Monthly Archive for January, 2008

Dobson After Death

Committed Dobsonists often turn their minds to the perplexing question of how the out of print pamphleteer would have coped with the 21st century. It is difficult to imagine him in our world o’ bleeping digital flummery ‘n’ pap, is it not? But now I think I have stumbled upon something which clearly calls out for the great man’s talents.

According to this piece about the red tape by which our doughty coppers are being strangled, “some constabularies have a 44-page booklet for recording collisions between two cars”. Of course, as soon as I read this, my immediate thought was “O Dobson! If thou wert with us now!” Rather than subsisting in penury, the pamphleteer could make a pretty penny offering his services to these police constabularies. He was capable of scribbling a 44-page pamphlet about any subject under the sun as easily as you or I could freeze to death in an Antarctic blizzard, and with considerably more aplomb. Alas, he passed over to the ethereal realm before getting the chance to add to the canon such potential masterworks as An Essay Upon The Unfortunate Collision Between A Skoda And A Trabant, or How I Learned About A Terrible Road Accident In Which Two Cars Smashed Into Each Other At Inhuman Speed.

Still, next time I am invited to play the parlour game What Would Dobson Do Today?, I think I have a good chance of winning top points.

Three Years Ago

This piece, entitled Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, appeared in Hooting Yard three years ago today, on 30th January 2005.

Hark! The herald angels are singing the song of Stakhanov, the heroic worker. The herald angels are legion, but there are only two Stakhanovs. That’s right, two. One Stakhanov is busy at the forge, just like Felix Randal the farrier*, busy in his bellowing room, smelting iron or hammering a huge sheet of steel with implacable industry. The other Stakhanov is a pale aesthete. He has a bow tie, luxuriant locks, a thin Ronald Colman moustache, and is lounging in a buttercuppy meadow, propped on one immaculate elbow, reading a book of poetry. It is the collected lyrics of some forgotten noodling progressive rock group. What will become of the two Stakhanovs? Hark! Let us listen to what the herald angels are singing.

The hero worker at his forge / The aesthete in a meadow / Lampblacked one and the other in serge / But both end on the gallows

Gosh! So, according to the herald angels, both Stakhanovs will come to a sticky end. We must assume that they can accurately predict the future, being herald angels. When they had finished their song, we sent one of our reporters to interview them. They were not happy about this, but put forward one of their number, an angel named Angerecton, to act as their spokesangel.

Now you and I know that Angerecton is a fumigating angel rather than a true herald angel, so it should be no surprise that the interview was unsatisfactory. In any event, our reporter found that his tape recorder malfunctioned, and all he could hear when he played back the tape was the sound of mighty and glorious angelic hosannahs, not unlike Spem In Alium by Thomas Tallis. As Dobson once wrote, in another context, “Angels sing, and devils make a din, but the heroic worker pounds his hammer and the poet praises Stalin”. I think that before too long, you and I and both Stakhanovs will be deafened by the devil’s din.

* O is he dead then?

Strangely Diverse Writings

“People who are only aware of Jabir (or Geber as he was known in the medieval West) as the name of an early scientist, may not be aware of what richly bizarre treasures are to be found in his strangely diverse writings: sperm is a crucial ingredient in the elixir of life; bird sperm is needed for producing a man with wings; the effigy of a Chinaman in bed will keep one awake at night; a picture of a man killing snakes done in magical ink will actually kill snakes; there is a fish called “the doctor of the sea” that carries a stone in its head that has the power to cure all ills; putrefied hair generates serpents; demons can be usefully trapped in statues. In the monumental Jabir ibn Hayyan: Contribution à l’histoire des idées scientifiques dans l’Islam, Paul Kraus (1904–44), a genius who committed suicide at an early age, surveyed the Jabirian corpus, which covered sexology, alchemy, the art of warfare, the manufacture of talismans, artisanal techniques, religious polemic, grammar, music, invisible inks, the artificial generation of human beings and much else.”

