Monthly Archive for April, 2008

Snacking For Christ

As I am sure all Hooting Yardists know, Deuteronomy 8.8 reads : “A land of wheat, and barley, and vines, and fig trees, and pomegranates; a land of oil olive, and honey” – now all packed into one delicious snack bar!

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You can find some other holy confectionery here, but before stuffing your face to the point of gluttony, do remember that elsewhere in Deuteronomy we are reminded of “that great and terrible wilderness, wherein were fiery serpents, and scorpions, and drought” (ie, Pointy Town).

Indifferent Auks

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“Ah, but look! The stricken ship has been abandoned by its crew. Their puddings had been over-egged and they all fell into the sea. And they were swallowed up each one, and fed the monsters of the deep. Now not a trace of them remains, except bones strewn on the ocean floor, and their stricken ship above, pecked at by indifferent auks.”

From The Contaminated Eggy Pudding Eaten By Incautious Sailors And Other Maritime Tragedies by Dennis Beerpint

Crushed And Squashed

For many years, Dobson worked intermittently at a taxonomy of crushed things and squashed things. He kept two notebooks, one with a blue cover, on which SQUASHED was written in big black bold capitals, and one with a yellow cover, on to which he stuck a Dymo-Tape® strip punched out with the word CRUSHED. Asked once by a bespectacled devotee if there was any significance in the blue and yellow colouring of the notebook covers, Dobson’s reply was drowned out by the screeching of a flock of linnets. Ornithologically alert readers will say “Oi! Hang on! Linnets don’t screech”, and they would of course be correct, but the linnets in question were rare screeching linnets, a flock of which Dobson had corralled in an annexe to the room in which he granted an interview to the bespectacled devotee, in Winnipeg, or a suburb thereof. It is important to be precise about these things.

Had the rare screeching linnets not screeched, the bespectacled devotee would nevertheless have been disappointed by Dobson’s reply, for the colour coding of his crushed and squashed taxonomy notebooks was the sort of thing the pamphleteer preferred to keep under his hat. I can reveal, however, that when he bought the notebooks, Dobson was under the spell of the colour symbolism theories of Faffington.

Herne Bay, Herne Hill, and Hoon were the places Faffington trod, though which one was the site of his breakthrough discovery is not known. But in neither the Hernes nor Hoon does he have any commemorative plaque, probably because his theories have been utterly discredited. If Faffington is remembered at all, aside from Dobson’s short-lived championing of him, it is as a deluded monomaniac. He insisted on publishing his magnum opus in a stodgy German translation, thinking that this would give it more heft with beetle-browed intellectuals. Having no German, Dobson had the ludicrously dense and lengthy text Englished for him by a distressed polyglot he met on a sandbank. The polyglot was grubbing for worms, while Dobson had got lost on his way to the post office.

Dobson had something of a knack for finding himself on sandbanks, in tar pits, or stranded in drainage ditches, without ever knowing quite how he got there. Marigold Chew had suggested that he get himself a pair of shoes with a compass concealed in the heel, such as were once worn by venturesome tinies, but the pamphleteer was far too fond of his padded Bulgarian Security Police hiking boots to contemplate a change of footwear. In any case, it was one of Dobson’s physical peculiarities that he emitted violent magnetic discharges, so that compasses in his vicinity went wildly spinning. By all accounts, Faffington too was subject to anomalous magnetic phenomena, although it is mere myth that the popular cartoon character Magnet Boy! The Boy Magnet was based on him.

During the period of his infatuation with the muddle-headed colour symbolist, Dobson considered writing a potted biography of Faffington, but found facts hard to come by. After a fortnight of tough and grizzled research, all he could say for certain was that Faffington had an extremely large head. Hatters were known to have baulked at his approach, and more than one practising phrenologist had been driven to fits and vapours when attending to him. That much gave Dobson about half a page of material, not nearly enough for a pamphlet, however potted it might be. He scrunched up the page on which he had jotted his notes and tossed it into a canal, an act of wanton littering which earned him withering looks from the lock keeper for the next twenty years.

The lock keeper, by coincidence, was the brother of the distressed polyglot Dobson encountered on that sandbank. In infancy, they had been briefly famous as a variety theatre act known as The Diminutive Cavorting Brothers. The future lock keeper cavorted sideways, and he who would a polyglot be cavorted up and down. They earned a small fortune before the elder one was six years old, but every penny was frittered away by their ne’er-do-well parents, a pair of rascals who came to a deservedly sticky end. Polyglot and lock keeper drifted apart in their teenage years, and were completely estranged by the time Dobson employed the one and disgruntled the other.

Had Dobson carried out a bit more research on the subject of his abandoned potted biography, he would have learned that Faffington also had a sibling from whom he was estranged. His sister was by turns a flapper, a bluestocking, an aviatrix, and the president of a small republic rich in bauxite and tin, and she was potrayed on film by both Mabel Normand and Constance Binney.

Dobson was watching the hoofing of a horse in a blacksmith’s yard one Wednesday morning, when an anvil toppled from its temporary hoist, weakened by rainwater, and fell into the mud, crushing an encampment of goldenback beetles. It was this incident which led to his interest in crushed things and squashed things, the project to create a proper taxonomy of which remained incomplete at his death.

R.I.P.

