They’ve Stolen Dobson’s Brain!

Such a hullabaloo there was when they discovered Dobson’s brain had been stolen! One cub reporter called it the hullabaloo to end all hullabaloos. Initially beside herself, Marigold Chew soon grew to appreciate the peace and quiet – the unhullabaloo – in the house itself, where Dobson lay perfectly still, as if asleep, on a mattress. She painted and sang and fed the squirrels in the garden. Occasionally she tiptoed into the room where Dobson lay sprawled, and examined the sutures on his skull. The police scientist agreed with her that it looked like a professional job. Detective Captain Cargpan was convinced that the pamphleteer’s brain was being kept in a jar within a ten mile radius, and waited patiently for a ransom note. There was further hullabaloo when a picture was sent to the Daily Screech, purporting to show the brain on a platter, but painstaking analysis showed that it was just a grey lump of dough. Some wondered if a heroic pooch would find Dobson’s brain while rummaging in a hedgerow, in a curious foreshadowing of the theft and recovery of the Jules Rimet trophy in 1966, a year later. Marigold Chew listened to her Xavier Cugat LPs and tended her hollyhocks and pasted cuttings into her scrapbook. Detective Captain Cargpan filled his pipe with untreated Uruguayan tobacco and paced up and down the garden path, praying for rain. He believed that a torrential downpour would flush out the brain thieves. Time passed, and the hullabaloo died down, and the cub reporter on the Daily Screech was embedded with a different police force investigating a different case. And then, despite the weather remaining balmy and sun-battered, one Thursday morning the postie came prancing along the lane carrying a package. Detective Captain Cargpan let Marigold Chew unwrap it, for she was deft where he was a butterfingers. She said “Gosh!” as she folded aside the last layer of blotting paper to reveal the pamphleteer’s brain. It was rather muddy, as if it had been kept in a ditch, but she rinsed it thoroughly under the garden spigot and handed it to the police scientist, who scampered upstairs and reinserted it into Dobson’s head. No one ever did find out who had stolen it, or where it had been stored, or whether any experiments had been carried out on it. Detective Captain Cargpan pursued the case for another month or two, but he was a maverick, so his manner of conducting his investigations was highly idiosyncratic, and passeth all understanding.

Hooting Yard Auction Number One

As promised last week, here is the first in a series of Hooting Yard auctions. This is in the way of an experiment. I might use eBay in future, but I thought I’d keep this one on home turf and see what happens. Unlike the Resonance auctions, proceeds of this one go to the Hooting Yard Mercy Fund For Distressed Out Of Print Pamphleteers. Make your bid(s) in the Comments. Closing date is a week’s time, midnight on Sunday 1st April.

And what are you bidding for? A mint copy of Sidney The Bat Is Awarded The Order Of Lenin, which Mr Key will sign and add a note thanking the successful bidder. A5, 8 pages, illustrated, originally produced for the legendary Counter Productions’ Yuletide World o’ Wonders box in 1990.

sidneythebat.jpg sidneythebat2.jpg

Blötzmann Manoeuvres

Ever mindful of the need to trim the wicks of his tallow candles, Dobson employed for the purpose a tiny pair of shears which he deployed using the so-called Blötzmann Manoeuvres.

I took against electricity from an early age, he wrote, lying shamelessly, and often found myself in a quandary because untrimmed wicks set my teeth on edge. For a long time I thought the remedy for this was to imbue my teeth with greater strength, foolish young pup that I was. I crunched nuts morning, noon, and night, nuts of many different kinds. I had no favourites in the nut world, although of course the harder the nut, and the greater the effort needed to crunch it into a digestible pap, the hardier my teeth became, and the better they could withstand being set on edge by the appearance of untrimmed wicks on the tallow candles I used to illuminate my habitat.

By his own account, a temporary nut shortage forced Dobson to readdress the problem, but official statistics give the lie to this. Indeed, at the point where the pamphleteer adopted the Blötzmann Manoeuvres, there was a nut glut in the land. According to Pocock & Gabbitas, the squirrel population had been decimated by unexpected lupine savagery, leaving millions of nuts unhidden. If there was no lack of nuts, what made Dobson nail his colours to Blötzmann’s mast? It is significant that at this time, unlike later, Dobson’s colours were cherry and dun, and that a new Blötzmann mast had been erected atop Pilgarlic Hill, not far from the pig farmer’s hut where Dobson had regular sunrise gleanings. The siting of the mast, illegal then as now, was a stroke of genius by the Blötzmannist Erno Von Straubenzee, who had smuggled himself into the country aboard a packet steamer some months earlier.