From this book review.

Evil Stalks The Land

It is easy to laugh at the English judiciary, with all those bewigged judges who seemingly know nothing of the wider world outside their chambers. But they know how to turn a phrase, those judges. With Nicholas Van Hoogstraten back in the news, it is worth recalling that many years ago he was described in court as “a self-styled emissary of Beelzebub”. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s used that phrase ever since when filling in his “Occupation” on documents.

Are You A Bird Or A Cow?

I recently came across a fascinating personality test. Normally, I give short shrift to such things, because they tend to be devised by airheads drunk on a combination of psychobabble and inanity, but this one delighted me. Unfortunately I can’t reproduce it here. Rarely have I seen a document so thoroughly protected by copyright, threatening extreme measures up to and including the crushing of one’s skull and the sale into slavery of one’s descendants, yea unto the fourth generation. Very occasionally I have shown a devil-may-care attitude in the face of such warnings, but I am not an idiot.

Anyway, as far as I can see, there is nothing to stop me paraphrasing a few questions from the test, so that’s what I’ll do. It’s called “Are You A Bird Or A Cow?”. I looked in vain for any indication that these are meant as types of human personality, so I can only assume that we are meant to take it literally. Maybe the test is meant to be conducted on behalf of your bird or cow acquaintances who are confused about their identity. That would make perfect sense.

So, for example, there are questions like Would you say you were flighty or given to rumination? and Do you prefer standing in a field or perching high in a tree? Please remember that I am only paraphrasing. One question asks specifically whether for breakfast you would prefer to eat millet or cud. Oddly, it doesn’t go on to ask about elevenses, lunch, dinner, tea, or supper, and nor is there any mention of snacks. This may indicate a certain laxness in the methodology employed, par for the course with tests such as this, but given the ferocious look on the face of the deviser, whose photograph appears at the top of the first page, I am minded not to level any criticism.

I completed the test for myself, rather than as a proxy for my crow Martin or for a cow I know called Degustibus, and the results were extremely interesting.

Dismantled Metal Tapping Machine

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Year Of The Potato

I ought to have mentioned this earlier, but better late than never. 2008 is the International Year Of The Potato. So whether you champion Accords or Belle de Fontenays or Caras or Carlingfords or Charlottes or Desirees or Duke of Yorks or Dundrods or Estimas or Fiannas or Golden Wonders or Harmonies or Kerr’s Pinks or King Edwards or Marfonas or Maris Bards or Maris Peers or Maris Pipers or Nadines or Nicolas or Ospreys or Pentland Javelins or Pink Fir Apples or Premieres or Rockets or Romanos or Roosters or Santes or Saxons or Vivaldis or Wiljas, be sure to devote much of your time and energy this year to potato-related activities. Hooting Yard will be getting into the groove with a series of potato-postings as the months go by, so keep your eyes peeled.

A Vast And Chilly Gasworks

Somewhere in today’s papers I came across the phrase a vast and chilly gasworks, and this reminded me that for ages now I have been meaning to write about the Blister Lane Gasworks. More specifically, I wish to address the time that the manager of the gasworks approached Dobson, the out of print pamphleteer, asking him to write an instruction manual for the gasworks janitor.

The words vast and chilly certainly describe the Blister Lane Gasworks to a T. They describe, too, the manager, a man of huge bulk and cold disposition named Istvan Pan. His moustache was of the Kaiser Wilhelm type, and his eyes were glacial. Interestingly, no one could ever recall seeing him off the gasworks’ premises, and how he lived and fended for his everyday needs was a complete mystery. Equally perplexing was the fact that in his left hand, at all times, he carried a hammer, almost as if it were an extension of his arm. Perhaps it was. So chilly was his manner that no one had the temerity to ask him about it.

Janitors came and went at the gasworks with bewildering rapidity. Some left voluntarily, after a few days or weeks, and others were fired by Pan, often within minutes of their appointment. Curiously, not a single ex-janitor would speak of their experience, remaining steadfast in their silence even when badgered for a scoop by bumptious reporters from The Daily Shovel.

