Cowards Bend The Knee (2003)
Cowards Bend The Knee (2003)
‘Twas brillig, again, but the slithy toves were nowhere to be seen. And that wasn’t all. The borogoves were anything but mimsy, and the mome raths ingrabe. It was the most baffling case yet to have landed on the desk of Detective Captain Cargpan at the Pointy Town Police Station & Ice Rink.
Cargpan headed immediately to St Bibblybibdib’s church for Mass. He was a Roman Catholic so devout that he bore the stigmata, though in his case the marks were made by human rather than divine agency. He had had them tattooed on to his hands and feet and side. The tattooist, more accustomed to ornamenting the flesh of hairy leather-clad rock fans, had executed Christ’s wounds in the form of heavy metal umlauts. As a result, it looked as if Cargpan was displaying double stigmata, with the inference that he had suffered more than Christ. When accused of such blasphemy, the world-weary detective would reply “Perhaps I have, perhaps I have”.
After Mass, he went to confession. The priest, Father Tonguelash, was a keen student of the human heart, and Cargpan often relied on his insight.
“I am sore perplexed by this brillig case, Father,” he moaned.
“Moan not, my child,” said the priest, “For was it not the lately deceased psychopathic philosopher Manson who said ‘No sense makes sense’?”
Armed with this intelligence, and twenty Hail Marys later, Cargpan returned to his desk at the Pointy Town Police Station & Ice Rink. He immediately set about creating a filing system, of small rectangular pieces of cardboard shoved, alphabetically into a lockable metal cabinet. This was to be the artificial “brain” of the brillig case.
In the days following, Cargpan went to Mass several more times, smoked hundreds of cigarettes, and sat in his parked car next to the reservoir, gazing for hours and hours at herons and egrets and grebes and little grebes and a Jubjub. He turned over and over in his mind, in uffish thought, the words spoken by Father Tonguelash.
Somehow he knew that, as in a Scandinavian television series, the case would end with him apprehending a supremely clever and well-resourced serial killer, whose base of operations would be an abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of town, within which was a panoply of fearsomely complicated equipment and a fiendish plan laid out, photographs and diagrams and documents pinned up and spread over an entire wall, rather than kept neatly in a ring binder.
But before he could make the arrest, Cargpan had to identify the malefactor. Who was his manxsome foe? He sat by the reservoir as darkness fell.
And then, several impossibly blood-soaked murders later, on a frabjous day, the perp came whiffling and burbling through the tulgey wood. Cargpan was there to nab him. It was his Father Confessor, Ninian Tonguelash SJ!
In the next season of Cargpan, Detective Captain Cargpan is on the case of the so-called “Snark”, a serial killer who also turns out to be a (spoiler alert) Jesuit priest!
Brand Upon The Brain! (2006)
Those who grew up in Sibodnedwabshire are forever haunted by memories of its piggeries, in the shadow of those Blue Forgotten Hills. The hills may be – oh mercifully! – forgotten, but the piggeries are not. Consider the song, still sung, or croaked, by aged decrepit Sibodnedwabshireites in the cobwebbed rumpus rooms of their hospices:
The hopes and fears of all the years
The cutman with his rusty shears
The orphans wet behind the ears
Oh swine of Sibodnedwabshire
It is not a pretty song.
There were a dozen piggeries in all, each penning dozens of pigs, except for the one that was empty of pigs, the one everybody remembers with a shudder, its piglessness both eerie and ridiculous. There was mud there, of course, mud aplenty, but not a single pig to wallow in it. The only things living in that mud were worms, tiny wriggling albino worms, worms from a child’s nightmare.
Wormy nightmares, but piggy dreams. So many dreamers dreaming of those remembered pigs in the piggeries that there is now a clinical term – PTSD, or Pig-Themed Sibodnedwabshire Dreaming. In their dotage now, those who were long long ago the tots of Sibodnedwabshire have their hospice pillows embroidered with pig motifs, the better to prompt their dreams.
What of the cutman, with his rusty shears? He would fly in, over the Blue Forgotten Hills, every Sunday, in his biplane, and come into land at the aerodrome. Accompanied by the Shire Stymonsieur, he would tour the twelve piggeries, yes, even that eerie and ridiculous pigless piggery, bandying his shears, encrusted with rust, and singing his song.
I am the cutman, come to the shire
My heart as hot as an Elmo fire
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
Oh swine of Sibodnedwabshire
It was not a pretty song.
One of the more curious episodes in the life of the out of print pamphleteer Dobson is recounted in his autobiographical pamphlet 17 Years In An Alpine Mist (out of print). It begins as follows:
One day in the 1950s I was hiking in the Alps, researching all things goaty for a pamphlet I planned to write, provisionally entitled All Things Goaty In The Alps. All of a sudden I found myself engulfed in an Alpine mist. It was thick and swirling, the sort of mist one might find enswathing the three witches in a production of Macbeth, or in a film by Guy Maddin. Unable to see ahead of me, I blundered about, hopelessly lost.
I had my Alpenstock, and a flask of vitamin-enhanced boiled buttercup ‘n’ watercress water. Treading carefully, I tried to make my way down from the mountains. But no matter which way I turned, I seemed always to be going uphill, up, up, and up. The mist grew thicker and swirlier.
In prose that grows increasingly hysterical, even hallucinatory, the pamphleteer reports that several hours pass, with him plodding ever higher into the Alps. He can barely see more than an inch or two in front of him, so dense is the Alpine mist. Eventually, he comes to a halt when his path is blocked by a doorway.
The door was wooden, mahogany by the looks of it, and set within a base and brickish wall. I could see very little of the latter, in the thick and swirling Alpine mist, so I had no idea how high it was, nor how far it extended on either side. Nonetheless, I gained the distinct impression that I was standing outside a sort of half-size replica of the Winnipeg evaporated milk factory where, long long ago, I had worked as a junior janitor. This was most perplexing.
