Archive for the 'Prose' Category

Schneebaumhooft

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.

Dripping Trellis

Last night I dreamed I went to Dripping Trellis again. Dripping Trellis, where fresh raindrops dripped from the trellises in its many gardens. Dripping Trellis, where we woke each dawn to the clink of the milkman’s bottles, and his morning song, that odd, strangulated keening, the words never quite decipherable. Dripping Trellis, through which in the afternoons the mobile library would putter, before parking by a dripping trellis, and we would return our books, overdue, overdue, and damp from lying unread on lawns in summer rainfall. It was the bucolic hamlet of my infancy, where I lived until the age of six. It is a deluded memory. There is not a grain of truth in it.

In my dream I was skipping and gambolling across a lawn, a huge lawn, in a garden rife with peewits and starlings and lupins and hollyhocks and Vietcong. The milkman was there, with much milk, but the milk was pink and gold, like the sky at sunset. He was singing, and the mobile librarian was accompanying him on sackbut. There may have been elves. I pranced towards a grot and peered within, and saw lanterns, and caged birds, and my papa. Then tish tosh tish tosh Blunkett of Jago’s Peak. Raindrops dripped off the thousands of trellises in Dripping Trellis. A man with a klaxon made an announcement about a wolf, and waved a flag, and I knew, though I did not see, that the flag had been darned by a convict in a distant pompous land. I had toast and marmalade. There was a Nissen hut, and on its roof perched an owl, and the owl hooted, and I awoke.

Outside, the rain was pouring down, and a bitter wind was howling across the desolate expanse of cement and concrete and tar where I was born, where I have always lived, where there is not a single trellis from which the raindrops may drip.

Sirinuntananon & Bewg

The vast majority of Dobson’s pamphlets were self-published, printed on a Gestetner machine in the garden shed by Marigold Chew, the bindings stitched by hand. On one occasion, however, the pamphleteer felt impelled to seek commercial publication.

“I feel impelled,” he announced to Marigold Chew over a breakfast of kippered sprats and marzipan brulé one desolate winter’s morning, “To seek commercial publication for one of my pamphlets.”

Marigold Chew raised an eyebrow.

“I shall be most distraught, or is the word distrait?,” she replied, “To leave the Gestetner idle while you go swanning off to large important buildings. But I nevertheless think it a good idea, albeit foolish, and I wish you well.”

Twenty minutes later Dobson went crashing out of the door into the winter horrors, vowing not to return until he had persuaded a publishing concern based in a large important building to issue one of his pamphlets in an edition of millions.

His first port of call was Semi-Collapsed House, a large important and semi-collapsed edifice on Slobber Lane, just along from the railway sidings and the hamster pound. Its lower floors housed the offices of Sirinuntananon & Bewg, an ancient and distinguished publishing company. Best not to dwell on the doings on the building’s upper floors, which had been rented out, for many years, to Babinsky, the lumbering walrus-moustached serial killer.

Icicles dangling from the brim of his Homburg, Dobson crashed into the reception area. It was deserted, save for a stray cobweb and a scurrying beetle. Dobson stamped on the beetle, and the thud of his Cambodian Actuary’s boot upon the linoleum (and the beetle) brought a hobbledehoy skittering into the room from a dark interior somewhere-or-other. The hobbledehoy tugged his forelock, which was greasy, greasy and vile, greasy and vile and repellent.

“How may I be of assistance, good sir?” he whimpered.

“I am Dobson!”, shouted Dobson, as if that were all the world need know.

Several hours later, having managed to persuade the hobbledehoy to allow him beyond the reception area, the pamphleteer was ushered into the office of Mr Sirinuntananon, or possibly Mr Bewg.

“I understand,” said the publisher, “That you have been impelled to seek commercial publication for one of your pamphlets.”

“To whom am I shouting?” shouted Dobson.

The hobbledehoy loomed behind him and spoke barely audible words into his ear.

“That is Mr Bewg, sir. He is boisterous and brilliant and barbaric. You can tell them apart, when they both occupy the same space, because Mr Sirinuntananon is saturnine and scruffy and savage.”

No sooner had he stopped speaking than a saturnine and scruffy and savage fellow slid into view from behind an arras.

“See?” said the hobbledehoy.

