Riddle

My first is in Blenkinsop but not in Xavier Cugat.

My second is in cheesegrater but not in thurible.

My third is in collapsed lung but not in owl.

My fourth is in Petula Clark but not in puff pastry.

My whole passeth beyond all human understanding.

What am I?

Two Hats Whizz

There is a bulging postbag here at Hooting Yard, and today nearly all the letters contained therein are asking the same question. Is there any relation between Billy Two Hats, the dual-headed cowboy we met on Wednesday last, and Billy Whizz, the high-speed cartoon character whose capers were chronicled in The Beano?

Conscientious as ever, I have looked into this matter on your behalf, and I can now present my findings.

There are important differences between the two characters. Being a cowboy, Billy Two Hats is, to a large extent, horsebound, whereas Billy Whizz is not. He whizzes about on his legs, though so rapidly does he make his progress through the streets and alleys and boulevards of Whizztown that those legs are sometimes rendered barely visible. Nonetheless, it is clear that he is not sitting astride a horse. Also, in all known portraits, Billy Whizz’s neck supports just a single head, never two.

On the other hand, they have several things in common, quite apart from being Billys. To give one example, neither of them is ever transformed, temporarily or permanently, after an encounter with a wand-waving wizard at dusk by the edge of an eerie marsh, into a magic chicken. Or, to be piercingly accurate, there is at least no surviving record of such a poultry transformation, or “poultformation” as it is termed in the literature. Believe me, I have scoured the records and come up with nothing.

One of the letters in the postbag asks, “Can you be quite sure, Mr Key, to the umpteenth degree of certainty, that neither Two Hats nor Whizz, on horseback or at high speed, was aboard the airship LZ 129 Hindenburg when it burst into flames during its attempt to dock with its mooring mast at Naval Air Station Lakehurst in Manchester Township, New Jersey, on 6 May 1937?” To which I must confess that no, I cannot be one hundred percent certain, because I have not studied, in detail, the passenger manifest. I will say, however, that I think it most unlikely.

This is merely a summary of my findings. For the full report, bulked out with footnotes, illustrations, diagrams, appendices, and a bit of sandpaper, send ten shillings and sixpence to me at the usual address. Mark your envelope with an unseemly stain roughly the same shape as a map of Uruguay, or any other South American country of your choosing, or any other country in one of the other continents, a list of which can be obtained by sending me even more money in the form of non-transferable gilt bonds drawn on an important international bank.

Fellowship

We are five friends, one day we came out of a house one after the other, first one came and placed himself beside the gate, then the second came, or rather he glided through the gate like a little ball of quicksilver, and placed himself near the first one, then came the third, then the fourth, then the fifth. We were like a five-sided die. Most dice have six sides, or faces, I think, but we were like one of those five-sided dice you used to be able to buy at Mr Fatso’s Unseemly Joke Shop. There is an old canard that a five-sided die is a geometric impossibility. Well, try telling that to Mr Fatso. He will spit on your shoes and push one of his novelty spiders up your nose.

We did not come out of the house voluntarily. We were turfed out, one by one, by its paterfamilias. Several hours earlier, shortly after the risen sun brought a blush of golden loveliness to the burgeoning day (Dinsey), we had barged into the house purporting to proselytise. We claimed to be Adepts of the Order of Sibodnedwab, an esoteric order devoted to esoterica, spiritual perfection, and robbery. On the pretext of converting the occupants to our cause, we hoped to snaffle items such as kettles, cushions, and coathangers.

They were a – very wholesome – family of four, Pa and Ma and Little Gus and Little Gertrude. We kept them entranced by chalking an esoteric design upon the carpet, babbling incoherent yet strangely compelling gibberish, and summoning, from a plume of smoke, the jewel-encrusted toad god Alf. Everything was going swimmingly until one of us – I won’t say who – got carried away and pushed one of Mr Fatso’s novelty spiders up Little Gus’s nose. His Pa became enraged. He was wholesome but also a champion wrestler, as big and broad as a big broad bear – see Colour Plate XIV in Snit’s Picture Book Of Bears. That will give you an idea of who we were dealing with.

Or not dealing with. One by one, Pa picked us up by the scruff of the neck and hoicked us out of the house. We came away with nothing. Now we are gathered at the gate, the five of us, like a five-sided die, wondering what to do next.

Let us repair to an ice cream parlour!” cries Ringo. I ought to explain that we are each named after a Beatle. That means four of us have fixed names, while the fifth is known variously as Stu or Brian or George (the other one) or Mal or Yoko, depending upon which lengthy and pointless bit of conjecture gleaned from a half-century’s-worth of so-called rock journalism is uppermost in our minds at any one time.

Usually we like to engage in lengthy and pointless arguments, particularly when it is Ringo calling the shots, but this morning we all agree that ice cream sounds like a capital idea. After all, was it not Perkins who wrote “a choc ice is always a consolation”?

So off we toddle, the five of us, towards the nearest ice cream parlour, as the hands of the clock creep inexorably towards that position where they are both pointing in an identical, decisive vertical. There is a name for that precise alignment. You can look it up in Hodgepang’s The Positions Of Clock-Hands And Their Implications.

