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.

Vestige Of Trouser

I once drew a picture of a vestige of trouser. As I recall, it was intended as one of a series of clues in a detective story which, I also recall, was never actually written. The plotting of a proper detective story always seemed to me outwith the range of whatever talents I possess. This is a pity, as I would like few things better than to write a cracking whodunnit, one that leaves the reader guessing until the very final paragraph, and, thereafter, gawping open-mouthed, with perhaps a trail of drool slowly descending from their lower lip, maintaining that stunned stillness for several minutes before regaining their wits. I can think of several books I have read, over the years, which have left me in such a state, and not all of them were whodunnits. Nor, if I tally them up in my poor memory, did any of them contain, anywhere within them, a vestige of trouser. After all, in fiction as in life, we usually encounter trousers whole, do we not? So I am sure I would remember a book with a vestige of trouser in it, just as I remember a pen-and-ink drawing I made, about thirty years ago, of such a thing. What I do not know is why that drawing has come bubbling to the surface of my brain today of all days. Perhaps, in some world or universe running parallel with this one, today is Vestige of Trouser Day, and faint signals from that world or universe have unaccountably pierced the fabric of my own world. But that smacks of science fiction, not detective fiction, and I always think it best to draw a veil over the conjectures of science fiction. When I say “draw a veil”, I do not mean draw a picture of a veil, as I once drew a picture of a vestige of trouser. I am using a different sense of the word “draw”. But you knew that, and did not need me to tell you, which makes me wonder why I am still prattling on, pointlessly, when I might be better occupied gawping, open-mouthed, stunned and still, with drool falling from my lips.

Glub… Glub… Glub

I was exceedingly pleased to receive as a Christmas gift The New Annotated H. P. Lovecraft, a splendid scholarly edition of selected works by the troubled genius of Providence, Rhode Island. It is packed with informative footnotes, but one was missing, so I am taking the opportunity to provide it here as an addendum.

Among my favourite snippets of Lovecraft is this passage from The Thing On The Doorstep. My footnote is appended.

It began with a telephone call just before midnight. I was the only one up, and sleepily took down the receiver in the library. No one seemed to be on the wire, and I was about to hang up and go to bed when my ear caught a very faint suspicion of sound at the other end. Was someone trying under great difficulties to talk? As I listened I thought I heard a sort of half-liquid bubbling noise – “glub… glub… glub” – which had an odd suggestion of inarticulate, unintelligible word and syllable divisions. I called “Who is it?” But the only answer was “glub… glub… glub-glub.”

NOTE : In the early 1990s, “Glub … glub … glub” was the recorded answerphone message of Ed Baxter, benevolent despot of ResonanceFM.

A Memorable Cracker Year

‘Twas in the year 1983 I spent Christmas in Manchester with the ex-Mrs Key’s sister and her husband, a Mexican anthropologist with a particular interest in textiles. We were all young and achingly right-on in a very 1980s way, which is why we thought very carefully before buying our Christmas crackers. Not for us the crass commercialism of the masses with their false consciousness and weird tendency to vote for the hated Thatcher. No, we would make the purchase of crackers a political gesture. We bought them from CND.

Oh how we failed to laugh around the Christmas dinner table as we pulled our ideologically sound crackers. Out fell the expected paper hat and printed slip – and on the latter, there was not a terrible and groanworthy joke, but a sobering fact about nuclear weapons and the inevitable worldwide holocaust they would cause. We donned our paper hats and read out these visions of mass destruction, smug in our righteousness. Then we ate and drank our fill and had precisely the same kind of Christmas as the lumpenproletariat we so despised.

Shutters And Brilliantine

In days of yore, when I was young, I tried my hand at verse rather than prose. This was not a good idea. I do not have a poet’s sensibility, although I am not entirely sure what that means. I recall with fondness a handful of the verses I wrote. There was one in particular, in which I alleged that I was sitting in a room with massive shutters and had brilliantine in my hair, that nudges at my memory. Thirty years or more have passed since I wrote it. If I recall correctly, I was sitting in a room with massive shutters, and I did have brilliantine in my hair. But of course my recollections are all askew. I barely recall last week, let alone the early years of the Thatcher administration. It may be that the debaucheries of my Wilderness Years frazzled certain circuitry in my bonce. That would account for my imperfect memory.

Yet I know there were a few occasions when I slathered my hair in brilliantine, though I am no longer clear why I did so. One such occasion was New Year’s Day 1980, which I spent in a holiday cottage on the south coast owned by the parents of a friend of mine. This friend was a big-brained intellectual with an alarmingly high-pitched voice who went on to become a successful television producer of mindless tat. Even at that young age, he did not have enough hair on his head to slather it with brilliantine. He was prematurely bald. But I was not, and I had brilliantine in my hair.

