Monthly Archive for May, 2007

Pale And Fierce

It was pale and fierce, gulping down a bowl of soup. I wondered if it was Jah, come to deliver me from Babylon, but I have a very shaky grasp of Rastafarianism, so I cast that thought unto the winds. Not that there was much in the way of wind that day. In fact, the air was eerily still. I held aloft the feather of a carrion crow and it did not so much as tremble. I discarded the feather on the edge of some scrub rife with gorse, and returned my gaze to the pale fierce thing. It was licking the last dregs of soup from its bowl. For as long as I can remember I have had a deep interest in soup, and I was intrigued to know what had been in that bowl. It has always seemed a great pity to me that Dobson abandoned what would surely have been his magnum opus, a compendium of all known soup recipes from around the world, throughout history.

Before taking a step towards the pale fierce thing, I reached into the pocket of my Paraguayan Man Of Destiny trousers and took out a box of Swan Vestas. It would be useful to know if it was frightened of fire before getting any closer. Bunching three or four matches together, I struck them across the sandpapery side of the box, and as soon as they lit, I flung them across the ditch which ran between me and the pale fierce thing. With no scrub or gorse to ignite, for they fell on a patch of bare earth, the matches sputtered out quickly, but not before the tiny flames had attracted the thing’s attention, with dramatic results. It let fall the now empty soup bowl and scampered away towards a copse or spinney. This is not the place to go into detail about the difference between a copse and a spinney, which would involve giving dictionary definitions, so be content with the idea that the pale fierce thing was making off, with surprising agility, towards a clump of trees. They were a mix of pugton and simnel trees, and I worried that, once within their shelter, I would lose sight of the thing, for they were heavy with budding spring foliage, fat leaves and dripping pods all enmeshed within a riot of twisting twining tendrils.

Earlier in the week, on the Tuesday, I had won a tin cup for excellence in pole-vaulting at a magnificent sports stadium in Pointy Town. Although a few days had passed without any further jumping about, I was still fit, and I ought to have been able to vault the ditch with ease. As it was, I trod on a pebble during my run up and, discombobulated, somehow managed to topple over, landing with a squelch at the bottom of the muddy trench. As with copses and spinneys, so with ditches and trenches. Just keep reading.

The ditch was deeper than I thought. When, eventually, I clambered to my feet, I saw that the mud walls loomed up much higher than my head, and days upon days of rainfall had worn them smooth. I am very good at sizing up situations rapidly and astutely, for I had been a Tantarabim Cadet, and had the cap and badges to prove it, not that I was wearing them now, of course. I trudged through the mud for at least a mile, in both directions, and was astonished at the uniformity of the ditch’s depth and featurelessness. Nowhere did I come upon a place where I might gain a foothold on some jagged shard or clump of roots. Returning to the spot where I had first fallen, which I had marked, cadet-fashion, by scraping T for Tantarabim! into the muck with a pointed stick, I reached into another trouser pocket, took out my whistle, and parped a shrill blast on it. This would, I hoped, summon the pale fierce thing back from its sanctuary in the spinney. Already, you see, I had worked out that if I was going to escape this ditch, I would need its help.

While I waited for it to come to me, my thoughts turned once again to Jah Rastafari. I wondered if my predicament was a sufferation imposed on me by Jah for purposes only He knew. This was so dispiriting that I was in danger of betraying my Tantarabim Cadetship and succumbing to tears. Indeed, I even sniffled once or twice. I wanted something to smite, to snap me back to my usual gusto, but all I could see was a ditch beetle in a puddle at my feet. It was beyond smiting, for it had already drowned. I parped on my whistle again.

All I knew of the pale fierce thing, other than its paleness and fierceness, was that it was keen on soup and frightened by fire. These were the facts I had to work with. As far as I knew, it might be deaf, and my whistling was in vain. What then? I could retrudge my steps along the ditch, going further than a mile in each direction, hoping to find that clump or shard or even a ladder. But night was falling, and I would be blundering about in the dark. Better to remain here, only yards away from the spinney, or copse. I did not know what kind of creature the pale fierce thing was, but it had a head, and arms and legs, and possibly a tail, though of that I was not certain, and I had to persuade myself that it also had a sense of compassion. Surely it would want to rescue a pole-vaulting tin cup winner who was also an ex-Tantarabim Cadet? It might even know something of Jah, though that was unlikely. Who truly knows Jah? There can be comfort in theological speculation, even for a sinner such as me. I gave the whistle a third, longer, parp, and turned my mind to the divinity, or otherwise, of Haile Selassie. As if on cue, the head of the pale fierce thing peeped down at me from the edge of the ditch. It had shockingly huge bright eyes, like those of a tamarind, but otherwise there was nothing monkey-like about that head. Somehow I knew speech would be useless. I merely gazed up at it, imploringly. Its head swivelled, left and right, with insect speed, and then returned to look at me again. In the mud, I stood to one side and pointed at my T For Tantarabim! scraping. Did I see a flicker of understanding in those big eyes? It was hard to tell.

