While shepherds watched their flocks at night on Pugton Hill the wind blew wild and there were shimmerings or ghostly gleams. One shepherd had a wristwatch and told the time to the other two. Down below Pugton Hill on the main arterial road huge container lorries thundered past on their way to the ferry. The shepherds smoked their pipes. The lorries too belched smoke for there were no laws in place to stop them so doing. Nor were there speed limits. Crashes and pile-ups and terrible accidents were common at that time in that place below Pugton Hill. When they heard or saw dimly in the black night a grievous traffic incident the shepherds laughed for their hearts were cold and void of human sympathy. They preferred the company of nocturnal sheep wide awake and terrified as sheep are for most of their time on earth and on Pugton Hill. So slowly the hands of the wristwatch tock off the minutes and the hours. The shepherds are waiting for a sign. There is no signage on the main arterial road save for an occasional arrow pointing towards the ferry. No sign points the way back for none of the huge speeding lorries ever comes back. They carry the contents of the country load by load to the ferry and never return past Pugton Hill atop which the shepherds smoke and laugh and are fiercely protective of their terrified sheep. Glory be for yes it is a kind of glory up there above the road as the wind blows wild in the night on Pugton Hill.
Archive for the 'Prose' Category
From the archives:
When push comes to shove, I invariably topple over. If I am standing on a precipice, or at the edge of a gaping pit, this can be life-threatening. Thus, whenever my plans for the day include roaming in the vicinity of a yawning chasm, I take precautions by wearing a sort of winch-and-pulley affair, one end of which is wound around my torso, under my vest, and the other end of which I hammer into a patch of firm ground using a great big iron mallet. I am careful to ensure that this end of my winch-and-pulley is stuck fast in the earth, for if there is any chance of it working itself loose, the entire activity would be pointless, for if, heaven forbid, I were to topple when shoved, my efforts would have been in vain, for the crumbling or squelchy soil would yield up my winch-and-pulley and I would surely topple as if I had never been attached to anything in the first place. That is such a terrible prospect that I make efforts to map out in advance the terrain in which I plan to wander, perhaps a week or so ahead. Of course, fugitive weather conditions can alter the state of the ground as shown on my charts, but risk and chance play a role in all human affairs, and there is no reason why my roamings should be exempt. When setting out on my map-making expeditions, I usually attach one end of the winch-and-pulley to some stable object like a horse-trough or a concrete sundial.
My benefactors have long sought to deter me from straying near pits, chasms and abandoned mineshafts, so I am afraid I have had to use subterfuge. As I wave to them from the garden gate, with the winch-and-pulley concealed behind a muffler, I say something like, “I am just going out to check the concrete sundial” or “My my, the day is so clement that I think I will stroll along a flat and featureless plain like the big field where Farmer Buzan used to grow his potatoes all those years ago”. Sometimes such announcements will be met with questions, which I am usually able to anticipate by peering at the furrowedness of my benefactors’ brows. At other times I may have to improvise a convincing response or deflect the queries by pointing at a starling, for example, or forcing a sudden spray of projectile vomiting. When push comes to shove, pointing at a starling is my preferred option.
It is twenty years now since I bashed in Farmer Buzan’s head with his own spade. I like to think that my benefactors trust me these days, but it seems not. Oh look, there’s a starling in that sycamore tree!
He went to an orchard with his chums
And they stole a punnet’s worth of plums
Then they scampered off to their hideaway
As the last light faded from the day
The sky grew dark, then darker, black
They transferred the plums into a sack
Then they tumbled out of their hideaway tent
And round the town in the night they went
Depositing plums from door to door
Mischief that was against the law
For in that town plums had been banned
As elsewhere in that plumless land
According to the king’s decree
(The king looked just like Dick Van Dyke)
Plums were a fruit he did not like
Why then, you ask, did he allow
The orchard’s trees, bough upon bough
To sprout so many Carlsbad plums?
Let us ask the little chums.
But oh! They’ve vanished in the night
Now they’re completely out of sight
O’er the hills and far away
As dawn breaks on a brand new day
And townsfolk find plums on their stoeps
They greet them with shrill cries and whoops
And hide them quick before King Claus
Comes on his rounds from house to house
If he finds a plum his wrath will wax
And cause umpteen heart attacks
So hide your plums well, folks of the town
Till human voices wake you, and you drown.