“As we journey through life, discarding baggage along the way, we should keep an iron grip, to the very end, on the capacity for silliness. It preserves the soul from desiccation.” – Humphrey Lyttelton, 1921-2008, President of The Society For Italic Handwriting

Fritz : His Hinge And His Pips

Fritz : His Hinge And His Pips is the terrific new bestseller from Pebblehead. This time, the paperbackist gives us a thriller and, gosh, it certainly makes for an exciting read. The beginning of the book, though, is deceptively slow-moving, even dull. We learn that the eponymous hero is an emotional cripple who wallows in a stew of malignant Weltschmerz. He is an unattractive character, wearing unattractive clothing, giving off an unattractive pong, and living in an unattractive chalet in an unattractive seaside resort. We do not warm to him as we learn, in chapters one and two, of his grumbling and his scruffy dog and the bits of celery and spring onion forever stuck in his beard. We are repelled by his grimy bathtub and his many stains.

But then, in chapter three, Pebblehead pulls the rabbit out of the hat and we are off on a pell-mell rollercoaster ride of thrills and spills aplenty. What happens is that Fritz decides one morning to eat a piece of fruit. It is a pip-riddled fruit, and Fritz spits out the pips with such force that they lodge in the hinge of his door. The door is ajar at the time, because Fritz’s scruffy dog has lolloped into the chalet garden to piss on a briar patch. When the dog comes back in, Fritz goes to close the door, but cannot. It turns out that the pips Fritz spat across the room are of adamantine hardness, and, lodged in the hinge, prevent the door from shutting.

Thus begins a sequence of events that propels Fritz and his scruffy dog through a series of adventures that begins in an ironmonger’s shop and rapidly moves on to a coathanger factory, a sausage maker’s, the undersea headquarters of a madcap swordfish person, and a barn full of cows. All the while, the pips remain stuck in the hinge and the chalet door stays maddeningly ajar. Yet as the story progresses, Fritz’s Weltschmerz becomes less malignant and his dog less scruffy. By chapter forty-nine, when we find Fritz picking bits of celery and spring onion out of his beard and disposing of them down a hygenic chute, we are ready to forgive the griminess of his bathtub.

It must be said that the novel is not an unalloyed success. I could have done without the excessive use of exclamation marks, for example, and Pebblehead’s pip descriptions are deplorable. I suspect he may have copied them out of a cheap botanical gazetteer without first checking its accuracy. He has committed similar sins in the past, notably in the Wet Behind The Ears trilogy, vast chunks of which were plagiarised from a mistranslated Serbian birdseed catalogue.

These minor cavils aside, Fritz : His Hinge And His Pips is a tremendous addition to the Pebblehead canon. Read it with your feet up, on your balcony, if you have a balcony, with a bag of snacks at your side, the constant tweeting of chaffinches assailing your ears, freshly laundered socks on the washing line, sprites in the wainscot, and butchers’ drapes billowing in the balmy spring breeze.

A Duck And A Bucket

I love Agence Eureka. Here’s a duck and a bucket found there.

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Thicket

In a thicket, with a compass, I am thinking about blubber. I use blubber for my candles. I’m the captain of a whaler. Some use tallow, I use blubber. It gets smoky in my cabin. I’m not in my cabin now. As I said, I’m in a thicket. I’m on shore leave for a fortnight. I’ve been hiking with the devil. Satan left me in a thicket on the wild and windy moors. But I’ve got my trusty compass and my pipe clamped in my jaws. I am smoking in the thicket. I hope to see my whaler soon. Don’t go hiking with the devil. Keep your compass in your pocket. I am thinking about blubber. Blubber is my candle light. It’s a comfort in this thicket on the wild and windy moors to think of blubber candle light, for the devil trapped me in this thicket and it is a pitch black night.

The Influence Of Ploppy Noises In The Works Of Pebblehead

As a writer of bestselling paperbacks, Pebblehead tends not to attract serious critical attention. Too often, his works are dismissed as pap for airheads, and while this is arguably the case with such works as Pap For Airheads, Slops Of Triviality Sloshing About Between The Ears, and his thriller The Glazed Stare Of The Brain-Dead Mop-Bucket Zombie, it is an encouraging sign that one or two scholars are addressing the Pebblehead oeuvre with perspicuity and panache. Well, one, rather than one or two.

I refer to Sidney Ullage’s recent article in the literary journal Bookish Goo in which he examines the influence of ploppy noises in Pebblehead’s as yet unpublished blockbuster Dustbin Of Pomposity! Using critical techniques developed by men with terrific beards, Ullage argues that we cannot begin to understand the book without first being locked up in a dank cellar in which beetles scurry across the mildewed floor and mysterious ploppy noises can be heard, possibly coming from behind a panel hidden in the gloom.

There are those who poo-poo Ullage’s close reasoning and breathtaking critical acuity as the ravings of an idiot. There are those who accuse him of having a decidedly oddly-shaped head and the wrong sort of beard. There are those who, having engaged him in conversation at glamorous cocktail parties in swish urban rooftop gardens, dismiss him as a babbling freak with “issues”. There are those who wish he had been strangled at birth and disposed of in a pond. There are those who wish he had never been born at all. There are those who grunt unintelligibly at the mention of his name. There are those who pick holes in the sleeves of their jumpers before shovelling the contents of a jar of pickled sausages down their gullets.

I am proud to be among those who rightly see Sidney Ullage as a harbinger. I am not yet entirely clear what he harbinges, but by all that is holy in heaven and on earth I shall stand here and repeat what I have just said, over and over again, until not only am I blue in the face, but everything around me that has a face, the hens, the cows, the cassowaries, the ducks, the other ducks, they, too, all turn blue in the face, a blue like the mightiest of skies over Pointy Town on a blazing noon when the earth stops spinning.

