable to disembark from the train at Hoon.

horrible-cave

Nor is it a good idea to alight at the next stop, the Horrible Cave, unless you are an emboldened spelunker. Actually, there is a reasonable chance you may be so, for last time we did a readership survey it turned out that almost three-quarters of Hooting Yard readers have survived terrifying imperilment in caves, though not of course in the Horrible Cave itself. And it has to be said that the Horrible Cave is so horrible that it makes every other cave in any given subterranean system seem like a Prudence Foxglove Sunday School. The branch line volunteers refused to place any health and safety notices at the stations, even here, so you will have to keep your wits about you and use that unfashionable tool, common sense. But if you are a regular reader of Hooting Yard, you will of course have plenty of that.

macabre-village

And so we steam on, still creaking, to the Macabre Village. Please note that this is not the Macabre Yet Goofy Village you may have read about in the works of Jean-Claude Unanugu, nor the same writer’s Goofy But Macabre Village. Those are fictional. This is just a macabre village, with no goofiness to be found, however hard you might search. If you jump off the train here, try not to go too close to any of the buildings, and take a torch with you, the more powerful the better. In fact, take a torch and a bag of pebbles. You can throw the pebbles at anything macabre that looms out of the shadows intent upon attacking you.

the-ponds

Anybody with any sense will have stayed on the train, and be rewarded by arriving some hours later at The Ponds. This used to be a popular destination for picnicking parties, particularly the pond known as Stagnant Inky-Black Fathomless Spooky Pond, where generations of tinies cavorted and capered. Some of them even made it home alive.

pang-hill

From The Ponds it is a short hop to Pang Hill, where the famous Orphanage graveyard is well worth a visit. Take a cotton napkin to mop up your tears. Various mawkish pamphlets are available from the graveyard gift shop, including some insufferably dreary collections of verse by Dennis Beerpint, penned (as he would say) before his reinvention as a twenty-first century beatnik. On that point, it appears that our cherished poetaster has disavowed his earlier work. He issued some kind of manifesto the other day declaring that he intends to rewrite each and every one of his pre-beatnik poems in the beatnik style. Whether or not that is something to look forward to I am not sure. It might be a good idea to snap up as many of his twee verses as you can while you are at Pang Hill, if you can cease sobbing and do a Winslety gather.

pointy-town

The next stop is Pointy Town. The station is, of course, magnificent, and very pointy. Indeed, it is thought to be the pointiest railway station on the planet. Before reopening the branch line, the volunteers made a special effort to eradicate any blunt bits on the station concourse, using a sort of antisandpaper, supplies of which they found untouched in a basement storeroom of Hubermann’s, the gorgeous department store.

oh-wharf

And so, finally, to the benighted fishing village itself, O’Houlihan’s Wharf. For obvious reasons, the timetables are less than accurate, but you should arrive within two or three weeks of setting out from Hooting Yard. You will be exhausted, and your head will be enveloped in steam, but you will I hope experience a Lovecraftian shudder as you step on to the platform, with the sudden, hideous realisation that there is no way back, and you must spend the rest of your days trudging up and down the rotting jetty, befouled seawater sloshing against your boots, and squalls blowing in from the west.

NOTE : Signage by OSM, to whom many thanks. The picture of the train on the cover of the brochure is from Agence Eureka.

The Great Emblotchment

Today is the one hundredth anniversary of the Great Emblotchment. There were countless other emblotchments throughout our history, but the one we commemorate today was of a blotchy magnitude well above those other emblotchments.

It all started in a commercial laundry on Pudding Boulevard. A man named Pim – who may or may not have been related to the late Francis Pym, Foreign Secretary from 1982 to 1983 – was bundling some towels into a basket when he noticed that one of the towels had been subjected to emblotchment. A man of piercing eyesight, a bit like Ray Milland in The Man With X-Ray Eyes (1963) but obviously not quite as piercing as that, Pim was able at a glance to divine the cause of the emblotchment, and it sent him into a panic. He scampered up the staircase from the laundry to street level, and ran the length of Pudding Boulevard waving the emblotched towel in the air. Thus microscopic blotchy bits were released into the atmosphere, invisible but none the less blotchy.

