Archive for the 'Prose' Category

Groovy Janitor

Once upon a time there was a groovy janitor. That is about all there is to say about him. He was groovy, and he was a janitor. Or, he was a janitor, and he was groovy. These two statements are not identical. We must be alert to nuance. Do we give more or less weight to his janitordom or to his grooviness? Much as we might wish to grant them equal importance, we know in our heart of hearts that to do so is blind idiocy. Oh come on, admit it. You are leaning, even if only slightly, in terms of your level of interest in this majestic piece of prose, towards the janitoriness or the groove.

As a janitor, the groovy janitor was often to be found in a corridor, with a mop and a pail, rattling a bunch of keys, or perhaps bearing down upon a fixture or fitting armed with a hammer or a screwdriver or a wrench. As a person of groove, the groovy janitor, while so engaged, would often be snapping his fingers to the latest sounds from some of our top beat groups, a long but not exhaustive list of which has been compiled by Bernard Levin. Shall we refamiliarise ourselves with the roll call?

Some [beat groups] were almost as famous, and successful, as the Beatles; some were known only to the most devoted aficionados. But all added to the atmosphere of the decade, and the isle was full of noises as never before, coming from, among others, the Rolling Stones, the Bee Gees, the Monkees, the Doors, the Cream, the Mothers of Invention, the Seekers, the Who, the Small Faces, the Pretty Things, the Animals, the Pink Floyd, the Scaffold, the Grateful Dead, the Tremoloes, the Family, the Supremes, the Holding Company, the Four Tops, the Led Zeppelin, the Shadows, the Exploding Galaxy, the Editors, the Fugs, the Gods, the Kinks, the Hermits, the Paper Dolls, the Breakaways, the Greaseband, the Casuals, the Amen Corner, the Big Sound, the Flirtations, the Herd, the Marbles, the Status Quo, the New York Public Library, the Hollies, the Foundations, the Electric Havens, the Four Seasons, the Bachelors, the Seychelles, the Love Affair, the Fifth Dimension, the Three Dog Night, the Equals, the Vagabonds, the Marmalade, the Mindbenders, the Moody Blues, the Mirettes, the Tuesday’s Children, the Plastic Penny, the Procol Harum, the Troggs, the Fruit Machine, the Union Gap, the 1910 Fruitgum Co., the Beach Boys, the Fairport Convention, the Vanity Fair, the Harmony Grass, the Aces, the Young Tradition, the Nice, the Dubliners, the Tinkers, the Fleetwood Mac, the Incredible String Band, the Web, the Little Free Rock, the Blodwyn Pig, the Liverpool Scene, the Spooky Tooth, the Third Ear, the High Tide, the Mamas and Papas, the Carnations, the Pacemakers, the From Genesis to Revelation, the O’Hara Express, the Pentangle, the Chickenshack, the Blind Faith, the Fourmost, the Searchers, the Four Pennies, the Bar-Kays, the Unit Four Plus Two, the Hedgehoppers Anonymous, the Applejacks, the Box Tops, the Edison Lighthouse, the Blood, Sweat and Tears, the Vibrations, and the Rada Krishna Temple.

From this we can adduce that our groovy janitor was being groovy, and a janitor, in the 1960s. But that was half a century ago! He is fifty years older now, creaking, wrinkle-rutted, near bald and toothless, gasping weakly from a bed in a Mercy Home. It is no longer accurate to describe him as a janitor, for he has carried out no janitorial duties for twenty years at least. We can call him an ex-janitor, or a retired janitor. And what of his grooviness? Is he still groovy? Let us ask the superintendent of the Mercy Home, Mrs Pantoofle.

The retired janitor lying sprawled in his iron cot in Hopeless Ward? You are asking me if he is groovy? Define your terms, please.”

We set out for her the chief characteristics of grooviness, in alphabetical order, supported by illustrative diagrams we have tucked in our pocket for just such an eventuality.

I see,” says Mrs Pantoofle, though as she is wearing a pair of very stylish mirror sunglasses we cannot be sure of the truth of this remark.

