Ornithology

Ornithology, when pursued recklessly, breaks bones. This aperçu first appeared in Dobson’s pamphlet Oh! One Merry March Morning I Climbed A Tree The Better To Investigate, At Close Quarters, The Nest Of A Wren And, Losing My Footing, I Plunged To Earth, Landing Awkwardly And In So Doing Broke My Collarbone, Subsequently, In Making My Report To The Triage Nurse, I Blamed The Wren, I Blamed The Wren! (out of print).

Of late, there has been something of a kerfuffle in Dobsonist circles occasioned by the publication of a new monograph on the pamphlet. Upstart young Scandinavian critic Knud Pantryboy argues, in his essay, that there is not a jot of truth in the pamphleteer’s hysterical prose. Controversially, he suggests that Dobson was making a stab at writing a piece of fiction.

Dobson never climbed a tree in his life, writes the hot-headed Dane, and he would certainly have been unable to distinguish the nest of a wren from that of any other of the approximately ten thousand, four hundred and four types of birds, many of them extinct, which grace, or have graced, the blue skies of the ever-rotating globe we call the Earth.

Pantryboy also makes the point that no evidence exists to suggest Dobson’s collarbone was ever broken. He dismisses as “obviously fraudulent” the pencil sketches, purportedly based on X-rays, which appeared in the compendium Pencil Sketches Based On X-Rays Of The Bones Of Several Twentieth-Century Writers compiled by the quack medical illustrator Tosh Quackpencil. The half-dozen sketches of Dobson’s collarbone each show signs of traumatic shattering, but Pantryboy argues, persuasively, that the pictures were executed during a thunderstorm.

Why, though, would Dobson have risked his reputation by inventing this tale? While admitting that he does not know the answer to this question, Knud Pantryboy suggests that the narrative is a veiled reference to a singular episode in the pamphleteer’s childhood.

The “tree” is a picnic blanket. The “wren’s nest” is a sausage-on-a-stick. The “plunge to earth” is a fit of hiccups. The “collarbone” is another sausage on another stick. The “triage nurse” is International Woman of Mystery Primrose Dent. I rest my case.

It is undoubtedly true that La Dent used to appear, uninvited, at innumerable picnic spots throughout what Lumsden called “that brittle, squalid decade”. True, too, that it was both brittle and squalid. And equally true that Lumsden himself had his posthumous bones sketched, from X-rays, by Tosh Quackpencil. Nor should we ever forget that wrens, when gathered in huge numbers, can be extremely dangerous. Ornithology, when pursued recklessly, does indeed break bones.

Bolshevik Tomato Paste Scoop

I opened my briefcase and took from it my Bolshevik Tomato Paste Scoop. I was so pleased with it. I had snapped it up on eBay, where it was going for a song. The song I opted for was “Essay On Pigs” (1968) by Hans Werner Henze. Strictly speaking, this is actually five separate songs, but I got away with it. The Bolshevik Tomato Paste Scoop arrived in the post four days later. I will be sure to take it with me, in my briefcase, on my forthcoming trip, by hot air balloon, to the Lost City of Karencarpenter, far far away, beyond the mountains of madness, where night-penguins fringe a yawning abyss.

Disparate Horseflies

Ever since it ended, after eight seasons, in 2012, fans of the television comedy-drama Desperate Housewives have been hoping for a sequel. Now it appears their prayers have been answered. Next month sees the launch of a brand new television comedy-drama called Disparate Horseflies.

Set on a horse named Wisteria, the show features the amusing and sometimes not so amusing antics of a group of horseflies who live, parasitically, upon its shanks, withers, fetlocks, and other parts of a horse which I am sure you can list for yourselves. As the title implies, the flies are a varied bunch, apart from their all being flies of the horsefly family (Tabanus sulcifrons).

The cast comprises several actual horseflies, specially trained to act by tiptop thespian fly-trainer Cedric Flytrain. For the setting of Wisteria, an elegant if tubercular horse named Keith, resident at a stables in Vileshire, was employed.

Preview tapes have not been made available, but word has it that the first episode includes close-up scenes of grotesque horsefly behaviour which some viewers, and horses, may find absolutely sickening.

