New Verse By Dennis Beerpint

Oh cloak of night! Enshroud my hob
On which I boil, in a pan,
A gruel thin, to feed my flock
When morning breaks, and they line up,
Each with his coupon, snipped or torn
From Christ In Extremis! magazine
Bought from the kiosk by the pond
Past the crumbling viaduct
Beyond the hen coops and the sump
Over the hills and far away.

The Barbarian At The Gate

One morning recently, I walked out of my house and along the path to my front gate, and there, standing on the other side of it, was a barbarian. Sensing that he was about to smash my gate down with mighty blows from the heavy wooden club he was brandishing, I moved to distract his attention by pointing up at the sky and saying “Oh look! A peewit!”

According to Pepinstow’s Bumper Book of Barbarians, barbarians are particularly partial to peewits, and will usually become much less barbaric in their presence. But of course, I had invented the peewit, I had pointed at nothing. I was merely playing for time. Soon enough, the barbarian at my gate would realise there was not a nearby peewit, and he would set about smashing down my gate and laying waste to anything and everything in his path, including me.

As he turned his head to look up, therefore, I dug into my pocket for a glob of plasticine, and swiftly fashioned it into a toy or model peewit. It was a pretty cack-handed effort, resembling a punch-drunk starling, or even Stalin, rather than a peewit. I hoped nevertheless it would serve to fool the barbarian and placate him for a minute or two.

This would give me time to make a call to the Defence of Civilisation Foot Patrol, who would come screeching up in their squad cars and Taser the barbarian. You might wonder why a Foot Patrol goes about in cars, but these are strange times, strange times indeed.

Before I had time to call them, however, the barbarian at my gate had ascertained that the sky was empty of peewits, turned his head back to glare at me, spotted the plasticine sort-of-peewit in my outstretched hand, made a series of mawkish icky cooing noises, grabbed the peewit in his huge hairy paw, and begun dribbling. Not for the first time, I gave thanks to Pepinstow.

But in the Bumper Book, Pepinstow advises strongly against the Tasering of placated barbarians. Apparently, this only redoubles their barbarity when the effects of the Taser wear off. Thus I was in something of a quandary. The barbarian, too stupid to realise that the plasticine peewit was not a real peewit, remained as if transfixed at my gate, thus blocking my exit. And I had an urgent appointment at the Village Wrestling Ring!

Also, it occurred to me that the manner in which the barbarian was mauling the peewit, in the mistaken belief that he was coddling it, meant that it would soon lose its peewity shape, and be once again a plasticine glob. As soon as the barbarian noticed this, he would cease the cooing and the dribbling and be once again barbaric. What was it Pepinstow had written? To the barbarian, mauling is coddling, or words to that effect.

I realised I needed a real peewit, one that could fly, and thus coax the barbarian to follow it, away from my gate. But where could I obtain a peewit at short notice? I rushed back indoors and logged in to the ePeewit website on my computer. I noted that there were a couple of fairly local peewit vendors, one of whom offered express delivery by drone. I tried to place an order, but as usual the ePeewit site was agonisingly slow and repeatedly asked me for my password and the name of my childhood pet puppy. I could not remember my password and I never had a puppy.

In desperation, I wondered if I could make my own flying peewit, out of plasticine, by attaching to it a propellor. I had a stash of plasticine, but where could I obtain a propellor? Could I make one using a couple of drinking straws? Damn Pepinstow for not addressing this eventuality!

Then I heard the first crunch! of my gate being smashed by the barbarian’s club. Clearly the plasticine peewit had lost its shape and he was no longer placated. I cowered in a corner, listening to the awful sounds of the barbarian destroying my gate, and my garden path, and my front door, and anything else in his way as he came lumbering, barbarically, into the room. I was about to cry out for mercy, using the wording recommended by Pepinstow, when the barbarian laid down his club, mopped his brow with a filthy rag, and said:

Good morning to you, sir. I am Detective Captain Unstrebnodtalb. I come from a far country, and my brain is hot.”

NOTA BENE : Readers who have immersed themselves in Mr Key’s witterings since the last century may recognise this as an hommage to The Immense Duckpond Pamphlet (1990).

Jasper The Baffled Eel

Jasper The Baffled Eel is a brand new children’s book about an eel named Jasper who is baffled. What baffles him? Oh, just about everything that happens in his life as an eel. I don’t need to go into the details, as I am sure you can imagine yourself as an eel and tally up in your head all the things that would baffle you.

I say it is a children’s book, and that is indeed how it has been marketed by the soulless twerps in the marketing department of the publishing house. But I suspect the book may appeal more to older readers, very old readers, those in or approaching their dotage. It may even prove popular among those who have passed beyond dotage into death. At rest and encoffined, what better token of life to take with them, clutched in their cold stiff hands, than this baffling eely book?

There are no illustrations. Most of the words are simple ones, of one or two syllables, with only a few instances of longer or less common words, among which I noted flapdoodle, japonaiserie, and haemoglobin. Jasper the eel is baffled by these words, but you will not be, not even if you are dead, because nothing baffles the dead.

They say walls have ears, but birds and eels do not. They also say that Jesus wants me for a sunbeam, but try telling that to an eel. You will only baffle the eel, as Jasper is baffled, in a bravura display of realism. It may even be hyperrealism. There were certainly points in the book where I felt, vividly, that I had been plunged into the wide Sargasso sea. I was sopping wet and festooned with seaweed. Though it is fair to say that I am usually sopping and festooned, when reading books. It is, and always has been, my way.

