Dobson’s Kitchen Groanings

I was mistaken, yesterday, to suggest that Dobson wrote a pamphlet entitled Kitchen Groanings, like the late eighteenth century work of the same name penned by an angry cook-wench or discontented housemaid. I was sure there was some kind of Dobson connection, and leapt to the most obvious thought, that it was yet another out of print pamphlet by the out of print pamphleteer. Unable to place it, however, I knitted my brows and set the tiny engines a-whirring in my pea-sized yet pulsating brain, and eventually, in the middle of the night, I realised I had been thinking of a radio programme made by Marigold Chew in the dying days of 1953.

Invited by the visionary producer Doug Hammarskjöld – no relation to the then Secretary General of the United Nations Dag Hammarskjöld – to create a piece of sound art for his fledgling long wave station Radio Doug Hammarskjöld, Marigold Chew rummaged in the broom cupboard where she alit upon her vintage Blattnerphone, a modified wire recorder that was the precursor of the mid-twentieth century tape recorder. The brief she had been given by the producer was precise.

Dear Marigold Chew, he wrote to her in his spidery handwriting, Here at Radio Doug Hammarskjöld we are on the lookout for pieces of belligerent, combative, confrontational sound art of between six and ten hours in length. Usually, the stuff we are sent consists of a lot of guttural shouting, often in German, which is fantastic as far as it goes, but it would be nice to bombard listeners with something a little more challenging. I know you used to sweep across the fields outside Pointy Town twenty years ago with your Blattnerphone, recording cows and peasants, and I wondered if you would rummage around in your broom cupboard for the vintage machine and make a programme for us, which we would broadcast every day for months on end, or at least until our licence comes up for renewal.

Marigold had fond memories of the bucolic field recordings she made in her younger days, and looked forward to heading out to her old haunts, armed with the Blattnerphone, mindful that there would be new cows in the fields and older peasants digging the ditches. She was already putting a sound collage together in her head, deciding to add the noises of rutting badgers and babbling brooks to the mix. She took the Blattnerphone from the broom cupboard and put it on the kitchen table and went upstairs to dig out the bus timetable and a map from her bedside bus and train timetable and map and chart and diagram cupboard. Alas, on the landing she tripped over a pile of Dobson’s out of print pamphlets, fell, clonking her head on a hard thing, and lost consciousness.

Meanwhile, down in the kitchen, the pamphleteer himself had just returned from a pointless errand. He was exhausted and rancorous. Carrying the kettle across the room, from its place of boiling, on a counter, to its place of filling, at the sink, he bashed it inadvertently against the Blattnerphone and in so doing flicked the switch which set the machine recording.

For the next six hours every noise that Dobson made was picked up and preserved for posterity on the thin steel tape of the Blattnerphone. Most of these noises were groans, for Dobson sat slumped at the kitchen table with his head in his hands, shifting only to make and then to drink copious cups of tea. If, by his groaning, he was trying to gain Marigold Chew’s attention, he was staring failure in the face, she being splayed flat on the landing away with the fairies. Indeed, she later recalled that during her swoon, which lasted the same six hours as Dobson’s groaning in the kitchen below, she had visions of fairies and elves and peris and aziza and nymphs and satyrs and tien and leprechauns and sprites and duendes and pixies and goblins. It was not often her head was cluttered with such twaddle, and when she awoke she was mightily discombobulated.

“Mighty is my discombobulation, Dobson,” she said, as she staggered into the kitchen, and she told the pamphleteer of her trip and fall and clonk and swoon.

Dobson groaned.

“The worst of it is,” she continued, ignoring him, “That my head is now so fairy-filled, presumably as a direct result of the clonk, that I am having the devil of a job trying to remember what I was doing. Or indeed why on earth I might have rummaged in the broom cupboard for that dear old Blattnerphone, which I see is perched on the table, whirring away.”

Dobson’s groaning had been so terrific he had not even noticed the modified wire recorder, perched like a miniature science fiction windmill between a packet of cornflakes and the tea strainer. But before he could speak, a hammering was heard at the door, like the knocking at the gate in Macbeth. Dobson ceased groaning and went to see who it was who could be paying a visit at so ungodly an hour. It was visionary producer Doug Hammarskjöld, who shoved the pamphleteer aside as if he were so much chaff, and bounded into the kitchen, where he babbled at Marigold Chew as if in an ungodly frenzy. Ungodly hours and ungodly frenzies can often come in twos, and, like magpies, even in threes, and as if to prove this last point an ungodly magpie came swooping through the sky and smashed into the kitchen window, clonking its small birdy head and falling into a swoon not unlike that from which Marigold Chew had just awoken. Such are the furious interconnections of the known universe.

“Marigold, Marigold!” babbled Hammarskjöld, “I see you have been making your tape of  belligerent, combative, confrontational sound art of between six and ten hours in length, albeit in your kitchen rather than out in the field. Thank heaven you have done so! I must snatch the tape immediately from the Blattnerphone and take it to the studio, for we have a suffered a calamity involving carpet beetles and the chewing clean through of wiring and other dramatic events, worse than the worse things that happen at sea, and if I do not have a field recording to broadcast right now, my fledgling long wave station will be shut down by the radio police!”

Thus it was that, later that evening, listeners to Radio Doug Hammarskjöld were treated to six hours of Dobson’s kitchen groanings, and the station was saved for another day. The programme caused a short-lived brouhaha, and the column inches of obscure avant garde sound art magazines were filled with guff about it. Marigold Chew herself disowned the recording, and rightly so, for it was not the tape she meant to make. Although, since the dying says of 1953 when all this happened,  Brian Eno has taught us to honour our errors as hidden intentions, Marigold Chew never counted herself as an Enoist, and forever regretted that she had not caught up with the cows and peasants, the badgers and brooks, for which, as far as she was concerned, the Blattnerphone had been invented. In any case, as she wrote in a letter many years later:

I had to listen to Dobson’s kitchen groanings day in, day out, for as long as they lasted,  and I did not consider them to be sound art. If I want sound art, like any sensible person I will listen to ill-tempered Germans shouting their heads off, or to cows and peasants and rutting badgers and babbling brooks. Dobson’s kitchen groanings, like all his other groanings, were to me merely the groanings of an out of print pamphleteer. He ought to have been writing, not groaning in the kitchen with his head in his hands as the Blattnerphone whirred and hissed, and the stunned ungodly magpie lay on the windowsill, away with whatever fairies clutter the tiny heads of birds.

blattnerThe Blattnerphone

Other Glubbs

Maud Glubb, the aviatrix and author of The Book Of Gnats, is just one among a number of Glubbs of note. This ought not surprise us. After all, as H P Lovecraft wrote in The Thing On The Doorstep, It began with a telephone call just before midnight. I was the only one up, and sleepily took down the receiver in the library. No one seemed to be on the wire, and I was about to hang up and go to bed when my ear caught a very faint suspicion of sound at the other end. Was someone trying under great difficulties to talk? As I listened I thought I heard a sort of half-liquid bubbling noise – “glub… glub… glub” – which had an odd suggestion of inarticulate, unintelligible word and syllable divisions. I called “Who is it?” But the only answer was “glub… glub… glub-glub.” (The one-B Glub is a common American variant of the more standard two-B Glubb.) It can be argued that Lovecraft’s “glub” is a repetition of a single Glubb, much as we accept that Edgar Allan Poe was referring to only one person when he shouted the name “Reynolds!” repeatedly as he lay dying in the Washington College Hospital in Baltimore. Yet Lovecraft clearly indicates “unintelligible word and syllable divisions”, which sensible people who have their wits about them will take as hard evidence of multiple Glubbs.

One such other Glubb, if we use that term to distinguish our subjects from the aviatrix, was Old Mother Glubb. This fine upstanding dowager was not the mother of Maud Glubb, by the way. In fact as far as we can ascertain, Old Mother Glubb had no children. She was dubbed “Old Mother” because she was very aged, at the time we learn of her existence, and because she bred moths. It is easy to see how people assumed that “Mother”, to rhyme with “Hiawatha”, should be pronounced to rhyme instead with “brother”. From such tiny presumptions can titanic historical errors occur. Several bright and promising genealogists saw their careers ruined, their health destroyed, and their lives wasted as they tried and failed to track down Old Mother Glubb’s non-existent progeny. Had they known about her revolutionary moth-breeding programme, and the attention it gained from moth experts on two or three continents, things may have been very different indeed. Or perhaps not. Perhaps each of these genealogists had a fatal flaw which sent them chasing phantoms, and had they not driven themselves mad with Old Mother Glubb, they would have alighted upon some other hopeless pursuit. There are many, in the groves of academe.

There is, for example, the case of another Glubb, Binnie Glubb, the man who became Professor of Futile Studies at a large important university. Sometimes called the senile grandparent of postmodernism, Binnie Glubb spent years and years writing incomprehensible twaddle, in unreadable prose, about… well, about god knows what. If we knew what he was writing about it would suggest that occasionally he was both comprehensible and readable, and he was neither, ever. And yet his screeds were typeset and bound and published and sold and stuck upon shelves in libraries across the land, and he had his photograph taken, smoking a pipe, shoulder to shoulder with a French intellectual or a Maoist psychopath, and airheads wrote fawning profiles of him for the Sunday supplements.

No such plaudits for the next Glubb in our set, the one-legged bobsleigh competitor Digby Glubb. He was a sports-mad youth who was nonetheless completely useless at everything he tried. Failing at pétanque, he took up pingpong. Failing at pingpong, he tried vinkensport. Savaged by finches, he turned to curling, and failed again, failed better, as Beckett might say. All this time he had two legs. On his thirtieth birthday, still utterly useless in all sporting events, he toppled into a ditch full of fierce biting ants, which ate most of one of his legs before he was rescued by an ant-killing patrol. Recovering in a superbly sterile clinic, Digby Glubb researched sports he could take part in while sitting down, and decided to devote his life to bobsleigh, in spite of the fact that he did not quite understand the point of it. For two decades he continually crashed any bobsleigh he sat in, whether solo or as part of a team. What drove him on, from one calamity to another? Was it perhaps revenge against the fierce biting ants which had hobbled him? There are those who can be spurred on by often harmful derangements, be they vengeance or jealousy or preening vanity.

Consider the cravattiste Shelvington Glubb. Convinced that, when he wore one of his cravats, he might be mistaken for a young Apollo, this Glubb pranced about the boulevards of Pointy Town watching Pointy Towners gasp and swoon at his beauty. Some of them were blinded, he was so like the sun.

There, you have some Glubbs to be going on with.

Boiled Black Broth And Cornets

I paid a visit to my friend Becke Beiderbix in her fortress in the mountains. We had known each other since childhood, growing up on a postwar housing estate, a workaday world of compactness and convention. But Becke was always a singleminded girl who followed her own strange star, and while the rest of us went off to polytechnics and office jobs and became fodder for a peculiarly dull-witted type of English fiction, Becke decamped to the mountains and built herself a fortress with her bare hands. I had no idea where she had picked up the skills to do this, and in truth, when I visited I was astonished to find how solid and immense and impregnable her fortress appeared, a massive edifice perched upon a bluff, as forbidding in its aspect as the Schloss Adler in Where Eagles Dare, but without the Nazi connotations, for Becke was the most apolitical person I have ever known.

When she greeted me at the gate, she was holding a cornet in her hand.