Intriguingly, no sooner had Von Straubenzee disembarked from the boat, the Googie Withers, than its captain scuppered it, set it ablaze, and promptly vanished. Some say he still haunts the warehouses down at the harbour, rattling an old tin cup and begging for alms from the rough tough sailors thereabouts. Other stories have the one time packet steamer captain retired to the countryside keeping bees, like Sherlock Holmes. All that is known for certain is that a single charred plank dredged from the quayside was all that survived of the Googie Withers, and it was incorporated into a wooden altarpiece in St Bibblybibdib’s church, where it can be seen today, if you buy a ticket from the sexton, a monkey-faced man who sits in a little canvas kiosk in the churchyard each Thursday afternoon, awaiting redemption.

From the lych-gate of St Bibblybibdib’s, looking westward, on a clear day one can see the top of the Blötzmann mast, with its cherry and dun pennants. Turning to the east, the prospect is of fields rippling with wheat and rhubarb and hollyhocks and stinkwort, punctuated by ha-has and the occasional scarecrow. No wild jabbering pigs are to be seen, for they were eradicated by the same unexpected lupine savagery which did for the squirrels during the nut glut, just at the time Dobson falsely claimed a nut shortage led to his adoption of the Blötzmann Manoeuvres as his favoured way of trimming the tallow candle wicks the untrimmedness of which set his teeth on edge so.

But why did Dobson forever deny his association with Erno Von Straubenzee? Decades later, when it was put to the pamphleteer that he and the untidy Blötzmannite had been fast friends, often cooped up together for days on end in the pig farmer’s hut on the hill, scheming and plotting and cackling and letting sawdust trail through their fingers, reading the runes, Dobson blushed as he protested that the name Von Straubenzee meant nothing to him. He came up with improbable tales to account for his whereabouts on certain days when it was suspected the Blötzmann mast had been activated. And he was never able to explain how he had learned to trim his wicks so deftly with the tiny shears essential to the Blötzmann Manoeuvres. The one time he mentions the shears in a pamphlet, he is curiously abrupt.

In Ten Short Essays On Chopping And Cutting And Hacking, he gives full vent to his thoughts on scissors and scimitars and pastry-cutters, for example, devoting over twenty pages to the latter alone. There is detail here aplenty for the student who wishes to learn from scratch how to cut up bits of pastry in hundreds of different ways. Yet not only is there not a separate essay about the tiny shears, they are only mentioned in a footnote, and in such small type that only the most assiduous of readers is likely to be bothered with it. I freely admit that I have not read it myself, and rely entirely upon the account of the footnote given in the latest issue of Marginalia Dobsonia, the scholarly journal edited by Aloysius Nestingird.

Now here’s the thing. Parish records seem to show that Nestingbird is directly related to Erno Von Straubenzee, may indeed be his grandson. If true, it would explain a lot, although I am not entirely sure what precisely is explained, and Nestingbird has never replied to any of my letters. Last week I fired off a sort of questionnaire to him, demanding what they call full and frank answers to over a dozen accusations. I wanted to know if he had copies of the construction plans for the Blötzmann mast, or for any similar mast, if he ever worshipped at the wooden altar in St Bibblybibdib’s and, if he did, what god he worshipped there, and did he worship standing up, sitting, kneeling, or sprawled prostrate on the cold stone floor. I pumped him for an answer to the important question of whether he knew the name of the captain of the packet steamer Googie Withers, and what had become of that mysterious old sea dog. I threw in a sneaky query about the accounting procedures of his scholarly journal, convinced as I am that the profits are being salted away to fund the salt mines from which far-flung members of the Nestingird clan draw their dubious salaries. I asked all this and more, but of course got nothing in return, not even the threats I have become used to from the badly-dressed buffoon. I know for a fact that it is Nestingbird, or one of his cronies, who has sullied my reputation with the electricity people, and with the gas people too, and that both utilities have cut off supplies to my seaside cabin, and that is why I, like Dobson before me, now rely upon candlelight, and well-trimmed wicks. To date, I have not had to resort to the Blötzmann Manoeuvres, for wicks not neatly trimmed have yet to set my teeth on edge. If they do, with much bluster I shall begin to crunch nuts, and Nestingbird will be laughing on the other side of his pasty face. I will crunch nuts, and cackle, and be righteous and roopty-toot.