I would say,” she continues, “Taking everything into account, that the ex-janitor has indeed retained his grooviness. Only the other morning, as one of the skivvies attended to his bedpan, she noted that he was babbling incoherently in his weak and reedy voice. With great presence of mind, she made a tape of his gibbering on the Mercy Home cassette recorder. We played it back during the staff meeting at lunchtime, while eating fruit. At first the tape yielded nothing intelligible, but when we pricked up our ears and concentrated very hard, we realised the retired janitor was reciting “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg. What could be groovier than that? It fried my wig, daddy-o!”

The moral of this story is that, while janitordom may fade away and vanish, grooviness prevails. Let that be a lesson to you.

Note To Self

Yesterday I mentioned, in passing, Will Self. This is never a good idea. I am reminded, however, that I really need to stamp my big black boot down and make something very clear. First, back in 2009, we had the question posed “Is Frank Key Will Self?” And now, just the other day, this:


While I am flattered by Mr Bugs’ complimentary remarks, I am equally appalled to find myself compared in any way with the preposterous figure of Self. Perhaps the most laughable thing is the idea that he is some kind of edgy intellectual maverick. From his many appearances in the Grauniad and on the BBC, I think it is clear that he is in possession of the Middle-Class Student Wanker’s starter pack marked ‘This is what you think’. All his opinions are predictable and orthodox. If there is such a thing as the “metropolitan liberal elite”, he is a card-carrying member. For example, he believes that everyone who voted for Brexit is probably a racist. Such simplistic twaddle will always get you applause and whooping from a Question Time audience, a fairly reliable indicator of vacuous dimwittery.

I fear, however, that I will forever be linked with the wretched Self, given that his one useful contribution to the world was giving Mr Key a light for his cigarette in the midst of a downpour in south London.

The Fox And The Dog : An Important Update

Several years ago we took a long hard look at the well-known story in which the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. So compelling was our analysis that there was general agreement, in both vulpine and canine circles, and more broadly, that no further light could possibly be shed on the matter, at least not in our lifetimes.

But lo! What is this? Writing from the fair land of Denmark, Jacob Thoegersen has added a comment to the original potsage [sic] which, frankly, blows the whole thing up a fresh spout. (I don’t think that is a common phrase, or even means anything, but it damned well ought to become part and parcel of our parlance, daddy-o.) To ensure Mr Thoegersen’s contribution does not lie neglected in the archives, here is his comment in full:

I thank you for your review, my dearest Mr. Key, which I think – in broad strokes – sums up the most pertinent questions to students of the story, the ‘pillars’ of our discipline.

I think you will agree with me also that many of the factual questions you raise will in time be answered upon careful scrutiny of video documentation now published (or is that ‘leaked’ one might speculate) about the incident:

I advise all people to see the video and form their own opinions, but in my eyes, the dog appears to be standing, it is of a light brown (cappuccino?) colour, and the fox does indeed appear to be in a somewhat playful mood – if ‘playful’ and ‘mood’ can be properly applied to canines.

Of more interest, perhaps, to students of the story is the new insights the video give about the performance of the actual jump. How many of us, for instance, had in our mental reproduction of the scene envisioned the fox *landing* on the dog. If I am not much mistaken, the photographic evidence of this occurring will spawn much renewed interest, will force us to rethink many interpretation we had come to accept as self-evident, and, we may hope, open up entirely new avenues of research into the psychological implications of the story.

My personal analysis on the history of studies in the dog-and-fox story is that the community can be roughly divided between parabelists, historist and omenists – of course proposing this meta-theory will infuriate many if not all scholars in the field, but alas, so is my burden…:

Parableists see the story as a parable, to be read for its symbolic and moral implications (far too many and multiform to mention here – not least because the emergence of the video, I think we all must now agree, renders the entire avenue of thought untenable). To parableists (or the agniostics if you prefer) it is irrelevant whether the event actually occurred or not; the story has very real social and human significance today irrespectably. Historists see the incident as an actual occurrence of the past; omenists, on the other hand, see it as prophetic vision of a future, possibly, messianic event (not unlike the less well researched story of the lamb lying down with the lion published in a much inferior literary piece of drivel whose name momentarily slips my mind but which may be familiar to your readers).