As we pass a splurge of binsey poplars, one of us – I won’t say who – looks back and sees, springing along the lane in pursuit, the jewel-encrusted toad god Alf. He is such a nuisance! Years ago, we hired him from Mr Fatso’s Unseemly Joke Shop, thinking he would add a dash of panache to our Order of Sibodnedwab capers. And he did, but he never leaves us alone, when for example we want to go and eat choc ices. We stopped paying Mr Fatso his rental fee long ago, but the toad god still follows us about. Is he a toad god or a toad demon? No matter how he pouts his lips we push him away with our elbows, but however much we push him away, back he comes.

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

Film Review : Billy Two Hats

Pansy Cradledew did not believe me when I told her there was a film called Billy Two Hats. She insisted I must be making it up, for my own amusement. But there is such a film, a western, made in 1974, directed by Ted Kotcheff and starring Gregory Peck and Desi Arnaz Jr.

Ted Kotcheff is half Bulgarian, half Canadian, and his birth name is Velichko Todorov Tsochev. Gregory Peck you will be familiar with. His surname is the same word we use for what a bird does with its beak, when given millet, for example. The one thing I know about Desi Arnaz Jr is that, before becoming an actor, he worked as a birdcage cleaner. I learned this from a popular bestseller of the 1970s called The Book Of Lists.

Though I mentioned Billy Two Hats in conversation with Pansy, I have never actually seen the film. I have always thought it was the story of a cowboy with two heads, hence his two hats. There is much that a skilled screenwriter could do with such a character. His two heads could prompt either comedy or tragedy. He could be played by two actors, or, using special effects, by one. He might very well frighten his own horse.

If the two hats Billy wore atop his two heads were wide-brimmed cowboy hats – as, in a western, they surely would be – then of necessity he would have to crane each neck, one significantly to the left, the other to the right, in order to avoid brim crushage, or worse, one hat dislodging the other hat, leaving it fallen and stranded in the dust as he rides off on his horse across the sweeping buffalo-riddled plains into the sunset, as tends to happen in westerns, particularly just before the closing credits.

I have often wondered if there is an autobiographical element to the film. Did Ted Kotcheff feel compelled to make it because he himself has two heads, one Bulgarian and one Canadian? I have never seen a photograph of him, so this must remain conjecture. But it would be no surprise if this were the case.

There remains the question of casting. Was it intentional to have, as the two leads, actors who, by name and past employment, cannot help but make us think of birds? It is a great shame that a role was not found, in the screenplay, for Tippi Hedren. Tippi has only one head, as far as I know, but she is a dab hand at acting with birds.

Billy Two Hats is almost certainly available on DVD, which, as any fule kno, stands for Dick Van Dyke. The cheerful chimney sweep did not appear in either Billy Two Hats or The Birds, but in a better, more charming world, he would have. Perhaps he was not cast in the western because he, like Tippi Hedren, is a monohead.

Absent-Minded Window-Gazing

What are we to do with these spring days that are now fast coming on? I had not thought I would need to do anything. When I arrived home, I fully expected to find waiting for me, on the desk in my study, the traditional bottle of whisky and loaded revolver. Together, they would take care of the immediate future, after which I need no longer concern myself with the travails of this mundane world. But I came home to find, instead, that Control had left for me a can of Squelcho! and a pencil-sharpener. And so now I am sitting at my desk and gazing absent-mindedly out of the window.

I see the sky, across which clouds lie splattered. It is many years since I read Luke Howard, and I can no longer recall all that stuff I once learned about cumulocirronimbostratus et cetera.

I see grass, upon which birds are hopping and slouching and preening. Ornithology has always confounded me. I could not tell you what manner of birds they are.

I see the backs of buildings made of brick, and their roofs, or is it rooves? Some of the birds move, in flight, between the grass and the roofs, or between the roofs and the grass, and some of them fly away never to be seen again, and others come swooping in, possibly after exceedingly lengthy flights from distant continents. That is one thing I know about ornithology, that certain birds undertake flights the length of which we can barely imagine.

Now I see, lolloping along the lane, Old Halob, the all-too-real coach and mentor of fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol. He is wearing his trademark macintosh and Homburg hat, and smoking one of his filthy cigarettes, crammed with acrid Serbian tobacco. In one hand is his stopwatch, which he uses when timing the fictional athlete as he runs round and round and round and round and round a fictional running-track. His other hand is holding the hand of his walking-companion, or rather limping-companion, the club-footed plucky Fascist tot Tiny Enid. She is a polka-dot-dressed girl of many adventures. I did not know she was in cahoots with Old Halob.

What are they up to? They stop by a puddle, release each other’s hands, and stand there, like a pair of vases on a mantelpiece. I gaze out of the window at them. They appear to be gazing back at me, though I cannot be sure, because I am myopic, and the window is covered in the grime of umpteen weathers.

I remember reading somewhere that most birds are frightened of Tiny Enid, and this is borne out by the fact that all the birds that were pootling about on the grass have now flown away. Old Halob drops the butt of his cigarette, crushes it underfoot, takes another gasper from the packet in his pocket, lights it, and puffs.

This, then, is what we do with these spring days that are now fast coming on. We gaze out of the window, vacantly, at fictional characters of our own imagining. We hallucinate. Because of course the man is not Old Halob and the girl is not Tiny Enid. Those are just figments in my brain with no purchase in brute reality. Outside, on either side of the puddle, the man is just any man, the girl just any girl.

And then the man has passed by and the little girl’s face is quite bright.

The first sentence, and the last, were translated from the German by Willa and Edwin Muir. Everything in between was not.

That’s Me In The Picture!