Found At A Jumble Sale

At a jumble sale last week, I was delighted to pick up a bundle of Dennis Beerpint poetry books for less than the price of a toffee apple. Well, I say books, but these are leaflets really, of between four and twelve pages each, printed with a Gestetner machine in the early 1970s. Here at Hooting Yard we think Beerpint is a criminally overlooked versifier, often subjected to critical maulings when he ought justly be garlanded with laurels.

Much of the material in these forgotten publications sees Beerpint finding his voice, and admittedly that voice was still a little shaky at this early stage in his career. I was struck, however, by the odd gem such as Illness, which begins:

Oh how dark the night is / When you’ve got meningitis

and by Being A Bee, with its wonderfully evocative couplet

I do as I do and I does as I does / And what I do and does is buzz

I think it is lines like these that fool people into thinking Beerpint “twee”, or a peddler of doggerel. This seems a particularly fatuous accusation when one considers titanic works of poesy such as Lines Upon The Death Of Dag Hammarskjöld In A Plane Crash (September 1961), with its vibrant “pluckety-pluck” rhythms, massive resonance, reach, vigour, gargantuan ambition, deliberately blurred vision, knock-kneed tremblement, sourness, decisively windswept atmosphere, implacability, tartness, muscular bounding strides, and bravery in confronting, head-on, conundrums of global significance. It ends with this Beerpintian flourish:

O Dag! Alenda lux ubi orta libertas / I’ve reserved a pew at your Requiem Mass

Who else could have written that?


“Blenkinsop! Blenkinsop! Fain wert thou embrinaged there at the harbourside! No turncoat cutpurse at the ducking stool sought to jar thy chaps. Was it but a toughening that smudged such gobby vexations, or was a man o’ poultry glutted on bream ‘n’ minnows? Fie! But how could that be?, you keen, spitter of pips with puppy-tears in grand cascade! Know ye that there are fires now blasting the barbicans? Well may thee prate ‘neath a stickleback sneer, ipso facto, dear goosey that thou art whose heart fluttereth in spring and, yea!, in winter’s hawthorn cracklings too.”


Old Farmer Frack

I have received a number of letters asking me to give some account of Old Farmer Frack. It is true that he was a mad old man, probably due to ergot poisoning. But he could be surprisingly lucid, too. For a time he employed a professional voice coach, more used to working with thespians, to help him develop exciting new roars and bellows. His cows were much given to bellowing, and Old Farmer Frack wanted to be able to bellow back in a way they would understand.

The voice coach was Satnav Gobgag, scion of the Bulgarian aeroplane manufacturing dynasty, whose huge hangars on the outskirts of Plovdiv were the site of tremendous aeronautical innovation during the interwar years. Satnav was a great disappointment to his parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, for despite receiving a first class education in the kinds of things that would make anyone fit to head an aeroplane-building business, he turned his back on the family firm and devoted himself to the questionable career – questionable in Bulgaria at that time, anyway – of drilling drama-struck misters and misses in the art of projecting their voices, be they dulcet or stentorian. It has been said that no one took to the stage of the Plovdiv Theatricum in the middle years of the last century who had not learned their stuff from Satnav Gobgag.

Exiled after the war to the country where Old Farmer Frack herded his tubercular cows, and by now grey and stooped and often covered in crumbs and dust, Satnav Gobgag fetched up at a ruined hotel on the seafront at Cack. He was only thirty-four, but looked to be twice that age, such had been his privations. It is well worth avoiding such privations if one can, but Satnav did not have the benefit of hindsight. Cut off without a penny by the Gobgag clan, accompanied in his exile by his pet coot, Satnav was on the point of starvation when into his hotel one day wandered Old Farmer Frack.