A carrion crow swooped in to land and perched on the ditch’s edge a little way from the pale fierce thing. It might have been the same crow from which I had plucked a feather to test the wind. Bird and thing looked at each other, and I was aware of an intensity in the space between them, mesmerising, icy, alien, utterly beyond anything I could comprehend. I squelched my boots in the mud. What would Haile Selassie do? What would Jah do? What, apart from squelching, would I do? I dredged up all I had learned as a Tantarabim Cadet. Testing the wind with the feather of a carrion crow. Always carrying a box of Swan Vestas and knowing how to strike them three or four at a time. Daily pole-vaulting practice, with rest periods. Never bringing a pan of soup to the boil, and transferring the soup to the bowl with deft elegance. Never trying to eat soup with a fork. The carrion crow and the pale fierce thing were still gazing, one to the other, in an uncanny compact. Always buying soup bowls from Hubermann’s. Collecting the discount vouchers and tucking them neatly into the little Hubermann’s discount voucher wallet provided. Being spry and sprightly through the waking hours, and, on one’s pallet, lying splayed out. Checking the mercury six times a day. Never using the string that ties one’s tent pegs into a bundle as a leash for a dog. The naming of dogs to be restricted to Patch or Rags or Spot. Praising Jah Rastafari. Discarding the pips from fruit with care. Never mixing soup with fruit. The sky was black now, but in the faint starlight I could see silhouetted the carrion crow and the pale fierce thing, utterly still, utterly enrapt by each other. Knowing the difference between a spinney and a copse. Knowing a ditch from a trench. Not being reliant on maps. Marking one’s spot by scraping T For Tantarabim! in the mud with a pointed stick. Always carrying a pointed stick. Having the pointed stick threaded through one’s dreadlocks to keep the hands free. Using the hands to smite things to revive gusto. Not smiting that which has drowned. Tying knots. Keeping one’s cadet cap clean and dry. Daily polishing one’s badges with a rag steeped in cadet badge polish from Hubermann’s. Speculating upon the divinity or otherwise of Haile Selassie. Regular study of Ethiopian history. Eschewing frippery where’er it raises its unseemly head.

I had been taught that these Tantarabim Cadetship skills would stand me in good stead throughout my days in Babylon. But now two unseemly heads turned to look down at me in the ditch, in my ditch, the carrion crow and the pale fierce thing, and I knew I was lost.

Rescue Squad

A reader who for some unfathomable reason wishes to remain anonymous sent in this very exciting picture:

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Dear Mr Key, wrote Anon, Can you tell me if this is (a) a contemporary item pleading for help in rescuing Dobson and his out of print pamphlets from obscurity, or (b) a piece of memorabilia dating from some point in Dobson’s lifetime when he was in need of rescue from a foe, a predicament, or a nameless and terrifying imperilment? I would be glad to know, as I am sure would other Hooting Yardists.

I suppose it is touching in a way that Anon expects me to come up with an answer at the snap of his or her fingers, but, you know, sometimes these things demand research. Prodigious research, in a case like this. There are going to be sleepless nights, long trudges through the rain to suburban warehouses, bus ticket expenditure, enjanglements of the cranium, sobbing, hysteria, unanswered metal tapping machine messages, desperate snackbar encounters, and quite possibly a lengthy period of Bewilderment Home convalescence. Nonetheless, I promise that I will do what I can to find out the answer.

The Pabstus Tack Trilogy

What better way to spend a wet Bank Holiday afternoon than to curl up in front of the television to watch a trilogy of films by one of the great unsung auteurs of the silent screen? The cable channel UK Golden Pap is to be congratulated for screening the masterworks of the great – and greatly misunderstood – Pabstus Tack. When Tack’s films are mentioned, which is rarely, they are dismissed as fey, twee confections for children, in an age when childhood was seen as a time of purity and innocence. Thus the damning rebuke of a cravat-wearing, pipe-smoking, goatee-bearded critic like Jean-Luc Boff, who wrote: “With these insipid pieces of froth, Tack not only drains his films of sound and colour, but also of plot, tension, engagement, disturbance, of life and death and sex.”

What Boff says is true, yet he fails to understand just how radical an approach Tack took. Yes, these films are indeed fey and twee, yet at the same time they are cloying and saccharine, miraculously inoffensive, whimsical in the most nauseating sense of the word.

The first in the trilogy is Pippi The Pony Goes To The Paddling Pool. The part of Pippi was played by Tack’s own pony, Poopy, a placid, well-groomed little darling with gossamer ribbons flowing from its mane. In silent black and white, we watch as Pippi canters towards a paddling pool and splashes about, gently and charmingly. There are no fancy camera angles, no clever-clever montage. “Look,” Tack is saying, “A pony in a paddling pool.”