It is against this background that one needs to consider Dobson’s response when he was summoned to the gasworks by Istvan Pan. Unfortunately, we do not know how the pamphleteer reacted, because there is a gap in his journals covering this period. He may have crowed with delight, or he may have shuddered with queasiness, but we are unlikely ever to know, so let’s just crack on and find out what happened next.

Dobson presented himself at the gasworks gate promptly at six o’ clock in the morning on a Monday of blustery gales and drizzle. He was met by a woman so tiny that he mistook her for a female homunculus, and wondered if she had been created according to the Paracelsian recipe of burying a bag of bones, semen, skin fragments and hair in the mud for forty days. Tactless as ever, Dobson wondered this aloud, and had his knee slapped by the tiny woman. Had she been any taller, no doubt she would have slapped his face, but his knee was as high as she could reach. She introduced herself as Mrs Pan, wife of the gasworks manager, and bade Dobson follow her down a very long corridor hissing with gas-jets, at the end of which was Istvan Pan’s office.

As enormous as his wife was minuscule, Pan towered above the pamphleteer as he coldly outlined what he wanted Dobson to do for him. Before appointing a new gasworks janitor, he explained, he wanted to have an instruction manual clearly setting out the janitorial duties, and he wanted it to be written in sweeping, magisterial prose so that whoever took on the job would be properly awestruck. As he said this he flailed his hammer in the air. He went on to say, in a voice redolent of Antarctic desolation, that Dobson had been recommended to him as a writer of sweeping, magisterial prose, and as a man who knew a thing or two about janitordom. Dobson was curious to know who might have made such a recommendation, but just as he was about to ask, Mrs Pan rushed into the office with a stricken look on her tiny face. The pamphleteer was astonished to see Istvan Pan’s cold imperiousness crumple into uxorious solicitude as he swept his tiny wife into his arms and, without dropping his hammer, comforted her, chirping into her ear softly, like a linnet.

Eventually becalmed, Mrs Pan explained why she was stricken. There had been a pile-up on the Blister Lane Bypass, she said, just beyond the gasworks, and fumes and flames were being blown by the blustery gales in their direction. Unless they took action, the whole place could explode in a conflagration like the one that engulfed the Potato Building just after the war. Istvan Pan looked Dobson coldly in the eye and told him that this was just the kind of circumstance where a competent janitor would be a boon, and the pamphleteer could only nod in agreement. Then the gasworks manager turned around and depressed a knob upon his desk and Dobson felt a sudden lurch in the pit of his stomach. It took him a few seconds to realise that the entire vast and chilly gasworks was descending, via the thrumming of some incredible and complicated engine, below the surface of the earth, into a subterranean vault as vast and chilly as the gasworks itself, while above ground, the firestorm created by the Blister Lane Bypass pile-up raged, and raged for days and weeks and months..

For many years now, Dobsonists have hunted high and low for a copy of the legendary “missing pamphlet”, How I Spent Six Months Underground In An Amazing Subterranean Vault Built To House The Blister Lane Gasworks, Together With Mr And Mrs Pan And Their Cat Hudibras. If ever a copy can be discovered, we might learn what happened in that time and, more importantly, why, when Istvan Pan at last pressed the knob to return the gasworks to ground level, his plans to have a janitorial instruction manual written in sweeping and magisterial prose by Dobson seem to have been utterly abandoned. We might learn, too, whether it was giant Istvan Pan, or tiny Mrs Pan, or even perhaps Dobson himself who managed to train Hudibras the cat to carry out all the tasks the manager expected of a vast and chilly gasworks janitor.

The Great Ecstasy Of Tiny Enid

Like Kaspar Hauser, she was an enigma. Like Petra Von Kant, she wept bitter tears. And like Woodcarver Steiner, she knew great ecstasy. But was it a religious ecstasy, or was it, as for Woodcarver Steiner, related to ski-jumping at championship level?