Q – What was the mad old man doing there, so far away from his cows?

A – He was in Cack to collect bags of sand, and stopped in at the hotel for a greasy breakfast, for he was fond of greasy breakfasts, but back at the farm usually made do with a dish of cowfeed.

Q – For what purpose did Old Farmer Frack need bags of sand from the beach at Cack?

A – To forestall, or avert, the flooding of his barns.

The pair struck up a conversation in the breakfast room of the hotel. And of what did they speak, this ill-matched duo? Why, they chattered away about the single topic that was convulsing the citizenry of Cack in those dark days, namely the invasion of an army of killer moorhens which was sweeping through the town in wave after wave of destructive mayhem. Satnav’s poor coot was cooped up in his hotel room for its own protection, and the penniless voice coach was frantic with fear what would happen to it when, as must surely soon happen, he and his coot were tossed out on their ears for non-payment. He reckoned without the lackadaisical approach of the hotel manager, Grimes, who affected a foppish disregard for such niceties as money. So long as his chef cooked up a greasy breakfast, and there were petunias in the plant pots, Grimes was happy to lean against the wall in the lobby flicking ash onto the tiles from the Norwegian cigars he had specially flown in. By coincidence, his smokes arrived once a month on an aircraft of Gobgag manufacture.

Old Farmer Frack was temperamentally blind to any animals except his cows, so his brain was perplexed by this talk of moorhens. He kept trying to change the subject, without success. After a while, he sat back in a daze, hypnotised by his companion’s mellifluous fluting, high-pitched jabbering, booming ostinato, silky whispers, and impeccable diction, for Satnav was deploying all of his vocal talents in describing the terrible sight of a thousand murderous moorhens tramping relentlessly towards the shopping arcade. It was when he made a noise like a cow that Old Farmer Frack sprang out of his seat, grabbed him roughly by the collar, and demanded that he repeat his bovine bellowing. Shortly thereafter, a deal was struck between the two men. Satnav Gobgag fetched his coot, and his paltry luggage, from his room, and accompanied Old Farmer Frack aboard his cart as they trundled off along meandering lanes to the farm.

Within days, the mad old fool was having rewarding conversations with his cows. He bellowed at them and they bellowed back. As he herded them from field to field, purposelessly, through all hours of the day and night, his voice coach reclined on a rickety sofa improving his English with a thorough reading of Dobson pamphlets while his coot plashed happily in Farmer Frack’s pond.

The idyll could not last. One autumnal day, when fallen leaves from the pugton trees so clogged the pond that the coot stayed indoors, there came a hammering at the door. Old Farmer Frack was miles away, in the furthest of his fields, though a faint bellowing could be heard when the wind died down. The coot, still nerve-wracked from its sight, through the hotel window, of lethal moorhens, trembled. Satnav Gobgag dropped his pamphlet – I think it was Dobson’s Some Remarks On The Grotesque Pallor I Encountered This Morning In My Shaving Mirror (out of print) – and strode in his brave Bulgarian way to the door. Opening it, he was astonished to find Grimes, the hotelier of Cack, florid with rage and somehow deeply threatening in a windcheater the colour of custard and a stout pair of wellington boots. All foppishness gone, Grimes had come to demand money. So much money, in fact, that Satnav pictured himself doing the washing up in the unsavoury hotel kitchen for the next forty years.

Q – Had something happened to Grimes to make him suddenly mindful of the unpaid bills of his hotel guests?

A – Yes. He received a clonk on the head from a piece of falling masonry.

Q – Had he tracked down other past guests, or did he have some sort of vendetta against Satnav Gobgag?

A – The former. Grimes now spent his days on horseback, criss-crossing the land demanding money with menaces from those who had taken advantage of his formerly lax manner.

Q – What menaces did he threaten?

A – Menaces so heinous they are unsuitable for family reading.

Q – What happened next?

A – Satnav Gobgag did the washing up in the unsavoury hotel kitchen for the next forty years. His coot remained on the farm, where he visited it every other weekend until it perished. Old Farmer Frack, having learned as much bovine bellowing as he needed, continued to be mad, and bellowing, and his cows bellowed back at him, for ever and ever, Amen.