I wanted butter more than I wanted guns. I have always been partial to dairy products, cows’ milk and yoghurt for example, but my greed for butter had become all-consuming. I was mad for it and could think of little else. So one grim overcast morning I set out for the nearest dairy, knocked at the gate, and demanded butter. The dairyman, of great bulk and threatening mien, refused me butter and shooed me away as he might shoo away a gnat.
Broken in spirit, I lolloped into a tavern. A cad with a pencil moustache and a battered briefcase was propping up the bar. He asked what ailed me, and I explained.
“Let me give you a tip,” he said, “I know about these things. The best way for you to obtain butter from that dairyman is to threaten him with a gun. If you went back, and demanded butter, while aiming at the centre of his forehead a fully loaded Mannlicher-Carcano rifle, I think you’d find he would hand over as much butter as you want in a jiffy.”
This was a persuasive argument, but I told the cad that I had neither a Mannlicher-Carcano rifle nor any other type of gun.
“That’s where you’re in luck,” he replied, “For it just so happens that I am an international arms dealer and I can lay my hands on any type of gun you want at the drop of a hat. It will cost you, of course, but think about the butter!”
I was won over, and I scuttled home to fetch from under my bed the shoebox containing my worldly wealth. It was not a great sum, but I hoped it would be enough for a rifle. As I made my way back to the tavern, a little birdie – I think it way have been a peewit or a grebe – perched on my shoulder and chattered in my ear. What it said, had I been able to translate its twittering, was “Why don’t you give the money directly to the dairyman as payment for his butter?” But I was ignorant of the language of birds and I brushed it away without understanding.
The cad was still propping up the bar and he accepted my shoebox of cash after counting it carefully.
“Obviously,” he said, “As a gun runner I have to be cautious. Meet me under the viaduct at nightfall and I will give you a fully loaded Mannlicher-Carcano rifle.”
“But I want my butter before then!” I wailed, “That’s the whole point! I want butter before guns!”
The cad looked at me with some sympathy.
“Well,” he said, “Why not go back to the dairy and explain to the dairyman that if he doesn’t hand over his butter there and then you will come back after nightfall armed with a fully loaded Mannlicher-Carcano rifle and you will shoot him through the centre of his forehead, without mercy. That ought to buck his ideas up.”
“Good idea!” I said, and I scampered off to the dairy, happy and hopeful.
I knocked at the gate and explained myself to the dairyman. I expected him at once to be cowed, and to fetch butter for me. But instead, he took from his pocket a handgun and shot me, several times, in the legs and arms.
As I lay sprawled in the mud outside the dairy gate, waiting for an ambulance to come clanging, the peewit or grebe landed on my head and began chattering into my ear. Before I passed out, I resolved to learn the language of birds.
[Should you prefer guns before butter, go to 23 September 2012.]
A further nugget from the archives. One In A Series Of Hiking Pickles first appeared on this day eight years ago.
Dobson lived in the era before mobile phones, of course, so when he found himself imperilled in an isolated spot he had to harness every last scrap of ingenuity to summon help. You or I would simply make a call on our mobile – well, you would, but I wouldn’t, because I do not own a mobile phone and never shall, for they are an abomination unto me – but this was not an option for Dobson, so what did he do?
Let us take a closer look at the circumstances. It was a Tuesday in February. Football fans were grieving the loss of the Busby Babes in the Munich Air Disaster, Pope Pius XII had declared that Saint Clare was to be the patron saint of television, and little blind David Blunkett was just eleven years old. Meanwhile, Dobson got lost on an ill-advised hiking expedition and found himself exhausted, in a spinney, menaced by feral goats. The out of print pamphleteer had also managed to get himself hopelessly entangled in a thicket of thorny brambly creeping greenery rife with puffy spiders and venomous beetles. That’s the kind of spinney it was, at least twenty miles from the nearest village, and with no paths nor country lanes leading anywhere close to it. There was, it is true, a big pylon a couple of dozen yards away, but it was a lone pylon, unconnected to any kind of electrical grid or other wiring system, a pylon the purpose of which was unknown, and it was a pylon of rust, suggestive of abandonment and disuse.
This was not the first time Dobson had been in a hiking pickle, and it would not be the last. Indeed, late in life he had enough material to furnish a pamphlet entitled An Anthology Of Disastrous Hiking Mishaps Cobbled Together From A Lifetime Of Ill-Starred Rustic Pursuits (out of print). What was significant about this particular pickle was the manner in which Dobson succeeded in extricating himself from it.