Had she been so inclined, there is no doubt that Tiny Enid could have been a top skier in spite of her club foot, for we know that she never allowed that infirmity to dissuade her from the most remarkable exploits. Hang-gliding, hot air ballooning, pole-vaulting and daring undersea rescues were among her many accomplishments, and she was only narrowly pipped to the post in a vinkensport contest when her finch, Edgar, became rattled and chirped susk-e-wiat instead of susk-e-wiet in the final minutes. Yet we have no evidence that Tiny Enid ever strapped on a pair of skis, nor dwelt in an area of snow fallen on sloping ground.

Equally, however, if hers was a religious ecstasy, we are hard put to identify to what brand of supernatural belief it could be ascribed. Those who knew Tiny Enid crinkle in glee as they recall that, like Benjamin Péret, she spat at Catholic priests, so I think we can rule out the Ratzingeristas, as we can confidently dismiss any connection to Aztec fundamentalism, given Tiny Enid’s reported remarks on Temaxcaltechi, the goddess of sweatbaths, whom she described as “far too sweaty”. This is not the place to examine Tiny Enid’s somewhat unseemly preoccupation with both human and divine sweat, for we must keep on track.

That track is the one we hope would lead us to know the source of Tiny Enid’s great ecstasy. With Woodcarver Steiner we know where we stand, as we do with Saint Teresa of Avila and any number of visionary enthusiasts and mystics through the ages. But what can we say of the great ecstasy of Tiny Enid except that it remains a puzzle? We know she experienced such ecstasy, for we have the mezzotints, done from the life, by the mezzotintist Rex Tint, which depict Tiny Enid in great transports of joy. It is true, as Rex Tint’s sister Dot Tint pointed out, that in many of these mezzotints Tiny Enid could more accurately be described as chuckling or giggling in a childish way at slapstick scenes of pratfalls and larkabout, rather than convulsed in spiritual ecstasy. But let us not forget that in one of the most well-known of the mezzotints Tiny Enid is shown so convulsed, standing next to a clown with unmistakeable beads of sweat upon his brow and great patches of perspiration visible under the arms of his clown costume as he reaches up to flap his beclowngloved hands in some sort of funny business. Tiny Enid would never have laughed at a clown, sweaty or not, for she feared them as she feared nothing else on earth, ever.

Trawling through the various biographical documents which survive, I have found no indication that Tiny Enid ever professed any religious impulses whatsoever, nor, for that matter, any more broadly spiritual leanings. Indeed, all accounts agree that she was a severely practical type of heroic infant, never more essentially herself than when solving very concrete problems, usually involving the rescue of persons imperilled. One thinks, for example, of Tiny Enid abseiling down a crevasse to deliver a life-saving polythene bag of nutritious bread pudding to the half-starved, half-frozen polar explorer Sir Blinky Cheeselip, or digging a tunnel under the Vindervandersee to reach a trio of extras from a Werner Herzog film trapped in a subterranean pool rife with blind albino aquatic tentacled beings each with thousands of razor sharp fangs and unassuageable appetites. One pictures Tiny Enid kicking a git in the head with her big black boot.

Perhaps, we must ask, it was her reveries of such deeds which sent her into her great ecstasies? We ask, but for the time being we cannot answer “yes” with any great conviction, not until much further work has been done to disentangle the hugely complicated legacy Tiny Enid left in her heroic, infantile wake.

Currently Listening To…

Unconfined glee here at Hooting Yard following our discovery of the Finnish Men’s Shouting Choir. Here is an extract from the sleeve notes to the Tenth Anniversary Concert CD (itself ten years old):

What would it be like to assemble a maximal number of men into a regular formation and dress them in dark suits, black rubber ties (made of used inner tubes), white shirts, and make them furiously shout some patriotic texts sacred to the Finns?

