Another brief Hooting hiatus may be afoot. Well, not afoot, exactly, rather ahead, for the head is the home of the eyes. As readers will be aware, the Key eyes have lately been pitiful things, subjected to all sorts of medical procedures. Tomorrow I shall be off to the hospital again for an op. It may be that reading and writing will be difficult until such time as I obtain new reading specs with a new prescription. While I am gone, you can rummage around in the archives. Type a word or phrase into the search box above and see what buried treasures you unearth.
My reference to Tuesday Weld the other day prompted a reader to request the repotsage [sic] of this piece from seven long years ago.
Be it known that on the fourteenth day of the month of March in the year of picklings last, MR THUBB, the Hon. Secretary of the Pointy Town chapter of the Tuesday Weld Fan Club, hired a charabanc for the purposes of an excursion to outlying parts of the said town, there to picnic and exchange pictorial collector’s cards of Tuesday Weld, her contemporaries and her peers.
That the driver of the charabanc was a man of frightful countenance and evil reputation. That he was said to have phantom limbs, additional to his given limbs, and that though these could not be perceived by the human eye in ordinary daylight, they were nevertheless present, and said driver might be said to have the form of a gigantic spider were he ever seen whole.
That the cost of the hire of the charabanc and driver was met by subscription to the excursions and picnicking fund of the Tuesday Weld Fan Club, administered by the Hon. Treasurer MR BRIMSTONE. That MR THUBB and MR BRIMSTONE were at loggerheads by cause of imponderables and fathomless mysteries known to none but they and their wives and the late beadle, MR FLAIL, perished of an ague in the month of February past. That the relict of MR FLAIL was confined to a madhouse wherein she did knit, in a phrenzy, in all her hours of wakefulness.
That the charabanc driver, by name BINNS, having agreed a route to the picnicking spot with MR THUBB, did diverge his vehicle up into the hills, whence his intention was to deliver all the excursioning members of the Tuesday Weld Fan Club into the clutches of the Grunty Man, who dwelt in a lair in said hills. That BINNS was to gain no pecuniary advantage from this treachery, in that his sole purpose was mischief and malfeasance. That the babblings of the excursionists within the charabanc excited them to such degree that none took cognizance of the divergence.
That much frost and ice lay on the roads in that month of March for it was a bitter season. That there was no grit to be had nor wherewithal of Pointy Town civic gritting persons to spread it upon the roads if there had been, for they were in dispute with regard to their stipend and held banners in a throng outside the civic hall and had tubs which they thumped with main force. That notwithstanding his great merit as a driver of the charabanc, BINNS caused the vehicle to skid ski-skaw-skoo off the appointed way and go plunging into a ditch some four miles as the crow flies past the Bypass at Blister Lane. That had BINNS taken the route agreed with MR THUBB such accident would never have occurred.
That the gentlemen and ladies of the Tuesday Weld Fan Club conducted themselves with decency and aplomb. That those who had been hurled from the charabanc assisted those who remained within its twisted wreckage to make their escape. That they gathered in the ditch and sipped with due daintiness from flasks of soup piping hot. That the Hon. Correspondence Secretary, MRS GLEETY, distributed to all Dr Gillespie’s Famous And Trustworthy Brain Powders For The Alleviation Of Disorders Of The Nerves And Integuments. That tears of emotion were shed when it was seen that MR THUBB and MR BRIMSTONE were putting aside their differences in the face of calamity and were shaking hands with each other with manly forbearance.
That a considerable time elapsed before it was noted that the charabanc driver BINNS was not present with the others in the ditch. That said BINNS had taken to his heels at the first opportunity. That his fleeing gained much expedition from the fact that his visible heels were accompanied by any number of phantom heels. That the direction of BINNS’ fleeing was into the hills, where he threw himself upon the mercy of the Grunty Man with terrible bewailings that he had failed in his appointed task. That the Grunty Man was a stranger to mercy and grunted loud and awful grunts and dragged BINNS into the depths of his lair. That not hide nor hair of BINNS was ever seen again on this spinning earth.
That the composure of the members of the Tuesday Weld Fan Club was a magnificent thing and a pride unto Pointy Town. That when wounds were bandaged and shattered bones set with splints, they clambered forth each and every one from the ditch to make the journey home on foot. That night fell and they lost their way yet did not once screech in terror nor complain of chill. That they kept their spirits up by calling one to another the titles of feature films in which Tuesday Weld had appeared, to which another would respond by calling out the name of the character she had played in said feature film, so that MR BRIMSTONE might call Rally ‘Round The Flag, Boys! and MRS GLEETY call Comfort Goodpasture, or MR THUBB call The Private Lives Of Adam And Eve and the Hon. Picnics Secretary MRS BLEARS call in return Vangie Harper.
That such jollies were brought cruelly to a close when it happened in the darkness that MR THUBB collided with an enormous block of masonry and was knocked insensible. That MRS GLEETY had exhausted her supply of Dr Gillespie’s Powders but was able to revive MR THUBB with a draught of arquebusade-water from a canister within her handbag. That it was resolved to remain in the lee of the enormous block of masonry pending the break of dawn, for it provided some shelter from a wild wind which now was roaring. That to pass the time until dawn, the excursionists hummed tunes made famous by Dudley Moore and Pinchas Zukerman, respectively the second and third husbands of Tuesday Weld.
That when dawn came and examination was made of the masonry it was found to be covered in greatly mysterious inscriptions in an alphabet unknown to even the most erudite member of the Tuesday Weld Fan Club. That this was by common acclaim MR SHAMBEKO who was the author of many learned books, among them being a history of Pointy Town, a topographical description of the area around the Blister Lane Bypass, and a shot-by-shot analysis of the feature film I’ll Take Sweden, in which Tuesday Weld appeared as the character JoJo Holcomb. That in scraping clumps of mud from the masonry the better to view the inscriptions, it became apparent that much of the block remained submerged below the ground. That MRS GLEETY produced from her handbag a number of gardening trowels which she carried on the aborted excursion in case within the vicinity of the picnic spot had grown such plants as campions and hellebore and lupins for the digging up and transplanting to her garden behind the house on Turpentine Boulevard in Pointy Town. That those of the party not yet faint with exhaustion set to with a will a-trowelling away the mud to reveal as much of the enormous block of masonry as their efforts might allow.
