“I’ve often wondered at what point a political leaning becomes a performance, then a pantomime, and finally a mental health issue.” – David Thompson, Phantom Guilt Syndrome
Monthly Archive for November, 2007
“I’ve often wondered at what point a political leaning becomes a performance, then a pantomime, and finally a mental health issue.” – David Thompson, Phantom Guilt Syndrome
“Tanquod Shuddery’s bloated frame hove into view from behind the barn.”
This is the opening line of Dennis Beerpint’s latest piece of poetical whimsy. Indeed, it is the only line, for the twee versifier has had a fit of the vapours and put down his pencil. He is pallid, and shaking, and staring wild-eyed into the grate where a few sticks are burning weakly. He wonders if his talent has been dissipated by his newfound devotion to buzzing around in a light aircraft, swooping low over clumps of cows in fields and calling to them in a language they do not understand. Will Dennis get a grip? Can he salvage his poetic gift? Or will he dash out his brains on a paving slab? Don’t miss the exciting new 26-part television drama series Twee Poet In A Light Aircraft Swooping Upon Cows.
The piece below, Dentist’s Potting Shed, ends with a mention of my cat Jeoffry. You can read much more about him in Jubilate Agno by Christopher Smart. Jeoffry turns up in Fragment B, Part 4, but I recommend reading the whole thing. Out loud. On a daily basis.
I have had a few letters from readers asking me to explain the rules of the board game Dentist’s Potting Shed, which was mentioned in the piece Blodgett And Trubshaw. Now, I hate to disappoint, but I simply can’t be bothered to write pages and pages about what is, after all, a spectacularly dull game. Believe me when I tell you that if I started trying to explain to the beginner how to play Dentist’s Potting Shed, we would be here all day, and probably tomorrow too, and even then we would have got little further than the first chubbgut. I would of course have to try to explain the meaning of a chubbgut itself, and that is only one of numberless terms a player has to understand before the dice are even thrown. So I am afraid that on this occasion I am going to ignore my imploring readers. If you want to play Dentist’s Potting Shed, go and buy a set and read up on the rules yourself.
You might want to wait until next year, however, when a special edition is being released. On
Given the complexity and tedium of the game, it is hard to account for its popularity. Last year at Bodger’s Spinney, an international tournament attracted competitors from as far away as the
Although I did not go to the tournament, I read every single press report I could find. I was less interested in the board game than in the possibility that the hobgoblins would disrupt things, scattering the dice and counters and cards and terrifying the players. But no matter how thoroughly I scoured the papers I discovered nothing hobgoblin-related. I could only assume that they had clambered back up into the trees and remained hidden in leafage, allowing the Dentist’s Potting Shed tournament to play itself out in the wind and the rain. I was perplexed by this until I read, the following spring, a lengthy article in the Bulletin Of Bodger’s Spinney Hobgoblin Behavioural Studies, written by an academic panjandrum, which explained everything in prose so crisp it took my breath away. If you want to read it too, look out for the issue of the Bulletin with a picture of Celine Dion on the cover.
I mentioned that I obtained one of my six tickets by buying it from a ragamuffin. What, you might think, was a ragamuffin doing in possession of such a prized piece of beautifully cut beige cardboard? I was certainly tempted to assume that the nipper had pickpocketed it. He was tiny and bony and as skinny as a pipe-cleaner, and it was easy to imagine him skittering, uncatchable, through busy city streets, dipping and snatching. Was I committing a crime by paying the ragamuffin for stolen goods? I did not like to think of myself as a fence, and I remained troubled until, a week after the exchange had taken place, I tracked him to the travelling circus of which he was an unlikely veteran. I learned that, from the age of just five months, he had been known as Howler Monkey Boy, and that his daredevil acrobatics, performed without a safety harness, were famed throughout the circus world. Ragamuffin he may have been, but he was no thief. He explained to me that one of his colleagues, a moustachioed nincompoop known as The Human Pencil Sharpener, was a besotted devotee of Dentist’s Potting Shed, had attended the tournament when the circus was encamped nearby in Scroonhoonpooge, and had given the ticket to the ragamuffin as a birthday present. Satisfied by this tale, relieved that I was not a fence, I stayed around to watch that evening’s circus performance. It was bloody fantastic, especially Howler Monkey Boy himself, at whose antics I gasped. I even got to have one of my own pencils sharpened by The Human Pencil Sharpener, whose teeth-marks can still be seen upon it, for I have not written with it since, instead keeping it in a little tin display crate on my mantelpiece, for I have a mantelpiece. If, next year, I succumb to the fad and buy the special edition of Dentist’s Potting Shed, I may have to move the tin crate to make room for the Busby Babes figurines. That will be a quandary, but I shall deal with it as best I can. What I might do is obtain a wooden panel and nail it up as a sort of mantelpiece extension. It would not look pretty, but it would create more display space, and who knows what further baubles and gewgaws I will want to add as the years pass?
