Archive for the 'Prose' Category

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.

Sausage Semaphore

It is sometimes appropriate to signal a want of sausages in semaphore. For example, you might find yourself sausageless in the middle of a desolate plain, some sort of Biblical wilderness, ravenous for sausages but, happily, in possession of two brightly-coloured flags. If you have a smattering of semaphore, and a broad knowledge of sausage types, it should not be beyond your wit to signal your want of sausages, using the flags, to a distant passer-by. Whether this passer-by will be able to satisfy your sausagelust is, of course, quite another matter.

We should also take into account the very distinct possibility that such a signalling is beyond your wit – in short, that you are witless, or, if not entirely witless, then a halfwit. Standing about in the middle of a plain with a couple of flags yet bereft of sausages is the sort of behaviour we might expect from a halfwit.

Halfwits and dunderpates are not the best people when it comes to accurate and reliable semaphore signals. Indeed, they can become so muddle-headed in their attempts to deploy a pair of flags according to a well-established code that their message is likely to be gibberish. This will leave the distant passer-by scratching their head in confusion and deciding to continue on their stroll, along the edge of the plain, perhaps Luneburg Heath, with their dog in tow.

Most dogs can sniff out sausages with bewildering acuity. There are even some dogs known as “sausage dogs”. It can all become very complicated, especially if you are a halfwit.

Fear Of Squirrels

The piece I am babbling on the soundtrack of the Creekside Artists film is Fear Of Squirrels, which first appeared here on Thursday 2nd September 2004. Here it is again:

Dobson was afraid of squirrels. Here’s why. It was a damp and ruinous Thursday and he had not had any breakfast. He slapped his hand on the table and shouted “I must have marmalade! I must have some marmalade!” There was nobody to hear his complaint except for an ant which was making its way across the floor of his hovel, and the ant didn’t care, being an insect. Dobson had not even noticed the ant, in any case. He leapt out of his chair, put on his big reindeer-hide anorak brought back from one of his Arctic expeditions, and trudged outside, muttering now instead of shouting.

Have I ever told you there were several important trees on the path outside Dobson’s door? There was a sycamore and a yew, a larch and a pine. Dobson was fond of trees, usually, although he was unable to tell the difference between them. Gone were the days when he would festoon his hair with fallen leaves and twigs, inviting ridicule from the local whippersnappers. Dobson in the days of which I write had adopted a sober mien, indeed a gloomy one.

Dobson, Dobson, don’t look so dismayed,” his acquaintances would say, to which the out of print pamphleteer’s response was to look heavenward, as if in great pain, adopting the air of an early Christian martyr, one lined up for some particularly bloodthirsty persecution. Dobson often skimmed through the pages of Fox’s Book of Martyrs to pick up tips. But I digress.

On this damp marmaladeless morning, Dobson walked past the sycamore, the yew, the larch and the pine, onward past a repulsive ditch, past the post office and the pig huts and the vipers’ nest and the glue factory, up the lane towards the Big Unexplained Building On The Hill. The wind howled. It always did. Back in the hovel, the ant had vanished into a crevice in the wainscot, just as Dobson arrived at the gates of the Building. These gates were enormous and forbidding and strange and rusty and locked and bolted and unnecessary, for there was a wooden door set in the base and brickish wall which skirted the building, and it was only a few feet away to the left of the gates, or to the right, I cannot remember precisely, I have never been there myself, I am only reporting this as it was told to me by Marigold Chew on the day after Dobson’s death, after she had had her bath, and was sipping tea from an inelegant tin mug in the shabby parlour of a horrible hotel hard by the banks of the River Wretched in Sibodnedwabshire.

Dobson knew all about the wooden door, so why did he tarry by the strange rusty gates? Was he confused, was his mind a jumble due to lack of marmalade? Or did he have a tryst? We do not know. We do know that Dobson stood at those gates on that damp Thursday, peering intently through them, for a full quarter of an hour before turning around and heading off to Old Jack Blothead’s Foodstuffs Tent, where he bought a jar of marmalade and some pastry and a pot of some kind of edible paste which Old Jack Blothead had left unlabelled. The year was 1952. Dobson and the vendor of foodstuffs had their usual argument about the pamphleteer’s promissory note, a page torn from his notebook on which he had scrawled words to the effect that sooner or later he would do right by Old Jack Blothead, and if he did not then may the heavens smite him and may all his days be leavened with woe. It was advantageous for Dobson that Blothead was a man of great charity and puny intellect, and after a few minutes he left the tent through its great grimy flaps, armed with his jar and pot and a paper bag for the pastry. They would not fit in the single pocket of his anorak, so he carried them in his ungloved, unmittened hands.

