Archive for the 'Prose' Category


Grabber had an afterlife, bewinged upon a cloud, plucking sweetly at a harp. That, at least, was his dream, from which he awoke, tense and troubled, in his cell. He was a lifer, convicted years before of murder most foul. Are there, he often wondered, less foul murders, for which his sentence would have been commensurately less than life? He read up on the law, but nothing lodged for long in his head, for he was easily distracted. It came as a surprise to him how many distractions could occur to a lifer in a cell. The sheen of the buttons on his stripy tunic. A stain upon the ceiling. An ant scuttling across the floor. Buzzers buzzing and bells clanging somewhere far off. From his window he watched clouds scud across the sky, clouds that prompted his dreams of an afterlife in heaven.

O! Grabber! Grabber! What hast thou done?

He can no longer remember the foul deed, committed in his cups after a night on the tiles. Cups and tiles. They could be suits in an old Tarot deck, along with whisks and arrows. There used to be arrows on his tunic, but one day they came and gave him a new tunic with stripes. They did not explain why. They never explained anything to Grabber. They gave him his food in a bowl.

It was while scoffing his food one day that Grabber fell to musing about Little Miss Muffet. She sat, famously, upon a tuffet, eating her curds and whey. Now Grabber found this distinctly curious. Curds, and more especially whey, would as like as not be served in a bowl, as his food was. Why, then, did Little Miss Muffet take her bowl from the serving hatch all the way outside towards the tuffet where she sat? Why did she not remain indoors, as Grabber did? Grabber had no choice in the matter, of course, but he felt sure that, in Little Miss Muffet’s circumstances, he would take his seat in the canteen rather than prance outside into the fields, in search of a tuffet. Her behaviour made no sense to him.

Grabber thought too about other characters, Little Jack Horner and Mary, Mary Quite Contrary and Rumpelstiltskin and Henry Kissinger, among others. These thoughts went nowhere, and Grabber never reached any conclusions. He lay flat on his back in his iron cot and the days passed.

O! Grabber! Grabber! Every hair on your head has been counted!

He once tried to count his own hair, which he allowed to grow long, but one day, without explanation, the prison barber came to his cell and hacked away his tresses. It was the same day they swapped his tunic. There was something else of significance that happened on that day, but he no longer remembered what. He kept no journal, having no pencil. He had requested a pencil, once, and been given a cushion. It was a tiny cushion filled with straw. The straw still smelled of the farmyard, and caused Grabber flights of reverie. They were confusing flights, for he had never set foot on a farm. The closest he had come was the village green, where he roamed in his cups after a night on the tiles and took a brick to the head of a mendicant sleeping anent the horse trough in the moonlit night. He took that brick to the mendicant’s head twenty, thirty times, in an inebriate phrenzy.

O! Grabber! Grabber! Undo what thou hast done!

But it could not be undone. It can never be undone. Only the buttons on his stripy tunic can be undone, but Grabber does not undo them, for if he did he would only button them up again.

Life. . . With Buttons.


When considering Borneo, it is extremely important to differentiate between the Wild Man of Borneo and the Wild Men of Borneo. The first thing to grasp is that the Wild Man of Borneo was not one of the Wild Men of Borneo. Obviously, he was a Wild Man, and thus if one lumps together, indiscriminately, all the Wild Men of Borneo, then one is forced to concede that the Wild Man of Borneo was, in the round, one among the Wild Men of Borneo. But in another respect, and one that is crucial, as we shall see, the Wild Man of Borneo was not, by any stretch of the imagination, one of the Wild Men of Borneo.

A second point. of utmost importance, is to bear in mind that neither the Wild Man of Borneo nor the Wild Men of Borneo had any connection whatsoever, apart from the nominative, with Borneo. All three – for there was but one Wild Man of Borneo, obviously, and, less obviously, two Wild Men of Borneo – were citizens of the United States of America. The Wild Man of Borneo was originally German and arrived in the United States as a teenager, while the Wild Men of Borneo were natives, the one born in New York and the other in Ohio.

To be absolutely clear, I ought to confess that in the foregoing I have ridden chronologically kim-kam, putting the Wild Man of Borneo before the Wild Men of Borneo. In truth the Wild Men of Borneo (born in 1825 and 1827) precede the Wild Man of Borneo (born in 1862).

We can perhaps better distinguish the Wild Men of Borneo from the Wild Man of Borneo by lodging their given names in our heads. The Wild Men of Borneo were Hiram W. Davis and his younger brother Barney Davis. The Wild Man of Borneo was Leonard Borchardt.

Without wishing to complicate things further, it is well worth noting that the latter, the Wild Man of Borneo, was commonly known as Oofty-Goofty. He acquired this sobriquet from his habit, when covered in tar and horsehair and locked in a cage and fed raw meat, of uttering a fierce cry of “Oofty-Goofty!”. Neither of the Wild Men of Borneo is ever recorded as having used these words, if words is what they are. The Wild Men of Borneo were noted rather for their prodigious feats of strength, wrestling skills, and what used to be called mental imbecility.

Having digested all of the above, we should be able with confidence to tell the Wild Man of Borneo from the Wild Men of Borneo. Equally helpful, if not more so, is the knowledge that, next time we disembark from a boat, its sails billowing in the southeast Asian wind, upon the shores of Borneo, should we then encounter any wild men, though they may be indubitably wild men of Borneo, given their wildness and location, they will be neither the Wild Man of Borneo nor the Wild Men of Borneo, with all three of whom we are now serviceably familiar.