And the years will pass, of course, and I am glad of that, for as each year passes I hope and pray that the memory of the Bodger’s Spinney hobgoblins pursuing me across the fields will one day begin to fade, and that there will come a time when I might sleep through the night without waking in terror, shuddering and screaming and scaring the wits out of my cat, Jeoffry. For I will consider my cat Jeoffry.
When you go wandering through the bogs, in your boots, make sure you do not confuse the elder bog with the younger bogs. It is an easy mistake to make. To the untrained eye, the appearance of the bogs is much of a muchness, one bog looks much like another, and though you might be able to hold in your memory that there is one bog pretty with swamp parsley, and another bog not, still you will probably come away with a picture in your head of general bogdom rather than of this bog and that bog clear and discrete.
There is an old countryside saying, in this countryside anyway, that “every bog was once a puddle”. If that is true, and reason tells us it probably is, then the puddle that became the elder bog was there long, long ago, before you were born. Imagine that. I expect when you were tiny your parents, or your guardian, warned you never to stray near the bogs, and particularly not the elder bog. But now you are grown you can roam at will. You can, if you wish, spend days on end among the bogs, and I have no doubt that you do so. I know I would, if I still had the means, but the bus to the bogs was rerouted a couple of years ago, and now it goes to the tents and statues and nowhere near the bogs. I was told, when I asked, that the bus company decided to bypass the bogs because so few passengers ever wanted to go there, that in fact I was the only person who ever alighted at the bogs. I found that hard to believe, but they showed me paperwork to support their case. I flipped. The bus company person took me down with a pop from his security prod, and I began to spasm. I haven’t stopped spasming, actually, although nowadays the spasms only come once or twice a week. But I can no longer get safely to the bogs, so now I try at least to hold them in my head. You are luckier, you can go to the bogs and stay there for as long as you like.
Did you know that all the younger bogs have names? There are no signposts, nor placards. The names of the bogs are a bit like that countryside saying, known to the countryside persons but to no one else. The bogs are called Lamont, Baxter, Oriflamme, Shambeko!, Cuddy, Gooboohoo, Coldplay, Mocker, Pippy and Hudibidas. At least that’s what I was told, once, by a country person. He may have been pulling the wool over my eyes, of course, for reasons of his own. But I am minded to believe what he told me, because we were standing on a panel of pewter, and pewter encourages the truth, apparently. The pewter panel was embedded in the muck close by a barn. It had been placed there as a sort of “truth platform” during the witch trials, another thing that happened before you were born. The elder bog and the pewter panel were both there, part of the world into which you dropped from your mother’s womb. And most of the younger bogs were already there too, except for Baxter and Cuddy, both so new that even the puddles they grew from were not yet there on your birthday. I know that because I questioned your ma or your pa or your guardian, and they confirmed as much. You will want to know which of them it was I spoke to, but I am keeping that under my hat, as is my prerogative, and do not for one moment think you can have it otherwise. I shall guide you through the bogs, and my price is silence, at least upon the matter of your ma or pa or guardian and what pearls they let fall when speaking to me of you as a tiny.
I said to you that you must learn to tell the elder bog from the younger ones, and you will want to know why. The reason is very simple. The elder bog is the only one that has been painted, by skilled painters and geniuses, and when you roam around it in your boots I want you to be aware that you are stepping through great paintings, not just through any old bog among bogs. Bog At Dawn, Bog At Dusk, and Shimmerings: A Bog are among the masterpieces of art in this country, they hang in the Imperial Gallery and each day thousands file past to gaze upon them with due awe. So when you stomp about in your big boots be aware of what you are stomping through. No artist of repute ever thought it worth painting Lamont or Baxter or Mocker, or any of the other younger bogs, but time and again the elder bog has drawn to it dazzling masters of paint and watercolour and crayon. I am not sure it is true that, as a tourist brochure states, it is the bog most often painted in this land, for I think there may be a bog elsewhere more popular with our painters, as, for example, the bog at Hoobin, but only the elder bog has attracted those artists whose names will resound down the ages, long after you and I are dead. I, with my spasms, will probably die before you do, and you of course have the advantage of being able to hang around the bogs as long as you like. But do not think you will discover an elixir of life in one of the bogs. I thought that, back in the days when the bus still took me there. That is why I kept on going back to the bogs, because of what I had read, in some out of print pamphlet. That is why I flipped when told the bus would no longer take me there. It felt like a death sentence. I can only envy you, skipping along through the bogs, putting up your tent and camping out there for weeks on end, but I pity you too if you think for one minute that you will find the elixir somewhere among Lamont and Baxter and Oriflamme and Shambeko! and Cuddy and Gooboohoo and Coldplay and Mocker and Pippy and Hudibidas and the elder bog. They are all just bogs and hold no key to eternal life. It grieves me to say that, for I used to think I might discover in one of those bogs something transforming and transfixing. That is why I daily took the bus there for years and years, until the bus stopped going to the bogs and instead went to the tents and statues. Even if I had not been beset by spasms, I would have shunned the tents and statues, for what could I learn from them? Everything I know I learned by roaming the bogs. So you would do well to keep alert as you wander in your boots among those bogs, while you still can, young and feisty and brimming with joie de bogs.