That thus was discovery made of the ancient tomb of Anaxagrotax. That MR SHAMBEKO thereafter wrote an account of the discovery and embarked upon an extensive lecture tour of many countries. That MR SHAMBEKO never failed to acknowledge the inadvertent part played by the evil spidery charabanc driver BINNS. That it remains unknown who or what Anaxagrotax was or in what era he lived if ever he lived at all. That his tomb now gleaming is surrounded by a fence to deter souvenir hunters, and that propped against the tomb, in a plain wooden frame coated with protection against the elements is a publicity photograph of Tuesday Weld, taken circa 1963 during production of the feature film Soldier In The Rain, in which she appeared as the character Bobby Jo Pepperdine. That it is apt that a soldier stands guard in a sentry box beside the tomb of Anaxagrotax, and that it is raining, and that there is no roof upon the box, so the rain falls directly upon the soldier, whose badge declares his name as Private Pepperdine.
The world-famous food-splattered Jesuit was one of the best loved and most successful variety acts of the interwar years. It is believed that he appeared at every single seaside resort in the land, the grandiose and the dilapidated, in and out of season, and always to rapturous applause. Key to his appeal was sheer simplicity. The curtains would open and there, on stage, world-famous and splattered with food, stood a Jesuit. He would extend his arms, almost in crucifixion pose, and gaze at a point slightly above the heads of the audience. There were no frills, no “business” with props. After a few minutes, the curtains would close, and – barring the inevitable encore – that was that. It was a winning formula, but one which, alas, could not transfer to radio, where so many of the stars of variety theatre went on to find fame and fortune.
Throughout the years of his greatest popularity, roughly the decade from 1925 to 1935, the world-famous food-splattered Jesuit managed, miraculously, to preserve his anonymity. We still do not know for certain who he was. We do know, in spite of rumours put about to the contrary, that he was a single, particular individual, and not a series of different Jesuits. This charge was first levelled in a scurrilous newspaper story. In the Daily Voodoo Dolly for the sixth of September 1929, a hack named only as “Our Seaside Resort Reporter” claimed that the original world-famous food-splattered Jesuit had been killed in an accident (picnic, lightning) and replaced by at least seven other Jesuits, who took it in turns to appear at the end of piers, splattered with food. This farrago of nonsense was comprehensively demolished by investigative variety theatre reporter John Pilge, a man who knew his onions.
But even Pilge was not perfect, and it seems he was the source of a common misapprehension of the nature of the Jesuit’s performances. Oft repeated by nincompoop wannabe historians of the seaside variety theatre, this is the idea that the Jesuit stood on stage, initially pristine in his soutane, and that he was splattered with food by members of the audience pelting him with eggs, fruit, cuts of meat, soup, ketchup, ad nauseam. So let me be crystal clear – there is not a shred of evidence that this was ever so. More than that, it belies a fundamental misunderstanding of the entire point of the act, and the reason it was so wildly popular, to wit, that the Jesuit simply stood there, stock still, arms outstretched, faintly holy, world-famous, and food-splattered.
There was an art to these performances which we lose sight of in our modern fast-moving age of pap ‘n’ twaddle. It would be a mistake to think that the Jesuit was nothing more than a messy eater with the table manners of Kafka, who simply allowed various stains and spillages to accumulate upon his soutane. Anybody could achieve that, with persistence, determination, slapdash eating habits, and the shunning of laundry. In fact, there was for a time a rival act known as the world-famous bacon-and-egg-besmirched nun. Though a woman of fine manners and terrific personal hygiene, she was bedizened by the lure of the end of the pier limelight, and dedicated herself to allowing much of her fried breakfast to fall upon her habit. It was an effort of will not to send it straight to the laundry, but she gritted her teeth and prayed, and took to the stage. In itself hers was a fairly enchanting act, as she knelt in an attitude of devotion, clutching her rosary beads, displaying her stains of egg yolk and bacon grease. But she was viewed, with justification, as a copycat, and audiences failed to warm to her. She later achieved a measure of success with a completely different act, involving tea-strainers, coat-hangers, and performing monkeys.
The genius of the world-famous food-splattered Jesuit, on the other hand, was that the splattering was carried out, backstage, immediately before each performance. He would remove his soutane, lay it out flat on the floor, and proceed to splatter it with whatever foodstuffs came to hand. He would chuck eggs or fruit at it from across the room, drizzle it with soup and broth and slops and sauces, and shower it with bread- and biscuit-crumbs. Although there is no evidence that Jackson Pollock ever witnessed these preparations, it seems inconceivable to me that he could ever have arrived at his action painting technique without first having watched the world-famous food-splattered Jesuit.
Though there is common agreement that he was, beyond all reasonable doubt, a Jesuit, and food-splattered, several latterday commentators have wondered about that “world-famous” bit. Given that he is not known ever to have performed outside the seaside resorts of his own country, they ask, is there any truth in the claim that he was famed around the world? This was the interwar years, remember, when communications were technologically primitive compared to our own era. How would a variety theatre aficionado in far flung foreign parts ever hear tell of the goings on at the end of a rickety pier in an out of season seaside resort in our blessed land? It is a pertinent question. But it ignores the decisive role played in the world-famous food-splattered Jesuit’s career by his manager.
“Colonel” Tom Emersonlakeandparker was a rogue and a rascal, and an impresario of genius. It was he who first saw the potential of that pristine black soutane, saw it as a blank slate upon which food could be splattered, and then displayed, as in a tableau vivant, to an adoring public. All he had to do, he realised, was to find the perfect Jesuit, first to do the food-splattering, then to stand still with outstretched arms for ten minutes or so upon a seaside stage. By all accounts, he searched for over six years before finding his man – a man whose name still remains a secret. At the first few appearances, billed as the Food-Splattered Jesuit, the act was a flop. But rather than ditch his choice of Jesuit, which he might easily have done, the “Colonel” instead appended “World-Famous” to his stage name. It was a stroke of genius. Crowds thronged to see a figure who was already – they thought – a legend. They were not disappointed, as who could be? Certainly, in today’s entertainment-saturated world, we fail to register just how impoverished we are. In the era of multi-channel television and YouTube and a populace with the attention span of a gnat, we ought to be crying out, in our millions, for a variety act as spiritually enriching as the world-famous food-splattered Jesuit. Perhaps a young tyro Jesuit with a burning desire to entertain the masses is reading this. He will know what to do.