Dobson takes a glug from his flask, and then thumps his Alpenstock on the door, thrice. As if in a scene from a Hammer horror film, the door slowly opens, with an eerie and ominous creak. The pamphleteer steps inside, and is disconcerted to note that the mist is even thicker, though a bit less swirly. The door, of course, swings shut behind him, as in one of those films.
My bafflement that the indoor mist was even more engulfing than the mist outside was leavened somewhat by the fact that, after hours toiling uphill, the stone floor beneath my feet was level. But I was still lost, in silence and invisibility. And then, ahead of me, I saw emerging from the mist, a human, or semihuman, or inhuman figure. Though it was blurry and weirdly shimmering, I sensed that it was ancient, aeons-old, older perhaps than time itself. I did not yet realise that I had come face to face with a Blavatskyite Being Of Unutterable Esoteric Wisdom.
The mysterious figure beckons Dobson to follow him – her? it? – and leads the pamphleteer to a room within a room within a room within a room within a room within a room, an inner inner inner et cetera sanctum, still enshrouded in thick Alpine mist. In the centre of the room stands a stone slab, an altar, upon which are carved inscriptions in several different unknown alphabets. Otherwise, the room is bare, save for an escritoire, an armoire, an arras, a sideboard on which stands a cassette player and a pile of cassette tapes, a much-becushioned sofa bed, a pair of matching musnuds, a two-bar electric fire, a treadmill, a Toc H lamp, a Bakelite figurine of Charles W. Leadbeater, a second stone slab altar without inscriptions, an empotted pugton tree, several vases and basins, a jelly-making kit, a mysterious blue carton, a chemical toilet, a grandfather clock, a drumkit, an easel, a taxidermised weasel, a waste paper bin, an espresso machine, a doormat, a rug, a cat-litter tray, and a few other bittybobs. In one corner there is a mop and a pail.
This was to be my home for the next seventeen years. In all that time, the Alpine mist never dispersed. It remained thick, and occasionally quite swirlyish. So, when I sat in one of the musnuds, I could not see the other one, nor any of the other appurtenances. Moving about my sanctum, I kept bumping into things. My shins were a mass of bruises.
I learned to operate the cassette player, and grew fond of the music recorded on the tapes. Each of them contained ninety minutes of skiffle, performed by Emile ‘Stalebread’ Lacoume & His Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band. I also learned to make jelly.
Once a week, I received a visit from the Blavatskyite Being. It explained that it was going to initiate me into the secrets of the cosmos. To do so, it would read a few paragraphs from The Collected Witterings of Madame Blavatsky, and then quiz me on what I had heard. The questions were put in multiple-choice format, which I found helpful. It had a curious speaking voice, sometimes sounding exactly like the star of stage and screen Jack Hulbert, and at other times like his wife and musical comedy partner Cicely Courtneidge. It might yoyo between the two voices within a single sentence.
Every year, on St Bibblybibdib’s Day, it took me to its own domain, even higher in the Alps. Up there, the air was so thin it could not form a mist, and we had to wear oxygen masks to breathe. All day long we played ping pong on its full-size ping pong table. Oddly, every single game we played over those seventeen years ended in a draw, which is technically impossible when playing ping pong in the mortal world. I hoped one day to find an explanation for this in one of the Madame Blavatsky readings, but it remained a mystery. As did the blue carton in my sanctum, which I was forbidden to open.
Dobson notes that he marked the passage of time, at first by cutting notches in his Alpenstock and later by ticking off the days in an Esoteric Reader’s Digest 17-Year Pocket Diary which he found in the sideboard. Then, one Thursday, the Blavatskyite Being makes an unscheduled appearance. The mist is thicker and swirlier than usual. The pamphleteer is told that he has learned all there is to know, plus a bit more, and is now an Adept Of The Secret Order Of Alpine Blavatskyite Beings (Cadet Class). It is time for him to leave, and to return to the mundane world of mortal men. He is bundled out of his inner inner inner etcetera sanctum none too gently, and given a shove, and skitters down the mountain, through the mist, down and down, until of a sudden the mist clears, and he can see clearly, and to his astonishment, there, sitting on an Alpine municipal bench at the foot of the mountain, waiting for him, is his inamorata and poppet, Marigold Chew.
“Marigold my dearest darling dear!” I cried, “I have returned! I am agog to know what has been going on in the world these past seventeen years. Did the Vietnam War escalate after the Battle of Điện Biên Phủ? Did the Busby Babes win the European Cup? Was it ever proven that Alger Hiss was indeed a Communist spy? Did Emile ‘Stalebread’ Lacoume & His Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band top the hit parade? Uncle Joe Stalin – does he yet live? Are Jack Hulbert and Cicely Courtneidge still high-earning stars in the musical comedy firmament? Has Vice President Nixon published his book Six Crises? I have a million questions to which answers are not vouchsafed even by the secret knowledge I have acquired high, high in the Alpine mist!”
Marigold Chew looks at Dobson as if he has gone mad.
“What on earth are you blathering on about, Dobson?” she says, “You vanished into the mist saying you were going to research all things goaty, and here you are back again, ten minutes later. You can’t have learned much about Alpine goats in that time. And what is that lump on your head? It looks very much as if you have been struck on the bonce by a very large pebble hurled by a mischievous and miscreant young Alpine goatherd boy from the nearby orphanage. We must make a complaint to the beadle to ensure the ne’er-do-well mite is given no jelly for his pudding tonight.”
And with that, Marigold Chew takes Dobson by the arm, and they walk away from the Alps, never to return in this lifetime.
NOTA BENE : Thanks to my old mucker Max Décharné for alerting me to the existence of Emile ‘Stalebread’ Lacoume & His Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band, here.
ANOTHER NOTA BENE : Max has kindly provided a snap of the Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band, taken in 1896 or 1897. As he says, they were proper New Orleans street urchins.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a devotee of Hooting Yard is equally a fan of ’60s beat combo Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich, known to Bernard Levin as The Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich. That being so, readers will be palpitating with overexcitement at the news that – at long last! – a tribute band has been formed to recreate, as closely as possible, the authentic sound of Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich-style poptasticness.