Regular readers know that my grasp of matters ornithological is second to none, so it is only fitting that I have been asked to compile an anthology of fictional works with the word “owl” in the title. It might be argued that such a task is purely bibliographical and requires no specialist ornithological knowledge, but I will defend my ramparts, as one must in this world of rascals and cut-throats and people who claim to know rather more about birds than I do. I am used by now to lippy slanderers who accuse me of almost fathomless bird ignorance, and though I have been known to quail and sob, I try my best to turn my becardiganed back on my detractors and get on with the job. So I am pleased to announce that work on the anthology is almost complete.
One of the works I turned up, and one I am annoyed about, and want to take issue with today, is Margaret Craven’s 1967 bestseller I Heard The Owl Call My Name. Now, really! Granted it is a work of fiction, but when did you ever hear an owl hoot “Margaret Craven, Margaret Craven”? That is simply not the kind of call an owl makes, and to pretend otherwise is to be living in a fool’s paradise. Of course, as a fictioneer, Ms Craven has the right to bend the world to her whim, and I am not asking for blinkered stodge, but there are limits to what the reader will accept. And before you start arguing that maybe the name the owl calls is not that of the author, but that of her protagonist, bear in mind in that case that the owl is calling out the name “Brian”. I think you will agree that is equally as idiotic an approximation of an owl sound as “Margaret Craven”.
I Heard The Owl Call My Name became a bestseller some years after its initial publication, in the early 1970s, alongside such empty-headed slop as Jonathan Livingstone Seagull and Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance. Coincidentally, my other current project is a wholesale rewriting of the latter entitled Roman Catholicism And The Art Of Booster Jetpack Maintenance, in which the narrator is a futuristic science fiction Jesuit priest. Whether it will sell as ludicrous a number of copies as Robert M Pirsig’s mystic drivel is another matter.
The Heft Of Dough is the title of an LP recorded towards the end of the last century by Agnetha and Anna-Frid and Benny and Bjorn (alphabetical order). The Scandinavian foursome were joined on this occasion by virtuoso glockenspielist Dot Tint, who until then was better known as the accompanist of an oompah band devoted to masterpieces of the Baroque. Dot was introduced to Agnetha, Anna-Frid et al, by her brother Rex Tint, the mezzotintist, who had been commissioned by either Benny or Bjorn to create a mezzotint for the cover of an earlier LP by the quartet. Temperamental Rex completed the work but, in a characteristic fit of hysterics, destroyed it before it could be used, alleging that it failed to meet the exacting standards he set himself. This is unlikely to be true, and those in the know suggest it was simply yet another unreasonable tantrum by the talented but tiresome mezzotintist.
His sister possessed a more equable demeanour, and the recording sessions for The Heft Of Dough were notable for their almost uncanny calm. Granted, Benny went postal one afternoon when Anna-Frid sang her lines tapioca rather than, as the score required, marmalade, and he threatened to tear her throat out, but it was only that, a threat, and he was quickly persuaded to go and take a nap. It was Dot Tint who did the persuading, and it was upon Dot Tint’s divan that he napped. Dot took her divan everywhere, for she was overfond of naps herself. Some said her calmness was closer to narcolepsy, and I suppose it is true that she only ever seemed fully awake when bashing beauty from her glockenspiel.
Press interest in the sessions was intense. Agnetha and Anna-Frid and Benny and Bjorn had recently had a hit single with the prize-winning, insanely catchy song Lepanto, the lyrics of which cleverly use the 1571 Battle of Lepanto between the Holy League and the
The Heft Of Dough is a concept album in which the fivesome use the heft of a ball of dough as a symbol for various historical attempts to measure the weight of the human soul. Perhaps the best-known of these are the experiments carried out in the early years of the twentieth century by Duncan MacDougall, attending physician at Grove Hall Consumptives’ Home in
The critics were not kind, however, The Heft Of Dough being almost unanimously dismissed as a work of pretentious twaddle. One of the most savage reviews of all was penned by Rex Tint, under an anagrammatic pseudonym. After it appeared, in the weekly magazine Mezzotintists Turn Their Hands To Writing Record Reviews, and she swiftly unravelled the anagram, Dot Tint refused to speak to her brother for a decade. Curiously, Bjorn, or it may have been Benny, was more forgiving, and he and Rex Tint renewed their friendship and thereafter spent many a tenebrous Scandinavian dusk sitting together on the rim of a fjord, swathed in coats of rabbit fur, drinking hooch and babbling into the night.
Another thing that happened when I was trudging around the autumnally glum seaside resort was that I received an unsolicited pancake hint. I had stopped to tighten a loose shoelace, near an ice cream kiosk. The kiosk was shut, it being blustery and cloud-louring and out of season. A biddy with a demented number of bags passed me by, stopped, and turned just as I was straightening up from my shoelace-tying exertions. In a mournful voice, she offered me a pancake hint, then went on her way.