Disquieting Ploppy Noises From Behind The Panel

Dobson wrote extensively during the period when he was hunkered down in a janitorium. The key pamphlets from this time were collected in a compendium and published as a thick paperback with a garish cover design suitable for sale at airport bookstalls. It is thought to be the only instance where Dobson’s name was embossed in gold. Alas, this failed to impress the reading public, and very few copies of the book were sold, although we should bear in mind that I write of a time before mass commercial aeroplane travel, so there were fewer airports, and even fewer airport bookstalls, and only a handful of customers frequenting those that did exist.

One early airport bookstall worthy of note was that opened at Tantarabim Rustic Airfield by Marigold Chew’s cousin Basil Chew. Basil was a peg-legged pear-shaped man with tremendous Ruritanian moustachios, a fuddle-headed entrepreneur whose every business scheme failed. He simply had no grasp of reality, his view of the world being at once mistaken, hallucinatory, and plain wrong. If one were unkind, one would call him a blockhead. But he had charm, and winning ways, and when he twirled those fine moustachios people swooned with besotment. Thus he was able to convince a few foolhardy financiers to back his airport bookstall, where, under the delusion that aeroplanes flew at the speed of a peasant trudging along a muddy country lane and that passengers would need extremely fat books to keep them occupied, he stocked only mighty tomes of great and forbidding length. Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, Robert Burton’s The Anatomy Of Melancholy, Boswell’s The Life Of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. Comprehending An Account Of His Studies And Numerous Works, In Chronological Order; A Series Of His Epistolatory Correspondence And Conversations With Many Eminent Persons; And Various Original Pieces Of His Composition, Never Before Published: The Whole Exhibiting A View Of Literature And Literary Men In Great-Britain, For Near Half A Century, During Which He Flourished, and Henry Darger’s The Story Of The Vivian Girls, In What Is Known As The Realms Of The Unreal, Of The Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused By The Child Slave Rebellion were, in fact, the only books available at Basil Chew’s bookstall until, under pressure from his cousin, he agreed to carry the gold-embossed Dobson compendium. During the six months the business lasted, he did not sell a single book, and was kept afloat only by his sideline in toffee apples, in-flight pastry novelties, and moustachio wax.

A compelling reason for the lack of success of Dobson’s big fat book is not so much its preposterous length but that, curiously, he did not include an account of the most interesting thing that happened during the janitorium period. This was the series of events that have elsewhere been described as Dobson And The Disquieting Ploppy Noises From Behind A Panel, the title given to a ravishing essay by ravishing essayist Maud Glubb. A close reading of La Glubb’s text reveals many fascinating details, but is far from complete. Most annoyingly, we have no idea of what the panel, from behind which Dobson heard disquieting ploppy noises, was made. Was it teak, or tin, or mahogany, or lead, or hardboard, or deal, or zinc, or beaten gold, or corrugated cardboard, or iron, or papier maché, or bauxite, or empacted goat hair, or plastic, or balsa wood, or formica, or stitched-together pelts from slaughtered wolves, or bronze, or marble, or dough, or gases suspended in a solid state? Glubb does not tell us.

What we do know is that, sprawled upon the floor one Tuesday morning in April, the pamphleteer was disquieted by ploppy noises, the source of which he soon traced to behind the panel, whatever the panel was, and whatever function it played within the janitorium. We know, too, that as a result of his disquiet he rummaged in a drawer for a chisel with which to prise apart the panel from whatever it was fixed to, in order to ascertain the nature of the ploppy noises and to staunch them. We know that he failed to find a chisel nor any chisel-like tool with which to accomplish the task. That nothing in the nature of a chisel was to be found in the drawer, within a janitorium, is perplexing, and it is a point to which ravishing essayist Maud Glubb returns later in her ravishing essay. We know that Dobson leaned against the wall and lit one of his acrid Paraguayan cigarettes and puffed upon it as he bent an attentive ear to the continued ploppy noises, and we know that anon the ploppy noises petered out and that Dobson stamped out the butt of his Paraguayan cigarette with his boot and that he clumped out of the janitorium into the April morning and took a turn around a nearby pond. We do not know what the weather was like, and we do not know whether the pond was populated by ducks, or geese, or swans, or indeed if it was home to a grampus or a kraken. Unlikely as the last two may be, remember that the pond in the grounds of the janitorium was no ordinary pond, as you will know if you have read Dobson’s pamphlet Some Arresting, Diverting, And Frankly Sensational Factoids Regarding Certain Ponds I Have Had The Pleasure To Take A Turn Around, In All Weathers, Arranged In Alphabetical Order By Pond Name. Some have pointed to the pamphleteer’s use of ‘factoid’ rather than ‘fact’ to cast doubt on the veracity of this pamphlet, but it should be borne in mind that it was written at a time when Dobson was beset by benign seizures in his cranial integuments and he was not his usual self.