Oh, Jasper! Jasper! Poor baffled eel. No longer a glass eel or an elver, with its life stretching before it, full of promise, but a full-grown adult eel, lost in the immensity of the world’s oceans and seas and rivers and lakes and other watery parts, watery parts that cover seven-tenths of this globe, with its magnetic bits and its vegetation and its eels. For Jasper is not alone.

But he is alone, in this book. Population of eels in its pages – one. One eel, but oh! how he fills those pages, turning up once, twice, even three times before it is time for you to turn the leaf. And that is not surprising, because this is his story. No other eel gets a look in, and nor does any other living creature, other than occasional mentions of a rabbit and a plover and a brass-necked goose. But these are incidental beings. They will, one day, have their own books, in which Jasper the eel may make a fleeting appearance.

I would have been interested to learn more, in this book, about eels and japonaiserie. But then, most people who know me well will attest that I constantly carp on about eels and japonaiserie, to the exclusion of other, perhaps more pressing, matters. I make no apology. Though I may never be transfigured into a sunbeam for Jesus, I have buttered my parsnips, and I will take them with me to the grave, instead of my copy of Jasper The Baffled Eel, which I will donate to an orphanage library, for the future edification of generation after generation of orphaned tinies, as baffled as Jasper by the complexities of this complex and baffling universe.

Now let us all sing Sag Mir Wo Die Blumen Sind?

The Blind Goose-Killer Of Urk

Last night I dreamt I went to Urk again. Have you ever been to Urk, wide awake or in your dreams? You would surely remember if you had. Urk is a unique place, a tiny Belgian exclave oh! so high in the Alps. More precisely, it is an exclave of the province of Flanders, though its tiny population includes a tiny proportion of Walloons.

Urkites are known to state, with pride, that “nothing ever happens” in Urk. That is largely true. It is so tiny, and so high above sea level, in contrast to the rest of Flanders, that very little of note has ever occurred there. Its official history, available from the kiosk in the street (both singular), runs to a four-page pamphlet printed in very big type, one-and-a-half pages of which consist of advertisements. And the pages themselves are tiny! Just as the kiosk is tiny and the street is short.

Urk never signed up to the European Union’s Schengen Treaty, so visitors – if there are any – still need to show their passports at the frontier. This is a chalet at the foot of the funicular railway which climbs up, up, up, at dizzying steepness, to the village, where the air is thin and the police officer is idle.

As one alights from the railway, one is thrust almost immediately into the heart of Urk. This is the village square. It is a patch of well-tended lawn, with a flowerbed rife with tulips, and a tiny concrete statue of tiptop Belgian cyclist Eddy Merckx. It is here you will also find, slumped on a bench, at all hours of day and night, the Blind Goose-Killer of Urk.

When the exclave was founded, by a smattering of Belgian tuberculosis patients over a hundred years ago, it was decreed that only one person in Urk was permitted to kill a goose, and that this person must be blind. All the other laws governing the territory were imported wholesale from Flanders. The origins of the goose-killing edict are obscure, and may have resulted from a misunderstanding. Whatever the case, there has always and forever been a designated Blind Goose-Killer in Urk. It is a lifetime position, one of great honour but paltry reward.

What happens is this. Let us say you are in Urk and you wish to make a goose die. You must go to the bench in the square and rouse the Blind Goose-Killer, who is probably dozing. You introduce yourself, presenting your identity papers, if you are an Urkite, or your passport, if you are a visitor. The Blind Goose-Killer cannot, of course, see these documents, but will enact what is known as “the sniffing and the rustling of the pages”.

You must then state, in Flemish, that you wish a goose to be killed, and ask the Blind Goose-Killer to kill the goose for you. Almost invariably, and while still half-asleep, the Blind Goose-Killer will accede to your request, although once in a blue moon, or if in an ill temper, or if bilious, he or she will refuse. Assuming the answer is positive, you must then go and fetch the goose you want killed.

You hand the goose to the Blind Goose-Killer. Apart from blindness, another characteristic shared by all who have held the position is the possession of a pair of hands with eerie, vaguely inhuman musculature. Once in the grip of these hands, the goose cannot escape its fate. You could say its goose is cooked, though that introduces a second, putative, abstract goose, which is one goose too many, and may serve to befuddle the Blind Goose-Killer, so is best left unsaid.

As soon as it has been strangled, you take the dead goose from the Blind Goose-Killer and offer your thanks. Although they are in receipt of an annual stipend from the burghers of Urk, you should give them some loose change as a tip.

As I said, last night I dreamt I went to Urk again. It was a disturbing dream, more of a nightmare. The entire tiny exclave was overrun with living, honking, dazzlingly white geese. And there, on the bench in the square, was slumped the Blind Goose-Killer, torn and bloody and lifeless. He had been pecked to death.

The Wisdom Of Peasants

[This piece originally appeared under the title Tarleton Comes A-Cropper in April 2013.]

And then, as we know, there came the time when Tarleton, the amateur’s amateur, came a-cropper. He was in pursuit of a shifty pastry hawker, a man with a barrow, known to galumph along ill-lit lanes. Tarleton carried a torch, sweeping its bright beam ahead of him, both to avoid pits and puddles and in hope that he might catch a glimpse of his quarry. But, as the old saying has it, a torch in the hands of a nincompoop sheds no light.

