Archive for the 'Prose' Category

Mr Key’s Epistle To The Ephesians

Greetings, Ephesians! How are things in Ephesus? Better, I hope, than they are here at Haemoglobin Towers, where we are having terrible troubles, including an infestation of pipistrelle bats, a plague of locusts, a dog in a manger, mange on our turnips, an outbreak of scrofula, gluten intolerance, incursions by barbarians, hot flushes, cold sores, ungainly hat angles, foopball hooliganism, unearthly manifestations of the ghost of Googie Withers, and more general withers of our googie and our boogie and our jazz-funk groove. We have all that to contend with, Ephesians, while you lot are no doubt sprawled on your Ephesian divans in Ephesus, gobbling grapes and swigging tumblers of intoxicant fluids and having a debauched time of it.

Anyway, the reason I am writing is that I hope to escape from the several horrors swirling about Haemoglobin Towers and have booked a charabanc to Ephesus, leaving from the bus station at Sawdust Bridge next Tuesday at noon, or nearish to noon. But I do not have anywhere to stay when eventually I arrive in Ephesus, assuming I do arrive and do not perish from poisoning by the fumes of the charabanc, which is old and clackety and has not, so far as I know, passed any of the rigorous vehicle safety tests one might hope it had.

Still, I must keep my pecker up and stride boldly into the future without worrying my little head too much about expiring from noxious vapours. So if we assume I will turn up at the bus station in Ephesus at some point, is there anybody among you Ephesians who could put me up in a chalet, or a room, or a tent, or even on a picnic blanket open to the elements? I am afraid I am penniless, and cannot pay a sou by way of rent, but I will happily entertain my hosts by singing lustily to the accompaniment of a piccolo. I have a repertoire of several pieces, cover versions mostly, including my own “interpretations” (for want of a better word) of Vienna by Ultravox, Dr Bogenbroom by Jethro Tull, and The Poem of Ecstasy by Alexander Scriabin, whose hands, incidentally, were as tiny as my head is tiny, proportionately speaking, if that means anything concrete, which upon examination it probably does not, but then I am having difficulty concentrating as in addition to all the other troubles listed above there is now a swarm of wasps outside my window, desperately trying to find its way in to my ill-appointed boudoir.

Oh, and one more thing, Ephesians. The charabanc driver has just informed me that he has absolutely no idea how to get to Ephesus, so if one among you could provide simple directions, so simple that even a dimwit could understand them, that would be dandy! Grace be with all them that love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity. Amen.

Annals Of The Seaside

One of the tragedies of our Age of Pap is that some of the greatest entertainers of the past have been largely forgotten and consigned to oblivion. And none more so than the titans of our seaside past, those who used to dazzle and delight teeming thousands of holidaymakers. The piers where once they trod the boards are themselves now mostly in ruins, if not vanished utterly. Yet once the roaring of the sea was drowned out by the roaring and cheering and laughter of the crowds gathered to see entertainments the like of which we shall surely never witness again. Now, all we have left are brittle, yellowing newspaper cuttings, such as this one, clipped from The Pointy Town Bucket & Spade, dated 18 November 1913.

Your correspondent trudged to the end of the Pointy Pier in Pointy Town for an out of season variety show. In spite of the torrential rain and bitter winds and the pervading stench of bilgewater and rotting fish, dozens of doughty holidaymakers packed out the Miss Blossom Partridge Memorial Variety Theatre for an afternoon of tiptop entertainment.

Top of the bill were those stars of the Pointy Pier, Mr Peevish And His Lovely Wife Gwendolyn. They did not disappoint. Mr Peevish was peevish and his lovely wife Gwendolyn was lovely. The “business” with the darned sock, the table-napkin, the funnel, and the screeching pipistrelle bat brought the house down. I myself was in floods of tears when lovely Gwendolyn sang the sentimental ballad “Oh bring me your winding-sheet, mother of mine”, for the performance of which she was wrapped in her mother’s actual winding-sheet, still bearing the bloodstains coughed up by that good woman in her extremity. That Mr Peevish remained thoroughly peevish during his lovely wife’s rendition is proof indeed of his consummate peevishness.

The evening ended with a magic trick, or at least what I took to be a magic trick. Several members of the audience were of a differing view, and believed that Mr Peevish And His Lovely Wife Gwendolyn had indeed produced, in material form, emerging from a puff of smoke, the Great Beast itself, as described in the Book of Revelation. The police constable on duty was trampled underfoot as the audience fled in fear for their lives.