It would be interesting to know if either the Wild Man of Borneo, or the Wild Men of Borneo, had a familiar, in the sense of a grimalkin or witch’s familiar. I do not think any of them did, but I would not wish to pronounce upon this definitively without learning more, much, much more, about both the Wild Man of Borneo and the Wild Men of Borneo.

Incidents In The Life Of A Git

Readers will know that from time to time I find inspiration from cryptic crosswords. For decades, it has been my daily habit to tackle the Guardian crossword, with occasional forays into those of other newspapers. Today I have been particularly impressed by 4 Across in the Guardian. The clue reads:

Incidents where git punches crusty things behind back of cafe (8)

I have not yet solved this, but while it is fresh in my mind I thought it useful to transcribe it here, mostly as an aide memoire to myself. You lot can look forward to an examination of such incidents in a forthcoming sweeping paragraph of majestic prose.

Wankers On Hovercrafts

I have had a fabtastic idea for a TV show. It’s called Wankers On Hovercrafts. Each episode would follow a channel crossing, there and back, by a group of objectionable people aboard an outmoded form of sea transport. The idea ticks all the boxes – well, three of them – and would be relatively cheap to produce. I shall set up a meeting with a BBC commissioning editor at the first opportunity, and I have every confidence that it will get the go-ahead. I mean, it’s the perfect TV show, surely? When you see me collecting my gong at a future awards ceremony, remember where you first read those magic words – Wankers On Hovercrafts!

Man At C&A

Let us consider the Man at C&A, where C and A are points on a plane equidistant from central point B. We might ask, reasonably, why C precedes A in this hypothetical space, when it is more usual, much more usual, for A to precede C, but quite frankly this is the least of our worries. Far more problematic is the idea that the Man is at C and A simultaneously. Greater minds than mine have, over the centuries, devised the natural laws by which everything in the known universe is bound, and I would not be exaggerating if I said that these laws simply will not tolerate a man being in two places at once.

We can immediately dispose of the somewhat desperate solution that the Man at point A is a doppelgänger, one who appears identical in every respect to the “original” man at point C, but is not him. To show how facetious this idea is, we need only remark that we are dealing with the Man at C&A, not the Men, and it is the plural Men we would be speaking of if we had the Man at C and another Man at A, no matter how uncannily the latter resembled the former, even down to the precise number of hairs on the head or the disposition of pockmarks on the grisly countenance.

So we must be clear that when we speak of the Man at C&A, we speak of the same Man, absolutely identical in all particulars, at both point C and point A which, if you are paying attention, you will remember are equidistant from point B. Point B, by the way. is unoccupied, by either Man or Woman or Beast of the Field. We posit its existence the better to comprehend the space between C and A, and also because, in its absence, there would be no reason I can think of why we should not call point C point B. But as I say, there are greater minds than mine, and perhaps one of them could devise a compelling reason why B should be ejected from the hypothesis entirely. Until such reasoning is applied, however, we will continue to insert an unoccupied point B between, and equidistant from, the two points at C and A which, as we have seen, are occupied by the Man.

Gosh, this is fun.

We might stumble towards a comprehensive explanation of the Man being at C and A if we introduce the element of Time. Let us imagine we are wearing a cheap wristwatch, and keeping one eye upon it as we consider the Man at C&A. The whole damn thing makes sense if we are able to say that the Man is at C at, say, 10.30 AM, and at A at 2.30 PM. We might want to ask how on earth it takes him four hours to make the simple journey from C to A, passing through B to pick up a sausage roll for sustenance, but we can perhaps account for that by giving him a pair of crutches upon which he must lug himself along, his legs being withered. Such infirmity would fit neatly with the grisly countenance above noted.

The obvious objection to this ostensibly happy solution is that we are thus dealing not with the Man at C&A but with the Man at C then A. We must, then, regrettably, remove the cheap wristwatch and chuck it into a ditch and scratch our head in bewilderment. Think! Think! Aha! A faint glimmer slowly resolves itself into the near certainty a solution can be found if we imagine point C and point A as so close together, almost abutting one another, with only tiny little point B between them, that the Man is straddling them, one foot planted firmly at C and the other at A. He is indubitably the Man at C&A!

But on second thoughts we must knock this proposition down, violently. It has already been shown that the man’s legs are withered and he must rely upon crutches. It is beyond the bounds of sense that such a cripple could stand, steady and upright and resolute, with either foot planted firmly anywhere at all. The best he could do would be to lock the base of one crutch in position at point C and the other at point A, and balance himself, swinging between them. But it can be proved, using geometry or one of the allied disciplines devised by better minds than my own, that he would of necessity be swinging in the air just above point B, the tiny point, you recall, we have jammed between point C and point A for cogent reasons not to be gainsaid. He is therefore the Man at B, or, at best, the Man at B whose crutches are planted at C&A. Even a halfwit, I think, would have to concede that such a fellow is a very different beast to a bona fide Man at C&A.

