O, Little Radish

By popular demand, here is another verse by a sulky Bulgarian poet, written circa 1982. This one is entitled O, Little Radish and purports to be by Fratsin K Yecebit. (My poets’ names sound Turkish rather than Bulgarian, but I was young, so young …)

Tomorrow morning we will
Drink vinegar
Here in this trench.
I haven’t paid
Any of my debts
And I don’t intend to.
They can brandish guns at me
Or twigs.
I’ll make my peace
And whip it up with a whisk.
Send me your cash now.
Send me the lot.
I’m the man you ought to
Shove in the vat.

Sulky Bulgarian Poets

Along with the Undimmed by Death postcard, I unearthed another set of six cards from the same era. These are hand-drawn and hand-written, and collectively titled Sulky Bulgarian Poets. Unfortunately, the drawings are cack-handed and the “poems” are atrocious – with one exception. Number 5, “In Fish And Shipping”, is attributed to sulky Bulgarian poet Elvis Targnegescubit, and, though it pre-dates Hooting Yard, I think it is a worthy addition to the canon.

In despicable visions of
An unholy refrigerator,
Another refrigerator,
In implacable discussions of
A swordfish,
A carp,
An enormous schooner,
A small schooner,
A tiny ship, ship-ette,
In all these I have said,
Irrefutably, not once,
But with venom,
I am a very fat man.

A Postcard From The Last Century

In 1982 I spent much of my time making postcards, which I sold for a pittance to eager punters from what would now be called a pop-up stall in Norwich. Below is an example of the sort of thing I was doing.

The source material for both words and images was a huge pile of National Geographic magazines from the 1950s and 1960s acquired from various second-hand bookshops. To create the captions I employed a cut-up technique akin to that used by William S Burroughs and David Bowie, but far more amusingly than either of them ever did, particularly the former, a tedious gun-toting drug-addled uxoricide.

Younger readers may find it difficult to fathom, but in Norwich in 1982 it was well nigh impossible to find an affordable colour photocopying facility. I thus sent my originals to my friend Peter Ross in London, and Peter organised the copying and sent me the results by post. I then employed scissors and glue to mount the hysterically funny images on to card, ready for sale to East Anglians.

I think Peter is still in possession of most of the original artwork, but this one came to light the other day. The captions read as follows:

Undimmed by Death

Who were they?

In this convivial land, trendy youngsters like Walter And Jorg searched the ground for clues.

Walter and Jorg are each identified by separate name captions.


Broke, Pompous, And High As A Kite

In a review of a new biography of Thomas De Quincey, Hermione Eyre brilliantly describes him as “broke, pompous, and high as a kite”. Could the same, I wondered, be said of Mr Key? Let us take them in turn.

Broke. Definitely. I have a very limited income, and I lead a very frugal life. I am deeply grateful to my subscribers and those who make one-off donations (you know who you are) who help to alleviate my penury. I did entertain the fantasy, last year, that Mr Key’s Shorter Potted Brief, Brief Lives might become a huge international bestseller and thereby bring the wealth of Croesus showering upon me, but of course this failed to happen. Writing is not a sensible pursuit if one wants to become rich.

Pompous. I try my best to burnish my pomposity. Declaiming and pontificating, particularly upon subjects I know little or nothing about, is a helpful approach in this regard. It is also important not to behave, or even think, as if one is broke (see above). In fact, reduced circumstances can make pomposity easier to achieve. Having little justification to assume an air of grandeur, my attitude of rising high above the riffraff is most surely pompous, and I would have it no other way.

High as a kite. This is where I am unable to compare myself to De Quincey. In the last century, I could have done. An American editor, considering my early work, wondered if I wrote under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs. (This is referred to in David Langford’s 1993 article, here.) While I eschewed illegal drugs, I was pretty much perpetually drunk for the last twenty years of the twentieth century, so I suppose it is true that all my early writing was done when I was high as a kite, or pissed as a newt. Eventually, of course, my debauches left me unable to string a coherent sentence together, and I was reduced to bestial grunting on the way to and from the off licence.