We might usefully pause here to consider a potted history of Sirinuntananon & Bewg. It is a history not only potted but illustrious, redolent with terrific books and equally terrific authors, with terrific mezzotints tinted especially for the covers of those terrific books, and with terrific hairstyles sported by those terrific authors. Unfortunately, from somewhere upstairs there comes the ungodly din of Babinsky, wreaking his usual blood-splattered chaos. It is a din which deafens as it distracts, so we shall have to postpone the potted history for a more opportune time. I have pencilled in next Tuesday lunchtime, incorrigible optimist that I am.

Instead, let us watch as winter sunlight glitters on the semi-collapsed roof of Semi-Collapsed House. Let us ponder its broken chimney-pots in which adventurous birds have built their nests in which tatterdemalion fledglings screech, their beaks opened wide awaiting mama or papa to come swooping in from foraging to drop juicy wounded worms into their gullets. Let us watch as clouds scud across the winter sun and the first flurries of snow begin to fall. And now, below, we see the pamphleteer, ejected into the street. Dobson has left the building.

“Hello Dobson,” said Marigold Chew, later, as her snow-covered inamorato came crashing through the door, “How did you get on?”

“It was like this, Marigold my poppet,” said Dobson, “I visited the offices of Sirinuntananon & Bewg the ancient and distinguished publishers where I met saturnine and scruffy and savage Nuttawood Sirinuntananon and boisterous and brilliant and barbaric B. Bewg also their hobbledehoy who acts as a kind of factotum and after some shilly-shallying into the details of which I shall not go now or evermore for it pained me exceedingly and I do not wish to relive it the hobbledehoy made a pot of tea for three and we sat in armchairs the publishers and me and Bewg began to speak but I could not hear a word he said for from above on the upper floors of the building came such a din as can only have been the sound of a psychopathic serial killer committing an enormity perhaps with an axe and when eventually it subsided after a final blood-curdling scream I asked Bewg to repeat himself but instead his colleague spoke and there was savagery in his voice as he explained that the previously independent publishing firm founded by Sirinuntananon’s grandfather and Bewg’s grandmother so long ago had now through what he called market forces whatever they might be been sold to a new owner of untold wealth and influence and this fellow generously allowed Sirinuntananon and Bewg to cling on to their positions in the offices in Semi-Collapsed House but that all decisions about what was published or not published were his the new owner’s and his alone and if I told them something about my proposed pamphlet then they would ferry he used the word ferry that to the owner and he would consider my proposal there and then for he liked to make snap decisions so I said that I had an idea for a pamphlet about a revolutionary new type of birdseed or millet but if that was not deemed commercial enough I also had up my sleeve an exciting science fiction yarn entitled Attack Of The Jellyfish Monsters From Planet Googie Withers and would they run both of those past the new owner and Bewg and Sirinuntananon looked at one another and gulped down their cups of tea in somewhat barbaric and savage fashion as if they had never drunk out of dainty china cups before and then they told me to wait and they both left the room and I sat and peered out of the window and saw that snow was falling and I fell into a daze and dreamed of dust and I woke when the door opened and it was neither Sirinuntananon nor Bewg but the hobbledehoy and he gave me a wolfish grin and took my empty teacup and smashed it against the wall like Dusty Springfield liked to do with crockery and then there was a puff of smoke and the hobbledehoy vanished in a cloud of fuming vapour as black as the blackest thing in the universe and beyond and a minute or so later he stepped out of it towards me only it was no longer him the hobbledehoy but a transfigured version with horns and a forked tail and eyes that burned and it was Beelzebub himself I swear it as sure as eggs is eggs and he roared at me that he had given due consideration to my suggestions and made a snap decision that the world was absolutely ready for a million-selling pamphlet about a revolutionary new type of birdseed or millet and he had already had his minions Sirinuntananon and Bewg draw up a contract and he brandished it at me a single sheet of paper on which the words seemed to have been scratched in gore by a wild beast and he continued to roar saying I must understand that by signing the contract in return for commercial publication of my pamphlet I would be selling him my immortal soul and did I understand him quite plainly my soul would be his for eternity and did I realise that eternity never came to an end and if I wanted to comprehend the unimaginable duration of eternity I ought to read the sermon by the priest in A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man by James Joyce and I said I had already read it and I understood and he said here is your chance to back out you can leave Semi-Collapsed House and forget everything that has happened here and continue with your puny and curdled life churning out unread and out of print pamphlets until you drop dead but if you sign the contract I will publish your birdseed folderol and I will have your soul and I said alright alright you don’t need to repeat yourself I get the idea and he shoved the contract into my hands and gave me a biro and said so will you sign Dobson will you sign and my heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”