He followed this up with Biffy The Africanised Killer Bee Joins A Swarm. In this, possibly the finest of the three films, Biffy – played by Tack’s pet Africanised killer bee, Letitia – is shown buzzing around a municipal flowerbed, then going off to join a swarm of her fellows. Tack’s camera is static except at the very end, where it pans to show Biffy’s journey from solitude to companionship.

The last film is the one where Tack takes the greatest risk with his creative vision. With Schmoopy The Vampire Bat Sucks The Life-Blood From A Consumptive Orphan the task of retaining a quintessentially Tackesque tweeness must at times have seemed impossible. But once again, the auteur in Tack pulls it off, in a magnificently sugar-coated fairy cake of a film. Schmoopy, by the way, was played by Tack’s own vampire bat, Flopsy, while the part of the consumptive orphan went to a doe-eyed – and consumptive – orphan the director found swooning and crumpled, clutching weakly at the railings of Pang Hill Orphanage during a blizzard.

If there is a better way to spend eleven hours on a wet Bank Holiday than watching these films, I for one am at a loss to think what it might be.

Pebblehead Versus Pebblehead

“The annotation has been carried out on a scale which is necessarily extensive but which seeks at the same time to be as economical as possible in face of the twin challenges of Browning’s wide range of curious information and his immense and flexible vocabulary. Without the prior labours of A K Cook to draw upon, preparation of the body of notes would have been an even more formidable task than it in fact was. Despite all that has been transported to the present site from Cook’s Commentary, a great deal of ore remains in that capacious mine.”

So wrote Richard D Altick in his introduction to the Penguin English Poets edition of Robert Browning’s The Ring And The Book, which appeared in 1971. Curiously, in the very same year, exactly the same words were used – with “Dobson” instead of “Browning”, and “Pebblehead” in place of “Cook” – in the first edition of the mighty Complete Annotated Dobson edited by Ted Cack. The title was a misnomer, of course, because at that time Dobson still had a few years left, during which he penned some of his most awe-inspiring pamphlets. In fact recent Dobsonian scholarship has shown that, if anything, Cack’s tome might better have been called the Thoroughly Incomplete Annotated Dobson. That is not to cast aspersions on what remains a truly engaging work, and the first serious attempt to annotate Dobson in a systematic way.

The Pebblehead Cack refers to, the author of the “capacious mine” of Commentary wherein lies a great deal of ore yet to be recovered, was the father of Pebblehead the writer of all those bestselling paperbacks you find at airport bookstalls. It is regrettable in some ways that the achievements of Pebblehead père have been roundly eclipsed by the fame of Pebblehead fils, to the point where, today, the old man’s majestic Commentary on Dobson is forgotten by all but a few, and those few all in their dotage, dribbling and drooling, brains wizened and minds twitching and shattered. Ted Cack’s work, too, which as he acknowledges draws so heavily upon the elder Pebblehead, seems destined for the scrapheap, not least because the younger Pebblehead, king of the paperback potboiler, seems bent on obliterating all printed traces of his pa. He uses the considerable wealth he has accrued from the transient guff he peddles to buy up and burn on bonfires not just his pa’s own work, but any books, periodicals, journals, chapbooks, pamphlets, videocassettes and DVDs which so much as mention his name.

It is not for me to propose a psychological explanation for this preposterous campaign of Pebblehead’s, which smacks of atavistic impulse and ancient myth. Plenty of amateurs have tried their hands at doing so, with laughable results. Only last week there was some codswallop in the Daily Unhingement, claiming that an incident from the younger Pebblehead’s infancy, involving a sewing kit, a swarm of Africanised killer bees, and a newspaper report of the Munich Air Disaster, was at the root of the matter. As usual, there was no proof, no evidence, merely the blithering of a witless hack trying to jump-start their career.

As a corrective to such drivel, I have decided to set up a fighting fund to rescue the work of Pebblehead père from oblivion, while simultaneously urging a boycott of Pebblehead fils’ bestselling paperbacks. Among those already signed up are Carlos Santana, Lembit Opik, Dale Winton, Dustin Hoffman, and some of the top names in football, including Tord Grip, Pantsil, Crouch and Kaka. I hope you will join them.

A Byword For Utter Gorgeousness

I have had a couple of enquiries from readers asking if Hubermann’s department store (motto: a byword for utter gorgeousness) has a mail order service. Hubermann’s was mentioned in both Balsa Wood Crow and Annals Of The Frankish Kings, for those of you who need to catch up. I am slightly fretful about Tim Thurn, whose request is rather more specific.

Dear Frank, he writes, I am on the lookout for a penis-melting Zionist robot comb, not the kind of item a diffident chap like me is going to march into a shop and ask for, even in a whisper. I wonder if Hubermann’s runs a mail order service, and if so whether this is the kind of thing I might find in its catalogue?