Now we know. I learn from the website that their repertoire soon extended to children’s ditties, worker’s songs, national anthems and quotes from Finnish laws and international treaties. The choir has performed in “chamber music halls, rock festivals, jazz clubs, choir festivals, art galleries and museums, railway stations, supermarkets, construction sites, Olympic stadiums, occupied houses, mountaintops, ocean shores and wet swamps”, apparently.

Watch them here. Superb.

Sanctity

OutaSpaceman dropped me a line to point out that I failed to observe the feast day of St Mungo last Monday, 14th January. Remiss of me, I know. To make up for such an inexplicable oversight, let me draw your attention to St Prisca, whose feast day is today.

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St Prisca was a child martyr, and you can read all about her in The Book Of Saints And Friendly Beasts by Abbie Farwell Brown. You will learn how, “Small and defenceless though she was, she did not fear to tell everyone what she believed and Whose Cross she followed. So she soon became known as a firm little Christian maiden.” When you have read this stirring tale, and wept, yet felt strangely uplifted, I recommend some of the other stories you will find there, such as Saint Keneth [sic] Of The Gulls, Saint Launomar’s Cow, Saint Fronto’s Camels, and Saint Werburgh And Her Goose. That should be quite enough saints to keep you occupied and out of mischief.

NOTE : It strikes me that St Prisca comes across as a Christian version of heroic infant Tiny Enid, many of whose exploits have been recorded here. I am not aware to what, if any, religious persuasion Tiny Enid adhered, but I shall do some research and let readers know in due course.

Hectic Clanging

On Tuesday morning I was woken by the hectic clanging of the bells of St Bibblybibdib’s. I had been dreaming about a monkey as big as a planet, as I sometimes do. Using the Blötzmann technique, I squeezed the sleep out of my brain, clambered out of bed, and threw my windows wide open. I was rather disconcerted to note that, as Milton put it in Book IV of Paradise Lost, “the starry cope of Heaven… or all the elements / At least, had gone to wrack, disturbed and torn”, for Monday had been mild with sunny intervals and there had been no sign of cosmic cataclysm. Indeed, I had made a point of watching Daniel Corbett’s early evening weather forecast on the BBC, and that always reliable and beautifully well-spoken presenter had said nothing at all about wrack, disturbance, and a tearing in the heavens, as far as I could remember.

I had, however, taken the precaution of making a copy of his forecast on my bakelite televisual simulacrumating device, and the steam would have dispersed overnight, making it ready for viewing, so I went into the parlour and depressed the starting knob. I was keen to see if my memory was playing tricks, for there seemed to be no other explanation for the disjuncture between Daniel Corbett’s prognostications and the foul reality outwith my windows. While I waited for the valves to warm up, I recalled that the monkey in my dream had been about as big as the planet Mercury. In earlier dreams it had been the size of one of those gigantic gas planets you read about, and I wondered if this shrinkage was something to be welcomed or, indeed, feared. It was hard to tell.

I sat down on my stool and pulled my crumpled hessian nightshirt tight about my torso, and the simulacrumating device hissed into life. There, as if by magic, was Daniel Corbett again, telling me about the weather, dumbfounding me. For as he moved his arms in graceful scooping gestures, like a meteorological ballerina, his words were not those I remembered from yesterday evening, but those of Milton. Dan said that “the starry cope of Heaven… or all the elements / At least,” will go “to wrack, disturbed and torn”. And he was right, of course, for that was precisely what was happening outside.

I had concentrated like mad watching him the day before, as I always do, and I was absolutely convinced that what his simulacrum was saying now was not what I had heard then. The bakelite device could not be at fault, for I had had a person from Porlock come to give it an overhaul but a week before, and he had pronounced it to be in full working order. Was my brain being monkeyed with by the planet-sized monkey of my dreams? I watched Dan Corbett again, three times, and three times he spoke of wrack. Shutting down the device, I changed into my crumpled hessian outdoor clothing and hurried down the lane to St Bibblybibdib’s. The bells still clanged as I staggered into a pew and prayed as hard as I could for my immortal soul, on Tuesday morning.