The next time Dobson was disquieted by ploppy noises from behind the panel was a fortnight later. It was now May, the month in which the Dutch observe the Remembrance of the Dead and the Norwegians celebrate their Constitution. Being neither Dutch nor Norwegian, the pamphleteer had no reason to mark these events, yet he did so, loudly, with bellowing and strangulated cries, tears streaming down his face, and picnics. He was that kind of man, sometimes. It was on another day in May, however, when, shifting his writing desk from one side of the janitorium to the other, he again heard the disquieting ploppy noises from behind the panel. He had not forgotten his fruitless search for a chisel in the drawer, and was not so foolish as to repeat it. Instead, he shoved his writing desk aside, leaving it halfway across the janitorium, tiptoed up to the panel, and pressed one of his ears against it. For some reason, La Glubb insists on telling us it was his right ear. She can be given to such unnecessary detail – presented without a shred of evidence – and yet remain silent on matters of greater import, which makes her essay as infuriating as it is ravishing. Be that as it may, note that on this second occasion Dobson’s attention to the disquieting ploppy noise from behind the panel was much more focussed. In April, after failing to find a chisel, he had leaned insouciantly against one of the walls, smoking while he listened, whereas in May, look, he is crouching, the side of his head flattened against the panel, and his gob is innocent of a fag. Maddeningly, we do not know how long he remained in this creaky posture. Perhaps he was there all day, growing increasingly disquieted. What is beyond doubt is that the very next day he wrote a note in his journal. His tone is tetchy and bespeaks grumblement rather than disquiet, and it is clear that the ploppy noises are “getting to him”, as they say. Soon enough, however, the subject is dropped, and the following sixteen pages of the journal are filled with a draft version of a pamphlet upon Chumpot Patent Soap bars he was later to abandon, together with a few notes on gale force winds, Hedy Lamarr, and that dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.

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Shortly after completing that journal entry, Dobson took an evening stroll. We do not know what phase the moon was in and, being quite staggeringly ignorant of celestial orbs, nor did Dobson. We do not know the precise route he took, once he left the grounds of the janitorium, although it is likely that he would have passed the canal lock and the tobacconist and the badger sanctuary and the recently-demolished community hub. Had he been eating cream crackers there would have been a trail of crumbs for a sleuth to follow, for the pamphleteer was a messy eater at the best of times, and especially so when in motion. We know, however, that he had sworn off crackers of all kinds at this time, mistakenly believing them to be the cause of the benign seizures in his cranial integuments. This idée fixe of his had caused a monstrous and prolonged argument with Dr Raymilland, and it was to be many years before their relations were mended. It is significant that Dobson never felt able to discuss his disquiet at the ploppy noises from behind the panel with his physician, for Dr Raymilland was a man with much medical experience of unaccountable noises, ploppy and otherwise, and he may well have been able to recommend a course of action, probably involving muffling, and cushions. All we know for certain is that, upon returning to the janitorium in darkness, Dobson poked his head around the door for a midnight check and heard again the disquieting ploppy noises from behind the panel. It is unclear what made him snap, but he made a sudden dash across the room and gave the panel a resounding kick with his boot. We do not know if he cried out as he did so, but afterwards, in the darkness, there was silence. The pamphleteer lit one of his acrid Paraguayan cigarettes and waited. His toes throbbed, for his boot was old and floppier than it had once been. He waited in the darkness, in the janitorium, in the silence, flicking the ash from his cigarettes on to the feng shui monkey puzzle carpeting system, until dawn broke.

Maud Glubb’s ravishing scholarly apparatus collapses at this point in her essay, and the next thing we know it is September, the month in which the Zulu commemorate King Shaka, after whom, of course, bestselling paperback author Pebblehead was named. Had Pebblehead been writing at the time Basil Chew opened his ill-fated airport bookstall, the peg-legged and pear-shaped entrepreneur would no doubt have thrown out his Prousts and Burtons and Boswells and Dargers, and stocked his shelves with the countless fat glossy potboilers churned out by that most indefatigable of authors. Apparently, at every minute of the day, somewhere in the world, someone is reading a Pebblehead paperback. Glubb is a very different kind of writer, and while we suspect that Pebblehead would never let his apparatus collapse, and we would never forgive him if it did, it is the kind of thing we expect from the ravishing essayist, and we do not let it trouble us. So, when we skip from the scene of Dobson on a night in May, having successfully silenced the disquieting ploppy noises from behind the panel with a flying kick of his boot, to a torrential downpour in October, and the pamphleteer slumped scowling in a bus shelter, smoking a mentholated Bolivian stogie, we simply press on, agog.

We soon learn that little had changed except the weather and Dobson’s preferred brand of cigarettes. He was waiting for a bus in the rain because he had been summoned to an appointment with the official in charge of the janitorium and of several other outlying facilities. This official, a preening autocrat of many hats, had been inundated with letters from the pamphleteer begging to be transferred from the janitorium on account of the disquieting ploppy noises from behind the panel. After that night in May, the noises had returned, insistently, and no amount of kicking the panel made them cease, as Dobson discovered to his cost. He had even gone to the expense of a brand new pair of sturdy boots with toughened toecaps, the better to kick the panel, but to no avail. So began his written pleas to the official. Dobson knew that among the outlying facilities attached to the janitorium was a cow byre, and it was to this dilapidated rustic hideyhole that he hoped to be sent. He did not confess, in his many missives, that he was unpractised in the niceties of cow care, and this may have been his undoing. As it was, the preening autocrat ignored all of Dobson’s letters, until they began to arrive at a rate of two or three per shift. The disquieting ploppy noises from behind the panel were steadily driving the pamphleteer crackers, and the tone of his letters was growing ever more hysterical.