Incidentally, it is well worth your while to jot down old sayings in a notepad when you hear them. They can be invaluable in establishing rapport with countryside peasants. If you fall into conversation with such a person, you will discover that their utterances often consist of little else but old sayings strung together. By dropping in your own crumbs of rustic wisdom from time to time, you will be able to maintain conversational sparkle in otherwise trying circumstances. The beauty of it is, you do not need to grasp the actual meaning of the old sayings you deploy.

Consider, for example, the one we have just encountered, a torch in the hands of a nincompoop sheds no light. On the face of it, this would seem to make little or no sense, unless we presume the nincompoop has neglected to press the knob that lights the bulb of the torch he is carrying. But one must always avoid presumption, as we learned from Blötzmann (Third Notebook, Lavender Series). Say that saying to, say, a sophisticated urban person at a swish cocktail party, and you face a series of brusque questions demanding that you clarify what you are saying. Say the same words to a peasant in the countryside and as likely as not he will suck thoughtfully on his piece of straw and nod, before parrying with a saying of his own, such as You can’t milk a goat with a hammer.

But wait wait wait! [These are the words erupting inside your head, dear reader. You see, I know you only too well.] Grateful as I am to be given tips on talking to peasants, tips I will no doubt make use of when next I go trudging through an area of rustic squalor, I cannot let pass the clear implication in your opening paragraph that Tarleton was a nincompoop. How can such things be? Tarleton, the amateur’s amateur. a nincompoop? Surely, sir, you are in jest!

Let me answer that. It is true enough that few persons have ever trod this earth whose brains were as acute as Tarleton’s. Indeed, hold his brain in the palm of your hand and you would be astonished at its heft. It is worth noting, in this context, that you could, if you wished to, so hold Tarleton’s brain. It is kept preserved in jelly in a jar in a display case in the lobby of his alma mater, Miss Blossom Partridge’s Institute For The Education Of Frighteningly Adept Tinies. Make an appointment with the bursar, don a pair of gloves, and an attendant will open the display case and unscrew the lid from the jar and, with special tweezers, lift the brain from its protective jelly and allow you to hold it, registering its heft, for up to sixty seconds. The jar is clearly labelled with Tarleton’s name, so you will not mistake it for the brains of other alumni in other jellies in other jars in other display cases in the same lobby.

Now, as true as it is that Tarleton was no dimwit, it is equally true that nincompoopery is to be found in the most unexpected places. Here we might recall another aperçu of Blötzmann’s, from the Fifth Notebook, Lilac Series. No man is all nincompoop, he observed, but all men have an inner nincompoop ever ready to emerge and flourish. Blötzmann compares this inner nincompoop to a mayfly, in a passage I recommend to your attention. His point is that even the most dazzlingly sensible and spectacular minds may, from time to time, and ephemerally, exhibit the sure signs of nincompoopery. This is what, I argue, happened with Tarleton as he stumbled down an ill-lit lane in pursuit of the shifty pastry hawker.

It was night, a black night, moonless and starless on account of a great shroud of cloud. The first incipient sign of Tarleton’s inner nincompoop was that he did not wait until sunrise to go prowling after his quarry. Even the swiftest of shifty pastry hawkers cannot cover too much ground, trundling a barrow, in the hours between dusk and dawn. And though the lane would still be ill-lit, in the daylight, shaded as it was on either side by towering pines and titanic cedars, yet there would be light enough for a man of Tarleton’s piercing vision. Not so on this night, this black unholy night.

Unholy, I say, because it was the one night in the calendar year when imps and goblins are let loose from their fetters and are free to dash about, all mischief and havoc and mayhem. On this night churns are upended, wells poisoned, cows turned inside out. That, at least, is what the peasants believe. It is what they will tell you, in the form of old sayings, if you are willing to listen. The wise man stays abed on St Spivack’s night, they will say, or When Spivack’s Night comes round again, burn a dolly and slaughter a hen.

For all the startling heft of his brain, Tarleton, the amateur’s amateur, did not heed such warnings. In fact he dismissed the peasants’ old sayings as nonsensical babble. This was his undoing. This was his nincompoopery. And so he went a-stumbling along an ill-lit lane in the night, sweeping the beam of his torch ahead of him. What was he to do when, of a sudden, a goblin came swooping down and gobbled up the light and swallowed it and then belched it out in the form of thick black poison fumes?

Poor Tarleton was terrified, and in his terror he turned on his heel and ran from the goblin, but he made only a half turn, so no sooner did he begin to flee than he crashed into a towering pine, or a titanic cedar, and came a -cropper, and the bash given to his head dislodged his brain within its cranium, and he fell to the ground, and knew no more.

He might have been dead. The peasant who found him, at daybreak, thought him so, and being a gravedigging peasant, he hoisted his spade from over his shoulder and began to dig a pit in which to chuck the body. He whistled as he dug, an ancient rustic tune, and it was the sounds of his whistling and of his digging that woke Tarleton from his stupor. He rubbed his bonce, but remembered nothing of what had happened during the black unholy night. He did not even remember that he had been pursuing a shifty pastry hawker.

Where am I?” he asked, in an uncharacteristically weedy and quavering voice, “What place is this? What day is it? Why are you digging a pit?”