Well, Tim, even if Hubermann’s did do mail order, this is not the kind of thing you’d find in it, for the simple reason that a penis-melting Zionist robot comb lacks gorgeousness. Only the gorgeous is to be found in that legendary department store.

The original shop was opened in 1909 by Jacopo Hubermann, and sold only cream crackers, shellac and baize. It was Jacopo’s paramour Loopy, an international woman of intrigue, who extended the range of stock to include other forms of gorgeousness. She believed firmly that the gorgeous could be found in all things, both expensive and cheap, hand-crafted and mass-produced, decorative and functional. At times, her choices – and those of the smitten Jacopo – were questionable, and stretched the definition of gorgeousness to an alarming degree. Loopy was very fond, for example, of mud-splattered gewgaws and filthy discarded things, some of which crumbled to dust when picked up. Just before the Great War, she was given the run of what became the “bargain bin basement” of Hubermann’s in its new premises, a fin de siècle monstrosity which had previously been the headquarters of a SMERSHesque cabal. There were rumours that Loopy continued the cabal’s sinister business from her hidey-hole next to the pneumatic piping system hub, but that was probably just tittle-tattle. Queer stories attached themselves to Jacopo Hubermann, too, for it was said that his limp was exaggerated, that his startling walrus moustache was counterfeit, that his penumbra of sobriety masked the looning of a madcap, and that his cakes were mere crumbs, and breadcrumbs at that. All false, of course, for the signal fact about Hubermann was that he shimmered like a saint.

Today there is no bargain bin basement, and the pneumatic piping system has been replaced by a new-fangled überpneumatic piping system, but otherwise Hubermann’s is, as it has been for nigh on a hundred years, the brightest star in the retail sector firmament. The absence of a mail order service so perplexed Dobson that he wrote a pamphlet on the subject, which is regrettably out of print. He devoted almost forty pages to worrying away at the problem, but was unable to reach a sensible conclusion. By the time he finished writing his essay, he was in such a foul temper that Marigold Chew dragged him off to the snackbar at Hubermann’s to stuff his face with lemon meringue pie.

Incidentally, the snackbar at Hubermann’s is the very same snackbar where lumbered and stalked the snackbar hooligans mentioned at the end of Cargpan And Beppo. And so we find that everything in this world is linked by loops of intricate yet unfathomable significance. Or so it seems.

Sebag

Young Stalin sounds like an instructive and entertaining biography, and I will add it to my reading list. I mention it here, though, simply as an excuse to celebrate the name of the author, Simon Sebag Montefiore. I want that middle name! Granted, Frank Sebag Key does not have the mellifluous multisyllabic beauty of Simon Sebag Montefiore, but it will have to do.

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick; or The Whale is a work of matchless genius, and it may be considered sacrilege to tamper with the text. I can’t help but feel, however, that if the opening line was “Call me Sebag” it would somehow be even better.

Incidentally, I discovered that Simon Sebag Montefiore is married to the sister of Tara Palmer-Tomkinson. A rich pap-brained partygoer is an unlikely Hooting Yard heroine, but I have had a measure of admiration for Ms Palmer-Tomkinson ever since, on television a few years ago, she uttered the immortal line “Those are Uri’s underpants. Burn them”. Uri being, of course, the dismal charlatan Uri Geller.

Crouch And Kaka

Apparently, Crouch is big threat says Kaka. At least, that’s what it said in big black letters on a stapled bundle of paper I noticed while sitting on a bus yesterday. There was smaller lettering underneath, lots of it, also black on a white background, but I was too far away to be able to read it.

Having digested Kaka’s view of the threat from Crouch, I turned my head to look out of the window at the passing scene. There were all sorts of words to read outside, in all different colours: Tasty Snacks in red on yellow, Cheung Wah Loon red on white, STOP, all in upper case, black on white with a red trim, and Furniture Wanted in gold on green were just some I saw, among many, many others. But somehow I couldn’t get the Kaka/Crouch doo-dah out of my head.

Later, back at home, I poured some boiled water into a cup and added an infusion of something I understood might dampen the fires in my brainpan. The infusion turned the water brown, but had little effect on the spongiform grey blob inside my skull, which was still throbbing away. I assumed that Kaka had good reason to see Crouch as a threat – indeed a big threat – and wondered if I too should feel imperilled, and if so what precautions I could take. The problem was that I did not understand the nature of the threat Crouch posed. Should I barricade myself inside my home, or was it a case of getting some tablets from the chemist? If I did both, I might be overreacting and laying myself open to ridicule, not for the first time, of course, but still…

On the other hand, if I did neither, or if I failed to come up with any kind of defence against Crouch, who knew what might become of me? It is at times of quandary like this that some people turn to God, but I have read my Dawkins and Dennett and Harris and Hitchens and I wasn’t going to fall for that one. Incense and a kneeling posture wouldn’t help me if Crouch came smashing into my life wreaking whatever havoc Crouch wreaked. Kaka would be more help to me than God, I realised, could at least give me some handy tips on anti-Crouch techniques, but I had no idea how I might go about contacting Kaka. Despite its insipid taste and ineffectual brain-soothing properties, I gulped down another cup of the infusion and pondered what to do next.