Increasingly befuddled, we may have to return, reluctantly, to the less than satisfactory doppelgänger theory or, even more reluctantly, suspend the laws of physics. But wait! Could it be that the answer is staring us in the face, or rather glancing at us slantwise, at an unexpected angle? Could it all be a bit of stage trickery mustered up by a conjurer, employing a mirror, perhaps, placed at point B? If we could identify an encrutched variety theatre magician of grisly countenance, we would surely be home and dry. And immediately one springs to mind. Who will ever forget the crippled crutch-bound maestro The Amazing Blinko And His Lovely Assistant Janet? Surely it is The Amazing Blinko who, with the aid of a mirror, or more likely mirrors plural, is the Man who appears to be at both C and A at one and the same time!

We can now go and take a nap, having solved the conundrum. Alas, our nap is troubled by uneasy dreams, and we wake in a cold sweat, an unanswerable question clanging in our head – by what feat of legerdemain did The Amazing Blinko make His Lovely Assistant Janet softly and suddenly vanish away from C&A?

The Fishmongers’ Prayer

Speaking of fishmongers, as we were (sort of) yesterday, this piece first appeared in 2008. It was prompted by Rayner Heppenstall’s observation that in one of his poems, “Mr [T. S.] Eliot so oddly bids us to pray for fishmongers”.

“Oh Lord, through Thy infinite grace, shower my counter with bream and plaice” is the opening couplet of the Fishmongers’ Prayer. This has the distinction of being the longest prayer in the English language, which is why you will rarely hear it recited in full. Its length is due to the fact that, within the rolling cadences of its many, many verses, all known types of fish, both edible and inedible, are mentioned at least once. It was the work of a piscatorial monomaniac named Egbert Bock. He was not himself a practising fishmonger, nor indeed did he live in or even near a fishing port. He was a squat, scruffy little man whose ears were perplexingly shaped, inasmuch as they looked as if they had been stuck to his head upside down. His obsession with fish is thought to have been caused by a traumatic childhood incident involving several flounders. Nine times out of ten such happenstance will lead to a phobia, but in Bock’s case it had precisely the opposite effect. Interestingly, when experiments were made upon his brain after his death, it was discovered that the areas devoted to fish and the mongering of fish were terrifically shrivelled. Some seaside vicars still include an abridged version of the Fishmongers’ Prayer in their services. But not many.

In The Shoes Of The Fisherman

I had always yearned to walk in the shoes of the fisherman. First I had to persuade the fisherman to give me his shoes, or at least to lend them to me. But he was a surly and cantankerous fellow, as fishermen often are, especially when trafficking with landlubbers, and I certainly lubbed the land. In fact, it was precisely my lubbing of the land that made me long to walk in the shoes of the fisherman. I reasoned – acutely, I think – that wearing a fisherman’s shoes while walking about peering at birds, I could broaden my landbound lub by attuning myself to the denizens of the deep (fish) and those whose domain was the sky (birds). It might be argued that simply wearing a fisherman’s shoes was no match for plunging into the briny depths and swimming about with all those myriad befinned creatures below, but I am a cautious man, and I did not wish to run before I could walk, as it were, though that is possibly not the best analogy to make.

It has been my experience that most people are open to bribery by herring, but this ploy would obviously not work with a fisherman. By following him about for several weeks, and closely questioning his local kiosk-owner, I discovered that the fisherman had an unquenchable thirst for Squelcho! Using my underworld contacts, I was able to obtain half a dozen bumper multipacks of the canned fizzy drink, and one morning, shortly after he had returned from a night-fishing expedition, I loaded the cans on to a cart and trundled it down to the foul and reeking wharf where I knew the fisherman liked to lollop about.

He proved to be a very canny fisherman, and drove a hard bargain, but eventually agreed to let me borrow his shoes until midday, on the understanding that I would then bring him a further half dozen multipacks of Squelcho! I had no intention of submitting to such extortion, but nodded agreement. I would worry about the consequences of reneging on the deal later. For your edification, I wanted to reproduce a verbatim transcript of our exchange at this point. Unfortunately, the tape I made, on a cassette recorder concealed in my bomber jacket, was wiped later that morning when I was engulfed in a terrific electrical storm (see below).

And so I set out to walk in the shoes of the fisherman, and to look at birds in the sky. I had not counted on the happenstance that the fisherman’s feet were several sizes smaller than mine. Walking in his shoes was an agony, but I persevered, repeating my mantra “I am not a milksop! I am not a milksop!”. I walked in the shoes of the fisherman away from the wharf and over Sawdust Bridge and along Yoko Ono Boulevard and past the important roadworks at the Blister Lane Bypass and through the Acre of Mud and along the perimeter fence of Poxhaven Aerodrome and under the viaduct and up, up into the Blue Forgotten Hills. All the while I was keenly watching the skies, and I saw several birds.

The first was about 5.7 inches long, with a wingspan of roughly 9.6 to 11.2 inches and a weight somewhere between 0.63 and 1.02 ounces. It had a black forehead and a blue-grey crown, nape and upper mantle. The rump was a light olive-green, and the lower mantle and scapulars formed a brown saddle. The side of the head, throat and breast were a dull rust-red merging to a pale creamy-pink on the belly. The central pair of tail feathers were dark grey with a black shaft streak. The rest of the tail was black apart from the two outer feathers on each side which had white wedges. Each wing had a contrasting white panel on the coverts and a buff-white bar on the secondaries and inner primaries The flight feathers were black with white on the basal portions of the vanes. The secondaries and inner primaries had pale yellow fringes on the outer web whereas the outer primaries had a white outer edge. My ornithological education had been brought to a premature end because of the war, but I knew a linnet when I saw one. I jotted down “linnet” in my birdbook, together with a note of the date and the weather and the fact that I could barely think straight due to the stabbing pains in my feet, shod in the fisherman’s shoes. I tucked the birdbook back into my pocket and screamed “I am not a milksop!” several times at the top of my voice.