Shifting Sands

Oh look, shifting sands! If you stand quite still, and shut your eyes, and wait for, say, five minutes before opening them, when you do you will find yourself in an utterly different terrain. When you were not looking, the sands shifted, and now all is strange and bewildering.

On the beach at Shifting, a lovely little seaside town in Hoonshire, it is common to see people standing stock still with their eyes shut. It is common, too, to see looks of disappointment, even devastation, cross their faces, when they open their eyes to find the beach unchanged from how it was five minutes before. This is because the sands at Shifting Sands are not shifting sands. They are what are known as inert sands, roughly speaking. What shifting occurs, occasioned by the wind and the tides, is slow and imperceptible.

What they do have at Shifting Sands are perilous pockets of quicksand. Beware! Best not even to think about those pockets, for if you do, you will sink into the quicksand of your thought, and you won’t have the power anymore.

Elf-Help For Idiots

After writing dozens and dozens of books, self-help guru “Dr.” Bruce Terrific has had an epiphany.

It was always my aim to write more books than Tony Buzan,” he said in an interview with Buzantastic News magazine, “And having achieved that goal, I felt it was time to strike off in a new direction. It has also dawned on me that my self-help books serve only to increase the navel-gazing narcissism of readers who can’t see further than their own petty and squalid lives. Christ almighty, isn’t it high time people stopped helping themselves and instead helped others?

That’s why I am launching a new series of elf-help books. For too long, elves, fairies, and laughing gnomes have had to fend for themselves. Well, those days are over. From now on, my readers are going to be instructed in the best ways to devote themselves to the care and feeding of elves. Beat that, Tony Buzan!”

The first book in the series, Elf-Help For Idiots, explains how to darn an elf’s pointy hat when it becomes frayed.

Where Do You Go To, My Lovely?

Peter Sarstedt famously asked “Where do you go to, my lovely, when you’re alone in your bed?” The simple answer to this question is that his lovely is not going anywhere. She is in bed, quite possibly asleep. Why, then, would the singer – whose first wife was a dentist – pose the query in the first place?

We can posit several solutions to this conundrum, and it is well worth doing so, for reasons which ought to be obvious – and obvious not only to the spouses of dentists, but to the general population also.

One theory, propounded by veteran Sarstedtist Loopy Tinhat, is that the question mark ought to appear after “my lovely”, and that “when you’re alone in your bed” is a new, separate sentence, the beginning of a rumination quite distinct from the opening query. In this reading, Sarstedt is about to make certain observations regarding his lovely in her bed, but he is interrupted before he is able to complete the sentence. Tinhat suggests the singer spoke from the dentist’s chair, when his wife was about to perform a tooth extraction, and told him to “open wide” just as he uttered the word “bed”.

Tinhat’s theory won broad support among the my lovely community until it was comprehensively demolished by researcher Lars Welk. Using dental records, slowed-down tape recordings, and a fiercely forensic brain, Welk demonstrated beyond sensible argument that Tinhat had no idea what he was talking about.

More persuasive, perhaps, is the argument laid out over several coruscating paragraphs by Ned Cakeboy in a paper published in The Journal Of Dental Hygiene & Sarstedt Studies, Vol XXIV No. 11. Pointing out that, just as doctors get sick and require the ministrations of other doctors, so dentists call on other dentists to faff about with their teeth when necessary. He goes on to claim that the bed in which my lovely is alone is a hospital bed, on wheels or casters. She is about to undergo particularly complex dental treatment, and has been wheeled, in her bed, from her ward to a dental operating theatre. Peter Sarstedt, paying a visit to his dentist lovely born of uxoriousness, armed probably with a bouquet of flowers, arrives at the dental hospital to discover that she is not, as he supposed, in her ward. Where did she go to?, he wonders.

I said there were several possible solutions to account for the singer asking such a seemingly stupid question, and I have tackled two of them. That is quite enough for the time being. In any case, these matters become decidedly more baffling when we consider that Sarstedt’s second wife was not a dentist.

The Only Sound

The only sound to tear the night comes from the man upstairs. His bloated belching figure stomps. He may crash through the ceiling soon. If he does so, the sound will cease. He will be lying on his back, on my carpet, covered in a film of dust and powder and debris. I will cast upon him a look of reproach, and poke him with the pointy stick I keep to hand for circumstances such as these. He may grunt, if still alive, or not, if dead.