Very Brief Hiatus

Astute readers, and fanatical Dobsonists, will have noticed that yesterday was the first post-free day since Hooting Yard was relaunched at the beginning of February. The reasons for this are twofold.

1. I have a stinking cold, and am much dependent on Lemsip, which readers will recall is the favoured tipple of our poet laureate Andrew Motion. In fact, I have taken to calling it Motion Potion. In theory, sufficient draughts of this piping hot medicament ought to inspire me to write poetry, just as happens with Mr M. Alas, I seem to be immune.

2. When not whimpering and snuffling and weakly calling aidez-moi! (see Bulle Ogier in Celine & Julie Go Boating, my role model when ill) I am concentrating on a couple of other projects which will be of interest to readers. The follow-up to Befuddled By Cormorants is now in preparation. Unspeakable Desolation Pouring Down From The Stars will include the novella-length title story and two other pieces, together with some charming drawings of postage stamps. In addition, I have been struck by the success of the auctions of ancient Key works in raising hundreds of pounds for ResonanceFM, and have been digging around in the Archives (ie, a couple of cardboard boxes in a cupboard) to see what other material might be made available to people with both money and sense. Watch this space for the imminent announcement of Hooting Yard Auction Number One, likely to feature original artwork.

NOTE : The current Resonance fundraising auction has been moved to eBay. You can place bids for copies of The Brink Of Cramp and House Of Turps.

UPDATE : At the end of bidding, these two titles between them raised £199 for Resonance. Thank you to the successful bidders.

“He Which Is Filthy, Let Him Be Filthy Still”

“The principal function of Biblical exegesis”, wrote Dobson in jaunty mood one morning, “is for me to look with disdain upon the minnows who have trod these paths before me.”

It’s hard to know whether the pamphleteer was being deliberately muddle-headed with his image of walking minnows, but as I said, he was in a jaunty mood, and at such times his prose could be perplexing. There is no doubt, however, about the sincerity of his view that he had an unrivalled grasp of the Bible. He did not write all that much about the holy book, but he never lost an opportunity to pour scorn on scholars of the past such as Theodore of Mopsuestia, Ludolph of Saxony, Pelagius, Tirinus of Antwerp, Manuel Sa, indeed more scholars than you could shake a stick at, were you minded so to do. Dobson, incidentally, was perhaps over-fond of shaking a stick at people or things of which he disapproved, and attached an infant’s rattle to one of his sticks the better to make his point. His point was not always clear, either to him or to the object of his stick-shaking, and eventually he was able to suppress this aspect of his behaviour by attending a long course of therapy in a mountainous sanatorium where the air was pure, the porridge was plain, and the calisthenics were invigorating.

The finest of Dobson’s exercises in Biblical scholarship is his pamphlet The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse… Or Were They? (out of print). The title is a tad puzzling, but not for long, for in the very first sentence Dobson states his case. “I avow,” he wrote “that there were no horsemen of the Apocalypse, nor, if there had been, were they four in number.” In the sixty pages that follow, he argued that a combination of mistranslation, forgery, and carelessness had altered the original text, so that “four” was correctly “two”, and “horsemen” was properly Englished as “cows”, or possibly “bees”.

Challenged by the local papal nuncio after publication as to how two cows or two bees could symbolise famine, war, pestilence and death, Dobson countered with a theological sally, probably the greatest of his sallies, theological or otherwise. Sadly, there is no record of what he said, for Marigold Chew’s recently-purchased Boswellite tape recorder was out of order, having been placed too close to the toaster that morning, and consequently smothered in a particularly toothsome marmalade.


From Much Depends On Dinner : The Extraordinary History And Mythology, Allure And Obsessions, Perils And Taboos, Of An Ordinary Meal by Margaret Visser:

At the end of the seventeenth century, John Evelyn wrote a book on salads, called Aceteria (things in vinegared dressing): A Discourse of Sallets, in which he extols the reign of lettuce over the salad bowl. “And certainly ‘tis not for nothing,” he wrote, “that our Garden-Lovers, and Brothers of the Sallet, have been so exceedingly Industrious to cultivate this Noble Plant, and multiply its Species; for… by reason of its soporiferous quality, lettuce ever was, and still continues the principal foundation of the universal tribe of Sallets, which is to cool and refresh, besides its other properties,” which include inducements to “morals, temperance, and chastity.”