“Hello, Dennis,” she said, planting a peck on my cheek, “As you can see I have taken up the cornet, like my near-namesake Bix Beiderbecke, the original young man with a horn, and perhaps the greatest jazzman of the nineteen-twenties.”

“From fortress-building to cornet-playing, you never cease to amaze me, Becke,” I replied, dumping my weekend luggage in a corner of the grim brickish vestibule.

“As you are well aware, I follow my own strange star,” she said, steering me into the canteen of the fortress where she ladled soup out of a tureen into a pair of bowls.

“This is my own home-made soup,” she announced, “For in addition to building the fortress and learning the cornet I have taken a correspondence course in devising original soup recipes. In your bowl you have what I dubbed Becke Beiderbix’s Boiled Black Broth, in which every single ingredient begins with the letter B. As you can see, it is a black soup, of a black so black that if you stare at it, instead of spooning it into your mouth, you will become entranced, pretty much like a voodoo zombie-person, and be entirely within my power.”

“Then I shall shut my eyes while I drain the bowl, Becke,” I said.

“Yes, I was about to recommend you do just that, Dennis,” she replied.

The soup proved to be bland and without even a hint of taste, but it warmed my innards and stopped the gurgling in my belly.

“Now that your belly has stopped gurgling, Dennis, I shall take you to see my workshop,” said Becke, and I followed her into the bowels of the fortress, to a room with a thousand padlocks and reinforced walls and sputtering candles. I half-expected to see a gibbering hunchback named Mungo, but it seemed Becke worked without assistance.

“Well now,” I said, “You have many towering piles of metal tapping machine directories from all around the world, much thumbed through and dog-eared, as if you have been poring over them with terrific diligence, Becke”.

“That I have, Dennis,” she replied, “It is drudgery to be sure, but necessary to the success of my project.”

Of course, I asked her what the project was, and her reply shocked me to the marrow. For all that her star was a strange one, it had never occurred to me that Becke was capable of the abduction and incarceration, in dungeons beneath her fortress, of eight completely innocent souls. She had gone through those directories searching for names, and when she alit upon an apt name she tracked the person down, wheresoever they might be, and she crept up on them and shoved a rag soaked in chloroform over their breathing channels, and shoved them into the back of her van, and drove like the devil himself at tiptop speed until back in her mountain fastness, and then she dragged the abductee down into one of her dungeons and slammed the heavy iron door shut upon them, and every day thereafter she took them a bowl of her black, black soup, and made them stare into its blackness until it was lukewarm, so they were pretty much like voodoo zombie-persons, entirely within her power, and then she commanded them to drink the soup, until the gurgling in their bellies ceased.

“But why, Becke, why?” I shrieked, as if taking part in a melodrama, wondering how the sensible, resourceful woman I had known had become quite loopy.

“Oh, this is only part one of the plan, Dennis,” she said, “It will all make perfect sense now that I have an abductee in each of my eight dungeons. You would not believe how long it has taken me to work my way through those confounded directories to find the names I need. And then of course to travel hither and yon to wherever they are and do the bit with the chloroform, which has its own risks. You gape at me goggle-eyed, Dennis, as if I have taken leave of my senses, and I would agree with you were it not that all this is merely a preparation for a grander scheme.”

I did not discover, over that weekend, what the grander scheme was. Becke showed me a few other things in her workshop, including some mysterious small trunks, then insisted that we head on up to her rooftop pingpong area and play pingpong for hours and hours. Every so often she took a break to visit the dungeons, and left me to lie on my back, exhausted, staring at the bitter sky, trying not to think about what in heaven’s name was going on far below in the subterranean depths of the fortress.

I made my farewell on the Sunday evening, after being given a bowl of a different home-made soup which I could sup without shutting my eyes. It was as bland as the black zombie soup, but extremely welcome after all that pingpong. Becke waved at me as I trudged down the mountainside towards the bus stop. I looked back, and there she stood, at her fortress gate, and above her in the now darkening sky shone a single star. I couldn’t help but smile. She may have become bonkers, but she would always be my pal.

A year or so passed. I was too busy with my halibut research to give much thought to Becke and her eight abductees. I sent her the occasional metal tapping machine message, to which she always replied, although she never said much about what she was up to, confining herself to remarks about general fortress maintenance. And then one day, passing through Pointy Town, some kind of woolly-hatted student in need of pin money handed me a leaflet. I shoved it into my pocket and forgot about it, and only later, as I was rummaging through my jacket for scrunched-up halibut research notes, did I come upon it and read it.

Pointy Town Hepcat Jazz Club, it said, is pleased to announce a concert by a thrilling new combo. For the past year, Becke Beiderbix has been teaching the cornet to an octet of eight amateurs, and she is now ready to lead them in what promises to be a fantastic debut. The Becke Beiderbix Bix Beiderbecke Tribute Cornet Octet, featuring newcomers Bixder Beibecke, Beike Bixderbec, Kebec Bixderbei, Bixbec Beiderke, Beibix Becderke, Derke Bixbecbei, Kebeider Bixbec, and Bixke Derbeibec will perform a show of Bix Beiderbecke classics. Soup will be served, in the form of Becke Beiderbix’s Boiled Black Broth. Admission free.

I attended the show, of course, but shut my eyes for the soup.

Hospital Barge

Dotted along the entire length of the canal there are villages and hamlets. It is said that most have been sites of human settlements for thousands of years, which is a bit perplexing, as the canal itself was only dug two centuries ago. The hospital barge plies up and down the canal constantly, turning when it gets to Mudberth and heading straight back to Muckfield, never stopping except at locks. There are many locks. When a villager or hamleteer is sick, they are carted to the canalside by their neighbours and hauled aboard the hospital barge by a steam-powered crane-and-stretcher-and-pincer contraption. Once they have been cured, if they are cured, they are dumped ashore at the next village or hamlet, and have to make their own way home by land, unless, as is common, they choose to remain in the village or hamlet where they have been dumped, and thus do the canalside communities intermingle.

The hospital barge is staffed by a gaggle of homeopaths and healers and fraudsters and quacks, and the dispensary holds shelf after shelf packed with pointless potions such as Bach flower remedies and Beethoven weed remedies and Bruckner nettle remedies. There is not a single bottle of Baxter’s Sour But Invigorating Syrup to be found, let alone any cranial integument soothers or antibiotics. It is a wonder that any of the patients are ever cured, but in fairness it must be said that those dumped ashore at a village or hamlet miles up or down the canal from where they were winched aboard the barge show remarkable perkiness, and in many cases appear to be immortal. In the village of Filthwick, for example, no one has died in the last sixty years, and the gymnasium is filled with sprightly one-hundred-and-fifty-year-olds jumping about and springing and bounding and hopping and somersaulting and otherwise engaging in decidedly energetic calisthenics.

This being the canal along the towpath of which Dobson often trudged, the out of print pamphleteer could hardly resist writing about the hospital barge. But he wanted more than the view of a disinterested observer, and waited to fall sick so he could go aboard the barge as a patient. Alas, Dobson had the constitution of a large, sinewy, more or less rectangular animal with no known predators, and never suffered illness. He became impatient, standing on the canal towpath watching the hospital barge pass him by, occasionally witnessing the winching on of an agued wreck or the dumping of a revivified Pointy Towner. Eventually, the pamphleteer could wait no longer, and he took the fateful step of injecting himself with an experimental serum concocted by one of his pals down at the Cow & Pins. The fizzing hissing dapple-dun fluid smelled of rust and blood oranges, and was meant to cause harmless shuddering with all the appearance of a death rattle. In Dobson it had an alarmingly different effect, in that it provoked a mental imbalance making him petrified of boats and ships and yachts and barges, so much so that at the sight of water, even of a duckpond, he ran away screaming.

A fortnight later, when the serum wore off, Dobson learned through an article in the Canalside Gazette that the hospital barge had been rendered invisible. It, and its crew of homeopaths and healers and fraudsters and quacks, and its on-board patients, were never seen again, and nor were the many, many dead who had never been cured upon the barge, and whose final resting places are an unutterable mystery.

Uptown Top Ranking

Dobson was invited uptown, to the very top of uptown, in Pointy Town, to help adjudge a ranking event. The items to be ranked were rank: bags of filthy laundry, bowls of curdled milk slops, slices of rotting and contaminated offal, and the like. Quite why Dobson was thought to be an adequate judge of such things is a mystery. It is likely that he engineered his invitation as the one chance he had to go to the top of uptown Pointy Town, an exclusive resort peopled by fashionable chancers and a certain sort of plutocrat. It was the kind of place where cummerbunds were worn, and wristwatches glittered.

Dobson is unlikely to have worn either a cummerbund or a wristwatch, but, armed with his invitation, he boarded the “Bucephalus”, an engine on the funicular railway connecting the less pointy bits of Pointy Town to the magnificently pointier top of uptown. Gulls greeted him at the station, swooping and shrieking, as gulls do. Oh, those Pointy Town gulls! How one misses their clamour! They still prevailed in Dobson’s day, and he was mindful enough to execute a quick sketch of them in his notebook, since lost, alas.

Puffing up the vertical, the funicular railway was scented, in those days, with lavender and hibiscus, and we can imagine Dobson breathing in those fumes, artificial though they were, as he prepared himself for the unaccustomed role of ranking judge. These contests took place every five years, and those who entered their rank engrubbiments, be they laundry bags or bowls or slices, were a rivalsome crew. There was Taplow, of course, and Scruton and Cribcage and Hooter. Venables and Ricketts, too, and old crumpled Stainforth in his breeches. Not one of them was allowed anywhere near uptown save for when the ranking contest took place. The rest of the time they kept to their middens in some dank, though reasonably pointy, corner of Pointy Town. That was a part of town Dobson knew well, for he often strolled there, of a morning, on his way to see pigs.

But now both Dobson and the rank competitors with their rank bags and bowls and slices and whatnot were gathered in smart and flashy uptown, the very top of it, so pointy that in truth nowhere was pointier. Dobson looked at the scorecard he had been given by the referee, and chewed the end of his pencil. Then he walked slowly among the trestle tables on to which the items to be ranked had been chucked. He hoped he was carrying himself in a suitably authoritative manner, akin to a top judge at, say, a dog show. Dobson had never actually attended a dog show, but he had read a vivid eye-witness account of one in Vivid Eye-Witness Accounts magazine, to which he subscribed and, very occasionally, contributed. So his gait was firm as he toured the tables, and he did much frowning. Slumped and bedraggled on their uptown sofabeds, Taplow and Scruton and Cribcage and Hooter and Venables and Ricketts and old crumpled Stainforth watched and waited. They had no idea that the out of print pamphleteer ranking their rank items was completely baffled and did not have a clue what he was doing. Nevertheless, he began scribbling on his scorecard, boldly and decisively, and then he handed the card to the referee and went to lean against a big pointy plaster of Paris pointy thing, the kind you will only find at the top of uptown.