The authorities acted with admirable speed. Pim was carted off to a mysterious institute hidden behind trees in the countryside, the sort of place that would later become familiar to viewers of the 1960s television series The Avengers. He was placed in isolation and fitted with a metal helmet wired up to bleeping consoles. The emblotched towel was torn from his grasp and sent to another mysterious institute in the countryside to be analysed by trained emblotchment analysts. Meanwhile, Pudding Boulevard was cordoned off with what at the time was an entirely new cordoning technique. A controlled explosion destroyed the laundry and its neighbouring buildings, and the rubble was taken away by over fifty horse-drawn carts and tossed down a pit. It was not a bottomless pit, but the nearest thing to a bottomless pit that could be identified at short notice. When the last bit of rubble was thrown down it, the pit opening was covered with layers of cement over which a rich, loamy soil was scattered, and lupins and primroses were planted there. A similar operation was carried out on the site of the laundry, except that hollyhocks and hyacinths were planted instead of lupins and primroses. There were compelling reasons for this.

Before the day was out, big pumps were moved into position at either end of Pudding Boulevard, and the air was sucked into them, deblotched, and pumped back out. Thousands of starlings were lured to flock over the laundry site and kept there by a magnetic barrier. They were monitored by a team of top ornithologists in a lead-lined cabin just beyond the Boulevard, around which a flowerbed was dug and planted with geraniums and wisteria. At nightfall, volunteers from Pang Hill Orphanage were sent to scurry through the cordoned-off area and, as soon as they emerged, were tested for emblotchment in a hastily-rigged up lab the floors of which were strewn with lilies and petunias.

As we know, none of this hectic activity succeeded in stopping the emblotchment. Not only were the starlings and orphans and top ornithologists emblotched, so too were the gardeners who planted the lupins and primroses and hollyhocks and hyacinths and geraniums and wisteria. Soon everything was emblotched, and I mean absolutely everything. Even the stars in their heavens, the outer planets, the gas giants, all succumbed to what is rightly called the Great Emblotchment. And exactly one year later, on the fifteenth of May 1909, the actor James Mason was born in Huddersfield. Some see this as a coincidence, but those of us who have studied such things see deeper patterns, patterns not unlike the embroidered curlicues on the towel that Pim waved as he dashed frantically down Pudding Boulevard and let loose the Great Emblotchment, one hundred years ago today.

A New Year Tanager

Traditionally, the tanager is the new year bird of Hooting Yard. A small to medium sized member of the bird family Thraupidae, the tanager picks insects off branches, often has a rather dull song, and lives in a cup nest on a tree branch. Sometimes the cup can be almost globular, but that’s a tanager for you. Because it is a tropical bird, flocks of tanagers are incredibly rare in the sky around Haemoglobin Towers, so the majority of Hooting Yard’s new year tanager birds are made of paper or cardboard. Well, all of them. The making of paper or cardboard birds, often very elaborate ones, but sometimes really quite shoddy and slapdash, has long been found to be a splendid way of keeping the tinies of Pang Hill Orphanage busy during the winter nights, when other, more fortunate children are fast asleep. Throughout the month of December, the orphanage attic, open to the freezing and black night sky, rings out with the jolly cries of infants competing with each other to craft the very best paper or cardboard tanager using shredded newspaper or crumpled cartons or torn-up Popsie The Pig annuals donated by a foundlings’ charity. These latter are eagerly grasped by the larger and more lumbering orphans, for the pretty coloured pictures of Popsie The Pig and her pals make for splendid plumage on the paper birds. On New Year’s Eve, each tiny collapses with exhaustion on the floor of the attic, and a trio of worthies roams among their fallen little bodies, destroying all but one of the paper or cardboard tanagers with hammers and slicers. The sole surviving paper bird is carried off for the Hooting Yard festivities that begin at dawn on New Year’s Day, by which time the orphans have been bundled downstairs and locked into the filthy and infested canteen for their breakfast of cauliflower water and radishes.

