Jackals And Arabs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All hail Anubis!” cried Soilhead Two.

Greetings, Mr Crowley,” barked Anubis.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Helmsman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Orchard Gull

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Singing Pipstraws

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Vulture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Knock At The Manor Gate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And he spat in my eye.

But I have done nothing wrong!” I cried.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Visit To A Mine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They finished talking, and Lippy turned to me.

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

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

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

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

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

Hamstrung, Pointy, & Downcast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Gath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Fratricide

The evidence shows that this is how the murder was committed.

The victim was a fanatic named Vanityvanity Orliss Vanity, known as Vov for short. He made his living as a thumper. He thumped both tubs and Bibles, and sometimes, when he was strung out on dandelion-and-burdock, he thumped police officers, puppies, and other things beginning with P, such as pin-cushions.

On the day of the murder, Vov woke at dawn and rose from his bed and shoved his head into a pail of icy water and thumped a tub and ate some cream crackers and stood on his balcony and engaged in blood-curdling invective with his downstairs neighbour and thumped a Bible and tallied up the visible toads and combed his hair with a Bedraggler and fossicked in a cupboard and took a swipe at a bat and prayed the Lord his soul to save and wrapped a cravat around his neck, his neck, his neck, and paid no heed to the weather forecast and left his gloves on the bus and eked from its shell a tiny wriggling unidentified creature and admired the view from Sawdust Bridge and boxed clever and dipped an orphan in a pond and failed to understand foreign signage and almost toppled into a ditch but righted himself at the critical moment and had a go at a game of Regurgitate The Cream Crackers and scratched an irritant and looked at the town hall clock and thumped a few things beginning with P and pursed his lips, his lips, his lips, and tossed a hard-boiled egg so high it vanished in the aether and lost all sense of cardboard and did a few other things on his way to the post office.

At the post office, Vov joined a queue. The back of the head of the person in front of him was a phrenologist’s nightmare. This reminded Vov that he had in his blazer pocket a copy of Dobson’s pamphlet A Compendium Of Phrenologists’ Nightmares (out of print). It occurred to him that this would be a suitable gift for his brother, whose birthday it was today. Unfortunately, Vov knew not where his brother was. The last he had heard of him, he was being carted off in chains to a prison hulk after committing a series of enormities. Vov had no idea of the location of the hulk, nor if his brother was still there, in chains, raving, while the sea sloshed against the sides and birds swooped overhead in glorious aerial displays of avian grace and beauty.

What we know now is that Vov’s brother had escaped and was, at that very moment, bearing down on the post office, rattling his chains and raving and strung out on dandelion-and-burdock-diluted-with-seawater and mad as a kitten on the moon and armed with a club manufactured for the slaughter of baby seals and dribbling and drooling and forgotten by God and tormented by imaginary bells.

Accompanying him, because they were chained together, was a second escaped convict, a man named Schmar. Schmar had been sent to the prison hulk due to the shape of his head. According to the judiciary’s phrenologist, the bumps and dents in Schmar’s skull were indicative of the kind of criminal who would steal toffee apples from crippled children, or forge his bus ticket, or hang out his laundry with the wrong sort of clothes-pegs. No malfeasance, great or small, was beyond him, or would be beyond him, in theory.

Meanwhile, in the post office, Vov was perplexed. Every time the queue shuffled forward, the counter seemed to recede further into the distance. Vov wondered if he could correct this anomaly by shuffling backwards instead of forwards. In so doing, he stepped on the toe of the person behind him. There was an altercation. Vov noticed that his antagonist was wearing a soutane and carrying a prayer book and a set of rosary beads, thus he was a priest, thus he was something beginning with P, thus he thumped him. The priest was an advocate of muscular Christianity, and thumped Vov in turn. The thumping might have continued interminably, were it not for the sudden arrival, in the post office doorway, of Vov’s brother and Schmar.

And so we come to the murder.