As was usual at these events, there was a lengthy delay before the referee announced the result. In the sweltering heat, the rank bags and bowls and slices grew ranker still. Netting was deployed to protect them from those fantastic uptown gulls. Dobson had been hoping to use this time for some sight-seeing, but was disappointed to learn from the referee that his duties included leaning against the plaster of Paris pointy thing, completely immobile, until the result was announced. One of Dobson’s most tiresome pamphlets is the one in which he moans on and on about the regular thwarting of his touristy inclinations. If he is to be believed, every time he had his heart set on sight-seeing, someone or something dashed his hopes, be they thunderstorms, defective bus timetables, enormous puddles, recalcitrant flocks of sheep, poleaxed cutty shredders, or, in this case, a jobsworth ranking referee. But Dobson was on unfamiliar ground, in the middle of an arena filled with fancypants Pointy Town uptowners with their cummerbunds and glittering wristwatches. It was a bit like a Spandau Ballet stadium gig, and if you have ever been to one of those you will understand why the pamphleteer was distressed.

And then, at long last, at twilight, the referee clacked his counters and announced the result. There was uproar, from both the crowd and, more violently, from the competitors. It was obvious to all that Dobson had absolutely no idea about the appropriate ranking of bags full of filthy laundry and bowls of curdled milk slops and slices of rotting and contaminated offal. He had, it appeared, simply filled out the scorecard at random, for all his judge-at-a-dog-show posturing.

He wrote a melodramatic piece about the subsequent kerfuffle for Vivid Eye-Witness Accounts magazine, but it was rejected by the editor and the manuscript is lost. All we know is that Dobson was chased out of uptown by Pointy Towners armed with pitchforks and bludgeons, and was never, ever invited back. He was a gloomy pamphleteer indeed for about a week after this sorry episode, but thereafter he perked up by devising a board game called Picnic For Detectives.

His ranking of the rank items was blotted from the record, and it took place again the following day, Blodgett having been jetted in specially to do a proper job of it. In first place, quite properly, was Taplow, who for the next five years wore his prizewinner’s goat-hair trousers with due pride.

An Advertisement For Chumpot’s

Chumpot’s Patent Rarefied Pigfat ‘n’ Sourdough Paste comes in handy tubes. Spread thickly on a digestive biscuit, or between two slices of sliced-up solidified milk sludge, it makes for a perfect picnic snack.

You will well know, if ever you have been held responsible for the packing of a picnic hamper, the difficulty of picking the appropriate picnic snacks. How common it is, to be sat in a meadow, pipe clenched in your teeth, moustache bristling, to be lambasted by your fellow picnickers as the picnic hamper is unpacked and harsh words are said about, say, the sausages or the unsliced, unsolidified milk sludge. Many an idyllic picnic has been destroyed before it has even properly begun because of hamper-contents fury. Many meadows have resounded with unseemly imprecations. Many moustache-ends have been tweaked with spiteful tugs by the fingers of furious picnickers reaching across the picnic rug to assault the hamper packer. It is a sorry state of affairs, but one which Chumpot’s aims to make a thing of the past. Our pastes are beyond reproach.

We have been manufacturing pastes, in tubs and tubes, for over a century, from our pasteworks in Pointy Town. Old Pa Chumpot, who founded the firm, and whose moustache was as magnificent an example of the walrus variety as has ever been grown in this town, made it his business to end picnic unpleasantness good and proper. It is easy to chuckle at those early promotional leaflets, with their clunky slogans such as “There will be no more unwarranted tweaking of moustaches at picnics when you pack Chumpot’s pastes in your picnic hamper”, but they bespeak a great moral purpose. It was a time when meadows were loud with the din of moustachioed men wearing boaters, pipes clenched between their teeth, venting their fury at the choice of snacks packed into their picnic hampers. Bebonneted ladies blushed and held their dainty hands over their ears and, in some cases, swooned. Into this maelstrom stepped Old Pa Chumpot, with pastes specifically designed to bring due decorum to our meadows. For more than a hundred years now, the firm that still bears his name has continued to manufacture exciting and toothsome pastes, usually quite edible, for use at picnics. We are proud to do so.

Pastry-Related Theatre News















This is an emotionally wrenching, yet compellingly vapid scene from Prudence Foxglove’s play Oh Lord! Let Us Give Vent To The Charitable Impulse By Offering Pies To Sordid Little Ragamuffins! (1894). Long forgotten, this knockabout tragicomic melodrama has been revived by the Bodger’s Spinney Emotionally Wrenching Theatre Troupe, currently performing a sixteen-hour version on the pier at Pointy Town.

Diaries Of The Dead

I would like to pin a medal on the person who first realised that the blog format was a perfect way to republish notable diaries of the dead. Now we can read Samuel Pepys, Gilbert White, and George Orwell, among many others, day by day, often with annotations. I know it is entirely possible to do this with a paper edition, but the experience is not quite the same. Somehow, reading a long ago diary as a contemporary blog gives it new life. (Incidentally, in a related move, an admirable maniac is currently posting Moby-Dick; or, The Whale line by line, hour by hour, on Twitter.)

One dead diary yet to appear online is the journal of Dobson, the out of print pamphleteer who bestrode the twentieth century like a colossus. As one of the most indefatigable Dobsonists of the day, I have often been approached by people asking if I will undertake such a project. Sometimes these pleas come in the form of polite emails, sometimes as mad screeds scrivened in blood over dozens of tatty pages, and once I was set upon by men wielding cudgels as I sat upon a picnic rug at a Mendips picnic spot eating a picnic. No sooner had I popped a sausagette into my mouth than a group of Dobson-fixated fanatics hove into view from atop a Mendip hill and bore down upon me, screaming their heads off and demanding that I transcribe the Journals and post them on a dedicated website on a daily basis. In view of such continued entreaties, let me explain why I have neglected to do so.

On the face of it, the pamphleteer’s mostly unpublished journal would be a magnificent addition to the interweb. When you consider the seething mass of clotted twaddle that does appear online, the absence of Dobson seems somehow insane. And just how hard would it be for me, or for anybody, to type up a few lines of Dobsonia every day and to share them with the world? However, as I said to the cudgel-wielding nutcases at my Mendips picnic spot, as they rained blows upon my thankfully well-cushioned balaclava, things are not as simple as that.

The great attraction of the dead-diary-as-blog is what I could dub calendrical integrity. So, what X scribbled in his diary on September 3rd 1847 is posted online on September 3rd 2008. We are always aware that we are reading a snapshot of X’s life on precisely this day many years ago. There is no express requirement for it to be this way, but that is how it is, and how we want it to be. Of course, few transcribers will take account of anomalies such as the change, in Britain, from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar in 1752, when September 2nd was followed immediately by September 14th. Unfortunately, the anomalies thrown up by Dobson’s journal are far more complicated.

Dobson, you see, used neither the Julian nor the Gregorian calendar, but one of his own devising. This in itself would not be problematic were the calendar itself not ludicrous, absurd, and senseless. Even the pointyheads at the Pointy Town School Of Dobson Studies Dobson Calendar Study Group have thus far been defeated in their exhausting efforts to elucidate it. Indeed, the leader of the Study Group, a ferociously intelligent bluestocking with a brain the size of several planets, has been seen wandering the hills around Pointy Town, drooling and mumbling, glassy-eyed and chewing on sticks, and will soon be carted off to a House of Befuddlement far away. Those of her team who remain working at their benches, deploying their slide rules and astrolabes and weird tungsten algebraic rolling pins, are fast losing their wits.

It is worth looking at Dobson’s calendar very briefly, to see what has driven these pour souls to the brink of mental ruin. To begin with, the Dobson “year” is divided either into fifteen or sixteen months, and those months have a variable number of weeks, from three to twenty, and the weeks themselves may be of seven, seventeen, or forty days. The names of the months and weeks and days follow no identifiable pattern, and one wag has even suggested that Dobson was making the whole thing up at whim. For example, in the “year” he insisted was 1967, in the month of Topple, there were three weeks, named Barn Owl Biscuits, Potting Shed and Ray Milland. The latter was a week of seven days, Lamont, Pepinster, Hopton, Baxter, Preen, Flap, and Tentacle. Quite how one is meant to correlate this farrago of drivel to the standard calendar is a mystery, which, I suppose, was Dobson’s point. It would appear that he did not want later readers to know on which particular day he clumped along the canal towpath in his ill-fitting Ivory Coast Postal Service boots on his way to an ice cream kiosk, stopping along the way to pluck a petunia for his buttonhole, nor did he wish history to know the exact date on which he inadvertently dropped a handful of pebbles on to the head of the infant Sarah Palin during that mysterious day trip to Alaska he wrote about in his pamphlet My Mysterious Day Trip To Alaska And What I Did With A Handful Of Pebbles While I Was There (out of print).

One looks in vain, in the journals, for mention of any newsworthy events which may help us identify specific dates. In any case, such a find would be of limited use, as the journal’s millions of words were scrawled by Dobson with a blunt pencil on the backs of cardboard sheets torn savagely from cartons of Kellogg’s cornflakes. These sheets were stuffed higgledy-piggledy into filthy greaseproof paper bags and the bags themselves tossed into a series of sheds and outbuildings. The idea that it is possible ever to arrange the extant sheets into any kind of coherent order is preposterous.

An intriguing addendum to the whole sorry business recently came to light. In a tape-recorded interview with a reporter from the Bodger’s Spinney Pest & Bugle given shortly before her death, Marigold Chew denied emphatically that Dobson had ever kept a journal. Every word he ever wrote, she insisted, was destined for his pamphlets. If that is indeed the case, who wrote the oodles and oodles of words on those torn cereal packets in those teeming thousands of bags that are stored now in a temperature-controlled sanctum in the lead-lined cellar of a monstrous building in the very heart of Pointy Town?


For a long time, I used to go to bed early. I was exhausted from long days working as a janitor in an evaporated milk factory. There are those who think that being a janitor is an easy life, little more than a matter of rattling a set of keys, sloshing a mop along a corridor floor, and glaring reproachfully at all who pass by. There may be janitors of that kidney, but I was not that kind of janitor, and never had been, neither in this nor in any of my earlier janitorships. It is a curious fact that the buildings in which I have been a janitor have all housed milk-related activities. Before being appointed to my post in the evaporated milk factory, I worked at a condensed milk canning plant, a milk of magnesia research laboratory, and a milk slops sloppage tank.

When I was younger I lacked application and was frequently reprimanded, on a carpet, as is usually the case, by my superiors. The overseer of the sloppage tank was particularly rancorous, as I recall. But by the time I fetched up at the evaporated milk factory, I took my duties seriously, excessively so, and that was why I was exhausted at the end of the day. To be precise, I was exhausted before the end of the day, hence my going to bed early.

There is a pamphlet by Dobson, entitled Tips For Janitors (out of print), which helped to mend my ways. One boiling hot summer Sunday, at a loose end, I went to visit a dying janitor in a Mercy Home. His brow was beetle and his jaw was lantern, and he was slowly perishing from a malady which had set in after an attack of the bindings and which he could not shake off due to his advanced age. It was not entirely clear just how old he was, for his birth certificate had been destroyed by worms. He certainly looked unbelievably ancient when I went to see him on that boiling day. Propped up in a sort of collapsible medical chair, surrounded by dripping foliage, like General Sternwood in The Big Sleep, he had made a vain attempt to mask his decrepitude by dyeing his hair black with boot polish and by sporting the type of tee shirt worn by young Japanese trendies. Neither ploy fooled me. I knew I was looking at a janitor who had begun his career in the age of gas mantles and steam.