Shortly afterwards I had to take the birdbook out again because I spotted a second bird. This one was larger than a European robin, and it had a white rump and tail, with a black inverted T-pattern at the end of the tail. Its plumage – plumage! – had grey upperparts, buff throat and black wings and a face mask. It had a whistling, crackly song, and its call was a typical “chat chack” noise, just the the same as its flight call. Cursing the war that put paid to my avian studies, I wrote “bunting” in my birdbook, and added a brief pen-portrait of the fisherman whose shoes I was walking in, with increasing difficulty, and much anguish.

The third bird I saw that day, up in the sky above the Blue Forgotten Hills, was about 7 inches long, weighed roughly 1.1 to 1.4 ounces, and displayed a light green body colour (abdomen and rumps), while its mantles (back and wing coverts) displayed pitch-black mantle markings edged in clear yellow undulations. The forehead and face were yellow with blackish stripes down to the cere. It displayed small, purple cheek patches and a series of three black spots across each side of its throat (called throat spots). The two outermost throat spots were situated at the base of each cheek patch. The tail was cobalt (dark-blue); and outside tail feathers displayed central yellow flashes. Its wings had greenish-black flight feathers and black coverts with yellow fringes along with central yellow flashes. Its bill was olive grey and its legs blueish-grey, with zygodactyl toes. I scribbled down “nightjar” in my birdbook, and collapsed to the ground, memories of bombs and artillery fire in my head and excruciating spasms of agony surging through my feet. I took off the shoes of the fisherman and made my way back to the wharf in my socks.

The fisherman was sitting on an upturned barrel, surrounded by drained and crushed Squelcho! cans. As I approached him, swinging his shoes by their laces, I realised I had not yet thought up a stratagem to avoid having to pay him off with another half dozen bumper multipacks of his favourite fizzy drink. But as things turned out, I did not have to, for of a sudden we were engulfed in a terrific electrical storm (see above). I escaped unscathed, probably due to the stylishly conical gutta-percha hat atop my head. But my cassette tape was wiped, and the fisherman was struck by lightning, several times, and, quaking like a jelly, toppled off his barrel, and over the edge of the wharf, and into the sloshing sea, into which he sank, remorselessly, emitting squelchy sparks, remorselessly.

I tossed his shoes into the water. They were no good to me, being far too small. But I had walked in the shoes of the fisherman, observing birds in the sky, so I had succeeded in realising one of my greatest ambitions. A lubber of land, I had communed, simultaneously, with creatures of sea and sky.

Only later, back at home, glugging from a can of Squelcho! and browsing in an illustrated treatise upon birds, did I learn that I had seen neither a linnet nor a bunting nor a nightjar. The birds I had spotted were a chaffinch and a wheatear and a budgerigar. Clearly there was only one thing to do. I would have to fish the shoes of the fisherman out of the wharfside water, and cram my feet back into them, and go walking again, away from the wharf and over Sawdust Bridge and along Yoko Ono Boulevard and past the important roadworks at the Blister Lane Bypass and through the Acre of Mud and along the perimeter fence of Poxhaven Aerodrome and under the viaduct and up, up, up into the Blue Forgotten Hills, looking at birds in the sky, this time writing their proper names in my birdbook, all the while walking in the shoes of the fisherman.

The Man Who Ate His Own Head

The other day I met a man who claimed he could eat his own head. I considered this preposterous, and said so. We were at a sophisticated cocktail party and he was leaning insouciantly against a mantelpiece.

“I can prove it to you,” he said, “As a demonstration, I will eat your head, and that will show that I could eat my own.”

I thought about this for perhaps three seconds before responding.

“Your so-called proof has several distinct flaws,” I said, “First, that if you eat my head, I will be in no position to form a judgement on the success or otherwise of your antics, as I presume I will lose consciousness and die as you gnaw through my neck, thus severing those all-important nerves and arteries and whatnot that enable my brain to function. Second, your ability to eat my head has no bearing whatsoever on your claim to be able to eat your own head. It is an entirely different head.”

He took a sip of his cocktail before conceding.

“Those are both valid points. But there were but two, and you said you had several.”

“Let those two suffice for the time being,” I said.

“Very well,” he replied, “I can see that I am up against a sceptic of formidable mental acuity. You are not by any chance a Jesuit, are you?”

I assured him I was not, despite it having been a childhood ambition to be ordained into the order.

“I, too, once dreamed of becoming a Jesuit,” he said, “But alas, I lost my faith. Still, that was a long time ago, since when I suppose I learned to replace it with the more fervent belief that I can eat my own head. You will not be satisfied until you actually witness me in the act of doing so, will you?”

I nodded my agreement. He looked at me in silence, and after a pause, said “There”.

“There what?” I asked.

“I just ate my own head and regurgitated it, as a bird does with food for its young.” he said, “You must excuse my manners, for I am a terribly fast eater and tend to gobble my food. I can be quite a cause of social discomfiture in the better restaurants.”