Were there massive shutters in that holiday cottage? I do not remember any, but then I have never had much of a mind for architecture. This is a failing, akin to my failure as a poet, but I lose no sleep over it. I do not dream of a parallel world in which I roam through buildings spouting expert knowledge of them in rhyming couplets. Perhaps I would be a better person if I did. But I doubt it.

It has suddenly occurred to me that I posted that poem at Hooting Yard ten years ago. I mistakenly attributed it, then, to Dobson,

There were massive shutters in that room, and I had never left it. Ah, I had brilliantine in my hair. There were roses, there were lockets, I was lacking something, so unnerved – but for my hatred shedve seen it, even eaten it, got it on her eyelash, crushed it, broken it, eked it out of someone’s purse or loved it, lusted after it. So here’s my signifier – you can read it, you can keep it. You’re so fucking thick you don’t even know what to do with it. Well … eyebrows, hair, my pastels, then breakfast and a lover. Oh come on, you must be guessing. Or maybe you’re just so fetching. I’m done with fleshing out my lying. My hair is in a tangle and I haven’t paid the rent. But I had brilliantine in my hair, and yours were better shutters. Damn it, I couldn’t even see your rubbish, but I had brilliantine in my hair.

What is all that about, apart from shutters and brilliantine? It sounds peevish to me. I note that, ten years ago, typing it out, I typed it as prose rather than verse. It makes little or no difference. Either way, it is a fragment of the past, of a different time, when I stood on a south coast beach on New Year’s Day and posed for a photograph, black and white, remembered but lost, with brilliantine in my hair.

The Pursuit Of Knowledge


I was not surprised, when I set out to reacquaint myself with Robert Wyatt’s complete back catalogue, that memories came flooding back. The earlier part of his career coincided with my adolescence, that time when some of our enduring enthusiasms lodge themselves in our souls. Wyatt was my great musical hero when I was fourteen, and he remains an abiding figure, even if I no longer worship him, as I did then, as a god. But listening to the very first records, with Soft Machine, prompted memories of another of my teenage talismans, and more particularly of something irrevocably lost, and lost not just to me but to everyone.

At the beginning of Soft Machine Volume Two, Wyatt announces that what we are about to hear is “a choice selection of rivmic melodies from the official orchestra of the College of ‘Pataphysics”. Like many another spotty youth with intellectual yearnings, I pored over the lyrics of my favourite albums, and in this case I wondered: was there really such a college?, were Soft Machine really its official orchestra?, and, er, what the hell was ‘pataphysics anyway? That word rang a faint bell, and it was not long before I recalled where I had heard it before. “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” from Abbey Road – arguably the most irritating song in the Beatles’ canon – opens with Joan studying “’pataphysical science in the home”.

Because it was Wyatt, because it was intriguing, because it was obscure, I wanted to find out more about this ‘pataphysics business. But where to start? And that, precisely, is what we have lost, that question of where to start. If I were a teenager today, the question would not even occur to me. I would head straight for the wikipedia. From the comfort of my smelly sock-strewn bedroom, and pausing only for the occasional pot noodle, within a few hours I could find out all I wished to know about ‘pataphysics, familiarise myself with the life of Alfred Jarry, download the texts of his plays and prose, and veer off in other promising directions, towards Dada and surrealism. By the time I tumbled into bed my head would be crammed with the knowledge that, four decades ago, took me years to acquire.

And this, I think, is a great loss. Complete access to everything all the time seems – and sometimes is – wondrous, even miraculous. But what is lost is the pleasure of pursuit, following a trail, serendipitous discoveries, unexpected byways, and – most importantly – the time taken. The instant availability of all that information to me, aged fourteen, could never be as valuable as the process of its gradual acquisition over months and years.

Where I did begin was with my parents’ bookshelves. I have written before about the experience of growing up on a bleak council estate, but of course I was never culturally impoverished. Quite apart from the teeming bookshelves, I was a bus- and Tube-ride away from London. Also, back then, my local library was still a building filled with books, and not the “chat-‘n’-snack zone” (in the approving words of Labour’s last “culture” secretary) it, and so many others, have become.

Unfortunately, eclectic though my parents’ tastes were, they did not run to a love of screechy-voiced madcap alcoholic visionary French writers of the fin de siècle. I was able to dig out stray references in some of their many art books. Further mentions popped up from time to time in the pages of the dear old NME in its halcyon days, usually in interviews with some of my other favourites like Slapp Happy or Henry Cow. In the library I found a copy of Ubu Roi. I somehow discovered the existence of a book called The Banquet Years by Roger Shattuck, a quarter of which was devoted to a biography of and critical essay on Jarry. I remember asking my father to buy it for me the next time he popped into Foyle’s (which was pretty much every week.) On one of my own forays into town, at a time when Charing Cross Road was packed with bookshops, I found a Jonathan Cape anthology of Jarry’s Selected Writings. And one day I was unreasonably overexcited to receive in the post, as a gift from my sister in America, a copy of the Evergreen Review (Volume 4, Number 13, May-June 1960), a 190-page paperback special issue entitled What Is ‘Pataphysics? It remains one of my most treasured possessions.