Tiny Enid And The Gormless Nipper

CLUBFOOTED TOT WINS HEROISM CUP. This was the headline on the front page of the Daily Brouhaha that first brought Tiny Enid to national attention. Until then, her heroic exploits were known only to a few. Her intervention in the case of the gormless nipper changed all that, at least for a while, until a fad or frippery came along to divert the fickle public. Yet some of us have not forgotten the heroic infant, and it is important that a new generation be reminded of her deeds.

The gormless nipper was roughly the same age as Tiny Enid, and of roughly the same diminutive stature, but otherwise the pair of them might have inhabited different planets. Where Tiny Enid was heroic, the nipper was gormless. Where Tiny Enid showed valour, gusto, and dash, the nipper was gormless, gormless, gormless.

The nipper was raised in an orphanage not unlike Pang Hill Orphanage. It was a monstrous black brick building crumbling upon a hillside. One winter’s day, the gormless nipper was leaning out of a window gazing gormlessly at the sky when he fell, landing in a gormless heap in the snow. Instead of trudging back to the huge iron door of the orphanage and rapping his tiny fist upon it until the kindly matron let him back in, the gormless nipper wandered off, away from his grim black brick home, ever further away, until he was quite lost. Thus began a series of accidents and misadventures which befell him due to his gormlessness. Stopping to rest at a level crossing, his cravat was singed by sparks from a passing locomotive. When he made to untie the cravat to look more closely at the singeing, he half-strangled himself and lost consciousness. Swooning, he fell forward so that the very top of his head almost touched the railway track, and when a second locomotive thundered past seconds later he received an inadvertent haircut, his locks torn out by the screeching metal train wheels. Had he had a mirror when he awoke from his swoon, the gormless nipper would have seen that he now had the appearance of a tonsured friar. He roamed onwards, crossing the tracks, and fell into a pond. Minuscule aquatic beings within the pond attached themselves to his skin and burrowed through to his innards, where they fed upon his tissue and squirted out pond-venom. They were microscopic beings (actual size), so the gormless nipper was unaware of their parasitic sucking and squirting, and the amounts of pond-venom were so infinitesimally small that even the most advanced scientific apparatus would be unable to detect them. Nevertheless he began to feel off colour and when, eventually, the venom reached his brain it had the effect of increasing, rather than alleviating, his gormlessness.

The nipper slept that night in a byre, surrounded by cows. Discovered at dawn by a florid-faced farmer, he was set to work pulling a plough through a field. The winter sun blazed on his tonsure and turned the snow to slush, and by the time he was done ploughing, the nipper’s socks were soaking wet. He took them off and hung them up to dry on what he thought was a washing line. Alas, it was an electricity cable running from the farmer’s generator to a new-fangled power spade, and the gormless nipper was jolted by a shock of sufficient voltage to make him queasy. So when, shortly afterwards, the farmer fed him a bowl of soup, he vomited it up all over the freshly laundered farmyard kitchen tablecloth, an heirloom embroidered with unbelievable delicacy by the farmer’s great great grandmother. Understandably furious, the farmer kicked the gormless nipper all the way down the lane into the village square at Scroonhoonpooge and abandoned him there.

Dazed and sore, still queasy, and with the pond-venom coursing through his vitals, the gormless nipper slumped against a plinth. The village beadle found him there, tonsured and sockless and with sick on his sleeves, and accused him of defiling the statue of frizzy-haired minstrel Leo Sayer atop the plinth, which was the pride of the village. Thrown into a dungeon, the nipper slept fitfully that night in the company of mice and beetles.