The peasant did not reply. He was an obtuse peasant, and a peasant with a stubborn sense of purpose. Having begun to dig a grave by the side of the lane in the shade of towering pines and titanic cedars, nothing would stop him until he had shoved the body six feet under and covered it over with earth. And here was a second instance of Tarleton’s nincompoopery. Close observation of the peasant’s countenance, of the grim determination of his digging, might have persuaded Tarleton to get to his feet and run, run away as fast as he could. But he sat up, and lit his pipe, and listened to birdsong, and he was still sitting and smoking and listening when the peasant, his digging done, threw down his spade and turned and picked up Tarleton in one huge hairy hand by the scruff of his neck and chucked him into the pit and retrieved his spade and began to shovel spadeful after spadeful of soil and muck, rich with worms, over the amateur’s amateur, sprawled in the pit, and soon enough buried, never to be found..

The peasant stamped his great boots on the grave, to smooth the ground and remove all trace of his digging, and then, whistling, he went on his way.

Just one thing. If Tarleton was buried alive in an unmarked grave in an ill-lit lane in an area of rustic squalor, how is it that his brain was retrieved and stored in jelly in a jar in a display case in the lobby of Miss Blossom Partridge’s Institute For The Education Of Frighteningly Adept Tinies?

Ah. I could tell you a thing or two about Miss Blossom Partridge, and certain members of staff at her Institute, that would curdle the blood in your veins. Things innocent ears should never hear. Remember the old peasant saying, Ignorance is better by far / When you see a brain in jelly in a jar.

Nocturnal Pig Observatory

Last night I dreamt I went to the Nocturnal Pig Observatory again. But it was one of those dreams where everything happens in bright and battering sunlight. This made it particularly disturbing, because, with the exception of the unfamiliar light, everything else in the dream matched my memories of those times. I sat at the console, twiddling the knobs. I made adjustments to the pig scanner with a pair of pliers. I gazed out through the pig-proof plexiglass observation panel, while making indentations in my tally-stick.

One other detail that jarred was the presence, within the Observatory, of an albino chicken. I think it may have been a Vanbrugh chicken. It was so white, and the sunlight so glaring, that the chicken seemed to shimmer, like one imagines an Angel of the Lord come to earth upon a visitation.

I saw no pigs, so in that sense again the dream had an air of brute reality. Not once, in all my years of duty at the Nocturnal Pig Observatory, did I ever spot a real pig. Sham ones, yes, of course, and puppet pigs, and ghosts of pigs. But never a real, solid, porker. The flat wild bleak desolate windswept tarputa is inimical to pigs, thank heaven, but we must always be on the watch. Or at least we used to be, back in those days, when we were pig ignorant.

Now things have changed, many say for the better. Much of the tarputa is no longer as flat and wild and bleak and desolate and windswept as once it was. There are ice cream kiosks and miniature zoos and an aerodrome. There is a huge cement statue, on a plinth, of star of stage and screen Googie Withers (1917 – 2011). There is even, mischievously, an extensive modern state-of-the-art pig sty, though it is of course empty of pigs, including sham and puppet and ghost pigs.

Or is it? One would have to creep up to the edge of the pig sty in darkness, on a moonless night, and train one’s portable pig scanner upon the most likely ghost-haunted parts of the sty, and wait, in silence and awe, for a sighting, to be duly recorded in one’s ghost pig log, with a notch indented on one’s tally-stick. Who among us can say we are truly prepared for such a task?

Since I awoke, I have been thinking, like a man obsessed, about that shimmering albino chicken. What did its dream-presence portend? I can wring no sense from it, as I prance like a ninny across the tarputa, on my way to buy a choc-ice from the kiosk, and to lay a bouquet of gladioli upon the cement feet of Googie Withers. That will make my Thursday complete. And when I settle down to sleep, will I dream of the Nocturnal Pig Observatory again? Will the past haunt me still? Do I dare to eat a peach? Is there honey still for tea? Where have all the flowers gone? What’s so funny ’bout pigs, love, and understanding?

Pale Horseman

He was exceedingly pale, and he sat astride a horse. He was the Pale Horseman. The horse was an elegant nut-brown something-or-other, with splendid fetlocks and a terrific mane. I use the word “terrific” because it was terrifying, that mane, on that horse. It certainly terrified the horseman. Why do you think he was so pale?

Clip-clop along the lane went the horse, through dense forest, and the horseman sat tall in the saddle, like the best of heroes in a cowboy film. Here it is worth noting that, though there are cowboys, there are no boy cows. All cows, wherever in the world you roam, are girls. As for the horse, be it a girl horse or boy horse, that does not matter to us, and nor did it matter to the horseman, who shuddered as he contemplated its terrific mane. But he pulled himself together, and clip-clopped onwards, or rather the horse clip-clopped, while the horseman sat.

The lane stretched from Pointy Town at one end to Tantarabim at the other. If you are familiar with the geography of this land – and if you are only half-educated, you damned well ought to be – you will know it was a very long lane indeed. The point where we met the Pale Horseman, deep in the dense forest, was roughly halfway along the lane. He was on his way from Pointy Town to Tantarabim.

There were many inns on or just off the lane, at which travellers such as the Pale Horseman and his horse could spend the night. Each inn was named after an album by Jethro Tull, except one, known as Exotic Birds And Fruit, which shared its name with an album by Procol Harum. This anomaly was occasioned by muddled thinking on the part of the Nomenclature of Inns Pursuivant. It was a costly misattribution. He was taken out and shot.

