Winklepicker Days

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

Telling Fibs To Impuissance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Year Dot

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

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

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

The Departure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because their horses had gone missing from the stables

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

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

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

Best mind your cup, oh child so tiny

If you break it you will be whiney

And if you whine on Saint Spivack’s Day

The Grunty Man will take you away!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I whined.

Out of here – that’s my goal.”

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

The Betrothal : A Playlet

Characters:

GAEL ANDERSON, the bride-to-be

ANDREW CLUTTERBUCK, her suitor

IAN ANDERSON, minstrel & father of Gael

Scene: A mansion in the countryside

Enter GAEL and ANDREW

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

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

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

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

Enter IAN ANDERSON

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

GAEL : Hello Papa!

ANDREW : Hello Ian … I may call you Ian?

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

ANDREW : Oh … okay.

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

ANDREW : Well, I, er, um …

GAEL : Go on, darling, ask him!

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

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

GAEL : He is, Papa, he is!

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

ANDREW : [Crestfallen] I’m not sure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

GAEL : Oh thank you Papa!

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

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

They sing & wassail.

Curtain.

The Metamorphosis

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. He was lying on his back, and as he lifted his head slightly, he could see several tiny, stick-thin legs wriggling helplessly. He realised that, at some point during the night, he had become some kind of beetle. His brain could not cope with this horror, and promptly shut down, propelling him back into merciful unconsciousness.

When, eventually, he woke from his stupor, he was shocked to discover that he had undergone a second transformation. He was no longer a beetle. He was a Beatle! Somehow, he had now become Ringo Starr, or, more precisely, a perfect replica of Ringo Starr circa 1964. Cautiously, he ran his hands over his hair, now become a moptop. He called out, quietly, for his Mama, and heard a lugubrious Liverpudlian accent. But Mama did not come, and in his despair he picked up a pair of drumsticks which had appeared on his bedside table, and bashed himself on the head, repeatedly and rhythmically, with a characteristic “fill”, until, once again, he lost consciousness.

There were more uneasy dreams, and when he awoke again he discovered he had undergone a third transformation. Now he had become an entirely new being. Outwardly – indeed, inwardly – he was exactly the same as he had been the previous day, no longer a beetle or a Beatle. Yet it was clear to him, as he leapt out of bed and plunged his head into a bucket of icy water and shuffled into the kitchen for a breakfast of jugged eels and reconstituted marmalade and turned on the radiogram to listen to an early morning concert of argumentative German improvised racket, that something had changed, something decisive and irreversible. But what?

Neither Mama nor Papa, nor his young sister Sophonisba, gave any indication that he was in any way different. But then they barely noticed his presence at all, as they sat at the kitchen table stuffing their gobs with cornflakes and hardboiled eggs in jelly. So concentrated were they on their munching and chewing they did not even hear the frankly godawful din from the radiogram.

He decided that the simplest way to work out what had happened to him would be to go about his usual routine, but to monitor himself. So he spent a profitable three or four hours faffing about with the inner workings of his wristwatch. When he was done, it would not only tell the time, but it would keep a continuous check on the state of his soul and his vitals. If all his tweakings were correct, then at nightfall, when the day was done, his watch would spit out a printed report, with handy bullet points. The next day, he could pass this to a consultant for analysis.

The difficulty would be to find a competent analyst. He did not require the services of a brain-quack, but of someone learned in such fields as ornithology, geology, origami, athletics, trellis work, and rustic wisdom. If necessary, he would have to consult separate experts and then correlate their findings. It was going to be an uphill struggle.

Fortunately, Gregor Samsa was no stranger to uphill struggles, for the chalet where he lived with his Mama and Papa and sister Sophonisba was at the foot of an important mountain. Every day he had to clamber across scree and up treacherous snow-covered slopes to get to the newsagent’s. That was the first part of his routine. He purchased a copy of The Daily Voodoo Dolly and a pint of warm untreated goaty milk sloppings, and then he climbed ever further up the mountainside, panting, until he reached his other chalet. He had always thought it best to have two chalets, one in which to sleep and ablute and eat breakfast, and another as a bolt-hole away from his family, in which he could while away the day staring out of the window at snow and sky and the various types of birds which flit and swoop in that sky.