Arch Of Triumph

During my long life, one thing I have learned is that whenever one experiences a triumph, it is a capital idea to erect an arch in commemoration. Thus, to give but one example, when I had a playground spat with a ruffian child, as a mere child myself, and I came out on top by bashing the little git on the head with a shovel, I proceeded to build an arch, out of cement and straw and pipe-cleaners, which I put up in a corner of the playground, so that none would ever forget that on that spot, on a hot May morn, I triumphed over Perkins, or whatever his name was.

Well, I am being disingenuous. Of course his name was Perkins, I remember it well, for I built the arch of triumph specifically to commemorate my victory. It was to be the first of many arches of triumph in my life. As it happened, Perkins prompted a second arch, many years later, when the pair of us, long estranged, met up by chance one winter’s day. I had no idea who he was, but he recognised me, probably because I was wearing the insignia of Goosehaven. He began to berate me with words, and then with fists, until I grabbed hold of a nearby shovel and bashed him on the head with it, again, and he crumpled. The second Perkinsesque Arch of Triumph was constructed from concrete and brick and pebbles and the saliva of otters. It stands next to a river, in the vicinity of Goosehaven itself.

I am often asked whether I like to pass underneath my arches of triumph, either on foot or borne by a suitably resplendent carriage. My answer, invariably, is long-winded and pompous and orotund, and I leave my listeners in some doubt as to whether I was saying, in essence, “yes” or “no”. This is a quite deliberate ruse on my part. I do not wish to be tied down to certainties. They are such a bore.

The one certainty I will avow is that I am a man of Goosehaven, born and bred. A surprising number of people find this either exasperating or objectionable, or both, and do not stint in letting me know their feelings. My usual response is to bash such persons on the head with a shovel and then to erect upon the spot an arch of triumph. It keeps me busy, which is a boon, for we all know that the devil finds work for idle hands to do, or at least so I was told, at my mother’s knee, when I was a tot, in the Goosehaven of yore, long ago buried under car parks and supermarkets and so-called retail ‘n’ leisure complexes. There are ghosts there now, parading in their thousands, borne on resplendent phantom carriages, passing under my arches of triumph.

BamBam Goes Haywire

On Thursday morning, BamBam went haywire. That is all I am prepared to say on the subject. You may have questions, such as who or what is BamBam?, what is the etymology of the word haywire?, and so on, but quite frankly it is not up to me to spoonfeed you. I fail to see why you should not do your own research into these matters, thus freeing me for more important tasks, such as taking a well-earned nap, smoking a gasper while gazing out of the window, or stuffing my gob with a pile of Smokers’ Poptarts. Any of those choices would be a better use of my time than telling you about BamBam going haywire.

Oh please please Mr Key!, I hear you wail, Do tell us more! To which I reply, certainly not. At most, I might give you some pointers to help you conduct your own research. For the etymology of the word haywire, I can think of no better reference source than the Oxford English Dictionary. Oh, wait, I can think of a better source – Dobson’s pamphlet Everything You Ought To Know About Hay, And Words Beginning With Hay- (out of print). In fact I am surprised not to have recommended this pamphlet to you before. It is the most haycentric of all Dobson’s works, and its first edition, of ten Gestetnered copies, actually had a cover to which strands of real hay were affixed, with glue. This had the unfortunate effect of partly obscuring the title, with the result that the pamphlet sold even fewer copies than was usually the case.

If you do your research thoroughly, you will probably be exhausted by the time you are fully conversant with the word haywire. Your head will be so crammed with new and exciting information that there will be no room left to add anything at all. That being so, it seems rather pointless for me to tell you where you could discover further information about BamBam. Nevertheless, there will always be two or three scallywags who don’t know when to stop, who will plough on regardless. Such persons are very exasperating, like hyperactive tots, and should not be encouraged. I find the best way to deal with them is to administer a dose of Ox-Stun, a proprietary tranquiliser more commonly used to stun oxen, at such times as one needs to stun oxen, which, depending on circumstances, can be every Thursday morning or once in a blue moon.