My visit was prompted by a plea from the Charitable Board For Janitors Close To Death, seeking volunteers to pay social calls on janitors close to death to brighten their last days. I thought myself too lugubrious to be suitable for such a good deed, but the Board’s director, an ex-flapper by the name of Mimsy Henbane, said that this particular dying janitor rejoiced in the lugubrious and funereal and bleak and that my presence would lift his spirits.

Like the Italian castrato opera singer Luigi Marchesi (1754-1829), who, irrespective of the part he was playing, insisted on making his stage entrances on horseback, wearing a helmet with white feathers several feet long, I liked to cut something of a dash when entering a Mercy Home. On this particular Sunday I was ensmothered in fine kingly raiment, complete with the pelt of a wolverine (Gulo gulo, the largest land-dwelling member of the weasel family), a burnished golden helmet Marchesi would have died for, and a bauble or two. It was stiflingly hot, of course, but my blood is ice cold, and I had achieved a temperate equilibrium as I strode majestically into the greenhouse wherein the dying janitor awaited me. I am unable to tell you his name, not because I do not know it, but because I found it completely unpronounceable. He was of Tantarabim parentage, and bore one of those impossible, and I must say foolish, names they are so fond of in that land. He was also wearing a pair of dentures which had been designed for a mouth much larger than his, so it was not only his name I failed to catch. I had brought with me, as a gift, a bag of Extra Crunchy Hard Crunchable Crackers, and it looked to me as if those gigantic teeth would be more than a match for their crunchiness. Indeed they were. For a few minutes, as the dying janitor shovelled the crackers gratefully into his gob, it was like being in a hot damp greenhouse with a snapping turtle. He crunched his way through the whole bagful so rapidly that I wondered if he was ever fed. I had not seen any staff in the Mercy Home, not even a janitor. In fact, I had not seen any other patients. There were some pigs in a sty between the greenhouse and the main building, but otherwise the place seemed deserted.

One of the things I have always liked about people from Tantarabim is that they are so easy to rub along with. After he had scoffed his crackers, the dying janitor sat there smiling weakly but, I supposed, contentedly, while I loomed above him lugubrious and funereal and bleak, just as Mimsy Henbane had suggested. I decided to stay until his smile faded, and propped myself against a pane of glass, having first twisted the dying janitor’s neck round slightly so I was still within his sight. It felt good to be doing something selfless for one who had trodden the path of janitordom before me. I pondered if this was what being a boy scout was all about. My only connection with the toggled tribe had been a single incident, in the year of the Tet Offensive, when I failed to stop a snackbar hooligan pushing a puny boy scout into a lake. I would have intervened, but I was preoccupied at the time with recalibrating a mechanism, one of my leisure pursuits in the days when I was an indolent janitor rather than the indefatigable one I became at the evaporated milk factory, when I no longer had time nor energy for leisure pursuits of any kind. Despite his puniness, the boy scout had passable swimming skills, and he managed to avoid drowning in the lake, a lake in which many had met a watery death. I knew this because their names were inscribed on a plaque affixed to a post at the edge of the lake, and I had bashed the post into the mud myself, with a hammer, one day many years before when I had nothing else to do. I used to roam the lakes and ponds and thereabouts with my hammer, looking for posts to bash into the muck. If I could not find any posts I became disconsolate and squatted on the nearest available tussock, sobbing, until it was time to wend my way home.

I had plenty of time to dwell upon my past as I leaned against the pane of glass in the hot greenhouse, for the dying janitor’s smile never wavered. It seemed that he was so pleased with the crackers and with my lugubrious presence that he had entered a state of transcendent bliss. I was determined, however, to keep to my plan of staying with him until he was no longer smiling. I knew Mimsy Henbane would approve, and in a sense it was also a way of assuaging the guilt I still felt about failing to prevent the snackbar hooligan shoving that puny boy scout into the lake. That had happened many years before, as I have indicated, but as time passed my conscience gnawed at me with ever increasing ferocity. In those days, far from going to bed early, often I never went to bed at all, instead marching up and down countryside lanes all night, incapable of sleep. I was keeping the same hours as owls, and if nothing else that fraught insomniac period helped me to extend my ornithological education. If I was a pamphleteer like Dobson, rather than a janitor, I am sure I could churn out innumerable essays on owls and other nocturnal birds. As it is, I make do by buttonholing the occasional evaporated milk factory employee and sharing my bird-learning with them, whether they like it or not. It was a pity that the dying janitor was from Tantarabim, and wearing dentures far too big for his mouth, and thus would have been unintelligible to me were he to be prodded into speech, for there was something in his demeanour which told me that he, like me, was an erudite janitor. I could not guess what his area of expertise was, of course, so I made a mental note to ask Mimsy Henbane when next I called into the Charitable Board For Janitors Close To Death HQ.

Mimsy’s journey from flapper to charitable board director was an extraordinary one. Her story has inspired poets, novelists, composers, film makers, and creative titans in just about any field you can think of, not least the designers of tee shirts worn by young Japanese trendies. Dennis Beerpint wrote a series of Cantos about her. Anthony Burgess struggled for years with a novel based on her life, but was forced to abandon it when he concluded that such a work was beyond his imaginative powers. An opera bouffe by Boof was inspired by her. Dan Brown is apparently working on a potboiler called The Mimsy Henbane Code. Before his untimely death, Rainer Werner Fassbinder planned a film about her set in a tough foreign dockyard full of tough homosexual sailors. The list goes on. Yet intriguingly, not one of the works based on her life ever addressed the root of her devotion to janitors close to death. There is always plenty about her flapperhood, and about the Antarctic expedition, the beekeeping, the shipwreck, the surgical interventions, the gladsome spring and the buffets of autumn, the postage stamp mystery, the years of crime, the gutta percha interlude, the bittersweet romances, the collapsed lung, the other collapsed lung, the delicate little fists beating hopelessly against wooden panels in the hut in the forest, the evil chickens, the gaudy boudoir, the Karen Carpenter incident, the vandalism, the scuba diving, the pitfalls, the obelisk, the gravel pathways, the euphonium band, the pint of milk, and the gruesome business in the tough foreign dockyard full of tough homosexual sailors. Yet of janitors, dying or otherwise, not one word. I know, because I’ve checked. Before I started working myself to exhaustion in the evaporated milk factory, I was able to spend some of my leisure time making a thorough study of all the Mimsy Henbane-related books and films and plays and opera bouffes and trendy Japanese tee shirts etcetera. From Beerpint to Burgess, from Boof to Brown, no creative titan deems janitors worthy of a mention. I try not to take this personally, and deny that I have poked pins into miniature wax effigies of any of those named, or of any others, such as Harrison Birtwistle and Salman Rushdie and the paperbackist Pebblehead, during spooky midnight ceremonies where I have been joined by jabbering chanting hooded bloodsoaked wild-eyed whirling drooling drugged-up maniacs. In any case, whatever lugubrious dismay I may feel towards those who have ignored my profession is more than outweighed by the fact that Mimsy Henbane herself devoted her latter years to my kind. And she did so selflessly, apart from the excessive fees she charged to those lucky enough to find a haven in one of her Mercy Homes, or in one of the greenhouses next to the pig sties in one of her Mercy Homes, and the extra charges she levied on the relicts of those janitors who, dying, died, and passed into the realm of which we know naught. So despite my hours of study, I am as clueless as the next janitor as to Mimsy’s motives. All I know is that she fully deserves my gratitude, and that is why I stood leaning against a pane of glass in that greenhouse while a dying janitor propped up in a collapsible medical chair, his hair slathered in boot polish and his dentures too big for his mouth, smiled at me for three whole days. I did it for Mimsy.

I think what wiped the smile off his face at last was that he felt pangs of hunger for more crackers. He mumbled something at me in that weird, impossible Tantarabim accent, and pointed a bony finger at the empty cracker bag he had dropped on the floor. I told him that I would go to Old Ma Purgative’s clifftop superstore, a lengthy hike away, to get another bagful. I wondered if he would still be alive when I returned. As I turned to sweep out of the greenhouse as dramatically as I had entered, in my kingly raiment, he rummaged in a little wooden cupboard next to his chair, took out the Dobson pamphlet Tips For Janitors, and pressed it into my greedily outstretched hands.

Over the next few days, as I made my slow lugubrious funereal bleak way towards the coast and the clifftop, I stopped from time to time to sprawl on bright summertime lawns and I read the out of print pamphlet from cover to cover. When I had finished it, I started again from the beginning. I was thunderstruck. In spite of my various milk-related janitorial posts, I felt I was reading about an entirely new and different calling, one of which I was profoundly ignorant. Between them, the dying janitor and Mimsy Henbane and Dobson changed my life.

Eager as I was to become a reborn janitor at the earliest opportunity, I was mindful of my promise to the dying janitor in the greenhouse next to the pig sty. I had made him so happy with that bag of Extra Crunchy Hard Crunchable Crackers, and had vowed to fetch him another bag. Torn between duty and desire, I spent a miserable morning sobbing on a tussock. Then Fortune smiled upon me, just as the dying janitor had done, by sending into my path a boy scout. As puny as the one who, years before, I had seen pushed into a lake by a snackbar hooligan, the child appeared at the side of my tussock and inquired if I had a job for him to do in exchange for a shilling. I took his coinage and sent him off towards Old Ma Purgative’s clifftop superstore, having armed him with full instructions and a map, and his shilling back to pay for the crackers. Then I turned my face towards Pointy Town and headed for the evaporated milk factory, and a new life.

The Influence Of Ploppy Noises In The Works Of Pebblehead

As a writer of bestselling paperbacks, Pebblehead tends not to attract serious critical attention. Too often, his works are dismissed as pap for airheads, and while this is arguably the case with such works as Pap For Airheads, Slops Of Triviality Sloshing About Between The Ears, and his thriller The Glazed Stare Of The Brain-Dead Mop-Bucket Zombie, it is an encouraging sign that one or two scholars are addressing the Pebblehead oeuvre with perspicuity and panache. Well, one, rather than one or two.

I refer to Sidney Ullage’s recent article in the literary journal Bookish Goo in which he examines the influence of ploppy noises in Pebblehead’s as yet unpublished blockbuster Dustbin Of Pomposity! Using critical techniques developed by men with terrific beards, Ullage argues that we cannot begin to understand the book without first being locked up in a dank cellar in which beetles scurry across the mildewed floor and mysterious ploppy noises can be heard, possibly coming from behind a panel hidden in the gloom.

There are those who poo-poo Ullage’s close reasoning and breathtaking critical acuity as the ravings of an idiot. There are those who accuse him of having a decidedly oddly-shaped head and the wrong sort of beard. There are those who, having engaged him in conversation at glamorous cocktail parties in swish urban rooftop gardens, dismiss him as a babbling freak with “issues”. There are those who wish he had been strangled at birth and disposed of in a pond. There are those who wish he had never been born at all. There are those who grunt unintelligibly at the mention of his name. There are those who pick holes in the sleeves of their jumpers before shovelling the contents of a jar of pickled sausages down their gullets.

I am proud to be among those who rightly see Sidney Ullage as a harbinger. I am not yet entirely clear what he harbinges, but by all that is holy in heaven and on earth I shall stand here and repeat what I have just said, over and over again, until not only am I blue in the face, but everything around me that has a face, the hens, the cows, the cassowaries, the ducks, the other ducks, they, too, all turn blue in the face, a blue like the mightiest of skies over Pointy Town on a blazing noon when the earth stops spinning.