My first idea was to go out onto the balcony and shout “Kaka! Kaka! Kaka!”, like some kind of secular muezzin, hoping that Kaka might be in the vicinity and would respond to my call. The chances of this were so remote that I swiftly dismissed it as the act of a poltroon. I have read exhaustively on the subject of poltroonery over the years, and believe me, it was not a fellowship I wished to join. Wild horses probably could drag me to a poltroon conclave, I do not think I would be strong enough to resist their demented equine force, but fingers crossed there were no nearby horses of sufficient wildness to do the deed.

Another idea occurred to me, which was that I could arm myself with a hammer and a hacksaw and stalk the streets in search of Crouch. This too I dismissed, partly because I was unsure if a hammer and a hacksaw would be weaponry enough to finish Crouch off in one go, and partly because I did not want to risk getting an Asbo. I had only just got my bus pass and library tickets back after a confiscation order, and that was a road I never wanted to go down again.

Dusk was falling. I spat into my tin spittoon and switched on the bairdboard bombardment box. On the screen, a glassy-eyed noodlehead was shrieking: “Who is the biggest threat? Crouch or Kaka? You decide! For Crouch, call 09567398762543 01. For Kaka, call 09567398762543 02.”

My brainpan whirled in a miasma of chaos. What fragile mooring I had in the here and now was snapped asunder. The hideous import of the noodlehead’s words was that Kaka too was a threat! It was not, as I thought, that Crouch spelled imperilment and Kaka provided sage counsel. It was a twin-pronged attack. How cruelly I had been deceived by the stapled bundle of paper on the bus!

There was only one thing to do. I kicked the knob on the box to silence the still-shrieking noodlehead, pulled on an item of casual knitwear, and strode out towards the cluster of community hubs. Ah, but I carried on past them, not looking back, until I reached the civic pond, and I sat there in the twilight on the damp grass, and a moorhen paddled towards me and fixed me with its moorhen stare, and I stared defiantly back, and the space between us fizzled with silent and invisible sparks, until I was the moorhen, and the moorhen was me.

Engulfed By Wisps Of Ectoplasm

Unfortunately, Madame Boubou did not enclose a snapshot of her engulfment by ectoplasm with her Message From Beyond. As luck would have it, a trawl through the Hooting Yard Archives turned up this picture which enables lucky readers to see with their own eyes the amazing phenomenon of ectoplasmic hoo-ha:

minnie.jpg

According to The Minnie Harrison Page, what we see here is “ectoplasm emanating from the Medium’s mouth. Taken in complete darkness using Kodak infra-red plate. Exposure by means of powerful ‘Sashalight’ bulb through ‘Wratten’ glass filter – extremely deep ruby-red colour. The Ectoplasm is emanating from her mouth and in this form it is quite transparent, very similar in appearance and texture to chiffon.”

Those of you who think Minnie Harrison is sitting there in her 1948 Middlesbrough sitting room with a net curtain stuffed in her mouth are sadly deluded and will not get a helping of Madame Boubou’s delicious Boiled Rhubarb Surprise.

A Message From Beyond

I have received in the post what can only be described as a screed from Madame Boubou, who describes herself as a “mystic channeler”.

Dear Mr Key, she writes, I was in my kitchen boiling an enormous pan of rhubarb when I was of a sudden engulfed by wisps of ectoplasm and a voice spoke to me from the Other Side. Please note that this is the same place you describe as the ethereal realm in your piece entitled Annals Of The Frankish Kings, or at least I strongly suspect it is. Of course there are many realms, oh many many many, and we have cognisance of a mere handful. The vast majority of people are only familiar with the one realm, this earthly one, but I am a mystic channeler and thus have access to more realms than I can shake a stick at, the ethereal realm, or Other Side, being one of them. What happens is that the spirit beings who languish there sometimes find themselves impelled to send messages to those of us in this solid world of concrete and cement and soil and pebbles and clods. It is no easy matter to breach the awful chasm that divides us, and that’s where I come in. Even when I am puttering about engaged in workaday activities such as boiling up an enormous pan of rhubarb, my channels remain open.