Now, everybody sing along : Blue moon, You saw me standing alone Without a dream in my heart Without a love of my own…

If You Go Away

If you go away, like I know you will, I will take the vase from the windowsill, and I’ll take the blooms that are shoved in it, and I’ll throw them out, ’cause you’re such a git, if you go away, if you go away, if you go away.

But if you stay, I’ll give you some hay, I’ll give you some straw, I’ll lean on the fence, like the peasant I am, on my filthy farm, where the pigs are all sick, and the horses all limp, through the mud and the muck, as the rain pours in sheets, relentless and wet, like rain usually is, when it falls from the clouds, like the clouds in my brain, inside my glum head, the colour of curd, under my woolly hat, that’s soaking and drenched, like my waterlogged boots, tied with frayed lengths of string, which are spattered with blood, from the butcher’s shop, where I stole them for you, to wrap up your gifts, the hay and the straw, but used instead, to tie up my boots, when you went away, when you went away, when you went away.

Savagery In Splat

So, what was meant to happen at the latter end of last week was that Roland Clare and I would present our double act on literary nonsense to the sixth-formers of Truro School. (A riveting account of an earlier appearance at Bristol Grammar School can be found here.) A scheduling mixup hoo-hah meant, however, that instead of descending upon the not-so-tinies in tandem, Roland and I did our bits separately, on successive days. Improvising brilliantly. Mr Clare inserted into his presentation an old Hooting Yard On The Air recording, so my disembodied voice provided a foretaste of what had of necessity become the next day’s entertainment. The piece he chose was, appropriately, devoted to the subject of an unsuccessful educational initiative in Cornwall. It first appeared in Hooting Yard on 30 March 2006. Here it is again:

Dear Mr Key, writes Octavia Funnel, I am sure I read somewhere that Dobson’s companion and amanuensis, Marigold Chew, was a feral child, like the Wild Boy of Aveyron or Kaspar Hauser*. Is this true?

I think I can help Ms Funnel out here. She is clearly unfamiliar with Dobson’s rare and out of print pamphlet Ten Things Guaranteed To Drive Marigold Chew Crackers, an amusing bagatelle which he wrote for Marigold’s birthday one year. It is worth quoting at length:

victor hauser

Left, the Wild Boy of Aveyron. Right, Kaspar Hauser

There can be no doubt about number one on the list of things that drive Marigold Chew crackers. Countless are the times I have witnessed her seething with fury when she is mistaken for Mary Goldchew, the so-called Savage Infant of Splat.

Splat is a tiny, stricken village in Cornwall, and it was here, on a muggy summer’s day in 19–, that a peasant pushing his barrow of countryside filth along a lane was astonished to encounter a small child roaring and spitting and growling and scrabbling in the muck. Its gender was indeterminate, but its savagery was unquestionable.

The peasant, sad to say, had the morals of the gutter and a heart as foul as a swamp, and he decided then and there to sell the child to a travelling circus or a zoo. Plucking the child from its ditch, he shoved her on to his barrow and trundled off towards a larger town where mountebanks were known to gather. But the child, bestial being that she was, sank her teeth into the peasant’s wrist and attacked him in a whirling frenzy of bloodlust. She was gnawing the hair off his head when a kindly doctor arrived on the scene. He patted her on the head and announced, “There, there, little one, be not afraid. I am a kindly doctor fascinated by Natural Philosophy, and I shall take you to my comfortable house and see if, over a period of months, or years, I can instil in you the civilised qualities that were your birthright but have been stolen from you by no doubt tragic circumstances. What is your name?”

The child howled.

“Ah,” said the kindly doctor, “You are inarticulate. That noise you made sounded to me like a combination of a wolf and a bear, with perhaps a touch of corncrake. I deduce that you have been raised since you were a baby by wolves and bears and corncrakes, and mayhap by bees and hornets too. Still, you must have a name, child, so I shall call you Mary.”