Later that evening I noticed that the streets in the immediate vicinity of Pointy Pier were covered in some kind of vile noisome sludge. Small fires were burning, and every sprig of vegetation was blackened and charred and dead, along with a goodly number of puppies and kittens which had unwisely strayed from the comforts of hearth and home.

The Reprehensible Tot

One foul and thunderous day, Prince Fulgencio was much pained to learn that there was, running amok in his castle, a reprehensible tot.

“Whence comes this reprehensible tot?” he asked the henchman who had brought him this news. Prince Fulgencio hated all tots, infants, and tinies, with a hatred that burned his black soul.

The henchman was ignorant of the provenance of the tot, but he was rightly terrified of Prince Fulgencio’s rages, so he made up a story about the tot having been delivered to the castle in the talons of a fierce and gigantic bird of prey. There were many holes in this tale, and it would not have stood up to the merest scrutiny, but in his petulance and rage the Prince did not listen to it carefully, and he accepted it without question.

“Find the tot and throw it down the deepest well in my domain,” roared the Prince, “And then find the bird of prey and trap it in a net!”

The henchman wrote these commands down in his henchpad, so he would not forget them, then clanked away in his armour to one of the many pantries, where he joined other henchmen who were carousing and glugging great flagons of fermented goaty milk and henbane. Not long thereafter, all the henchmen were sprawled on the floor of the pantry in a stupor, away with the fairies.

Meanwhile, up in his chamber, Prince Fulgencio’s rage was unabated. So terrific was his temper that he began to see hallucinations, not the least of which was the reprehensible tot itself, grown to an enormous size, and banging a spoon against a bowl.

“I am at the end of my tether!” shrieked the Prince, “I am become unhinged!”

It was rare for Prince Fulgencio to demonstrate such a level of self-awareness, though had he but paused to consider the matter he would rapidly have apprehended that there were neither tethers nor hinges about his person. On the contrary, he was dressed in his finery, silks and satins and rich brocade, garish, bright as fire, brighter than the sun which had not shone on his castle for years uncountable.

“I have no need of sunlight,” the Prince had said, in his calmer moments, “For I pour forth my own princely effulgence, so dazzling it blinds all those who have the temerity look upon my countenance.”

This was of course a delusion, but there was nobody in the castle who dared to tell Prince Fulgencio what was what. Nobody, that is, save for the reprehensible tot, who now came scampering into the Prince’s chamber. It was much, much smaller than the phantom version born of the Prince’s visions, yet no less alarming. It was unkempt, and spotted with patches of milky sick, and emitted a deafening keening.

“Why are you not at the bottom of a well?” cried Prince Fulgencio.

But the reprehensible tot had not yet learned to form coherent words. Gazing directly into the Prince’s face, it screamed and wailed, and then belched up another gobbet of sick.

The Prince called for his henchmen, but they did not come, for they were still away with the fairies. And it was those very same fairies, of course, not a bird of prey, which had delivered the reprehensible tot to the castle, into the presence of the Prince. From that day forth, the tot would cling to the Prince, like a witch’s familiar, keening into his ear and splattering him with sick, until, truly at the end of his tether and truly unhinged, Prince Fulgencio gave up the ghost, and anointed the tot as his dauphin, his son and heir, whereupon the tot of a sudden broke into human speech, and called for the henchmen, and had Prince Fulgencio thrown down the deepest well in his domain. For years uncountable, thereafter, peasants would often see, circling over the well, a fierce and gigantic bird of prey which, when peered at closely, dissolved into a shower of fairies, fairies stained with sick.

The New China

Browsing in a bookshop the other day, I noticed among the new titles a considerable number of books about “The New China”. I have not read any of them, and did not buy any of them, but I have nevertheless been thinking about The New China and how it might differ from The Old China.

I began by wondering if I could gain a grasp of the matter by comparing New Labour with Old Labour. A moment’s reflection, however, dissuaded me from going down that path. First, The New China clearly has a definite article, whereas my researches have shown that nowhere was New Labour ever referred to as The New Labour. Second, while New Labour supplanted Old Labour, it has in itself now been replaced by, variously, Blue Labour, New Old Labour, or simply Labour. As far as I have been able to ascertain, this has not yet happened to The New China, which remains The New China in opposition to The Old China.