This was not the first time I had been given a pancake hint at a seaside resort, and as I headed off towards the steep steps up to a lawn and a crazy golf facility, I cast my mind back to an earlier occasion. It was a different seaside resort, and a different pancake hint, but the weather was similar, and so, curiously, was the biddy, though this previous biddy had fewer bags about her person and we were nowhere near an ice cream kiosk.
That made two seaside-based pancake hints. You might think the making of pancakes is a simple matter and that I have been given two hints too many, but I disagree. Whenever I make pancakes I like to mull over the hints I have received, both that pair of seaside ones and other pancake hints given in wholly different circumstances, far inland. I would not claim always to act upon the hints, for I think we all tend towards our own habitual pancake-making techniques without really giving them much thought. Dobson was a glorious exception. He never made his pancakes in the same way twice. He would take a conscious pause as he approached his skillet, and summon to mind one of the numberless pancake hints stored in his throbbing cranium. How he selected the hint he was about to use is the subject of one of his most engaging pamphlets, On The Judicious And Non-Repeating Deployment Of Pancake Hints (out of print). Intriguingly, Dobson mentions in a footnote (page 9) that he also received one of his pancake hints at the seaside, though maddeningly he does not inform the reader at which resort. Mind you, nor have I, and in my case there are two seaside resorts you will be thumping your forehead against a solid panel in frustration that I have failed to divulge. But one day I plan to write my own pancake pamphlet, a sort of hommage to Dobson’s, and until then I am keeping mum.
Apparently, I may have “written more nonsense than any other man living”, according to Sam Jordison in the online Guardian. I’m pleased to note, however, that by the end of his article Mr Jordison acknowledges that Hooting Yard is a fundamentally sensible place, sober and reasoned and measured.
Addendum :Â It occurs to me that a Guardian article is likely to lure many new readers here, some of whom will flit swiftly away but others who will become entranced and quite possibly spend the rest of their lives trawling through the Archives. To the latter, may I draw your attention to the Donation box on the right? All this prose is offered freely, I don’t get paid, and I don’t have a private income. I do need to keep a variety of wolves from my door. End of begging letter.
Trudging around an autumnally glum seaside resort the other day, I was halted in the street by a municipal person armed with a clipboard. It was questionnaire time. I gave a series of succinct, if baleful, replies to queries about my views on the various amenities and attractions of the town, and walked onwards towards the deserted beach. I mention this only because, as I stood staring out to sea in the dying light, I wished I had been in O’Houlihan’s Wharf, instead of where I was, for then my answer to the question “How do you rate the local museum?” would have been neither succinct nor baleful but gabbling and overenthusiastic. Wildly so. For it is in O’Houlihan’s Wharf that you will find my absolute favourite museum in the world.
I cannot begin to explain why the Imperial Museum Of Rotting Vegetable Matter And Other Agricultural Waste Product holds me in such a spell each time I visit. Its matchless collection of rotting vegetable matter and other agricultural waste product is unrivalled by any museum anywhere, its special collections of silage and slurry jewels which any museum curator would kill for. (Notoriously, one curator did just that, but his evil scheme was found out and he was transported to a drab rock, a speck of volcanic gabbro girt by mighty seas, where he ended his days being pecked at by auks and petrels.) What once had been the Imperial Palace, where scenes of decadence and debauch played out under the yellow light of a thousand Pastewick lanterns, is palatial still, and the more so now that room upon room upon room is packed to bursting with sacks of rotting vegetable matter and other agricultural waste product in place of the pointy-chinned aristos and royal grotesques who played and partied and waltzed and vomited here in the old times. The lanterns still shed their unearthly Pastewick light, but how truly splendid now the recipients of that yellow gleam! Sack after sack, in tidy rows, in stack upon stack, rotting and pungent.
I said that the museum holds me in its spell each time I visit, and that is true, but not the whole truth, for I am held in its spell constantly, whether I have taken the days-long charabanc ride to O’Houlihan’s Wharf or whether I have not. For at night I dream of the sacks of rotting vegetable matter and other agricultural waste product. I dream of them each and every night, and I think of them in my waking daydreams too, every single day. For that doomed curator who was pecked at on the gabbro was my father, and I hold his memory dear. I, too, would kill, if I could but take possession of the silage and the slurry, the rot and the sludge, the mould and the mush and the muck.
Thousands Of Unusual And Arresting Facts About Birds was one of the fattest pamphlets Dobson ever published. The title is something of a misnomer, for the remarkable thing about this work is that it contains not a single fact about birds whatsoever. Indeed, apart from the occasional passing mention of starlings (page 49), shrikelets (page 92) and a swan (page 119), birds are signally absent from the text. In spite of this, the pamphlet has been hailed by the upstart young Dobsonist Ted Cack as “the most informative text on ornithology that I have ever read”. Cack is not always the most intellectually agile of critics, though, so perhaps we should not take him too seriously, the way we might furrow our brows in deep concentration at even the merest squib from a theoretical colossus like, say, Terry Eagleton.