Second Letter From A Wooden Child

Ever since I posted here the letter I received from a wooden child, he has been badgering me to publish more of his writing. I have been inundated with screeds, all of which I have heartlessly chucked down the clanking refuse chute at the side of my escritoire. Today, though, I have decided to indulge him, because his latest missive is quite interesting. Here it is:

Dear Mr Key : It may surprise you to know that, despite being a wooden child abandoned to a Mercy Home nestled deep in the gloomy woods, I am a voracious reader and a keen user of my local library. Well, it is not exactly local, given that it is located far away beyond the sinister purple hills that loom at the edge of the woods, but I regularly scamper over there when allowed out of the Mercy Home by the beadle. On my most recent visit, I was delighted to find a copy of a scholarly work by Dot Tint, entitled On The Vampiric Sea Shanties Of Ancient Pointy Town. You may be familiar with this book, which takes a forensic approach to the surprisingly blood-sucking subject matter of many of the sea shanties sung by the mariners who sailed from Pointy Town harbour in days of yore. It took a bluestocking of Dot Tint’s perspicuity to winnow from these almost-forgotten songs insights into matters which have great resonance for us today, such as poop deck vampires, the dilution of blood with bilgewater, and the credit crunch. I know you worry about other, neglected crunches, but stick with me here, if only because I have my wooden finger on the pulse. Not on my own pulse, obviously, because I do not have one, being wooden. I refer to the pulse and throb of our contemporary urban hurly burly, which I keep tabs on despite living in rustic squalor far from any town or city. The tabs I use, incidentally, are made of tin or plastic, but they are coated with a wood veneer so that they do not look out of place in my otherwise totally woody environment. The beadle does not take kindly to non-wood materials, arguing – quite justifiably – that we wooden tinies might go crackers if exposed for any length of time to concrete or rubber.

Anyway, about the Dot Tint book. I got it date-stamped at the library desk and put it in my pippy bag and trotted out into the bewildering sunshine. The library is in a little village called Blunkett-By-The-Blears, where, on the day I am telling you about, a saturnalia was taking place. I fancied a go at the potato shy, which was like a fairground coconut shy except with potatoes instead of coconuts. I slipped some wooden coinage into the paw of the stallholder and in return he gave me three chunks of wood to throw at the potatoes. This was going to be fun!

I put down my pippy bag and threw a chunk of wood to dislodge a potato from its stick, successfully, and threw another chunk of wood to dislodge another potato from its stick, again successfully, and then I threw another chunk of wood at another potato to dislodge it from its stick, and again I did so successfully, and that was the end of my go. The potato shy stallholder congratulated me and drew aside a tatty curtain to unveil a pile of prizes from which I was invited to take my pick. After rummaging about for a bit, I chose a canister containing a brand new print of the first reel of Anthony Newley’s 1969 film Can Hieronymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?, a seminal influence on the young David Bowie. I resolved at once to coat the canister in wood veneer before letting the beadle clap his eyes on it, and stooped to stash it in my pippy bag. But my pippy bag was gone!

What kind of monster would steal a pippy bag from an inattentive wooden child? The worst of it was, of course, that the library copy of Dot Tint’s On The Vampiric Sea Shanties Of Ancient Pointy Town was in the bag and so had vanished with it. I had always been very conscientious about returning my borrowings on time and unsullied, free of marmalade smears or dog-ears or any of the other besmirchments to which library books fall prey when in the wrong hands. I had even been promised a “good borrower” badge by the librarian, a signal honour for an inmate of the Mercy Home For Abandoned Wooden Children. I had been so looking forward to coating my badge with wood veneer and buffing it to a shine with a rag. Now, unless I was able to retrieve my pippy bag, and with it the book, I would be in bad odour with the library and end up with the stigma of a “bad borrower” badge instead.

I shoved the film canister under my arm and looked wildly about. The saturnalia was getting up steam, and the normally quiet village square of Blunkett-By-The-Blears was a scene of mayhem and disorder, crowded with mountebanks and revellers, masked maniacs, prestidigitators, capering dizzyheads and unsupervised farmyard animals including hens and cows. I cursed that I had never thought to personalise my pippy bag by sewing on to it some brightly-coloured beads and buttons, not that needlework of any standard is among my accomplishments. But I could at least have splashed some paint on it, or beribboned it with ribbons. Alas, it was but a featureless dun pippy bag like ten thousand others, and I was at a loss as to how I might track it down in the midst of a saturnalia.

I slumped down in the boarded-up doorway of what had once been the village’s Respect Party headquarters and held my wooden head in my wooden hands. It is at times like this that I taste the bitter gall of unassuageable despair. For me it has a woody taste, which I could liken to a creosoted fencepost in the rain, just to give you an idea. I was deaf and blind to the saturnalian antics around me, smothered in self-pity and misery. Even my potato shy prize held no allure for me, and I tipped the film canister upright, gave it a shove, and let it roll away along the gutter. I watched as it clattered to a halt at the feet of a crone. She bent to pick it up, and brought it back to me in my doorway, and she spoke.

“What ails thee, youthful person of wood?” she asked. If I had had my eyes shut I would have thought I was being spoken to by the young Joan Greenwood as Sibella Holland in Kind Hearts And Coronets (1949). Or, more accurately, Joan Greenwood with a mouthful of brazil nuts. No doubt such distortion was on account of the great age of the crone, who looked to be at least ten score years and ten if she was a day. I am very skilled at adjudging age, in people and trees and milk and birds and the smaller mammals. Once or twice I have been called on by the police to assist them in the dating of evidence, notably in a strangling case which gave me the shivers. So I am fantastically confident that the crone was indeed as ancient as she looked, unlikely as that may seem. With age comes wisdom, and I felt immediately that this überwrinkled, kindly old biddy would somehow be able to help me, so I told her of my travails, but not in so much detail that she would grow fractious and thump me into silence. That kind of thing has happened to me in the past, I’m afraid to say, for I can get carried away with my woes when I taste the bitter gall of unassuageable despair. I have learned through experience that travails are best narrated as a kind of sprightly anecdotage, so that is the approach I took, and it paid off. The crone tilted her ancient head in an attentive manner, and when I was done she bent down and took my little wooden hand and lifted me – with uncanny strength – to my feet.

“You shall come with me!” she announced, “And don’t forget your film canister!”

Some people would describe what happened next as being “taken out of their comfort zone”. That is not the sort of zone I have. Back at the Mercy Home, I have a cornflake zone, where I eat hearty breakfasts, and a compost zone, where I wallow in rotting celery stalks and potato peelings to pass the time, and I have quite a few other zones which I will tell you about in a separate letter. The zone I was taken to by the crone was, I suppose, best described as a cavernous secret underground headquarters zone, which was quite a novelty for a sheltered wooden child like me. It was alive with the buzz and clank and hiss of activity, but so dark that I couldn’t see a thing. I was pleased that the crone was still holding my hand. I asked her where we were, and what was going on.

“This,“ she said, “Is the nerve centre, or hub, of my crimebusting organisation. I bust more than crime, but the popular press calls me the Crimebusting Crone, and it is a title I have learned to live with, even though I also bust wickedness and shirking and pelf, and want of decorum, and lack of gravitas, punctilio and rectitude, among many other despicable blots on civic loveliness. Here in the subterranean gloom my factotae are busy busting such blots, and I shall find one who is idle and set them to work to recover your pippy bag and your library book and bring the malefactor to justice. Wait here.”

She let go of my hand and disappeared into the gloom, though she creaked loudly as she moved so I was able to tell more or less where she was headed. I did not know quite how to conduct myself so I went all floppy and clattered to the ground, which was covered in linoleum. It seemed to be a very well-appointed cavernous secret underground headquarters zone, despite the lack of light. I wondered about the Crimebusting Crone’s factotae, if they were some sort of blind, stunted troglodyte horde. It was certainly within the bounds of reason. After all, that earlier crimebuster Sherlock Holmes had his Baker Street Irregulars, and they were not exactly polished in their manners. I am polished, by the way, very much so.

Eventually the crone returned, accompanied by a factotum. I got to my feet and studied, as best as I could, the person charged with retrieving my pippy bag, but he, or she, or it, was but a blur in the darkness.

“This is Factotum Milliband,” said the crone, “I have every confidence in him, and I have no doubt that he will solve the case. Just now, for example, excitabat fluctus in simpulo, as Cicero put it. He was stirring up billows in a ladle. There will be more billows before the day is out! Now, tiny person of wood, hop up onto his back.”

I did as I was bid, being a biddable sort, and once I was secure, Milliband lumbered off, taking huge strides, further and further into the cavernous secret underground headquarters zone, until all around me was pitch black, and strangely, compellingly muffled. I had complete trust in this mysterious blurry factotum, so I sort of snuggled up against him, wedging the film canister between my head and his back as a pillow, and fell asleep. The beadle would have been livid if he knew I was using a tin pillow, fearing ineradicable contamination, so before dozing off I begged for forgiveness from my weird wooden gods and clutched the little gauze bag on a lanyard around my neck for luck. I am not particularly superstitious, but I must admit it gave me some comfort. Inside the bag were the teeth of an otter, a sprig of parsley, and a passport photograph of Bjorn from Abba, or it might have been Benny, I could never remember which was which. Whichever one it was, the snap had been taken in the late 1970s, at the height of the group’s success, and Bjorn or Benny was wearing a polo neck sweater. I had not chosen the contents of my lucky gauze bag on a lanyard myself. For years, I didn’t even know what was in it. But one day, while I was mooching about over by the collapsed birdseed silo near Sawdust Bridge Football Stadium, I peeked inside, out of curiosity. It was a turning point in my life. Some of the other abandoned wooden children at the Mercy Home also wear such bags on lanyards around their necks, and the only thing that ever keeps me awake at night is wondering if their bags, too, contain otters’ teeth and parsley and passport photographs of Scandinavian pop legends in polo neck sweaters. I have never dared to ask, or to look, and always, after such sleepless nights, I remind myself that I can do without any more melodramatic turning points.

From darkness to light. My hand was still wrapped around my lucky gauze bag on a lanyard when I woke up beneath the breathtaking sky, an expanse of billowing clouds. The Crimebusting Crone had promised me billows, so this was a good sign. But when I lifted my wooden head from its tin pillow, I was disconcerted to find myself back in the boarded-up doorway of the Respect Party headquarters. There was no sign of Milliband. Gone, too, were the rogues and madcaps of the saturnalia. The village square was deserted, and I was alone and chill under the billows, without my pippy bag and my Dot Tint library book. Then, just as the creosoted fencepost taste of the bitter gall of unassuageable despair rose in my throat, a post office starling flew past and dropped an envelope into my lap. I am unreasonably fascinated by stamps, so I paused to examine the one affixed to the letter that was clearly addressed to me. How thrilled I was to see that it was the maroon sixpaney stamp from the series of Rex Tint mezzotint reproductions, depicting in gorgeous detail the mezzotintist himself, at work in his studio, and visible through the Prussian windows a bosky hillside dappled with laughing cows, similar to the cheese triangle laughing cows but done in a Soviet realist style. It was certainly one to collect, so if I was careful when soaking it off the envelope later I would have almost half a dozen stamps in my album!