The new video evidence should feed much renewed interest in the two latter schools of thought: Is this the final proof that the quick brown fox did indeed jump over the lazy dog – and when and where did this then happen..? Or is this the sign that Armageddon is upon us? I think we all agree that we are living in intensely interesting – what could be traumatizing – times. I for one shall sleep little while this new evidence is being scrutinized in labs and offices around the world.

As to the implications for our field as such, I believe this could be the time that lay people, average Janes and average Joes around the world, realize that we are not, emphatically not, crackpots and monomaniacs. Our studies have very serious and very real implications for the future of mankind. I foresee a future of even more specialized journals and conferences, and perhaps even an international newspaper dedicated to fox-and-dog’ology. I foresee a future where any serious national newspaper worthy of its name will have a daily section or a weekly supplement on current trends and new findings on a par with their treatment of business, culture, weather, TV and politics. I foresee in other words, brothers and sisters, a future where we will receive the same media coverage as our colleagues and rivals in dogs-on-skateboard’ology. I have always held that an important component in their media flair was the constant outpouring of new photographic evidence which is only too eagerly lapped up (if you will excuse the pun) by newsrooms.

These are exciting times, Mr. Key, and I trust you will follow the development closely in your show. You have always been a leading light in independent coverage of the news the people really want to know about.

UPDATE TO THE UPDATE : Mr Thoegersen has now added a further, perhaps even more compelling, comment.

Bulletin Of Key Optics

Potsages [sic] are likely to remain criminally sparse for the time being. This is due to the state of my eyes, which make it something of a strain to peer at a screen and attempt to tippy-tap keys with reasonable accuracy.

Following a series of fortnightly injections of a needle directly into my eyeballs, the other day I had an assessment by the consultant, who recommended … further injections of a needle directly into my eyeballs! So that will keep me occupied in the coming weeks.

I do have some ideas skittering around in my bonce, which I shall do my best to post here if and when I am able. One such scheme is A New Life Of Christ. I intend to remain faithful to Biblical sources, while mucking about with nouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, and, why not?, plot, characters, and setting. When Galilee moved to Shoeburyness … and lo!, the Lord did topple into the bottomless viper-pit of that seaside place.

O, Little Radish

By popular demand, here is another verse by a sulky Bulgarian poet, written circa 1982. This one is entitled O, Little Radish and purports to be by Fratsin K Yecebit. (My poets’ names sound Turkish rather than Bulgarian, but I was young, so young …)

Tomorrow morning we will
Drink vinegar
Here in this trench.
I haven’t paid
Any of my debts
And I don’t intend to.
They can brandish guns at me
Or twigs.
I’ll make my peace
And whip it up with a whisk.
Send me your cash now.
Send me the lot.
I’m the man you ought to
Shove in the vat.

Sulky Bulgarian Poets

Along with the Undimmed by Death postcard, I unearthed another set of six cards from the same era. These are hand-drawn and hand-written, and collectively titled Sulky Bulgarian Poets. Unfortunately, the drawings are cack-handed and the “poems” are atrocious – with one exception. Number 5, “In Fish And Shipping”, is attributed to sulky Bulgarian poet Elvis Targnegescubit, and, though it pre-dates Hooting Yard, I think it is a worthy addition to the canon.

In despicable visions of
An unholy refrigerator,
Another refrigerator,
In implacable discussions of
A swordfish,
A carp,
An enormous schooner,
A small schooner,
A tiny ship, ship-ette,
In all these I have said,
Irrefutably, not once,
But with venom,
I am a very fat man.

Boxing Day

One of the most fab of Boxing Day traditions is the annual gathering around the bottomless viper-pit at Shoeburyness. Forming a circle around the pit, and holding hands, the participants come dressed in motley, with trimmings of gimp passementerie. Eyes fixed steadily upon the viper-pit, they then recite passages from various works by Alain de Botton, before singing, to the accompaniment of bassoon and piccolo, “More Than A Feeling” by Boston. They then remain in silent contemplation until sunset, at which point they disperse, all except one, bent on self-obliteration, who is taken by the wrists and ankles and flung, voluntarily, into the pit.