But this is no mere tribute band. It is a supergroup, and a multi-disciplinary one at that, drawing in not just musicians but sports stars, politicians, and statesmen from around the world. Thus we have the Ivory Coast footballer Yaya Touré; the avant garde octogenarian and widow of (in the immortal words of Kenneth Williams) “that Beatle who married an Asiatic woman”, Yoko Ono; the Paris-born American cellist Yo-Yo Ma; and the Israeli politicians Tzipi Livni and Binyamin Netanyahu, known affectionately as “Bibi”.
The group – Yaya, Yoko, Yo-Yo, Tzipi & Bibi – are not yet on tour, nor in the recording studio. In fact they have not yet met up with each other to rehearse such timeless classic hits as “Margareta Lidman”, “He’s A Raver,” and “The Wreck Of The ‘Antoinette’”. It is my fond hope that, reading this press release, each of the five will realise the urgency of making this happen. The future of pop music is in their hands.
ADDENDUM : Dave Dee and his pals graced these pages back in October 2010, when they encountered a bricklaying witch.
In her distant youth, the balletomane Nan Kew was a flapper. Not yet smitten by the ballet, she liked to flap about in speakeasies, getting dizzy on illicit cocktails and executing the latest dance crazes to the sound of boogie woogie and similar musical woogies, as performed by hot jazz quintets led by rascals.
It was in one speakeasy, on 43,722nd Street, that Nan Kew encountered the lumbering walrus-moustached psychopathic serial killer Babinsky. In those days, of course, the phrase “serial killer” had not yet been coined, so Babinsky’s modus operandi remained sub rosa, and he did not have coppers on his trail.
The Helsingfors poliisi may not have had their eyes on Babinsky that night but somebody else did. Lurking in the speakeasy subfusc was the serial killer’s long-lost idiot half-brother, Babinsky 2. He was watching Babinsky’s every move – and what moves! Babinsky was out on the dancefloor, essaying some new dance steps of his own invention, which he called “the lumbering psychopath”. Those of you familiar with the dances of the era will recall it from its abbreviated name, the lumberpsych, which became wildly popular and spawned such hot jazz standards as Papa Done Gone Lopped Off My Limbs Again and Polka Dots, Hair Oil, And Brutality.
Now it so happened that at this time, Babinsky 2 was Nan Kew’s paramour. They seemed an ill-matched couple, the flapper and the idiot, but there was a definite, if inexplicable, chemistry between them. Thus it was that Nan Kew, dizzy on illicit cocktails and slumped somewhat lopsidedly against Babinsky 2 in their booth in the speakeasy gloom, knew without asking why her darling was transfixed by the lumbering brute on the dancefloor. Babinsky 2 longed for a reconciliation with his long-lost brother, from whom he had been parted ever since that catastrophic picnic on the edge of the forest at the end of the war. Or had it been at the beginning of the war? So fuddled was his brain that Babinsky 2 could no longer remember. All he knew was that he had a burning desire to climb trees and play pin-the-antennae-on-the-locust again with his brother, to relive their carefree childhood in the shadow of the Big Formidable Mountains.
But idiot that he was, even Babinsky 2 knew that his half-brother, being a psychopath, wanted nothing more than to drive an axe into his, Babinsky 2’s, skull, and then chop off his head and boil it in one of his horrible grease-encrusted vats in his horrible grease-encrusted cellar beneath his horrible grease-encrusted chalet. And so all he could do was sit in the darkened booth, gazing at Babinsky with love and longing and terror.
Then dizzy Nan Kew had an idea.
“I am sure he won’t recognise you if you don a disguise,” she slurred in her woozy way, “We could get you up as a Levantine toothbrush salesman, or a crippled Dutch ski-lift operative, and Babinsky will never guess your true identity. Then, if we persuade him there is a cuddly little hamster or guinea pig trapped at the top of that sycamore tree in the street outside the speakeasy, the two of you can climb it together, just as if you were carefree tots before that picnic. Meanwhile, I will gather pencil and paper and a pin and a blindfold, and when you come back in you can play that foolish game you were both so fond of.”
“What a fantastic idea!” shouted Babinsky 2, planting a kiss on Nan Kew’s flushed cheek.
“You will just have to convince your half-brother that the hamster or guinea pig atop the tree is an invisible one,” added the flapper, “But that should not prove difficult. Just tell him there has been a plague of invisible small cuddly mammals in Helsingfors and you will show him the press clippings tomorrow. That will give me more than enough time to make some counterfeits on a Gestetner machine.”
Dizzy as she was, Nan Kew was already displaying the resourcefulness which later stood her in such good stead as a balletomane. (See her Memoirs for detailed clarification.)
That night, everything went according to plan. The flapper and the idiot managed to pull the wool over Babinsky’s eyes. The next day, however, it all went wrong. The Gestetner machine was jammed. Mice nibbled at Babinsky 2’s disguise. There was a teeming downpour and thick fog. War broke out following skirmishes on the border at daybreak.
When they went to meet Babinsky at midday on Sawdust Bridge as arranged, the serial killer was armed with his axe and his hatchet and his slicer and god knows what other fearsome sharp implements. Above his walrus moustache, his eyes burned with psychopathic psychopathology. Babinsky 2 and Nan Kew turned tail and fled through the narrow Helsingfors streets.
It would be forty years before the half-brothers met again. During all that time, Babinsky 2 treasured his memories of that one evening. For a cherished hour, Babinsky and Babinsky 2 had relived the idyll of their pre-picnic childhood, all thanks to the quick wits of future balletomane Nan Kew!
This article first appeared in The Weekly Intelligencer Regarding The Doings Of Flappers, Idiots, & Serial Killers In & Around The Speakeasies Of Antebellum Helsingfors (obtainable by subscription).