This was the period during which he had joined an experimental knitting circle, and as luck would have it he had in his noddy bag that day his latest project. It was an interpretation, in wool, of The Wreck Of The Deutschland by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Dobson realised that, when fully unravelled, the yarn would stretch for miles. He sat down in the brambles, lit his pipe, took the scrunched-up woollen masterpiece out of his noddy bag, and unravelled, unravelled, unravelled. Two hours later he was still unravelling. The sun was setting by the time he was done, but Dobson had no fear of the night, for he was sanguine.
Frequently Asked Question : Why didn’t the pamphleteer use his portable metal tapping machine to call for help?
Answer : He was unable to use his portable metal tapping machine because there was no ground-level pneumatic hub within reach.
The wool fully unravelled, Dobson tapped out his pipe on a stone and beckoned to one of the feral Toggenbergs. The goats were still gathered in a gang on the edge of the spinney, and it is a mystery why they had not attacked the bramble-trapped pamphleteer. In the Anthology, Dobson suggested that a combination of acrid pipe smoke, unravelled wool, and his sanguine nature had deterred the goats, but it seems that for once he was being modest. Almost certainly, the decisive factor was Dobson’s eerie ability to mesmerise goats, especially Toggenbergs. It is a skill which has not been much remarked upon, possibly because Dobson himself made light of it, and – curiously – never devoted a pamphlet to it. But he had been practising goat mesmerisation since he was a babe in arms, and now his expertise paid off. Beckoning a Toggenberg, as I said, Dobson tied one end of the length of wool around one of its Satanic horns, then whispered goat-language into its ear. We do not know what he said, but presumably it was something like “Scamper away, goat, in a straight line, and do not stop until you reach a village”.
It was not a village that the goat scampered to, however. Three hours after being entranced, it came to a wire fence, chewed its way through, and, in so doing, set off a hideous caterwauling alarm system. The night was filled with noise, and the Toggenberg was caught in the white glare of a Kleig light. Within seconds, it was surrounded by a clomping troop of visored commandos armed with Simon & Garfunkel rifles. Inadvertently, the mesmerised capricorn had stumbled into a top secret military intelligence compound. A commando with a captain’s badge bundled the goat onto a bauxite cradle chained to a winch, while a second commando, this one with a cadet’s badge, untied the wool from its horn.
Miles away, Dobson was smoking his pipe and lackadaisically paying out the wool, hand over hand. Suddenly, he felt it jerk, and held on tight. And then he was yanked free of the thorny brambly creeping greenery rife with puffy spiders and venomous beetles and dragged across a wasteland of fields and gravel pits and sumps and countryside filth until he fetched up at the feet of the commandos who reeled him in, just as midnight struck.
That is how Dobson got out of a hiking pickle, only to find himself in a very alarming dilemma indeed, slap bang in the middle of a military intelligence compound that was top secret for very good reasons – reasons which, even at a distance of fifty years, I am far too terrified to divulge. He was placed in a holding cell with the feral goat and interrogated at length. The wool was returned to him and he asked for, and was given, a pair of knitting needles. Between interrogations he was able to re-knit The Wreck Of The Deutschland, although much of his woollen reimagining of the lines about the Tall Nun was gnawed into scritty by the Toggenberg. By the time the commandos released the pamphleteer, having scrambled his brainpans so thoroughly that he remembered nothing after the spinney, Richard Milhous Nixon had published his book Six Crises, Pluto and Neptune were in alignment for the first time in 403 years, and little blind David Blunkett was no longer so little.
Dobson returned home even more sanguine than before the hiking pickle. As for the feral goat, it stayed with the commandos. They adopted it as a pet, and called it Flopsy.
Today, unbelievably, we celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Hooting Yard Soup Committee. That is to say, it is precisely ten years ago today that this piece, entitled Soup Committee, first appeared at Hooting Yard:
Dobson rarely sought collaborators in his pamphleteering work, preferring to plough his furrow alone. Occasionally, however, his schemes were so ambitious that it was necessary to call in help. One such plan led to the formation of what became known as the Soup Committee.