Originally posted in 2012.
Tuesday Weld Goes Berserk is the title of a puppet show created by the noted glove-puppeteer Dot Glovepup. It acts as a companion piece to her earlier, award-winning show Googie Withers Goes Haywire, and has proved equally controversial. Both shows are clearly indebted to the traditional Punch And Judy format, with squeaky, braying voices and demented violence. Dot Glovepup has been forced, in both cases, to add a prominent programme note declaring that “any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental”.
Tuesday Weld Goes Berserk is divided into three acts. In the first, the Tuesday Weld glove puppet is presented as calm, placid, and peaceable. Indeed, one could say that she is wholly inert, the better to contrast with the “going berserk” which follows. This opening scene lasts anywhere between four and fourteen seconds, depending – according to the glove-puppeteer – on the mood of the audience.
In Act Two, Tuesday Weld gets married to the British pianist, actor, and comedian Dudley Moore. She then goes berserk, bashing him around the head with a sock filled with pellets of lead and then shoving him down a well. Immediately afterwards, Tuesday Weld marries the Israeli violinist and conductor Pinchas Zukerman. She proceeds to go berserk, bashing him around the head with a sock filled with wet impacted sand and then shoving him down a mineshaft.
In Act Three, a police officer attempts to arrest Tuesday Weld, but she scampers away and, dressed in a pink duffel coat, goes cavorting at nightfall on the beach at Deal, skipping about and waving her arms before mincing along the pier and vomiting into the sea, an obvious reference to the haunting image of Carry On actor Charles Hawtrey described in the closing pages of All The Devils Are Here by David Seabrook (Granta, 2002).
Critics have questioned the absence from the puppet show of Tuesday Weld’s first husband, Claude Harz. Dot Glovepup, interviewed for the magazine Characters Ignored In Glove Puppet Shows Weekly, hinted that he may appear in a planned “prequel” glove puppet show featuring both Tuesday Weld and Googie Withers.
Tuesday Weld Goes Berserk is currently showing at a temporary kiosk at the end of the pier at Deal. Admission is free to those wearing pink duffel coats.
NOTA BENE : In the text above, any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Tra la la. Diddly dipsy dee. Look, there goes a person of unhinged mien. But does an unhinged mien betoken an unhinged mind? Let us find out. Let us follow him on his way. Let us follow him to the ends of the earth. But the earth has no ends! It is a globe, and one can go round and round and round forever, or until one drops, panting with exhaustion, without ever reaching an end. Yes, yes, I know one can come to a strand or a foreland or a cliff, and be faced with the sea – so vast, so wet, so merciless – but one simply hops into a boat, any old tub will do, and sooner or later there will be more land upon which to proceed. There are no ends.
So let us follow this person of unhinged mien wherever he should roam, and if he hops into a boat, well, we too shall hop into a boat. But not the same boat. It would not sit well with our sense of safety to be alone aboard a boat with a person of unhinged mien. His unhingement may be of maniacal bent, and under that cloak of his he may be armed with weaponry, lethal weaponry. Think a sharp sword or perhaps a loaded blunderbuss. Think upon that, though it does not bear thinking about, for we could end up with fatal wounds, toppling from the boat into the sea, there to flail helplessly and drown, if he is indeed a maniac.
Better by far to hop into a second, different boat, and follow. We need not even navigate, simply steer the same course as is being steered by the person of unhinged mien, his cloak now swapped for the blazer of a yachtsman. Its fit is too trim to conceal that sword or blunderbuss, but he may still be armed, a dirk in his pocket or a shiv tucked up his sleeve, ready for the wielding, and the blood and the toppling and the flailing and the drowning in that damnable sea.
Let us follow, them, at a safe distance, until such time as he, and we, spy land ahoy, and disembark upon it might be golden sands or it might be wet impacted mud. He swaps his blazer for a macintosh, like Hitler’s. Is he Hitler? Not dead after all, but on the lam, heading for a villa hidden in the mangrove swamps of South America? Of course not! I am running away with myself. Perhaps I, too, am becoming unhinged, in mind if not mien.
It would not be the first time. There was that big bleak soot-black building high on a hill, Pang Hill, behind iron gates, doubly, no, triply padlocked, where I was kept for years, among persons given to raving and gibbering, and warders, done up in starched white tunics, who patted me on the head and gave me fizzy pop in a plastic beaker, which I slurped with gratitude, though a largeish portion of pop dribbled down my chinnychinchin, the warders dabbing at it with rags. Sometimes, at night, chained to my iron cot, I have fantastic dreams, in which I imagine I am still there, behind high walls on high Pang Hill, and not in some faraway land, across the vast wet merciless sea, in dogged pursuit, to the ends of the earth, of a person of unhinged mien. Tra la la. Diddly dipsy dee.
We take as our text for today’s lesson the Gospel of Matthew, chapter ten, verse twenty-nine:
Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father.
Sometimes it so happens that you will go to a sparrow-seller to make purchase of a pair of sparrows, only for him to state an asking price of more than a farthing. Or he might charge a farthing for a single sparrow, but throw in a second sparrow with a “Buy One, Get One Free” offer, in which case you will pay a farthing for two sparrows even if the one sparrow costs a farthing in itself. Thereagain, you might find yourself being offered a free sparrow by a seller of, say, partridges or linnets, who has an unwanted stock of sparrows and cannot wait to be rid of them, for they are greedily eating up his grain and millet that he would rather feed to his partridges or linnets.
So when we ask the question, as we must, are not two sparrows sold for a farthing?, the answer is no, not always, not in all circumstances, come what may, for there may be times and places where we will be asked to pay more, or less, for a pair of sparrows. And from this we can learn much about the ways of God and Man. Yes, the honest sparrow-seller will hand us two sparrows upon receipt of a farthing, but not all sparrow-sellers are honest, while some sparrow-sellers are too honest for their own good. And, as with sparrow-sellers, so too those from whom we buy other birds, not just partridges and linnets, but starlings, and kittiwakes, and seagulls.