I swore off booze in 2001 and haven’t touched a drop since then. At first I did worry that perhaps clear-headed sobriety would scupper my prose, but of course it didn’t. Every so often I toy with the idea of writing one of those booze-memoirs, but the thing about drunks  and druggies is that we are very, very boring. Unless, like Thomas De Quincey, we are touched by genius.

Viva Unstrebnodtalb!

One of my favourite Hooting Yard characters is Detective Captain Unstrebnodtalb. He made his first appearance long ago in the last century, in The Immense Duckpond Pamphlet:

The next day all hell broke loose. Early in the morning, as Blodgett polished the outside spigots, an ogre or wild man hove into view atop the southern hills. Its progress towards the House was implacable. It stamped through the bracken, vaulted the ha-ha with a single bound, negotiated the massive basalt wall with surprising elegance, and sprang towards the terrified Blodgett, whirling its hirsute arms alarmingly and making disgusting guttural noises. It was matted with filth. Flies, gnats, and tiny things emitting poisonous goo crawled all over its flesh. It seemed to be decomposing. It drooled. It picked up Blodgett, sank its fangs into his skull, and hurled him aside. Pausing momentarily to spit out particles of Blodgett’s head, it smashed its way through the wall of the House, oblivious to the fact that there was an ajar door three feet to its right. Once inside the House, its rage seemed to increase. It rushed wildly from room to room, obliterating the furniture, tearing up floorboards, destroying chandeliers, bashing holes into walls and ceilings, sucking the wallpaper off the walls. It chewed up banister rails and regurgitated them, disgorging them with such force that each rail acted as a lethal projectile. At least one of the urchins was impaled as a result. Five minutes after the ogre’s arrival much of the lower part of the House lay in ruins. Small fires were starting, but they were doused by water spurting from uprooted taps. Euwige and Jubble were still sprawled in the Bittern Room when the ogre eventually came upon them. It let out an inhuman cry. It picked at its sores. It became becalmed. Fixing it with a bemused stare, Jubble rose to his feet. “You know, there might still be some grog left,” he said, “Would you care for a drop?” The ogre pounded its fists against its own head. Then it blinked, shuddered, twitched. Jubble pushed a tin mug of grog into its paw. It gulped the sweet muck down greedily, then threw the mug back at Jubble, missing his ear by a whisker, as they say. Something in its manner seemed to change. By now, blind Euwige too was on her feet. She sniffed at the violent pongs emanating from the ogre, then stepped towards it. “Thank heaven! You have come!” she said, “Jubble, meet my dear friend Detective Captain Unstrebnodtalb! He comes from a far country, and his brain is hot.”

Chasm Of Vases

The usual pronunciation of vase, in this country, is as a rhyme with mars. In the United States, it is more common for vase to rhyme with lace. Growing up on an Essex council estate with a Belgian mother whose native tongue was Flemish, however, I learned to rhyme vase with jaws.

This was but one example of my mother’s idiosyncratic English. She spoke of the old films we loved to watch as being “in white and black”, and regularly deployed a sort of guttural expostulation my sister still refers to as “the Flemish sound”. This was used to express a vast swathe of emotions, from surprise to incredulity to contempt to disgust to … well, pretty much any response.

The word chasm is one that we probably encounter more in written than spoken English. My mother pronounced it with a soft ch, as in chase or chicken. So I did too, on the rare occasions I said it aloud. I only learned the correct, hard c pronunciation in my late teens, when I was reading a passage aloud in an English class at school and my teacher raised an amused eyebrow. He gently corrected me when I finished reading.

Many years have passed, but I still find myself drawn inexorably to the pronunciations I learned at my mother’s knee. And, intriguingly, my sister finds herself increasingly using “the Flemish sound” as she grows older.

A Dispatch On Dispatches

Following the mothballing of The Dabbler, my sister Rita has launched a new home for her Dispatches From The Former New World. Make sure you keep a close eye on it. Bear in mind that Mr Key would not be the scribbler you know and adore were it not for the influence, from a very early age, of this woman – last spotted here wearing a mortar board outside Brighton Pavilion.