This picture was taken over fifty years ago. It was part of a photo-shoot for the now defunct River Gods In Repose magazine, at that time one of the best-selling “glossies”. One terrible day, when the sun was blotted out and the sky was black, a photographer came calling at Old Ma Bittergall’s Grim Orphanage For Cherubic Tots, where I was a day pupil. Our whole class was taken in a charabanc to where Old Father Nile was sprawled, and we were told to disport ourselves upon him, and lark about, so long as we stayed perfectly still at the snapper’s command. I remember the river god’s breath stank of rotten fish. The cherubic tot to my left, sitting on the god’s shoulder, is my grate friend peason, who was uterly wet and a weed.

Jackals And Arabs

We were camping in the oasis. We were in one of those so-called “new tents” championed by the “new campers”. The new camping movement took its inspiration partly from the Kibbo Kift and partly from an obscure B-side of a 45rpm single by The Captain And Tennille, in which the winsome duo sang of the joys of “new camping in our new tent with our new camping-gaz stove”. Though we had a new tent, unfortunately we did not have a new camping-gaz stove, and had to make do with an old one to cook our sausages.

My two companions were soilheads, but I am not a trendy person, and I still own – and use – a comb.

One day, peering out through the new flap of our new tent, we saw, passing by in the near distance, an Arab, leading a jackal on a leash.

Hey there!” called out one of my companions, let us call him Soilhead One, “Come over here with your leashed jackal and share our cocoa and sausages!”

As he approached, we saw that the Arab was an old man, much bewrinkled, and creaking.

You are very kind,” he said, “Though I am old, my jackal here is one of those so-called ‘new jackals’ we’ve been hearing so much about lately.”

We confessed that we had heard not a jot about new jackals.

Well,” he said, “The mobile library will be stopping by this oasis on Thursday morning. They should have in stock the latest issue of Stuff Occurring In The Desert magazine. In it, you will find a feature article about new jackals. A short while ago one of its reporters interviewed me, and the Muhammadan mezzotintist Dot Al-Tint executed a mezzotint of my jackal. I was given to understand the picture will appear on the magazine’s cover.”

We promised to consult a copy on the coming Thursday, and reasoned that any questions we might have about old and new jackals could wait until then. There was a lull in the conversation. We chewed our sausages and slurped our cocoa.

This would be an opportune time to tell you something about Soilhead Two. When we set out on our desert crossing, he was a complete stranger to both me and Soilhead One. We had encountered him at a souk. He used to wear fedoras, but now he sported a fez. There were kabbalistic innuendos in everything he said. A soilhead in a fez was quite a novelty, even at that time. Soilhead One, who knew more than most about the Kabbalah, was able to untangle the innuendoes to some extent.

Soilhead Two told us very little about himself. Growing exasperated by our questions, he conceded eventually that there was an entry for him in the Dictionary of National Biography. That, he said, would tell us all we needed to know about him, and more. It was Soilhead One, sharp as a tack, who countered that one needs to be dead before one can be included in the DNB. In reply, Soilhead Two looked up at the sky, pointed, and said “Oh look, a [common name of a type of bird I am afraid I have forgotten]!” As ever, ornithology served to distract us, and the subject of Soilhead Two’s life – and possible death – was never raised again.

Now, in the lull outside our “new tent” at the oasis, we noticed that Soilhead Two was staring fixedly at the jackal, and the jackal was staring fixedly at Soilhead Two. Were they just gazing at each other, or were they communicating by some telepathic means akin to that employed by Mr Spock in the television series Star Trek?

Whatever was going on between them came to an abrupt end when the Arab, tugging on the jackal’s leash, explained that he had important sand-based things to do elsewhere in the desert, and must be on his way. He thanked us for the cocoa and sausages, reminded us to read up on “new jackals” in Stuff Occurring In The Desert magazine, and trudged creakily away, jackal in tow.

A few days passed without incident. Soilhead Two seemed strangely quiet, but we noticed he was growing increasingly irritated with our old camping-gaz stove. Then, on Wednesday, the day before the mobile library was due, he announced that he knew of a large desert department store where we would be able to buy one of the “new” stoves. Soilhead One and I had no reason to suspect him of ill intent, so we happily packed up our things and set off across the sand, letting Soilhead Two lead the way.

We marched across the boiling sands for the best part of a day, until, towards nightfall, we arrived at an airstrip. There were no aeroplanes, no control tower, and nor was there a department store. Soilhead Two walked determinedly along the strip, and came to a halt at a gaping pit. Baffled, we watched him carefully as he began to wave his arms in strange slow significant passing movements over the pit, while babbling guttural incantatory mumbo jumbo.

Suddenly, a plume of black smoke belched forth from the pit, and we were amazed to see, stepping out of it, the old Arab. He no longer had a jackal on a leash. Unnervingly, his own head was that of a jackal.

All hail Anubis!” cried Soilhead Two.

Greetings, Mr Crowley,” barked Anubis.

Please, call me Aleister,” said the man we had thought our “new camping” companion.

Very well, Aleister. I see, standing behind you, a couple of nitwits.”

Yes, O great Anubis, I thought it would be fun to make of them a sacrifice to the powers of Darkness, Death, Doom, Despair, and Destruction.”

That’s a great idea, Aleister, But wait!”

And the jackal-headed god made strange slow significant passing movements of his own, and out of the pit came leaping and bounding dozens upon dozens of savage yapping jackals.