But what of the second part of the verse from Matthew 10, that one of them – that is, the sparrows – that one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father? The first part of the verse is a question. The second part is not. It states, quite vehemently and unchallengeably, that, without your Father, one of the sparrows will not fall on the ground. But which of the sparrows is it that shall not fall? One of them will, and one of them will remain in the air, in flight and birdy swooping, until your Father appears, at which point, we must assume, it will plunge towards the earth, just because your Father has arrived.
The more one studies this passage, and I have studied it for years and years, the more problems it raises. Why does one sparrow fall on the ground without your Father? Why does the other sparrow fall on the ground when your Father appears? Is your Father armed with a shotgun, or a catapult? Does His mere presence induce in the tiny frail sparrow a heart attack? And if He can have that effect on a sparrow, what of other birds, partridges, say, or linnets, or starlings or kittiwakes or seagulls or robins or wrens, or even hummingbirds?
These are profound questions, and we must dig deep to answer them, deeper, certainly, than a sparrow may need to dig to light upon a fat juicy earthworm for its morning snack. My own experience has taught me that all that digging will be as nought unless one has first found a sparrow-seller to sell one a pair of sparrows for a farthing. Alas, in this day and age, more leaden than golden, such sparrow-sellers are rare indeed, rarer even than the proverbial hen’s teeth. But the hen is quite another class of bird from a sparrow, as you will know if you have ever kept poultry.
Thus sayeth the Lord.
This piece first appeared in 2011. It seemed particularly pertinent to repost it on today of all days.
There is a song about a lonely goatherd with which I am sure many of you are familiar. This goatherd is usually represented by a puppet (above). We are fortunate to have a picture – indeed, film! – of the lonely goatherd puppet, for there are other noteworthy goatherd puppets of which no images exist. I refer to the Blots, a family of goatherds unparalleled in their rapacity, shadow puppets of whom were devised by the shadow puppeteer Jasper Weems.
Weems told the story of the Blots through the medium of shadow puppetry. Let us retell it here, using words.
The Blots had been goatherds in the Swiss Alps for generations. Their lives were, and always had been, narrow, pinched, and poor. Then, one day in 1964, the current patriarch of the family, Hans Blot, came upon a newspaper report of a meeting of British Labour Party politicians. One of their number, George Brown, had apparently made reference to the gnomes of Zurich. His interest piqued, Hans Blot read further, and learned that these gnomes, residing in Switzerland’s largest city, were exceedingly wealthy.
Hans Blot, who was a goatherd unparalleled in his rapacity, saw an opportunity to turn around his family’s fortunes. Instead of scraping a living herding goats, the Blots could borrow money from the gnomes and … well, he did not immediately form a plan, but he felt sure that he could turn a modest loan from the gnomes into an enormous pile of cash somehow or other, given his unparalleled rapacity.
Blot did not set off for Zurich right away. First, he drilled the family in the tenets of anthroposophy as expounded by Rudolf Steiner. This was necessary, Blot thought, because he assumed the gnomes of Zurich were the invisible gnomes who live among men but cannot be perceived by the common riffraff, such as goatherds, only becoming visible to those on a higher plane of human existence, such as Rudolf Steiner.
The Blots, driven by their unparalleled rapacity, studied hard, and before long, believing they might now be able to perceive the invisible gnomes, set off for Zurich. Upon arrival, they trooped into the first bank they saw, and were delighted when they realised they could see the gnomes with absolute clarity. Hans Blot proceeded to ask for a loan of money. Though the gnomes of Zurich – who were of course not Steinerian gnomes at all, and were visible to everybody – did not lend out money willy-nilly, they recognised the gleam of greed in Hans Blot’s eyes. Such unparalleled rapacity, they felt, was worthy of their regard. The Blots left Zurich with pockets full of cash.
As winter drew in, they spent long evenings huddled in their noisome goatherders’ hovel trying to think up ways to use the loan to, in the words of an accountant, generate a regular revenue stream. Then, on a blizzard-wracked night, one of the younger Blots, Hansi, as rapacious as her grandfather, had a brainwave.
You know, just up the mountain, she babbled in excitement, there is the chalet of the Prix Poubelle-winning writer N K Freaky. He has his own private funicular railway. We could buy it from him, and then gouge oodles of cash by charging exorbitant funicular railway fares!
All the Blots agreed this was a brilliant idea. And over the next five years, they bought more and more funicular railways, not only in the Swiss Alps but in the Austrian and Italian Alps too, and charged their passengers ever-increasing fares for journeys up and down those sublime snow-topped peaks.
But such was their unparalleled rapacity the Blots were reluctant ever to part with a pfennig. When it came time to repay their loan to the gnomes of Zurich, the Blots simply ignored the demands that plopped through the letterbox of their Alpine hovel. Eventually, the gnomes lost patience. After a secretive conference in a secret chamber in their secretive bank, the gnomes of Zurich fastened upon a terrible resolution. They hired a gang of invisible Steinerian gnomes, who one night burst, unperceived, into the Blots’ hovel, and slaughtered them in their beds, each and every one, from Hans to Hansi.
The foregoing cannot, of course, do justice to the vivid shadow puppetry of Jasper Weems’ shadow puppet version of the story of the Blot family, but I hope it has afforded you a modicum of entertainment.
The other day I was scuttling, as one does, across the floors of silent seas. There is no light down there, and it was cold and very wet. But that’s the bottom of the sea for you. It’s no picnic – though I’ve had my fair share of picnics in the cold and wet. I recall one particular childhood picnic where the lid was left off the marmalade jar, and soon enough it contained half marmalade, half rainwater. I was an inquisitive child. I screwed the lid back on the jar and shook it, violently, until the two substances, the marmalade and the rainwater, were mixed together.
Years later, I wrote a book about this experiment, called Marmalade And Rainwater. Some of you may know of it. It was a bestseller, and won several prestigious awards, including the Prix Poubelle. With the money I received for that, I was able to buy an Alpine chalet with its own private funicular railway.
Success prompted the idea that I could mine my memories of childhood picnics for further books. I began work on a fictionalised account of one such picnic, provisionally entitled Sausages And Wasps. But I couldn’t make it work. After every few pages I would grow exasperated and despairing, and scrunch up what I’d written and toss it down a waste chute. I realised that I was temperamentally incapable of writing about this picnic, even in the guise of fiction, because it had taken place on a hot dry sunny day, whereas what spoke to my imagination was the cold wet picnic.