When I prod his neck, I will dislodge from around it a delicate silver chain to which is attached a medallion. It bears a depiction of a saint, identified by an inscription as Saint Agur. I will be tempted to kick the bloated belcher in the head, on account of his stupidity. Is he not aware that this so-called saint is but a figment of the marketing department of a French cheesemaking concern? Not for the first time, I will be driven crackers by the blithering ignorance of my neighbours. As Dylan observed, it’s a wonder that they still know how to breathe.

The belcher from upstairs splayed on my carpet may or may not be breathing. But the sound of his stomping, mercifully done with, will now be replaced by the roaring of an idiot wind. Wild is the wind, and I hear the sound of mandolins. Can a man get no peace nor quiet in this damnable urbis? I will retreat to my kitchen for Phensic and marmalade. Somewhere I have a packet of twenty No. 6, but no light. I will rifle through the pockets of the bloated git on my carpet. I will give him a kicking as I do so.

But he is not there. He did not, after all, crash through the ceiling. The stomping of his bloated belching figure remains the only sound. Until, at last, day breaks, and it is joined by twittering birdsong, and the clink and clank of the milkman on his morning rounds.

Milkman, milkman, bring me curds and whey!

No – there is nothing for you today.

No milk, no whey, no curds nor cream.

Go crash through the ceiling of your dream.

References : S. Engel, B. Dylan. N. Washington, P. Strohmeyer-Gartside

Advocates

I was not at all certain whether I had any advocates, I could not find out anything definite about it, every face was unfriendly, most people who came toward me and whom I kept meeting in the corridors looked like fat old women; they had huge blue-and-white striped aprons covering their entire bodies, kept stroking their stomachs and swaying awkwardly to and fro. I had been told that at least three advocates would be assigned to represent me, but if so, where were they? And could the case proceed without them?

I wondered if I had somehow come to the wrong building. Perhaps this was not the law courts, but some other branch of some other institution of some other regime in some other country on some other continent. After all, there was a blank period of several hours, between my waking up on my pallet of straw in the barn annexe and my arrival here, several hours of which I could remember nothing save for the plaintive cry of a curlew, and a smashed saucer on the linoleum.

Dizzy in the head, I sat down on a bench and lit my pipe. People continued to mince and waddle along the corridor, seemingly with purpose. None of them spared me a glance. None of them announced themselves as my advocate. Perhaps I was in the right building but on the wrong floor? I had noticed, as I entered from the street, that the building was impossibly tall. The top of it was invisible, engulfed by clouds.

Puffing on my pipe ought to have calmed my nerves, but, like poor Neddie in Brand Upon The Brain! (Guy Maddin, 2006), I was a bundle of tics. The case – if it were ever heard and judged upon – could spell my ruin. I had been accused of plagiarism by the publishers of the weekly children’s comic The Hammer Of Christ. Among the most popular strips in that penny woeful was that recounting the adventures of Buster and Radbod. I was deemed to have stolen these characters when I began to issue my own weekly children’s comic, Buster And Radbod. It was true that, in all particulars, my Buster was identical to the original Buster, my Radbod to the original Radbod, and that some – well, all – of the adventures I related in my comic differed not a jot from adventures pursued by Buster and Radbod in The Hammer Of Christ. But apart from those wildly improbable coincidences – and is it not a feature of coincidences that they are wild and improbable? – there really was no comparison. The paper-size and pagination of the comics was different, my drawings were somewhat cack-handed, and the sale price of my publication was four times the price of the dreadful rag I was accused of copying.

In spite of this, and of my protestations of innocence, I had been summoned to the court to face the full wrath of the law. But how could I marshal a defence without my promised advocates? Slumped on the bench, it dawned on me that my predicament was not dissimilar to a situation faced by Buster and Radbod in one of their adventures, which had appeared in The Hammer Of Christ Vol. XLIV No. 8 and, coincidentally, in Buster And Radbod Vol. I No. 1.