Trudging through the countryside the other day, I saw ahead of me a couple of peasants, standing at the edge of a bog, deep in conversation. It is well-known that the talk of peasants consists almost exclusively of rustic lore and wisdom expressed in the form of age-old sayings and proverbs. Thus it was no surprise to me when the snatch of their talk I overheard as I passed them by was one such old saying. What was unexpected was that it was one I had never heard before.
“A ghoul and his monkey are soon martyred,” one peasant muttered, in the lugubrious tones of peasants the world over. His companion said something in reply, but the words were swept away on the wind, and I heard them not. I was trudging at a pretty fair crack, so I was almost immediately out of earshot. I considered, for a moment, turning about and interrogating the peasant regarding his utterance, but I quickly dismissed the thought. Trying to wring sense out of a peasant is almost always, as one might put it, a fool’s errand.
I was still thinking about what I had overheard when I arrived home. Usually, proverbs and sayings express a self-evident truth, what we might call common sense. A stitch in time saves nine and a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush are examples of such folk wisdom, passed down through the generations. But – I wondered – is it equally true that a ghoul and his monkey are soon martyred?
After making a cup of ersatz cocoa-style boiling beige water, I heaved down from the bookshelf the two fat volumes of the fourth edition of Actes and Monuments of these Latter and Perillous Days, Touching Matters of the Church (1583) by John Foxe, commonly known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. This is my indispensable guide whenever I contemplate martyrdom. Admittedly, I do not do so very often, and I had to remove an encrustation of dust and grime from both volumes, using my trusty rag. That done, I felt confident that somewhere within the more than two thousand folio pages of Foxe’s mighty work I would find confirmation of martyred ghouls and monkeys.
Several hours later, my brow was furrowed, my eyes were bleary, and my once boiling beige cocoa-style water was stone cold. I slammed shut volume one of the Book of Martyrs having failed to discover a single reference to either a ghoul or a monkey. This was most disconcerting. Before pressing on with the second hefty volume, I tried to clear my head by practising Tranche Seven of Baxter’s Head-Clearing Exercises. Tranches Two and Five are usually most efficacious, in my experience, but a quick rummage in the pantry revealed that I was fresh out of paper pastry cases. Also, I remembered that I had loaned my milk stamps to Bruno, so Tranche Seven it would have to be.
Head semi-cleared, I reheated my drink over a gas-jet and slumped back in my armchair with Volume Two. Damn and blast John Foxe!, I shouted to the ceiling at dusk, as the shades of night gathered in the dimpled and disgusting sky, for I had fought my way through another thousand pages with neither hide nor hair of a ghoul or a monkey coming to light. It was at this point that I first began to doubt the veracity of that peasant I had overheard, so many hours ago. Surely, if a ghoul and his monkey were soon martyred, or indeed martyred at all, sooner or later, then they could not have escaped John Foxe’s notice? And yet they had.
I slept uneasily, but awoke in the morning with a renewed sense of purpose. A question thumped and rethumped in my head. Could I infer from the proverb that every ghoul had his own monkey? That no ghoul was, as it were, monkeyless? Or did the saying simply point out that those ghouls who did have monkeys were soon martyred, along with their monkeys? Were there ghouls without monkeys who were immune from martyrdom? I could have lain in bed all day, letting these conundra, if that is a word, swirl around in my head. But if I did so I would be as mad as a pedal bin full of guinea pigs by lunchtime, so I leapt out of bed, cut three or four Boswellian capers around the room, and, after abluting and tucking into what our Flemish pals call het ontbijt, I went to the nearest zoo.
My theory was that I would find evidence of ghouls in or around the Monkey House. If I was lucky, I might even find a ghoul and a monkey together, perhaps being subjected to a hideous and barbaric execution, burned at a stake for example. This was not likely, however. I suspected that any diligent zookeeper – and are there any other kind? – would put a stop to such shenanigans. No, the martyrdom of a ghoul and his monkey would never take place in a well-regulated zoo. They would be dragged away by their persecutors, to a gibbet atop a tor silhouetted against an awful sky, say, or to a dungeon beneath a temple fort. What, then, could I hope to discover at the zoo?
To answer this niggling question, I turned, as I so often do, to Arthur Ira Garfunkel. Half a century ago, the G, as he is known to his close friends, had sung about being at a zoo. If I could only remember the words, I felt sure they would guide me. I tried to summon the song in my head, but though I recalled mentions of monkeys, giraffes, and hamsters – hamsters? – there was not a single ghoul. This flummoxed me, until a passing zookeeper, hearing my humming, pointed out that somebody else had written the words. The G was just singing them – they were not pure authentic Garfunkelisms. I was crushed, and all the more so when the same zookeeper told me that, it being Thursday, the Monkey House was padlocked shut. It was the monkeys’ day off, he explained. He plodded away, thin, undead, and spectral, clanking his chains and groaning. I went home.
After taking an uneasy nap, I sat up and reviewed the situation, Thus far, my research had focused on martyrs and monkeys. Yet the proverb clearly placed ghouls at the forefront. I was working backwards! I plunged my head into a basin of ice-cold water (Tranche Four), tossed some ectoplasm into my pippy bag, hoicked it over my shoulder, and pranced out of the door, affecting a determined jut of the jaw as if I were the actor Bernard Lee in The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949). Pausing at the corner to belatedly tie my shoelaces, I headed straight for my local branch of Ghouls R Us.
Once inside, I went up to the counter and rang the bell. Its peal was funereal and redolent of death, bats, and sepulchres. I waited for several minutes until, from behind a veil of cobwebs, a sales assistant appeared. I was immediately struck by how close a resemblance he bore to the zookeeper I had met that morning. He was thin and undead and spectral, clanking his chains and groaning. I was about to ask him if he had a brother working at the zoo, but I stopped myself. I had devised a clever plan, and I must stick to it. Watching him closely, alert to the faintest of reactions, I said:
“Good afternoon. Do you have any monkeys for rental?”
The flesh of his eyelids had rotted away, but was that the ghost trace of a blink? His lips, too, had long ago been eaten by worms, but did I discern the shadow of trembling? So foul was his countenance I could not be sure. Then he spoke, and his voice came as if from a deep and desolate tomb a thousand miles distant.