The next morning, the beadle handed the gormless nipper over to a brute to whom he would be apprenticed for the next six months. Day in, day out, the brute sent the nipper to the bottom of the sea in his bathyscaphe, from where he had to plunge into deep sea trenches and collect bioluminescent organisms. The goggles of his diving suit did not fit snugly, and the gormless nipper gradually began to lose his sight. When he was almost blind, the brute rowed him out to sea and left him marooned on a whelk-encrusted rock.

And there he may have perished were it not for Tiny Enid. One day, eager to do a heroic deed, she sailed aloft in her hot air balloon and spotted the gormless nipper weakly trying to prise the very last whelk from the rock. Rightly judging that he was far too puny and famished to hoist himself up any rope she might dangle down to him, Tiny Enid set her burners roaring and ascended high enough to snare a cumulet. Tying a quickly-scribbled message to the bird’s leg, she propelled it in the direction of the Air Sea Rescue Station at St Bibblybibdib, then descended again until she was in shouting distance of the gormless nipper.

“Fear not, nipper!” she cried, “I am Tiny Enid and I have alerted the Air Sea Rescue Station at St Bibblybibdib to your sorry plight by attaching a message to the leg of a cumulet. The bird is flying its little heart out even as we speak, and soon a lovely big lifeboat will scud across the waves to rescue you. Preserve your energy, and stop trying to prise that last whelk from the rock, for soon you will be sitting at my kitchen table wolfing down a slap-up hot dinner of non-seafood items!”

And so it was that, nine months to the day since he had fallen from the orphanage window into the snow, the gormless nipper returned to his grim black brick home. He was driven there by Tiny Enid herself, in a hired charabanc, on the day after she was awarded a tin cup for heroism. The gormless nipper had managed not to be sick all over Tiny Enid’s tablecloth, and a few eye drops from her mysterious cabinet had restored his sight. The hair had grown back where it had been ripped out by the locomotive, and his heroic rescuer selflessly gave him a pair of her own socks to replace the ones still hanging neglected from the farmer’s electricity cable. Had Tiny Enid known that the nipper was riddled with microscopic aquatic parasites squirting pond-venom, no doubt she would have found a way of exterminating them. She was that kind of girl.

Civic Platform

Yesterday I mentioned Donald Tusk’s Civic Platform, and I am reminded that for a long time now there has been talk of creating a Hooting Yard Civic Platform. Unfortunately, the discussions have been mired in disagreement, unintelligibility, hysteria and pomposity, but perhaps it is time to let bygones be bygones and crack on with the job. Any future Hooting Yard Civic Platform will be robust rather than weedy, and it will be fit for purpose. Those are really the only two things we need to bear in mind, for all else is “as a vapour of haze in a mist of unknowing”, as Mrs Gubbins put it the other day, while talking in her sleep. It is difficult to overstate the importance of Mrs Gubbins’ contribution to this project. The crone is nearly ninety now, and has very few teeth in her head, but she has been around long enough to see an impressive number of Platforms, both Civic and otherwise, come and go. Our Platform, when it is built, will rest on solid foundations, and we must thank her for that, even if she is likely to be taking an afternoon nap when we do so.

I had hoped to bring on board a squad of zonk-eyed Milibands to kick-start this new, energetic phase of Civic Platform development, but Mrs Gubbins’ head turned green and septic when this idea was mooted, so I abandoned it. Instead, I got a pot of paint and daubed NOT WEEDY, ROBUST on a makeshift proto-Platform donated by Old Farmer Frack. Apparently it is made out of bits of a cow byre that he smashed up one night, but it serves its purpose admirably and looks very civic, plopped in the middle of a field rife with bracken. Mrs Gubbins, whose head is thankfully back to normal, has planted some nettles thereabouts, to add what she calls “a dash of Spartan rigour” to the scene. Whether the Spartans made use of nettles in such a way is not something I know about, and nor I suspect does La Gubbins, but it is always best to humour her fancies.

