Game On

Dear Mr Key, writes Tim Thurn, I am a huge fan of Hooting Yard and an even huger fan of computer and console games. Can you tell me if there are plans afoot for a Hooting Yard-based game I will be able to play on my Gameboy, Wii, or what have you?

Oh dear, is all I can say. I can only assume that Tim is a teenage boy, for only teenage boys ought to be playing computer games. (Teenage girls are busy editing the features pages of The Guardian.) That so many adults spend their time “gaming” is clear evidence of the culture of infantilisation which we see all around us. I recommend compulsory reading of The Anatomy Of Melancholy and enforced contemplation of the paintings of Oskar Kokoschka, as a start.

Meanwhile, somewhat shamefacedly, I do have to confess that I have granted a licence to a Japanese software development company to create a thoroughly enticing game based on certain Hooting Yard characters. The working title for the game is Fictional Athlete Bobnit Tivol Magnificent Sprinting And Polevaulting Golden Ṻberchallenge. As far as I can understand such things, the titular challenge for players is to lead a little pixellated fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol avatar through a series of increasingly difficult virtual sporting tournaments. As one progresses through each level, cantankerous trainer Old Halob is on hand (coughing and spluttering on a variety of high tar cigarettes) to offer tips and advice. The further along the player goes, of course, the less help is available from Old Halob, and at the highest levels he occupies a corner of the screen languishing in what looks like a sanatorium.

The putative teenage purchaser of the game can choose from various options. You can play as fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol, or compete against him. In this mode, Old Halob acts as a fiendish adversary, given to such tactics as poisoning your pre-sprint cornflakes, blinding you with pepper spray, or breaking your legs. You can also select different locations for the stadia in which the contests take place, including ancient Latvia, the Essex seaside town of Jaywick, and the mystic and frankly terrifying Land of Gaar, alive with nightmarish monsters and things that creep upon the face of the earth. The only game setting which is fixed and unchangeable is the colour scheme, which as you would expect is sepia.

The developers hope to gain some celebrity endorsements before the game is released, and I understand that they have already made tentative approaches to such luminaries as Chris de Burhg [sic] and David Blunkett MP. According to marketing strategists, a touchy-feely version for the blind is predicted to outsell the sighted edition.

Notes Towards A History Of Blister Lane Bypass

Can we decently admire a feat of engineering which led to the destruction of an owl sanctuary, the obliteration of a fairground, and the destitution of a grubby yet loveable hamlet of genetically intriguing peasants? For some, the answer is a straightforward “no”. They will point to the facts – and they are unassailable facts – that the Blister Lane Bypass was completely unnecessary, and that in the years since its construction a mere handful of carts have ever been seen toiling along its grey Stalinist empacture. Yes, I meant carts, not cars.

Conversely, one might argue that owls are hardly in need of sanctuary, that the fairground was a den of iniquity, and that the peasants would presumably rather be sunk in paupery than be sent to the salt mines. Let us not forget that owls are savage and pitiless birds of prey. Do you imagine that, if the tables were turned, such creatures would provide humans with a refuge? The fairground was a notorious sink of vice. If we are ever to revive in young hoodies the virtues of piety and probity, such places of so-called entertainment will have to be burned to the ground, roadworks or no roadworks. As for the hamlet, it is true that the peasants’ hopeless hovels were smashed and destroyed during construction of the Bypass, but they are free to gather at the roadside in the wind and the rain, hawking their baubles and moaning their dirges, free too to accept alms from any passing traffic. They were not, I repeat, sent to the salt mines, primarily because we have no salt mines in this fabulous land.

The original plans drawn up for the Blister Lane Bypass are among the loveliest drawings I have ever seen. They were done in a variety of coloured crayons on gigantic sheets of greaseproof paper, and have a childlike vivacity, annotated as they are with marginal pictograms of heraldic beasts, imaginary cloud formations, and cartoonish tombstones and mausolea. It has been suggested that the infantile quality of the drawings is due to the fact that the plans were nothing more than a wet Thursday afternoon project for the tinies of Pang Hill Orphanage, and that there was never any serious intent to build the Bypass at all. This is poppycock.