The Glory Of Ancient Rome

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From the very splendid Agence Eureka.

Mrs Snooke’s Tortoise

You can now read Gilbert White’s The Natural History Of Selborne as a daily blog, so I recommend that you do so. One of my favourite items in the Hooting Yard library is a 1946 book entitled The Portrait Of A Tortoise : Extracted From The Journals And Letters Of Gilbert White, edited by the great Sylvia Townsend Warner. She went through the Journals and simply extracted all the references to Mrs Snooke’s tortoise Timothy, from 1st November 1771 (”Mrs Snooke’s tortoise begins to scrape an hole in the ground in order for laying up”) to 1st June 1793 (”Timothy is very voracious : when he can get no other food he eats grass in the walks”). Perhaps, after Jubilate Agno, I may read this on the radio next time there is a special edition of Hooting Yard On The Air.

Absence Of Swans

There were barrage balloons in the sky on the morning when I decided to mesmerise a swan. I had been thinking of doing so for some time, for months in fact. The idea of having so savage a bird as a swan within my power enthralled me. Gerard Manley Hopkins famously mesmerised a duck, on the twenty-seventh of April 1871, but I was going to go one better, and entrance a large white swan. I filled my pockets with pebbles, and pranced towards the pond, where I fully expected to find a few swans swanning about, one of which I would choose as my mesmeric subject swan. I looked up at the barrage balloons, wondering why there were so many of them, in huddles, just below cloud level. Was that the correct altitude for barrage balloons? I knew not.

I had neglected, that morning, to wash my hair, and I am afraid to say that it was disgustingly greasy as a consequence. And a further consequence was that as I made my way towards the pond I was jeered at by a little tangle of hoodies, who used the greasiness of my hair as a pretext to abuse me. I suspect that, had I washed my hair, they would have lit upon some other feature, my carriage or my garments or the scars on my face where I had been bitten by birds. Now, I have always found that the most effective way to deal with hoodies and similar riffraff is to visit upon them sudden, ferocious and inexplicable violence. So packed with pebbles were my pockets that I had no room, that morning, for hand grenades or pepper-sprays or petrol-soaked rags, so my usual avenues of hoodie-terrorising were closed. Instead, I ran at them, whirling my arms and screeching as loud as a sedge of bitterns. The bittern is one of the noisiest birds in the avian panoply, and its loud, booming call is one of the farthest travelling of all bird songs. The male calls relentlessly both day and night from deep within his reed bed, hoping to attract a female into his territory. My purpose, of course, was to repel rather than to attract, and in this I was successful. The hoodies fled from me, as I expect you would have done, for when I am frightening I am very frightening.

Composing myself, I turned back to the path and continued towards the pond. It was a fine pond, as ponds go, the shape of a frying-pan when viewed from above, as I had viewed it many times, from hot air balloons and aerostats. It is many years now since I have been aloft. My physician identified a peculiar substance in my head which throbbed and became inflamed if I travelled much above sea level, so I took her advice, moved to a flat part of the country, and, with some regret, curtailed my aerial exploits. I feared that my close study of birds would be in jeopardy now I was forced, for medical reasons, to hunker close to the ground, but it soon became apparent that I still had numberless ornithological opportunities, given that many birds stick pretty close to the ground themselves, a lot of the time, swans among them.