“No,” he said, and it was all he said, and then, before my eyes, he crumbled to dust, leaving only a cloud of vapour hovering in the mephitic air. I turned on my heel and ran all the way home, gibbering.
I woke bright and early the next morning. While shovelling het ontbijt down my gob, I heard the whistling of the postie. He was an embittered postie – how to explain his cheerful whistle? Perhaps I ought to devote the day to solving that little puzzle. It would take my mind off ghouls and monkeys and martyrdom.
Among the bills and flyers and religious tracts in the day’s delivery, I was delighted to find the latest edition of the Reader’s Digest. Having made my usual check to ensure the apostrophe in the title was correctly placed, obviating the need to write a letter of complaint to the editor, I browsed the contents page. I looked forward to reading “I Am John’s Head” and “Fighting The Communist Menace”, among other articles. And if I had the time, I would skim through a piece entitled “When Peasants Mutter, How Easy It Is To Mishear Their Wise Old Sayings!”
Placing the magazine on my windowsill magazine placement contraption, I looked out and saw, on the village green, they were erecting the gibbet for that afternoon’s simian zombie heretic hangings.
Along with Blenkinsop and De Groot, Pabstus was the man who brought rigour to the study of animals’ bones back in the fifties. I wondered what he was doing wandering disconsolately around the garden of a Bewilderment Home, for that is where I assumed I had been plunked. Before I had a chance to ask him, he began to jabber questions at me about the horrible cave. After fifteen or so queries, all of which I answered as best as I could, Pabstus changed tack and asked me why I was dressed as a giant bee. For my part, let me say it had not escaped my notice that the world-famous irredentist was clad in raiment of the utmost gorgeousness.
We seemed to have struck an instant rapport, so we strolled off together towards a nearby pie shop which, Pabstus informed me, he had eaten at every single day for the last thirty years. When we entered the place, I pondered his judgment, for the floor was alive with scurrying beetles, huge black terrible things, and the air was thick with the smell of hamster. Seeing me about to swoon, Pabstus grinned, and I saw that his mouth was packed with fangs. There seemed to be too many of them to fit, but my eyes did not deceive me.
“You have an alarming number of teeth, Pabstus,” I observed.
“No more than any other member of my extended family,” he replied, tapping a bell upon the counter to summon the pie shop person. I have had a long and full life, but never before had I heard so dreadful a sound as that bell. I clapped my hands over my ears and began to weep like an oversensitive orphan child. Pabstus saw my discomfort and bared his fangs at me again. The hideous Beelzebubesque bell-pealing faded, but only once the sound had died completely did the proprietor appear. I had expected some sort of jolly figure like Mister Dough The Baker from a deck of Happy Families playing cards, but the pie shop person looked and acted more like a fop of the Regency period. He even wore gloves scented with lavender. With a rakish twinkle in his eye, he greeted us, and somehow made the words “Good afternoon, would you like to buy some pies?” sound lascivious.
“Yes we would!” shouted Pabstus at top volume, “For myself, I want to buy one of your big crinkle-pastry dumpling and endive and chicory pies, and two small mustard balls. My colleague here will have…” and he trailed off, inviting me to complete our request. Not having been to this pie shop before, I had no idea what I should choose, and there seemed to be no menu visible. But I sensed inexplicable danger, and wanted to get out of here as soon as I could.“I’ll have the same,” I announced, weakly.
“That won’t be possible I’m afraid,” said the pie-fop, “As you must surely know, today is Saint Eustace’s Day.”
I did not have the energy to argue. Perhaps that blow on the head which found me slumped in an unfamiliar armchair and suffering from amnesia had taken more of a toll than I thought. I pointed to two celery pies on a shelf behind the counter and asked for them. The proprietor preened his locks with macassar oil, and said, “Those pies are for rental only.”
Beetles were now climbing up the legs of my borrowed bee-like boiler suit. I could stand no more of this. I turned and left the pie shop, slamming the door behind me. I decided that I would rather go hungry than allow myself to fall under Pabstus’ spell. It was a decision I would learn to regret.
Assuming the limping irredentist would pursue me as soon as he had got his hands on his pies, I flung myself into a ditch and covered myself with a flag that happened to be lying about. I was surprised that the flag had been abandoned, for it looked as if it had been stitched only recently, and there was still a needle attached to a dangling piece of thread. I accidentally prodded myself with the needle, in the general area of my right collarbone, and had to stifle a yelp in case Pabstus was already on my trail.
Crouched under a flag in a ditch in the early afternoon, I turned my thoughts once more to the horrible cave, and to the crows that nested therein. It was a long, long time since I had been perturbed by birds, so long ago that I had difficulty remembering much about the days when my parents’ toffee shop had been attacked by flocks of mutant sparrows and wagtails. But the malevolence of the crows I had seen near the horrible cave was unprecedented. Tippi Hedren had an easy time of it by comparison, I reflected ruefully, for I am given to rueful reflection, especially when I can feel silage seeping into my boots, as I could now. Could I risk standing up? I knew that if I maintained my crouch for much longer I would suffer from agonising cramps, and I had left my cramp medication in the breast pocket of my pyjama jacket, back at the nursing home or whatever it was. I wondered if I could flee from the ditch and make it to the building without being waylaid by Pabstus. All of a sudden that stuffy lounge with its creaking armchair, and Primrose the nurse with her mashed potatoes, even the rake-thin ghoul, seemed more attractive than this stinking ditch.
Crawling out from under the flag, I peered over the lip of the ditch to check that Pabstus was no longer in the vicinity. He was not. Perhaps he had taken his pies and was sitting on a park bench, masticating them with those fangs of his, swallowing every last crumb. I clambered up and was about to stalk off towards the mercy home when I thought the flag might come in handy, so I stooped to pick it out of the ditch. It was heavier than I thought, but eventually I had it wrapped around me. As I turned to go, I saw that now my way was blocked by thousands of cows, all of them gazing at me intently, as if I were something they might want to chew up and digest. Were they cows, or were they super-intelligent beings from a planet in a distant galaxy who looked like earth-cows? Within the next few minutes, I would learn the truth, a truth far more incredible than my puny brain could comprehend.