What pangs led Dobson back to the strange enormous rusty gates of the Big Unexplained Building On The Hill? There was a fallen log, a log fallen from a trembling poplar, slap bang next to the gates, and Dobson sat on it and ate the pastry, and he stayed sitting there despite the fact that it began to rain heavily. He didn’t even bother to pull up the hood of his anorak, although that may be because it was rife with holes made by starving moths and his head would have got wet anyway. Wet, but surely not as wet as it did get, as he sat on the poplar log in the downpour eating pastry with his pot of paste and marmalade jar beside him outside the forbidding and strange and rusty and locked and bolted and unnecessary gates of the Big Unexplained Building On The Hill on that Thursday morning in 1952 when he first became terrified of squirrels.

Why,” I asked Marigold Chew as she sipped her tea in the shabby hotel parlour, “Why did Dobson become so fearful of squirrels on that particular day?” She glanced at me briefly, and I was disconcerted by the weird look in her eyes. “Those bushy tails….” she began, then fell silent, turning to stare out of the window. I followed her gaze, and saw the gravedigger walking across the lawn, toting his spade jauntily over his shoulder. “Those bushy, bushy tails…” Marigold Chew repeated. She drank the rest of her tea, put the mug down on the floor by her feet, and stood up. “I must go and have a few words with the gravedigger,” she said, and swept out of the room as breezily as a bereaved woman on crutches can sweep breezily from a hotel parlour on the day after the death of her one true friend on this magnificent and baffling planet.

Two Edward Gorey Limericks


Tugboat Skipper

Some years ago, Outa_Spaceman described Hooting Yard thus: “a world of heroic infants rubbing shoulders with tugboat captains, extravagantly bouffanted composers drinking and fighting in seedy dockside taverns, Jesuit priests lurking in kiosks on abandoned seaside piers, bat gods haunting abandoned potato research stations, huge grunting ogres drinking from cisterns in horrible caves, and where diktats are being issued to Community Learning Hubs by suburban shamans”. Rereading this, recently, I thought to myself, “How right he is!”. But then I thought, “Hmm. We have not seen many tugboat captains hereabouts of late!”. My thoughts are not always followed by exclamation marks, but those two were.

Casting around in my mind for a tugboat captain I could tell you about, I recalled the skipper of the tugboat Blavatsky. This fellow was neurasthenic and highly-strung, character traits which are quite undesirable in a tugboat captain, and led to several unfortunate episodes. Big majestic ships being tugged by the Blavatsky suffered a series of minor and major calamities, from dents below the plimsoll line to scuppering upon sandbanks to attacks by enormous flocks of deranged guillemots. These incidents were not always the result of the tugboat skipper’s mental weakness, but whether he was responsible or no, when the big ships’ captains gathered in conclave they laid the blame firmly at his door.

He is neurasthenic and highly-strung,” they said, “He cannot be allowed to tug our ships.”

With no big majestic ships to tug, the Blavatsky lost its purpose, and so too did its skipper. He took to traipsing the deck of the tugboat wailing and keening, driving the rest of the crew crackers. Eventually his second-in-command, the science officer, took him aside, bundled him into a cabin, and gave him a talking-to. Like several seconds-in-command, he was half-Vulcan, with pointy ears, and he spoke with compelling logic.

The Blavatsky is a tugboat, Captain,” he said, “And therefore it must tug something. If we cannot tug big majestic ships we will have to find something else to tug.”

But what?, dammit, what?” yelled the skipper, who was clearly close to the end of his already frayed tether.

Well, Captain,” replied his pointy-eared science officer, “It so happens I have been reading some back numbers of the Daily Pony Predations Digest. It seems there is, loose in the land, but happily close to the coast, an enormous squid named Neville Mossop. It is already responsible for slobberingly devouring one twee little pony, and logically one must assume it will go on to consume others in its awful hideous Lovecraftian manner. We can stop it, Captain. I suggest we send a landing party, capture the squid, drag it to shore, then attach it to our tugboat with chains, and tug it far out to sea so it can no longer prey upon ponies.”