What has not been mentioned thus far is that Vov, from certain angles, in a certain light, during certain phases of the moon, in certain post office queues, bore an astonishing resemblance to a baby seal. Brute instinct, therefore, led his brother to charge screaming at him and bash him, relentlessly and mercilessly, with his baby seal-culling club. He bashed and bashed until Vov lay dead on the post office floor. Then, pausing only to snatch from his brother’s blazer pocket the copy of Dobson’s pamphlet A Compendium Of Phrenologists’ Nightmares (out of print), the escaped convict slipped his shackles, thrust the bloodied club into Schmar’s weedy hands, and scarpered, making a beeline first for the bus stop and then, boarding a number 666, riding all the way to the end of the route, an eerily deserted terminus at the edge of the cold wet unpitying marshes, where he hid among reeds and catkins, feeding on insects and marsh-water, and occasionally waylaying tiny marshland children, terrifying the poor little mites, still forgotten by God, but forgotten by the coppers too, and left free to live out his days, sploshing around in the marsh and reading the Dobson pamphlet, running his fingers delicately over his own skull, feeling the bumps and dents, and slowly, very slowly, turning into a marsh-warbler, and flying, soaring through the blue sky, migrating to other marshes, in other lands, far far away.

When Detective Captain Cargpan arrived at the post office, it was all too obvious what had happened. There was Vov, bludgeoned and dead on the floor. There was Schmar, holding the club, looking as if he was about to be sick, and in possession of a head the shape of which any phrenologist worth their salt would attest screamed “criminal!”.

Schmar, fighting down with difficulty the last of his nausea, pressed his mouth against the shoulder of the policeman who, stepping lightly, led him away.

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

An Old Manuscript

It looks as if much had been neglected in our country’s system of defence. Yes, Fort Hoity is famously impregnable, and Fort Toity likewise. But the fence linking them, running along the frontier, had been constructed from balsa wood and lollipop sticks. And when the swarm of specially-trained border wasps was wiped out by Hulbert-Courtneidge Disease, otherwise known as Border Wasp Wipeout Syndrome, the flimsiness of the fence had become all too apparent.

Our neighbours are ferocious and barbaric. Night after night, on the other side of the fence, they light bonfires and dance in circles round them, screaming impious guttural cries and waving pitchforks. They are unfathomably stupid. To date, they have been kept at bay by the papier-mâché wasps gummed to lollipop sticks at regular intervals along the frontier. The effectiveness of this defensive measure is unlikely to last. The puppet wasps cannot withstand torrential rainfall, of which there is much, in torrents, and our factories cannot churn out sufficient replacements, because of the shortages.

From Fort Hoity, as also from Fort Toity, we take snipes at our barbarian foe by launching snipe at them. For those of you who know little or nothing about flying things with wings and beaks and feathers, the snipe is a type of bird. It has a long, sharp, pointy bill or beak (see previous sentence). Our snipe are specially trained to swoop relentlessly towards barbarians, and to pierce them with their pointy beaks, ideally puncturing one of the major arteries. Note that, as with sheep and teal, the plural of snipe is snipe. I do not know why that is the case. Ask an ornitholinguist.

One drawback of our sniping is that, for all their savagery, our neighbours seem to have a way with birds. The original idea was that, having stabbed and slain a barbarian, the snipe would turn around and fly back to Fort Hoity (or Fort Toity), ready to be relaunched for another attack. But the barbarians cosset the snipe, and feed them millet and tiny terrified mammals, and make pets of them, and – maddeningly – the snipe thrive in their care. We are fortunate that thus far the savages have not yet worked out how to get the snipe to attack us.

One of our brightest engineers has devised a plan to dig a ha-ha along the length of the fence between Fort Hoity and Fort Toity. Thus, if the barbarians did manage to breach the balsa wood and lollipop sticks and papier-mâché wasps, they would immediately topple in to the ha-ha. They would be trapped like sitting ducks, and our forces could then make short work of them by dropping in a mass of violets and other flowers, smothering them as Heliogabalus did his enemies. Before we can put this plan into action, we need to convert much of our farmland into plantations for violets and other flowers, so we have enough for the smothering.

Meanwhile, our Black Ops team conducts various black ops on both sides of the border. By their nature, black ops are carried out under the radar. As we do not have a radar, we fashioned a convincing counterfeit by attaching a couple of wire coat-hangers to the top of a lamppost near Fort Hoity, and another one near Fort Toity. So pig-ignorant and backward are the barbarians, they are completely taken in. Baffled by our superior technology, they think a coat-hanger is the work of the devil – and that is when it is used for its original purpose. As a faux radar, they think it is the work of two devils.