What happened was that the frolicsome duo were summoned to the law court, an impossibly tall building, the top of which vanished in the clouds. They had to answer a charge brought against them, the essence of which was that they were false replicas, or doppelgangers, of the purported real Buster and real Radbod. It is a stupendously exciting and suspenseful story, as the pair roam the corridors on the many many floors of the building, knowing that at any moment they may come face to face with … themselves! Particularly enthralling – and psychologically complex for a children’s comic strip – is Buster and Radbod’s growing realisation that they may not be real, may be simply fictional two-dimensional simulacra. Complexity piles on paradox because, of course, neither Buster nor Radbod is real – they are comic strip characters. But so are the so-called real Buster and Radbod they will encounter, at some point in the story in the building in a corridor on a floor.

Somehow these reflections made my own situation less fraught. I tapped out my pipe, rose from the bench, and went in search of my advocates. It seemed to me now that I would be able to spot them easily among the teeming throng. They would look identical to me! All three of them! I hunted them along all the corridors on the floor, and then I tried the other corridors on the other floors, one by one. But before I found my advocates, I noticed a curious thing about the many steep and crowded staircases in this building. As long as you don’t stop climbing, the stairs won’t end, under your climbing feet they will go on growing upwards.

The first sentence, and the last, were translated from the German by Tania and James Stern. Everything in between was not.

Gus

Gus was pipped at the post. It was one of those huffington posts, recently erected at strategic points across the land, by diktat. They were named in honour of Puissance Huffington, the tiny orphan child who, by some inexplicable chain of accidents, now reigns over our realm. Nobody expected frail little Puissance to rule with an iron fist, but she does, and then some!

Like so many citizens, Gus had assumed that Puissance would be a benign queenlet. It was perhaps this naivete which led to his undoing, when he entered a contest in the weekly children’s comic The Terrible Wrath Of Christ Our Saviour. Readers were asked to supply a caption for a drawing which showed an innocent farmyard scene, typical of our country. Mischievous Gus wrote something disobliging about a hen, unaware that every single caption submitted to the comic would be scrutinised, personally, by Puissance Huffington. She could not read, of course, so pressed into service a man of letters who loitered somewhere in the bowels of the palace. When this sickly one-legged fellow read to Puissance the words written by Gus, she was outraged.

I am very fond of hens,” she is reported to have said, “And I will not have disobliging things said of them, no siree!”

And she told the man of letters to aim his crutches in the direction of the Palace Git, conveying instructions to have Gus arrested. And so within hours of writing his unwise words, Gus found himself chained to one of the huffington posts in one of the less salubrious parts of the country, populated for the most part by ne’er-do-wells, halfwits, and Corbynistas. Eagerly, they pelted Gus with pips, as Puissance Huffington decreed.

In retrospect, we can appreciate just how fortunate Gus was to have committed his crime in the early days of the reign of Puissance. For her power made the little orphan child ever more vindictive and cruel, and it was not long before she declared that miscreants should be pelted, not with pips, but with plumstones.

A Dream Of Godden

Ah, the manifold complexities of the human brain! In my dreams, as I slept last night, there was a starring role for Rumer Godden. Quite what she was up to became unclear the moment I awoke, and now I remember nothing at all, save that she had a very important part to play in whatever was going on in my sleeping head.

But why? I have never read any of her books. I had to remind myself, with a tiny bit of morning research, that she was the author of (among much else) Black Narcissus. I know almost nothing about her. Yet here she was, unsummoned, at the forefront of my unconscious mind.

At least I did not bash her about with a wooden chair, as once – in dreams – I bashed Roy Kinnear …

Winklepicker Days

Oh! How I pine for those winklepicker days
On the pier at Deal
Like Ingmar Bergman’s camera’s gaze
In The Seventh Seal
Yes, I played chess on Deal pier
Against Death dressed in black
But I was shod in winklepickers
And they took Death aback
I saw envy on his pale white face
Envy for my shoon
And I bested Death on the pier at Deal
Under a Kentish moon

Telling Fibs To Impuissance

Members of the self-righteous wanker community often make the boast that they Speak Truth To Power. Far more valuable, I think, is my own practice of Telling Fibs To Impuissance.