It seems, though, that readers prefer their literary picnics dry and sunny. My second book, More Marmalade And Further Rainwater, was a complete flop, selling fewer than a dozen copies and winning no prizes whatsoever. It did not take long before I faced financial ruin, so I decided to sell up and move elsewhere. But I made the foolish mistake of selling the funicular railway first. This meant I was unable to go to and from the Alpine chalet without paying a hefty fare for each journey to the new owners, a family of goatherds unparalleled in their rapacity.
How, then, did I get from my high Alpine home to where I am now, lingering in the chambers of the sea? Ah, that will be the subject of my next book, a non-picnic-based memwa. I am taking my time over it. There will be time, there will be time for a hundred visions and revisions before the taking of a toast and tea. And I shall spread my toast with a mixture of marmalade and rainwater.
I write these words with immense difficulty, and in frantic haste. If what I believe is true, I have little more than an hour, perhaps two, before my mind will lose its moorings, the brain inside my head will be reduced to a twitching jelly of miasmic horror, and I will be a hopeless case, raving and gibbering and throwing myself against the walls of this padded cell. I am confined here upon my own insistence. I had to demand that the lunatic asylum staff lock me up, and keep me locked up. If, in an hour or two’s time, I was free to roam the streets among other men, I shudder to think what unimaginable chaos and havoc would be wrought. No, I must remain here, isolated from a world that must, must be protected at all costs from me …. or rather, from the … thing that I will soon become.
Can it really be only a week ago that I was sitting at home, surrounded by my familiar magnets and retorts and cylinders, in peace and comfort, without a care in the world other than the incessant yapping of my neighbour’s dog and the incessant tinkling of the bell dangling from the collar round my neighbour’s dog’s neck and the incessant ululating incantations of my neighbour himself, incantations devised to summon forth the incarnation of the hideous bat-god Fatso, incantations which, thank the heavens, had proved unsuccessful for twenty years and which, one hoped, would remain unsuccessful for a further twenty years and, indeed, forever after? The yapping and tinkling and ululating aside, I was, as I say, in peace and comfort, and could never have imagined the inexplicable horror that was about to unfold. It has been just one week, but I feel I have lived through a thousand years, nay!, a thousand centuries, a thousand millennia in that time.
It all began, prosaically enough, with the telltale sound of the daily postal delivery dropping onto the mat. I put aside the lemon meringue pie I was eating and went to retrieve it. I flicked briefly through the items: a couple of bills, a letter from my bankers, the latest copy of the Reader’s Digest – I quickly scanned the contents page and made a mental note to read, at the earliest opportunity, the article about bringing a monkey out of a medically-induced coma – a couple of advertising flyers, and – fatefully, as I was to learn – a black envelope, addressed by hand in gleaming silver lettering, bearing a postage stamp which, though I looked at it from every conceivable angle, and then from several inconceivable angles, resisted all attempts to see it clearly. It seemed somehow to shift in shape and colour and size, to become invisible and then visible again. I could not even tell whether it was self-adhesive or had had to be affixed to the envelope with a lick of spittle from a human – or inhuman? – tongue.
Placing the rest of my post in the wicker basket on my escritoire, I returned to the breakfast table, took another mouthful of lemon meringue pie, and opened the envelope carefully. The letter inside was unexpectedly ordinary – a single sheet of white paper, covered in black handwriting of commendable neatness and legibility.
Dear Mr Key, I read, I have long been an admirer of your Hooting Yard weblog and the associated podcasts on Resonance FM. It is an enthusiasm fully shared by my colleagues in the Faculty of Blasphemous and Forbidden Studies at Miskatonic University, Arkham, from where I write this letter. To be wholly accurate, I should say that I am writing from the campus annexe in Innsmouth, where the faculty offices are based. Such is our admiration for you that we wish to issue an invitation. There is work that needs to be done – important and urgent work – and we think you are the man to do it. It is a somewhat delicate matter, and I am reluctant to put the details down in writing – and not merely reluctant. Let us say, rather, that the prospect of committing those details to pen and paper fills me with a terrible, nameless dread. For this reason, I would be grateful if, at your earliest convenience, you would telephone me on the number given below.
The number followed, and the letter was signed – in a florid if shaky hand – by Professor Charles Dexter Nyarlathotep, Dean of Faculty. I immediately picked up my telephone receiver and dialled.
After a few rings, there was a click, as if my call had been answered, but no one seemed to be on the wire, and I was about to hang up when my ear caught a faint suspicion of sound. Was someone trying, under great difficulties, to talk? As I listened, I thought I heard a sort of half-liquid bubbling noise – “glub … glub … glub”- which had an odd suggestion of inarticulate, unintelligible, word and syllable divisions. I called “Is that Professor Nyarlathotep?” but the only answer was “glub-glub …. glub-glub” Then my interlocutor, whoever it was – whatever it was – hung up.
If there is one thing I learned from President Nixon it was the advisability of tape-recording all my conversations. (A second thing I learned from him was to relieve stress by mashing potatoes, but that was not pertinent to the current situation.) I plucked the cassette from the machine and hurried next door. I did not go to my ululating neighbour with the yapping dog and the yapping dog’s tinkling bell, but to my neighbour on the other side. This fellow happened to be an eminent and distinguished retired professor of Comparative and Applied Ichthyolinguistics, and I was certain he would be able to help me to understand the strange sounds from the telephone call. Sure enough, having played the tape back to him, my neighbour was able to make an instant translation.
“I have communed with many fish and other aquatic beings,” he said, “And I recognise this at once as the lingua franca of a particularly hideous and unimaginably horrible spawn of the chthonic depths of the sea, depths so deep that all light is blotted out and the creatures there are grotesque blind albino monsters with writhing flippers. One must listen intently to each ‘glub’ to discern its meaning. In this case, it seems you are being invited to Miskatonic University for the purpose of writing the authorised biography of the mad Arab, Abdul Alhazred, author of the Necronomicon.”