I would explain further but I suspect your puny brain would be incapable of grasping the eldritch nature of my gift. As that wag H P Lovecraft put it, “the most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents”. I can vouch for that. Anyway, all this is by way of preamble to the marrow of my message, which is that I have to pass on to you a complaint. As the ectoplasm wafted around me, I became aware of a voice being channelled through the mystic Aether. You may not be surprised to learn that it was the voice of Pippin the Short, of whom you wrote in the aforementioned Annals Of The Frankish Kings. Here is what he said, faithfully recorded using my Pencil of the Paranormal, which, as luck would have it, I had sharpened under a zinc and copper pyramid just before putting the rhubarb on the boil. I have omitted the hideous guttural gurgling noises which began this mystic communication, but otherwise give it verbatim:

O Madame Boubou! You must pass on a complaint to a place called Hooting Yard. It must be known that I am not a Frankish king short of stature. “Pippin the Short” is a mistranslation of “Pepin le bref”. I should rightly be known as Pippin or Pepin the Younger, for I have an older brother named Carloman. That is all that is meant. You cannot imagine how fed up I am of being thought a diminutive king when in fact I am a king of average height. Please make sure this misunderstanding is corrected tout suite, or I may have to consider litigation, which can get frightfully complex in this ethereal realm. Enjoy your rhubarb.

After what sounded like a choking sob, the voice grew silent and the ectoplasm dispersed. I was about to stir my enormous pot of boiling rhubarb when another voice crashed in from the Beyond. This time it was houri-eyed siren of the silver screen Pola Negri, who channelled a message of titanic importance through me. However, what she had to say is no concern of yours. I trust you will admit that you have traduced the reputation of Pippin the Younger and rectify your error at once.

Yours sincerely, Madame Boubou the Mystic

Those Frankish Kings : A Multimedia Approach

An extract from Mrs Gubbins’ so-called Mission Statement:

“We will seek new ways to enhance our readers’ Hooting Yard experience. For example, we should strain mightily to harness the awesome power of the interweb to create what I think are known as multimedia formats. We should exploit different platforms and portals. The site will strive to be a critical hub for the Hooting Yard community. Now get on with it! You can make a start by bunging in a few pictures so that readers can visualise those Frankish kings mentioned in Annals Of The Frankish Kings, or at least some of them.”

Ever mindful that Mrs Gubbins has a matchless grasp of what really matters in this often perplexing world, we have taken her advice. Here, then, are three of those Frankish kings.

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Pippin The Short

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Charles The Fat

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Louis The Pious

Annals Of The Frankish Kings

In that corner of the ethereal realm where reside the Frankish kings, it was breakfast time. The kitchenette was overcrowded, as usual. There was much jostling as the kings, who each had very different breakfast needs, struggled to find space to prepare and consume their morning repasts. I was going to say that their breakfast needs differed in a very real sense, but of course that could not be so in the ethereal realm.

Bacon sizzled as Charles the Simple deployed his considerable skillet skills, while Lothair the Second stood at his side smashing many, many eggs into a big bowl. Both skillet and bowl had been bought at Hubermann’s, the department store which is a byword for utter gorgeousness, though the bowl was plain and functional. Lothair the Second was something of an egg fiend, or at least had been accused of being such by Pippin the Short. The latter king made do with a handful of raisins for his breakfast, for he had decided to follow the same diet which had worked such wonders for Charles the Fat. Charles the Fat was no longer fat, and there had been some talk that he might adopt a new name, such as Charles the Frankly Skeletal, but it was decided that this would wreak confusion in the various published histories of the Frankish kings. He and Pippin the Short were rummaging in the raisin box, which was usually kept on the shelf by the suck-and-blow air circulation piping system hub, but this morning had somehow found its way into the pulses and lentils crate, over by the window.

Also by the window was Odo, chomping on a cream cracker, as was his habit, and peering through the greasy glass at the fields outside. One might have thought that these fields were the Elysian ones, but alas it was not so. They were just common fields, overgrown with bracken and vetch and furze, fields in which the Frankish kings disported themselves on weekday afternoons, to get their recommended exercise. Far away across the fields stood the fabled and gorgeous Hubermann’s department store, its frontage a glory of chrysanthemum-packed hanging baskets. Odo could not see it from where he was, of course, but his dreamy gaze prevented him from getting cantankerous at the antics of Louis the Pious and Louis the Fourth Transmarinus, who were fighting over the Scotch pancakes. On some mornings, Odo wanted to bang their heads together, even though he knew that the clang of their crowns colliding would wake Louis the Indolent, sprawled on the table taking a nap. While Charles the Fat had addressed his fatness, and now gave the lie to his name, Louis the Indolent had become even more of an idle good-for-nothing than he had been during his earthly Frankish reign. Every now and then, the more mischievous kings, such as Pippin the Short and Arnulf, would poke at him with pointed sticks.

Arnulf’s solution to the crowdedness of the kitchenette was to nail a chair up high on the wall, and he was going to clamber up to it as soon as his porridge was boiled. This could take some time, as Arnulf believed in over-boiling his porridge for abstruse medical reasons he never condescended to articulate. It was because of him that the tiny kitchenette was fitted with no fewer than sixteen fire extinguishers. These too came from Hubermann’s, which sent a maintenance serf to test them once a month.