Let us push your little pals into the pit until we have prepared ourselves for the full awfulness of the sacrifice,” said the god.

And so Soilhead One and I were pushed into the pit. That was six days ago. We can hear Aleister Crowley and Anubis assembling their horrible equipment. We have no chance of escape. Above us, in a ring around the pit, are the jackals. They are barking and yapping and slavering and gazing down on us. And how they hate us!

The first sentence, and the last, were translated from the German by Willa and Edwin Muir. Everything in between was not.

The Helmsman

Am I not the helmsman here?” I called out.

Most of you, I hope, will recognise this as the opening line of my Great Speech. It will certainly be familiar to younger readers, who must learn the Great Speech by rote in their kindergartens. Only when they have it by heart are they permitted to move on to other essential topics, such as pig husbandry, Latin, and knitting. For the older generation, we have made possession of the printed transcript compulsory. There are several editions available, including one with cardboard covers and a lovely frontispiece featuring a mezzotint by Dot Tint. Unfortunately, not all of these editions are reliable, some containing misprints and even wilful interpolations serving to twist my words. There have been several executions at the gibbets atop Polkadot Hill.

As is well known, I delivered the Great Speech while standing at the helm of a barge on an important stretch of canal, the better to illustrate my point for the thickos in the audience. They probably comprised about ninety per cent of those gathered on the towpath, if not more. It is quite astonishing to recall that, in those antebellum days, the bulk of the population completed their six months of kindergarten completely unable to husband a pig, speak Latin, or knit.

But things have changed, and credit must be given to my Great Speech. It was stirring, it was majestic, it was very loud, and it took four hours to deliver. It was punctuated, as all my speeches are, with copious spitting. Before I began speaking, I had the Earwax Squad move among the crowd with their little wooden ear-prodders, to ensure every last thicko peasant would hear me properly. They might not understand half of what I said, or any of it, but at least the words would enter their ears unmuffled by wax.

I was pleased with the rhetorical flourish at the beginning of my speech, partly because I was daring anyone in the crowd to contradict me. Doing so was made the more difficult by my standing at the helm of the barge, wearing a bargee’s cap. But you can never be sure with the peasantry. As it was, nobody did try to deny that I was the helmsman, so I was able to proceed without pause.

I explained that the old days were over and, quoting Blair, declared “a New Dawn has broken, has it not?”, again inviting contradiction. No voice was raised against me, so I pressed on. From now on, there would be more and better pig husbandry. Latin would be the lingua franca. Idle hands would be forced to knit in special new knitting camps, fenced with barbed wire.

I outlined other exciting features of the New Dawn, covering everything from albatross slaughter to zoo regulations, with twenty-four other alphabetically-ordered areas of urban and rustic life in between. I am not sure, frankly, why I bothered to include urban matters, because the peasants gathered by the canalside to hear me were the sort of peasants who, faced with something urban, like a pavement or a street light or a civic art installation, would faint or swoon or just topple over, in uncomprehending mental chaos.

Indeed, quite a large proportion of the crowd listening to my Great Speech seemed similarly brain-bedizened. They stood there, gawping, open-mouthed, dribbling and drooling, a slouching bunch of dimwits. These are the riffraff my regime of the New Dawn will mould into terrifically energetic and Stakhanovite pig husbanders, Latin speakers, and knitters.

That, at least, was the plan. But – and it is a huge but. Do they ever think, or do they only shuffle pointlessly over the earth?

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

The Orchard Gull

The orchard gull is a bird I remember from my childhood. It was often to be seen perched on the railings around the plot of what once had been a thriving orchard, now overgrown with weeds and nettles. The trees were dead or dying. The gull was alive and raucous.

It was a one-legged gull, its other leg a stump, having suffered a catastrophic bird injury. I admired its ability to balance on the railings. I admired, too, its inhuman savagery. Birds are not like us, not at all.

At a loose end one day when Harold Wilson was prime minister, I fashioned a doll orchard gull from a wire coathanger and cloth and rags and cotton wool and pipe-cleaners. I used lollipop sticks for the legs, snapping two-thirds off the length of one to represent the stump.

I finished making the doll at ten o’ clock in the morning, and went mincing off along the lane towards the orchard. I placed my doll on the railings, near to where the orchard gull often perched, though there was no sign of it that morning.

When I returned home, my Ma and Pa were discussing the death, recently announced, a month short of her ninetieth birthday, of Alice B Toklas. I remember how they got into a spat about her middle name. Pa swore it was Blossom, while Ma was sure it was Babette. Ma was right, but it was several days before she was able to claim victory, when the mobile library, with its reference books, came to our neck of the woods.

Late that afternoon I returned to the orchard to see how my gull doll was getting along. As I approached the railings, I saw that it had been rent asunder, torn to shreds, clearly with inhuman savagery. The orchard gull itself was nowhere to be seen, but I had no doubt it had attacked and destroyed my doll.

It pained me that the orchard gull had, plainly, loathed its likeness. I gathered up the few stray remnants of coathanger and cloth and rags and cotton wool and pipe-cleaners and lollipop sticks and returned home, resolved to make a more flattering replica.

The Singing Pipstraws

Several readers have written in to ask if any parallels can be drawn between Grandma Pipstraw’s Lovely Zoo and Noah’s Ark. The answer is: very few, the most noteworthy of which is that Grandma Pipstraw had three sons named Ham, Shem, and Japheth.