I arrived at the Bird Inspectors’ Hut to discover that it had been engulfed by a tsunami and lay in ruins. A solitary moorhen was paddling about where the door used to be, but there was no sign of the inspectors. I fancied that perhaps this might be a talking moorhen which could apprise me where they had gone, and asked my question in a slow, clear, loud voice, as one might use in speaking to a recalcitrant infant. But of course the moorhen was incapable of speech! What was I thinking?
I felt it more important than ever to track down at least one of the bird inspectors and relay my theory that crows were nesting in the horrible cave, with alarming consequences. In my experience, most bird inspectors sport Italianate mustachios and preen them fanatically with oils and waxes, so I decided to head off on foot for the nearest village and seek out a shop selling oils, waxes, and other hair treatments.
I was in luck, for as soon as I strode purposefully into the village I saw not only such an emporium, tucked between a wholesaler of dinghies and a clapboard hovel, but a man with Italianate mustachios lurking in the doorway. He was sopping wet, making his moustache droop, but that made it all the more likely he had been caught in the tsunami.
I hailed him from a distance of some forty feet. That is the last thing I can remember. I have no idea what happened from that moment until today, three weeks later so I am told, where I found myself sitting in an armchair staring out at a dying lawn, being proffered cups of tea and mashed potatoes by an oversolicitous nurse. Her name, she told me, was Primrose. That name rang a faint bell in my memory. I associated it with something petrifying and terrible, but Primrose the nurse seemed to be neither. In fact her fawning was getting on my nerves.
I wanted to ask her where I was and how I got here, but she had already skipped off to fetch more potatoes. Deciding to follow her, I walked rather unsteadily into a corridor. It was painted a hideous shade of orange, and on the walls hung framed portraits of members of Jethro Tull, Emerson Lake and Palmer, and Barclay James Harvest. Was this some kind of benighted prog rock haven? I should add that these were paintings rather than photographs, although perhaps the word I am looking for is daubs. My infant child could do better, if I had an infant child, but I do not. Long ago I vowed never to bring a new being into a world with a horrible cave in it, lest the mite should accidentally wander into it. I could not forgive myself if such a thing happened.
I could hear what sounded like potatoes being mashed coming from an open doorway over to my left. Entering the room, however, I did not find Primrose. Instead I was confronted by a slobbering ghoul. It spoke – or rather, groaned – at me in Latin, for it was a Vatican ghoul. Atop its gruesome head I could see the tattered remnants of a biretta, in which a number of locusts seemed to be feeding. Were they eating the ghoul’s straggly locks, or its priestly hat? Or both? I was so fascinated by the locusts that I am afraid I paid little attention to the gravel-voiced Latin being spouted at me. At this point Primrose came in.
“There you are, Mr MacTavish!” she cooed sweetly, addressing the ghoul, “I’ve been looking all over for you. It’s time for your mashed potato poultice. Come with me, there’s a dear.” She took it by what I can only assume was its arm and steered it away, still groaning. I was rather disconcerted that Primrose had ignored me completely. Perhaps I was being oversensitive. I looked at my wristwatch and saw that it was just coming up to midday. Why in heaven’s name was I dressed in pyjamas? I opened a cupboard and rummaged around until I found a shiny and brand new boiler suit. I changed into it and checked how I looked in a mirror, noting that its broad black and yellow hoops gave me a faint resemblance to a giant bee. It was time to leave this place, wherever it was. I pranced out onto the lawn and peered around, looking for a signpost.
I have always been fond of crocuses, and there was a clump of them nearby. In the absence of a signpost, I decided I could do worse than tarry awhile examining their flowers and leaves, and perhaps scrubbling in the soil to have a quick look at the corm. One should take one’s pleasures as one can, and if I was to stride onward with a spring in my step, a few minutes’ contemplation of foliage would calm my brain for the inevitable travails ahead. These were early crocuses, or Crocus tommasinianus, as no doubt the ghoul could have told me. I wondered whereabouts on his grisly frame Primrose the nurse was going to apply that poultice of hers. His head? That spindly arm? I wondered, too, how she would cope with the locusts, who would devour the mashed potato as quickly as she could apply it.
Thus lost in thoughts of potatoes, ghouls and crocuses, I failed to notice that a man had approached me, all but silently.
“Good day to you, sir,” he said, clearing accumulated phlegm from his throat as he did so, “Would I be correct in thinking you know something of the horrible cave?”
I looked up, astonished, and saw that my interlocutor was none other than the so called limping irredentist, Florenzio Pabstus.
Talk to any spelunker and you will soon learn that nobody who strays into the horrible cave emerges with their wits intact. Sometimes their hair turns white, they shake and gibber, they have to be fed with slops. Others retire to farmyards and spend the rest of their lives among pot-bellied pigs. Yet still the reckless and the foolhardy risk their sanity by ignoring the big signpost I hammered into the ground at the approach to the horrible cave. This is the horrible cave, reads my notice, If you have a shred of sense you will durst not enter. I spent quite some time on that wording, and ended up in hospital because I chewed the end of my pencil so fretfully that I contracted lead poisoning. It is by no means a pretty ailment, but I would much rather suffer that than the terrible derangements of those who step but once into the horrible cave.
While I was in the hospital, I was visited by a government agent who was curious about my signpost. I suspected he was from some secret agency, for he was dressed in a trim black suit and did not remove his sunglasses. He had a very close-cropped haircut, carried an attaché case which I noticed was chained to his wrist, and he seemed to exude the scent of frangipani or dogbane, which is often a telltale sign of covert operatives in my country. Standing beside the bed on which I lay splayed out, he introduced himself as Christopher Plummer. “Not to be confused with the actor who played Atahualpa in The Royal Hunt Of The Sun,” he added hurriedly, although at that time the name was new to me. I have since followed the agent’s namesake’s career with growing interest.