That’s a fantastic idea!” cried the skipper, and at once his mood lifted and he ceased keening.

Without further ado, he sent a landing party which captured the squid, dragged it to shore, attached it to the tugboat with chains, and tugged it far out to sea.

This is terrific!” said the skipper, “We are tugging something, just as a tugboat must, if it is fit to be called a tugboat!”

But his joy was short-lived. For unbeknown to the skipper, far out at sea the enormous squid’s distressed mother was searching for her son. Mrs Chlorine Winslow Mossop was so gigantic a giant squid that she made Neville look like a mere minnow. And when she found him, she reared up from beneath the waves, towering over the tugboat, her tentacles thrashing violently, and from suckers on those tentacles she emitted an eldritch viscous goo that burned through the iron chains tugging her son as if they were wisps of straw, and she freed him. And then, with a horrible gurgling noise so loud it made the sun shake in the heavens, she slobberingly devoured the tugboat Blavatsky and its crew, in a single awful gulp.

It happened that at the very last second, just as he was about to be swallowed up, the skipper managed somehow to kick himself clear. He swam away, as the gigantic squid and her almost as gigantic son disappeared into the chthonic depths of the broiling sea. He swam and swam, until he reached a remote atoll. Exhausted, he clung to the rock and slowly, agonisingly, pulled himself up out of the sloshing sea. He was marooned, but no longer imperilled.

In spite of his highly-strung neurasthenia, the skipper was a resourceful fellow, and he kept himself alive by drinking rainwater and eating barnacles and the occasional guillemot which plummeted unaccountably from the sky. And he kept his mind busy by studying, from memory, Catholic theology, to the point where one day, several years after his maroonment, he felt able to ordain himself as a Jesuit priest.

And that, children, is the story of how the legendary Atoll Jesuit came to hold sway over a remote stretch of the vast and merciless sea. Amen.

A Letter From Neville Mossop

A letter plops on to the mat:

Dear Mr Key, My name is Neville Mossop. The latest outpouring on your foolish website was brought to my attention by my dentist. I have to say that I do not take kindly to having my name bandied about by the likes of you, purely for the purpose of amusing your readers (if there are any, apart from my dentist). You did not even bother to seek my permission. If you knew anything about me, I doubt you would be so cavalier. I have had a very difficult life. As a child I was teased incessantly by my playmates on account of my inability to punctuate sentences after my opening sallies they treated me cruelly oh so cruelly in fact one day when I went to have a go on the swings a boy whose name coincidentally was also Neville Mossop took a bowl of milk slops and upended it over my head then poked at me with a twig while reciting in a singsong voice some ditty he had learned from a book of insulting ditties I cannot recall the exact words but they pierced me like spikes and I began to blub like a ninny which only made things worse particularly when I arrived home and saw that my ma was cooking swordfish for supper again even though she knew quite well that swordfish played havoc with my innards I will spare you the details because they are too monstrous to repeat suffice to say I had to be carted off to a clinic and missed a whole term of school I think the one where they taught punctuation of sentences after the first few so you can appreciate that I have had a terrible time and have become a self-pitying whiner rather than the international man of mystery with a Peter Wyngarde style moustache I always yearned to be and still do but I fear it is too late as I am now ninety two years of age and very few if any agencies employ international men of mystery of such advanced years and I would say I live in hope but I do not I am thoroughly pessimistic to the point where I wake up every morning groaning and cursing the memory of Neville Mossop my childhood acquaintance who caused me such grief and now I have to put up with you causing me grief too as well as my dentist who told me not to waste his time making an appointment to see him when I have not got any teeth left in my gob being so old and withered unlike the young scamp with the same name as me who chases swans in parks I never chased a swan but you should know that the only reason I left the clinic after that bout of swordfish poisoning was because I was chased out of it by swans a whole gaggle of them honking horribly they chased me out of my bed and out of the ward and along the corridor and down the stairs and out of the door and into the grounds and out of the gate and I was still in my hospital gown and still the swans came after me savage and relentless and then I developed a massive nosebleed which was the last thing I needed well I suppose not the last thing because the last thing would be death and it is rare to die from a nosebleed but I expect you would die from one if the flow was not staunched I staunched mine that day with some rags I found in a bin you can find all sorts of things in bins if you rummage for example just the other day I found some pages torn out of a book by Dennis Beerpint that someone had obviously found so stupid that they ripped them out and threw them away well I kept them and took them home and read them very carefully again and again over the next few days until I realised they were utter twaddle at which point I crumpled them up and took them back to the same bin to throw them away like the other person had done but the bin was gone it had been removed by municipal bin removers one of whom I later learned was also called Neville Mossop as were two of his colleagues which is quite a series of coincidences or maybe not perhaps it was a deliberate recruitment policy pursued by a madcap town hall bureaucrat whose name might also have been Neville Mossop for all I know and I suppose I could find out by going to the town hall and banging my fist on the reception desk until someone gave me a list of all the bureaucrats in the town hall but when you get to the age of ninety two the prospect of making the bus journey to the town hall is a bit too much to cope with and it seems far more enticing to stay sprawled in your bed cursing the young scamp Neville Mossop and swans and swordfish and people like you Mr Key who think it is amusing to write poppycock about someone you have never met and who might take umbrage at having his name besmirched. Yours sincerely, Neville Mossop.