Fans of nineteen-sixties folk-pop may recall them as The Singing Pipstraws. Think of The Seekers minus Judith Durham. Indeed, The Singing Pipstraws were sometimes mistaken for the Australasian foursome (minus Judith Durham), chiefly because Shem Pipstraw bore a striking resemblance to Seeker Athol Guy. He even obtained his trademark spectacles from the same optician, despite living on the other side of the world from that most wistful of eye specialists.

Interestingly, the optician’s given name was Noah, and he lived on a boat moored in an important Australian river the name of which escapes me. I wanted to write the Maitland, but I think that is in Canada. There are so many rivers, not only in Australasia and North America but also on the other continents, and I can hardly be expected to remember them all, and to know at the drop of a hat which ones are on which continents. I have never proclaimed myself a river expert – unlike Ham Pipstraw, who, when he was not strumming a stringed instrument and warbling, liked nothing better than to pore over atlases and gazetteers, memorising all the rivers of the world, their names and lengths and locations and directions of flow. By the time of his tragically early death, Ham Pipstraw had committed to memory the details of at least six rivers worldwide.

Several readers have written in, in the last few seconds, to ask for details of the tragically early death of sixties folk-pop legend Ham Pipstraw. It happened like this. He was visiting the zoo and aviary run by his mother, known as Grandma Pipstraw’s Lovely Zoo, when he was engulfed in a flock of whinchats. The frantic beating of their tiny wings did for Ham Pipstraw.

He was memorialised in a song by his surviving brothers, which topped the hit parade until it was dislodged by a disc more in keeping with the freaky psychedelic groove which fuddled the heads of the so-called new generation. All generations are new – that is the point of them.

Shem and Japheth invited Noah to replace Ham, so they could be a trio again, but the wistful Australian optician declined, citing a devotion to the correction of eyesight, a tin ear, and the trauma he had experienced when his own beat combo recorded their difficult second album.

Other parallels between Grandma Pipstraw’s Lovely Zoo and Noah’s Ark are the subject of a forthcoming stage musical starring a hologram of the late Dusty Springfield.

The Vulture

A vulture was hacking at my feet. I punched it in the throat and it flew away, up to a corner of the cage, where it perched, furious. I was furious too. I let myself out of the cage, clanging the door behind me, and went straight to the bandagerie. It was shut, which made me more furious. I took a plum from my pocket, ate it quickly, and threw the stone at a whinchat. I missed, but the act of throwing calmed me down.

Leaving a trail of blood from the wounds in my feet, I crossed the site to my cabin. I was about to go in when the hooter hooted, deafeningly. We are trained to stand absolutely still, chin up, hyper-alert, all wax removed from our ears, to await whatever announcement – or command, or diktat, or ukase – will follow. When at last the sound of the hooter died, I heard the grating voice of Grandma Pipstraw ordering me – me! – to report immediately to her at the központ. It was the first time I had ever heard my name spoken aloud by Grandma Pipstraw, and I felt a curious admixture of pride and terror.

I sprinted to the központ as fast as my vulture-hacked feet would allow. The security git scanned the identity number tattooed on the side of my neck, and shoved me along a passageway to the inmost hub. Grandma Pipstraw was sitting on her musnud, knitting. She looked up at me, and I saw reproach in her half-blind eyes.

We have CCTV footage of you punching Geraldine the vulture in the throat,” she said, “What have you got to say for yourself? Actually, don’t answer that. You will only whine, and I can’t stand whining. So a vulture hacks at your feet? What do you expect? Birds are savage, wild creatures. A woodpecker will peck you, if you are made of wood. A swan can break your arm, according to Tim Henman. A vulture will hack at your feet. Deal with it. But you do not punch Geraldine in the throat. You’re fired. The security git will escort you, roughly, off the premises. Now, begone from my half-blind sight!”

And that is how I lost my job as an Aviary Assistant at Grandma Pipstraw’s Lovely Zoo.

Unemployed, penniless, and hopeless, I wandered from seaside resort to seaside resort, jostling with seagulls as we scavenged for scraps. Then one night, when the seagulls were asleep, I was rummaging in a municipal seaside dustbin and I found a discarded copy of Dobson’s pamphlet Things To Do When You Have Been Dismissed From Your Job At A Zoo (out of print). I wondered what qualified the twentieth century’s greatest pamphleteer to expound on the subject. As far as I was aware, Dobson had never been employed by a zoo in any capacity. So I approached his text with a measure of caution.

I was bowled over. The prose was hysterical and jarring, but Dobson really seemed to know what he was talking about. Over forty closely-typed pages, he suggested two “things to do” for somebody in my predicament. I can’t remember the first one, possibly because I did not understand it, but the second suggestion was absolutely brilliant. I will not quote the pamphleteer directly, on legal advice, but the gist of it was “run away and join a circus”.

I tossed the pamphlet back into the dustbin and I ran away, oh how I ran!

Some weeks later, I eventually arrived, panting, at a Big Top pitched in a mud-stricken field on the outskirts of Pointy Town. While running, I had had plenty of time to devise a circus act which, I was sure, would see me welcomed with open arms. Before going into the tent, I brushed my hair and removed all the wax from my ears. Then I pranced through the tent-flap and presented myself before the circus ringmaster, who went by the name Baruch Spinoza.

Hello!” I chirped, “I would like to join your circus!”

I see,” he said, “Who are you and what is your circus act?”