I attended today, as I have done for countless years past, and I am pleased to report that a fine time was had by all. The sole disappointment was that, as usual, not a single viper slithered out of the bottomless pit to grace us with its vipery Boxing Day presence, dammit!

Cetacean News Roundup

I am grateful to reader Theo Gott, who reminded me of this seasonal squib which originally appeared here six long years ago.


The television presenter Adrian Chiles read the newspaper headline Porpoises rescue Dick Van Dyke and was consumed by jealousy. Ever since he was tiny, Chiles had hankered to feature in an exciting news story alongside sea creatures, and now his thunder had been stolen by the octogenarian pretend chimney-sweep! It was too much to bear.

Yet, rather than turning his twisted mental havoc upon Dick Van Dyke, the West Bromwich Albion-supporting anchorman began to plot vengeance against the very sea creatures which until now had fascinated him. In his mania, he decided to obliterate the largest sea creature he could obtain, to obliterate it in the most disgusting way, by eating it. And he decided to make of his revenge a festive occasion, by arranging his foul dinner to take place on the day when we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.

What demons swept through his maddened mind, to so finesse his unutterable act? Alas, no hint was given of his motives in the newspaper report which followed, in the cheaply-photocopied Weekly Cetacean News Roundup, under the headline A Whale’s Christmas In Chiles.

181 Pamphlets (Out Of Print)

From his banishment in a pompous land, Hooting Yard devotee Mike Jennings keeps tabs on the out of print pamphleteer Dobson. Specifically, Mr Jennings acts as Dobson’s bibliographer, maintaining a catalogue of all known pamphlets, and adding to the list whenever previously overlooked titles come to his attention in these pages.

Here is his latest update. You can find links to all the earlier lists, comprising pamphlets numbered 1 to 168, here. Please note that, like the previous 168, all the pamphlets listed below are out of print.

169. A Magisterial Exegesis Of My Resounding Failure As A Novelist, With A Surfeit Of Adjectives And A Ham-fisted Watercolour Plate Of Ida Lupino.

170. Parp. Toot, Hooter, Tooters, Parpers And Tots : A Complete Guide For The Bewildered.

171. Several Potentates Of The Ancient World With Collapsed Lungs & Their Concubines.

172. How To Make Your Own Packet Of Half A Dozen Smokers’ Poptarts For Tuppence-Ha’penny.

173. A Comparative Study Of Speckles And Splodges And Smudges.

174. Half A Dozen Reasons Why Birds Sometimes Become Encrusted With Filth.

175. Everything You Ought To Know About Hay, And Words Beginning With Hay-.

176. Several Anagrams Of OO NOOKY, Informed By My Unique Insight Into Popular Culture

177. Dictionary Of Fruit- And Nut-Related Jazz And Blues Nomenclature

178. Fortune-Telling By Interpreting The Patterns Created By Crockery Smithereens Smashed According To The Dusty Springfield Method.

179. Breakfast Favourites Of The Austrian Empire Foreign Ministry 1809-1821.

180. Arithmetic For The Blind.

181. Marmalade : Does It Come In A Jar Or A Pot?

Winnipeg Janitor

I am a janitor at an evaporated milk factory in Winnipeg. I have a bucket and a mop and a bunch of keys. Sometimes I carry a screwdriver or a wrench or a hammer. My soul glows with a tremendous, overwhelming love of Christ.

As I patrol the corridors with my bucket and mop and keys, I often find myself importuned by wannabe janitors. They dart from nooks and buttonhole me, jabbering questions about janitordom. I display excessive, some might say inhuman, patience with these intemperate pleading nitwits. Only very rarely do I smite one with my hammer.

It is often cold, cold, oh! bitterly cold in Winnipeg. In the factory, the radiators need regular bleeding. When I carry out this duty, I try to concentrate my mind on the blood of Christ, which was shed for me, and for all sinners, even for the wannabe janitors, though they know it not.

Sometimes I have to wipe the blood of a wannabe janitor from my hammer. I use an old frayed much-stained rag, which I then rinse out under a spigot and peg up to dry. I have seen the face of Christ in this rag, many times.