Threatened as we are by brutes on the border, there is perhaps a greater peril lurking in our midst. I speak of the enemy within, the peaceniks. They are growing in number, in spite of our efficient secret police and the Friday night head-boilings at both Fort Hoity and Fort Toity. These “useful idiots” deny that our neighbours are barbaric savages who wish us harm, insisting rather that they are lovely people who just grunt rather more than we do. Look how they care for their snipe!, these nitwits cry, ignoring the fact that they are our snipe, primed to kill, and treacherously bought off by the barbarians with millet and tiny terrified mammals.

Of equal concern to the authorities is the fashionable theory, currently being bruited about the cement water-troughs of our fauborgs, that there is no land at all on the other side of the fence, no barbarians, just the sea, the vast wet illimitable sea that stretches forever, to the ends of the earth. Proponents of this codswallop maintain that the bonfires we see are strange inexplicable atmospheric phenomena, that the barbarians dancing in circles round them, screaming impious guttural cries and waving pitchforks are mere sea-sprites, phantoms of wind and water and the play of the light. This is a misunderstanding of some kind; and it will be the ruin of us.

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

At Night

Deeply lost in the night. An overwhelming pong of hamster and hair oil. The air swarming with nocturnal gnats. In the distance, under the elevated section of the motorway, scores of loudspeakers pounding out non-stop reggae and rock music. A night of dread, but is it natty? Nashe wrote of the terrors of the night, and there was nothing natty about them. Or gnatty. Oh, sweep them away, the swarms, or disperse them with a blast from a bicycle pump.

Imagine if Lee Harvey Oswald had been armed with a bicycle pump rather than with a Mannlicher-Carcano rifle. He was unable to drive, so it is plausible he could have had a bicycle, and thus a pump. Imagining such a thing, such twaddle, distracts from the dread and the terror on this night of nights.

This night of no owls. Where have they gone? The yew tree’s branches are owl-empty for the first time in living memory. Remember studying them through night-vision trinoculars, the mystic third lens for the mystic third eye? Invaluable goggles.

Night came crashing down so suddenly. Up there, fat stars glistened, unimaginably distant burning rocks. Down here, hopelessly lost. Magnets ceasing to function, compasses pointing in unknown directions never previously seen on earth.

In tenebrous gloom, trying to decipher the scritti. Muck underfoot. Approaching the ducal potting shed, behind eerie shrubs. Someone must be there.

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

A Dream

Josef K. was dreaming. Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you about it. Other people’s dreams are almost always insufferably boring. My heart sinks when somebody I barely know insists on telling me one of their dreams. It is akin to the horror I feel when buttonholed by somebody who is determined to read to me their “latest poem”. These poems are invariably codswallop. And so it is with dreams.

On the other hand we are, perhaps rightly, fascinated by our own dreams – as, I suppose, we are by our poems, if we are foolish enough to write them. Dreams churn up our memories, distort them, pluck them from where they belong and drop them into new and weird contexts. Because they belong to us, they are endlessly interesting. We try to wring sense from them, to act as our own Viennese quack and work out what the dream tells us about ourselves. Such navel-gazing is very pleasing, but you really don’t want to impose it on anybody else.

Pleasing, yes, but sometimes futile. God alone knows how I have wrestled with the deep, deep meaning of a dream I had a few years ago, in which I attacked the actor Roy Kinnear, bashing him over the head with a chair. I never met the late Mr Kinnear. It is, to date, his sole appearance in my dreamworld. I still have no idea what that dream meant, if it meant anything.

We might, if we are sufficiently engaged, find the dreams of fictional characters intriguing. I can’t remember the particular dream Josef K. had in A Dream by Franz Kafka, which is another reason I’m not telling you about it. But we ought to remember that fictional characters’ dreams aren’t real dreams – they’re made up by the author. They may well be based on actual dreams the author had, though there is no guarantee of that. In any case, you can bet on your sickly and wizened grandmother’s life that the author embroiders, and shapes the dream-narrative, through art.

Consider, as an example, the story in which fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol has a dream while taking a pre-polevaulting nap. As readers, we know that the dream has been planted in his (fictional) sleeping brain, probably by his coach, the cantankerous, chain-smoking, enovercoated, Homburg-hatted, and all too real Old Halob, a non-fictional character if ever there was one.