Attractive as the proto-Platform is, it lacks a certain coherence, for it remains unclear what kind of initiatives and policies will be launched from it. And believe you me, I intend the Hooting Yard Civic Platform to be a launch pad for a bewildering number of initiatives and policies. That is why a particularly damp and gloomy cellar in Pang Hill Orphanage will be the headquarters, soon I hope, of the Pang Hill Orphanage Think Tank, from which ideas will fizz. It would already have been set up had I been able to bash into Old Farmer Frack’s head the notion that, as a mad bellowing rustic, he is not a suitable candidate to be the Think Tank’s Director. He has his heart set on the position, bless him, even though it does not involve cows, but I am hoping to fob him off by making him an Honorary Patron.

Which brings me neatly to the main point of this otherwise witless bibblydib, which is that you too can apply to sit alongside Old Farmer Frack at the snackbar counter reserved for Honorary Patrons of the Hooting Yard Civic Platform. To be considered for this unbearably thrilling way of spending your twilight years, all you need to do is to complete the following sentence in no more than ten thousand words: “I will prove to be a robust rather than weedy patron of the Hooting Yard Civic Platform, because my first priority will be…”

Mrs Gubbins will sort through all the entries posted in Comments over the next couple of weeks, in between naps and nettle husbandry.

Mystic Woo

It’s easy to be cynical about the idea of reincarnation, and even easier to mock the countless websites devoted to mystic woo in all its forms. But today I had what platitudinists would term a “wake up call”. At Past Life Analysis, you will find a simple “analysis program” to answer the question “Who were you in your last life?” It looks idiotic, and I do not recommend reading the Disclaimer, but when I entered my birthdate I was flabbergasted to get this result:

Your past life diagnosis:
I don’t know how you feel about it, but you were male in your last earthly incarnation. You were a fictional athlete, a sprinter and pole-vaulter named Bobnit Tivol, and you won many tin medals under the guidance of a cantankerous chain-smoking coach called Old Halob.

Your brief psychological profile in your past life:
Seeker of cakes and celery pie. You could have had great insight into ancient Etruscan soap-making techniques. Others perceived you as a pioneering prophet of Edward De Bono’s revolutionary “Six Hats Thinking System”, even though you only had two hats.

The lesson that your last past life brought to your present incarnation:
You fulfil your lesson by taking well-earned naps. You came to this life to learn to brim with compassionate intensity whenever you contemplate the spindly inmates of Pang Hill Orphanage.

Do you remember now?

To which the answer is : Great Heavens to Betsy, I do!

Being A Robber Baron

If you want to pursue a career as a robber baron, the very first step you need to take is to establish your baronetcy. You need to ensure that it has at least a patina of legitimacy, for you do not want nay-sayers and busybodies calling it into question. Youngsters who seek my advice are often surprised that wearing a burnished golden helmet while sitting astride a mighty steed is not, in itself, sufficient claim to be a baron. Of course, it is essential to have such a helmet and such a horse, no self-respecting robber baron could expect to go about his baronial robberies without them, but I’m afraid the drudgery of paperwork has to take precedence.

You can pluck the name of your baronetcy out of the air, much as you might invent the name of a monster in a bedtime story for tinies, but if possible it is best to take on the appellation of a genuine baronetcy, one that has fallen into desuetude where the last baron died hundreds of years ago without issue. Many barons fell in battle in far distant lands, so a good start would be to check up on the manifests of ruinous military expeditions. Obviously, whenever a baron fell on the open battlefield, he was almost certainly unhorsed, so that serves as a reminder to you to choose your steed well, when we come to the prickly topic of steed choosing.

Once you have picked an extinct baronetcy to revive, you will need a coat of arms. Don’t fuddle your head too much with all those heraldry words like azure and gules and rampant and argent and couchant, just make sure you have something that pleases you and that will look good emblazoned on the shields carried proudly by your masked outriders. You might be able simply to appropriate the actual coat of arms of the dead baron you have supplanted, but to do so risks alerting the busybodies and you might be faced with hard questions you will be in no position to answer. In any case, nothing could be easier than designing a coat of arms, it really is child’s play. You can even hire an orphan from Pang Hill to do the job for you.