Though I have been the janitor for untold years, I have never actually tasted the evaporated milk made in the factory. I have a horror of semi-sweetened evaporated dairy products, by dint of a childhood trauma. There was a picnic in the Blue Forgotten Hills, and a swarm of wasps, but more than that I cannot bring myself to say.

Every now and then I might come upon a wasp when patrolling the corridors. I sink to my knees and take out my pocket catechism and I comfort myself with the sacred words. Sometimes, in spite of my prayers, I am so fearful of the wasp that I piddle in my pants. I rinse them under the spigot and peg them up alongside the blood-soaked rag. I hide in a broom cupboard to conceal my semi-nakedness until my pants are dry. On these occasions, I usually take off the rest of my clothing, so I can more readily imagine myself Adam in Eden. There is a painting of a serpent on the wall of the broom cupboard.

Nunc dimittis.

In Foff

In Foff lay patches of glue strewn higgledy. Tarps billowed in a gale that was never a zephyr. There’s a hole in my bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza. Crack out the canisters of Strontium 90.

So, at any rate, says weedy poet Dennis Beerpint in his new book, Gibberish From An Unalloyed Nitwit. Interviewed by a scribbler next to a filbert hedge, the poet was at pains to punctuate his prattle with words beginning with P. But the scribbler’s tape recorder malfunctioned, so all record of what Beerpint said is lost, as lost as a flea in a jerrycan.

What we might want to know is where Foff lies, and whether there are fleas there. On the other hand, armed with an early morning pint of milk and a copy of The Daily Hammer Of Christ, we might prefer to stroll out to where the steamrollers wheeze in the dawn light, as milky as the milk in our carton, and sing wassailing songs of long ago penned by intoxicated German Fafnirs.

Beerpint’s bucket did not have a hole in it. In Foff, it rested on a shelf in his shed. His shed was precisely twenty times the size of his head. That is how you measure sheds, and huts, and cabins, and kiosks. Look at them all lined up, ordered by size, in multiples of Beerpint head measurement. Now watch as they are flattened by steamrollers.

Now dip your fingers in those patches of glue. It is glue that will hold things together.

Heroes In The Seaweed

Apologies for the lengthy silence. I’ll tell you all about it at another time. For now, in light of the passing of Leonard Cohen, here is a piece I wrote for The Dabbler five years ago.

Cohen tells us, in his song Suzanne, that “there are heroes in the seaweed”. Oh really?, I asked myself, not without a dash of skepticism, And what precisely would heroes be doing, disporting themselves in the sargassum and the kelp? Still, one does not wish to dismiss out of hand the words of a figure of such stature, so I summoned my sidekick and went to investigate.

Out by the aerodrome, we boarded a charabanc heading for the seashore, but not before arming ourselves each with a long and pointy stick. These, I explained to my somewhat dim sidekick, we would use to poke about the seaweed in search of heroes. He seemed satisfied with this intelligence, but as the charabanc gathered speed crossing the wild and windy moors, he babbled questions at me.

Which particular heroes were they, that were to be found in the seaweed? Heroes of Ancient Greece, such as Heracles and Theseus and Jason and Bellerophon? Tragic heroes such as Orestes and Oedipus and Hamlet? Byronic heroes? Guitar heroes? Boys’ Own Paper heroes? Or modern-day superheroes such as Batman and Spiderman and Unconscious Squirrel!, The Unconscious Squirrel? Or would we find, entangled in the seaweed, representatives of all these types of hero, and more? And were they trapped in the seaweed, struggling heroically to escape from it, or had they made it their natural habitat, nesting in it, as it were, even perhaps feeding off it?

I was fairly sure Cohen had not addressed these questions in his song, but to be on the safe side I decided to listen to it again. Pointing out of the charabanc window at a flock of starlings to distract my sidekick’s attention and shut him up, I jammed into my ears the tiny headphones of my iLeonard and pressed “play”. Precisely three minutes and forty-nine seconds later, I removed the headphones and turned to my sidekick, who was still staring out of the window, mouth open, dribbling, though the starlings had long vanished, and the only bird visible in the sky was a lone lark, or it might have been a swift or even an avocet. I know nothing of ornithology.

