Archive for the 'Prose' Category

Whither Art?

Whither art? It’s a question I often ask myself, usually when tucking into a plate of smokers’ poptarts or other breakfast-based snack food. I like to get art out of the way early on in the day, freeing up my time for higher things. I do not practise art myself, but it is a subject of abiding interest to me. Whither art?, I ask, wondering where it will go.

To answer that question, one must of course be familiar with where art has been. One follows its trajectory, from the earliest cave paintings to the latest talentless derivative didactic Marxist video installation bollocks, and one tries to push the line further along, to see whence it leads. Every morning, at breakfast.

Sometimes, alas, those smokers’ poptarts are just too damned delicious, and the brain that ought to be cogitating upon the future of art is instead benumbed in a lovely haze of gustatory bliss. At such times, all thoughts of art fly away, like unto a flock of starlings, and instead I ponder the sheer genius of modern breakfast snack food manufacturing processes.

But the next morning, after a day devoted to the higher things, things such as prayer and beekeeping and shove ha’penny, I return to that burning question, whither art?, as a dog returns to its vomit, and I wrestle with it, at least until breakfast is digested.

Very occasionally, when for example I have a stomach upset, I do not ask whither art?, but instead declaim, in a booming tone, wither, art! I curse art and I envision a glorious new world where art curdles and shrivels until at last it is gone, all of it, forever. But of course we know full well, all that truly withers is Googie (1917 – 2011).

The Cadet And The Angel

Puny, neurasthenic Cadet Vig was on sentry duty outside Fort Hoity (4 points) when an angel of the Lord appeared unto him (12 points). Cadet Vig trembled in terror (2 points).

The angel of the Lord appeared to be perplexed. It opened its ring-binder, and looked carefully at the weedy cadet, and then at its paperwork, and then at Cadet Vig again, and then back to its paperwork, and its brow furrowed. For the purposes of its earthly visitation, the angel had made use of a hole-punch and inserted all its papers into the ring-binder. Normally, when shimmering in its celestial halls, the angel had each individual sheet affixed to a wall with drawing-pins, the mass of papers spread out for visual oomph, as is the practice with serial killers in television dramas (6 points).

“You are puny, neurasthenic, and outside a fort,” said the angel, “It says here you should be stately, plump, and inside a martello tower.”

Cadet Vig did not know what to say in response, so he merely quaked (2 points).

“Well, never mind.” said the angel, slamming shut the ring-binder, “What fort is this?”

“Fort Hoity,” said Cadet Vig, truthfully.

The angel reopened its ring-binder (1 point), rummaged through the papers, found the entry for Cadet Vig, and said, “According to my records you are meant on this day at this hour to be on sentry duty at Fort Toity” (8 points).

Cadet Vig was on the point of swooning. His legs turned to jelly as he realised that, yet again, he had misread the duty roster. Captain Nitty would be furious (10 points)! The milksop cadet had an awful vision of months stretching ahead doing potato-peeling punishment. How long, he wondered, would it take him to cross the eerie marshes to Fort Toity? Could he get there before Captain Nitty discovered his mistake? He had a sudden bright idea.

“Is it in your power,” he asked the angel of the Lord, “To transport me instantaneously to the sentry post outside Fort Toity, far away across the eerie marshes, so I will not get into one of my pickles with Captain Nitty?”

The angel once again consulted the contents of its ring-binder (6 points).

“Yes,” it said, eventually, “That is well within my power. But I am minded, instead, on this starry starry night, to shower you, Cadet Vig, with teeming thousands, nay millions, of points, more points than any cadet under Captain Nitty’s command has ever been awarded.”

Now Cadet Vig did swoon, He crumpled to the ground, next to the sentry box outside Fort Hoity. As he lay there, robbed of consciousness, innumerable golden shining points rained down upon him. And when he woke, the angel of the Lord had vanished, and stars glittered across the boundless firmament, and here, clanking towards him in full armour, came Captain Nitty, his face purple with rage, his eyes like burning coals (2 points), and Cadet Vig, for the first time in his puny life, was not afraid. He cocked his blunderbuss and took aim at Captain Nitty. He had millions of points!

This story has accumulated a total of 53 points, if I have tallied them correctly.