Between the pulses and lentils crate and the iron spigot was a trolley stacked with packets of cereal. Louis the Stammerer was crouched by it trying to decide between Special K, Loopy Fruit ‘n’ Wheat Loops, or Cocopops. He always ate his cereals dry, without milk, for he was lactose-intolerant and something of a madcap. Charles the Simple saw him trying to make his mind up, and prompted him to choose the Cocopops, but only because he wanted to hear Louis the Stammerer trying to say “Cocopops”. Charles the Simple was cruel, but in a childish way. He had been banned from Hubermann’s for playing stupid pranks at the revolving doors. When Louis the Stammerer ignored him and plumped for the Loopy Fruit ‘n’ Wheat Loops, Charles the Simple pushed his way annoyingly towards the frankly filthy worktop and began chopping up a piece of raw liver. He had not yet grasped the concept of breakfast.

And today, after breakfast, it was time for the weekly car maintenance class. None of the Frankish kings could drive, and of course there were no cars in their corner of the ethereal realm, but it was thought important that they kept busy. Even Louis the Indolent was persuaded to join them in the activity tent, though he soon dozed off when the instructor started yattering on about crankshafts.

Next week : Pippin the Short and Louis the Fourth Transmarinus get lost while hiking.

Stupidity : Recommended Reading

Here’s a reading list.

A Short Introduction to the History of Human Stupidity, Walter B Pitkin (1934)

Über die Dummheit, Leopold Löwenfeld (1909)

Aus der Geschichte der menschlichen Dummheit, Max Kemmerich (1912)

The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity, Carlo M Cipolla (1988)

Understanding Stupidity, James Welles (1986)

References to these titles can be found in the invaluable The Power of Stupidity, an essay (with handy diagram) by Giancarlo Livraghi.

Tugboat Tales, Number One

I once read a story, I can’t remember where, about a dyspeptic tugboat captain who wore sinister black gloves and struck fear into his crew. I remember that his name was Captain Bagshaw, or Shawbag, and that his tugboat was ancient and rusty and rotten. I think I read the story in a newspaper, which would suggest that it was factual rather than some made-up fiction, but I can’t be sure.

The captain’s black gloves were made of wool, and often became tattered and frayed, and I recall a phrase in the story where we were told that he used to “darn them with malevolence”. I’ve done a lot of darning in my time, for I am handy with needle and thread and crochet and knitting needles and suchlike, I have darned socks and jumpers and balaclavas and mittens, though not, admittedly, gloves, yet I cannot for the life of me think how I might darn something malevolently, though god knows I tried to, in the weeks and months after reading the story of Captain Bagshaw, or Shawbag, in that newspaper, if it was a newspaper. It may have been a periodical. I tried snarling, or spitting at passing puppy-dogs as I darned, but it came across as churlish and bad-tempered rather than malevolent, and I felt like a fool. When the captain snarled, he made a sound like the cawing of a thousand crows, and when he spat, he spat sulphur. There were no puppies on the tugboat, of course, but there was a badger. The captain did not snarl at it, because it was his creature, his familiar. At one point I think it is described as a “demonic badger”, whatever that may be.

I think we were meant to see the captain as a kind of Ahab figure, obsessed and mad as well as sinister, but for me this effect was flawed by the fact that it was a rented tugboat. Bagshaw/Shawbag did not own it. Every week he had to slip some coinage into the waiting palm of a seaside bureaucrat, representative of a dull organisation stuffed with accountants and administrators. Their main business seemed to be civic coastline management and prettifying, with renting out a tugboat to a sinister begloved madman as an afterthought. Somehow that made him less the master of his vessel, for me, and I remember tutting ruefully as I read the paragraph in which this was explained. Whoever wrote the story clearly felt it was important, for it was a very long paragraph, leaden with detail, and I skipped past it on my subsequent rereadings.

So there was Captain Bagshaw, or Shawbag, on his rented tugboat, with his demonic badger and a terror-stricken crew, and then there was the radio cabin, a tiny cubbyhole squeezed under the orlop deck. I am no expert on maritime hoo-ha, but I suspect it is unusual for a tugboat to have an orlop deck, let alone a radio cabin. No illustrations accompanied the story, and the writer is vague on details about the tugboat’s specifications. I have to say that this did not bother me when I read it, and it was only years later, when I talked about the tugboat with a raddled and brine-soaked old sea dog while on holiday at O’Houlihan’s Wharf that I learned of these anomalies. I put them out of mind, however. I’m sure there are all sorts of different designs of tugboat plying the harbours of the world, big ones and tiny ones, rotting ones and gleaming ones, ones that fly flags and ones that don’t, and ones with and without orlop decks and radio cabins.

It has only just occurred to me that we are never told the name of the tugboat.