To my utmost dismay, upon arrival at the pond I saw no swans at all. This was most unusual, but I rapidly connected the absence of swans to the sight of black and yellow police tape reeled all the way round the pond, fastened to what I hoped were temporary perpendicular metal poles. Sometimes police tape is blue and white, and sometimes, as on this occasion, it is black and yellow. My idle fancy has always been that the latter colours are picked by a police bee enthusiast, but I am sure there is a more sensible reason. I certainly wanted to know the reason for the appearance of the tape on the very morning when I planned to mesmerise a swan, and I looked around for a police officer whom I could bombard with questions. At the far side of the pond I was delighted to see PC Nisbet, who was known to me personally. We belonged to the same branch of the Beige Cardigan And Trousers club, and often sat within shouting distance of each other at club picnics. I shouted at him now, using my bittern boom, though in a friendlier way than I had deployed it against the hoodies, and saw PC Nisbet cover his ears in shock. My, what large, irregular ears the man had! If he had been unfortunate enough to be born in an earlier and more brutish age, his ears would surely have been exhibited by a mountebank for money. I think he must have had a specially modified police helmet to accommodate them, but if so it was a very clever modification, not apparent to a casual observer.

I did not want to have to boom my catalogue of questions across the pond, so I began walking around it, towards the PC, and he too began walking in his policemanly way towards me, so we met up halfway, where there was a kiosk selling refreshments. I plumped for a tin of Squelcho!, and PC Nisbet, who confessed to being peckish, bought a tub of boiled fish-parts. We settled on a bench next to the kiosk, but before I could ask him about the police tape and the absence of swans, he remarked upon the disgusting greasiness of my hair, and I had to explain that it had gone unwashed that morning as I was pressed for time. After upbraiding me, and giving a long-winded alarum about the dangers of excess grease in the hair, he began babbling about the barrage balloons, which still loomed in the sky above us. I was impatient to change the subject, but PC Nisbet was a fiendishly difficult man to interrupt, for he never seemed to need to pause for breath, the words tumbling out of his mouth one after another like bats from a cave. Somehow he was managing to eat his boiled fish-parts at the same time, which made his jabbering even harder to understand than usual. I began to despair, and wondered if I could stop him by pretending to swoon, so I dropped my Squelcho! and toppled off the bench into the muck at the pond’s edge. This had the desired effect, although it meant that the grease in my hair was now mingled with mud, beetles and slime.

“Why is police tape reeled around the pond and where are the swans?” I rapped, as I clambered back on to the bench.

PC Nisbet took a deep breath and rebabbled. He told me that a terrible crime had been committed and that shortly forensic officers in skindiving equipment would arrive to drag the pond. The swans had been removed to what he called a place of safety. I wanted to know where this was, so I could pursue my swan mesmerisation plan without further delay, but the PC claimed not to know. Before dawn, he said, a squadron of bird management officers, trained in swan removal techniques, had descended upon the pond and removed the swans, using the techniques in which they had been trained, but where the swans had been removed to, and if or when they would ever be returned to the pond, and if indeed the place of safety was truly safe, for swans, these were matters it was thought best not to divulge to an ordinary copper.

From his fantastic ears to his unstoppable jabbering, there was little that was ordinary about PC Nisbet, but I took his point. If I were put in charge of a pond crime and attendant swan removal, I would not see the need to tell every last detail of the operation to a lowly functionary. But clearly I needed to eke from PC Nisbet the name and whereabouts of the officer in charge of the case. After much more babbling, I learned that this was Detective Captain Cargpan, and that he was, at that very moment, back at the station roughing up a malefactor. I bid PC Nisbet farewell and set off hotfoot for the station.

I was puffed out when I got there, and when I slumped against the front desk, was outraged to find myself placed under immediate arrest by the desk sergeant, a florid character with the eyes of a pig and the nose of a crow. I protested that I was a fine upstanding member of the local community and a committee member of the Beige Cardigan And Trousers club, to no avail. Snapping a pair of manacles on me and shoving me into a cell, the florid sergeant told me he was arresting me for entering a police station with grease, mud, beetles, and slime in my hair, and for probably having something to do with the appearance of untold numbers of barrage balloons in the sky that morning. My request to send a desperate, heartfelt message to David Blunkett by metal tapping machine was met with a punch on the side of my head. This dislodged at least one of the beetles from my hair as the cell door clanged shut.