Neville Mossop

In her comment on yesterday’s Tale of Popsy the Pony, Pansy Cradledew berates me for failing to give the name of the squid. I accept that this was an unforgivable omission and fatally undermines what might otherwise have been a classic text destined to be read and reread and rereread throughout the ages. Thus I am more than happy to inform Ms Cradledew, and other readers – if there are any – that the slobbering squid is named Neville Mossop. Neville is quite a common name in the squid population, Mossop less so.

Neville Mossop also happens to be the name of the young scamp seen chasing a swan on a new piece of signage in St James’s Park. He was chosen from a pool of over a thousand applicants to appear on the sign. There is some evidence that the pool was the very same pool into which Neville Mossop (the squid) slithered, after devouring Popsy the Pony, but this has yet to be confirmed.


Incidentally, Neville Mossop also turns up in a new collection by twee poet Dennis Beerpint:

There was a young fellow from Glossop
Whose name was Neville Mossop
He frightened swans

This is one of the so-called “truncated limericks” in the Beerpint book, entitled Truncated Limericks By Dennis Beerpint, Daddy-o! Towards the end of the book, there are a number of what the winsome versifier calls “severely truncated limericks”, such as:


In a review of this slim volume, critic Stockard Owlhead writes: “Dennis Beerpint is an utter nitwit”.

Do you have any exciting Neville Mossop information? Do not on any account share it. Just keep it to yourself, you pimpled popinjay!

The Tale Of Popsy The Pony

Before reading, see here and here.

Hullo tinies! Are you sitting comfortably? Then I shall begin.

Once upon a time there was a lovely little pony named Popsy. Popsy the Pony lived in a meadow splattered with buttercups. It was a lovely meadow. The sun was always shining, the weather was always balmy, and the other animals in the meadow – birds and insects and burrowing moles – were happy and contented. Of course it was a completely artificial and unnatural meadow, quite unlike real nature, which is bloody and gruesome and utterly horrifying, full of violence and pain and death. Just ask a sheep. Sheep know. That is why they barely get a wink of sleep, they are so frightened and fretful.

Anyway, tinies, one day Popsy the Pony was having a lovely time in the lovely meadow when, all of a sudden, this pastoral idyll was shattered by the intrusion of reality … no, let me rephrase that … this pastoral idyll was shattered by the intrusion of the hidden, Lovecraftian, true reality beyond our puny human comprehension, and Popsy the Pony was slobberingly devoured by an enormous squid from the Black Pit of Hellish Nothingness. Slobber slobber slobber! Eek eek eek!

The end. Now, tinies, you may run away screaming and blubbing like fotherington-tomas.

Gigantic Bolivian Architectural Diagrams – III

The third and final part of an old, old story.

III. October 1928

We docked at 0800 hours. Bingle, Carg, Linnet, Frack and Pinmouth were detailed to search the northern half of the island, while Bewg, Shimm, Jabber, Thurp and myself took the south. I left Wicket and Birdhole aboard the ship, with strict instructions. I cannot remember what the instructions were, but they were strict, make no mistake about that.

The five of us who comprised the southern party set out. It rapidly became apparent that the boulders and rocks on the island were giving off violent magnetic discharges. The tension was oppressive. We saw what looked like ball lightning far in the distance. I instructed Bewg to make sketches in his little pad, but he complained that his pencil was blunt. Between us we could not muster a pencil sharpener. I was loth to have Bewg return to the ship alone to fetch the required implement, so I instructed Jabber to accompany him. I pressed on with Shimm and Thurp, the latter carefully scraping rock and mud samples into our canister. The path ahead was burned and scorched – by what agency was not clear to us.