Cohen does not expand upon his assertion,” I said, “So we shall have to poke about with our long pointy sticks and see what we shall see. First, though, I think we are both in need of refreshments, so we shall stop at the seaside kiosk for some tea and oranges that come all the way from China.”

My sidekick was happy with this suggestion, and he grinned. It is never a pretty sight, so I closed my eyes. Earlier that day I had climbed a whole mountainside to wash my eyelids in the rain, which had puffed me out something awful, and no sooner were my eyes shut than I fell into a snooze.

When I woke the charabanc was parked in a lay-by at the seashore. I was the only passenger still aboard. Even my sidekick had gone. I disembarked and made my way to the kiosk, where I was sure I would find him stuffing his gob with Chinese oranges. The kiosk was bolted and shuttered, but by following a trail of spilt tea and strips of Chinese orange peel I soon tracked down my sidekick. He was squelching about in a tide pool, poking his long pointy stick into it.

Have you speared any heroes?” I called.

Nope,” he replied, “Just sculpins and killifish and blennies and yellow spongefish and sea stars and sea cucumbers and sea urchins and sand shrimps and lobsters and crabs and hermit crabs and green-lined shore crabs and barnacles and nudibranchs and chitons and mussels and scallops and abalones and limpets and snails. Oh, and a sea anemone.”

No sign at all of Orde Wingate or Captain James T Kirk, to pluck but two heroes at random?”


I went to sit on a slimy boulder. It occurred to me that heroes might be more likely to swim about in the open sea, festooned with seaweed like mermaids. We would have to hire a rowing-boat to extend our quest. It also occurred to me that it would be cheaper, and far less tiresome, to conclude that Cohen had no idea what he was talking about.

Come, sidekick,” I called, “Throw away your long pointy stick and let us catch the charabanc home before darkness falls.”

And so we did, but we never made it home. For long before we reached the bus stop by the aerodrome, the charabanc driver killed the lights in a lonely lane and an ape with angel glands erased the final wisps of pain with the music of rubber bands.

Marmaladeless Mornings

Dear Mr Key, writes Tim Thurn, I was intrigued, when reading your piece Fear Of Squirrels, to come across the phrase “marmaladeless morning”. I have not encountered this particular conjunction of words before. Could you tell me what it means?

I am only too happy to oblige, Tim. We may define a marmaladeless morning as a morning without marmalade.

For many people, marmalade is an essential and intrinsic part of their morning, when, for example, their breakfast menu includes toast, and after the toast is buttered it is then spread with marmalade. Greedier people, and those without table manners, may just spoon marmalade straight from the jar into their mouths. We may tut at this practice, but cannot deny that it happens, regrettable as it may be. The point is that, whether consumed spread on toast (in a refined manner) or straight from the jar (in a disgusting manner), marmalade is present at the breakfast table, and the morning is patently not marmaladeless.

We speak of marmaladeless mornings when the jar of marmalade is not present. This can occur for several reasons. The jar may be languishing unloved on a shelf in the pantry. Or the jar may be brought to the breakfast table, only for it to be discovered that it is empty, or as near as dammit. In some circumstances, the pantry, and related larders and cupboards, might be entirely innocent of marmalade. This happens in what is known as a marmaladeless house.

If I may speak for a moment of my own experience, I can say with some certainty that I have lived through thousands of marmaladeless mornings. This is because toast and marmalade is not one of my regular breakfasting items. As far as I know, it is not compulsory to include toast and marmalade in one’s breakfast, and thus I choose not to.

Of course, we can imagine a state or regime which makes it compulsory. In this nightmarish situation, a marmaladeless morning would be a criminal offence. There would be patrols of marmalade enforcement goons going door to door, barging into homes, demanding evidence of marmalade. Woe betide the marmaladeless outlaw!

Fortunately, this remains a dystopian fantasy. We are free to include or to exclude marmalade from our breakfasts. We are even free to eschew the toast and scoff the marmalade straight from the jar. We need not even make use of a spoon. We might simply dig the marmalade out of the jar with our bare hands, stuffing our marmaladey fingers into our mouths and licking and sucking until every last atom of marmalade is shovelled down our gullets. Such a practice is visually arresting, if barbaric, and one feels that a marmaladeless morning would be a small but necessary mercy were we to witness it.