A Map Of Pointy Town

Over the past few weeks I have been following an intriguing flurry of correspondence in the readers’ letters section of Bestial Grunting magazine. It began back in October – the “yellow month” – with a query from a certain Mr. P. X. Pyx, who wrote “I have been trying to obtain a map of Pointy Town, without success. Can any of your readers point me in the right direction?”

In the next issue there were several replies, but most of them were facetious. They suggested plenty of directions in which Mr. Pyx might point himself, but the respondents were just having a spot of fun. The only sensible letter came from someone who described themselves (in an unpublished addendum) as an Official Pointy Town Tour Guide. It is worth mentioning here that such a position does not exist, as the only known tour guides in Pointy Town are resolutely unofficial, and proud of being so. But let that pass. This (unnamed) correspondent made the not unreasonable point that Mr. Pyx needed to divulge his own location before anybody could hope to have a clue in which direction he should be pointed in order to face either Pointy Town itself or a kiosk where he might make purchase of a map thereof. The editrix of Bestial Grunting awarded this letter five stars, and rightly so.

The following week, a letter appeared undersigned “Mrs. P. X. Pyx, grieving relict of Mr. P. X. Pyx”. Alongside the printed, typeset version of the letter, a photograph of the original was reproduced, showing the smudges occasioned during its composition by Mrs. Pyx’s fallen tears, the better for readers to appreciate her grief. The widow explained that her late husband had dutifully followed the sundry pieces of advice given by the facetious letter-writers in the previous issue, but that in pointing himself in dozens of different directions at great speed, he had become dizzy in the head, and toppled over, and fallen into a pit of vipers he happened to be standing next to at the time. Mrs. Pyx added the plea that she herself now sought advice on obtaining a map of Pointy Town, as it was her dearest wish that her husband be buried clutching said map in his cold dead white hands, as soon as the authorities had devised a method of safely extricating his corpse from the viper pit. She did not divulge her location. Her letter was not awarded any stars by the editrix.

By the time the next issue of the magazine appeared, it was November, the “month of chrysanthemums”. Much of the letters page was taken up with protests that Mrs. Pyx had not been given any stars. Several readers threatened to cancel their subscriptions unless this injustice was corrected. The editrix devoted a full page elsewhere in the issue to a carefully-argued piece explaining her decision. Stars, she wrote, were not awarded lightly, and she was damned if she was going to cave in to the demands of her more petulant readers who misunderstood the protocols. The article was accompanied by a photograph of the letters editor plucking a star from the night sky, preliminary to affixing it to the print-ready page.

Eagle-eyed readers would have noticed, buried beneath all the letters of protest, a further letter from the soi-disant Official Pointy Town Tour Guide. He wrote that he was due to meet a mysterious “contact”, at a crossroads at midnight, who dangled before him the possibility that he – the “contact” – might identify a kiosk where a map of Pointy Town could be obtained, though only for rental, rather than purchase outright.

I missed the next issue of Bestial Grunting by dint of [illegible].

God alone knows what happened, but in the fortnight since I’d bought a copy, the magazine had changed utterly. It was now called New Bestial Grunting, the editrix had become the editrix-in-chief, the letters editor had been demoted to office janitor, and the readers’ letters page had vanished. In its place was a sheet of burnt and blackened paper giving off a distinct whiff of sulphur. When I tried to return the magazine to the newsagent, thinking it might just be a faulty copy, I found his kiosk shuttered and boarded up, and daubed with the sign of the cross.

Could all this be connected in some way to the dead Mr. Pyx and the quick Mrs. Pyx and their desire to obtain a map of Pointy Town? I had to concede the possibility. I determined, at once, standing in a puddle next to the abandoned kiosk, to pay Mrs. Pyx a visit and interrogate her, under Klieg lights if necessary. But then I realised that neither she nor her late husband had ever revealed their whereabouts. Like Pointy Town itself, she was unmapp’d, and I was lost.

star_yellow_small This article was awarded one star – Mavis Handbasin, Editrix-in-Chief

A Letter From New England

A letter arrives from Christopher Lamere in New England. (I note, incidentally, that Mr Lamere’s name is an anagram of H[is] R[oyal] H[ighness] Elastic Emperor, though this may not be significant.)

Dear Mr. Key

I want you to know that you are my favorite writer. This may seem like a vast honor for a no-name, penniless, friendless failure of a 25 year old to bestow, but it is God’s truth. The imagery which you conjure gives me chills. The truths you tell with your stories fascinate and disturb me, especially because I often initially read your tales as flights of fancy instead of actual true events. As a resident of New England, your descriptions of far away ye Olde England are unnerving portraits of a distant land which my home tries to imitate.