I am Little Minnie Pipstraw, The Amazing Vulture-Puncher,” I said, “I punch vultures in the throat”.

That sounds highly entertaining,” said the ringmaster, “You’re hired”.

I would like to say that I was an instant success at Baruch Spinoza’s Big Top, but in truth it took several years to perfect my act. Initially, I had a great deal of difficulty finding an available vulture, and had to make do with a toy one made of marzipan. My punching technique, with my dainty little fist, won the crowds over, and when I upgraded to a papier-mâché vulture, the applause was thunderous.

It so happened that one muggy summer’s day, we pitched our circus tent in a mud-stricken field slap bang next to Grandma Pipstraw’s Lovely Zoo. I could not resist paying a visit. Though years had passed, the same security git stood on guard at the gate. He did not recognise me. When I tried to enter, he stopped me.

The zoo is shut,” he said, “Grandma Pipstraw passed beyond this mortal realm last week. She became hopelessly entangled in the ravels of wool she was knitting, with fatal results. We shall not see her like again. To pay her funeral costs, we are selling off the zoo animals and aviary birds at bargain bin prices. Can I interest you in anything?”

Of course, I jumped at the chance to buy a real live vulture for 35p. I took it back to the Big Top, happier I think than I had ever been. Goodbye marzipan and papier-mâché! From this day on Little Minnie Pipstraw, The Amazing Vulture-Puncher really would be amazing!

But in my glee and excitement, there was one thing I had not accounted for. It is a signal fact, at least in this work, that vultures have a sort of hereditary memory, passed down from parents to hatchlings. Thus, a hurt inflicted on a vulture will be “remembered” by that vulture’s offspring, and their offspring, and their offspring, yea unto every generation. And Dennis, my bargain bin 35p vulture, was a direct descendant of Geraldine.

That night, in the Big Top, I pranced into the ring with Dennis by my side. As the crowd gawped, I punched him in the throat with my dainty fist. He flew away, up into a corner of the tent, where he perched on a tall circus pole. And there came swimming into his vulture-brain the inherited memory of his great-great-grandmother, Geraldine, also punched in the throat, years ago, by Little Minnie Pipstraw, whose feet she was hacking, as any vulture would hack. Dennis was furious. He fixed his vulture-gaze on me, standing in the ring below accepting the wild applause of the circus crowd, and he swooped. He descended upon me at dazzling speed, and plunged his beak down my throat, a vulture avenged. Falling back, I was relieved to feel him drowning irretrievably in my blood, which was filling every depth, flooding every shore.

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

The Knock At The Manor Gate

It was summer, a hot day. I was eating breakfast when I was disturbed by a knocking at the manor gate. Pushing my lemon meringue pie to one side, I picked up my portable aerophone, or parp, and snapped it open. I held it at arm’s length, above my head, until it locked on to my factotum, Chumpot. A chiaroscuro image of his head, floating in a haze of static, appeared on the screen. I pressed the parp’s summoning knob and waited.

While I waited, I thought about Chumpot. Days can pass without encountering him, and I wanted to be sure it was indeed he who answered the summons. He has been our family factotum since long before I was born. If it is possible to be both suave and decrepit, both urbane and toothless, that was Chumpot. Heaven knows how aged he was, or from what wood his crutches had been fashioned.

Eventually he appeared, creaking, in the doorway. I told him I had heard a knocking at the manor gate and would have him investigate. He muttered something unintelligible and went away. I finished off the lemon meringue pie and started in on a dish of bloaters. I had eaten all but one of them when Chumpot returned, bringing with him a stranger. This fellow was nondescript, so I shall non descript him.

Good morning on this hot summer’s day,” he said, “I am Detective Captain Cargpan, and I have come to place you under arrest.”

I was momentarily disconcerted, but quickly realised the copper’s error.

You are confusing me with Chumpot,” I said, gesturing at the factotum, “He is a member of the lower orders, the servant class, and thus given to acts of malfeasance. By all means take him away.”

Your factotum is as innocent as a newborn kitten,” said Cargpan, “It is you I have come for,”

And he spat in my eye.

But I have done nothing wrong!” I cried.

Are you sure of that?” said the policeman, spitting in my other eye, “The crimes of humankind are numberless, numberless. For example, in Thailand it is against the law for an individual to own more than one-hundred-and-twenty playing cards.”

But we are not in Thailand and I do not own that many playing cards,” I shot back.

Well,” said Cargpan, looking thoughtful, “Those are both matters we can look into down at the station, in the basement interrogation chamber. We might also find out whether you have ever taken hold of a salmon in a suspicious manner, whistled excessively, allowed a chicken to cross a major thoroughfare, or given a pig the name Napoleon. Who knows what you might have done in addition to the heinous enormity for which I am arresting you?”

I was about to ask what that was, but Cargpan whacked me on the windpipe with his truncheon. I saw my factotum smirking. As I gasped for breath, I was astonished to hear the copper say “Excellent work, Chumpot”. Then the pair of them bundled me none too gently out of the room and down the stairs and along the hallway and out of the manor door and into the back of Cargpan’s gleaming black police van.

As we drove along bosky country lanes towards the village police station, I experienced a shocking epiphany. Despite his suavity and urbanity, Chumpot was a most untidy man. His clothing was ragged and filthy, his shoes were always caked with mud, and I suspect he was a stranger to shampoo. Yet he wore pinned to his chest a brooch, polished to a gleam every day, a gleam so bright that, when it caught the sun, on hot summer days such as this, it flashed gash gold-vermilion, and almost blinded the observer with its brilliance. It was an oddity, compared with the factotum’s general unseemliness, and once, long ago, I had asked him about it.