As it happened, the clearing in the forest where the execution took place was just yards away from where the Pale Horseman stopped his horse, that morning. He was intent on paying homage to the Pursuivant at the spot where he had fallen. While his horse scratched its innocent behind on a tree, the Pale Horseman stood with head bowed in the clearing, muttering a few words under his breath. Then, as a mark of devotion to the departed, he placed on the ground a piece of fruit taken from his pocket. It was a toffee apple.

Returning to his horse, the Pale Horseman saw that it was disconcerted and fractious, its mane even more terrific. Although he was already deathly pale, such was his terror that the Pale Horseman visibly blanched. In the dense forest, he was surrounded by wood, so had a French person been present, they could have described him as “blanche doo bwa”. He remounted his horse and set it off at a clip-clop towards the seaside belvederes of Tantarabim.

That night they stayed at the Catfish Rising inn. It was home to a cat, but not to any fish, unless one counted a few blennies, dead on a slab in the kitchen, ready to be served for supper. The Pale Horseman was not fond of fish, and opted instead for jugged hare with a side helping of smokers’ poptarts. These vittles did nothing to alter his pallor. Anent the inn, in its stables, the horse was fed and watered from a cement trough. Somewhere in the night, owls hooted and swooped upon small terrified scurrying mammals.

Usually, whenever I recite this story, I pause at this point and invite questions from the audience, if there is one. Sometimes there is not. I have told this story while standing on a dais in an empty barn. But if one or two are gathered to hear it, the questions most often asked are Why is the Pale Horseman going from Pointy Town to Tantatrabim? and Please level with us, is the Pale Horseman a personification of Death? Very occasionally someone will ask me to explain what was so terrifying about the horse’s mane. But nobody, nobody, has ever asked What was the horse’s name? or Did the horse become fractious because it thought it was going to be given the toffee apple as a snack?

Whatever questions I am asked, I like to give full and detailed answers, at great length. Thus, for example, I might find myself listing every single album release by Jethro Tull. Not only do I give the album titles, in chronological order, but I will add the track listing and full credits as shown on the sleeve of the original release. If in puckish mood, I will also recite, from memory, any liner notes, which, in the case of Thick As A Brick (1972), can take up most of the afternoon. If in even more puckish mood, I will do the same for the complete Procol Harum discography. My knowledge of horsemen and horses is equally encyclopaedic, so by the time I am done answering questions, any audience members still awake will almost certainly have forgotten the story so far. They may even have had the Pale Horseman and his horse and the lane from Pointy Town to Tantarabim wiped from their puny brains, while they fixate upon, say, the precise pattern upon the headband habitually worn by “stout, nimble” Glenn Cornick, bass guitarist of Jethro Tull from 1968 to 1970.

When I resume my tale, therefore, they barely notice that the Pale Horseman and his horse are clip-clopping slowly, slowly along the lane in the opposite direction, from Tantarabim to Pointy Town. When I have them stop around half-way, at the clearing where the Nomenclature of Inns Pursuivant was shot, and the Pale Horseman retrieves the votive toffee apple, removes its cellophane wrapping, and feeds it as a snack to his horse, some in the audience put up their hands to ask how in the name of heaven the Pale Horseman knew the toffee apple was there, lying on the ground in the clearing a few yards off the lane, but I shush them and tell them the time for questions is over.

And so it is that they never get to hear how Death was visited upon Tantarabim, how every last Tantarabimite, from aged crones to tots and tinies, toppled over and died at sight of the Pale Horseman, as due punishment for some ancient sin, and how for a hundred years or more it was home only to swarms of flies and maggots, and nobody dared utter its name.

Conquistador

This sprightly homage to Procol Harum first appeared in 2009.

Conquistador, your stallion stands in need of company. For an adventurer and conqueror, especially one who led the Spanish conquest of Mexico and Peru in the 16th century, this is a lapse on your part. You should never leave your horse alone and abandoned, for it is likely to become fractious, and the last thing you want to have to deal with, either in the jungles or the mountains, is a fractious horse. You might argue that a native Peruvian firing poisonous darts at you through a blowpipe would cause you more concern than a horse in a bad mood, but there you would be wrong.

Let’s say that the native Peruvian’s aim is impeccable, and his poisoned dart plunges into your neck. It is true that you would be surprised, and have only minutes to live as the toxins ravaged your innards, but it is a simple enough matter to pluck the dart out of your flesh and have one of your fellow conquistadors immediately suck on the puncture, drawing every last drop of poison into his mouth before spitting it out. Apply a medicinal poultice to the tiny hole in your neck and job done. You will be as right as rain and ready to carry on adventuring and conquering.

By contrast, if, after abandoning your stallion while you clanked off on foot on an errand of death, you return to it to find it lonely, fractious and temperamental, you may have some difficulty getting back into your saddle. Your horse may rear up on its hind legs and make terrifying bellowing noises. If you are not careful you could end up being crushed under its mighty hooves. A fleck of horse-spittle might land in your eye, blurring your vision. The rest of your conquistador troop may have ridden on ahead, leaving you behind, without food or water, or a compass. You will know, from your training back in Toledo, that it can take hours to becalm a fractious horse, by which time your chances of catching up with your fellow adventuring conquerors before nightfall are remote.