As Maud Glubb observes, it would be instructive if we could compare the unrestrained prose of these desperate pleadings with the overwrought and majestic style of the middle-period pamphlets, but to date no Dobsonist of any standing has taken on such a task. There would, of course, be difficulties with the handwriting, for when Dobson’s brain was fuming his already crabbed and blotted scrawl became almost illegible. He is not alone among the greats in challenging the eyesight of those wishing to decipher his manuscripts. According to Jerome B Lavay, in Disputed Handwriting : An Exhaustive, Valuable, And Comprehensive Work Upon One Of The Most Important Subjects of To-day (1909), “Charlotte Bronte’s writing seemed to have been traced with a cambric needle, and Thackeray’s writing, while marvelously neat and precise, was so small that the best of eyes were needed to read it. Likewise the writing of Captain Marryatt was so microscopic that when he was interrupted in his labours he was obliged to mark the place where he left off by sticking a pin in the paper. Napoleon’s was worse than illegible, and it is said that his letters from Germany to the Empress Josephine were at first thought to be rough maps… Byron’s handwriting was nothing more than a scrawl. The writing of Dickens was minute, and he had a habit of writing with blue ink on blue paper”.

We must assume that, at some point in the first week of October, the preening autocrat smacked his forehead in despair at the tottering pile of letters arriving from the janitorium, for he took the unusual step of summoning the complainant to his headquarters. Fang Castle was situated high on a crag around which bats skittered and swooped. The bus from which the pamphleteer alighted in the teeming rain stopped at the foot of the crag, and Dobson had many, many steps to climb before he would reach the entrance to the castle. He was less than half way up when his ill-advised pink and yellow and polka dot Kennebunkport cap attracted the attention of several bats, and a passing crow. Startled, the pamphleteer lost his footing, sprained his ankle, and plunged into a clump of buttercups. He lay there helpless for three days, hidden from the bus route by a row of lupins and hollyhocks, Fang Castle looming above him high on the crag.

We know that Dobson was dismissed from the janitorium before the end of October, for there is a journal entry, clearly written on Hallowe’en, where he refers to his relief at no longer having to suffer the disquieting ploppy noises from behind the panel. What we do not know is whether he was writing from the cow byre. In a particularly ravishing passage in her ravishing essay, Maud Glubb drops hints that she has identified the precise location where Dobson was hunkered down on that Hallowe’en, going so far as to claim that she may even have it pinpointed on a map, but she does not say if she is talking about the cow byre or somewhere else entirely. Nor do we know what Dobson did at the end of his three days in the buttercups. When the sprain in his ankle eased, did he clamber up those many, many steps and confront the preening autocrat in Fang Castle, or did he shuffle to the bus stop and return to the janitorium? Meteorological records indicate that it was still raining heavily, so the pamphleteer would have been sodden through. Indeed, he may have been so soaked that he would have been forbidden to board the bus for fear that any puddles he created may have dribbled into the underfloor electrical wiring and caused the bus to explode or crash. Researchers other than Maud Glubb have pored over the records of bus mishaps for the relevant period, and there is a tantalising clue in a report in the St Bibblybibdib Parish Newsletter And Fold-Out Raffle Ticket which alludes to an exploding bus crashing near Fang Castle due to an underfloor electrical wiring fault during a torrential downpour, but the newsletter was only published twice a year and the date on this copy is unreadable, due to smudging.

In this morass of Rumsfeldian known unknowns, it is an unexpected delight to chance upon solid, incontrovertible fact. Here, reproduced without comment, is a passage from Digby Hoist’s memoir Out And About With Pebblehead:

That leap year, on the twenty-ninth of February, I joined the bestselling paperbackist on a hike. We roamed o’er hill and dale for mile upon mile, snacking on berries and weeds and drinking milk we eked from unattended cows in the fields. It should not have surprised me that Pebblehead had an enviable milking technique when presented with an udder. He is, after all, a man of parts. We investigated knots of furze and vetch and certain unnatural topiary sites as catalogued by Drain & Huffington. I demonstrated to Pebblehead a method of vaulting across rivers using a stick and a paperclip, and he showed me how to lure a badger from its sett with blandishments. Oh how we chuckled in a wry, manly way as we pranced across the loam! Scudding clouds overhead threatened drizzle, so in mid-afternoon we took refuge in a ruin. As we crouched on what looked to me like the ragged remains of a feng shui monkey puzzle carpeting system, once so unaccountably popular, I noticed that Pebblehead grew quiet. His moustache bristled, and his ears emitted wispy fumes. When I made to speak, he hushed me by wedging a shard of slate in my mouth and bashing the side of my head with his fists. The drizzle turned into a violent shower that lasted less than a minute, and then the sun blazed down on us again. I was all for leaving the ruin and continuing with our hike, for I was keen to show Pebblehead a pig enclosure I knew to be nearby, where the pigs were fantastic, but something in his demeanour gave me pause. He seemed strangely disquieted. Eventually, he began to speak, in a voice that was not his own. Instead of that familiar high-pitched, reedy squawk, like a drugged-up corncrake, his words boomed out, deep and deafening. I spat out the shard of slate and shoved my hands over my ears, but still that voice penetrated my soul as if I were in the presence of some ancient, terrible god.

“Behold the realm of Gaar!” said the Pebblehead who was not Pebblehead, “It is ruin now, but once, not so long ago, it was the place where dwelt my fiend. That spot where you crouch, puny specimen of humankind, was my panel, and behind my panel my fiend paid obeisance to me. To the imperfect ears of you earthly pipsqueaks, the horrifying and insane and magnificent and berserk ritual jabberings of my fiend sounded as but ploppy noises which caused disquiet rather than paralysing terror. One day my fiend shall return, and all shall be swept away. It will be swept away and gone.”

The voice ceased. Somewhere a linnet tweeted. The wispy fumes from Pebblehead’s ears dispersed, and his moustache stopped bristling. He looked at me, as if nothing had happened, and piped up “The rain has stopped, Digby. Let us go and take a cold hard look at those fantastic pigs you were telling me about!”