But on this day he was only part of the way across the scree when his head became filled with uncertainty and doubt. His legs were like jelly. On impulse, he turned back, back to the family chalet, and he unlatched the door and slammed it shut behind him and collapsed on the carpet, across which he could see a beetle scurry. An insect, that is, not Ringo.

He lay on the floor wondering if the newsagent would be alarmed by his unaccustomed absence, and by the unsold copy of The Daily Voodoo Dolly. Would the newsagent call the helicopter police? Would they come in search of him, swooping across the sky, just like the birds? Unlike the birds, would they come scrambling down on rope ladders and kick in the chalet windows and Taser him and hoist him up into their chopper and ferry him across the important mountains to a sinister compound? Would he be dragged to a cellar and tied to a chair and interrogated under Klieg lights? Would they mistake him for Ringo Starr? Would he be forced to sing Octopus’s Garden, or would they demand that he tell them tales of Thomas The Tank Engine? All these, and other panicky questions throbbed in his brainpans until he remembered that he was not Ringo, he was neither a Beatle nor a beetle. But what in the name of Saint Spivack had he become? He got up from the carpet and went to his cupboard and took out a hammer and nails and planks and barricaded himself into the chalet. Mama and Papa and Sophonisba were out, attending an all-day archery tournament in a nearby village.

His barricading had blotted out the daylight, so he deployed an array of blubber candles here and there, on sideboards and mantelpieces and tabletops and counters. He gazed at the flames, one by one, and pondered how curious it was that this light was produced by what was once the innards of that mighty sea beast, the whale. He asked himself if his own innards might, in some future dispensation, shed light upon the world. Was that to be his destiny, as a new kind of being, in his transformed state?

Hours passed, with no hint of police helicopters, and one by one the blubber candles sputtered and guttered out, and he was left in darkness. Rather than shedding light, then, was his fate to become some kind of nocturnal being, like an owl or a bat?

He rummaged through the nooks of memory to try to recall what he had learned of the bat and the owl through years upon years of study. He remembered little, save for sounds of squeak and hoot and that both bat and owl have the gift of flight. Could he now, in his transformation, fly? He flapped his arms, testing the air, and discovered that, yes!, he could indeed fly. He rose so fast that he crashed right through the skylight in the chalet ceiling. Now he was up in the cold moonlit air, wheeling and swooping, a human starling.

Now it so happened that down below, on the path from the village, his parents and his sister were returning from the archery tournament. Looking up at the moon, they were startled to see so strange an airborne being.

Let us fell that highly unusual flying creature,” said Mama, “We can sell the corpse to a museum and make a tidy sum. We will be able to pay for Gregor to be put in a Mercy Home for the Feckless & Bewildered.”

And the three of them each took their bows and arrows and shot him out of the sky. He plummeted to earth at their feet, thrice pierced and stone dead, and they saw that it was Gregor.

Crikey!” said Mama, “We’ve bollocksed things up good and proper. As soon as the helicopter police find out what we’ve done we’ll be in hot water and no mistake. There’s only one thing for it. We’ll have to flee, all three of us. If we turn around now and go back to the village, we should be just in time to catch the night train to that dilapidated seaside resort a hundred miles away. There is an unseemly hotel there, where we can hole up until this kerfuffle blows over, or for the rest of our lives, depending on the pertinacity of the coppers. Let’s go!”

They made it to the railway station with seconds to spare, first dumping their bows and arrows in a skip next to the signal box. As the night train chugged out towards the seaside, they sat in their carriage, stuffing their gobs with a supper of lemon meringue pie ‘n’ boiled liver. And it was like a confirmation of their new dreams and excellent intentions that at the end of their journey their daughter sprang to her feet first and stretched her young body.

Much, but not all, of this piece is recycled, with tweaks, from On My Transformation, which appeared here in March 2012. The first sentence, and the last, were translated from the German by Willa and Edwin Muir. Everything in between was not.

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.