Unless the conquistador who sucked the poison out of your neck has stayed with you, you will now be all alone in a strange exotic landscape, famished. You do not know which fruits and berries are safe to eat, and in any case there will only be fruits and berries available to you if you are in the jungle. As I pointed out earlier, you might be up in the mountains, and there will be little to eat but impacted snow, which you will have to melt and soften before trying to shovel it down your throat. Bear in mind that the air is very thin up in the higher reaches of the Andes, and you will become exhausted quite rapidly, especially if you are expending energy hacking at a patch of snow to make it more easily meltable. Added to these imperilments, your horse will be hungry too, and its fractiousness may return, with a vengeance. You will have to find a way to placate it a second time, and by now it will be wise to your tricks, if it is a clever horse, which it probably is, having been chosen out of so many other horses to go on a conquistadorial campaign. It is also much more difficult to becalm a frightened horse in the dark, and the Peruvian night is far more eerie than the night in Toledo, with which both you and your stallion are familiar.

A further problem will present itself if a nocturnal Peruvian native fires a second poisonous dart into your neck through a blowpipe. Yes, it is simple enough for you to remove the dart, but without a fellow conquistador to suck out the venom, you will have to instruct your horse to do the deed. Not many horses are skilled in such an art. Apart from anything else, their mouths are much bigger than the average conquistador’s mouth, and their teeth are huge, so it is exceedingly difficult for them to get sufficient purchase on your neck to suck with any conviction. Of course, if you have a vampire horse, it will suck away quite happily, but after draining the poison it will continue to suck your blood, until you topple over, pale and dead.

All things considered, conquistador, you are advised never to leave your stallion in need of company. No horse is an island entire of itself. Further tips on looking after your horse when adventuring and conquering in Mexico and Peru are available in the government pamphlet 50 Tips For Conquistadors On Looking After Your Horse When Adventuring And Conquering In Mexico And Peru (Crown Copyright) (out of print).

Editorial Advice

Poor scribblers whose efforts are repeatedly rejected find solace from cases such as William Golding, who sent the manuscript of his first novel to more than twenty publishers before it was eventually accepted. Although stubborn persistence can sometimes pay off, the example of Golding demonstrates that, when a sympathetic editor offers advice, it can be wise to take it. Thus it is useful to learn that the beardy author made several changes to his book, which started out as the tale of a group of schoolboys trying desperately to remove a blockage of pig fat from a heating duct. He also changed the original title, Lard Of The Flues.

Whither The Bint Of Shelmerdox?

Whither the bint of Shelmerdox? The story goes that she went out a-hiking one morning and never came home. Some said she had a tryst with a tinker and ran away with him to his glen. Others spoke of a mysterious hot air balloon, spotted in the sky above the goaty place around noon. The parish priest insisted he saw her waving from its basket, but he was an old and foolish man and had had sundry hallucinations. There were those who muttered in the shadows of dark and desperate deeds.

Before she left, the bint of Shelmerdox ate an egg on toast and drank half a bottle of gin. She took the time to wash her dishes and place them on the drainer. But she left her purse and keys and passport and engagement ring upon the kitchen table, next to a saucer she used as an ashtray. Had she planned her disappearance, or had she not?.

The bint’s fiancé, the village wrestler, was much distraught. In the market square, by the horse trough, he blubbered like a baby as night fell and there was no sign of her. The Woohoohoodiwoo Woman collected his tears in a cup, and boiled them, that she might see in the clouds of steam a vision of the bint and her present whereabouts. But the steam vouchsafed nought but unreadable swirlings, so the Woohoohoodiwoo Woman next eviscerated a few hens and read their hot bloody entrails, again to no avail. The bint of Shelmerdox had vanished off the face of the earth.

On the first anniversary, the village folk gathered in a barn and sang songs for her. They would have lit candles too, had the parish priest not eaten them all in his madness. The songs they sang were the current popular hits of the village and its hinterland, with newly-minted lyrics, some penned by the wrestler, who still wept every day.

Oh where is she now, my Shelmerdox bint? / I dab at my tears with a poor scrap of lint / If only the gods would let drop a hint / Of where she has gone to, my Shelmerdox bint!

The parish priest, whose chain was lengthened so he could just about reach the doorway of the barn, tried to offer up a prayer for the immortal soul of the bint, but he forgot why he was there, and blessed a couple of cows instead. The names of the cows were Puskas and Di Stefano. They were terrific cows, the pride of the village, and the bint had oftentimes patted their heads and whispered in their ears in that sozzled way of hers.

The commemoration was repeated in subsequent years, always with new songs from the village wrestler, still weeping copiously, and with haphazard blessings from the parish priest. One time he managed a spark of lucidity and actually prayed for the bint, though usually his benediction fell upon the cows or a patch of lupins or even the chain that ensured he did not stray beyond the village.

The Woohoohoodiwoo Woman refused to attend any of these ceremonies. But she had not forgotten about the bint of Shelmerdox. Within her hovel, among her dried-up poisonous plants and toads and beetles and pins and pokey-sticks, she carried on her eldritch flummery in secret. She had somehow got hold of the bint’s passport, abandoned on the kitchen table, and made dozens upon dozens of copies of the photograph therein, on the photocopying machine in the village post office, and plastered the walls of her hovel with them. The bint stared out at her, sour, gin-soaked, and half-asleep. The Woohoohoodiwoo Woman became fixated upon the bint’s smudged lipstick, convinced that the eerily shifting contours of the smudge in the passport photograph held the key to her vanishing. In some copies, the smudge resembled a subtropical peninsula. In others, it looked like a heron.