Button, Tomato

I’ve decided to start a keeping a note of interesting names as I come across them. First names, for the most part, though spectacular surnames may also earn a place in my collection.

Two to begin with: Michael Gilleland (“antediluvian, bibliomaniac, and curmudgeon”) at Laudator Temporis Acti reminds us that one of the signatories of the US Declaration of Independence gloried in the name of Button Gwinnet. And ever since I heard him being interviewed on the radio a few weeks back, I’ve had a soft spot for deaf activist Tomato Lichy. His assertion that deafness is not a disability is, um, unusual, but his name is Tomato and that’s good enough for me.

Second Letter From A Wooden Child

Ever since I posted here the letter I received from a wooden child, he has been badgering me to publish more of his writing. I have been inundated with screeds, all of which I have heartlessly chucked down the clanking refuse chute at the side of my escritoire. Today, though, I have decided to indulge him, because his latest missive is quite interesting. Here it is:

Dear Mr Key : It may surprise you to know that, despite being a wooden child abandoned to a Mercy Home nestled deep in the gloomy woods, I am a voracious reader and a keen user of my local library. Well, it is not exactly local, given that it is located far away beyond the sinister purple hills that loom at the edge of the woods, but I regularly scamper over there when allowed out of the Mercy Home by the beadle. On my most recent visit, I was delighted to find a copy of a scholarly work by Dot Tint, entitled On The Vampiric Sea Shanties Of Ancient Pointy Town. You may be familiar with this book, which takes a forensic approach to the surprisingly blood-sucking subject matter of many of the sea shanties sung by the mariners who sailed from Pointy Town harbour in days of yore. It took a bluestocking of Dot Tint’s perspicuity to winnow from these almost-forgotten songs insights into matters which have great resonance for us today, such as poop deck vampires, the dilution of blood with bilgewater, and the credit crunch. I know you worry about other, neglected crunches, but stick with me here, if only because I have my wooden finger on the pulse. Not on my own pulse, obviously, because I do not have one, being wooden. I refer to the pulse and throb of our contemporary urban hurly burly, which I keep tabs on despite living in rustic squalor far from any town or city. The tabs I use, incidentally, are made of tin or plastic, but they are coated with a wood veneer so that they do not look out of place in my otherwise totally woody environment. The beadle does not take kindly to non-wood materials, arguing – quite justifiably – that we wooden tinies might go crackers if exposed for any length of time to concrete or rubber.

Anyway, about the Dot Tint book. I got it date-stamped at the library desk and put it in my pippy bag and trotted out into the bewildering sunshine. The library is in a little village called Blunkett-By-The-Blears, where, on the day I am telling you about, a saturnalia was taking place. I fancied a go at the potato shy, which was like a fairground coconut shy except with potatoes instead of coconuts. I slipped some wooden coinage into the paw of the stallholder and in return he gave me three chunks of wood to throw at the potatoes. This was going to be fun!

I put down my pippy bag and threw a chunk of wood to dislodge a potato from its stick, successfully, and threw another chunk of wood to dislodge another potato from its stick, again successfully, and then I threw another chunk of wood at another potato to dislodge it from its stick, and again I did so successfully, and that was the end of my go. The potato shy stallholder congratulated me and drew aside a tatty curtain to unveil a pile of prizes from which I was invited to take my pick. After rummaging about for a bit, I chose a canister containing a brand new print of the first reel of Anthony Newley’s 1969 film Can Hieronymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?, a seminal influence on the young David Bowie. I resolved at once to coat the canister in wood veneer before letting the beadle clap his eyes on it, and stooped to stash it in my pippy bag. But my pippy bag was gone!

What kind of monster would steal a pippy bag from an inattentive wooden child? The worst of it was, of course, that the library copy of Dot Tint’s On The Vampiric Sea Shanties Of Ancient Pointy Town was in the bag and so had vanished with it. I had always been very conscientious about returning my borrowings on time and unsullied, free of marmalade smears or dog-ears or any of the other besmirchments to which library books fall prey when in the wrong hands. I had even been promised a “good borrower” badge by the librarian, a signal honour for an inmate of the Mercy Home For Abandoned Wooden Children. I had been so looking forward to coating my badge with wood veneer and buffing it to a shine with a rag. Now, unless I was able to retrieve my pippy bag, and with it the book, I would be in bad odour with the library and end up with the stigma of a “bad borrower” badge instead.

I shoved the film canister under my arm and looked wildly about. The saturnalia was getting up steam, and the normally quiet village square of Blunkett-By-The-Blears was a scene of mayhem and disorder, crowded with mountebanks and revellers, masked maniacs, prestidigitators, capering dizzyheads and unsupervised farmyard animals including hens and cows. I cursed that I had never thought to personalise my pippy bag by sewing on to it some brightly-coloured beads and buttons, not that needlework of any standard is among my accomplishments. But I could at least have splashed some paint on it, or beribboned it with ribbons. Alas, it was but a featureless dun pippy bag like ten thousand others, and I was at a loss as to how I might track it down in the midst of a saturnalia.

I slumped down in the boarded-up doorway of what had once been the village’s Respect Party headquarters and held my wooden head in my wooden hands. It is at times like this that I taste the bitter gall of unassuageable despair. For me it has a woody taste, which I could liken to a creosoted fencepost in the rain, just to give you an idea. I was deaf and blind to the saturnalian antics around me, smothered in self-pity and misery. Even my potato shy prize held no allure for me, and I tipped the film canister upright, gave it a shove, and let it roll away along the gutter. I watched as it clattered to a halt at the feet of a crone. She bent to pick it up, and brought it back to me in my doorway, and she spoke.