The captain’s handwriting was spidery, but surprisingly legible given that he never removed his sinister black woollen gloves, even when wielding his fashionable fat fountain pen. It was a sturdy pen, and it needed to be, because one of the captain’s enigmatic little ways was that he mixed his ink with glue. He used it to keep his log, of course, but was also given to scrawling commands and directives and warnings and decrees on sheets of foolscap and pasting them up all over the tugboat. One such sign was on the door of the radio cabin, forbidding any of the crew to enter in any circumstances, at any time, ever. The punishment for doing so was not made explicit, but it did not need to be, for as we have seen, Captain Bagshaw/Shawbag kept the tugboatists in a permanent state of stomach-churning terror. As a youth, if one could imagine him as a youth, he had studied the methods of tyrants and dictators and megalomaniacs, from Josef Stalin to Paul “Bono” Hewson, and once he stepped aboard his tugboat, even though it was rented, his self-belief carried him through. As I have indicated, I may not be convinced of his power, but the crew certainly were.

Except, that is, for the latest recruit, a plug-ugly loose-limbed lantern-jawed feather-hatted scented and perfumed dimity deckhand who’d cut his teeth in the Puffin Club. I think the writer gives his name, but I can’t remember it. Let’s pluck a name out of the ether and call him, say, Siegfried Sassoon, for the sake of convenience. No, let’s not. Let’s call him Puffin Boy.

Now, Puffin Boy, in addition to being plug-ugly and loose-limbed and lantern-jawed and feather-hatted and scented and perfumed and dimity, was functionally illiterate. He could just about manage simple three-letter words like orb and lip and jug, but anything more complicated was beyond him, and Bagshaw/Shawbag liked to write his brutish decrees in long-winded, flowery sentences so as not to waste even a speck of his foolscap. Thus it was that Puffin Boy blundered into the radio cabin quite unaware that it was off limits to such as he. Although most of the captain’s commands were senseless and deranged, he had good reason to keep his crew away from the radio. He wanted to ensure that no one twiddled the dial away from important seafaring information channels and tuned in to a programme very popular at that time, called Tugboat Crew Playtime. This was a music show which was bound to distract tugboat crews from their tugboat duties, for it featured a roster of presenters with mellifluous voices who played tunes requested by tugboat crew members from near and far. A typical show would include works by Glazunov, Borodin, Webern, Heinz Karl Gruber, Sibelius, Petula Clark, Conway Twitty, Scriabin, the Memphis Jug Band, Al Bowlly, Oumou Sangaré, Sleater-Kinney, Silvestre Revueltas, Big Bill Broonzy, Bucks Fizz, Augustus Pablo, Bela Bartok, Cliff Richard and the Shadows, Morton Feldman, Charles Ives, Big Audio Dynamite, George Formby, Mercedes Sosa, Jacques Brel, Schubert, Schumann, Monteverdi, Ned Rorem, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Cassiber, Cab Calloway, the Psychedelic Furs, Omara Portuondo, Burning Spear, Peter Warlock, Carl Ruggles, the Strawberry Alarm Clock, Joan Baez, Havergal Brian, Dennis Brain, Cheech and Chong, Neutral Milk Hotel, and the Carpenters. Not only did Puffin Boy retune the radio to Tugboat Crew Playtime, but he managed to jam both the tuner dial and the volume knob. This was not done by design, for Puffin Boy was an innocent dunderpate.

Up on the orlop deck, Captain Bagshaw/Shawbag was stalking around with his demonic badger in tow when his eardrums were assailed by Janáĉek’s Glagolitic Mass blaring from down below. As expected, he flew into a rage. What was unexpected was that he did so literally. His feet left the deck, he flapped his arms, and he found himself soaring forty feet above his rented tugboat. A gust of wind took him then, and he was carried off over the glistening sea, into the blue.

Months later, an intrepid ornithologist was clambering around on a rocky outcrop buffeted by wind and waves. Peering through his Blotzmannscope, he observed a seabird’s nest, auks or skuas, I can’t recall, and there was the captain, in his sinister black gloves, scribbling on a sheet of foolscap with his fashionable fat fountain pen, and the birds were gathered around him screeching madly and trembling with terror.

I wish I could tell you what became of the tugboat and its crew, particularly Puffin Boy, but the writer confesses he does not know. Perhaps one day I will remember where I read the story, and track down a copy, and find out whether it is truth or fiction, and tell it to you properly.

Planet Of The Crumpled Jesuits

planetofthecrumpledjesuits.jpg

This picture is taken from the Hooting Yard Calendar 1994.

A Map Of Hoon

What land is on my map? A country I call Hoon, a land of clatter and banging, of hideous shrubs and rivers. My eyes reject its colours – it’s grey and blue in blotches. I keep a vinegar-stained map rolled up in my little suitcase. Proud, majestic, grand, I leapfrog in the darkness. My torch shines on my map, a map made by an idiot. One day I’ll lose my thread. I’ll stumble in the bracken, catch fire, blaze, then smoulder. That land was just a rumour.