I thanked the professor, gave him the remainder of my lemon meringue pie, returned home, packed a suitcase, and made my way to the railway station, where I caught the next train to Arkham. At Arkham, I would need to change trains to proceed on the branch line to the university campus annexe at Innsmouth. It was a long journey, and I passed the time by reading my xeroxed copy of Ebn Khallikan’s early (12th century) biography of Abdul Alhazred. This was the text that claimed, among other things, that the mad Arab had been seized by an invisible monster in broad daylight and devoured horribly before a large number of fright-frozen witnesses. I did not believe a word of this, nor of much else in the book, and as the train passed through bosky rustic backwaters, I grew confident that, as the authorised biographer, appointed by Miskatonic University, I could do a far better job.
When, eventually, we arrived at Innsmouth, I booked myself into a dilapidated and ill-starred boarding house by the quayside. The landlady was a swarthy, bloated dwarf of cretinous appearance. I suspected she was the product of centuries of inbreeding. When completing the register, she asked me, in her weirdly strangulated guttural caterwaul of a voice, punctuated by almost reptilian hisses, to state the nature of my business. Rather than trusting her with the truth, I claimed to be an aide de camp to President Nixon, scouting possible locations for a branch of his presidential library. She scribbled this into her ledger without comment.
It was late, and I was tired, so I declined the landlady’s offer of supper – which appeared to consist of a bowl full of boiled, writhing tentacles swimming in a mixture of brine and goat’s milk – and I retired to my room. As I opened the door, I reeled and nearly swooned. It was cramped and filthy and the wallpaper depicted ungodly patterns, in colours beyond any spectrum known to human science and lines and shapes of some bizarre, alien geometry. I flung myself on to the fantastically uncomfortable bed and prayed for sleep. For several hours I tossed and turned, but eventually I lost consciousness. How I wish I had not! That night, for the first time since infancy, my dreams were haunted by … the Grunty Man!
Most people of my generation will be familiar with this loathsome monster. It was common, when I was a child, for parents to frighten their children to sleep with spine-tingling tales of this creature, dwelling in a deep dark dank cave, hairy and grunting and covered in sores and suppurating boils, a hideous being older than the universe, older than time and space, grunting, drooling, stinking, and ever prepared to come lumbering out of the maw of his cave to visit unimaginable havoc upon the innocent. He had terrified me as a tiny tot, and he terrified me now, the more so because the nightmare was so inexplicably vivid.
Eventually, mercifully, I awoke from this hideous phantasm. I was twitching and shattered. After cursory ablutions, I went downstairs to the breakfast room. When I saw that breakfast was the same bowl of tentacles as the supper of the night before, I excused myself, and crashed unsteadily out of the door. I decided to head straight for the campus to seek out Professor Nyarlathotep. The sooner I obtained comprehensive details of my commission, and signed a contract, the sooner I could leave this benighted, wretched, vile seaside hellhole.
After a short bus ride to the campus, it was a simple enough matter to locate the Faculty of Blasphemous and Forbidden Studies and, once inside, to find the professor’s office. A young woman was sitting at a desk in the anteroom.
“You must be Mr Key,” she said, “I am Miss Dimity Cashew, the professor’s secretary. I am afraid he is not here right now He is off somewhere or other, consulting an abominable tome written in an unknown and possibly bestial alphabet.”
She was a pallid and asymmetrical figure, with a club foot and one withered leg, a withered arm, several extra fingers on one hand and several fingers missing on the other, eyes of different colours which seemed always to be looking in wildly different directions, and her lank hair was scattered with breadcrumbs and a twig or two. I was transfixed. My dementedly thumping heart seemed ready to burst from my breast. I could barely speak, but I managed to splutter some incoherent words. Dimity agreed to join me for a stroll along the Innsmouth promenade.
It was a whirlwind romance, and five days later we were married in St Bibblybibdib’s church. Only on the morning after our wedding night did I snap out of my lovestruck daze and remember why I had come to Innsmouth in the first place.
“The authorised biography of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred!” I cried, “I must go to see the professor at once!”
These words had a strange effect on my new bride. Dimity seemed to shrink visibly and clutched desperately at the bedsheets. Already pallid, what little colour there was drained from her face. She shook her head violently, sending twigs and breadcrumbs flying from her lank hair across the room. And then, for the first time since I had met her, both of her eyes swivelled to fix in the same direction, and she looked straight at me.
“For god’s sake!” she screamed, “Phn’glui mglw’nafh! Wgah’fhtagn! The pit of the shoggoths! Down the six thousand steps … the abomination of abominations … I never would let him take me, and then I found myself there! Ia! Shub-Niggurath! The Hooded Thing bleated ‘Kamog! Kamog!’ In the place of utter blasphemy! I can’t stand it! I can’t stand it! My brain! It’s tugging – from beyond – knocking – clawing – Ngr’hfglkhar! The Goat with a Thousand Young! … Oh God!”
Like a fool, I dismissed this as delirium, a fit of the vapours. I told Dimity to have a nice cup of tea and to get some more sleep. And I hurried out towards the faculty office … and, had I but known it, towards my own destruction.
There is little more to tell. I ran to the faculty building and through into the anteroom, past Dimity’s empty desk, until I stood at the professor’s door. I knocked, and heard from inside a weird eldritch unfathomable rustling and panting and … grunting. I threw open the door, and rushed in, and found myself in a room as deep and dark and dank as the cave of the Grunty Man. It was the cave of the Grunty Man! And there, in the Stygian blackness, looming before me, was the Grunty Man himself, in the form of the withered, ancient figure of Professor Nyarlathotep.
“Ah! At last!” he wheezed, “I have been waiting for you. Every ten thousand years, I require a new host body. And here you are!”
And before I had time to scream, or flee, the hideous being shot across the darkness towards me and somehow inserted itself, body and soul, its very being, into me. I felt it settle, adjusting its horrible contours to mine, feeling its way into me, physically and mentally. Desperately, I clung on to a small corner of my brain that remained my own. I have continued to cling to it for as long as I can, but I grow weaker and weaker, and the ‘me’ that clings will soon be no more. That is why I ran as fast as I could to this lunatic asylum and, at gunpoint, demanded to be confined in a padded cell. Its walls and locks will keep humanity safe for a time. But the time will come, years, centuries hence, when the locks will rust and the walls crumble … and then the Grunty Man will lumber forth, in his awful grunting horror, and he shall have dominion over the earth, and all the other planets in all the other universes, forever and ever. I am the Grunty Man!