Imagine my surprise then, while wandering through some not very dense woods which as an American I would never call a spinney, I found myself at the edge of a wooden lake. At first, I was convinced that the plank upon plank of maple wood was merely the foundation for some as yet unconstructed building, but when I pressed my ear to the varnished surface, I heard that interminable sloshing of some hidden beast. I was shocked to find that your story of the wooden lake was not a mere fantasy, but an ominous story of hidden portent.

It’s the most frustrating thing in the world, since it seems like a conspiracy which I was excluded from. Even with words whispered between my close friends, when I broach the subject of vast lake monsters, or even the mere idea of lakes hidden by wood, their whole demeanor changes. It’s as if they’ve never heard of a lake, or monsters, or wood, or even nails. While I have not been ejected from my town as of yet, people tend to narrow their eyes and hiss “outsider” when I come around. What should I do? I don’t own a hammer, and there is no duckpond in my town.

Yours in fear,

Christopher Lamere

Have no fear, Mr Lamere! I have given much thought to what you should do in order to avoid otherwise inevitable gruesome consequences. First, make a magnetic tape-recording of the hissing sounds made by your townsfolk. Under cover of darkness, subject the tape to certain blasphemous manipulations, then use rusty blood-caked garden shears to cut it and form it into a loop, such that, when played, it will repeat after approximately thirteen seconds. Take it to the precise centre of the wooden lake and play it through an enormous loudspeaker or electric hooter at deafening volume. Have to hand a supply of pebbles which you can hurl at any townsfolk who approach, intent on silencing you. As the godawful hiss resounds across the wooden lake and into the dense woods, execute a tableau vivant of a historical or mythological theme – Judith with the head of Holofernes would be apt, or perhaps President Nixon holding his arms aloft just before boarding the helicopter on the White House lawn that ferried him to retirement. From time to time, increase the volume of the hissing tape loop. Before several days have passed, your lack of a hammer and a duckpond will count for nothing. And, as I so often say when dispensing advice, irrespective of the nature of that advice, remember to wear gloves.

Exhaustion & Ignorance

Cracks began to appear in his story immediately. So rapid was their onset that the story itself had not even started, as I have just demonstrated. Not only that, but the story was full of holes. There were more holes than there was story, at this stage. If one examined it, the story did not hang together. But it was exceedingly difficult to examine it in any detail, because of the cracks and the holes. These were now so legion that the story itself was barely perceptible. It would be more accurate to say that it was not perceptible at all, by any of the senses, even if all five were in working order. It is, I suppose, vaguely possible, but only vaguely, that someone blessed with a sixth sense might be able to perceive the story, but oh, dimly, dimly. There were just far too many cracks, and far too many holes, and it simply did not hang together. How could you hang a hole, after all, or a crack, even separately, one by one, discrete, let alone all together? It would be a very peculiar nail from which you might hang such a vacancy, or multiplicity of vacancies, if you were minded to try a nail, rather than a hook or a paperclip. But let us assume, for the sake of argument, and for the sake of his immortal soul, that such a nail or hook or paperclip existed, and from it you were able to hang, after much effort and sweat and elbow grease, numberless holes and cracks uncountable. Would you then be any closer to an appreciation of his story? I would aver that you would not, You would be exhausted and still wallowing in ignorance. As it happens, Exhaustion and Ignorance are my middle names. So I need not bother my little head about his stupid story. I can merely collapse, panting, upon my pallet, in a state of bliss.

Jam Today

I am going to have jam today. I had no jam yesterday, or for several days before that, and I think it is very unlikely that I will have jam tomorrow, or for the foreseeable future. The precise extent of the foreseeable future is, of course, a matter of conjecture. Some people have the attention span of a gnat and can foresee little more than the next few seconds, if that. Then there are seers and wizardy persons, who can foretell, or at least claim to foretell, events that occur far into the future. Nostradamus is perhaps the most famous example, but there are others, such as those boffins who concoct long-range weather forecasts. Between the gnat-brained and the seers are the vast majority, the rest of us, who can make reasonable guesses at what might occur a few days or even a few weeks hence, according to our appointment diaries. I know, for instance, with a reasonable degree of certainty, that in a couple of weeks’ time I will, touch wood, be visiting a hospital to see a consultant to find out what he has learned from a study of a sample of my precious blood. Yet it remains possible that this will not happen, for reasons mundane – a rescheduling of the appointment – or dramatic – the hospital collapses to ruin in an earth-shuddering cataclysm. So even the foreseeable future may not be wholly foreseeable. Of one thing I can be sure, and that is the fact that I will have jam today.