At 0950 hours Birdhole joined our party. She brought with her the ship’s pencil sharpener. Apparently Bewg had suffered an attack of the seeds, and was having a lie down in his cabin. I made a mental note to tick him off later. I remember that clearly, because at the very moment I thought it a mighty crevasse opened in the ground directly in front of us. Thurp was swallowed up, as the earth cracked apart. The rest of us staggered backwards. I am glad that I had the presence of mind to tell Birdhole to execute a quick sketch in Bewg’s pad. She complained that she had not yet had a chance to sharpen the pencil, but I cut her short with a screech of blood-curdling ferocity. One is taught to do that sort of thing at officer school.

Shimm put down her accordion and made an impromptu bridge across the crevasse using all our footwear tied together. We clambered across, and pressed on, although not before Birdhole had insisted upon holding a commemorative service for the sadly departed Thurp. Why I allowed it I do not know. I can be a sentimental old buzzard. While Birdhole was ululating, we were joined by the northern party, who had completed their investigations. Other than some extremely fascinating magnetic readings, ornithological discoveries, amateur geological observations, a net full of moths and a worm count, they had nothing to report. I commanded Frack or Pinmouth – I never could tell them apart – to return to the ship, but I cannot remember why. Whichever one it was sent Jabber back to us. I had suspected her of idling around like Bewg, but she made haste to tell me that she had cast a Mackenzie Beam from the ship. I patted her on the head, not without some misgivings, as I do not think she had ever washed her hair. At last Birdhole stopped howling, and we pressed on. We passed an enormous heap of skeletons – bat and human, according to Bingle’s eagle-eyed diagnosis – and various other manifestations of what Lamouche calls la flaque de la mort. I have Jabber to thank for that quotation. Birdhole wanted to delay further to give the two human skeletons a decent Christian burial, but I cuffed her on the temples and snarled at her.

The ground over which we passed became rough and spiky, and we had to tread carefully in our socks. We would retrieve our tough adventurer’s boots on our return trip, when we would be able to dismantle Shimm’s bridge. Frack or Pinmouth handed around some custard-balls for sustenance. Then, as we hacked our way through some overhanging foliage, we suddenly came face to face with the building. It was smaller than we expected, like a scale model of a typical nineteenth century Bolivian civic hall, and it had all the hallmarks of having been constructed out of bat droppings. I removed my hat in awe. The others did likewise, except for Shimm, who was not wearing a hat, Linnet, whose hat had snagged on the branch of a dunstable tree a few hundred yards back, and Birdhole, whose hat had been glued to her head for the duration of the expedition for some obscure religious purpose. I had interrogated her on this point back at Tantarabim, and will publish the documents separately.

Of course, we could not stand around like a bunch of clots all day. I jammed my hat back on my head and commanded my team to get to work. I was heartened to see that they set to it with such gusto. Within minutes, the instruments had been unpacked, the music stands set up, sheet music distributed, and everyone was at their post ready to tune up. The band was as follows: Bingle on bugle, Carg on bassoon, Shimm on accordion, Jabber on sackbut, Linnet on harmonium, Frack or Pinmouth on castanets, and Birdhole on handbells. I myself conducted and played the cornet. We ran through a few bars of Bring Me Your Winding-Sheet, Oh Mother Of Mine before settling down to the concert proper. Macaws shrieked but we drowned them out. We played my arrangements of Die sieben letzten Worte des Erlösers am Kreuze (Haydn), Sonatine Bureaucratique (Satie) and The Anti-Abolitionist Riots (Ives). For an encore, we performed a rousing version of The Consumptive’s Vest (Jabber, arr. Birdhole). Then we packed up. I ordered Birdhole to make some detailed sketches of the building in Bewg’s little pad, and we also took measurements and poked about the place a bit. But night would soon be falling, and there was no let up in the magnetic activity of this accursed island. The sooner we returned to the ship the better. The journey back passed without incident. We collected our boots after re-crossing Shimm’s bridge over the chasm. Thurp’s body had fallen so far it was not visible. We did not tarry. Wicket and Pinmouth or Frack were on duty on the bridge. They had received warnings of volcanic activity over the radio. Before we set sail, I went into Bewg’s cabin and told him I would brook no further nonsense from him. I presented him with a rag and told him to go and polish everything on the ship. Back on deck, I found Linnet mucking about with the Mackenzie Beam. I let it pass; I was a tired woman. We weighed anchor, and headed home at last. Only later did I discover I had left my cornet on the island. I cannot bear to go back there to retrieve it.