In the dream, Bobnit Tivol and Old Halob have somehow swapped identities. Thus, it is the coach who is polevaulting, an image so absurd and preposterous it is the epitome of dream-bizarrerie. This is what I mean by art. Fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol, meanwhile, in the persona of his coach, has gone to visit Old Halob’s sickly and wizened grandmother in her hovel. He explains to her, by thumps on her head, that he is going to gamble on her life in a sordid wager. The grandmother then takes off her thrum nightcap, and is revealed to be a large, fierce wolf, with gleaming and razor-sharp fangs.

Fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol screams. In real life, this is the point where a dreamer would be shocked awake. But in the story, the dream continues. Bobnit Tivol runs out of the hovel, runs and runs, and finds himself on a familiar running track. He runs round and round and round, in pursuit, now, of another runner, just ahead of him. Eventually the fictional athlete catches up with this runner, and they sprint across the finishing line at exactly the same moment. Panting, they turn to face each other, and Bobnit Tivol recognises his fellow-runner as the late actor Roy Kinnear.

Arm in arm, they repair to a sort of supersonic milk bar, where they order a couple of sort of supersonic milk-based drinks. They sit at a table. All of a sudden, the writer Frank Key comes charging in and attacks Roy Kinnear, bashing him over the head with a chair.

Frightened, Bobnit Tivol runs into a sort of supersonic milk bar pantry, locking the door behind him. He mops his fevered brow, first taking off his Homburg – remember, he is still in the guise of his coach Old Halob, who we assume is making up this dream. We might ask, then, at this point, whether the dream tells us more about (fictional) Bobnit Tivol or (non-fictional) Old Halob. We might ask the question of a Viennese quack, who would surely know the answer. But none is available, so instead, growing bored, we ask “how did the dream end?”

Having removed his Homburg, Bobnit Tivol, or Old Halob, looked down, and saw that his trouser-cuffs were dirty and his shoes were laced up wrong. Bending to retie the shoelaces, he bumped his head on a headbumper. So severe was the bump that stars appeared revolving around his fictional, dream head, as in an illustration in a children’s comic. They were such pretty stars! Oh, how they twinkled! Enchanted by the sight, he woke up.

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

The Bucket Rider

Coal all spent; the bucket empty; the shovel useless; the stove breathing out cold; the room freezing; the trees outside the window rigid, covered with rime; the sky a silver shield against anyone who looks for help from it. As I did, foolishly. I shoved open the door of the chalet, and steeped out, and stared at the sky.

Aidez-moi! Aidez-moi!”, I shouted. There was no answer. I went back inside and slammed the door shut. Before I froze to death, I put on two coats, made from the fur of critically endangered medium-size mammals, which I had stolen from Yoko Ono. Physically, I am a good deal bigger than diminutive Yoko, hence the two coats. Ideally, I would have pilfered three, but the Beatle Lennon was mooching about the place, and I had to act fast. That was a long time ago. In those days I did not shout at the sky in French.

That skill, or art, I learned more recently, from Blötzmann. “Those seeking succour from the sky,” he writes (Book XIX, Lavender Series), “Are well advised to note that the sky speaks French, with a smattering of Finnish (verbs only).”

I know there are those who damn Blötzmann as a crank and an idiot, but to date I have found him an infallible guide, in spite of the often senseless tosh he peddles. I say “to date” because now even I am beginning to have doubts. It was, after all, because of Blötzmann (Book IX, Lilac Series) that I ended up here, in a chalet high, high in the ice mountains, with an empty coal-bucket and icicles forming on my moustache.

Should I have treated the invitation with a measure of caution? Probably. But, immersed as I was in the tenets expounded in Book IX, I did not even question it. Instead, I shoved a few essentials into a pippy bag and ran – sprinted! – to the railway station. I was in such a hurry that I did not even lock the door behind me. Within hours I was at the foot of the ice mountains, queuing for a ticket for the funicular railway which would take me to this confounded ice-girt freezing coalless chalet.

The invitation came from the Pointy Town Nisbet Spotting Society, an organisation previously unknown to me.

Dear Shambeko!, it read, Please join us for a very special week of nisbet spotting high, high in the ice mountains. Be our guest in a lovely chalet heated by a coal-stove. Brr! It’s chilly out there, so wrap up warm!