Campion Day

Today is the feast day of the Jesuit martyr St Edmund Campion. In the long ago, I attended a grammar school which bore his name. Each year, on the first of December, the school celebrated its patron saint by making all the pupils between the ages of 11 and 16 engage in a cross-country run. On a bitterly cold December morning, then, instead of sitting in a classroom poring over a Latin textbook, we would stand assembled in a field, shivering in skimpy running kit, awaiting the barked order from a teacher which would send us scurrying and squelching through mud and puddles for a seemingly interminable race.

I was not an athletic child, and the prospect of these runs filled me with something close to despair and rage at an unfair universe. In the first year, I avoided it by remaining at home in bed, moaning weedily and convincing my parents I was suffering from a terrible malady. In the second year, I contrived to be knocked down by a car on the way to school and spent the morning in a hospital bed from which I was ejected, being unharmed, by midday. In the following three years, however, I took part in the annual cross-country run.

We are not talking about the real countryside here. The school was located in suburban Essex, so the “country” across which we were forced to scamper was a few fields and patches of scrubland in the vicinity. It was a bleak and awful landscape of mud and brambles and nettles and muck. pitted with puddles, often beset by driving rain and howling winds. Much as I loathed every second of this annual horror, I realise now that it had a powerful effect on my imagination, for if that is not a Hooting Yard landscape, what is?, what is?

From The 20th Century

Dabbler-3logo (1)

In my cupboard in yesterday’s Dabbler I resurrected some prose from the last century. The twelve potted biographies you will find there served originally as the texts accompanying illustrations for the 1993 Hooting Yard Calendar, entitled The Golden Age Of Bodger’s Spinney Variety Theatre. (One of the illustrations is reproduced for The Dabbler.)

I revisited some even earlier prose in a dream last night. When I was about fifteen years old I wrote a dreadful surrealist(ish) play-of-sorts called The Shepherd Of Amsterdam. The text no longer survives, long ago consumed by fire or eaten by worms. Last night it returned to haunt me in my sleep. I was in charge of putting on a stage production of the work, due to begin in fifteen minutes in spite of the fact that no rehearsals had taken place and the actors were wholly unfamiliar with the play. Indeed, there was only the single copy of the text in my possession, which I belatedly thought to photocopy. I was heading to the library for that purpose when I was told that the soundtrack CD of the play – produced by a walrus-moustachioed impresario who, I was assured, was “a big fan of Hooting Yard” – featuring music by Verdi and Monteverdi, was ready, awaiting only the addition of the actors performing the words.

Then I woke up.

Penguin Research

There was an item on the Today programme on BBC Radio Four this morning about a new scientific study of penguins. I am afraid I was not paying due attention so cannot enlighten you. However, it did serve to remind me that, in the long ago, when I used to draw pictures, I once depicted, in the medium of pen and ink, a scientific experiment upon a penguin.


Snakewizard And The Toofles

Long, long ago, my friend Phil and I decided to make our fortunes in the music business. Lacking the ability to sing or to play an instrument, we determined to be managers. We envisaged ourselves as a pair of Svengalis, with a stable of artists who would conquer the charts, allowing us to retire to Bransonian tropical islands before our thirtieth birthdays.

How could things possibly go wrong?, we thought, considering the first bands on our roster. There was Snakewizard, a generic heavy metal band of no great originality – but then, originality is the last thing the punters want in a heavy metal group. We would help them along with song lyrics, but otherwise leave them to practise their deafening din and grow their hair.

The important thing was to have a broad range of artists, covering different markets. Snakewizard took care of the heavy metal fans, and our second group – The Toofles – appealed to a wholly different audience. The Toofles were essentially a novelty band for pre-teens, not unlike The Wombles. Their songs had no artistic merit whatsoever but, we thought, would be wildly popular with the tinies.

The fatal flaw in our scheme, and the reason that the Bransonian islands remained forever out of reach, was that neither Snakewizard nor The Toofles ever existed outside our pulsating greedy brains. They were only ever figments of our imagination … where they remain lodged, now grown old and grey, and without a back catalogue – or indeed any catalogue at all – to fall back on.

They are still two of my favourite groups.