On the ninth anniversary, the villagers eschewed the barn and gathered instead at the goaty place. The parish priest’s chain had been shortened after he frightened some swans in the summer just gone, and he stayed in his presbytery, sucking on lettuce leaves for their moisture. The village wrestler dabbed at his tear-stained eyes with his filthy scrap of lint, and sang a threnody.

My broken heart has the weight of lead / I can barely totter out of bed / How many more sobbings must I shed? / My bint is gone, she must be dead.

According to the village’s ad hoc legal system, these words counted as a binding declaration of the death of the Shelmerdox bint. Her home and her remaining personal effects could now be burned entire, all trace of her expunged, and fireworks launched from the village green. The wrestler could stop crying and seek a new inamorata. Even were the bint to reappear, miraculously alive, she would be invisible to the villagers, fated to roam among them as a ghost.

Which, oddly, is precisely what happened, at the very moment the final firework fizzled out and was squelched underfoot by the village postie. Drunk and bedraggled and moth-eaten, the Shelmerdox bint emerged from a shrub clump and staggered across the fields into the village. She smashed the window of the off licence and hoicked a bottle of vagabond’s ruin from the display, but now she was dead to the villagers and nobody saw her.

Nobody save for the Woohoohoodiwoo Woman, who inhabited a different, lopsided plane. She beckoned to the bint, and took her into her hovel, where the pair of them drank their fill and babbled about the bint’s lipstick smudge long into the night. When morning came, they trudged arm in arm to the barn, and whispered into the ears of Puskas and Di Stefano, and then the bint of Shelmerdox and the Woohoohoodiwoo Woman, and the two terrific cows, headed out of the village, across the fields, and into the hills, and up into the mountains, up where the oxygen grew thin, and they passed, oh! so happy, beyond human ken, forevermore.

Originally posted in 2009.

I Heard The Owl Call My Name

I Heard The Owl Call My Name was a bestseller in the 1970s, alongside such now neglected titles as Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance. What all three had in common was a concern with the ultimate meaning of existence, or at least the meaning of existence in the specific context of blissed-out self-obsessed post-hippy North America. I actually read the latter two titles, in my misguided teendom, though thankfully I seem to have recovered from the experience with no ill effects. But I never got round to I Heard The Owl Call My Name, and thus it continues to intrigue me. Well, not to a debilitating extent. I do not wake up every morning fretting about it, nor have I sought to obtain a copy. What intrigues me is the title.

The book was written by Margaret Craven. Now, over the years I have listened to numberless owls, and not one of them has ever uttered the cry “Margaret Craven”, nor any sound remotely akin to it, no matter how strangulated the voice in which we pronounce it in an attempt to mimic an owl. Aha!, I hear you say, but I Heard The Owl Call My Name is a novel, is it not?, so perhaps the name the owl calls is that of a fictional narrator, rather than of a non-fictional author. This is a persuasive argument until one does a spot of research and discovers that the book concerns a dying Anglican vicar named Mark Brian. Again, “Mark Brian” is not by any stretch of the imagination the sort of sound made by any owl it has ever been my pleasure to hear, as I crunch through the duff on the forest floor in the dead of night, my lantern occasionally picking out the fugitive sight of a small scurrying mammal, its heart pounding in terror. It is in such a place, at such a time, that one is likely to hear owls hooting.

We use the onomatopoeic word “hoot” to represent the call of an owl, or, if we are writing a children’s book, we might deploy “too-wit, too-woo”. We will not, ever, use “Margaret Craven” or “Mark Brian”, and if we ever had a dramatic brain-embranglement and did so, we would befuddle our readers utterly, to the point where they would probably toss our book aside in exasperation, and who would blame them for so doing?

Now as I say, I have not read the book, so there is every possibility that perhaps the dying vicar has a parishioner named Biff Hoot or Ted Toowit or Sacheverell Toowoo, and it is this person who hears their name called by the owl, while crunching through the duff on the forest floor in the dead of night, their lantern occasionally picking out the fugitive sight of a small scurrying mammal, its heart pounding in terror. Biff, or Ted, or Sacheverell then scampers to the church to tell the vicar of this exciting turn of events, and to seek his judicious religious advice on what it might portend, in terms of the meaning of existence, only to find the vicar sprawled on the floorboards in front of the altar, dying.

Why is he dying? Has he been attacked by owls, pecking at him with their beaks and slashing at him with their talons? Owls are more likely to set upon the small scurrying mammals in the nocturnal forest, rather than a human vicar in a candlelit church. So what might account for such a palaver? It could be that, rather than being a stereotypical beardy Anglican vicar, Mark Brian is an effeminate cross-dressing vicar who bears a startling resemblance to Tippi Hedren. In this scenario, the owls would simply be attempting to reenact a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s documentary The Birds (1963). Or we might posit that, on the other side of the forest there is a sinister military-industrial hazchem facility, leakage from which the owls have been exposed to, transforming them from common or garden owls to science fiction monster owls of unbridled savagery.

His life ebbing away, the vicar moans weakly for help, at which point Biff or Ted or Sacheverell comes scampering up the nave. He cradles Mark Brian’s torn and bloody head in his arms, and whispers, “I heard the owl call my name”. The vicar’s eyelids flutter and his breath rattles. Does he still have strength enough to speak, and to reveal to his needy parishioner the ultimate meaning of existence? We would hope so, this being a 1970s bestseller.