Dobson wrote the pamphlet at a time when he was preoccupied with moles. He was fascinated by their burrowing habits, near-blindness, and twitching snouts. Although the snouts of moles twitch less than those of shrews, particularly elephant shrews, Dobson was enamoured of what he considered the more “moley” twitching of the snouts of moles. Why, then, did he not essay a pamphlet of unusual and arresting facts about moles, rather than birds, when it was moles that intrigued him during this period? It should be noted that his tract makes no mention of [insert Latin tag for moles here] either.
A clue may be found in the fact that at the time of the pamphlet’s writing, Dobson was engaged in a feud with a bellicose undertaker from down
“Not only are you a singularly bellicose undertaker, sir, but you keep the seats in your death carriage in a very greasy condition. My dry cleaners had the devil of a job returning my trousers to their usual impeccability after last I sat upon those seats when attending the funeral rites of Thruxtonshaw Beppo, the noted mole- and bird-expert whose friendship I had come to treasure. It is true that I have not sought from you financial recompense for the cost of degreasing my trousers, but that is only because I have a more terrible revenge in mind.”
The authenticity of this letter has been questioned, chiefly because the last thing one tends to associate with Dobson is a pair of impeccable trousers. I am not suggesting that he was forever covered in grease, far from it, but a certain shabbiness, even grubbiness, was part of his general aura, even the aura detected by our psychic brethren and sistren, as attested by the redoubtable Madame Boubou, who sometimes did “readings” of the pamphleteer’s ethereal being. Dobson himself was unaware of these, as the turbanned Madame was given to following him about, skulking down alleyways or creeping after him as he reconnoitred picnicking spots in fields and parkland. She would target him, from behind, with her fearsome gaze, and make visible his aura for long enough to allow her to scribble a few notes into her psychic notepad. Often such notes contained the words “grubby”, “grimy”, “dishevelled”, and “splattered with muck”… and remember, that was his spiritual aura, not his solid, earthbound person.
Anyway, whether it is genuine or not, it is the reference in the letter to Thruxtonshaw Beppo that concerns us here. Dobson – or the counterfeiter pretending to be Dobson – correctly identifies the deceased Beppo as a mole- and bird-expert, as indeed he was, and one who the pamphleteer met often in the final days of his, the mole- and bird-expert’s, life. They first encountered each other at a football match (Red Star Hoon versus Pang Hill Academicals), where Dobson had gone to make a tape recording of turnstile-clacking noises and Beppo was present as a turnstile-clacking counter. It may seem to be unusual employment for a mole- and bird-expert, but Beppo was the kind of impoverished amateur who was perpetually short of cash, and on this particular day he was actually very close to starvation. It is thought that Dobson took pity on the skeletal clack-counter and tossed him a pastry from his bag, much as one might feed a zoo animal. The two men rapidly hit it off, and indeed there was something juvenile in their camaraderie. They addressed each other by foolish code-names, “Broadsword” and “Danny Boy”, using these soubriquets as an excuse to practice their impersonations of Richard Burton and Michael Hordern in the film Where Eagles Dare. Incidentally, the film’s screenplay, and the novel on which it is based, were written by the alcoholic Scottish writer Alistair MacLean, who is buried just yards away from Richard Burton in a Swiss graveyard. Several of MacLean’s novels include the phrase “the huddled shapelessness of the dead”, suggesting that this was an idÃ©e fixe lodged in the writer’s gin-soaked cranium, perhaps an unvanquishable memory from his war service in the Royal Navy, where he was involved in action in the Atlantic theatre, on two Arctic convoys and escorting carrier groups in operations against Tirpitz and other targets off the Norwegian coast; in 1944 in the Mediterranean theatre, as part of the invasion of southern France and in helping to sink blockade runners off Crete and bombard Milos in the Aegean Sea; and in 1945, in the Far East theatre, escorting carrier groups in operations against Japanese targets in Burma, Malaya, and Sumatra. MacLean’s late-in-life claims that he was captured by the Japanese and tortured have been dismissed by both his son and his biographer as drunken ravings. The Huddled Shapelessness Of The Dead is also the title of an exceedingly rare and out of print Dobson pamphlet, a piece of fluff about dead bees.
Dobson and Beppo began to meet daily, commandeering a corner table in The Cow And Pins tavern, where they talked for hours about both birds and moles. The expert knew his days were numbered, as he had already been diagnosed with the invariably fatal Withered Innards Syndrome, and it may be that he wanted to pass on his knowledge before he died. Intriguingly, in his eight decades, Beppo had not once put pen to paper, and his matchless store of information about birds and moles he carried entirely in his head. And what a head it was! The versifier Dennis Beerpint once described it, in conversation rather than in a poem, as “Beppo’s head, that great block of human head, dense and solid and mottled like a potato”. He made this remark during one of his rare television appearances, on the Shadrach & Abednego chatshow, on which he was a guest in the week after Beppo’s death. There were others lined up to extol the bird- and mole-expert, including songstress Kathy Kirby and bowler-hatted Avengers star Patrick McNee, but Beerpint would not stop babbling, and in those days of live broadcasts and a more spontaneous approach, he was allowed to continue until the next programme – a three-hour silent black-and-white documentary about swans – was due to begin. It was, of course, on a different edition of the same chatshow that Beerpint became the first person to utter the word “Ubuntu” on television.