There is one remarkable similarity, and one glaring difference, between The New China and The Old China. (I am sure there are more, of each, but these two instances will suffice to get us to the nub. The nub, after all, is where we want to be, whether it be The New Nub or The Old Nub, or just The Nub,)

The similarity is this. To a large extent, one will find that the rivers and the mountains of The New China are almost exactly the same as those of The Old China. There may be the occasional small variation, but nothing a geographer of any stripe would deem significant. (I will be writing about the stripes of geographers, in another context, shortly.)

On the other hand, the people of The Old China have been completely replaced by new people in The New China. If we pluck a year of The Old China at random – say 1736 – we find that every single one of those Old Chinese people is gone, and also that not one of the New Chinese people has yet arrived on the scene.

It is of course possible to posit a very different kind of The New China, where all the mountains and rivers have been replaced by new ones, whereas the people are the same. They would be staggering about, withered and wizened and toothless and doolally, without a clue where they were, their familiar landmarks, the rivers and mountains, changed, and changed utterly, in The New China.

The Janitor And His Decoy Kitchen

[With thanks to R.]

In the course of my interviews with janitors, a surprising number of them let slip that, in the buildings for which they were janitorially responsible, they maintained, in addition to the appointed kitchen, a second, decoy, kitchen. For what purpose might a janitor do such a thing? That is the question I asked of all the janitors I interviewed, whether they kept decoy kitchens or not, for I intuited that the replies of those who kept just the one, actual, kitchen would be as enlightening as those of the janitors who kept two, a real and a decoy.

Not for the first time, my intuition proved to be wrong. I would not easily forget, for example, how I was caught napping by the Tet Offensive. And just as I wholly misjudged, on an intuitive level, the course of the Vietnam War, so now with my interviews with janitors. When I posed the question about decoy kitchens to those janitors, the majority, who did not keep decoy kitchens, they looked at me as if I had taken leave of my senses. Their replies were not in the least enlightening. The general thread of their responses was to aver that the maintenance of even a single kitchen was not properly the province of a janitor at all, but ought in any sane and just universe be devolved upon a scullerymaid. As for the idea that a janitor might keep a decoy kitchen, that beggared belief. The most likely explanation, I was informed, was that those janitors who claimed to have decoy kitchens were pulling the wool over my eyes, playing a jape on me, engaging in waggery, or some such mischief.

It grieved me to think I might be the object of mockery or trickery by several janitors. After all, I had embarked upon my interviews with a good honest heart, I would go so far as to say a pure heart, such as one might find nestling within a pious Victorian infant slowly perishing from tuberculosis. I did not wish to believe that some among the janitors would give anything but candid and heartfelt answers to my questions. So I determined to reinterview a statistically sound sample of those among the janitors who claimed to keep additional kitchens as decoys. This would necessitate a revision of my schedule and put me in grave danger of missing my deadline. I comforted myself with the reminder that I had set the deadline myself, the entire project, to interview thousands of janitors, being wholly within my own remit, for the simple reason that not one among the many publishers I approached showed even a smidgen of interest in it. Quite the opposite, in fact. I could not count the number of times I was physically thrown out into the street while great imposing doors were slammed shut behind me. I bear no grudges and will not copy out the list of those publishers I have written in my own blood in a little black notebook with a skull and crossbones emblem emblazoned on its cover.

So I rejigged my schedule, adding a year or two to my time frame, and made appointments to visit, once again, some of the janitors who said that they had established, in their buildings, decoy kitchens in addition to the real kitchens. I devised a new and separate set of questions I wished to ask them. I did not give any of my subjects sight of this questionnaire in advance, as I thought the element of surprise would serve me well. Tied to a chair in a dark dank cellar, a Klieg light blazing in his face, even the steeliest and most self-possessed janitor in Christendom would quail and confess all when I put my queries to them in a blood-curdling screech. I practised this screech on a hamster or two, with chilling but satisfactory results.

It was my misfortune, however, that every single one of the janitors I arranged to reinterview sent me to decoy cellars in decoy buildings where I was met by decoy janitors. My project was in ruins. I intuited that the best idea was to slump in a gutter and let sweet rain fall upon my head. Alas, my intuition proved wrong, for the rain turned to hail, and then to snow, and I would have been buried beneath it had I not stood up, and dusted myself down, and pranced along the street, my head held high, my smile beatific, like that of a pious Victorian infant slowly perishing of tuberculosis who sees, dimly, through failing eyes, the ethereal glow of an angel of the Lord at his bedside, come to carry him to a better place.