For example, the other day I was prancing along the canal towpath when I saw, lugging himself towards me on crutches, a penniless crippled orphan dressed in rags.

Ahoy there, young wretch!” I cried, imparting as much condescension and contempt into my words as possible, “Did you know that the earth is as flat as a pancake?”

The hobbledehoy was baffled and distraught at this news, pleasingly so, and I continued.

Not only that, but the Munich Air Disaster took place in 1962, the Tet Offensive was something to do with King Canute, and gooseberries fall from heaven upon the wide Sargasso Sea, from where they are harvested by trained cormorants.”

Tugging his greasy forelock, the orphan child said “Thankee kindly, sir, when I arrive at my self-esteem ‘n’ diversity learning centre I shall pass on these nuggets of wisdom in the exam paper I am sitting today.”

You will pass with flying colours!” I replied, chortling inwardly as I pictured the impuissant youth weeping copious tears upon learning that he has failed his exam with the lowest of all possible scores.

Then I snatched away his crutches and pushed him into the canal, before passing on to an unbelievably luxurious cafeteria for a slap-up breakfast.

I did not prance along the canal towpath. I did not encounter a crippled orphan. I did not have a slap-up breakfast.

The Year Dot

The noted mezzotintist Dot Tint was born in the Year Dot. Some researchers argue that she was named for the year in which she was born, while others, conversely, claim the year was so named in honour of her. On the face ot it, the latter seems unlikely. Noted Dot Tint may be, but do enough people care enough about mezzotints or their makers to start naming entire years after them? But those who take this side of the argument are indefatigable, relentless, and occasionally physically violent when propounding their case.

And admittedly, they have a number of points in their favour. No one knows what the Year Dot was called before it was designated the Year Dot. They are also able to point to the Year Kuryakin, which all authorities agree was named after Ilya Kuryakin, the Russian agent in the television seiies The Man From U.N.C.L.E. played by the Scottish-American actor David McCallum. Poignantly, there is not, and never has been, a Year McCallum. Thus, the calendar recognises his fictional persona rather than the man himself.

A question well worth asking, whichever side of the Dot Tint fence you are on, is : what kind of blather is this?

The Departure

I ordered my horse to be brought from the stables. His name is Alan. He is an elegant horse, but tubercular. His shanks are admirable, and he has as fine a mane as any horse in Christendom.

The stable-boy, a pockmarked little squirt who bore a distinct resemblance to the young Stalin, came limping out. His face was drained of all colour.

Alan is gone, gone, vanished, as if in a puff of smoke!” he cried, and began to weep.

I cannot bear the sight of a weeping stable-boy.

I cannot bear the sight of a weeping stable-boy!” I cried, “Stop snivelling!”

And I jabbed a finger sharply into one of his pocks. I found this immensely satisfying, so I jabbed my other seven fingers, one by one, into seven of his other pocks.

Now,” I said, “You will go and find Alan. The mobile library is parked outside the birdseed shop on Lower Goat Lane. In the library, you will find a horse-atlas. Borrow it, using your library ticket. The horse-atlas contains many maps showing those parts where horses of different complexions and beauty are located. It is likely Alan has galloped to one such part of our land. Work out which, using the horse-knowledge you have acquired as a stable-boy, get thee hence, and fetch him back, using a lasso if need be.”

I was pleased with this little speech, almost as pleased as I was jabbing my fingers into his pocks, so I took myself off to the tavern for well-deserved refreshment. When I arrived at the tavern, on Upper Goat Lane, I discovered that it was under new management and had been turned into a trendy milk bar, within which dozens of beatniks were playing bongos and reciting terrible poetry.

As I sipped my tumbler of milk, I jotted down the words of one of the poems I heard.

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,

Because their horses had gone missing from the stables

But they were in luck because they could send pockmarked stable-boys who looked like the young Stalin

Off in search of their horses armed with a horse-atlas from the mobile library.

For some reason, I found that this poem spoke to me in a way the other beatnik twaddle did not. Perhaps it was because I was one of the best minds of my generation. I had a trophy to prove it, a cup I had been given in my infant school. The full wording etched on the cup was another poem:

Best mind your cup, oh child so tiny

If you break it you will be whiney

And if you whine on Saint Spivack’s Day

The Grunty Man will take you away!