If either moles or birds were mentioned in Dobson’s pamphlet Thousands Of Unusual And Arresting Facts About Birds, we could draw the sensible conclusion that the pamphleteer had simply mixed up the fantastic amount of information pouring out of Beppo over that tavern table. But as we have seen, moles are not mentioned in the text at all, and birds only in passing. Wherein, then, lies the enigma of the seemingly gratuitous title? One possibility is that Dobson was using a code, akin to the childish “Broadsword” and “Danny Boy” with which the pair of ageing rascals addressed each other. If so, I do not think it is a code anyone is going to crack. Dobson left a teeming pile of notebooks and scribblings, catalogued by Aloysius Nestingbird and others with heroic diligence, and it seems to me that somewhere in that paper Kilimanjaro they would have found a scrap upon which the pamphleteer worked out his cipher, if cipher it was. The bumptious noodlehead and pretend Dobson scholar Emeric Vinvanvoo made a fool of himself with his claim that the pamphlet’s title was an anagram of Ubuntu And Dust Can Be No Fruits Of A Horrid SAS Salt Gas, chiefly because it isn’t. That did not stop him weaving a ludicrous fantasy that Dobson and Beppo were engaged in some kind of top secret paramilitary gas experimentation programme. Wittily, one commentator dismissed Vinvanvoo’s ravings as “like something out of an Alistair MacLean novel”, demonstrating a contextual grasp of the whole Dobson/Beppo affair which I quite envy.
I am doing my best, you see, but though I have studied the pamphlet for years now I can still make head nor tail of what Dobson was driving at. Usually, you know where you stand with his titles. How I Poked A Pointed Stick Into A Hedge is a pamphlet in which Dobson writes about poking a pointed stick into a hedge. Christ Stopped At Eboli is about Christ stopping at Eboli. Granted, in both these works, as with almost all his pamphlets, Dobson veers off into often surprising digressions, but generally speaking he takes his subject, his fad or whim of the moment, and wrings out of it all that can be wrung, and more. Even the youthful, callow Ted Cack has had the insight that “whatever the topic of his pamphlet, Dobson’s ambition was to have the last word, to make any further approach to the subject futile, for at least a century, and preferably longer. Whether writing about carpet beetles or electrical wiring systems or a dub version of the soundtrack to Carl Sagan’s television series Cosmos, Dobson worried away at his theme like a small predatory beast gnawing upon the limp body of a smaller, non-predatory beast from which the life was rapidly draining, as it were a tawny owl with a hamster, or a shrew with a newborn goat, for example.”
So if we take Ted Cack’s metaphor and think of Dobson as a tawny owl or a shrew, what kind of hamster or newborn goat is he tearing to pieces in Thousands Of Unusual And Arresting Facts About Birds? Is that a question to which we can ever give a sensible answer? Well, I think we can. Not today, maybe, and perhaps not tomorrow, nor even this week. Nor next week, nor next month, nay even unto Saint Loopy’s Day. But I will promise this much. By the time you are all celebrating the next Saint Loopy’s Day, I will publish the mighty tome on which I have laboured like an idiot for the last God knows how many years. I long ago lost count of the number of tallow candles I have burned to light my futuristic flame-resistant reinforced plastic writer’s cabin where I crouch, scrivening away, through days and nights, year after year, sustained only by a peculiar soup-based nutrient slop and by a blinding conviction that my privations are worthwhile because I shall, finally, pierce the shroud of ignorance enveloping Dobson’s fattest pamphlet. And when, on that merry day, The Annotated Pop-Up Edition Of ‘Thousands Of Unusual And Arresting Facts About Birds’ By Dobson, With A Preface, Introduction, Notes, Commentary, Afterword, Exegesis, Maps, Colour Plates, Exquisite Binding, Greaseproof Wrapper And Presentation Crate, Guaranteed Free Of Infestation By Microscopic Paper-Devouring Beings hits the shelves of your local supermarket, I shall smash my way out of my cabin and scamper through the meadows, flailing my arms and beaming with glee.
Is stoning ever justified?
“It depends what sort of stoning and what circumstances,” he replies.
- From an interview with Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari, leader of the Muslim Council of Britain, in the Daily Telegraph,
It goes without saying that stoning to death is the only proper way of dealing with certain crimes, but as Dr Bari so wisely says, one has to be clear about what sort of stoning. That is why Hooting Yard is pleased to announce a soon-to-be-out-of-print pamphlet entitled How To Choose The Right Sort Of Stoning To Death For Ne’er-Do-Wells. This helpful work gives tips on many different techniques of throwing rocks at defenceless women until they are dead.