The Janitor And His Spirit Guide

Few subjects have received as little attention as the relationship between a janitor and his spirit guide. All janitors have one, though many janitors do not acknowledge its existence, while others, both janitors and observers of janitors, confuse the spirit guide with the janitor’s dog. Of course, not all janitors have dogs, which rather proves the point and should serve to clarify the matter. We shall examine the janitor-dog nexus in a future essay, if nexus is the word I am looking for.

The spirit guides of janitors are clad, invariably, in raincoats, though being as ethereal as the guides themselves the raincoats are not visible to the mundane eye. This makes them no less effective as raincoats. Janitors’ spirit guides do not get wet in rainstorms. Were they so to do, in all likelihood they would dissolve and form a puddle of ectoplasmic sludge, a puddle which the janitor would be duty bound to mop up with his decidedly unethereal mop, a duty made all the more onerous because he would no longer have his spirit guide to guide the mopping, a sure recipe for janitorial catastrophe. Let me repeat that. Were they [the spirit guides] so to do [become rain-soaked], in all likelihood they would dissolve and form a puddle of ectoplasmic sludge, a puddle which the janitor would be duty bound to mop up with his decidedly unethereal mop, a duty made all the more onerous because he would no longer have his spirit guide to guide the mopping, a sure recipe for janitorial catastrophe. There is more wisdom packed into that single sentence than in anything else I have ever written.

The averting of catastrophe is the most important contribution his spirit guide makes to any janitor’s day. But it is not the only one. In the course of my interviews with thousands of janitors, those who were prepared to admit the existence of their spirit guides mentioned a huge variety of ways in which these spectral raincoated beings from realms unseen give a helping hand to their allotted janitor. Many of the testimonies I heard were incomprehensible, if not exactly gibberish. My lack of comprehension was due to the fact that, not being a janitor myself, and thus not in possession of a spirit guide, my puny brain could not make any sense of what I was being told. An example will give you some idea of my difficulty. This is from Interview Transcript No. 849:

Me : Can you tell me something of earth-shattering excitement about your spirit guide and the way it aids you in the course of a typical janitorial day? Speak clearly into the microphone.

Janitor No. 849 : Hectic donkeys and the clicking of panic buttons or picnic buttons with unalloyed gusto pop ix pop vug then squelchy invasions usually hence hinged.

It is possible, if one studied that reply for several years, with the aid of glossaries and reference books and an atlas of the Other Side, that some sense could be wrung from it. But even in the absence of understanding it demonstrates, I think, that the ways of spirit guides are not our ways, and we can form only a partial, blurred, and vague conception of those ways. Is the same true of the janitors themselves? Do they have a clearer understanding of their spirit guides?

It is instructive, in this connection, to do as I have done, and to observe a janitor in the throes of his janitordom, all the while making notes in a notebook with a propelling pencil. When reviewed at leisure, at the end of the day, sitting in an armchair and sipping an egg nog, such notes can reveal startling insights. Of course one has to ensure that one notes what is noteworthy and not what is not noteworthy. I confess that on my first few exercises in this regard I made a complete ballocks of the whole business. I did not know what I ought to be looking for. I would, for example, scribble down my observations of a janitor’s mopping demeanour, while failing to make a single note about his pail (or bucket) frenzy. Such frenzies, I learned, are, or can be, the key to the janitor-spirit guide nexus. I am still not sure if that is the word I want.

Of course not all janitorial frenzies are related to their spirit guides. Let us not be silly. Let us, instead, sink deeper into our armchair, drain our cup of egg nog, and drift into a doze, in the hope that we may be granted a visit from a shimmering benevolent being from worlds beyond sense, clad in a raincoat, a raincoat, a rainc…..

The Janitor And His Pail

The relationship between a janitor and his pail is a matter well worth our attention. Some janitors will call their pail a bucket, but it is much of a muchness. It may well be that, for the pernickety, a pail and a bucket are not quite the same thing, but we are not pernickety, at least not today. Today we are having one of our non-pernickety days. Good heavens, we did not even time the boiling of our breakfast egg to the second, as we do on our pernickety days. No, today, we plopped the egg into the pan and set the burners roaring beneath it and we wandered away, picked up the post from the doormat, kicked the wainscot, kicked it again, God knows why, chucked the post into the wastepaper basket – it was all flyers, flyers – put the kettle on, extracted from our majestic bouffant a small beetle which had taken up residence, Peason-like, and placed it on the windowsill, opened the window, adjusted the position of the vase of hollyhock cuttings, turning them towards the light, though Lord knows there was little enough light, so early was the hour, and pottered and puttered in other dithery ways before returning to the kitchen to set the burners unroaring beneath the pan, without checking the time on our wristwatch, rather judging that a sufficiency had passed for the egg in the pan to be toothsome when shelled. On a pernickety day, on the other hand, we would not leave our post, by the cooker, but count the minutes and the seconds, gazing from wristwatch to pan and back again, and as the second hand on the watch tocked to its appointed spot we would immediately lift the pan from the roaring burners, extinguish them, hoist the egg from the seething waters and transfer it to its egg-cup – a souvenir egg-cup from an ill-starred seaside resort – sure in the knowledge that it had been boiled for a very specific and particular length of time as recommended in Blötzmann’s Manual of Egg-Boiling (second edition, lilac series). Thus the variation between our pernickety and our non-pernickety days, a variation designed to crack us from the bonds of rut.