As I say, it might have been wise to make a few enquiries before rushing off and leaving behind everything I held dear. Not only had I never heard of the Pointy Town Nisbet Spotting Society, I had no idea what a nisbet was. How, then, could I spot one? And if I did spot one, or dozens, or hundreds, I would not realise I had done so, not knowing what one was. Dashing off to the chalet was the utmost foolishness on my part. The best I can say in my defence is that I assumed a representative of the Society would be there to enlighten me.

But when I arrived, the chalet was empty. There was a small amount of coal in the bucket, so I got the stove burning, heated up a pan of milk slops, and sat gazing at the rime-encrusted window. And I waited. I waited for three days, until the coal was almost spent. Then, with a sudden crash, the door burst open, and a woman festooned with the pelts of various hairy mammals came waltzing in.

I was astonished to see Pointy Town’s most notorious flapper, Flossie Von Straubenzee. She raised one bemittened fist and cried “Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people!” Flossie had once been a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army, and still liked to shout their slogan in greeting.

Thank St Spivack you are here!” I babbled, “The bucket of coal is almost spent, there are very few milk slops left, and according to the Daily Ice Mountains News Digest & Weather Forecast, dropped by parachute to the chalet each morning, it’s going to be twice as cold tomorrow, thrice as cold the day after, and so on, exponentially.”

Flossie seemed unperturbed, and asked me how the nisbet spotting was going. Somewhat shamefacedly, I explained that I did not know what a nisbet was.

Well, nor do we, exactly,” she said, “That’s one reason for this very special week. We’re hoping that you might accomplish the very first authenticated spotting of a nisbet. That would really give the Society a boost. I came to tell you that we’ve just had word there could be a nisbet higher up the ice mountains. Apparently they don’t thrive except right near the summit, where the air is thin and the cold is bitter, or bitterer. Good luck! Cheerio!”

And Flossie waltzed out of the chalet as suddenly as she had come.

That was three days ago. Now, all the coal is spent. The bucket is empty. The shovel is useless. The stove is breathing out cold. Et cetera et cetera. The sky offered no succour. But I have devised a plan. The bucket is large enough for me to squat inside it, just about. I drag it outside, and, using knots both sturdy and ingenious, attach it to the cords of one of the morning parachutes lying in the snow. Then I climb into the bucket. Soon, as I expected, a flock of wingèd things, with beaks and feathers – probably birds – grasp the parachute in their talons, and lift it. The knots hold. I am lifted too, in my bucket.

Let us go and spot a nisbet!” I cry.

And with that I ascend into the regions of the ice mountains and am lost forever.

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

Children On A Country Road

I heard the wagons rumbling past the garden fence, sometimes I even saw them through gently swaying gaps in the foliage. I would gaze, transfixed, as wagon after wagon after wagon passed. But when they were gone, and the road was empty, I saw, through gently swaying gaps in the foliage, beyond the road, the expanse of the vast wild windswept desolate tarputa, and I was terrified, and I ran back into the cottage, gibbering, until Papa gave me a bowl of soup, and, slurping it without a spoon, I was becalmed.

From infancy, wise Papa had forbidden me to stray beyond the garden fence and foliage. There were countless tales of unsuspecting children wandering on to the tarputa, and vanishing in its vast wild windswept desolate expanse, never to be seen again in this world. The glimpses of it I had, when once the wagons had rumbled past, frightened me beyond words.

Though I was confined to our cottage and its garden, I was a contented tot. I had innumerable pebbles and sticks to play with, and sometimes a bird – a wren or a godwit – would appear in the sky overhead, and swoop, and alight upon the bird table. I would watch entranced as Papa came charging out of the cottage at uncanny speed, a sock filled with wet impacted sand in his fist, and bashed out the brains of the bird before it had time to flit away. On the days when that happened, the soup was particularly slurpable.

My psychiatrist has asked me, repeatedly, if I was a lonely child. In response, I insist that I was not. Never having had any playmates, I had no sense of their absence from my life. All I knew of other children were the terrible tales of them getting lost on the vast wild windswept desolate tarputa.