Here is a treat. Using his considerable technological wizardry, David OutaSpaceman has masterminded an exciting compact disc featuring over an hour’s worth of lopsided Hooting Yard prose from 2004, taken from the original ResonanceFM recordings. Personally, I can’t think of a better gift for readers or their nippers to find stuffed in their Christmas stockings. The disc comes in a Pansy Cradledew-designed sleeve featuring the famous “Cow And Pins” tavern sign drawn by Mr Key aeons ago. To get your copy, inclusive of postage and packing, shove Â£6 into the Hooting Yard PayPal account over there on the right (under ‘Donate’), and send your name and postal address to the Duty Git at firstname.lastname@example.org using the header “Gosh, Frank, I can hardly wait to receive my Cow And Pins CD!”
Blodgett had a certain militaristic cast to his character, so when he was given command of a pocket battleship it was understandable that he got slightly carried away. He fretted and fussed over his epaulettes and other trimmings of his uniform to a somewhat embarrassing degree, so much so that he neglected more critical aspects of his duty such as keeping a proper log. Thus it is that we do not have a reliable record of his one and only voyage.
This was a time of gunboat diplomacy, and Blodgett’s mission was to anchor his ship in a faraway bay, train his guns on the coast, and to threaten to blow the township there to smithereens unless certain conditions were met. All very straightforward, or it would have been had the ship not had for its navigator a man who had lost his wits. This fellow’s name was Trubshaw, and it is a wonder that he still had the confidence of the Admiralty, for he had been bonkers for years. Instead of steering the ship towards the faraway bay, Trubshaw pored over his charts and barked instructions through a pneumatic funnel that led to the ship becoming encased in pack ice thousands of nautical miles away from its proper destination. There was no township upon which to train the guns, leaving Blodgett at a loss what to do, other than to preen his epaulettes and other trimmings with a little brush.
Trubshaw, meanwhile, was following his own demented star. He took to pacing up and down the poop deck shouting at the sky. Icicles formed on the brim of his navigator’s cap, but he seemed impervious to the cold. Not so the rest of the crew, huddled below decks wrapped in blankets and keeping their spirits up by playing board games and eating sausages. Blodgett kept to his cabin, using his log as a pad for doodling. He had lost radio contact with the Admiralty weeks ago. There was nothing for it but to sit the winter out and wait for the ice to melt.
At this point, I expect the majority of readers will be avid for further details of the board games and the sausages, and I will not disappoint. However, before dealing with those crucial topics, perhaps it is wise to say a few more words about Trubshaw. His insanity was not in doubt, but what has never been established is whether he deliberately stranded the ship in Antarctic waters, or whether within the vaporous murk of his mad brain he honestly believed the ship was heading for that faraway bay. There may be a clue in the words he was shouting at the sky while pacing the poop deck, and by chance we do have a record, albeit fragmentary, of what they were, or some of them at least. By chance an airship packed to the gills with the very latest magnetic cylinder recording technology passed overhead one day, and some of Trubshaw’s shouting was picked up by its monitors and etched onto a cylinder, preserved forever. If you get a special coupon for entry to the sound recordings rooms of the Museum At-Or-Near-Ack-On-The-Vug, you can listen to this bewildering caterwaul. Dobson once planned a pamphlet on Blodgett’s voyage, and transcribed part of Trubshaw’s tirade, but abandoned the essay in favour of his justly famous Bilgewater Elegies. Thanks to Dobson, though, we can reprint the shouting, and gain an eerie insight into the crackbrained navigator pacing the poop deck of that ice-girt pocket battleship so many, many years ago.
“Wheat! Bulgar wheat!” begins the Dobson transcription, “Wheat and gravel and sand and grit! Powdered paste! Paste in puddles! Gravel and sand a-criminy! Pitch and tar and globules of black, black, blackened goo! Cracking pods squelching underfoot! Pods of ooze and glue! Pitted black olives in a jar, pitted and black like a black pit! Cracked bulgar wheat and cracking sand! Black pudding! Vinegar down your throat! Malt and muck underfoot in vast paste puddles of goo!”
It is difficult to know precisely what to make of this, except to conclude that Trubshaw was completely off his head and that, charts and barked instructions to the crew notwithstanding, navigation was not uppermost in his mind. That being so, we can get on to the more diverting business of the board games and the sausages, as promised.
The ship’s cook was a follower of the dietary theories of Canspic Ougat, and that being the case there was little if any animal flesh in his sausages. One might, when munching, occasionally sink one’s teeth into a fragment of pig or goat or starling, but only a tiny fragment, often so tiny as to go unnoticed. The cook made his sausages from an Ougat-approved compaction of mashed up turnips and marshland reeds and grasses, leavened with some sort of secret curd. They came in two sizes, jumbo and cocktail, although the latter were not served on cocktail sticks due to Ougat’s stern prohibition of sausage-piercing. Holes, even the very wee ones made by the average cocktail stick, were anathema to the dietician, for reasons propounded in the preface to his magisterial Codex Sausageiana. Even if you are not particularly interested in sausages, this book is a fantastic read, and I cannot recommend it too enthusiastically. I try to read a few paragraphs every day, much as some people dip daily into the Bible, or into Prudence Foxglove’s Winsome Thoughts For The Dull-Witted. Much of the ship’s cargo hold was occupied by the cook’s crates of sausage ingredients, and he was forever puffing and blustering about his galley, kneading the turnip and marshland reeds and grasses and secret curd and occasional bits of pig and goat and starling into the sausages in which he took such pride, inspecting every single one with a powerful microscope to ensure that it was free of even the most minuscule hole. And of course, the crew gobbled them down greedily at mealtimes, both jumbo and cocktail varieties, for they had nothing else to eat. That’s quite enough about sausages.