What does all that have to do with janitors and pails or, if you prefer, janitors and buckets? Little or nothing, like the littleness of the light as we tuck into our early morning boiled egg, like the nothingness at the core of our all too mortal soul.

The Janitor And His Mop

Few relationships are as close, and as intense, as that between a janitor and his mop. He may sense an attachment to his bunch of keys and his pail and his dog, but he cherishes his mop more than anything.

I have spent several years interviewing janitors, and invariably they volunteer the information that their mop is their most treasured possession. They will say this, loudly and with vehemence, even when their dog is sitting obediently at their feet, gazing up at them in adoration. I am sure there is a monograph to be written, one day, upon janitors and their dogs, but I shall leave that joy to another scribbler. It is not that I am averse to dogs, well, I am, but it is not my aversion that dissuades me from writing about them. Were a janitor to spout effusive folderol on the subject of his dog, during one of my interviews, I would note it down accordingly and include it in my finished piece. I do not provide verbatim transcripts, preferring instead to give the reader an impressionistic or expressionistic or borderline hysterical portrait of the janitor through gorgeous words. Not all of these words will have been spoken by the janitor, nor by me, but they seem to hover in the aether in the janitor’s vicinity. That is what I try, as best I am able, to communicate.

It remains a remarkable fact that the thousands of janitors I have interviewed over the years have expressed boundless love for their mops. Often they are moved to tears, or, contrarily, to gales of unbridled glee, or sometimes both, turn and turn about. It is an emotionally wrenching experience, for them to be interviewed, and also for me, as the interviewer, broaching the topic of the mop and not knowing whether I will need to provide a napkin for them to dab at their tear-stained cheeks, or a similar napkin for myself to wipe off the flecks of spittle sprayed over me by janitors in the extremes of happiness. It occasionally happens that the dog, if it is frisky, will try to catch the napkin, either of the napkins, in its jaws, and scamper away with it, as if it were a bone. They are mysterious creatures, dogs, and often quite stupid. The mop, being inanimate, is much more predictable, and much less bother.

For reasons I have not yet been able to fathom, no publisher has expressed an interest in my book of janitorial interviews. It thus remains in manuscript, hand-written, with a butcher’s pencil, in a series of exercise books, some lined, some unlined. For the past several months I have had these books stored in a cupboard on the ground floor of a large building in a central location, near a bank, into the vaults of which I wish to transfer them for greater security, when I can afford the fee to do so. In the meantime, the cupboard is kept locked and watched over by a janitor, one of the few I have not taken time to interview. He prowls the corridors, rattling his bunch of keys, deploying his beloved mop, and followed everywhere by his dog. Insert apt Latin phrase to conclude this piece with a freight of significance.

The Truncheon Of Truth

I was sprawled on the sofa, dozing off as I read the latest issue of The Truncheon Of Truth, when I was startled by an urgent pounding at the door.

“Come in!” I shouted, for the door was not locked. As I tossed my magazine on to the floor and prepared to rise to greet my visitor, whoever it was, the door crashed open and a man wearing a frock coat and a bippety-boppety hat came striding in. I immediately recognised him as Tarleton, the amateur’s amateur.

“Why, as I live and breathe, it is you, Tarleton!” I yelled. Strictly speaking, none of these words was actually necessary.

“Spare me your unnecessary words,” rapped Tarleton, “Put on your coat and hat and boots and follow me. There is not a moment to lose!”

Thus began one of the more thrilling adventures of my long and, for the most part, undistinguished life. I had no idea, at the time, that I was to play a significant part in what became known as the affair of the Mitteleuropean Crown Prince, the missing jewellery box, the dachshund, the drainage ditch, and the freckle-faced lighthouse keeper. On that sopping wet Sunday morning I was preoccupied with the fact that Tarleton had interrupted my reading of an article in The Truncheon Of Truth on the subject of Blunkett.