This brooch belonged to my dear departed mother,” he told me, “She was a sainted woman, a paragon of virtue, a model of kindness. She spent untold years resuscitating newborn kittens whose owners had drowned them in the toilet. I was devoted to her. As she took her last dying breath, in the drainage ditch where her poor withered body passed beyond this cruel world, she pressed her brooch into my hand and made me promise to wear it every day, and to polish it to a gleam every day, in her memory. And I have kept that promise. I could do no other.”

I found this little speech emotionally shattering, and I wept. And now, in the back of the police van, I was again emotionally shattered, and again I wept. For I suddenly saw what I had been blind to for so many years. Chumpot had lied to me. His “brooch” was a police badge!

Well, how was I to know? This was in the days before we all became familiar with coppers and their ways through endless television crime dramas and police procedurals. In any case, Chumpot was, as I had told Cargpan, a member of the servant class. As any phrenologist will tell you, though such specimens are habitually dishonest, they lack the intelligence necessary to embroider so credible and heart-wrenching a tale as Chumpot’s account of his dying mother.

I was still in a state of mental chaos when they tied me to a chair in the basement interrogation chamber and shone a Kleig light into my eyes. From behind it, I heard the suave and urbane voice of Chumpot, as if for the first time.

Well, well, well,” he said, “I suppose I ought to introduce myself, or reintroduce myself. I am Detective Cadet Chumpot, though you might prefer to think of me as the Recording Angel. I’ve been keeping tabs on you for years and years, since before you were born. And in that time, I’ve gathered enough evidence of your unimaginably numerous and multifarious crimes to have you banged up in chokey for a very long time indeed. My boss, Detective Captain Cargpan, says he’s never seen such a lengthy rap sheet. I suppose we’d better make a start on it. So, in your own words, tell me about the time you cooked and ate a mute swan that was, as you well knew, the property of the Queen, as all mute swans are.”

And so began my interrogation. I confessed to everything on that long, long list. I sang like a canary. And all the while, in my throbbing brain, I kept asking myself – what would become of that last, uneaten bloater in my breakfast dish? That is the great question, or rather it would be if I still had any prospect of release.

The first sentence, and the last, were translated from the German by Willa and Edwin Muir. Everything in between was not.

A Visit To A Mine

Today the chief engineers have been down to our part of the mine. They descended in the rickety lift of the Sylvia Townsend Warner Memorial Shaft, and stood in a huddle, puffing on their pipes and blowing smoke at the canaries. Whether this was vindictive or in the interests of scientific research was not clear. There were seven of them, like Snow White’s seven mining dwarves, and they were similarly mononymous. The chief engineers were known as Wretched, Spiteful, Incontinent, Peevish, Lippy, Rancorous, and Preening.

One might assume these names to reflect their personalities, but that was not the case. If we consult their academic reports from the Valentine Ackland Memorial College of Mining, Boring, & Pitcraft, we learn that Wretched was judged to be preening and rancorous, Spiteful to be lippy and peevish, Incontinent to be spiteful and wretched, Peevish to be rancorous and incontinent, Lippy to be preening and spiteful, Rancorous to be peevish and lippy, and Preening to be illegible. Not one of them was a dwarf, or even a gnome.

They stood puffing in silence for a while, until one of them spoke.

It strikes me that this mine is rather Kafkaesque,” said Lippy.

Oh? In what sense?” the other six said, or rather sang, in harmony, to the tune of Land Of Ladies by the Brothers Johnson.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the management of the mine is Kafkaesque,” said Lippy, “In that it is a labyrinthine, senseless, and oppressive bureaucracy. Consider that there are seven of us chief engineers, yet only three miners.”

He was referring to me and my two colleagues, who had taken a break from toil in order to meet with the chief engineers. Lippy called us miners, but we prefer to think of ourselves as troglodytes. None of us had been up to the surface since the dying days of the Nixon administration.

We had been transfixed by the Watergate hearings. Shortly before going down the mine we compiled a Who’s Who of the scandal, in which the three of us drew sharp, pointed pen-portraits of the significant players, including Nixon himself and Ronald Ziegler and Ken Clawson and H R Haldeman and Donald Segretti and Dwight Lee Chapin and John Dean and John & Martha Mitchell and Bruce Kehrli and Gordon C Strachan and Herbert Warren Kalmbach and Chuck Colson and Gerry & The Pacemakers and Robert C Mardian and Jeb Magruder and Maurice Stans and G Gordon Liddy (not Lippy) and Hugh Sloan and James McCord and John Erlichman and David Young and Egil Krogh and E Howard Hunt and Richard Kleindienst and Richard Helms and Patrick Gray and Vernon Walters. We thought it judicious to omit our own names, and, to be on the safe side, volunteered for duty in the salt mine until the whole sorry business had blown over.

Now, faced with seven chief engineers, we would have to dissemble.

Well, O weird hunched albino men of the pit,” said Lippy, addressing us directly for the first time, “We have come down into the Stygian gloom to find out how much salt you’ve mined. I must say the production figures are disappointing.”

I can assure you we have been tireless in our search for salt down here,” I lied, “And in fact we think we spotted a tad just before you and your fellow chief engineers arrived.”