With your baronetcy secure(ish) and a spindly orphan beavering away at your coat of arms, the time has come to obtain a mighty steed. I cannot emphasise enough just how important this is. Without a suitable horse, all else is as naught. At this point, up goes the cry “But where do I find a horse?” Well, in my bailiwick, horses are usually to be found standing in fields or, if the weather is inclement, in what are known as paddocks. What you need to do is to wait until nightfall, when their human guards will all be tucked up in bed, and creep stealthily to a field or paddock armed with a torch and a bag of buns. You will use the torch to examine, in the engulfing darkness, such features of your prospective horse as its mane, fetlocks, and withers. Look closely at its musculature. Remember that the horse you choose will be galloping across the land with you astride its back for many years to come. When you have picked a suitable steed, lay a trail of buns from the field or paddock to the gates of your castle. Nearly all horses find buns irresistible and, depending on how far the field or paddock is from your castle, your mighty steed should be safe in its new home by break of dawn. It is good practice at this point to pop down to the cellar to check up on the orphan.

You are now nearly ready to go marauding and to strike terror into the countryfolk for miles around. But remember that earlier I mentioned your masked outriders. You will need these accomplices, partly for emotional and psychological support, but mainly to help you carry back to your baronial castle the booty from your robberies. Opinions differ on how many masked outriders a robber baron needs, but as a rule of thumb two would be an absolute minimum, and four or five are preferable. The more masked outriders you have, the more saddlebags can be filled with clinking glistening baubles and coinage. When you have decided on the number, you can get the orphan to make the masks, once the coat of arms is finished. Very occasionally, masked outriders will work on a freelance basis, but it is far more common for them to “live in” at your castle, and they will expect a share of the booty. Just be on your guard that none among their number gets uppity and plots to usurp you from your baronetcy. Such things have happened, of course, so always be prepared to offer small bribes (leftover buns from the bag used to abduct your horse, for example) or, in an extremity, chop the would-be usurper to bits with a broadsword. You should have a collection of these lethal blades displayed upon the wall of the main hall of your baronial castle. Get the orphan to polish and buff them regularly.

With the bulk of your preparatory work done, all that remains is for you to set out on your first robbery. It is at this stage that many a neophyte has moral qualms. If, until now, you have been a law-abiding sort, conscientious when it comes to paying your bus fare and never dropping litter, you may get a bit jittery at the prospect of robbing people. That is why you should begin by robbing another baron. Later on, with some experience under your belt, you will be able to waylay little bands of peasants and take away all their potatoes as you cackle with evil glee, but to get you started there is nothing like another baron, preferably a robber baron like you are setting out to be. So how do you go about it?

First, gather your masked outriders around the table in your baronial hall. They do not need to be wearing their masks just yet, and you will be able to judge their readiness for the task ahead by studying their faces in the light of the flames roaring from the magnificent fireplace. Have the orphan posted there, regularly feeding more logs on to the blaze. Each outrider should have been provided with a goblet brimming with a frothy alcoholic potion, gigantic flagons of which are arrayed on a sideboard for whenever a refill is needed. Let them carouse and wassail for a little while to pep them up. Then spread out a big map on the table. This map should show nearby baronial halls with tracks and pathways leading to and from them. You will have made a careful study of the comings and goings of other barons, and thus be in a position to know when one of them will be cantering gently along a woodland path astride his own mighty steed, possibly on his way to an assignation with a comely damsel. Use a crayon to mark the likely spot for an ambuscade on the map, and ensure that each of your masked outriders knows how to get there. Clash your goblets together as a mark of camaraderie, stamp out of the hall with great determined strides, and make a final check that everyone has empty saddlebags ready to be filled with booty. Now is the time to set your horses a-galloping and to crash through the trees towards the unsuspecting baron.