Dobson woke up one wintry morning with an idea in his head. This was not uncommon, but usually his ideas could be – and were – dashed off in a brief pamphlet. Not so the gigantic multi-volume work he pictured in his mind, a compendium of every known soup recipe ever conceived, throughout human history, from the dawn of time to today’s date, across all cultures and civilisations. Even Dobson realised that he could not accomplish so mighty a project single-handed, so he asked Marigold Chew to draw up a list of likely contributors. The Soup Committee was her idea. Reasoning that if she invited people to take part in a Dobson plan they would probably decline, and thus shatter the pamphleteer’s already shattered nerves, she used her usual hardline tactics. The letter she sent out to over eight hundred unsuspecting souls is preserved in the Dobson Archive.
Dear Soup Person, it read, This is to inform you that you have been empanelled on to the Soup Committee. Your empanelment is effective from today’s date and remains in force until such time as you die. The full implications of your membership of the Committee will follow by separate post, but you had better start gathering soup recipes right now. Yours decisively, Marigold Chew, pp Dobson.
The pamphleteer himself decided to begin by garnering soup recipes from the Old and New Testaments, and set about rereading his Bible with pencil and notepad in hand. He was distraught, at the end of this exercise, to discover that the word “soup” appears nowhere in the Authorised Version, or King James Bible, which was the edition he swore by. He went back to the beginning and realised that “pottage” was possibly a synonym for “soup”, although it might also mean what we know as “stew”. Undeterred, Dobson was able to fill a couple of pages of his notepad.
In Genesis 25, for example, we have, 29 And Jacob sod pottage: and Esau came from the field, and he was faint, 30 And Esau said to Jacob, Feed me, I pray thee, with that same red pottage; for I am faint: therefore was his name called Edom, and 34 Then Jacob gave Esau bread and pottage of lentiles; and he did eat and drink, and rose up, and went his way: thus Esau despised his birthright. This is elsewhere translated as And Esau sold his birthright for a mess of pottage, of course, a resounding phrase we would all do well to remember.
Moving on to the second book of Kings, chapter four, after having soup for lunch, Dobson read 38 And Elisha came again to Gilgal: and there was a dearth in the land; and the sons of the prophets were sitting before him: and he said unto his servant, Set on the great pot, and seethe pottage for the sons of the prophets, 39 And one went out into the field to gather herbs, and found a wild vine, and gathered thereof wild gourds his lap full, and came and shred them into the pot of pottage: for they knew them not, and finally 40 So they poured out for the men to eat. And it came to pass, as they were eating of the pottage, that they cried out, and said, O thou man of God, there is death in the pot. And they could not eat thereof.
Towards the end of the Old Testament, Dobson found one last mention of soup, or stew, in Haggai 2: 12 If one bear holy flesh in the skirt of his garment, and with his skirt do touch bread, or pottage, or wine, or oil, or any meat, shall it be holy? And the priests answered and said, No.
Seven verses, but presumably only three different soups, the most interesting to Dobson being the one in Kings which has “death in the pot”. What was this poisonous potion? We know that Dobson was a vain, even arrogant pamphleteer, but he did have some small shred of humility. He recognised that if his great work on soup was to be definitive, every single recipe would have to be authorised by an expert. Marigold Chew sent a second letter to the members of the Committee.
Dear Empanelled Soup Committee Person, she wrote, As a matter of urgency, further detail is required on the wild gourds which were shredded into the pottage mentioned in 2 Kings 4:39, as well as the ingredients already in the pot, which, as you know, contained death. Send your reply by courier. Yours tenaciously, Marigold Chew, pp Dobson.
Not a single one of the recipients ever replied. Dobson himself soon lost interest in soup recipes, filed his notes away, and embarked that very same winter on a series of pamphlets about sodium, postage stamps, the manufacture of church bells, loosely-fitting cardigans, gutta percha price fluctuations and Plovdiv. One by one, over the years, the Soup Committee members died out. It is thought that only three of them are still alive, one in Bastwick, one in Cleves, and one, now 104 years old, fit as a fiddle, plying a ferry across an inlet at an unidentified seaside resort battered by gales, battered by storms, battered by gales, battered.
When I posted Bonkers Maisie here a couple of weeks ago, Pansy Cradledew said “I’d like to hear that set to music by Outa_Spaceman”. And lo! it has now been set to music and performed by Mr Spaceman. You can listen to his fine rendition here.