I was subjected to a series of questions about the signpost I had placed near the horrible cave, and answered as best as I could, given my fevered state. The agent made notes on a little hand-held pneumatic turbonotepad of ingenious design. I often find myself wondering why they never caught on. These days you are lucky to find one at a jumble sale or in a junk shop, luckier still if all the notes made on it are still readable. When Christopher Plummer had finished interrogating me in his strangely stiff manner, he depressed a knob on the turbopad and, with a surprisingly loud hiss, it clunked into hibernation mode. I watched the jet of escaping steam.
Years later, sitting in a café in a tremendous town, flicking idly through an intelligence journal, I learned that Agent Plummer had been exposed as an alien life-form from some far planet riddled with horrible caves. I thought how fortunate we were to have only one horrible cave, terrible as it was.
Last week I hiked out that way to see if my signpost was still there. Prancing majestically along the path, I encountered dozens of terrified people being attacked by cows. Sorry, that was a typing error. I should have said being attacked by crows. One poor wretch who had been pecked at was slumped beside his makeshift tent, fruitlessly trying to wrap a bandage around his head. I knelt down beside him and gave him a hand, and could not resist asking what was happening, but he was unable to speak. I surmised, however, that the crows must have flown from the direction of the horrible cave. Perhaps they nested there unbeknown to the local bird inspectors. It seemed like a good idea to forget about my signpost for the day and go to the headquarters of the bird inspection team instead, so that’s what I did.
Although it was at least fourteen years since last I had roamed these parts, I still recalled the bus routes, so after making sure the pecked man’s head bandage was not too tight, I changed direction and cut across the moors towards the bus stop. It was a dismaying sight, for the shelter was in ruins, and the glass behind which the timetable had been pinned up was smashed and the timetable itself torn to shreds. Further evidence of violent crow activity, as if any were needed.
The bus pulled up at this dismal scene a few minutes later. I clambered on board and became somewhat uneasy to discover that I was the only passenger. Was this going to be one of those frightening journeys where the driver would turn to look at me and I would see that he was a fiend in human form, cackling hideously as the bus hurtled to perdition? I had forgotten that it was Saint Eustace’s Day, and that most people, except for me and the bus driver and the people being attacked by crows would be staying indoors, in darkness, behind fastened shutters, imploring the saint to keep them safe from poisoned air for the coming twelvemonth. I hoped that the bird inspection headquarters would at least have a skeleton staff on this special day, and settled back in my seat, thinking to take a nap while the driver steered his bus around the many dangerous corners on the route.
When will I ever learn? No sooner had I closed my eyes than the bus braked sharply, jolting me out of my seat. The driver cursed, for which I reprimanded him. He apologised for his rudery, then pointed in front of him, and I saw that the road was blocked by a fanatical preacher man, naked from the waist up, caked in filth, standing on a barrel and shouting his head off in a language I had never heard before. The driver and I exchanged looks of befuddlement, then he reached under his seat and hoisted up a rectangular tin which he opened to reveal a clotted mass of stale food. He invited me to share his lunch, but I declined, given that there appeared to be a number of weevils crawling about in it. Their presence did not bother the driver, who began shovelling the food into his mouth with his surprisingly dainty fingers. I noticed that his nails were painted with bright red lacquer, flaking off in places as if it had been applied some time ago. His eating habits were so repulsive that I turned to look out at the preacher man again. He was shouting even louder now. I decided to get off the bus to try and persuade him to move his barrel to the side of the road. As I got closer to him, I nearly jumped out of my skin. Surely I was mistaken? But no, there was no doubting it. Underneath all the caked muck, I recognised my father!
“Papa!” I cried, sudden tears streaming down my face. I may as well have been invisible. He ignored me and continued to harangue the sky in his unintelligible tongue, the sky that was now growing black as monstrous clouds swept in from the west. I am tempted to lie and say that my tears were copious, but I have to confess they were not. I snivelled a bit and then remembered why I had got off the bus in the first place. It was clear to me, however, that asking my father to shift his barrel out of the road would be futile. I wondered how it would be if I just pushed him over and cleared the way myself. The laws here on toppling preacher men are draconian, and I would have to make sure I did not get caught. I judged that the bus driver was too intent on bolting his food and would not be paying attention. If he saw me push my pa off the barrel he would almost certainly inform on me, for we all know the reputation of bus company personnel, hand in hand with the police force, at least in this neck of the woods, for obvious historical reasons. As for my father, would he lay an accusation against his only son? It was a risk I had to take.
Just as I was nerving myself for the odious deed, I was distracted by a mordant fancy which had been nestling dormant in my brain until that moment. I am utterly perplexed as to why it suddenly uncoiled itself, as it were, and sprang to the forefront of my mind, casting out all other thoughts. It was a vision – so very vivid! – of myself dressed in rags, exhaustedly swinging a leper bell from my withered arm.
Weird, that. I slapped myself on the forehead a couple of times to dispel the hallucination, came to my senses, yanked my father’s ankle so that he fell off the barrel, pushed the barrel over and rolled it to the kerb, and got back on the bus. The driver had finished his lunch, so, swerving slightly to avoid my father, who was sat in the road dusting himself down, he drove me to my stop ten minutes walk from the bird inspection unit. What I found there was brain-dizzying.
NOTA BENE : Younger readers should note that this piece first appeared as long ago as 2004. There are two further episodes, which will be posted in the next couple of days.
Fifty-four years ago, on this day, John F Kennedy was assassinated. Seven years ago, on this day, I marked the anniversary with a piece in The Dabbler …
Hello readers! I am going to show you how to make a lovely scale model of Dealey Plaza, the site in Dallas, Texas, of the Kennedy assassination on 22 November 1963.