“I was in the middle of reading a very interesting piece about David Blunkett,” I protested to Tarleton as I hastened after him along the rain-swept streets of my bailiwick.

“Save your breath, man!” rapped Tarleton, “And keep up! There is not a moment to lose!”

We turned down an alleyway next to the ice-cream kiosk, and then down another alleyway, and another, and yet another, until I realised that I was no longer in my familiar surroundings and had no idea where I was. In spite of the fact that each alleyway was narrower and darker and more foetid than the last, Tarleton kept up a cracking pace.

“At the point when you knocked,” I panted, “Blunkett had just entered a field wherein a cow awaited him – a cow that, I think, was about to attack him, on his birthday to boot.”

“You looked as if you were dozing off when I arrived,” said Tarleton, “So you cannot have found the article that interesting. Now hush!” he added, and he made a melodramatic gesture, placing one silk-begloved finger vertically in front of his lips. We stood, soaked, in front of a doorway on which the paint was peeling, the wood was rotting, and the number 49 had been scratched as if by the claws of a maddened bear.

“I was dozing off because the prose was leaden,” I said, “But the content in itself was absolutely fascinating.”

“For God’s sake hush!” hissed Tarleton, and as he did so he pushed the door open gingerly. It creaked on its hinges nevertheless. “Follow me down this secret corridor,” he whispered.

The secret corridor was unlit, and when the door swung shut behind me, I was as blind as Blunkett in the pitch blackness. Recalling the article in The Truncheon Of Truth, I apprehended just how terrifying it would be to be attacked by a cow. I groped forward and clutched at the tail of Tarleton’s frock coat, and we stumbled forward in the Stygian gloom.

“We are not likely to meet with a cow, I take it?” I whispered.

Tarleton hushed me for the third time.

In blackness and silence, like the message of Sylvia Plath’s yew tree, we made our way along the secret corridor for what seemed to me untold hours but was, when I looked later at my wristwatch, only a few minutes. We emerged eventually into the large and imposing pantry of a large and imposing hotel, and now I was Blunkett-blinded not by darkness but by the glare of several Klieg lights. Tarleton, ever prepared, snapped on a pair of sunglasses.

“We are only just in time!” he cried.

There, chained to the pantry wall, gagged and dishevelled, was a Mitteleuropean Crown Prince, and on the floor at his feet a missing jewellery box. With one swift and decisive move, Tarleton smashed the chains with an axe. Then he helped the Crown Prince to his feet, pocketed the jewellery box, dusted down his frock coat, straightened the bippety-boppety hat on his head, and prepared to leave the pantry through a connecting door to a second, equally large and equally imposing pantry, from where we could make our way to the hotel lobby, and then out into daylight and safety and a majestic boulevard. As I made to follow, Tarleton turned, wagged a silk-begloved finger in my face, and said. “Wait here!”

I never saw Tarleton or the Mitteleuropean Crown Prince again. I kept myself occupied in the pantry, rearranging the pots and pans and packet soups on the shelves, and doing a little light dusting, until one day, weakened by hunger, I saw a hallucinatory cow intent on attacking me, and I realised it was time to leave. I made my way back through the secret corridor and out into the alleyway and the other alleyway and the other alleyway and the other alleyway until I got my bearings and made my way home. Several weeks’ copies of The Truncheon Of Truth were piled up on the doormat. I made myself an infusion of boiled lettucewater and sprawled on the sofa to catch up on my reading. There was an article recounting in great detail the affair of the Mitteleuropean Crown Prince, the missing jewellery box, the dachshund, the drainage ditch, and the freckle-faced lighthouse keeper. Tarleton was not mentioned, and nor was I – at least, not in the first few paragraphs. The piece was written in prose so leaden that before I read any further I dozed off.

I was startled by an urgent pounding at the door. But I had taken the precaution of locking it, and I ignored the pounding, and went back to sleep.

Dream Report

Last night I had a dream in which I met a young idiot savant who had committed to memory the entire contents of every single issue of Reader’s Digest magazine.

“Recite the story about the blue caravan that appeared in 1965 or thereabouts,” I said.

Before he was able to do so, the dream veered off in another direction, alas.

NOTA BENE : For the correct placement of the apostrophe in the title of Reader’s Digest magazine, see this potsage [sic].