Next up, I would like to hear a large-scale Orchestral Variations On A Theme Of Bonkers Maisie By Outa_Spaceman, and perhaps an ear-splitting choral version, but I suppose that is too much to ask.
[Continuing, seamlessly, from where Tokenism left off …]
After several minutes, bidding farewell to the goats, Poumfrex descended from his mountain fastness. His unexpected return home to Tea Strainer House, family pile of the centuries-old Poumfrex tea strainer manufacturing dynasty, was not unlike the unexpected return home of Charles Rainier in Random Harvest (Mervyn LeRoy, 1942). Just as we weep, uncontrollably, at any viewing of that film, so there was weeping within the walls of Tea Strainer House, and outside, in its gardens too.
There was one significant difference. Charles Rainier, played by Ronald Colman (1891-1958), sports a dapper moustache. Poumfrex did not. He had grown one once, in his youth, when first able to, but it had sprouted in an entirely different colour to the rest of his hair, which, at that time, was browny tawny chestnutty, with flecks of ginger and black. The colour of the incipient moustache was indescribable. It appeared to be a shade outwith the known spectrum, and thus it provoked remark, usually unkind remark, and this was unwelcome to Poumfrex, who in his youth was shy and self-conscious. He was no longer so, but he chose never to revisit moustacheland.
He felt himself touched by the copious weeping which greeted his return, and pranced like a ninny through all the halls and corridors of his beloved home, blowing kisses and waving his arms. He gave little thought to the sad fellow with the coupons he had been paid to escort and who had thrown himself down a well. Poumfrex’s communion with goats in the mountains had restored the boisterous and bright-eyed optimism which came naturally to him.
Whence it came was a deep mystery, for all the other members of his clan were sombre and sour and moody and pernickety and rancorous and morose and always, always, weeping, gushing great buckets of tears at the faintest of plucks on their heartstrings.
But he was happy to be home, and he avoided the sounds of constant wailing and keening, once he had done his tour of the house, by taking a turn around the gardens. Here were the filbert hedges and ha-has, the lupins and hollyhocks and topiary tea strainers of his childhood. Memories came flooding back as he pranced like a ninny in the torrential rain. He remembered the day he saw gnomes hiding behind the hedges. He remembered the Great Watering Can Party. He remembered the visit of Neville Chamberlain with his odd-shaped head. He remembered lying on his back on the lawn in the middle of the night, gazing up at obsolete constellations of stars. He remembered digging Ruskinian holes, and filling them with conkers. He remembered Mr Snippage, the old head gardener, who looked like the aged Ruskin, and, like Ruskin, had hallucinatory visions of snakes.
While Poumfrex was happily remembering all these things in the garden, an unaccustomed silence had fallen inside the house. There was no longer any weeping, no wailing nor keening. Just like in Three Days Of The Condor (Sydney Pollack, 1975), where CIA analyst Joe Turner, played by Robert Redford (b.1936) pops out of the office for five minutes and returns to find all his colleagues have been slaughtered, so when Poumfrex stepped back in through the French windows he discovered that every single occupant of Tea Strainer House had been done to death while he was prancing like a ninny around the garden.
Poumfrex had a nose for crime. As he wandered through the halls and corridors of his beloved home counting the bodies, one idea impressed itself with more and more intensity upon his brain. This must be the work of the lumbering walrus-moustached serial killer Babinsky!
[To be continued … ]
Tokenism, they called it, when they gave Bligliglabb his weekly coupons. Bligliglabb was glad of them, very glad, but he did not understand why they called it tokenism. Was it not couponism? Once or twice they took him aside and tried to din into his head the difference between a token and a coupon, and their isms, but Bligliglabb was dense, very dense, and could not twig. So they parked him on a couch in a corridor and had him brought a cup of tea from time to time, while they arranged for somebody to come and take him away.
That somebody was Poumfrex, of the tea strainer Poumfrexes. With his big potato head and garrulous manner, Poumfrex held no hostages to fortune nor saw the mote in his own eye. Other motes, other eyes, oh certainly, it was one of the things he was known for, far and wide. That is why they called on him. He was sentimentally appreciative of Bligliglabb’s denseness. He held him by the hand and led him out along the corridor and through the exit into the bounteous fields.