Doctor Goldchew took the child by the hand and led her to his house, which stood all alone in a field outside Splat. There, he dunked her in a disinfectant bath, dressed her in girly clothes, and embarked on a comprehensive pedagogical regime. Over the following weeks, he attempted to teach her metaphysics, arithmetic, rhetoric, logic, Latin, Greek, bread baking, botany, chemistry, religious instruction, conspiracy theory, merchant banking, astronomy, philology, and the rudiments of table tennis, or ping pong. During this time reporters from the Splat Courier & Bugle camped out on his doorstep, filing a series of woefully inaccurate stories about the girl they called the Savage Infant of Splat. Her fame spread throughout Europe, and Doctor Goldchew received visits from some of the most distinguished intellectuals of the day, including Kapisko, Blunkett, and Woobie. It was the latter who persuaded the kindly doctor to have the girl baptised by being fully submerged in the sea off the coast of Cornwall, during which baptism she nearly drowned.

She entered the booming ocean a savage infant, biting and squealing and howling, wrote the doctor, and she emerged as Mary Goldchew, a pious Christian child.

This is a selective account, of course. The doctor makes no mention of the drenched and spluttering tot who was fished out of the water by a passing trawler. Nor does he admit that the “pious Christian child” remained incorrigibly savage for the rest of her long, long life. In spite of the doctor’s lessons – to which he soon added physics, geology, alchemy, polevaulting, palaentology, entomology, knitting, forensic medicine, vexillology, Dianetics and pottery – the Savage Infant of Splat became a Savage Adolescent and in turn a Savage Adult. She celebrated her twenty-sixth birthday by creeping into Doctor Goldchew’s bedroom as he slept and smothering him with a pillow.

Thereafter she spent her days crashing around like a wild maniac as the once comfortable Splat house fell into ruin about her. When she died, craggy and ancient, decades later, she had learned nothing – nothing except to speak two words, the same two words that were the full extent of the Wild Boy of Aveyron’s vocabulary: God and milk.

*NOTA BENE : Specialists in the field would dub Kaspar Hauser a “confined” rather than “feral” child.

10 Celebrities With Crumpled Blotting Paper

It’s amazing to consider the number of celebrities who have, somewhere in their possession, a sheet or sheets of crumpled blotting paper! Check out our exclusive guide:

1. Clothgard Nitpick
2. Junket Sprawl
3. Inspip Pip
4. Loopy Tugendhat
5. Ned Birdtalon
6. Oppidan Chumpot
7. Fab Geese
8. Tinie Tempah
9. Arpad Unstrebnodtalb
10. O Bodger

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Tarleton On His Balcony

Exciting news! Tarleton is back on his balcony! He is eating a plum! It is a Carlsbad plum! He gazes across the city and the wasteland into the distance, where the pinky-russet peaks of the Pinky-Russet Mountains shimmer in the haze! From one of Tarleton’s ears dangles a piratical earring, but there is no piratical parrot on his shoulder! He has, though, acquired, since last we met him, a wooden leg!

Tarleton’s brief, we might recall, was to gouge and hew. Gouge and hew he did, heroically, losing a leg in the process. But he did not complain. He showed fortitude. I was encamped at Fort Hoity, he said to himself, and then at Fort Toity, so it is only meet that, in forts, I show fortitude. No wonder Tarleton was showered with petunia petals by adoring peasants. There remain a few petals in his hair, for it is a long time since he shampooed it.

It is a long time, too, since last he stood upon this balcony, eating a plum. It is so long ago that he only dimly remembers. More vivid are the memories of Fort Hoity, with its ostriches and bandages and zinc, and Fort Toity, with champions arrayed along the crenellations, and games of spit-in-the-gutter. It was between forts that Tarleton lost his leg to a crocodile.

In the middle ages, returning crusaders brought with them the embalmed bodies of crocodiles, which were wrapped in chains and hung from the ceilings of cathedrals. Tarleton did not think of his gouging and hewing as a crusade, but it was, oh it was.

He spits out the plumstone into the palm of his hand, makes a fist, and, taking careful aim, tosses it over the edge of the balcony down into the shallow pool around the fountain. How many Carlsbad plumstones lie there, barely submerged! He has never once missed a toss. Tarleton turns and withdraws into his chamber. His head is full of squeaking imaginary bats.

Higgledy-Piggledy

The OED defines higgledy-piggledy as “without any order of position or direction; in huddled or jumbled confusion and disorder; with heads and tails in any or every direction. Usually contemptuous.” An early citation, from A new dictionary of the terms ancient and modern of the canting crew (1699) makes explicit the reference to “heads and tails”, defining the word as “all together, as Hoggs and Pigges lie”. This pig-based etymology seems to me to be thoroughly erroneous.