Shuffling backwards to make myself more comfortable in the doorway, I took out the letter with my trademark fastidiousness, unfolded it, and read:

Dear Wooden Child : Be not faint of heart, and do not weep when I tell you that Factotum Milliband has been unable to recover your pippy bag and library book. In spite of being a mute, blind, stunted troglodyte, he is surprisingly resourceful in the open air, above ground, and I am sure he would have succeeded had not circumstances been against him. Neither he nor I could have predicted that those circumstances would have been loopy, indeed dotty. I shall not go into detail, except to say that we live in a loopy, dotty world, and the sooner you reconcile yourself to the fact the better. Daily contemplation of pigs in a pig sty can be extremely beneficial in this regard. But all is not lost. As I write, Factotum Milliband is smashing his way into the library via a concealed side entrance, and once inside he will create a scene of havoc and destroy any record that you have ever borrowed a copy of On The Vampiric Sea Shanties Of Ancient Pointy Town by Dot Tint, so you need never fret that you will have to pay a fine or be in bad odour with the librarian. Meanwhile, Factotum Milliband’s brother, also known as Factotum Milliband, is hard at work in the needlework section of my crimebusting hub, stitching together a brand new pippy bag for you, which will be sent by post office starling to the Mercy Home. Please allow twenty-eight days for delivery. Factotum Milliband is a painstaking needleworker, still learning his craft, but I have seen one of his earlier pippy bag efforts and I can assure you it is a thing of beauty, if a bit loopy and dotty. I have given him instructions to sew the Mercy Home For Abandoned Wooden Children monogram in the correct place on the bag, so unless the beadle looks at it with a microscope it should easily pass for the genuine article. Do let me know if I can be of any further assistance. Yours ‘til the cows come home, the Crimebusting Crone.

So there you have it, Mr Key. I had been hoping to write a review of Dot Tint’s book for you, but it will have to wait for another time. Incidentally, I have taken the crone’s advice and now spend at least four hours a day contemplating pigs in a pig sty, with the beadle’s blessing. I will happily write an account of my ruminations for you, should you wish, as I am sure that all Hooting Yard readers would enjoy a regular dose of my witterings.

Blissfully yours, An Anonymous Wooden Child

A Pointy Town Nativity

I see that Channel Four, or the BBC, is showing, or has already shown, a so-called Liverpool Nativity, presumably a wretched attempt at making the story of the birth of The Christ “relevant” to today’s feckless Britons, or at least to their northern segment. At Hooting Yard we have no truck with such twaddle. But while you are not watching the Liverpool Nativity you might be diverted by a brief account of the Pointy Town Nativity, an annual jamboree which has nothing to do with The Christ as such. The birth that is celebrated is that of a pig, the firstborn pig on Scroonhoonpooge farmyard after the feast of Saint Loopy, and known throughout the succeeding year as the New Pig.

Much to the consternation of the Pointy Towners, adherents of various religions have taken offence at their beano. Those big but, let’s face it, witless books, the Bible, the Torah and the Koran, each get into a bit of a flap about pigs, deriding them as unclean abominable cloven-hooved beasts. On the contrary, pigs are charming, intelligent, loveable, and delightful animals, and it is well-known that leaning over the fence of a pig sty and watching pigs for an hour a day is one of the most relaxing activities known to humankind. You would be astonished at the kerfuffle caused a year or so ago when the New Pig was given the name Mohammed, which was viewed in Pointy Town as a compliment. Any name attached to a pig is thereby raised above the level of everyday Dennises and Ednas and Demi-Leighs and Kyles. A similar, but less violent, reaction occurred when the New Pig was named Jesus, but that is unlikely to be repeated due to the Gibsonian practice of dropping the J-word and referring simply to The Christ.

Pig nomenclature has become something of a minefield, then, but that does not deter the good people of Pointy Town, who have a healthy and positive attitude to their pigs, the celebration of the birth of the New Pig being the proof of the pudding. (I am not entirely sure that last phrase means anything, or at least that it means what I intend it to mean, but I would ask readers to cut me some slack.)

On Saint Loopy’s Day itself, the pregnant pigs of Scroonhoonpooge farmyard are gathered in a special piggery unit, part of an enormous barn decorated for the occasion with flags and bunting and embroidered portraits of Saint Loopy. Roaring Sawtooth jets from Pointy Town aerodrome screech across the sky in a series of fly-pasts and dozens of dirigibles loom over the barn. Meanwhile, the current, soon to be displaced New Pig is given a crate of crab apples and conference pears to feast upon. There is much wassail and jocundity, especially near the caves, where the Pointy Town cave-dwelling troglodytes’ curiosity is sparked, and they creep into the light for the only time in a twelvemonth. Outside the post office, a person upon a podium reads passages from the Pointy Town Pig Chronicle, recalling past New Pigs and their names, from the controversial Mohammed and Jesus to less troublesome ones such as Popsy, Hudibras, Quetzalcoatl, Poopy, Christopher Plummer, Gervase and Winifred. A hopelessly overqualified veterinary surgeon keeps a beady eye on the pregnant pigs, ready to relay news of the first whelping via a pneumatic communications tube to the Pointy Town Pig Nativity Announcer. There is dance band music, much trumpetry, the eating of milk slops, conjuring tricks, chanting, caterwauling, hysteria and shamanistic fire-dancing. Over by the Pointy Town potato patch, raw potatoes are carved into piggy shapes by trained potato-carving experts. And when, eventually, the New Pig is born, a hush descends upon the town, from Scroonhoonpooge farmyard to the horrible caves, while the Pointy Towners wait to hear the chosen name.

The Naming of the New Pig is a solemn contrast to the rowdy celebrations which precede it. So solemn, indeed, that the silence is broken now and then by the sounds of sobbing and weeping and the rending of garments. Eventually, a designated orphan child will pluck a name out of thin air, and paint it, with a dangerous lead-based paint, on the outside of the barn. And thus the Pointy Town Nativity comes to a close, as the New Pig is given gifts of bran-tub scrapings, and the old New Pig is led away to an ordinary sty, and the townspeople trudge back to their daily drudgery, and the planet continues to spin upon its axis for no apparent purpose.

Laundry Bag Boy

I have never been a fan of comic books, nor have I developed a taste for graphic novels. I can admire the skill and inventiveness, but somehow I can’t drum up genuine enthusiasm. Of course, as a child, I had my weekly diet of comics, including Pipsy Papsy, Factorum Et Dictorum Memorabilium, and The Dinky, but when I discovered proper books I was smitten by prose, and there was no turning back.

Until last week, that is, when I discovered a fantastic comic featuring the cartoon superhero Laundry Bag Boy. I have to admit it has been a revelation, and I am smitten all over again, this time by crude and cack-handed drawings and by storylines which have surely been devised by a dribbling toddler. Yet there is a majestic genius about Laundry Bag Boy, his adventures, his scrapes, his pratfalls, his laundry bag, that I find irresistible. The comic I picked up, absent-mindedly, from where it had been discarded on a bench under a sycamore by a path in a park, was fat and dog-eared and threatened by rainfall. I thought no more than to carry it to the nearest municipal waste bin and consign it to oblivion, but the waste bins had been commandeered by an avant garde arts project organised by a man called Simon, whose name was Peter, just like one of the apostles of Christ. But whereas the apostles were, as Charles Bradlaugh (1833-1891) observed, “illiterate half-starved visionaries in some dark corner of a Graeco-Syrian slum”, the artist Simon and his pals were goatee-bearded trendies from Shoreditch destined to rot in hell. Before they rotted, they had filled all the municipal waste bins in the park with some kind of compacted orange substance, hard as concrete, rendering the bins unusable. According to leaflets available from a temporary kiosk, this “art intervention” was a “courageous statement about Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror”. Much as I would have liked to wander through the park from bin to bin contemplating this thought-provoking work, I found that my thoughts were paralysed rather than provoked, so instead I took shelter from the downpour under a derelict bandstand and began to leaf through the comic. I am so glad I did.

Issue 10, Volume 34 of Laundry Bag Boy contained a couple of short strips about Douglas The Pig, who was, I learned, Laundry Bag Boy’s pet pig, and a few pages of adverts and promotions for other publications. The bulk of the comic, however, was a single full-length comic strip adventure called Laundry Bag Boy : The Shakatak Years. Now, just as in my adulthood I have never been a comics buff, nor have I ever cared much, or at all, for Shakatak, the British jazz-funk band who had hits in the 1980s with “Night Birds” and “Down On The Street”, among others. Frankly, their smooth pap left me cold when first I heard it, and still does, two decades on. Readers who disagree with me, and who wish to champion the music of Shakatak and show me the error of my ways, are invited to argue their case in the Comments, but I will only pay attention to contributions which shake me to the core and force me to reassess my entire Weltanschauung. Those are the stakes. Be very careful before you tap that keyboard and hit “Send”.

The plot of the story, such as it is, posits that for a period of seven years – precisely which years are maddeningly unspecified – Laundry Bag Boy acts as a kind of familiar to the dull as ditchwater jazz-funksters. They remain unaware of his presence, but he is always there, haunting them, watching over them, in a patch of shadow on stage or perched up in the rafters of the recording studio, breathing softly, clutching his laundry bag, which is sometimes empty but more often about two-thirds full of filthy unmentionables long overdue for the washing machine. With his yellow hair and blazing eyes, we, the readers, can always spot the superhero, but to the Shakatak personnel, including roadies, sound engineers and hangers-on, he might as well be invisible. You may wonder why none of them smell the pong emanating from his laundry bag, at times when it is about two-thirds full. This is because one of Laundry Bag Boy’s superpowers is an ability to pluck from the empty air a canister of air freshener and spray the contents of his noisome bag until it smells of roses and honey and lavender and poppy coral and citrus mango and pumpkin and neutradol and peach and apple and one other fragrance the name of which I cannot be bothered to look up right at this minute. More than one critic, reviewing a Shakatak concert, is claimed to have dubbed them the sweetest-smelling band in the world, although whether this really happened, outside the pages of the comic book, is not something I am competent to assert or deny, for I don’t care one way or the other. I am less interested in Shakatak than in Laundry Bag Boy himself. I have read mountains of prose in my time, books upon books upon books, but never have I fallen so deeply under the spell of a fictitious being. Despite looking, from some angles, like an incompetent portrait of the columnist Peter Hitchens, Laundry Bag Boy, with his aforementioned yellow hair and blazing eyes, and his pet pig Douglas, and his conjured-up air fresheners, and his laundry bag, stands, in my view, above the heads of Emma Bovary or Oscar Crease or Sancho Panza or Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, or Hans Castorp or Molly Bloom or Murphy or Molloy or Malone or Tyrone Slothrop or Doctor Slop or the Widow Wadman or Ishmael or Ahab or Pangloss or Percival Bartlebooth or Bartleby, the scrivener, or Trilby or Svengali or Hazel Blears or Gregor Samsa or Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina, or Batman or Robin, The Boy Wonder, or Robin Hood or Humphrey Clinker or Pip or Magwitch or Geoffrey Firmin or Asenath Waite or the Mad Arab Abdul Alhazred or Pinkie Brown or Charles Swann or Quentin Durward or Martin Chuzzlewit or Fu Manchu or thousands of other fictional characters. He is a true superhero, and yet has a humanity that is palpable. Not literally palpable, of course, that would be stretching my enthusiasm too far, but figuratively, or so I would aver, and had already averred, during that very first skim reading, sheltering from the rain under the ruined bandstand in the park, as I became transfixed by the adventures of Laundry Bag Boy’s Shakatak Years.