Cocking a snook is an age-old custom in Pointy Town, harking back to the days of Bruno La Poubelle, or even earlier. It is unrelated to the snook-cocking practised elsewhere in the world. That is not the same thing at all. No it is not, oh no. No.
What am I talking about, then, when I talk about the specifically Pointy Town practice – or praxis, as the postmodernist philosopher Jean-Luc Postmod would put it – of cocking a snook? Am I just babbling incoherently? No, I am not, oh no. Not at all.
We may go back to the ur-text in this matter, the centuries-old Great Book of Bruno La Poubelle, in which we find this passage. Granted, to the modern reader it is gibberish, but bear with me. Have patience. This is what we read:
Wheat! Goosepeck ouch. Sit, Fido. Rubber papa hemingway in storm drains. Kew Rhone sow’s ear, wah wah pedal bin. Birds without ears. Oo look teabag. Hen coop protocol baffling. Fiery, fiery Fido sit. Pictures of Jap girls in synthesis. Religio medici urn burial. Early Scritti, natty Jah, natty cock, natty snook, natty dread.
Roughly translated, this means … well, it is so roughly translated it can hardly be called a translation. I for one can make head nor tail of it. The important point is that the words “cock” and “snook” can both be spotted in the passage, and in close proximity, so that tells us something. What does it tell us? At the very least, it tells us that both “cock” and “snook” were words in usage in Pointy Town at the time of the composition of the Great Book of Bruno La Poubelle. So we are getting somewhere. Oh yes we are.
When I suffered a burst appendix, and they put me on a stretcher, I had visions. Yes I did, I’m not making this up. One of these visions was of an ancient Pointy Towner, out gathering snooks. I saw the vision as if through a mist, a thick mist, such that I could not clearly discern the Pointy Towner. Put it like this, I wouldn’t be able to identify him in a police line-up. The same is true of the snooks he was gathering. Oh thick, thick mist! How you blurred my sight as I lay on that stretcher with a burst appendix!
In another vision, following swiftly on the first, the ancient Pointy Towner was cocking the snooks he’d gathered. This, too, was obscured by mist, more’s the pity. And more’s the potty, if you want to know, and I’m sure you do. I’m quite sure. Oh yes I am. There was a hell of a lot of pottiness abroad at that time. What a time it was! A potty time, pottier than ever before or after, even now …
Now the gold is turned to lead
And you are lying in your bed
With curtains drawn across the night
Oh hug your pillow! Hug it tight
Though you may plead and you may pray
The Grunty Man is on his way!
The latest correspondence in the Hooting Yard postbox:
Dear Mr Key : Your brief list of children’s authors named Enid brought back happy memories. I was surprised, however, that you made no mention of my own favourite, Enid Blytmyfire. Who can forget her series of books about Little Jim, the shamanic singer, poet and counterculture icon, who is revealed as merely a drug-addled alcoholic who dies in a bathtub in Paris?
There is the story about the pauper who steals a pea from a princeling. Or it may be that the princeling steals a pea from a pauper. I can never quite recall which way round it goes. I ought to remember, because god knows I heard the story often enough. My ma, or sometimes my pa, read it to me every single night, for years and years, as my bedtime story. Perhaps that is why I don’t remember it with blinding clarity, because I was always falling asleep as I listened to it. I fell asleep in spite of the undoubted excitement of the story, and of the Sturm und Drang of the violent thunderstorms which were a constant feature of the weather in that place at that time. I suspect my falling asleep came so easily because my ma, or my pa, spiked my bedtime milk of magnesia with a powerful tranquiliser.
I was certainly a tranquil child. I never said “Boo!” to a goose. My parents kept several geese, but I never dared say “Boo!” to a single one of them. Frankly, they terrified me with their honking and their waddling about and the whiteness of their feathers, a whiteness that seemed unearthly. It reminded me of the final scene in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edgar Allan Poe.
Of course, I was not reminded of this when I was an unlettered tot, it was only later, when I learned to read. At first I read childish comics like The Ipsy Dipsy Doo and The Hammer of Christ, but I was a keen reader and swiftly moved on to Enid Blyton and Enid Blytoff and Enid Blytattheendofthetunnel, before tackling Burgess and Borges, and the gloomy Russians, and potboilers by Pebblehead, until, at twelve, I read Arthur Gordon Pym, after which I was so unnerved by that whiteness that I never read anything else, ever again, just reading Poe’s novel over and over again and again. It remains the only book on my bookshelf, which rather obviates the need for the space provided by a shelf. Hence I have filled it with plasticine models of a pauper and a pea and a princeling.
I made these models myself, visualising the pauper and the princeling based on what little I could remember about my childhood bedtime story, and the pea on close observation of a frozen pea I removed from a packet of frozen peas stored in the freezer compartment of my refrigerator in my kitchen in my chalet high in the Alps near the sanatorium where tubercular patients lie sprawled, exhausted, on balconies.
Among these patients, who I watch through a pair of binoculars, is a fellow with a walrus moustache who closely resembles the lumbering psychopathic serial killer Babinsky. But it cannot be him. If it were, I like to think I would clamber up to his balcony and engage him in conversation and ask him if he, too, grew up listening over and over again and again to the tale of the pauper and the princeling and the pea. If he had, and if he was indeed Babinsky, it would explain a lot about his subsequent career raining violent havoc and mayhem upon the weedy and the blameless and the innocent.
When I tire of watching the Babinsky lookalike, I train my binoculars upon the snow-capped Alpine peaks, white, so white, so unutterably, blindingly white.
Dear Mr Key, writes rock ‘n’ pop critic Rick Rockpopcrit, I was fascinated to read your piece about Pierre et Clothilde yesterday. It is true, sadly, that the duo’s career lay in tatters by the early 1970s. What was missing from your article, however, was any account of Pierre’s later involvement in the punk ‘n’ post-punk scene. My cousin Sid Punkcrit covered this in an article for the monthly magazine Punks Named Pierre in September 1979. I clipped it out with a pair of extremely shiny scissors, and am sending it to you so you can transcribe it and share it with your readers.