“I witnessed neither eating nor regurgitation,” I said, “You just stood there looking at me.”

He sighed with a measure of impatience.

“I have just explained to you that I eat with regrettable speed,” he said, “And this habit has a deleterious effect on my digestive system, one consequence of which is that I cannot tolerate certain foodstuffs, including human flesh and bone and brain matter, etcetera, so I spew them up immediately.”

“You are a very foolish man. Good evening to you, sir,” I said, and I turned on my heel and wandered off across the room, away from the mantelpiece, in search of somebody else to talk to.

Later that evening, passing near the mantelpiece again, I saw the man biting the head off another party guest, a person who, I reasoned, had not had the benefits of a Jesuitical education, and thus could not counter the arguments of this foolish but persuasive fellow. There was blood on the carpet, as there so often is, even at the most sophisticated cocktail parties.

Pick A Barn

Pick a barn, suggested Gertrude Stein in Tender Buttons (1914), so that is exactly what I did, I picked a barn. The barn I picked was the eerie barn at Scroonhoonpooge Farmyard. It was an appropriate choice. Just as Tender Buttons has been hailed as a masterpiece of cubist prose, so there is something decidedly cubist about the eerie barn, which reveals, if not its secrets, then to some extent its eeriness, when viewed simultaneously from different angles. How one might go about viewing an indubiitably solid three-dimensional barn from different angles simultaneously is The Point That Is Moot. It is well to bear this mootage in mind.

The eerie barn at Scroonhoonpooge Farmyard has been the scene of many many enormities, some involving the lumbering walrus-moustached psychopath Babinsky, some involving buttons, and some both Babinsky and buttons. The barn has also witnessed, day in day out, the slaughter of an unconscionable number of farmyard animals, not least chickens. One of the buttons on Babinsky’s overcoat, incidentally, had a decorative bit of folderol depicting a Vanburgh chicken, but only one of the buttons. Why the overcoat bore an odd button is, again, The Point That Is Moot. That makes two points of mootage.

Having picked my barn, I was not sure what to do next, so I further consulted Gertrude Stein, who clearly knew about such matters. “Pick a barn, a whole barn,” she wrote, “and bend more slender accents than have ever been necessary, shine in the darkness necessarily.” So I did that, bend and shine, bend and shine, turn and turn about, in the whole eerie barn. It was cavernous. When I felt I had bent and shone sufficient unto the day, or rather the evening, for it was evening, I had an overwhelming sense of mootage. Did I sense, too, the phantom presence of Babinsky, his great hairy hands drenched with blood, his one odd chicken button gleaming in the necessary darkness? I did not, and that was a small mercy.

Having picked and bent and shone, and reassured myself that Babinsky was nowhere in the vicinity, I was at something of a loose end. Then I remembered that Gertrude Stein liked to write while out in the countryside, sitting on a camping-stool, looking at cows. I reasoned, rightly I think, that where there is a barn there will be cows, or at least one cow. All I need do was to arm myself with a notepad and pencil and camping-stool, then find a cow. My various mootages began to dissolve, like liver salts in cold water.

Gertrude Stein was driven to her countryside cow-observation-and-writing spots by Alice B. Toklas, but without car or driver I had to trudge through farmyard and fields, and puddle after puddle after puddle, in search of my wantings. Do you have any idea how difficult it can be to find a notepad and a pencil and a camping-stool in a rustic backwater? These things are not just lying about waiting to be gathered gratefully to the bosom of the scavenger. As night fell, black and inhuman, I was still wandering about like a nincompoop, without pencil or notepad or camping-stool. Nor did I encounter a single cow in my roamings. Perhaps they had all been done to death in the eerie barn at Scroonhoonpooge Farmyard.

Before I tumbled into a ditch to spend a night of unrest and terror, I found, floating in a puddle, a button. I clutched it tenderly. But then I noticed that it bore a decorative bit of folderol depicting a Vanburgh chicken. Was it the button of Babinsky? That the fiend might be close at hand, hunting desperately for his odd button, made me sick with fear. I flung the button away from me, as far as it could be flung, and toppled into my ditch. Tomorrow I would pick a different barn, less eerie, less cubist, and far, far from this accursed spot.

On Pugton Hill

While shepherds watched their flocks at night on Pugton Hill the wind blew wild and there were shimmerings or ghostly gleams. One shepherd had a wristwatch and told the time to the other two. Down below Pugton Hill on the main arterial road huge container lorries thundered past on their way to the ferry. The shepherds smoked their pipes. The lorries too belched smoke for there were no laws in place to stop them so doing. Nor were there speed limits. Crashes and pile-ups and terrible accidents were common at that time in that place below Pugton Hill. When they heard or saw dimly in the black night a grievous traffic incident the shepherds laughed for their hearts were cold and void of human sympathy. They preferred the company of nocturnal sheep wide awake and terrified as sheep are for most of their time on earth and on Pugton Hill. So slowly the hands of the wristwatch tock off the minutes and the hours. The shepherds are waiting for a sign. There is no signage on the main arterial road save for an occasional arrow pointing towards the ferry. No sign points the way back for none of the huge speeding lorries ever comes back. They carry the contents of the country load by load to the ferry and never return past Pugton Hill atop which the shepherds smoke and laugh and are fiercely protective of their terrified sheep. Glory be for yes it is a kind of glory up there above the road as the wind blows wild in the night on Pugton Hill.