When I got home, I reread the comic with closer attention, three or four times I think. I learned more about Laundry Bag Boy, that he had many more superpowers, and ones that made the air freshener thing seem like a party trick. He could, for example, meld his brainwaves with those of Douglas the Pig, giving him an extrahuman perspective on any given situation. He could count the number of pins in a pin-cushion, with unerring accuracy, in a split second, from behind a drystone wall. His head, including the yellow hair and blazing eyes, could expand to four times its normal size for up to an hour at a time. Secret flaps on his laundry bag could be manipulated in such a way that it was turned into an inflatable dinghy, with plastic oars, a couple of emergency flares, a compass operative on this and other planets, and a waterproof cabin for the pig. Strictly speaking, possession of such a laundry bag is not a superpower as such. It smacks more of the kind of gadgetry deployed by fictional spies such as James Bond, who was, of course, named after an ornithologist, author of Birds Of The West Indies, first published in 1936 and, in its fifth edition, still in print today. On one page of the comic, Laundry Bag Boy is seen studying a copy of Bond’s book while loafing backstage at a Shakatak concert. This appears to be wholly gratuitous, as no important plot developments hinge upon it, and indeed there is a marked absence of any other ornithological content whatsoever. There are not even any birds seen in the sky, always depicted as a uniform pale blue, cloudless, flat and artificial.

I soon learned that such a sky is a constant throughout the canon, for I was so enthused by The Shakatak Years that I took myself off to a specialist supplier of comic books and bought as many other Laundry Bag Boy titles as I could fit into my own, non-laundry, bag. Regrettably, most if not quite all of the stories had a subplot related in some way to jazz funk, though not specifically to Shakatak, and yet this did not dim my glee. I deduced that either the writer or the artist, neither of whose names appeared in any of the comics as far as I could see, was a devotee of that devilish music, and lacked the self-control to expunge their aberrant leanings from the otherwise stupendous stories. Yet how often we forgive writers and artists for what are, after all, minor irritants. For example, I have never been able to stomach Dennis Beerpint’s infuriating habit of conflating dishcloths with other kinds of rags and sponges, yet I am still able to enjoy his verse for its vigour and punctilio. I feel the same about Laundry Bag Boy, much as I might wish that William Hurlstone’s Bassoon Sonata, say, could stand as a substitute for True Colours by Level 42.

Another thing I have noticed about Laundry Bag Boy is that he never blinks. This may be a limitation of the cartoon strip medium, or it may be that his eyes are übereyes, piercing and all-seeing and never for a moment at rest. And there is a lot for him to look at. Although the quality of the drawing is scrappy and fumbled, occasionally looking as if created by a cretin on a damaged Etch-A-Sketch, throughout the series there is an incredible amount of detail. The sky may be shown as flat and birdless and cloudless, but everywhere else in these pictures is a magnificent clutter of things. To take a picture at random, consider the opening frame from Laundry Bag Boy Gets Into The Groove With Herbie Hancock (Issue 4, Volume 28). Examining this with a Winckelmannscope reveals, in a rectangle taking up half the page, potatoes, bloaters, the weirdstone of Brisingamen, fourteen owls, dental floss diagrams, cotton, pins, pork rind, fur balls, rotating things, custard, muck, shoelaces, coat-hangers, an aerodrome, flame retardant fabric samples, snappy-cap tin cans, a glazed bowl, a Viking helmet, a syrinx, a rickshaw, geese, pots and pans, Edvard Shevardnadze’s golden tooth mug, bunsen burners and other burners, a tea strainer, a fencepost, gravel, cloth, sand, effluvium, ectoplasm, railings, a Brothers Johnson compilation compact disc, basil, hornets, dust, tweaking mechanisms, a pail of lugworms, a dictaphone belt, sandpaper, grimy unpleasantness, winches and pulleys, talcum powder, country and western paraphernalia, lozenges, screwdrivers, shredded wheat, box cutters, Basho trug holders, shipping timetables, phosphorescence, a spider’s web, a fountain pen, mysterious hat-like objects which are not hats, a basin, a dimity scrap, a bathtub, a shoe tree, a bee, an ice bucket, an immortal, a puppet crow with one button eye dangling loose, a puppet cow, a tap and an outside spigot, a copy of The Protocols Of The Elders Of Pointy Town, dubbin, flock wallpaper, old man’s beard, Mary Westmacott’s cot, hinges, blubber, fruit, clamps, sugar, goo, pond life, a desk sergeant, a calendar, litmus paper, an Unanugu jumper (darned), salivating weasels, snapping turtles, basalt, tonic water, goat pens, hacks and traps and charabancs, Wolfe Tone’s death mask, an earwig, a selection of different berries ready for the crusher, and the berry crusher, and another crusher, and yet other crushers, and crushers galore. It really is extraordinarily packed with detail. Laundry Bag Boy himself does not appear in this opening frame of the cartoon, and nor does Herbie Hancock. Their absence at the beginning is a crucial part of the plot, but I will not spoil it for you by explaining why.

While I was buying up back numbers in the comics shop, I took the opportunity to pump the proprietor for more information about Laundry Bag Boy. Intriguingly, the shop was run not by a geeky nerdy nerd geek, the kind we tend to associate with such establishments, but by a batty crone with a Quakerly air about her. Her hair was white and wild and she had a decided plum in her mouth. She was kind enough to offer me, from a somewhat battered tin, a choice of arrowroot and Garibaldi biscuits to munch while I browsed the cardboard boxes packed with comics. Unlikely as it seemed, she knew everything there was to know about my new-found fictional hero, a walking encyclopaedia of Laundry Bag Boy lore and learning, arcana and imponderabilities, facts and figures. One thing she told me in particular had me quite perplexed. In spite of the popularity of the yellow-haired, blazing-eyed superhero, there was no official worldwide fan club to which I could apply. This seemed anomalous, when there are such organisations devoted to virtually everyone you can think of, from fictional detectives such as Sherlock Holmes and Solar Pons, to real detectives like Sir Ian Blair and Cargpan of the Yard, from Sir Granville Bantock to Rock Hudson, from Lascelles Abercrombie to Spiderman, from Mike Huckabee to Ayn Rand, from Brutus Maximus to Popeye, from Arianna Huffington to Ringo Starr, from Krishnan Guru-Murthy to Tuesday Weld. Yet in this seething maelstrom of often ill-advised fandom, there was an unfathomable void where Laundry Bag Boy ought to have been.

I have decided to correct this preposterous state of affairs. Tomorrow, at 5.15 a.m. sharp, I will be striding on to a podium by the perimeter fence of Pang Hill Owl Sanctuary, and announcing the formation of the Official Laundry Bag Boy Fan Club. If you are unable to be there, please write to me at, with “Gosh! It’s about time Laundry Bag Boy had his own fan club!” as the subject header, and nominate yourself for an official post in the organisation. You can make up your own grand-sounding title. A roster of Fan Club Officers will be posted on this site, and badges will be issued in due course.

NB :  Please check the Comments on this piece, for a particularly enlightening contribution from reader Randi Mooney.

Pilgrimage To Pointy Town

Reports reach me of dismal doings at the Pointy Town Tourist Board. In an attempt to drum up visitor numbers, a faction on the Board is engaged in not just the rewriting of history, but its wholesale invention. The latest brochure invites me, and thousands like me, to take part in the so-called Pointy Town Pilgrimage Trail, experiencing “the sights and sounds and tastes and smells that greeted those ancient wayfarers who embarked upon the Pilgrimage to Pointy Town in days of yore”. This is shameless twaddle. In the ancient days to which the brochure refers, Pointy Town itself did not exist. All a wayfarer of yore would have found was an area of curiously pointy ground, with a few ponds on which ancient ducks and swans clamoured. It is true that the pointiness of the land led later to the erection of a town, but in ancient days there were not even any wattle-and-daub dwellings there, and the area has no caves to speak of in which ancestral Pointy Towners could have sheltered from the filthy weather.

The Tourist Board wants us to believe, if I am interpreting the illustrations correctly, that thousands of years ago saucy pilgrims with terrific hairstyles fetched up in Pointy Town from all over the land, and even from lands beyond, and celebrated the general pointiness of things by holding strange ancient ceremonies, traces of which can be found today. For example, there is a gaping pit around the corner from the present post office, and this is meant to be evidence not of botched contemporary roadworks but of a rite involving herons and vipers and bees and hairy men. Where all these herons and vipers and bees and hairy men are meant to have come from, and how they gathered around the pit, and what they did once there gathered, is all left a bit vague. As, to be frank, is the claim that the post office itself stands on the site of the Pointy Town Thing, an ancient parliament on the Icelandic model, and predating the Icelanders’ own Thing by a good few centuries. I am assured that next time I lick the reverse of a postage stamp at the post office counter, I am doing so at the very spot where an ancient Pointy Towner named Anaxacaractagrax proclaimed The Brimmings, whatever they are meant to be. This same Anaxacaractagrax is supposedly related, how we are not told, to Atossa, the imperious mother of Xerxes, which gets the Tourist Board into all sorts of chronological and geographical knots.

Indeed, there are so many knots, vagaries, and plain implausibilities in this invented history that only a fool would be taken in. That being so, it has to be said that there are plenty of foolish people around, for the Pointy Town Pilgrimage Trail is proving to be a thunderous success. Last week I decided to hie over there for the first time in years to see what was going on. I didn’t bother taking the brochure with me, for I had dropped it into a puddle and it was not yet dry. I wore galoshes and the hat of a peasant for my trip, and rather overdid breakfast in the dining carriage of the pneumatic railway train which wheezed, with many spluttering halts, through the horrible countryside towards Pointy Town, the pointy bits of which were visible long before we finally hissed into the station. Having memorised the tourist brochure as best I could, I was aware that the station was part of the pilgrimage trail. It was here, apparently, that the counting of birds took place, the tally posted on a flag hoisted high. What numeric system was used, what material the flag was woven from, and with what instrument the flag was marked: none of this was made clear. Those ancient folk may have had a sort of hemp, but we know for a fact that they had no ink. And, in any case, how did they get all the birds to stand still and be counted? I was already thoroughly exasperated as I made my way to the station canteen for one last plate of sausages and treacle and a bowl of cornflakes and a beaker of tea. Imagine my disgust when I saw that the beaker was stamped with a pilgrimage emblem, and an accompanying leaflet informed me that it was a reproduction of the beakers used by Pointy Town Pilgrims at celebratory feasts on the eve of the Docking Hack.

My temper did not improve as I lumbered slowly into town. There seemed to be not a single street, building, lamp-post or duckpond that had not been hijacked by the Tourist Board for its counterfeit history. Even when I popped into a snackbar for elevenses I could not escape. Sitting down to a hearty pan of pig haunches and suet, I was joined immediately by a local person sporting the hat of an indigent, who barely took time to introduce himself before regaling me with his theory that the ancient Pointy Town pilgrims were not freeborn men and women, but abductees, yoked together like farmyard creatures, driven to the town by brutish captors for purposes we modern sophisticates could only guess at. He had drawings, of course, which he took from an inner pocket of indescribable grubbiness and spread out on the snackbar table, almost knocking over my tumbler of fermenting berry slops as he did so. He talked me through each drawing with some excitement, explaining that the sketches had come to him in fits of entranced lucidity. I was not surprised to see spaceships patrolling the sky in about half of these scribbles, but, curiously, he made no reference to them in his babble. He was insistent that I go along with him to see one of the most pointy bits of Pointy Town, where, he promised, he would show me incontrovertible evidence of his abduction theory in the form of fragments of yoke and chain embedded in ancient shards of bitumen. But I was having none of it. When I had finished my snack, I knocked his hat off his head and swept his drawings off the table, stamping them into the floor as I left.