“What ails thee, youthful person of wood?” she asked. If I had had my eyes shut I would have thought I was being spoken to by the young Joan Greenwood as Sibella Holland in Kind Hearts And Coronets (1949). Or, more accurately, Joan Greenwood with a mouthful of brazil nuts. No doubt such distortion was on account of the great age of the crone, who looked to be at least ten score years and ten if she was a day. I am very skilled at adjudging age, in people and trees and milk and birds and the smaller mammals. Once or twice I have been called on by the police to assist them in the dating of evidence, notably in a strangling case which gave me the shivers. So I am fantastically confident that the crone was indeed as ancient as she looked, unlikely as that may seem. With age comes wisdom, and I felt immediately that this überwrinkled, kindly old biddy would somehow be able to help me, so I told her of my travails, but not in so much detail that she would grow fractious and thump me into silence. That kind of thing has happened to me in the past, I’m afraid to say, for I can get carried away with my woes when I taste the bitter gall of unassuageable despair. I have learned through experience that travails are best narrated as a kind of sprightly anecdotage, so that is the approach I took, and it paid off. The crone tilted her ancient head in an attentive manner, and when I was done she bent down and took my little wooden hand and lifted me – with uncanny strength – to my feet.

“You shall come with me!” she announced, “And don’t forget your film canister!”

Some people would describe what happened next as being “taken out of their comfort zone”. That is not the sort of zone I have. Back at the Mercy Home, I have a cornflake zone, where I eat hearty breakfasts, and a compost zone, where I wallow in rotting celery stalks and potato peelings to pass the time, and I have quite a few other zones which I will tell you about in a separate letter. The zone I was taken to by the crone was, I suppose, best described as a cavernous secret underground headquarters zone, which was quite a novelty for a sheltered wooden child like me. It was alive with the buzz and clank and hiss of activity, but so dark that I couldn’t see a thing. I was pleased that the crone was still holding my hand. I asked her where we were, and what was going on.

“This,“ she said, “Is the nerve centre, or hub, of my crimebusting organisation. I bust more than crime, but the popular press calls me the Crimebusting Crone, and it is a title I have learned to live with, even though I also bust wickedness and shirking and pelf, and want of decorum, and lack of gravitas, punctilio and rectitude, among many other despicable blots on civic loveliness. Here in the subterranean gloom my factotae are busy busting such blots, and I shall find one who is idle and set them to work to recover your pippy bag and your library book and bring the malefactor to justice. Wait here.”

She let go of my hand and disappeared into the gloom, though she creaked loudly as she moved so I was able to tell more or less where she was headed. I did not know quite how to conduct myself so I went all floppy and clattered to the ground, which was covered in linoleum. It seemed to be a very well-appointed cavernous secret underground headquarters zone, despite the lack of light. I wondered about the Crimebusting Crone’s factotae, if they were some sort of blind, stunted troglodyte horde. It was certainly within the bounds of reason. After all, that earlier crimebuster Sherlock Holmes had his Baker Street Irregulars, and they were not exactly polished in their manners. I am polished, by the way, very much so.

Eventually the crone returned, accompanied by a factotum. I got to my feet and studied, as best as I could, the person charged with retrieving my pippy bag, but he, or she, or it, was but a blur in the darkness.

“This is Factotum Milliband,” said the crone, “I have every confidence in him, and I have no doubt that he will solve the case. Just now, for example, excitabat fluctus in simpulo, as Cicero put it. He was stirring up billows in a ladle. There will be more billows before the day is out! Now, tiny person of wood, hop up onto his back.”

I did as I was bid, being a biddable sort, and once I was secure, Milliband lumbered off, taking huge strides, further and further into the cavernous secret underground headquarters zone, until all around me was pitch black, and strangely, compellingly muffled. I had complete trust in this mysterious blurry factotum, so I sort of snuggled up against him, wedging the film canister between my head and his back as a pillow, and fell asleep. The beadle would have been livid if he knew I was using a tin pillow, fearing ineradicable contamination, so before dozing off I begged for forgiveness from my weird wooden gods and clutched the little gauze bag on a lanyard around my neck for luck. I am not particularly superstitious, but I must admit it gave me some comfort. Inside the bag were the teeth of an otter, a sprig of parsley, and a passport photograph of Bjorn from Abba, or it might have been Benny, I could never remember which was which. Whichever one it was, the snap had been taken in the late 1970s, at the height of the group’s success, and Bjorn or Benny was wearing a polo neck sweater. I had not chosen the contents of my lucky gauze bag on a lanyard myself. For years, I didn’t even know what was in it. But one day, while I was mooching about over by the collapsed birdseed silo near Sawdust Bridge Football Stadium, I peeked inside, out of curiosity. It was a turning point in my life. Some of the other abandoned wooden children at the Mercy Home also wear such bags on lanyards around their necks, and the only thing that ever keeps me awake at night is wondering if their bags, too, contain otters’ teeth and parsley and passport photographs of Scandinavian pop legends in polo neck sweaters. I have never dared to ask, or to look, and always, after such sleepless nights, I remind myself that I can do without any more melodramatic turning points.