When Push Comes To Shove

From the archives:

When push comes to shove, I invariably topple over. If I am standing on a precipice, or at the edge of a gaping pit, this can be life-threatening. Thus, whenever my plans for the day include roaming in the vicinity of a yawning chasm, I take precautions by wearing a sort of winch-and-pulley affair, one end of which is wound around my torso, under my vest, and the other end of which I hammer into a patch of firm ground using a great big iron mallet. I am careful to ensure that this end of my winch-and-pulley is stuck fast in the earth, for if there is any chance of it working itself loose, the entire activity would be pointless, for if, heaven forbid, I were to topple when shoved, my efforts would have been in vain, for the crumbling or squelchy soil would yield up my winch-and-pulley and I would surely topple as if I had never been attached to anything in the first place. That is such a terrible prospect that I make efforts to map out in advance the terrain in which I plan to wander, perhaps a week or so ahead. Of course, fugitive weather conditions can alter the state of the ground as shown on my charts, but risk and chance play a role in all human affairs, and there is no reason why my roamings should be exempt. When setting out on my map-making expeditions, I usually attach one end of the winch-and-pulley to some stable object like a horse-trough or a concrete sundial.

My benefactors have long sought to deter me from straying near pits, chasms and abandoned mineshafts, so I am afraid I have had to use subterfuge. As I wave to them from the garden gate, with the winch-and-pulley concealed behind a muffler, I say something like, “I am just going out to check the concrete sundial” or “My my, the day is so clement that I think I will stroll along a flat and featureless plain like the big field where Farmer Buzan used to grow his potatoes all those years ago”. Sometimes such announcements will be met with questions, which I am usually able to anticipate by peering at the furrowedness of my benefactors’ brows. At other times I may have to improvise a convincing response or deflect the queries by pointing at a starling, for example, or forcing a sudden spray of projectile vomiting. When push comes to shove, pointing at a starling is my preferred option.

It is twenty years now since I bashed in Farmer Buzan’s head with his own spade. I like to think that my benefactors trust me these days, but it seems not. Oh look, there’s a starling in that sycamore tree!

The Plumless Land

He went to an orchard with his chums
And they stole a punnet’s worth of plums
Then they scampered off to their hideaway
As the last light faded from the day
The sky grew dark, then darker, black
They transferred the plums into a sack
Then they tumbled out of their hideaway tent
And round the town in the night they went
Depositing plums from door to door
Mischief that was against the law
For in that town plums had been banned
As elsewhere in that plumless land
According to the king’s decree
Chim-chim-cheroo, chim-chim-cheree
(The king looked just like Dick Van Dyke)
Plums were a fruit he did not like
Why then, you ask, did he allow
The orchard’s trees, bough upon bough
To sprout so many Carlsbad plums?
Let us ask the little chums.
But oh! They’ve vanished in the night
Now they’re completely out of sight
O’er the hills and far away
As dawn breaks on a brand new day
And townsfolk find plums on their stoeps
They greet them with shrill cries and whoops
And hide them quick before King Claus
Comes on his rounds from house to house
If he finds a plum his wrath will wax
And cause umpteen heart attacks
So hide your plums well, folks of the town
Till human voices wake you, and you drown.

Butter Before Guns

I wanted butter more than I wanted guns. I have always been partial to dairy products, cows’ milk and yoghurt for example, but my greed for butter had become all-consuming. I was mad for it and could think of little else. So one grim overcast morning I set out for the nearest dairy, knocked at the gate, and demanded butter. The dairyman, of great bulk and threatening mien, refused me butter and shooed me away as he might shoo away a gnat.

Broken in spirit, I lolloped into a tavern. A cad with a pencil moustache and a battered briefcase was propping up the bar. He asked what ailed me, and I explained.

“Let me give you a tip,” he said, “I know about these things. The best way for you to obtain butter from that dairyman is to threaten him with a gun. If you went back, and demanded butter, while aiming at the centre of his forehead a fully loaded Mannlicher-Carcano rifle, I think you’d find he would hand over as much butter as you want in a jiffy.”

This was a persuasive argument, but I told the cad that I had neither a Mannlicher-Carcano rifle nor any other type of gun.

“That’s where you’re in luck,” he replied, “For it just so happens that I am an international arms dealer and I can lay my hands on any type of gun you want at the drop of a hat. It will cost you, of course, but think about the butter!”

I was won over, and I scuttled home to fetch from under my bed the shoebox containing my worldly wealth. It was not a great sum, but I hoped it would be enough for a rifle. As I made my way back to the tavern, a little birdie – I think it way have been a peewit or a grebe – perched on my shoulder and chattered in my ear. What it said, had I been able to translate its twittering, was “Why don’t you give the money directly to the dairyman as payment for his butter?” But I was ignorant of the language of birds and I brushed it away without understanding.

The cad was still propping up the bar and he accepted my shoebox of cash after counting it carefully.

“Obviously,” he said, “As a gun runner I have to be cautious. Meet me under the viaduct at nightfall and I will give you a fully loaded Mannlicher-Carcano rifle.”

“But I want my butter before then!” I wailed, “That’s the whole point! I want butter before guns!”

The cad looked at me with some sympathy.