My own exhaustive and exhausting research has exhumed from historical obscurity, you know what?, it has been so damnably exhausting that I am going to have to break off here to take a nap. Assume several paragraphs of zzzzzzzzzzs.

That’s better. I am refreshed, and as if the nap were not enough I have also glugged a teaspoon’s-worth of Dr Baxter’s Frenetic Brain Activity Enhancement Cordial. So let us resume. My own exhaustive and exhausting research has exhumed from historical obscurity Monsignor Higledi and Doctor Pigledie, the one a priest and the other a physician. The spellings of their names are in accord with the OED’s earliest citation, from John Florio’s A worlde of wordes, or most copious, and exact dictionarie in Italian and English of 1598.

In 1492, or thereabouts, the monsignor and the doctor were commissioned, by Bruno La Poubelle, to take charge of the Keep Pointy Town Neat And Tidy campaign. This may seem anachronistically modern, in both its intention and its phraseology, but Bruno La Poubelle was ever a figure who transcended the petty bonds of time. Witness, for example, the well-known portrait of him, etched by noted etcher Rex Van Etch, in which he is clearly depicted wearing flying goggles and a Spandau Ballet tee-shirt.

A visionary he may have been, but Bruno La Poubelle made a terrible error of judgement in picking Higledi and Pigledie. The one was a butterfingers and the other was passing strange in a way we would today probably diagnose as clinical insanity. Which was which, monsignor or physician, I have not yet been able to ascertain from the documents. What they do make horribly vivid, however, is that no pair of fifteenth-century Pointy Towners could have been less able to make, let alone keep, things neat and tidy. Wherever they went, in those ancient boulevards, attempting to align things neatly and clear away clutter and chaos, they only made things worse. By the time Bruno La Poubelle put a stop to their activities, all of Pointy Town was a jumble of confusion, with even well-defined pathways crumbled and leading in jagged zigzags towards nothingness, or haystacks from the hinterland to be found plopped upside down in the middle of the town square, or horses behind the counters of pickle shops. There is a measure of truth in the observation that, more than five hundred years later, Pointy Town has never quite recovered. That is why, as soon as you enter the town, even today, you become lost, lost, oh hopelessly lost.

Pigs have nothing to do with it.

*

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The Farmer Rebukes His Spade

The Farmer Rebukes His Spade is the title of a painting by Cedric Farmpainter, RA. It has been described as his first great daub and as the jewel of the Pointy Town Municipal Galeria. The work itself was destroyed in an inexplicable bird-related cataclysm, and today exists only in the form of a mezzotint copy by the noted mezzotintist Rex Tint. Tint always claimed that he made his print by sitting in front of the original painting, gazing at it for hours, working steadily, but his account has been called into question by his own sister, Dot Tint. In her memoir of her brother, she wrote that he cannot have sat where he said he sat, having been barred from entering the Galeria or its grounds or appurtenances by dint of “insufferable pomposity”.

At this distance in time, we can never know which Tint, Rex or Dot, is telling the truth. All we have is the mezzotint itself, several thousand copies of which were printed and distributed by Rex Tint’s devoted and possibly insane patron, Walter Mad.

The Farmer Rebukes His Spade is a rustic scene. It shows a dreary and rainsoaked field, pitted with many a puddle. To the left, there is a tree, which may be a larch or box or plane or sycamore, against the trunk of which is leaning a spade, at an angle of forty-two degrees (it has been measured, precisely, by swivel-eyed enthusiasts). Next to the tree and the spade, in side profile, is the figure of a farmer, florid of face and fat of belly. One arm is raised, and one finger of one puffy hand is in mid-wag. The farmer appears to be shouting his head off in what one critic has described as “an unbridled and unhinged spewing forth of rancour and remonstrance”. In the top left corner, silhouetted against the bleak sky, there is a bird, almost certainly a small bittern which, as other sources confirm, was the favourite bird of both Rex Tint and Cedric Farmpainter. (See “Painters and mezzotintists wax elegiac about their favourite birds”, The Journal Of Mezzotint- And Painting-Related Ornithology, Vol XXVII, No. 8, August 1909.)