Crevasse Poppet

A couple of years ago I had reason to mention a crevasse wanker. Today, while solving the Guardian crossword, I was reminded of that rather more charming figure of the mountaineering world, Gertrude Chumpot, known as the crevasse poppet (16 down, 3 down). Gertrude earned this soubriquet because she was a sort of one-woman mountain rescue service, adept at saving the lives and limbs of hapless mountaineers who, not looking where they were going, plummeted down crevasses to what would otherwise have been certain death.

One of the great mysteries of the crevasse poppet was the manner in which she effected her rescues. Eschewing the usual kit of ropes and pitons and whatever else is used by standard mountain rescue teams, she employed a form of inexplicable mesmerism. Standing at the edge of a crevasse wherein languished a moaning ninny who had fallen in some minutes earlier, Gertrude would make enigmatic sweeping movements of her arms while babbling gibberish and gazing at the sky. By this means, she somehow levitated the nitwit out of the crevasse. At least, that is what she told the Commission of Inquiry when it was considering whether to prosecute her for witchcraft. She was such a charming poppet that the case was dropped.

The crossword is particularly ingenious because it is littered with references to her story. The chairman of the Commission, for example, was an unromantic taciturn Lett (23 across, 1 down, 24 across), named Arpad Klingklang. Arriving for the first session on his horse (9 across), he gave a press conference where he stated that he was ready to burn Gertrude Chumpot immediately, given that in his view it was a clear case of possession (11 across) by Old Nick (10 across). The crevasse poppet had only been on the witness stand for a few minutes, however, before the Lett was like a moonstruck calf, hopelessly in love. Soon enough, he called proceedings to a halt, put all the paperwork through a shredder (5 down), and was persuaded to take a rest cure (26 across) at a seaside resort (7 down), where he spent his time drinking café noir (8 across), dancing the habanera (20 across) with various ladies (22 across), and poring over erotica (17 across). In an attempt to rid him of his Gertrude-mania, the staff fed him a diet of gruel containing bits of leek (2 down) and locust (22 down).

There are several Alpine folk songs about the crevasse poppet, usually yodelled to the accompaniment of an alpenhorn. If you listen to them you will probably need to take a rest cure yourself.

Madge Strudwick

Madge Strudwick, Madge Strudwick, where goest thou?
I’m going to the barn for to milk me a cow.
Madge Strudwick, Madge Strudwick, what will you do then?
I’ll read the hot entrails of a fresh-slaughtered hen.

After studying this verse for several hours, pupils are required to write a potted biography of Madge Strudwick, of no fewer than twenty thousand words, following her progress from the iron cot in the orphanage to a pauper’s grave, and taking in significant events in her life, including the appearance of milk teeth, theft of her breakfast porridge by bears, pole-vaulting competitions, airship disasters, the darning of a rent in her polka dot dress, ignominy and pelf, later further pelf, deployment of the Snodgrass implement, pantry etiquette, on her first looking into Chapman’s Homer, dreary rainy autumnal afternoons, the thing with the spatchcock, the encounter with a spider while sat on a tuffet eating curds and whey, what she really thought about curds, the pricking of her thumbs, dust in her boudoir, the agony in the garden, gardening tips, her reputation as a chatterbox, clown murder, shortcake recipes, planetary influences, chocolate swiss roll, gladioli, Choctaw lineage, speech impediment, holiday snapshots, filbert hedges, the pounding of those infernal drums, pictures of Jap girls in synthesis, collusion with vampires, baffling reappearance of milk teeth, sun worship, pet budgerigar, possible sighting on the grassy knoll on 22 November 1963, ribbons, melodrama, shoes, bus pass, library ticket, pippy bag, anaconda, hoop, shutters, antimacassar, nunnery, pincers, peg, tap, bedevilment, soot, soap, soup. Extra points will be given for pointy bits.


For some considerable time I have been keeping track of Schneebaumhooft. There is a map of the world on the wall of my study, into which I have stuck many many pins. They are colour-coded – pinky-red for possible sightings, reddy-red for probable sightings, and blood-red for definite and incontrovertible sightings. In certain lights, particularly towards evening, the reds look identical, and this gives me a certain comfort.

Each of the blood-red definite sightings of Schneebaumhooft is accompanied by a photograph, usually a snapshot taken hastily with a concealed camera. These are pinned up on the wall next to the map of the world, with a post-it note attached to the edge of each photograph giving details of date and location and, where known, the name of the agent who took the snap. Many of my agents are unwilling to divulge their identities. I used to make use of a system of aliases based on an alphabetical list of seaside entertainers of the interwar years, but I became too interested in the entertainers, and spent far too much of my time tracking down old end-of-the-pier variety theatre ephemera instead of tracking down what I was charged with tracking down, which was Schneebaumhooft.