Then, one day when I was seven or eight years old, something extraordinary happened. I was in the cottage rumpus room, happily playing a game of put-the-pebble-next-to-the-stick, when I heard the sound of rumbling. I dashed out to the garden, and, through gently swaying gaps in the foliage, I saw the wagons pass by, wagon after wagon after wagon. When, eventually, the last wagon rolled past, I was astonished to see, on the other side of the road, coming towards me from the vast wild windswept desolate tarputa, a parcel of children, tiny tots, seven in all. Could these be some of the vanished children, returning, curiously unaged, after years of hopeless wandering? I was agog.

I scampered indoors to tell Papa. Thinking I had come to report a wren or a godwit on the bird table, he was already filling his sock with wet impacted sand. I explained what I had seen.

Perhaps they could be my playmates!” I added.

But Papa was cautious. We went outside to look at the children through gently swaying gaps in the foliage. They had stopped when they came to the road, and did not cross. They stood there, the seven of them, gazing at the cottage.

I shall call the lollipop lady,” said Papa, “When she arrives, and helps these mysterious children to cross the road, I will keep them on the other side of the garden fence and interrogate them through the gently swaying gaps in the foliage. You can never be too careful. Carry on playing with your pebble and stick until the lollipop lady gets here.”

By mid-afternoon the children had been safely escorted across the road. Papa let me sit on a stump in the garden while he questioned them through the gently swaying gaps in the foliage.

Who are you, mysterious tinies?” asked Papa.

The largest child replied for all of them.

We are Pips,” he said, “Or rather, we will one day become Pips. I am Merald, whose name is Bubba, and this -” he pointed to each tot in turn “- is William and Brenda and Eleanor and Edward and Langston. The little squirt at the end is Chris, whose Pipness will be late, and brief.”

Pips?” asked uncomprehending Papa.

As in Gladys Knight And The,” said Merald whose name was Bubba.

Papa knew little of soul music, and even less about Motown, and nor did I, but we took Bubba’s story at face value.

And what brings you from the vast wild windswept desolate tarputa to my door?” asked Papa.

As you can see, we are but tots,” said Bubba, “And our lungs and windpipes have not yet developed fully, whereby we might accompany Gladys Knight on her chart-toppers. We would like to avail ourselves of the rumpus room in your cottage to use as a rehearsal room, so we can sing our little hearts out until we are each as proficient as can be. We are confident that Gladys Knight will come calling for us when, at different times, we are ready to be her Pips.”

Papa’s ferocious countenance hid a heart as soppy as an old sock not yet filled with wet impacted sand. He unlatched the garden gate, and the future Pips entered one by one, Bubba at their head and the little squirt Chris bringing up the rear. They went straight to the rumpus room and started to sing, though I have to say at this nascent stage in their careers as Pips the racket they made is better described as ungodly caterwauling.

Papa! Papa!” I cried over the din, “You did not ask them what they were doing on the vast wild windswept desolate tarputa!”

That can wait,” said Papa, “Now be on the lookout for a wren or a godwit, otherwise our soup tonight will be a thin consommé.”

And so I waited. I waited for years. Papa never asked the Pips to explain where they had been, and what they had been doing, before they came to us that day. And nor did I. Neither of us ever got the opportunity. We could never get a word in edgewise. The seven children sang continually, morning, noon, and night, without cease. We prayed for Gladys Knight to turn up and whisk at least some of them away. I spent entire days gazing through the gently swaying gaps in the foliage, barely noticing the wagons rumbling past, trying somehow to summon Gladys Knight. But the vast wild windswept desolate tarputa remained obstinately empty and vast and wild and windswept and desolate, with nary a sign of a soul singer. Gladys Knight never came for her Pips.

On my twelfth birthday, Papa and I were sat in the anteroom of the rumpus room, cotton wool stuffed into our ears to muffle the awful singing. Papa looked haunted and woebegone. I asked him what was the matter.

A horrible truth has dawned on me, Sophonisba,” he shouted.

What is that, Papa?” I shouted back.

I do not think these children are Pips.”

Not Pips? Then what are they?”

I think they are fools,” he shouted, “Foolish tots who cannot stop singing.”

Yes, I have wondered about that,” I shouted, “I have wondered that they sing all day, every day, and all night, every night, and never seem to sleep, or even to get tired.”

Papa raised his eyes to the heavens. He looked as desolate as the tarputa.

How could fools get tired?”

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