The point is that this was all very piecemeal and gradual, and therein lay the pleasure – of pursuit and discovery, stretching over time. It is a pleasure to a large extent lost. Had I not sworn off the booze, I would celebrate it, mournfully, in the spirit of Alfred Jarry, with a couple of bottles of wine and a pint of absinthe before breakfast. No wonder he was dead at thirty-four.


Approaching his seventieth birthday, Robert Wyatt has reportedly decided to “stop making music”. The writer Richard Williams rang him up to confirm if this was true. Wyatt responded with an anecdote

about the novelist Jean Rhys, who, after a long period of inactivity, responded to her publisher’s gentle suggestion that she might like to write another book by asking him if he’d enjoyed her last one. “Yes, of course,” he answered. “Well, read it again,” Rhys said.

Indeed. I will be taking up the invitation (the command?) to listen again to Wyatt’s extensive back catalogue. He was one of my earliest musical uberenthusiasms, from the day in the very early 1970s when my older brother came home clutching a double-album reissue of Soft Machine Volumes One and Two. (Side one of the latter remains one of my putative Desert Island Discs.)

Just as the career of the out of print pamphleteer Dobson is intertwined with his inamorata and Muse, Marigold Chew, so we must never overlook the contribution of Alfreda Benge to Wyatt’s work. I was once asked to name my favourite painting. It wasn’t an Old Master or modernist masterpiece from one of the great galleries. It was – still is – Benge’s cover for Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard (1975). (Click for huge version.)


Rarest Of Rarities


Twenty-six years ago, the Malice Aforethought Press published Penitence And Farm Implements in an edition of twenty-six copies. Each copy was individually lettered from A to Z. The front and back covers contained twenty-six photographs, snipped out of (I think) old copies of National Geographic magazine. One of the original snippages was pasted in on the inside title page of each copy.

The preface – or “A Few Words Before The Drivel” – ran as follows:

The seventy-five pieces in this book were written between 1981 and 1987; they are arranged here in no particular order. Readers whose brains become frazzled by the often turgid nature of these poems may prefer to muck about with the illustrative matter; this consists of sheets of sticky labels inserted here and there within the book. Indeed, it is possible to ignore the texts completely and to spend hours of idle amusement rearranging the pictures in jigsaw-like fashion, or to remove the labels from the book entirely and use them as charming decorative accessories, guaranteed to brighten up the home, office, or slaughterhouse.

To which was appended a line from John Aubrey’s Brief Lives:

“after his Booke came out, he fell mightily in his Practize, and ’twas beleeved by the vulgar that he was crack-brained”.

The “illustrative matter” consisted of further snippages from National Geographic, printed – in black and white – on to sheets of Gestetner sticky labels. Of the written content, the less said the better.

Penitence And Farm Implements is possibly the rarest of rare out of print pamphlets published by the Malice Aforethought Press during the last quarter of the last century. I would be interested to hear from any long-time Hooting Yard fanatics who actually own a copy. There can only be twenty-five of you in total.


The End Of The Dictionary

“The dictionary ends sooner than the soul.” – Frederic Myers, letter to Arthur Sidgwick, 14 July 1867.

When we reach the end of the dictionary, there are no more words. We have exhausted them. We are left, then, with three choices.

We may lapse into silence. This is a strategy much favoured by anchorites and hermits and some saints and saintly persons. I have, myself, been described as a Diogenesian recluse, and not without good reason.

We may resort to barbaric grunting. This seems to be a popular choice among many of the shuffling scowling denizens of my bailiwick. Whenever I go sashaying forth – for even a recluse must sashay forth from time to time – I hear more grunts than words. But where once I thumbed my nose in patrician contempt at those grunters, now I understand that they have been reduced to their barbarism because they have used up all the words in the dictionary, from A to Z. They reached the end.

We may invent new words. We may coin new sounds. Glogscheen, snup, parapapahooft, swarfoogie. Some might say we are thus babbling nonsense. Others would counter that our nonce-words are divinely inspired, that we are “speaking in tongues”. Once towards the end of the last century, I sat in a hall in a meeting of the religiously devout, several of whose members loomed over me and so spoke in tongues, to cure me of my woes. Those woes are past, and I may doubt that incoherent babbling was the cause of their passing, but can I ever be sure?

There is a fourth choice. When we reach the end of the dictionary, we turn back to the beginning, where each and every word awaits us anew.