Back on the street, I checked my bearings by the eerie late morning light and headed towards the town centre, where I wanted to visit the Tourist Board Office. No one, it seemed, was willing to call into question the falsification of Pointy Town history. Emboldened by my breakfasts and elevenses, I determined to give the liars a piece of my mind. It was unlikely that, single-handed, I could dismantle the rash of ahistorical poop engulfing what had been my favourite town, but at least my spleen would be vented, as spleens require venting, preferably after a good lunch. As I pranced alongside the graveyard wall, I reflected on the disservice these bumptious numbskulls were doing to the true heroes of Pointy Town past, men like Ferenc Puskas, the legendary Hungarian football ace, who though he had no connection with the place whatsoever, and indeed had never even heard of Pointy Town, let alone ever visited it in life, was nonetheless a numinous presence in every park and garden and patch of mud, at least as far as I was concerned. It mattered not to me that the Pointy Towners themselves were blind to his ethereal dash and verve. Puskas, for me, was as much a presiding spirit of Pointy Town as was the medieval chieftain Bruno La Poubelle, who laid out the winding pathways of the old town, planted the grassy knoll, built the pergola and the schoolbook depository, and made some of the pointy bits even pointier than nature intended. But where was La Poubelle to be found in this new dispensation? It looked to me as if the Tourist Board had erased him, and it was with a sick heart and a sick brain that I crashed into the Café Spigot, next door to the Tourist Board Office, to have my lunch.

Tucking into a gigantic helping of jugged hare, lobster and branflakes, I rehearsed the uninvited lecture I planned to give to the wretched begetters of the Pilgrimage Trail. I was assuming that they would all be there, next door, skulking about, inventing fresh idiocies, counting the cash they had fleeced from the ignorant. Only during the cheese, sponge and nuts course did it occur to me that today was a public holiday, and the office was likely to be shut. Yet by now I felt impelled to make the lying gits feel the lash of my tongue. I would uphold the glory of the ghosts of Puskas and La Poubelle and dash their pasteboard chaff aside, or squash it underfoot, or crumple it in the palm of my hand, or whatever one does with chaff in Pointy Town. As I took dainty sips from my post-prandial cuppasoup, I remembered that Pebblehead had written a bestselling paperback called A Basic Survey Of Methods Of Pasteboard Chaff Disposal In Pointy Town, and resolved to break and enter the library to consult a copy. Armed with Pebblehead’s techniques, perhaps I could destroy the heritage horrors disfiguring the town and enwrap it once again in the protective blankets of La Poubelle and Puskas.

The library was out beyond the seven tiny warehouses and the fairground, which meant that I had to negotiate my way past the doll hospital, the most frightening place in Pointy Town. Ever since I had first visited it, decades ago, as an ambitious cub reporter sniffing out a story of gruesomeness, treachery, and doll-related frightfulness, it had been the locus of my nightmares. I never did write up the story, and resigned from the Pointy Town Herald & Thunderclap soon afterwards. Thus began my long exile from the town of my birth, my estrangement from all I held dear. The intervening decades have been hard on me, but as I swept along Midge Ure Boulevard I realised that time has been harder on the town itself. All I had cherished seemed to be either vanished or in decay, and even the pointy bits on the approach to the warehouses seemed blunter and less pointy. Was the Tourist Board solely responsible for the ruin, or were there other, wider, more sinister forces at work? I pulled my windcheater tighter around my torso and popped into a roadside tea room for a mug of tea and a jumbo packet of arrowroot biscuits.

The tea room, I learned, was annexed to the Pointy Town badger sanctuary, and imposed a surcharge on each biscuit sold to fund its badger work. Admirable as this initiative was, it made for a tremendously expensive snack, and I began to worry that I would not have cash enough in my pippy bag to afford supper before catching the train home. I also needed to drop into an ironmongery to buy, or rent, the tools necessary to effect my breaking into the library. I was counting out my remaining coins on the tea room’s formica tabletop when a moustachioed old timer sidled over to me. He wore the hat of an ingrate, and gave off a distinct aura of bitter gall. I was in no mood for another snackbar conversation with a conspiracy theorist, so without a word I turfed the oldster’s hat from his head, scooped my coinage back into my pippy bag, and made for the door.

I was halfway towards the ironmongery merchant when I realised that the elderly ingrate, now hatless, was following me, but making no attempt to catch up. I stopped, and he stopped too. I took one pace forward, and he took two. This was because I have a long, loping stride, whereas my pursuer took more cautious, rickety steps. I was surprised he did not topple over. Using binoculars, I scanned his face, to which I had paid little attention in the tea room. So bushy and magnificent was his moustache that it was difficult to see beyond it, but it struck me that there was something familiar about him. He tugged at a corner of my memory, but I could not yet place him. Tucking the binoculars back into their pouch, I walked on, occasionally checking to see if he still trailed me, and he did.

The afternoon sun blazed high in the sky as I reached the spot near the municipal flowerbeds where I expected to find the ironmongery. Many, many years had passed since last I was in Pointy Town, but I hardly expected to find this landmark emporium gone. It was, after all, the most inspiring ironmongery in the whole province, a magnet for bolt-cutting enthusiasts near and far. Yet no trace of it survived. In its place stood a plinth atop which was a hideous cement statue of a saucy pilgrim with a terrific hairstyle, holding a cement placard announcing that this was the end of the Pointy Town Pilgrim Trail. It was ugly, it was spurious, and a magnificent ironmongery shop had been bulldozed by the philistines on the Tourist Board to make way for it. I was livid. I was also dashed in my plan to buy, or rent, tools with which to jemmy the lock on the library door. What now?

I leaned against the railings surrounding the plinth and took from my pocket a bag of brisket and toffee. Munching on these would steady my nerves, and allow me time to think. Just as I bit off a mouthful of brisket, I was overcome by an aura of bitter gall, and the ingrate who had been tailing me suddenly materialised at my side, in a manner I was unable to comprehend and cannot describe. He simply stood there, lugubrious and mournful, with flies circling his hatless head. He was close enough that I had no need of binoculars to examine his face, and I forced my eyes to peer behind the moustache, trying to recall where I had seen him before.

I grew up in Pointy Town, and had an idyllic childhood. I remember tents and swans and dramatic hiking incidents. I remember flag days and sing-songs and buying my first, child-sized, bolt-cutters and other ironmongery items. I remember toads and pastries and gutta percha. I remember hearing the name Ferenc Puskas on the radio, and the sound of thousands cheering. And I remember lolloping home from the library clutching my favourite book, A Lavishly Illustrated History Of Pointy Town For Pointy Town Tinies. And I remember the frontispiece of the book, a mezzotint by the mezzotintist Rex Tint of the medieval Pointy Town chieftain Bruno La Poubelle, with his fantastically bushy moustache. He it was – or his wraith – who stood beside me now. No wonder he was engulfed in an aura of bitter gall, witnessing the desecration of the town he raised from a patch of pointy ground. I gaped at him, pop-eyed, nearly choking on my brisket. Then the sky, so sunny a moment ago, was plunged into an uncanny blackness, and I felt La Poubelle’s hands upon my shoulders, shrivelled yet firm, and I felt the rustle of his mighty moustache upon my forehead, and then I, too, was enveloped in his aura of bitter gall. But I felt most intensely an ennoblement of my spirit, and a startled recognition that with the potency of my brain alone I could smash to smithereens every vile Tourist Board Pilgrimage Trail bubo throbbing with venom in the Pointy Town I loved. I could obliterate them in an instant, if I wished. The blackness evaporated, the sun blazed again as it always did on this blessed town, and I dipped my hand into my bag of brisket and toffee, ready to offer a bite to Bruno La Poubelle. But the apparition had vanished. I was alone by the railings, beneath the cement statue of the spurious saucy pilgrim with the terrific hairstyle. I had the power to dash it to dust. How would I choose?

I retraced my steps to the town centre, beaming as I passed the ducks and swans clamouring on the pond and tipping my peasant’s hat to the demonstrators from Gorgeous George Galloway’s Respect Party who were marching against something or other, or in favour of something else. A beetle-browed university lecturer dodged out of the demo and pressed a shoddy newspaper upon me, so I tested out my new powers by swatting him aside merely by raising an eyebrow. I was pleased to note that as he hurtled over the horizon at inhuman speed, his pile of newspapers burst into flames. I went back to the Café Spigot and ordered a dish of bloaters and spam and goose grease and fudge sundae, and as I sat waiting, I decided that I would let the evening train leave without me. I had come back to Pointy Town, and now I had work to do.

Toffee Apple Wrapper Saved From The Flames

It is almost four years since the Hooting Yard website made its debut, and in that time it is fair to say that I have built a reputation as something of an authority on the out of print pamphleteer Dobson. As a result, I find myself fielding a bewildering number of messages on my metal tapping machine from Dobsonists around the world. The range of enquiries is quite astonishing, and evidence of the continued relevance of this towering figure of 20th century pamphleteering. On more than one occasion I have been asked to provide a digest of the calls that come in, and my replies, but I am afraid that is not possible, for after scribbling on the back of a toffee apple wrapper each query and my learned response, I dispose of them in a cauldron of flaming pitch. Otherwise I would be up to my ears in toffee apple wrappers, and lack dignity.

As a special treat, however, I decided to save one sample enquiry from destruction, and duly present it here, together with my reply.

Dear Mr Key, wrote a correspondent from the picturesque Essex seaside resort of Jaywick, I wonder if you can set my mind at rest regarding a biographical detail. Was our Dobson the Dobson of the financial services consultants Pricewaterhousebaileydobsoncoopercooperhateful which, as is well known, attempted an unsuccessful leveraged buy-out of Hubermann’s department store in 1971?

The simple answer to this is : No, he was not. In fact, the very idea of Dobson obtaining a position for which even a vague knowledge of finance was desirable has me laughing like a drain. Interestingly, however, the pamphleteer may have been as qualified as anyone else to adorn the boardroom of the company. I always research my replies to correspondents with thoroughness and rigour, and in delving into this one I discovered some striking facts. Note that the bid for Hubermann’s was unsuccessful: therein lies a clue. What I found, toiling away in the cuttings library of the Pointy Town Bugle & Cruncher, was that neither Pricewater, nor House, nor Bailey, nor the Dobson who was a different Dobson, nor Cooper, nor the second Cooper, nor Hateful had the faintest idea what a “leveraged buy-out” was. Half of them were scurrying about looking for a lever, one like Hazel Blears’ central lever, while the other half were tapping sap from a pugton tree in Bodger’s Spinney. They collected the sap, each in his own pail, and carted it back to their headquarters in time for an important meeting with the Hubermann’s people. As one of the Coopers remarked later from his prison cell, “We couldn’t find the damned lever, our bank accounts were empty, and the police dogs were snapping at our heels, but we had plenty of pugton sap!” Much good it did them.

Well, there you go. I think now you can understand why I burn all those toffee apple wrappers.