Exciting news reaches us that Pierre, previously of chart-non-topping duo Pierre et Clothilde, is making a comeback! He has completely reinvented himself for the punk ‘n’ post-punk era, fronting a new band called Pierre et les Pantoufles (above; Pierre is on the far left). Their first single, Où est Clothilde?, a raucous and godawful discordant din, had me tapping my toes while wearing my own pantoufles. The B side, Clothilde, Mon Amour is less of a toe-tapper and more of a hands-over-the-ears cacophany of cacophonosity.
The band is currently in the studio recording their debut album, Devons-nous jeter cette saleté à nos pop-enfants, Clothilde? It promises to be a cracker. That is a view shared by Plastic Bertrand, who I bumped into in a corridor on my way to conduct an interview with Pierre. It came as a surprise to me that Plastic Bertrand is not, as I thought, made of plastic. This revelation so disconcerted me that, when I sat down with Pierre, the first thing I said to him was: “Pierre, did you know that Plastic Bertrand is not made of plastic?”
“Oui” he muttered, before launching into a mournful lament about Clothilde, accompanied by copious weeping. Unfortunately, it was all in French, or the dialect of French spoken by Walloons, a language with which I am wholly unfamiliar. So I just sat there trying to look sympathetic, while puffing on a Gitane. There was no sign of the Pantoufles.
By the time Pierre eventually shut up and dried his eyes with a dainty and unpunklike silken handkerchief, I had got through an entire pack of Gitanes and had heard quite enough mawkish Wallonian blathering. I was trying to work out what to do next. I could slap Pierre about and tell him to get a grip. Or I could try to divert him on to a different subject. Best of all, perhaps, I could sweep imperiously out of the room and pursue Plastic Bertrand.
Then the door crashed open, and a woman swept imperiously into the room. I thought for a moment she was some kind of space hippy. Then I realised – it was Clothilde!
Here is a very rare photograph of 1960s pop duo Pierre et Clothilde, performing their chart-non-topper Come Into The Garden, Maud on a Belgian TV show. Like untold dozens of their contemporaries, Pierre et Clothilde have been shoved none too gently into the dustbin of pop history. Yet in their prime, the pair could be said to have been the brightest garlands on the pop music wreath. That, at least, was the verdict of the cultural critic Charles Shaar Loopy, who wrote:
For my money, which in present circumstances is a handful of loose change and a promissory note of dubious provenance, Pierre et Clothilde – which, for monoglots, can be translated as Pierre and Clothilde – are the brightest garlands on the pop music wreath. This wreath, composed mostly of lupins, foxgloves, and stinging nettles, is a lovely thing, a very lovely thing, a thing so lovely that it takes my breath away. It takes my breath away and also causes a nasty rash on my forehead. That’s because I took the opportunity to pop the wreath onto my head when nobody was looking. I wanted to imitate Christ wearing his crown of thorns, but in a sort of pop context, pop being my field of expertise.
Pierre et Clothilde’s career hit the doldrums after a disastrous appearance in Shoeburyness. Pierre had the flu, and Clothilde had the flu too, and the two doses of flu wreaked havoc on their performance of Tooty Foofy Boogie Boo. Charles Shaar Loopy again:
The Shoeburyness crowd, peevish and rancorous to begin with on account of local kiosk closures and an ominous flock of godwits looming above the open air arena, grew uglier. They pelted poor Pierre et Clothilde with pebbles, and gave vent to an ungodly howling, which quickly spread to such rough beasts prowling the undergrowth as wolves and wild pigs. Pigs don’t usually howl, but these wild Shoeburyness pigs were of a different order to your usual pigs, possibly because of their proximity to an experimental research station. But I’m more a pop person than a pig person, so I can’t be sure. As The Young Rascals sang, how can I be sure?, I can’t, I just can’t. [Bursts into tears, and weeps for forty days and forty nights.]
In the early 1970s, Pierre et Clothilde attempted to revive their career. They collaborated with Antipodean pop/folk sensation Keith Potger, once of The Seekers, but the new trio’s version of El Pueblo Unido Jamas Sera Vencido, released as a single just in time for Christmas 1973, flopped, and flopped dismally, and flopped dismally and desultorily, and flopped dismally and desultorily and irrevocably, and flopped dismally and desultorily and irrevocably and floppily, as floppily as the floppiest imaginable flop, which is saying something. What it is saying is that the single flopped, and flopped dismally, and flopped dismally and desultorily, and flopped dismally and desultorily and irrevocably, and flopped dismally and desultorily and irrevocably and floppily, as floppily as the floppiest imaginable flop. One could paraphrase, but to do so would not change the facts, so it is best not to paraphrase, and simply to repeat the exact same words, for purposes of emphasis.
And where are they now, Pierre et Clothilde? Where indeed? And now indeed, to boot. And Pierre indeed. And Clothilde indeed. Or should I say, et Clothilde indeed? I should. I did. Oh, where are the snows of yesteryear? What becomes of the broken-hearted? Why do fools fall in love? Must we fling this filth at our pop kids? Not even Charles Shaar Loopy can answer that one.
Yesterday I received an annoying email from a company – probably run by teenagers – called SOS.
Hi Frank!, it began, overfamiliarly. I don’t know why I continued reading after such effrontery, but I did.
Here at SOS we’re passionate about helping you maximise traffic to your website. SOS stands for Search Optimisation Solutions, and that’s exactly what we do!
Like a fool, I carried on reading. I suppose I was won over by the thought that I could attract more than thirty-four readers. I became even more interested when SOS gave me one of their so-called “simple yet effective” tips without my having to pay them a penny.
Our research shows that web traffic increases a millionfold if you mention three names on your site. We call them The Three Ks – Kate, Kim, and Keith. That is, Kate Middleton, Kim Kardashian, and Keith Potger.
I am now racking my brains trying to work out how to concoct a story which includes the Duchess of Cambridge, the inexplicable celebrity, and a quarter of Antipodean 1960s pop sensations The Seekers, which is at once (a) credible, (b) morally uplifting, and (c) groovy. If any of the thirty-four of you have any ideas, please let me know in the Comments.
UPDATE : Gosh! Since I posted the above, an hour ago, traffic to Hooting Yard has increased to a whopping thirty-six! Thanks a million, SOS!