Gigantic Bolivian Architectural Diagrams – II

Continuing an ancient yarn from the last century. Part One is here.

II. January 1911

I had been marooned on the island for just two days when I discovered the gigantic Bolivian architectural diagrams. They were spattered with blood, rolled up and jammed into a rotting wooden casket. I carried them back to my hut to examine them. There were about a dozen large sheets, rather frayed around the edges but perfectly legible. The top left corner of each sheet had been stamped with an official device of the Bolivian administration, showing an escutcheon, a ziggurat, the helmet of a conquistador, the hand of God and abbreviations in neat italic lettering. The signature of what I supposed to be a petty official had been scratched across each of the stamps in mauve ink. I could not understand why they were in such good condition. I tacked them up on the walls of my hut, where they rapidly grew so familiar that I no longer noticed them. I am no architect, and I had more urgent matters to attend to.

I have never forgiven myself for my stupidity. I had been warned not to row my skiff into uncharted waters near the Antarctic Circle. Oh, but did I listen as Captain Peabody harangued me? “You d—-’d fool!” he shouted, his frosty whiskers twitching in the cold morning light. I turned for one last look at the ship as I guided my skiff into oblivion. I have not seen a human face since that day. Within minutes I was overwhelmed by chilling, poisonous mists. The hideous stench of crocuses made me sick to my stomach. I let fall the oars. The tholes, tampered with by my enemies, Glubb and Mufton, fell to pieces, and the oars floated away, out of reach. I drifted for hours. My anorak, with its hood of reindeer hide, froze solid, encasing me so that I was unable to move an inch. An auk, or some such feathery ingrate, shat on me repeatedly, hovering above my head like a malign shade. I could not move to shoo it away. Eventually – mercifully – I passed out.

When I came to I was surrounded by members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. One of them, with icicles forming on the brim of his hat, was solicitously offering me a tin mug of brandy. I took a grateful swig, then noticed that his colleagues did not seem so friendly. They were glaring at me menacingly. One brandished a rather archaic halberd in the air and shouted horrifying words. All of a sudden I became aware that I was aboard a huge, shiny boat, its sails billowing, its decks scrubbed clean. I turned to look again at the Mountie with the tin mug. For the first time I took in his features. It was Mufton! My deadly enemy….

There were other hallucinations, other dreams. I shall not repeat them here. Hours, days, perhaps weeks after I had set out in my skiff, I came at last to dry land again when I woke to find myself sprawled on the beach of this island. Was it yet another phantasm? There were a number of ways to find out. I tried three of them. First, I beat my head upon some boulders. This caused what seemed like real pain. Then I shovelled handfuls of coarse sand into my mouth and attempted to swallow. This caused me to retch uncontrollably for some minutes. Almost satisfied, I conducted a third test. Taking from the breast pocket of my anorak a small phial, I poured a minuscule quantity of a decoction of sandalwood, cresol, gutta percha and pitch into the palm of my hand, held it aloft in the salty air, and mumbled incantations and gibberish. Sparks crackled in my hair, shot up into the sky, and brought tiny jewels of hail pinging down around me. Within seconds they evaporated, and were gone. But now I knew for certain that I was wide awake, no longer prey to visions and vapours. Being a resourceful sort, I managed to provide myself with adequate food, drink, warmth and shelter within a few hours. I began to search my temporary home, and found the gigantic Bolivian architectural diagrams. That was over a month ago. I found the remains of my skiff, crushed and broken, swept up on some rocks on the northern coast, which seems to be the wildest. I have been working hard at my almanack, and at keeping my beacons lit.

Last night, as I hurled dried and matted vegetation upon my northern beacon, I was attacked by a swarm of bats. They swooped at me one after another, squealing horribly, pecking at my flesh. I fought them off with a burning stick, but I was shaken. I ran back to my hut, and blocked up the doorway and some of the holes in the walls with mulberry paste. Tonight the bats are back, chewing their way frenziedly through the walls. I have on my rickety home-made desk a small bag of sulphur bombs with which I hope to fight them off. But timing will be crucial. I do not intend to perish.