My own copy of the mezzotint was unfortunately destroyed in the course of a sophisticated cocktail party which got out of hand and swiftly descended into an unsophisticated cocktail party and pitched battle.

Toots

Toots clattered up to the post office counter, sore perplexed.

“Hello Toots, what can I do for you today?” said the friendly postmaster.

“I am sore perplexed,” said Toots, “I have lost my Maytals.”

The postmaster was hard of hearing, and had been ever since a traumatic childhood incident when he was inadvertently placed in too close proximity to a klaxon for the duration of a lengthy Communist Party rally.

“If you have lost your marbles, Toots, you’ll be wanting a psychiatrist, not the postal service.”

Toots repeated himself, louder, and with exaggeratedly precise movements of his lips.

“Oh I see,” said the postmaster, “But what makes you think I can be of any assistance?”

Toots went on to explain his belief that the postal service, engaged as it was in the great work of sending and delivering sundry items all around the world, was the obvious agency to consult if one wished to track down something lost, in this case his Maytals. The postmaster took his point, with certain reservations which he kept to himself.

“I will keep a lookout for them, Toots,” he said.

Toots, whose sore perplexity was now etched deeper than ever upon his countenance, was dissatisfied with this response.

“Are you not able to do something more than that?” he screeched, alarming, in the queue behind him, several persons among whom was a skivvy from the Big House up on the hill. The postmaster asked, not unreasonably, what Toots would have him do.

“Some kind of tracking,” said Toots, “With post office dogs, bloodhounds, tracking, or tagging, the sending of telegrams or telegraphs, uniformed post office runners, I don’t know, notices slapped up in post offices across the land, vans scouring the countryside, the full weight of the postal service thrown behind the search … “

“Let me stop you there,” said the postmaster, “While I serve this skivvy from the Big House.”

Toots slumped in a corner of the post office, woebegone and weeping. The skivvy bought a single postage stamp, plopped it into a pocket of her apron, and trudged out and along the street past the haberdashery and the butcher’s and the fairy grotto, over the bridge across the canal and along the lane through the spinney up the hill to the gaunt iron gates of the Big House, along the path by the turnip beds and the stone statues of daredevil wartime aeroplane pilots, across the lawn and down the alley along the side of the house, in through a door tucked almost imperceptibly in a porch, down a flight of stairs into a gloomy corridor, until she reached the door of her scullery. She took from a different, deeper pocket of her apron a huge iron key, inserted it into the lock, turned it, and pushed the door open. In the pitch black of the scullery she heard the sudden rattling of chains and fetters. Locking the door behind her, she flicked a switch, and a lightbulb on the ceiling cast a dim glow, revealing a huddle of ska musicians, chained and fettered.

“I have pots and pans to scrub,” she announced, “So, my Maytals, play your ska music to cheer me in my chores!”

And soon enough the scullery was loud and joyful with the strains of “Monkey Man”.

The Expurgated Lovecraft

The other day I met a man who has devoted the past several years to a singular literary project. His aim is to produce a bowdlerised version of the complete works of H. P. Lovecraft, in which all reference to the spine-tingling and the spooky, the eldritch and the uncanny, is expunged. I was able immediately to grasp the value of this scheme. Lovecraft is a fascinating writer, but there must be many potential readers who are deterred from his work because, quite frankly, they do not wish to get the collywobbles. Excise the spine-tingling and the spooky, the eldritch and the uncanny, and an entire new constituency of fans will be created.

I asked my new friend how he went about the creation of an expurgated Lovecraft. He explained that he began by simply deleting all the terrifying adjectives, adverbs, verbs and nouns. This had the unintended consequence of rendering much of Lovecraft’s prose “bitty and near-incomprehensible”, as he put it. Whole passages were reduced to strings of prepositions. Though commendably brief, the resulting text lacked heft. So then, he said proudly, his real work began. He realised that he could reinstate a certain amount of readability, and up the word-count, by replacing, for example, Shoggoth with a pretty vase of flowers, or hideous tentacles with gambolling bunny rabbits. I pointed out to him that some people – not least myself – found rabbits utterly frightening, and he promised to look again at his revisions.

Then he bid me farewell, and I sat alone at the café table, mercilessly correlating all the contents of my mind.