Blodgett had made it a condition of his command of the pocket battleship that it be stocked with lots and lots of board games. And so three entire cupboards below the orlop deck were stacked with them, from family favourites such as Plutocrat!, Dentist’s Potting Shed and To The Finland Station to more obscure games like Treat The Dropsy With Leeches, Butcher’s Shop Railings, and Fictional Athlete Bobnit Tivol Cement Running Track Challenge Cup Heat Four. On the rare occasions he popped his head into the cabin where the crew huddled together for warmth through that freezing polar winter, Blodgett was always pleased to see that they were kept fully occupied by one board game or another. The gang of sailcloth patchers took particular pleasure in Patch That Sail!, a fast and furious yet at times slow-moving game involving equal measures of cunning and luck. The board itself represented a piece of sailcloth, and indeed was made of sailcloth, and the players took it in turns, by throwing dice and moving their counters, to patch up the various rips and rents in the cloth with needle and thread. Meanwhile, over in one corner of the cabin, Blodgett was sure to find the crows’ nest men playing a sprightly game of Groaning Widow, a contest so fiendishly complicated that only the superior brainpans of the crows’ nest men had a chance of understanding it. Other, less bright sailors would watch, gawping, for hours, as counters flew around the board, spinners were spun, card-packs consulted, and little plasticine models of characters from The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann were put in place, knocked over, taken to pieces, remodelled, repainted, and had the heads pulled off them and substituted with special bonus tokens. Only a fresh pan of sausages from the galley would interrupt the crows’ nest men’s concentration, when they would sulkily take a break to feed, having taken snapshots of the board from several different angles to prevent cheating.
And so the winter wore on, until one day the ice melted away and the pocket battleship sailed home. Trubshaw had abandoned ship by this time, stomping off across the ice floes in curiously subdued fashion, no longer shouting at the sky, his face barely visible behind the thick row of icicles dangling from the brim of his cap, stooping occasionally to pluck some kind of primitive edible life form from the cold, cold sea with his fur-bemittened fist. Blodgett watched from the prow of the battleship as his navigator vanished into the white nothingness. Weeks later, they began the return voyage, guided by the stars, which one of the crows’ nest men knew how to read.
Blodgett was of course hauled before an Admiralty Star Chamber to account for himself. Why had he failed to sail to the faraway bay for a spot of gung ho gunboat diplomacy? He burbled and babbled and preened his epaulettes and other trimmings, but at no point did he ever mention Trubshaw. He had even expunged the navigator’s name from the list of crew pinned up on a post at the entrance to the Star Chamber, and inevitably there was no reference to Trubshaw in Blodgett’s hopelessly inadequate captain’s log. Which, I suppose, begs the question: did Trubshaw ever actually exist? Or was he a wraith or phantom, or even a ghoul, of the kind known to haunt ships of the line as they ply the oceans, sailing round and round and round, into the maelstrom?
Nothing now would serve him but he must be a madman in print, and write a book of Ecclesiastical Policy. There he distributes all the Territories of Conscience into the Princes Province, and makes the Hierarchy to be but Bishops of the Air: and talks at such an extravagant rate in things of higher concernment, that the Reader will avow that in the whole discourse he had not one lucid interval. This Book he was so bent upon, that he sate up late at nights, and wanting sleep, and drinking sometimes Wine to animate his Fancy, it increas’d his Distemper. Beside that too he had the misfortune to have two Friends, who being also out of their wits, and of the same though something a calmer phrensy, spurr’d him on perpetually with commendation. But when his Book was once come out, and he saw himself an Author: that some of the Galants of the Town layd by the new Tune and the Tay, tay, tarry, to quote some of his impertinencies; that his Title page was posted and pasted up at every avenue next under the Play for that afternoon at the Kings or the Dukes House; the Vain-Glory of this totally confounded him. He lost all the little remains of his understanding, and his Cerebellum was so dryed up that there was more brains in a Walnut and both their Shells were alike thin and brittle… so this Gentleman, in the Dog-dayes, stragling by Temple-bar, in a massy Cassock and Surcingle, and taking the opportunity at once to piss and admire the Title-page of his Book; a tall Servant of his, one J.O. that was not so careful as he should be, or whether he did it of purpose, lets another Book of four hundred leaves fall upon his head; which meeting with the former fracture in his Cranium, and all the concurrent Accidents already mentioned, has utterly undone him.
Andrew Marvell, The Rehearsal Transpros’dÂ (1672)Â