Balsa Wood Crow

Here is an exciting craft project for young and old alike. Follow the instructions carefully and you will be the proud and happy owner of a toy crow made out of balsa wood. Imagine the flabbergasted looks of family and friends as they admire your handiwork, and resolve to become better, more productive citizens by following your example. Imagine them gnashing their teeth in despair as it becomes apparent that they are cack-handed nincompoops whereas you are the very opposite of a butterfingers. Incidentally, if you are by chance a butterfingers, do not be deterred. All you need is self-belief, sometimes in the teeth of the evidence. Just go and read Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand and stop snivelling.

First of all, obviously, you will need some balsa wood. I’m afraid that you will probably have to pay for it. If you are a mendicant, and cannot countenance frittering your paltry beggings on something as inessential as balsa wood, you may have to resort to theft. I cannot condone even the most measly purloinment, of craft materials or indeed of anything else, so we would seem to have reached an impasse. Help may be at hand, however, from various charitable institutions or even from wealthy individuals who share a passion for balsa wood work. You could try writing letters to such as Yoko Ono, the Duke of Norfolk, or Lyn Cheney. The latter is the wife of the Vice President of the United States, not to be confused with Lon Chaney, the deceased film actor. Here is a model letter you can use to ask for assistance:

Dear [insert name here]. Like you, I am an enthusiastic balsa wood craftsperson. Unlike you, I am poverty-stricken. Please send me some of your spare balsa wood so I can make a toy crow. Yours sincerely [insert your name here].

That should do the trick, and keep you away from a life of crime, the consequences of which can be disastrous. Only last week, a ne’er-do-well was apprehended while trying to steal a tube of modelling paste from Hubermann’s, and he is due to be hanged imminently. He will certainly not be the envy of his friends and the possessor of a crow made out of balsa wood, so do not even think about emulating him.

So you now have your balsa wood. Next you will need adhesive. There is a range of glues and gums available, from Hubermann’s and elsewhere, and I think I can leave it to you to make the right choice. It really doesn’t matter whether the glue is clear or cloudy or white, whether the method of delivery is via a nozzle or a squeezy pad or a spatula, whether it comes in a tube or a tub or a jar. The only thing you need to keep an eye on is whether or not it is sticky enough to fuse two pieces of balsa wood so decisively that they cannot be prised apart even by wild beasts. You may want to test the adhesiveness of your chosen adhesive before cementing the purchase. If you are in Hubermann’s, you can go to the little cupboard near the fire escape to do so, and I am sure other retailers have similar facilities, although there may be a fee involved.

I will assume that you have returned home safely with a suitable adhesive and that your pile of bought or donated balsa wood awaits you on your kitchen table. If you do not have a kitchen table, for example if your kitchen is pokey and does not accommodate much more than a bread bin and a kettle, any old table will do. If you do not have a table of any sort, just use the floor, but sweep it clean of filth, please.

Now, the next step is to sort out your balsa wood. Working methodically, and with rigorous self-control, divvy the balsa wood into discreet piles, putting like with like. So, for example, place together pieces that might serve as beaks, those suitable for wings, or talons, and so forth. By the end of the exercise you should have separate piles of balsa wood for each part of a crow’s anatomy. If you lack ornithological confidence, and are not entirely sure what a crow looks like, don’t be afraid to consult a reference book, preferably one with lots of pictures. Just make sure that the book you choose has a section on birds. There are a few paperbacks in the basement of Hubermann’s, but for a broader selection you may want to look further afield.

Now is the time to make use of that adhesive. Remove the lid, or wrench off the cap, or pierce the seal of the tube or jar or tub. Sometimes this is easier said than done, and you may need to be violent. If you are a weakling, some preliminary strengthening exercises are recommended, or, as a short cut, you can try drinking various invigorating syrups. Those of you who choose the latter ought to seek advice from a qualified medical practicioner, and I stress the word qualified. Quacks, shamen, mountebanks and wizards cannot be trusted as far as you could throw them if you were not a weakling, no matter how exciting their various potions may seem. Be diligent in examining the certificates and diplomas of your chosen medico, and remember that things are not always as they seem, and there is a roaring trade in counterfeit documents. If you have even the tiniest suspicion that there is an attempt to hoodwink you with a forgery, call the police immediately.