A Note On Nomenclature

I recall reading somewhere or other that, when asked to describe his ideal reader, James Joyce said he envisaged somebody spending the best part of their life devoted to the diligent study of his work, to the exclusion of all other concerns. Without for a moment comparing myself to Joyce, I must admit that his is an attitude of which I wholly approve. After all, why do we write at all, if we do not take our own work with the utmost seriousness, and expect readers – or at least some readers – to do likewise?

Laughable and hopeless it may be, but I like to think that, long after my mortal remains have been devoured by worms, there will be a small body of beetle-browed scholars poring over every word I have ever written, trying to wring from it everything that can be wrung. It is for them, as yet unborn, that I offer this tiny contribution to their important research.

In the mid-1980s I worked as a drudge and minion in a local authority office in London. One day I was given the task, who knows for what purpose?, of sorting through the personnel files of past employees – those who had left, or retired, or died. There were hundreds of these files, beige cardboard folders containing the dim dull records of long-forgotten members of staff. As I worked my way through them, two names grabbed my attention and lodged in my brain, where they have remained ever since.

Shortly afterwards, in the latter half of the decade, I had my epiphany upon reading Dallas Wiebe’s line “When you have nothing to say, you write prose”, and began to write prose. And in writing prose fiction, I learned that one of the things you have to do is to give your characters names. How to choose those names? Over the years, I have used a number of different methods. But back then, I realised I had a couple of excellent names stuck in my head. Yes, they were the identifiable names of real people, but “no resemblance to anyone living or dead blah blah blah” should cover it.

The first ex-employee of the council whose name I appropriated was B. Bewg. He became the “hero” of Mr Bewg’s Reference, a tale the register of which is clearly also indebted to my rummaging through those personnel files.

The other name that sang to me, and still does, was Nuttawood Sirinuntananon. The more diligent scholars will, I hope, work out that that must be a real name – after all, who would, could, make it up? I can’t actually recall, today, where I first deployed Mr. S., but it will have been in one of the early out of print pamphlets. He reappeared very briefly at Hooting Yard in 2004 and, with a different forename, in 2012 – where, I am pleased to note, you will also encounter a certain Krumbein, who was also a council employee, though one I actually met, as he had not yet been consigned to the beige cardboard graveyard.

Gosh, this is the kind of stuff that will have future scholars in ecstasy. I try to be helpful.

The Mirror & The Lamp

Last weekend I visited St Ives for the first time in twenty years. In the latter part of the last century I went there regularly, for holidays, when I used to take regular holidays. In spite of its popularity, I adore the town. Even when it is jam-packed with tourists at the height of summer, one does not need to wander far to avoid the throng, and out of season it is a delight. On the last weekend of September it was not too hideously crowded, and not greatly changed from how I remembered it.


One change, which, given the passing of time, I expected, was that my favourite shop would have vanished, and indeed it had. This was The Mirror And The Lamp, on St Andrew’s Street, just along from the harbour and Market Square. In truth, I had never quite understood how the shop survived as long as it did, given that it was a secondhand or antiquarian book dealer with a very limited stock, mostly of poetry, and that, I recall, of a fairly narrow range. My memory may be askew, but I seem to remember it specialised in French symbolists and surrealists – not, one would think, exactly what the casual tourist in St Ives was looking for.

The proprietrix of The Mirror And The Lamp was Gertrude Starink, who I remember as a fragile bespectacled bluestocking. In addition to books, she also sold her artworks, some paintings and collages, but more enticingly small limited-edition illustrated booklets. Of course, ninety percent of the population of St Ives consider themselves artists, and bash out seascapes and nautical daubs for the tourists. Gertrude Starink’s work, while often informed by the locality, was of a different order. Her bestseller (I presume) was the commercially-published St Ives Alphabet, twenty-six cards reminiscent of a more benign Edward Gorey. An additional pleasure of The Mirror And The Lamp was that every purchase was individually wrapped – with exquisite care – in paper printed with the shop’s emblem, reproduced above.


When I returned home, it occurred to me to discover if Gertrude Starink had left any trace on the interweb. I was saddened to learn that she had died in 2002, aged just 54. At the same time, I was intrigued to learn that she was originally from Holland, born Ruth Smulders. (Given that my own mother spoke Flemish, I was surprised I had not picked up on her accent.) She was also considered one of the finest Dutch poets of the late twentieth century, having published, over twenty years, a series of “bundles” under the collective title The Road To Egypt. Most interestingly – and somehow absolutely in keeping with the woman I remember sat behind her desk in the dark interior of that shop – she and her husband Jan (who died earlier this year) had spent fifteen years translating into Dutch The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.

I still adore St Ives, but it is diminished by her absence.