Bligliglabb was naturally concerned about his coupons. Keep them stuffed in your pocket, was Poumfrex’s advice, and it was well-meant, very well-meant. But when they passed by a well, Bligliglabb took the coupons from his pocket and tossed them down the well. Poumfrex turned him about and took him back to the couch in the corridor and told him to sit tight. Never had he encountered such denseness. It left him in a lather. Once he was out of sight of Bligliglabb he biffed his fists against a wall.
That day there were no further coupons for Bligliglabb, but they did have one token left in the pot. It was a lovely little token, round and shiny and stamped with the head in profile of Tippi Hedren. We’ll give him that, they decided, and sew it into a cloth pochette and sew the pochette into his pocket and that way the token won’t follow the coupons down the well. Poumfrex nodded, he could see the beauty in the scheme.
But dense as he was, Bligliglabb twitted them all. When Poumfrex led him out into the bounteous fields again, with the token in the pochette sewn fast inside his pocket, he let go Poumfrex’s hand at a critical moment and ran towards the well and jumped into it.
When they eventually received the permissions, they sent a salvage team to recover the coupons and the token and whatever was left of Bligliglabb. His soul had fled. The soul of Poumfrex was still intact, but it was dented and battered beyond repair, and thereafter he was to be found in mountainous terrain, among goats, a shadow of his former tea strainer dynasty self.
Quite often, a farmer will choose to give one of his cows the name Buttercup. This is lost on the cow itself, which is too stupid to understand the concept of names for things. When a cow gazes upon the world it is as if through a dense mental fog. We can go some way to replicating this, even with our much mightier brain power. For instance, I once spent a morning – a misty morning – standing in a field, chewing on a mouthful of uprooted grass, staring straight ahead, and emptying my mind of all and any stimulus, using a technique I learned from a witch doctor. It was a salutary experience, and afterwards I felt I had a much greater understanding of the interior world of a cow. I continued the experiment by asking people to call me Buttercup, to see if I would respond when my name was spoken aloud. I did not so respond, on that day or on any day thereafter. If somebody called out, in my hearing, “Oi! Mr Key!”, my ears would prick up and I would look around for whomsoever had called my name, and, when I spotted them, raise an eyebrow and answer “Yes, what is it you want, my good fellow?” or, as it may be, “my good woman?”, or even “young urchin?” But I found that when somebody yelled “Buttercup! Buttercup!” my immediate reaction was to assume I had fallen among florists.
It can be quite unnerving to fall among florists, particularly when there is a gang of them. They tend to hold, in their clenched fists, bunches of buttercups or daffodils or god alone knows how many different types of flowers, and they will thrust them under your nose while holding out the open palm of their free hand in expectation of coinage. The idea is that you give them money and in return they present you with the bunch of buttercups, or whatever. But when there is a whole sussuration of florists surrounding you, each importuning you, it is no easy matter to pick one out of the crowd and to buy his sprig in preference to any other sprig, and it is unlikely you are carrying enough cash to be able to afford all the blooms thrust at you. Whenever I fall among florists in this manner, I remember the lessons I learned from the witch doctor, and I assume the mien of a cow. Usually, but not always, the florists will disperse.
If the florists do not disperse, the best idea is to snap out of your cow-trance and to shake a stick at them, the more wildly the better, accompanying the wild shaking of the stick with blood-curdling screams. Production of such screams can also be taught to you by any witch doctor worth their salt.
If you intend to eat a dish of buttercups, either raw or cooked, do not garnish them with salt. If, on the other hand, you have it in mind to eat a cow called Buttercup, a sprinkle of salt does not go amiss, and will make the meat more palatable. For vegetarians, a cow made out of marzipan is an acceptable substitute, but here again, as with the buttercups, it should be innocent of a salt seasoning.
Never eat buttercups in the presence of a florist.
Dear Bonkers Maisie, thou art so fair.
Blind beetles scuttle through your hair,
That unwashed tangle atop your head
Wherein’s your brain, poisoned by lead.
You breathed in oh so many fumes
And now the gleam of madness looms
Behind your eyes, or rather eye,
As you muck out the filthy pig sty.
‘Twas a pig took out the eye that’s missing
When we were in the pig sty kissing
An idyll I shall ne’er forget.
The day was windy, cold, and wet.
But all days are, in this rustic hell.
Oh Bonkers Maisie, my countryside belle!
They locked you up in the potting shed.
Poisoned by lead, poisoned by lead.