The twentieth century’s greatest pamphleteer, Dobson, wrote a fascinating essay entitled Marmalade : Does It Come In A Jar Or A Pot? (out of print). Maddeningly, he fails to give a conclusive answer to his own question. Instead, he veers off, over several hundred pages, into a frankly incoherent diatribe, taking potshots – or jarshots? – at a variety of seemingly unrelated topics, including aniseed, bleach, corrugated cardboard, dentists, egg-timers, flip-top lids, gas, hags, ink, jam, kaolin (pig iron), loopy persons, Madagascar, nettles, oxygen tents, passementerie, quips, rhubarb, sandwiches, talc, ullage, vipers, weasels, xylophonists, yobboes, and zookeepers. We might concede that both jam and sandwiches are somewhat relevant to the ostensible topic – that is, in case you have forgotten, marmalade – but not in the way Dobson approaches them. Believe you me, I have read the pamphlet from cover to cover, twice, and I can make head nor tail of what he is going on about. But ’twas ever thus.

(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais

In order to fully appreciate (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais, a song written and recorded by The Clash in 1978, we must get a firm grasp upon the words in the title. Before we do so, let me be quite clear that I am going to pay no attention whatsoever to the parentheses. In my view – and I grant that I may be in error here – placing “White Man” in parentheses is a mere affectation, and has no significance whatsoever. The truth of this can be underlined by removing the parentheses and judging if it makes any difference. Thus, (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais, or – pfft!, there!, gone! – White Man In Hammersmith Palais. I challenge anybody to insert a very very thin thing, like a cigarette paper, between the two. We may now press on, indomitably.

White. What do we mean by white? Is it a colour or, as some would have it, the absence of colour? The white of an egg – the albumen – is more translucent than white, in its raw state. But fry the egg, in a pan, and voila!, it is indeed white. By the way, it would be a mistake to infer from this that all fried things are white. Most are not.

To gain a sense of overwhelming whiteness, it is well worth reading the closing passages of The Narrative Of Arthur Gordon Pym Of Nantucket by Edgar Allan Poe. If you read it while drinking a glass of milk, the effect of whiteness will be redoubled. If, in addition, you tip the entire contents of a tub of talcum powder over your head and look up from your book, from time to time, into a mirror, you will be left in no doubt about what white means.

Next, Man. Man is the male of the species homo sapiens. In most cases, he is a biped, but not invariably. For example, Ian Anderson, the front man – man! – of the band Jethro Tull, prefers to stand on one leg when playing his flute. He is thus, at least temporarily, a monopod.

What else can we say, usefully, about a man? Well, for one thing, we can differentiate between types of men (plural) by placing a qualifying adjective before “man”. This might be in the form of prefix jammed up against “man”, with no space between, as for example “Frenchman” or “postman”, or it might be a discrete, separate, interchangeable word, as in “grunty man” or “stricken man”.

Off the coast of England there is a place called the Isle of Man, but we had better avoid that, particularly as its flag is a triskelion of three armoured legs. That is one and a half standard issue bipedal men, or three Jethro Tull flautists, the thought of which begins to dizzy the brain.

In we can dispatch fairly rapidly. It is a short word indicating that something is contained within something else, for example the talcum powder was in the tub before we upended it over our head. Now, the talcum powder is no longer in the tub. It really is as simple as that. Just be careful not to confuse in with inn. The latter is a tavern or hostelry. If a man enters one, parched and thirsty and covered in talcum powder, he is said to be in an inn. Conversely, if he engages in fisticuffs with another customer, because he is teased for being covered in talcum powder, he risks being thrown out of the inn. The chances of this happening are more likely if, in the inn, he drinks a sufficient quantity of beer to be in his cups. This does not mean he is literally inside a cup, or several cups, as the plural suggests. It is a figure of speech.

We are not going to go further down the road of figures of speech, because quite frankly it is exasperating enough having to explain all this stuff to you, just so you can grasp fully the title of a punk single from almost forty years ago. I have better things to do with my time. So let us wrap this up as soon as we can.