I had actually been taken away by the fearsome and awful Grunty Man at the age of six, but he grew so exasperated by my constant whining that he brought me back again later the same day. As I sat in the groovy milk bar, I could only hope that the stable-boy would bring Alan the horse back just as quickly.

He duly turned up several hours later, by which time I had drunk so much milk, and listened to so much terrible poetry accompanied by bongos, that I was burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night, who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz.

The stable-boy had brought me a horse, but it was not Alan. It was neither elegant nor tubercular, its shanks were despicable, and its mane was nothing to write home about.

That horse is not Alan!” I cried, “It is neither elegant nor tubercular, its shanks are despicable, and its mane is nothing to write home about!”

Sorry,” said the stable-boy, “I visited many many many of the places on the maps in the horse-atlas, and this is the best I could do.”

I was minded to jab my fingers in his pocks again, but I restrained myself.

Take the new horse to the stables and saddle it up,” I said, “I will be along shortly, for I have miles to go before I vomit up all this milk and go to sleep.”

The stable-boy plodded off with the horse in tow, and I drank another tumbler of milk and listened to another godawful poem accompanied by bongos.

When I made to leave, I found my way barred by a huge bouncer-beatnik.

What gives, daddy-o?” he said, “You don’t want to leave this groovy milk bar. Anyway, we won’t let you. You’re the kind of cat we’d love to have hitting those bongos morning noon and night. You really fry my wig. Yes, you’ll stay here forever, drinking milk and thumping bongos. Where would you go, anyway?”

I whined.

Out of here – that’s my goal.”

The first sentence, and the last, were translated from the German by Tania and James Stern. Everything in between was not.

The Betrothal : A Playlet

Characters:

GAEL ANDERSON, the bride-to-be

ANDREW CLUTTERBUCK, her suitor

IAN ANDERSON, minstrel & father of Gael

Scene: A mansion in the countryside

Enter GAEL and ANDREW

GAEL : Oh darling! I am so thrilled at the prospect of our imminent betrothal!

ANDREW : As I am too, my poppet. [A dark cloud passes over his brow.] But first I must ask your father for your hand in marriage. I fear he may place hurdles in our path.

GAEL : It is true he can be an exacting man, darling, but I feel sure you will win him over.

ANDREW : Well, we shall find out soon enough. Hark! I hear him approach!

Enter IAN ANDERSON

IAN : Hello Gael, hello young fellow-me-lad.

GAEL : Hello Papa!

ANDREW : Hello Ian … I may call you Ian?

IAN : No you may not. Address me as J-Tull Dot Com, as in the title of the 1999 album release by my rock band.

ANDREW : Oh … okay.

IAN : [Laughing] But I jest with you! By all means call me Ian. And what brings you to my country pile on this lovely summer’s day, sonny?

ANDREW : Well, I, er, um …

GAEL : Go on, darling, ask him!

ANDREW : I come to ask for the fair and dainty hand of your daughter in marriage.

IAN : I see. And are you a worthy suitor?

GAEL : He is, Papa, he is!

IAN : To be worthy of my daughter, a man must be able to play the flute while standing on one leg. Can you do that, son?

ANDREW : [Crestfallen] I’m not sure.

GAEL : But Papa, Andrew has other special skills. He has fought many zombies, and has a string of triumphs over the walking dead!

IAN : Really? I have not heard anything so preposterous since Crest Of A Knave, the 1987 album release by my rock band.

GAEL : Yes, really, Papa! Have you not seen the post-apocalyptic television drama The Walking Dead? Every week, Andrew gives those zombies the what-for!

IAN : My poor sweet child, you are confusing Mr Clutterbuck here with Andrew Lincoln, the zombie-battling star of that show.

ANDREW : Be it known that I am Andrew Lincoln! Born a Clutterbuck, I dropped that foolish surname when I embarked upon my glittering thespian career.

IAN : Is that so? Well then, I give my consent!

GAEL : Oh thank you Papa!

ANDREW : Thank you, J-Tull Dot Com sir!

IAN : Let us celebrate by singing a few snatches from Aqualung, the 1971 album release by my rock band.

They sing & wassail.

Curtain.