Excellent,” said Lippy, “Then perhaps we should leave you free to mine it.”

There is nothing we would enjoy more,” I lied again, “But before we do so, would it not be wise for the seven of you to check that what we found actually is salt, and not some other mineral with properties closely resembling but not identical to salt?”

Lippy went back into a huddle with Wretched and Spiteful and Incontinent and Peevish and Rancorous and Preening to discuss this.

I was lying because we had not actually been looking for salt at all, nor had we found any, not even a tad. Instead, we had been opening up a cavern, and creating a huge underground aviary in which we were breeding an entirely new type of hyperintelligent subterranean canary. This represented a great advance on what we had been up to in the Watergate building on that night in June 1972. But we could not – yet – reveal our doings to Lippy and his fellows.

They finished talking, and Lippy turned to me.

Very well,” he said, “Where are we to find this tad of what may be salt?”

I pointed at the entrance to an excessively long, dark, winding, horrible tunnel.

Go down there,” I said, “And mind your step. It is long and dark and winding and horrible.”

And so, ten minutes ago, the naive, if not outright idiotic, chief engineers went pootling off down a tunnel so long and dark and winding and horrible that it is likely to drive them insane. They will find no salt, and they may be attacked by a few stray hyperintelligent subterranean canaries, but we don’t care. Besides, our shift will soon come to an end; we shall not be here to see them coming back.

The first sentence, and the last, were translated from the German by Willa and Edwin Muir. Everything in between was not.

Hamstrung, Pointy, & Downcast

The rebranding exercise applied to the seven dwarves, of Snow White’s acquaintance, has by any measure been a PR triumph. Everyone is familiar with their names. Would that it were so with Hamstrung, Pointy and Downcast, a trio now largely forgotten, so much so that even the cleverest brainboxes would be hard pressed to say whether they were a music hall act, a set of cartoon strip characters, or if they occupied some other corner of popular culture. There is uncertainty, too, regarding the identity of the third member, who is sometimes referred to as Downcast and at other times as Mordant.

References to them are scattered here and there in the records of the past, in biographies and memoirs, old newspaper clippings, scrapbooks, letters, official and unofficial reports, and salvaged ephemeral bittybobs. Yet Hamstrung, Pointy and Downcast somehow refuse to swim into focus. They remain impossible to pin down, each seeming “fact” contradicted, or even erased, by the next.

Consider, as one example, the nature of their living quarters. Based on a glancing and none too clear bit of footnotery in a photocopy of a manuscript by Pabstow, many people are of the view that Hamstrung, Pointy and Downcast inhabited a sweatlodge. At least, Pointy is said to have used the word “lodge” when filling in forms, and the three of them emitted copious amounts of sweat, to the extent that they collected it in sealed jars which they then tried to market as some sort of medicinal potion, though the details of that little enterprise are so disgusting that we would best not dwell upon them.

Yet elsewhere (Gobbing, The Vileness Of Seaside Resorts) it is suggested that Hamstrung and Pointy, if not Downcast – whose name is given here as Mordant – lived permanently in the sand and silt and bilge beneath a jetty, and were semi-amphibious to boot. The evidence for this appears to be a scribble in the margin of a police report prepared by legendary copper Detective Captain Cargpan, but whether the scribble is in his hand or that of one of his brutish subordinates is not made clear. Like so much else in the matter of Hamstrung, Pointy and Downcast, we are left clutching haplessly at straws, straws that snap or are borne away on a gust of fierce and sudden wind. And wild is the wind. I hear the sound of mandolins.

Of necessity, we have to read between the lines, and sometimes not just between them but behind them, or at an angle to them H P Lovecraft might have described as belonging to an abnormal geometry loathsomely redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from ours. When we do that, we may come no closer to gaining a proper conceptual grasp of the trio, but we can appreciate, I think, that there was a time when Hamstrung, Pointy and Downcast were as famous as Josef Stalin or Martin Tupper or Xavier Cugat, and as culturally significant.

Perhaps we ought to recall that passage in the Memoirs of Old Halob, the coach and mentor of fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol, where he writes I went out to the kiosk to buy a carton of high tar cigarettes, and as I clattered along the street it seemed to me the ground, the sky, the air, by Christ every atom in Creation, was somehow shouting out the names of that illustrious threesome, safe and snug in their sweatlodge or under the jetty, in sand and silt and bilge. It is telling that this sentence was expunged from the published version of the Memoirs for reasons never divulged to the hoi polloi.

This piece first appeared in 2010. It has since come to my attention that I clearly had no idea of the dictionary definition of “mordant”. Well, fiddle-dee-dee. When I use it, the word means something along the lines of mournful, downcast, dejected.

In Gath

And lo! there came unto Gath an man whose head was as the head of the otter.

And his body also was as the form of the otter and likewise his dimension.

And when the man spoke his voice was as the cry of the otter.

Now the people of Gath, seeing this, were much afraid.

They gathered about the man with their pointy sticks and led him unto their Hierophant.

Now the Hierophant of Gath dwelt in a place of much mist and vapourousness unyielding.

And the people said “O Hierophant of Gath, we bring you this man in form like unto the otter, what shall we do with him?”

And with his mouth the Hierophant of Gath spoke mumbo-jumbo unto them and they laid down their pointy sticks and returned to their fathers’ fields where many tares were sown.

And he took the man like unto the otter into his house in the mists.

And the next day there came tidings of the Hindenburg disaster.