Hammersmith. This is a proper name, referring to an area of London. London is usually pronounced Lund’n, but for amusement’s sake it is better pronounced as it looks, with the two “on”s equally stressed as if one were saying the word on. This is particularly the case when responding to queries from tourists vacantly wandering the streets of London. Now, natives of London may well pronounce Hammersmith as Ammersmiff, depending on their social class. As the son of a globe-trotting Foreign Office diplomat, Joe Strummer, the front man of The Clash, would have been brought up to say Hammersmith rather than Ammersmiff.

Incidentally, I hope I did not give the impression, earlier, that all front men in bands stand on one leg while playing the flute. That is true of Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull. So far as I know, it is not true of Joe Strummer of The Clash. But again, I grant that I may be wrong, and if any readers can provide photographic evidence to the contrary I will be happy to issue a correction.

You will note that Hammersmith is a conjunction of two words, hammer and smith. A smith might use a hammer when beating, say, a horseshoe into the required shape at his anvil. Once upon a time this was so widely practised a trade that Smith is a common surname, Hammer less so. Instances of the former are too numerous to mention, though we can give one-time Wimbledon champion Stan Smith as an example. As for the latter, we might note the American hip hoppist M C Hammer, a man who has reportedly confessed to a fear of hammers. As with Strummer, Hammer is not known for monopodal flute-playing.

At last, and not before time, we come to Palais. You will recall, in our discussion of Man, above, that we mentioned a Frenchman. It so happens that a Frenchman says palais where his English equivalent would say palace. Usually, a palace or palais is the sort of building inhabited by the likes of Prince Fulgencio. Hammersmith Palais, or Ammersmiff Palace, is, or was, not that kind of palace. Rather, it was a place where young persons would gather en masse in a sort of mosh pit and disport themselves in an often ungainly manner while listening to loud music or, as some might have it, a godawful racket. There was at least one occasion when Prince Fulgencio himself left his palace, or palais, to enter a mosh pit, where he galumphed about in the presence of a band of troubadours led by a man standing on one leg playing a flute. But that is a tale for another time.

It is to be hoped that you now have a greater understanding of (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais by The Clash. Next week, we shall examine I Close My Eyes And Count To Ten by Dusty Springfield. For your preparatory homework, please read Dobson’s pamphlet Arithmetic For The Blind (out of print).

Ceramic Birds

You can count on the fingers of one, deformed, hand the number of ornithologists who have paid serious attention to the clay pigeon. This is rather surprising, as it is a highly unusual bird. Unlike most birds, the clay pigeon has neither feathers, nor talons, nor a beak. It is flightless, and inanimate. Uniquely in the avian kingdom, it is disc-shaped, and made of clay.

In view of this neglect, the reissue of a classic text is most welcome. All due praise, then, to the Circular Ceramic Bird Press for its recent publication of The Clay Pigeon : Its Migration Patterns, Nesting Habits, And Terrible Attrition Rate Caused By Shooting, written by the wild man of ornithology, Walter Mad, originally issued in 1926, on the eve of the General Strike.

The new edition is a facsimile, down to the last detail, including those endpapers which caused such a fuss and were eventually to lead, by all sorts of weird and eerie twists and turns, to the Hindenburg disaster on 6 May 1937. Let it be clear, once and for all, that Walter Mad played no part in that dreadful event, and was nowhere near Naval Air Station Lakehurst in New Jersey at the time. Yes, yes, his brother Wilfred was there, and they were identical twins, and there is certain photographic evidence, and one or two sworn affidavits, and the compelling testimony of Flossie Pilbrow, the noted spirit medium who perished aboard the flame-engulfed airship and later sent telepathic messages from the beyond, but even when you add all these things up, and take into account eye-witness statements and the so-called “peevish bus conductor’s bombshell”, there remains scarcely a shred of evidence to connect Walter Mad with the disaster.

Better that we remember him for his excellent book on the clay pigeon, even if much of it is ludicrous twaddle that no proper ornithologist has ever taken seriously. But what do proper ornithologists know, eh? Most of them cannot tell a nightjar from a stonechat, especially in cases where both the nightjar and the stonechat have been modelled in clay by tiptop bird ceramicists.

God give me strength.