When James Newell Osterberg Jr was a tiny infant, he was fed on a diet of mashed up pap made from eggs. It was the piquant memory of these slops that informed his later decision, when embarking upon a career as a musical performer, to adopt the pseudonym Eggy Pap. A typographic error – or rather two typographic errors – rendered the name differently on the label of his first vinyl waxing. Deploying one of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies avant la lettre, Osterberg determined to “honour [his] error as a hidden intention”, and retained the inaccurate pseudonym throughout his subsequent career.
From the porthole of your bathyscaphe, you see a pair of crabs scuttling across the floor of a silent sea. They are discussing the poetry of T S Eliot. It may be thought that critical analysis of modernist verse requires higher cognitive functions than those possessed by crabs, whose brains are tiny. Indeed, they are about the size of the tip of a ballpoint pen. But you might be surprised. The difficulty, for you, is one of translation. Crabs have fairly rudimentary communication skills, but they do communicate with each other, and sometimes the subject of those communications might be The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock. But you would not know this, behind the reinforced glass of your bathyscaphe porthole. You would just see a pair of scuttling crabs and have no idea what was going on in their strange little heads. What you would need is some sort of manual, clearly-written, to enable you to decipher the signals being passed from crab to crab. At time of writing, no such manual exists.
But there you are, at the bottom of the silent sea, with a perfect view. Perhaps fate has decreed that you are the person to write that manual, to learn to communicate with crabs in their own language! It will probably take months, if not years, of study, and of course you do not have that much time, because before long your oxygen supply will be exhausted and you will have to return to the surface of the silent sea and return the bathyscaphe to the chandler from whom you hired it. So before surfacing, it will be a good idea to point your camera at the pair of crabs and film their discussion of T S Eliot for several minutes. You will then be able to study the film, oh so brow-furrowingly, in the comfort of your permanently-oxygenated seaside redoubt.
We shall all look forward to the publisher’s announcement of A Clearly-Written Manual Of Rudimentary Crab Communication, including several chapters of crab-exegesis of the poetry of T S Eliot, translated into human.
When I was first invited to present a show on ResonanceFM, way back in 2004, my immediate enthusiasm was tempered by a certain anxiety. I was fretful that perhaps I did not have a “radio voice”, and that, as soon as I was stuck in front of a microphone, I would screech like a screech-owl. Listeners would lunge towards the off-button, desperate to stop the hideous caterwauling and lapse into blessed silence. So before accepting the offer, I took myself off to an elocutionist.
Miss Blossom Christsblood’s establishment was on the top floor of a tall and ramshackle and quite possibly condemned building in an insalubrious part of town. It did not enjoy a lift, and by the time I had lugged myself up the stairs I was breathless and panting. Before she even said hello, Miss Blossom was intent on exacting payment from me, in cash, for my first lesson. I emptied my pockets of coinage, which she immediately squirrelled away in what looked like a battered tobacco tin.
I was given to understand that my lesson would begin when I stopped panting, which I duly did several minutes later. During this time, Miss Blossom paid no attention to me whatsoever, but busied herself with her birds, innumerable birds housed in innumerable birdcages hanging from innumerable rafters. I am no ornithologist, but I think at least one of them was a screech-owl.
Eventually my lesson began.
“When speaking aloud,” announced Miss Blossom, in a screech, “The most important thing is the formation of the vole sounds.”
It was at this point I decided to cut my losses and leave. Over a decade has passed since that unfortunate episode. In that time, I have continued to present Hooting Yard On The Air every week, with the occasional lacuna, and I do not think that at any time I have found it necessary to imitate the sound of a vole, nor a beaver, nor a shrew, nor even an otter.
Clint Eastwood’s new film American Snipe has broken box-office records in its first week on release. It is quite an achievement for the octogenarian director, the more so, perhaps, given its ornithological theme. American Snipe tells the true story of a snipe with a record number of kills. The film follows the bird as it flies around, swooping down to catch and gobble up crane flies, horse flies, deer flies, beetles, dragonflies, crickets, grasshoppers, ants, mayflies, butterflies, caddis flies and moths. No explicit moral judgements are made, though at one point an ornithologist, observing the slaughter, remarks “They’re just insects”.
The film has provoked controversy in the United States, winning plaudits from right-wingers while those on the liberal left have condemned it for painting a picture of unalloyed avian savagery, instead of showing nature as twee and cuddly.
The role of the American snipe is played by an award-winning snipe with a particularly long slender pointy bill.