From darkness to light. My hand was still wrapped around my lucky gauze bag on a lanyard when I woke up beneath the breathtaking sky, an expanse of billowing clouds. The Crimebusting Crone had promised me billows, so this was a good sign. But when I lifted my wooden head from its tin pillow, I was disconcerted to find myself back in the boarded-up doorway of the Respect Party headquarters. There was no sign of Milliband. Gone, too, were the rogues and madcaps of the saturnalia. The village square was deserted, and I was alone and chill under the billows, without my pippy bag and my Dot Tint library book. Then, just as the creosoted fencepost taste of the bitter gall of unassuageable despair rose in my throat, a post office starling flew past and dropped an envelope into my lap. I am unreasonably fascinated by stamps, so I paused to examine the one affixed to the letter that was clearly addressed to me. How thrilled I was to see that it was the maroon sixpaney stamp from the series of Rex Tint mezzotint reproductions, depicting in gorgeous detail the mezzotintist himself, at work in his studio, and visible through the Prussian windows a bosky hillside dappled with laughing cows, similar to the cheese triangle laughing cows but done in a Soviet realist style. It was certainly one to collect, so if I was careful when soaking it off the envelope later I would have almost half a dozen stamps in my album!

Shuffling backwards to make myself more comfortable in the doorway, I took out the letter with my trademark fastidiousness, unfolded it, and read:

Dear Wooden Child : Be not faint of heart, and do not weep when I tell you that Factotum Milliband has been unable to recover your pippy bag and library book. In spite of being a mute, blind, stunted troglodyte, he is surprisingly resourceful in the open air, above ground, and I am sure he would have succeeded had not circumstances been against him. Neither he nor I could have predicted that those circumstances would have been loopy, indeed dotty. I shall not go into detail, except to say that we live in a loopy, dotty world, and the sooner you reconcile yourself to the fact the better. Daily contemplation of pigs in a pig sty can be extremely beneficial in this regard. But all is not lost. As I write, Factotum Milliband is smashing his way into the library via a concealed side entrance, and once inside he will create a scene of havoc and destroy any record that you have ever borrowed a copy of On The Vampiric Sea Shanties Of Ancient Pointy Town by Dot Tint, so you need never fret that you will have to pay a fine or be in bad odour with the librarian. Meanwhile, Factotum Milliband’s brother, also known as Factotum Milliband, is hard at work in the needlework section of my crimebusting hub, stitching together a brand new pippy bag for you, which will be sent by post office starling to the Mercy Home. Please allow twenty-eight days for delivery. Factotum Milliband is a painstaking needleworker, still learning his craft, but I have seen one of his earlier pippy bag efforts and I can assure you it is a thing of beauty, if a bit loopy and dotty. I have given him instructions to sew the Mercy Home For Abandoned Wooden Children monogram in the correct place on the bag, so unless the beadle looks at it with a microscope it should easily pass for the genuine article. Do let me know if I can be of any further assistance. Yours ‘til the cows come home, the Crimebusting Crone.

So there you have it, Mr Key. I had been hoping to write a review of Dot Tint’s book for you, but it will have to wait for another time. Incidentally, I have taken the crone’s advice and now spend at least four hours a day contemplating pigs in a pig sty, with the beadle’s blessing. I will happily write an account of my ruminations for you, should you wish, as I am sure that all Hooting Yard readers would enjoy a regular dose of my witterings.

Blissfully yours, An Anonymous Wooden Child

Know Your Sheep

“I was once advised by an old man of the hills that ‘sheep have only one ambition in life and that is to die’. No truer words were ever spoken about this nervous and confused animal.” – Paul Heiney in today’s Times

Righteous, And Covered In Mud

“Here’s the way I want to show up at the gates of heaven. I want to come skidding in there on all fours. I want to be slipping and sliding and I want to hit the gates of heaven with a bang. And when I stand up, when I stand before Christ, I want there to be blood on my knees, and my elbows. I want to be covered with mud. And I want to be standing there with a ragged breastplate of righteousness, and a spear in my hand. And I want to say, ‘look at me, Jesus, I’ve been in the battles, I’ve been fighting for you’.” – Retired Lieutenant-General William Boykin, addressing a conference of apocalyptic Christian Zionists, April 2008.

How To Cook A Cormorant

The estimable Miss Hathorn at Mustard Plaster has alerted me to this BBC audio clip (read by Leslie Phillips!) telling me how to cook a cormorant. I feel considerably cheered up, and so will you.

Neglected Crunches

There is much in the news these days about the credit crunch, but this should not lead us to neglect many other important crunches. I sometimes worry that less attention is paid to some crunches because they lack the alliterative quality of the credit crunch, which of course makes it a favourite of headline writers and broadcasters. Actually, it’s not quite true that I “sometimes” worry about this. If truth be told, my fretfulness about neglected crunches is starting to consume my every waking thought. Yesterday, for example, I was standing upon a bridge, staring off into the distance, buffeted by a gale, and all I could think of was the fact that the credit crunch is pushing some of my preferred crunches off the front pages. I don’t have any useful media connections – or, to be more precise, my people don’t have any connections with their people – so it’s not as if I can just send a few metal tapping machine messages to selected newspaper crunch reporters and put pressure on them to cover other crunches. Would that I could! What I did instead, yesterday, was to trudge disconsolately home and to spend a fruitful few hours studying Pebblehead’s bestselling paperback The Bumper Book Of Crunches. I can recommend this fantastic, and very fat, book to anyone who seeks to broaden their knowledge beyond the credit crunch. It is packed with crunch-related facts, anecdotage, illustrations, diagrams, and even its very own cleverly-crafted crunchiness.