What a predicament! I had got out of bed that morning with the innocent intention of mesmerising a swan, and now I found myself locked up in a grimy police cell and quite possibly due to be bashed about by Detective Captain Cargpan. I would have to admit the first charge, of course, but how would I be able to prove that I had nothing to do with the barrage balloons? I fretted and fumed, and then I remembered the pebbles packed in my pockets. So eager had the desk sergeant been to bang me up that he had not bothered to search me and to confiscate my pebbles. I realised that if I deployed them in a very clever way, I would not only be able to avert a roughing up by Cargpan, but I might very well manage to escape the police station entirely.

There are thousands of very clever things one can do with pocketfuls of pebbles. That is the title, more or less, of an invaluable but out of print pamphlet by Dobson, which I have read many times, and have almost by heart. For example, my pebbles were an essential part of the mesmerising of a swan, which is why my pockets were packed with them. Now, though, they would have to serve a different purpose. Having devised my very clever scheme, I did not waste a second, and deployed the pebbles accordingly. Ten minutes later I was scampering along the winding lane from the police station into the forest, a free man again. I made my way to the densest part of the woods, where the foliage was so thick that I could no longer see the sky. Nor, as a result, could I see the barrage balloons, and this afforded me some relief. Their looming presence had cast a pall over the morning.

I was famished, and hankered for kippers, but I had to make do with berries and grubs. How long would I have to remain in hiding? I was sure that Cargpan would send a gaggle of bluebottles to flush me out. I had used all my pebbles in escaping from him, and the forest floor duff was singularly lacking in further pebbles. I ate some more berries and grubs and racked my brains for a plan, but I could not stop thinking about kippers. I wished I had bought a spare tin of Squelcho! back at the kiosk, for I was thirsty as well as hungry. I sucked some moisture from a leaf. If only I had thought to bring my portable metal tapping machine, I could have sent a message to PC Nisbet. That man had a heart almost as big as one of his massive ears, and in spite of his infuriating babbling he was steadfast and reliable. I recalled that he had once told me of his dallyings with telepathy, conducted after nightfall in his allotment shed. His sole success had been what he described as a rather unsatisfactory conversation with a weasel half-savaged by an owl, but I wondered if he had made further progress since that breakthrough. Furrowing my brow, and peering vaguely in the direction I thought PC Nisbet would be, were he still patrolling the pond, I aimed a message at him, imploring him to come and rescue me from the forest, to protect me from Detective Captain Cargpan’s fists, and to feed me with kippers.

An entire day passed before I was ready to admit to myself that the exercise was completely futile. At least, I think it was a day. I was not wearing a timepiece and I was enshrouded in the forest’s gloom, so I became unsure of the passage of time. By my possibly inaccurate reckoning, I have been here for three months now. Every so often I have had to hide from one of Cargpan’s thuggish patrols. They pass through the forest beating the trees with their truncheons and shouting my name. Once, I was tempted to give myself up, and to take what was coming to me, however unjust it was, but at the last moment I rallied my burning sense of foolhardy valour, and hid myself deep in a brambly thicket. I am surviving remarkably well on a diet of berries and grubs and what moisture I can suck from leaves, although my cravings for kippers and Squelcho! are undimmed and I suffer greatly, like a medieval saint. But I have a plan. I know that, buried under the duff on the forest floor, there must be pebbles somewhere. Every day now I dig for hours with my hands, and at the last count my stockpile had grown to six reasonably pebbly pebbles. It is only a matter of time before I have enough to pack my pockets full, and then I shall deploy them in a very clever way and emerge from the forest, and I shall stride majestically home, and wash my hair, and then I shall refill my pockets with a fresh supply of pebbles and march to where I shall find some swans, and I shall mesmerise one of them and have it in my power. It will be interesting to see if barrage balloons still loom in the sky, just below the clouds, or whether they have vanished away and left the sky clear and bright, an expanse of implausible blue.