Do bear in mind that your victim may have his own masked outriders, and indeed that the gentle cantering of his steed can be deceptive. If he is not just a plain baron but a robber baron, he may be setting out to rob someone himself. That is why you and your masked outriders are armed to the teeth with the various polished and buffed swords from your baronial hall. In order to fill your saddlebags with booty, you may have to slash and thrust at the baron and his masked outriders until they are reduced to a pile of corpses on the woodland path, their blood and gore gleaming in the dappled sunlight shining through the trees. If this is the case, it is worthwhile stripping them of their armour and adding that to your booty. You can take their horses, too, either by pulling them along on a length of string, or by laying a trail of buns back to your castle.

However, it is a perturbing fact that, this being your first baronial robbery, you and your masked outriders may well come off worse in any slashing and thrusting of lethal blades. If you are worried that it will be your blood and gore gleaming in the dappling sunlight, and your mighty steed which follows a trail of buns back to another robber baron’s castle, you may want to reconsider whether you are making the right career choice. You may decide you are better suited to being a postie, or a scrivener, or the Member of Parliament for Sheffield Brightside.

Notes Towards A History Of Blister Lane Bypass

Can we decently admire a feat of engineering which led to the destruction of an owl sanctuary, the obliteration of a fairground, and the destitution of a grubby yet loveable hamlet of genetically intriguing peasants? For some, the answer is a straightforward “no”. They will point to the facts – and they are unassailable facts – that the Blister Lane Bypass was completely unnecessary, and that in the years since its construction a mere handful of carts have ever been seen toiling along its grey Stalinist empacture. Yes, I meant carts, not cars.

Conversely, one might argue that owls are hardly in need of sanctuary, that the fairground was a den of iniquity, and that the peasants would presumably rather be sunk in paupery than be sent to the salt mines. Let us not forget that owls are savage and pitiless birds of prey. Do you imagine that, if the tables were turned, such creatures would provide humans with a refuge? The fairground was a notorious sink of vice. If we are ever to revive in young hoodies the virtues of piety and probity, such places of so-called entertainment will have to be burned to the ground, roadworks or no roadworks. As for the hamlet, it is true that the peasants’ hopeless hovels were smashed and destroyed during construction of the Bypass, but they are free to gather at the roadside in the wind and the rain, hawking their baubles and moaning their dirges, free too to accept alms from any passing traffic. They were not, I repeat, sent to the salt mines, primarily because we have no salt mines in this fabulous land.

The original plans drawn up for the Blister Lane Bypass are among the loveliest drawings I have ever seen. They were done in a variety of coloured crayons on gigantic sheets of greaseproof paper, and have a childlike vivacity, annotated as they are with marginal pictograms of heraldic beasts, imaginary cloud formations, and cartoonish tombstones and mausolea. It has been suggested that the infantile quality of the drawings is due to the fact that the plans were nothing more than a wet Thursday afternoon project for the tinies of Pang Hill Orphanage, and that there was never any serious intent to build the Bypass at all. This is poppycock.

One advantage of the Bypass that is often overlooked, and never of course mentioned by the sort of fatheads who prattle on about poor fluffy owls, is that a cart laden with canisters full of volatile gas or toxic sludge now has an impeccably flat level surface to trundle along. Some of us remember when such cargoes had to negotiate twisting tracks riddled with potholes and crevasses, with the constant risk of toppling over. Such spillages explain why there are so many poisonous ponds and ditches, riddled with mutant toads, throughout our land. It is true that such a cart will only be seen on Blister Lane Bypass once in a blue moon, but all great advances begin with tiny steps, or, in this case, tiny trundles.

The Bypass has been celebrated in song, most notably perhaps in Trebizondo Culpeper’s opera bouffe “Ariadne auf Naxos und Blister Lane Bypass”. A tremendously exciting, and inadvertently blood-drenched, production was given at the Bodger’s Spinney Variety Theatre to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the first hammer blow to the head of a grubby peasant protestor.