“Well,” he said, “Why not go back to the dairy and explain to the dairyman that if he doesn’t hand over his butter there and then you will come back after nightfall armed with a fully loaded Mannlicher-Carcano rifle and you will shoot him through the centre of his forehead, without mercy. That ought to buck his ideas up.”

“Good idea!” I said, and I scampered off to the dairy, happy and hopeful.

I knocked at the gate and explained myself to the dairyman. I expected him at once to be cowed, and to fetch butter for me. But instead, he took from his pocket a handgun and shot me, several times, in the legs and arms.

As I lay sprawled in the mud outside the dairy gate, waiting for an ambulance to come clanging, the peewit or grebe landed on my head and began chattering into my ear. Before I passed out, I resolved to learn the language of birds.

[Should you prefer guns before butter, go to 23 September 2012.]

Hiking Pickle Revisited

A further nugget from the archives. One In A Series Of Hiking Pickles first appeared on this day eight years ago.

Dobson lived in the era before mobile phones, of course, so when he found himself imperilled in an isolated spot he had to harness every last scrap of ingenuity to summon help. You or I would simply make a call on our mobile – well, you would, but I wouldn’t, because I do not own a mobile phone and never shall, for they are an abomination unto me – but this was not an option for Dobson, so what did he do?

Let us take a closer look at the circumstances. It was a Tuesday in February. Football fans were grieving the loss of the Busby Babes in the Munich Air Disaster, Pope Pius XII had declared that Saint Clare was to be the patron saint of television, and little blind David Blunkett was just eleven years old. Meanwhile, Dobson got lost on an ill-advised hiking expedition and found himself exhausted, in a spinney, menaced by feral goats. The out of print pamphleteer had also managed to get himself hopelessly entangled in a thicket of thorny brambly creeping greenery rife with puffy spiders and venomous beetles. That’s the kind of spinney it was, at least twenty miles from the nearest village, and with no paths nor country lanes leading anywhere close to it. There was, it is true, a big pylon a couple of dozen yards away, but it was a lone pylon, unconnected to any kind of electrical grid or other wiring system, a pylon the purpose of which was unknown, and it was a pylon of rust, suggestive of abandonment and disuse.

This was not the first time Dobson had been in a hiking pickle, and it would not be the last. Indeed, late in life he had enough material to furnish a pamphlet entitled An Anthology Of Disastrous Hiking Mishaps Cobbled Together From A Lifetime Of Ill-Starred Rustic Pursuits (out of print). What was significant about this particular pickle was the manner in which Dobson succeeded in extricating himself from it.

This was the period during which he had joined an experimental knitting circle, and as luck would have it he had in his noddy bag that day his latest project. It was an interpretation, in wool, of The Wreck Of The Deutschland by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Dobson realised that, when fully unravelled, the yarn would stretch for miles. He sat down in the brambles, lit his pipe, took the scrunched-up woollen masterpiece out of his noddy bag, and unravelled, unravelled, unravelled. Two hours later he was still unravelling. The sun was setting by the time he was done, but Dobson had no fear of the night, for he was sanguine.

Frequently Asked Question : Why didn’t the pamphleteer use his portable metal tapping machine to call for help?

Answer : He was unable to use his portable metal tapping machine because there was no ground-level pneumatic hub within reach.

The wool fully unravelled, Dobson tapped out his pipe on a stone and beckoned to one of the feral Toggenbergs. The goats were still gathered in a gang on the edge of the spinney, and it is a mystery why they had not attacked the bramble-trapped pamphleteer. In the Anthology, Dobson suggested that a combination of acrid pipe smoke, unravelled wool, and his sanguine nature had deterred the goats, but it seems that for once he was being modest. Almost certainly, the decisive factor was Dobson’s eerie ability to mesmerise goats, especially Toggenbergs. It is a skill which has not been much remarked upon, possibly because Dobson himself made light of it, and – curiously – never devoted a pamphlet to it. But he had been practising goat mesmerisation since he was a babe in arms, and now his expertise paid off. Beckoning a Toggenberg, as I said, Dobson tied one end of the length of wool around one of its Satanic horns, then whispered goat-language into its ear. We do not know what he said, but presumably it was something like “Scamper away, goat, in a straight line, and do not stop until you reach a village”.

It was not a village that the goat scampered to, however. Three hours after being entranced, it came to a wire fence, chewed its way through, and, in so doing, set off a hideous caterwauling alarm system. The night was filled with noise, and the Toggenberg was caught in the white glare of a Kleig light. Within seconds, it was surrounded by a clomping troop of visored commandos armed with Simon & Garfunkel rifles. Inadvertently, the mesmerised capricorn had stumbled into a top secret military intelligence compound. A commando with a captain’s badge bundled the goat onto a bauxite cradle chained to a winch, while a second commando, this one with a cadet’s badge, untied the wool from its horn.

Miles away, Dobson was smoking his pipe and lackadaisically paying out the wool, hand over hand. Suddenly, he felt it jerk, and held on tight. And then he was yanked free of the thorny brambly creeping greenery rife with puffy spiders and venomous beetles and dragged across a wasteland of fields and gravel pits and sumps and countryside filth until he fetched up at the feet of the commandos who reeled him in, just as midnight struck.