I Heard The Owl Call My Name (1967) predates both Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1970) and Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974). Could it be that both Richard Bach and Robert M. Pirsig were shameless plagiarists? Is the wisdom in their books lifted wholesale from Margaret Craven, who has the dying vicar vouchsafe to Biff or Ted or Sacheverell what it all means?

You say the owl called your name?”, he gasps, “It is a sign. I understand the language of owls, and I think I know what it would have said next had you stayed to listen, instead of sprinting pell mell out of the forest and through the village and into the church and along the nave to come and cradle me in your arms in my dying moments.”

Biff or Ted or Sacheverell dabs at the vicar’s brow with a dampened rag, trying his best to comfort him, desperate to keep him alive long enough that he might impart the wisdom of the owl.

You must repair your motorcycle,” groans Mark Brian, “And you must zoom upon it down to the seaside. There you will find a different form of bird life, seagulls rather than owls. The seagull will not call your name. It will swoop and scavenge and soar. Watch it carefully, in the dappled sunlight. Then…”

But before he can complete the sentence – and thus divulge the ultimate meaning of 1970s existence – the vicar collapses and dies.

I hope this is an adequate summary of a book I have never read. If it isn’t, it damned well ought to be.

Originally posted in 2012.

Poptastic!

Daniel Barenboim has won many plaudits for his creation of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, bringing together young musicians from different countries in the Middle East to promote the cause of peace. Laudable as his efforts are, several observers have noted that the world of classical music is too small and narrow to have real societal heft. Pop music, they say, is the lingua franca that can genuinely bring people of different faiths together. To this end, and as a faltering first step in resolving the simmering civil war between the two major branches of Islam, a new single has been released. It is a new version of “I Got You Babe” by Sunni and Shia.

An Experiment With Curd

Here is a scientific experiment which will intrigue and entertain everybody from tiny tots to tottering crones. You will need to obtain a goodly amount of curd, say about the size of a dinner plate. Divide the curd into two halves by cutting it with a kitchen knife or, if you are feeling violent, which I know is often the case, simply tear the curd in two with your bare hands. Et voila!, you will now have two lumps of curd where once there was but one.

Don’t worry, that was merely the preliminary, not the experiment itself. Now, you must treat the lumps of curd in very different ways. The first lump, let us call it Curd A, must be kept fresh at all costs. You could, for example, wrap it in clingfilm, which is film that clings, and put it on a shelf in your refrigerator. Meanwhile, take the other lump of curd and treat it as you would a piece of furniture you wanted to give a fashionable “distressed” look. You can chuck the curd at the wall, beat it with lengths of chain, leave it exposed to the elements for a week, and so on.

At the end of this process, you will have two spectacularly different lumps of curd. The one wrapped in clingfilm in the refrigerator will be as good as new, whereas the other one, which I forgot to call Curd B earlier, will look old and wretched and like something the cat dragged in. (If the cat does indeed drag it in, while it is outside exposed to the elements, take it back outside and scold the cat.)

I now want you to take both lumps of curd to the nearest duckpond. With all the vim you can muster, chuck them into the pond or, as it might say in the Bible, cast the curds upon the waters. Now watch in amazement as Curd A, the fresh, good as new curd, floats, while Curd B, the old, wretched curd, sinks to the bottom.

Why does this happen? Well, I’m not going to tell you. But one person who knows the answer has written an entire book about it. Her name is Maya Angelou and the book, as I recall, is entitled I Know Why The Aged Curd Sinks.

Pol Pot In France

The communist regimes of the last century threw up their fair share of monsters, among whom Pol Pot was one of the more demented. His Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia in 1976. By the time they were overthrown, three years later, around a quarter of the population had perished.

Pol Pot had a vision of a sort of peasant utopia. Accordingly, towns and cities were emptied and the people marched out into the countryside to work on collective farms. He had a particular animus towards “bourgeois intellectuals”, a group which apparently included anybody who wore glasses. Of course, surprise surprise, Pol Pot was such an “intellectual” himself. As a young man, he studied in Paris, from 1949 to 1953.

There is an instructive story from his time in France. Already the first glimmerings of his agrarian revolution were swirling around in Pol Pot’s brain, and an associate suggested he ought to get out of Paris and investigate French farming methods. Pol Pot thus headed off, deep into rural France, and went to stay – uninvited – with a dairy farmer.

For a couple of days, the future tyrant followed the farmer about, observing him at work. This, it seemed, taught Pol Pot all he needed to know. On the third day, over breakfast, he launched into a Marxist critique of the farmer’s age-old rustic ways. He could, he explained, order the cows to do exactly as they were told, just as he would go on to bend the people of Cambodia to his will. The wise old French farmer scoffed.

You do not understand,” said Pol Pot, never short on self-belief, “Your cows will obey my every word. For I speak the language of cows!”

The farmer chuckled at the young Cambodian upstart, took a last sip of his breakfast brandy, and went out to his barn. He opened the doors, and the cows mooched off across his fields to munch grass.

At this point, Pol Pot appeared at his side. He announced that he would make all the cows return to the barn tout suite, simply by issuing a verbal diktat. He then uttered, at deafening volume, a strange guttural Cambodian cow incantation. To the farmer’s astonishment, the cows ceased munching, looked up, and, at almost uncanny speed, charged across the fields and returned to the barn.

It was a classic case of Pot calling the cattle back.