Okay. You are ready to build that crow. Keeping an eye on a reference book picture, if necessary, assemble the crow by gumming together bits of balsa wood taken from the separate piles. I don’t need to go through this in inordinate detail, because you are not stupid, but to get you started, and to make sure you don’t make a ridiculous mess of the whole thing, just remember to stick together the bits of the crow that are contiguous. For example, the beak goes on the head, the talons are at the far ends of the legs from the body, and so on. You may find that there is an anatomical crow-part for which you do not have a corresponding pile of suitably shaped balsa wood pieces. If so, throw caution to the winds, and improvise! Strike an attitude of vivacity and daring, and all else will follow. Trust me.

When you are done, and you compare your balsa wood crow with the picture you have probably been working from, you will notice that something is not quite right. Do not be downcast! I am not yet done. At this point, you need to go back to Hubermann’s, find the paint department, and get some black paint and a paintbrush. Mendicants should have already fired off letters to paint-keen wealthy people, such as Arianna Huffington or Art Garfunkel. Now, before slapping the paint onto your crow, make sure that each piece of balsa wood is thoroughly stuck to the piece next to it. As you bash it and wrench it and throw it around the room, it is possible that a part may break off. If this happens, splurge more glue on and reattach whatever part it is, the beak or a feather, with a bit more vim. When you are sure that your crow will not fall apart, paint it black, all over, two or three times.

Replace the lid on your tin of paint and wash your paintbrush very thoroughly, under the hot water tap or with a slosh of turps, depending on the type of paint you used. And that’s it. When the paint is dry, you can pick up your balsa wood crow and take it round to show off to your family and friends, who will be flabbergasted, just as I promised.

Note for mendicants. If you made your crow using donated balsa wood and paint, it is good manners to write a letter to your benefactor, enclosing a snap of the wooden bird. I know I gave you a model letter to copy before, but this time I am going to leave you to your own devices, for by now you will, I hope, have the confidence to stand on your own two feet, and need no further mollycoddling.

Chapter Eleven

In which Flossie has her ears syringed, and Umberto becomes involved in an altercation with a beekeeping enthusiast down by the docks, together with a disquisition upon certain matters related to the crinkling of pastry; also, a chuckling maniac is discovered in the belfry by the intrepid infants, whereupon our story takes a sinister turn, and something terrible happens in a field full of charming cows.

[Remainder of text missing.]

Sappensopp Days

Kloppstock’s Jugband Crumpled Baize Tarboosh, the latest bestselling paperback by Pebblehead, is a wonderful evocation of those much lamented Sappensopp Days. “Tipping, tapping, flimflam… goose grease and lavender and a tin of polish for the porch… the light in the tunnels and the flap of the flaps in the flappery out by the byre… those endless bowls of piping hot porridge… such were the joys of the Sappensopp Days”, he writes, and if, like me, you are an unreconstructed Sappensoppist, it all comes flooding back.

There was an earlier book, of course, by Inspip, and I stand by my review when it first came out in hardback, where I wrote “This book is shoddy and inadequate and inadequate! It is thoroughly inadequate!” Inspip had the temerity to write what he called A Thorough And Adequate Account Of Those Sappensopp Days, despite being a secret Soppensappist. When I revealed this gruesome truth Inspip was discredited and his bones were thrown off a cliff into the churning ocean. Good riddance to him, say I.

Pebblehead, by contrast, has the measure of those Sappensopp Days. It seems he has listened to contemporary tape recordings of claimants and wardens and tosspots, and although his tone is often desperate, when it is not twittering, he nails it. By “it” I mean a very concrete sense of urbane jugband merriment. And the names you would expect are all here, though I cannot repeat any of them for legal reasons. I don’t want my bones to follow Inspip’s off that gaunt and mighty cliff.