One advantage of the Bypass that is often overlooked, and never of course mentioned by the sort of fatheads who prattle on about poor fluffy owls, is that a cart laden with canisters full of volatile gas or toxic sludge now has an impeccably flat level surface to trundle along. Some of us remember when such cargoes had to negotiate twisting tracks riddled with potholes and crevasses, with the constant risk of toppling over. Such spillages explain why there are so many poisonous ponds and ditches, riddled with mutant toads, throughout our land. It is true that such a cart will only be seen on Blister Lane Bypass once in a blue moon, but all great advances begin with tiny steps, or, in this case, tiny trundles.

The Bypass has been celebrated in song, most notably perhaps in Trebizondo Culpeper’s opera bouffe “Ariadne auf Naxos und Blister Lane Bypass”. A tremendously exciting, and inadvertently blood-drenched, production was given at the Bodger’s Spinney Variety Theatre to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the first hammer blow to the head of a grubby peasant protestor.

To end these brief notes, here is a little quiz. How many tunnels were built under the Bypass to allow safe crossing for badgers, stoats and weasels? Was it a) one, b) six hundred and sixty-six, or c) umpteen thousands? Answers next week.

Modern Snipe

Now, where was I? Away in a haze, probably. But I really must tell you about the time Dobson wangled himself a job on Modern Snipe magazine. It is a wonder that a pamphleteer with so shaky a grasp of ornithology should seek employ on such a title, but Dobson had his reasons. Well, reason. In the course of a conversation with a regular down at the Cow & Pins, Dobson learned that the name of the editor of Modern Snipe was an anagram of Marigold Chew, and he chose to see in this some sort of mystical significance. Ten minutes later, he was hammering in a decidedly non-mystical manner on the office door of Grimlaw Chode.

The offices of Modern Snipe were at that time a suite of rooms on the top floor of a massive and efficient laundry building. Steam billowed from open windows and pipes and ducts, and an overpowering odour of boiling shirts and soap powder pervaded the neighbourhood. Never the most observant of men, Dobson did not look up as he approached to see if any birds perched on the roof, but had he done so he would have seen but a solitary crow, and not a snipe in sight.


We do not know how Dobson convinced Grimlaw Chode to take him on at once as a special rapporteur, but we do know that Chode, like the United Nations, was given to bandying about the word rapporteur rather than reporter. There was no element of pretension in this. Chode came from a family of international diplomats, and had modelled the editorial structure of Modern Snipe on that of a mixture of huge transnational organisations, of which the UN was only one. OPEC and CAFCON and SMERSH were in there, too. He gave Dobson a blue helmet to wear, and told him to go away and write something exciting about snipe.

It is tempting here to veer off into a digression about Dobson and hats, a topic of endless fascination to some of us. But I fear things would get out of hand, particularly if I began to babble on about Dobson’s Homburg, itself a single hat that evokes a world of allusions and references, from James Mason to Procol Harum. Better that we address such matters at another time, and content ourselves now with the image of the pamphleteer trudging home along the towpath of the canal, a gleaming blue helmet atop his cranium, and the brain inside that cranium throbbing with an inchoate tangle of cerebral gibberish, at the dim centre of which lurked the signal fact that Dobson knew nothing whatsoever about snipe.

Marigold Chew was in the back garden, training bees at the trellis, when the pamphleteer arrived home. He tossed his blue helmet onto a hat-peg with surprising aplomb, and sat down immediately at his escritoire. Pencil sharpened and with a fresh notebook open before him, he wrote:

How fine a bird the snipe is! But first, consider this: he who wishes for the cloths of heaven may find his hopes dashed and his garb but rags and tatters. Yet there be not woe in this, for is it not the stamp of such a man that he looks out upon a darkling plain and pitches forth his wishes into a well where one day pennies will be spilled?

At this point Marigold Chew came in from the garden. She had one of her trained bees on her shoulder, like a pirate’s miniature parrot. “What on earth is that blue helmet hooked on to the hat-peg?” she asked. Dobson explained.

Marigold Chew was aghast. “I have nothing but admiration for your talents as a penny-catch-all pamphleteer,” she announced, as her trained bee swapped shoulders, “But the job of special rapporteur on Modern Snipe will prove your undoing!” And she swept dramatically out of the door, and headed off in the rain to Huberman’s department store, to make enquiries about bee baskets. Dobson returned to his notebook.