I intend to spread it, the jam, on a slice of toast, possibly two slices of toast depending on the amount of jam and the liberality, or miserliness, with which I spread it. I might even eke out three toast-slices’ worth, if I go a bit mad. I know I will have the jam today. From where I sit, if I crane my neck at a certain angle and peer intently through my spectacle-lenses, I can see the jam, in a small plastic container with a tear-off lid, resting on the countertop anent the electric toaster in which I shall be toasting the slices of bread. Will, shall … the future tense. Can I really be sure I will have the jam? Could something happen, mundane or dramatic, to prevent what might otherwise seem inevitable? With the jam in my possession, now, could it yet happen that I will not, after all, have jam today? To which the only conceivable answer is, alas, yes.

I might discover, when tearing off the lid of the container, that the jam is contaminated, and gives off a foul reek, and must at once be consigned to the dustbin. Or, in a variant of the anomalous phenomenon of spontaneous human combustion, there may be an inexplicable occurrence of spontaneous jam combustion, and I will be left with not jam but cinders. All sorts of other eventualities, the likely and the unlikely, are feasible. The only way I can guarantee having jam today is to cease writing, right this second, and make my toast, and spread my jam, and eat it. So that is what I shall do, and I will report back.

*

Mission accomplished. I had jam today! Hurrah hurray! Though it is only fair to say that it tasted far less toothsome than I had hoped. It was bland jam. Tomorrow, I hope instead to have marmalade. But it is best not to hope too desperately, for who knows what might occur, before the sun rises tomorrow, to crush my marmalade desire?

A Visit To The Tearmonger

Pitched past pitch of grief, I wept buckets of tears. Then, on my bakelite wireless set, I heard Chrissie Hynde commanding me to stop my sobbing. I usually find Ms Hynde persuasive, and in spite of the fact that I felt more pangs, I did as she bid. The buckets were both about three-quarters full. I hoisted them, one in each hand, and carried them off across the blasted heath. I hoped to get a good price for my tears from the tearmonger.

“What have you got for me today?” he asked, when I came toiling up to his kiosk. He was a fat slick duplicitous argumentative mocking gloomy patched-up greasy dribbling bug-eyed ragged vitamin-deficient debauched great bear of a man, all frills and flaps, and I did not warm to him, but he was the only working tearmonger in that part of the glade.

“Two three-quarter buckets of my own grief-stricken tears,” I said, lifting the buckets on to his counter. He eyed them coldly.

“What use are they to me?” he snarled, “You are neither an orphan nor a virgin, if memory serves.”

“Look,” I said, imploring him, “These tears were wrung wildly from pangs of grief. They must be worth something.”

“I might see my way to giving you a soup,” he said.

“A soup?” I asked, “What is that in panes, soilings, and pins?”

I knew very well that a soup was worth only a fraction of a pin, but I hoped, hopelessly, to shame the tearmonger into offering me a little more. He started faffing about with a sachet of gruesome murder victim’s widow’s tears.

“See this?” he said, “Tears shed in the actual presence of the lumbering walrus-moustached psychopath Babinsky, as he buried his axe in the head of the poor woman’s husband! Now those are tears that fetch a pretty pin,”

“But I was pitched past pitch of grief!” I protested.

He dipped his fingers into one of the buckets, then licked them with his unholy tongue, tasting my tears.

“Not salty enough for true grief,” he said, “And in any case, the buckets are only three-quarters full. In my experience, true grief gives vent to unstoppable tears. I think you were just moping.”

Under my breath, for the first – and, I hope, last – time in my life, I cursed Chrissie Hynde. I knew it would be pointless to appeal to the tearmonger. I had him down as a jazz-funk fan. There was little I could do but accept his soup. He gave me an eggcupful of minestrone, and I turned away, heading for that place in the past we’ve been cast out of, oh oh oh oh oh oh.

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.