That is how Dobson got out of a hiking pickle, only to find himself in a very alarming dilemma indeed, slap bang in the middle of a military intelligence compound that was top secret for very good reasons – reasons which, even at a distance of fifty years, I am far too terrified to divulge. He was placed in a holding cell with the feral goat and interrogated at length. The wool was returned to him and he asked for, and was given, a pair of knitting needles. Between interrogations he was able to re-knit The Wreck Of The Deutschland, although much of his woollen reimagining of the lines about the Tall Nun was gnawed into scritty by the Toggenberg. By the time the commandos released the pamphleteer, having scrambled his brainpans so thoroughly that he remembered nothing after the spinney, Richard Milhous Nixon had published his book Six Crises, Pluto and Neptune were in alignment for the first time in 403 years, and little blind David Blunkett was no longer so little.

Dobson returned home even more sanguine than before the hiking pickle. As for the feral goat, it stayed with the commandos. They adopted it as a pet, and called it Flopsy.

Soup Anniversary

Today, unbelievably, we celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Hooting Yard Soup Committee. That is to say, it is precisely ten years ago today that this piece, entitled Soup Committee, first appeared at Hooting Yard:

Dobson rarely sought collaborators in his pamphleteering work, preferring to plough his furrow alone. Occasionally, however, his schemes were so ambitious that it was necessary to call in help. One such plan led to the formation of what became known as the Soup Committee.

Dobson woke up one wintry morning with an idea in his head. This was not uncommon, but usually his ideas could be – and were – dashed off in a brief pamphlet. Not so the gigantic multi-volume work he pictured in his mind, a compendium of every known soup recipe ever conceived, throughout human history, from the dawn of time to today’s date, across all cultures and civilisations. Even Dobson realised that he could not accomplish so mighty a project single-handed, so he asked Marigold Chew to draw up a list of likely contributors. The Soup Committee was her idea. Reasoning that if she invited people to take part in a Dobson plan they would probably decline, and thus shatter the pamphleteer’s already shattered nerves, she used her usual hardline tactics. The letter she sent out to over eight hundred unsuspecting souls is preserved in the Dobson Archive.

Dear Soup Person, it read, This is to inform you that you have been empanelled on to the Soup Committee. Your empanelment is effective from today’s date and remains in force until such time as you die. The full implications of your membership of the Committee will follow by separate post, but you had better start gathering soup recipes right now. Yours decisively, Marigold Chew, pp Dobson.

The pamphleteer himself decided to begin by garnering soup recipes from the Old and New Testaments, and set about rereading his Bible with pencil and notepad in hand. He was distraught, at the end of this exercise, to discover that the word “soup” appears nowhere in the Authorised Version, or King James Bible, which was the edition he swore by. He went back to the beginning and realised that “pottage” was possibly a synonym for “soup”, although it might also mean what we know as “stew”. Undeterred, Dobson was able to fill a couple of pages of his notepad.

In Genesis 25, for example, we have, 29 And Jacob sod pottage: and Esau came from the field, and he was faint, 30 And Esau said to Jacob, Feed me, I pray thee, with that same red pottage; for I am faint: therefore was his name called Edom, and 34 Then Jacob gave Esau bread and pottage of lentiles; and he did eat and drink, and rose up, and went his way: thus Esau despised his birthright. This is elsewhere translated as And Esau sold his birthright for a mess of pottage, of course, a resounding phrase we would all do well to remember.

Moving on to the second book of Kings, chapter four, after having soup for lunch, Dobson read 38 And Elisha came again to Gilgal: and there was a dearth in the land; and the sons of the prophets were sitting before him: and he said unto his servant, Set on the great pot, and seethe pottage for the sons of the prophets, 39 And one went out into the field to gather herbs, and found a wild vine, and gathered thereof wild gourds his lap full, and came and shred them into the pot of pottage: for they knew them not, and finally 40 So they poured out for the men to eat. And it came to pass, as they were eating of the pottage, that they cried out, and said, O thou man of God, there is death in the pot. And they could not eat thereof.

Towards the end of the Old Testament, Dobson found one last mention of soup, or stew, in Haggai 2: 12 If one bear holy flesh in the skirt of his garment, and with his skirt do touch bread, or pottage, or wine, or oil, or any meat, shall it be holy? And the priests answered and said, No.

Seven verses, but presumably only three different soups, the most interesting to Dobson being the one in Kings which has “death in the pot”. What was this poisonous potion? We know that Dobson was a vain, even arrogant pamphleteer, but he did have some small shred of humility. He recognised that if his great work on soup was to be definitive, every single recipe would have to be authorised by an expert. Marigold Chew sent a second letter to the members of the Committee.

Dear Empanelled Soup Committee Person, she wrote, As a matter of urgency, further detail is required on the wild gourds which were shredded into the pottage mentioned in 2 Kings 4:39, as well as the ingredients already in the pot, which, as you know, contained death. Send your reply by courier. Yours tenaciously, Marigold Chew, pp Dobson.

Not a single one of the recipients ever replied. Dobson himself soon lost interest in soup recipes, filed his notes away, and embarked that very same winter on a series of pamphlets about sodium, postage stamps, the manufacture of church bells, loosely-fitting cardigans, gutta percha price fluctuations and Plovdiv. One by one, over the years, the Soup Committee members died out. It is thought that only three of them are still alive, one in Bastwick, one in Cleves, and one, now 104 years old, fit as a fiddle, plying a ferry across an inlet at an unidentified seaside resort battered by gales, battered by storms, battered by gales, battered.