As your special rapporteur, he scribbled, it is my job to bring to readers new and unexpected perspectives on the travails of the modern snipe. That much I shall do, without fear. I once had custody of a clairvoyant pig, and in a very short time it taught me many things. One lesson I recall was sweet indeed. At that time I was fond of wearing my Homburg hat. It was the hat I wore when studying the Hittites, and now I wore the hat to study the pig. One day, walking across a field with the pig in tow, I stopped to mop my brow, and removed my hat and placed it on a stone. At once, out of the sky swooped a big-beaked bird and perched upon my Homburg. Was it a snipe? It may have been. I looked at the bird, and then I turned to look at the pig, and I realised with a start that the pig saw neither me nor the bird, for being a clairvoyant pig it could see only the future, centuries hence, when where we stood was a darkling plain, and the spot where I laid my hat was a deep dark well, at the bottom of which was a mountain of pennies chucked in hope by generation upon generation of the disappointed. And I further realised that all that hope was embodied in the form of the bird perched on my Homburg. And I affirm that, yes, it was a snipe.

The last sentence was a complete lie, of course, as Dobson could affirm no such thing. But he was extremely pleased with his initial foray in to the heady world of contemporary ornithological journalism. Slapping the blue helmet back on his head, he stuffed the notebook into his satchel and crashed out of the door. On the canal towpath, he met Marigold Chew. She was carrying half a dozen bee baskets and the evening newspaper.

“Look at this,” she said.

Dobson read the headline on the just-published Evening Dachshund. He was not a man who often goggled, but he goggled now. SNIPE MAN SLAIN, it read. Within the last hour, Grimlaw Chode had been shot dead. By a sniper. And so ended Dobson’s career as a birdy rapporteur.

Ponderous Coxcombry

From Necropolis : London And Its Dead by Catharine Arnold:

“One of the most spectacular monuments [in Kensal Green cemetery] is the £3,000 tomb of Andrew Ducrow, an Egyptian extravaganza that The Builder dismissed as ‘ponderous coxcombry’. Ducrow (1793-1842) was a showman, ‘the Colossus of Equestrians’, who wrestled with lions, re-enacted scenes from Napoleonic battles, and could lift four or five children using nothing more than his teeth.”

We are not told if the children in question were pious Victorian orphans, but I expect they were.

Herring, Trellis

Mr Key is currently a-moanin’ and a-groanin’ and generally feeling sorry for himself, laid low by a seemingly endless series of colds. Perhaps it is the same one, punctuated by brief periods of what passes for being hale and hearty in these parts. Anyway, to the accompaniment of much snuffling, here are a couple of items from the papers that deserve preservation in the Hooting Yard Crate O’ Press Cuttings.

First, this report was issued by the Associated Press in Amsterdam: A Dutch newspaper said yesterday it had received anonymous threats to kill several of its journalists if the paper published its annual herring review. There is more, but I think that first sentence is sufficiently arresting. Perhaps the journalists would be better engaged doing something uncontroversial, such as publishing cartoons of “the prophet” Mohammed… so long as they don’t include one of him munching on a herring, of course.

Next, the new Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, James Purnell, has this to say, in today’s Guardian: “What’s the trellis on which the plant can grow? We create the trellis… but we need to make sure the trellis is not getting in the way of people being excellent.” Trellis metaphors are always to be applauded, in all contexts, at all times, and this one is especially welcome, for I feared the worst. Youthful Mr Purnell, in his past life at the BBC, was a bright-eyed acolyte of the preposterous John Birt, a man who sees an arrow and calls it a “directional pointing device”.

I am now going to go and be excellent, unless my trellis is in the way.

Cost O’ Cows & Horses

John Fernely, a successful Victorian dauber who lived in Melton Mowbray, charged ten pounds to paint a portrait of a horse, but only seven pounds for a portrait of a cow. Were these costs fair? Would you have been prepared to pay more for a cow picture than a horse painting? If not, why not? What do you think was going on in Fernely’s head when he set these prices? Comments please.