The point about Pebblehead’s prose in his examination of Sappensoppism is that he chugs along, chug chug chug, in a way that is attractive to those who like their prose to have that kind of locomotive trundling rhythm. Pale poets may skip and prance, and paler poets may gambol ‘cross verdant sward, but generally such pale poetasters have a whiff of the Soppensapp about them. I do not make the charge lightly. I would say the same were I standing on the beach, at dusk, surrounded by gulls scavenging among the bleached bones of Inspip. There are worse ways to end one’s day. I have loafed and been bitter, sometimes, when recalling those Sappensopp Days, the gleaming lanterns, the flint hearts, the barbicans atop the tors. Some come to genuflect and some come to keen, and those are their ways, and I shall not gainsay them, or, if I do, I shall crunch across their own gravel, on my hands and knees, to prove my point. You will not hear such claims from the Inspips of this world, this spinning globe, this dispensation.

Inspip was at Innsmouth when his horrible book came out, and he was betrayed by a clairvoyant. That is often how these things turn out, how tangled skeins unravel. The clairvoyant was unbridled, certainly, and mouthy, but that made a welcome change. Guttural imprecations and gargling were her mode of speech, if speech it can be called, and as soon as he heard what was being said about him the wretched Inspip tried to flee. Typical, I may say, of those who observe the Soppensappist debaucheries, for debaucheries they are. His fleeing, or rather his failed fleeing, took him to places human beings ought better avoid, such as the wild hills and the fiercest sea fronts, the most dismal of outcrops and the tinniest of fairground arcades. Tinny it was and tacky and awash with tat, and there Inspip was cornered, there he was revealed as a pooper whose cronies vanished, pfft!, gone, leaving him alone in his poopery. He knew his book was but page after page of meretricious squamoogle, yet he pressed on, writing hundreds and hundreds of pages, like a Blunkett. I have said elsewhere that he never knew the first thing about the Sappensopp Days, not because attempts had not been made, in his childhood, to bash a few basic ideas into his curly-haired head, but because he wilfully let all that he did once know evaporate, like a type of milk in a tin. It is a mystery why he did so, why he allowed the Soppensappists to squish their boggling into him. He was packed so tight with it he might have burst.

The service Pebblehead does in his new book is fourfold, I think. He surprises us with little glimpses of his chugging. He is aware that his readers know more than he does about cows and birds and Stalinism and cashew nuts, for example, and he does not try to overreach himself. (He does overreach himself on the mad clanging of bells in mad bell-towers in a mad country, but he does so persuasively, and in spades.) Then there is his almost grating acknowledgement of those who allowed him to listen to the tape recordings. I confess I fought back tears, and the ducts still shed the odd drop now and then as I recollect how fantastic an achievement it was to risk his bones in circumstances where you or I would have hidden behind a nest of crates, panting, heart hammering thump-a-thump-a-thump-a-thump. And fourthly, critically, he knows his bales, and he says so, without apology, without rancour, without coming over all twee and mimsy, like an Inspip would have done, had he known a bale from a pile of pins and pencils or some other Soppensappist vulgarity.

What we are left with is something we can all be proud of, standing on a bridge, in blistering sunlight, watching the sparkling river below us flowing relentlessly to a destination we can never even imagine reaching, even if night crashes down around our ears a thousand times, a thousand thousand times, in this land it would be bonkers to disavow. It is on that bridge I stand. I do not think Pebblehead would recognise me now, and I know for certain that Inspip, if by some miracle his bones leapt up out of the deep and snapped themselves together into human form, and were enfleshed, and quick with life, even then Inspip would know me not, for I have read the book, and it is as if I were truly there, fluttering and bright, pitched past pitch of grandeur in those jugband Sappensopp Days.

Cramp And Turps

Over at ResonanceFM there is another fundraising auction. This time bids are invited for two ancient books by Mr Key, House Of Turps and the ludicrously rare The Brink Of Cramp. Both of these were published in the year that Communism collapsed in Eastern Europe, although that may be purely coincidental. For further details, and to make a bid, go here. (You will need to join the Forum if you want to participate.)

The money raised will go direct to ResonanceFM. Should you wish to add to Mr Key’s own paltry coffers, you can of course buy Befuddled By Cormorants or make a donation. Simply click over there on the right.