First, get some plasticine. Before removing the packaging, wash your hands thoroughly in warm water. If your hands are really grubby, for instance if you have been doing grubby things, use swarfega. I am making no moral judgement on your indulgence in grubby practices, merely noting that warm water by itself will not suffice to cleanse the pollution from your fleshly extremities. As for your immortal soul, far be it from me to pronounce upon the peril in which it is placed by your unconscionable grubbiness. After all, I am no saint. That being said, I abhor the kind of grubbiness to which you may have fallen prey, albeit I do not make it my business to go about declaring my own rectitude, for that would be to boast, and thus itself sinful. Once or twice, maybe, I have dipped my toe in the slimy puddle of moral turpitude, and that was quite enough for me.
Now to the second stage of this exciting project. With your prayer book or catechism resting upon the work surface in easy reach, open the packet of plasticine. Intone three Hail Marys, break off some plasticine, and begin to mould it into the shape of the grassy knoll. It is advisable at this point to go and fetch your rosary beads.
Before completing the grassy knoll part of the model, open up that tin of swarfega and clean your hands again. You can never be too careful.
When you have made a passable model of the grassy knoll, take some matchsticks and press them into the plasticine to represent the white picket fence. Say a Novena. Now grab another chunk of plasticine and fashion a miniature version of the Texas Schoolbook Depository. Remember to tweak a tiny tubular shape poking out of the sixth floor window to show assassin Lee Harvey Oswald’s mail order Mannlicher- Carcano rifle with which he shot the President. Some people would insert the word “allegedly” into that sentence, but not me. I have read Case Closed by Gerald Posner so I know whereof I speak..
A pink blob of plasticine will do for Jackie Kennedy’s pillbox hat.
The underpass over the Stemmons Freeway is quite tricky to make out of plasticine, so you may wish to use a few bits of cardboard. Your local supermarket probably has packaging and boxes piled up somewhere for customers to take away. Go and get sufficient boxes to cut enough cardboard for the underpass, and while you are out and about, drop into your nearest Catholic church and make your confession to Father O’Flaherty. If your priest has a different name, don’t worry. If you don’t have a priest, do worry, for you will burn in hell, however skilfully you manage to complete your plasticine and cardboard model of Dealey Plaza.
When you return home, your soul now washed clean of all disgusting filth, put the finishing touches to your model by curving a rectangle of plasticine into the shape of the pergola from where the Zapruder footage was shot. If you have exhausted your tin of swarfega, plunge your hands into a basin of piping hot soapy water while contemplating the martyrdom of your favourite saint.
Place your toy Dealey Plaza in a suitable location, for example, on the mantelpiece, display cabinet, or kitchen table. Next time Father O’Flaherty drops in for a cup of tea, ask him to bless your model by sprinkling it with holy water. He will be happy to oblige, I am sure.
ADDENDUM : Gerald Posner’s Case Closed, and indeed all of the thousands of books about the Kennedy assassination, have been superseded by the magnificently hefty Reclaiming History by Vincent Bugliosi. Over fifteen hundred pages (with exhaustive footnotes added on a compyooduh disc), Bugliosi proves Oswald acted alone, and demolishes all the many and various conspiracy theories with awe-inspiring skill. There need never be another book o the subject – though no doubt madcaps and nutters will continue with their folderol.
Lars and Maud went up the hill to fetch a pail of water.
Lars fell down and clonked his crown and Maud came tumbling after.
They rolled and tumbled further down, tumbling pell mell,
‘Til they came bumping to a halt down in the dingly dell.
In the dell lurked the Grunty Man, who carried them off to his cave.
But fear not, tinies! For Lars was bold and Maud was very brave.
They shook their little fists and bawled and rent the sky asunder,
And made the Grunty Man commit a very foolish blunder.
He dropped them at the cave-mouth while he went to have a fight,
An illegal boxing match under the cover of the night.
The Grunty Man was pitted ‘gainst an awful, dreadful foe –
None other than Miss Peep, affectionately known as “Little Bo”.
She looked so pale and timorous, yet she packed a hefty punch,
And often bashed a dozen ogres before she had her lunch.
So when the Grunty Man stalked off to meet his Nemesis,
Lars and Maud ran off into the arms of Alger Hiss.
Yes, Alger Hiss, the communist spy from Washington DC!
Urbane and droll and stylish, dressed up to a T.
He took the tots to a meeting of his fellow-travelling Reds,
Where Stalinist propaganda turned their pointy little heads.
They went back to the cave and found the Grunty Man covered in gore.
Little Bo Peep had bashed him up, then bashed him up some more.
They recruited him to their cause, to overthrow the state.
Said Lars (or Maud) “We must act before it is too late!”
So Lars and Maud and the Grunty Man went back to the dingly dell,
And hid some microfilmed secrets at the bottom of the well.
But they were caught by Nixon, indefatigable in his zest
To place as many Reds as possible under house arrest.
He confined them to a house atop the hill they climbed for water,
A solid and a sturdy house well built from bricks and mortar,
Like the house of the three little pigs that withstood lupine huff and puff.
But Lars and Maud and the Grunty Man were Communists, sure enough.
So when the big bad wolf hove into view from o’er the hills,
They sang in praise of Stalin and then swallowed their cyanide pills.
And so the state was safe once more from Communist infiltration,
And Nixon was bathed in the praise of a relieved and grateful nation.
The Grunty Man and Lars and Maud were buried and forgot.
But Richard Milhous Nixon – he is not.
Originally posted in 2011.
Eleven years ago, I devoted an episode of Hooting Yard On The Air to reading out a list of 601 birds, plus an astronomer, a newsreader, 2 jazzmen, 5 film directors, and 34 stars of stage and screen. This recording – hugely significant both culturally and ornithologically – has now been made readily available, split into three parts by dint of YouTubeosity. I strongly advise you lot to listen to the whole thing, repeatedly, umpteen times a day, until you have it committed to memory. You will find it invaluable next time you are leaning insouciantly against a mantelpiece at a sophisticated cocktail party and there is a lull in the conversation.
There was a demented fat vicar.
His sick brain grew sicker and sicker.
At a showbiz party
He stabbed Russell Harty
And then he impaled Alan Whicker.