As far as I have been able to gather, Schneebaumhooft was never employed in any kind of capacity as an entertainer. It is laughable to think of him on stilts, for example, or having a custard pie splurged into his face by an accomplice. And yet that is how he appears to me in my dreams. Sometimes he is singing a humorous song, or doing some business with a couple of napkins and a budgerigar while an audience of working-class day-trippers from grim industrial hellholes roar with laughter or gasp in wonderment before breaking into applause, clapping punctuated with whoops and cheers. When I wake from these dreams I go into my study and gaze at the wall, and I am reminded that there has not been a single sighting of Schneebaumhooft anywhere near the seaside.

For some considerable time I have been wondering why Schneebaumhooft is so terrified of the sea. The sea is never still. It is vast and it is merciless. Perhaps that is why.

Carruthers To The Rescue!

After my debaucheries in the fleshpots of the east, I sought further debaucheries in the fleshpots of the west. I was sated for a time but then I grew restless, and discovered fresh debaucheries in the fleshpots of the south. Some time later I went north, but in the north I found no fleshpots, just ice and snow and bitter gales and storms so cold my eyelids were frozen shut and I could not see. I stumbled about, blind upon an ice floe, and heard the ominous grunting of bears. The wind was howling, and my brain was howling, but I made no sound, for my frozen lips were blue, and fused together.

This was not the death I had foreseen. I had imagined myself a dissolute voluptuary, sprawled on a divan, my belly full of wine, keeling over suddenly and unknowingly. The only sign of my passing would be when the resident band brought some hot carnal jazz number to an end and began to play a funereal dirge. Instead I was alone and cold in a blizzard of whiteness, about to be mauled and eaten by bears I could not even see.

Then oh joy! I heard the clatter of a helicopter above, and soon enough I was hauled aboard to safety. When my eyelids thawed enough to open, I saw that my saviour was Carruthers. Carruthers, my old mucker from long ago, before my debaucheries in the fleshpots of the east and west and south. Carruthers to whom I had confessed, back then, that the pounding of those infernal drums was driving me mad. Carruthers who comforted me when I went to pieces in the tropics. Now here he was again, at the controls of the helicopter.

“You came much too far north,” he said, briefly removing the pipe clamped between his manly jaws, “You must have overshot the fleshpots on your journey. There are indeed northern fleshpots. I shall take you straight to them so you can continue with your debaucheries.”

“No!”, I cried, as soon as my lips had thawed sufficiently to allow me to open my mouth, “I have learned a valuable moral lesson in the inhospitable bleakness of the ice-girt north. From this day on I shall shun debaucheries of all kinds, and devote my life to proper manly pursuits. Just keep me away from those drums and their infernal pounding.”

Carruthers nodded. And with that, he changed course, and took me to some corner of the earth with overcast skies and light breezes, mild and with occasional drizzle, temperate, temperate, and free of all temptations.

The End Of The Dictionary

“The dictionary ends sooner than the soul.” – Frederic Myers, letter to Arthur Sidgwick, 14 July 1867.

When we reach the end of the dictionary, there are no more words. We have exhausted them. We are left, then, with three choices.

We may lapse into silence. This is a strategy much favoured by anchorites and hermits and some saints and saintly persons. I have, myself, been described as a Diogenesian recluse, and not without good reason.

We may resort to barbaric grunting. This seems to be a popular choice among many of the shuffling scowling denizens of my bailiwick. Whenever I go sashaying forth – for even a recluse must sashay forth from time to time – I hear more grunts than words. But where once I thumbed my nose in patrician contempt at those grunters, now I understand that they have been reduced to their barbarism because they have used up all the words in the dictionary, from A to Z. They reached the end.

We may invent new words. We may coin new sounds. Glogscheen, snup, parapapahooft, swarfoogie. Some might say we are thus babbling nonsense. Others would counter that our nonce-words are divinely inspired, that we are “speaking in tongues”. Once towards the end of the last century, I sat in a hall in a meeting of the religiously devout, several of whose members loomed over me and so spoke in tongues, to cure me of my woes. Those woes are past, and I may doubt that incoherent babbling was the cause of their passing, but can I ever be sure?

There is a fourth choice. When we reach the end of the dictionary, we turn back to the beginning, where each and every word awaits us anew.