To end these brief notes, here is a little quiz. How many tunnels were built under the Bypass to allow safe crossing for badgers, stoats and weasels? Was it a) one, b) six hundred and sixty-six, or c) umpteen thousands? Answers next week.

Drink Ye Every One The Waters Of His Own Cistern, Until I Come And Take You Away

“Drink Ye Every One The Waters Of His Own Cistern, Until I Come And Take You Away”. As we have learned, this was the title of a song written by the out of print pamphleteer Dobson, one of several appalling stabs he made at the form. No one with any sense has ever listened to a Dobson song more than once, for the experience is excruciating, as I can avow. That is by no means all I avow, and if we had but world enough and time I would give you a list of every single avowal I have ever made, which I am sure you would find interesting reading. Alas, time presses, heavy as a big lump of iron, and you will have to be satisfied with that single avowal of the frankly horrifying nature of the Dobson songbook, beside which the Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred is like an infant’s picture book devoted to perky piglets and bunny rabbits.

“Drink ye every one the waters of his own cistern, until I come and take you away” is also a line from the Book of Isaiah (Authorised Version, chapter 36, verses 16 and 17). Most of the lyrical content of Dobson’s wretched songs was taken from Isaiah, for no apparent reason. One would have thought so prolific a pamphleteer would have been capable of penning his own words, even keen to do so. Not Dobson. What he appears to have done, so far as we can tell, is to pick phrases pretty much at random from the book Peter Ackroyd has called “a series of incandescent utterances”, to shove them together with no regard for sense or metre or singability, and then to set them to music so woefully inadequate that it beggars belief. No wonder Marigold Chew took to wearing a pair of reinforced cork earplugs. Discovering that the standard earplugs sold at Hubermann’s failed to block out completely the din from Dobson’s rehearsal room, the resourceful Marigold located a cork reinforcing atelier hard by the banks of the Great Frightening River. On her first visit, she was surprised to discover the workshop populated entirely by gnomes, some Swiss, some Austrian, and some claiming citizenship of Gondwanaland. “They may have been disturbingly-proportioned little men wearing pointed caps,” she later wrote, “but they certainly knew how to reinforce cork.” As with all his fads, Dobson’s songwriting shenanigans petered out after a couple of months, and peace once more reigned in the house, but Marigold Chew, enchanted, continued to visit the little people by the river for the rest of her life.

“Drink ye every one the waters of his own cistern, until I come and take you away” are the words the Grunty Man roared at a cowering tangle of orphans he waylaid one terrible Thursday afternoon. The pallid tinies were foraging for roots and scraps in a noisome ditch beyond Blister Lane when cracks of lightning rent the sky, thunderclaps boomed, and before they could run back to the safety of the orphanage, the Grunty Man was there! They had thought him a mere figment of nightmares, but here he was, all too real, solid and hairy and brutish and grunting. They trembled as the Grunty Man repeated his strange and evil plan, all except one precocious orphan who put her hand up to ask a question, as if she were in a classroom rather than in a noisome ditch. This disconcerted the Grunty Man, who was impatient for the nippers to glug down the water from their cisterns so he could carry then away to his horrible lair up in the hills, as his scheme dictated. “We did not bring our cisterns with us on our foraging expedition,” piped up the brave tot, “So may we be excused to go back to the orphanage and there to drink from them every one?” As soon as the Grunty Man had grunted his confused agreement, off they all scampered, back to Pang Hill Orphanage, where they armed themselves with pitchforks and shovels. Then they burst out through the iron gates as one, and ran back to the ditch, and chased the Grunty Man back into the hills from whence he had come. For many long years after that fateful Thursday afternoon he sat stewing in his lair trying, in his slow-witted way, to work out the flaw in his plan, which as I said before, was both strange and evil.