Sixty Unassailable Facts About Birds

1. A raven called Dot-son-paa created the world.

2. Startled blackbirds emit piercing cries because they think they are about to be attacked by demons.

3. Each legion of the Roman Army had a Pullarius, whose job it was to look after the cage of sacred chickens they carried with them.

4. If a dove flies over a coal mine, disaster is likely to follow.

5. The souls of unbaptised children take the form of nightjars.

6. Cuckoos in Herefordshire buy horses at a country fair, and sell them at another.

7. Beowulf was reincarnated as a woodpecker.

8. Every single corncrake in Siberia got there by riding on the back of a crane.

9. If you want to provoke someone to commit suicide, send them a picture of an owl.

10. A splinter of wood from a coffin will keep sparrows at bay.

11. If you drink boiled magpie broth you will go mad.

12. If a woman befriends a stork, it will bring her jewellery.

13. In an apotheosis, an eagle is hidden behind a blazing waxen image of a dead emperor, and released when it has melted away.

14. Epileptics can transfer their illness to a chicken by carrying it three times around a well and then spending the night with it asleep under a church altar.

15. It is a good idea to place a wooden diver atop a tall post at the corner of a grave.

16. Robins can speak Latin.

17. Jesus turned a woman into a lapwing after she baked him a cake.

18. On every beach there is a magic stone that cures blindness, but only swallows know how to find it.

19. One way to find gold is to carry with you a stone vomited up by a crane.

20. If you hear a cuckoo before eating your breakfast, ill fortune will follow, possibly to include a loss of feeling in your arms and legs.

21. Nightingales used to be one-eyed, but borrowed the eye from a blindworm and never returned it.

22. Ireland has been called “the swan abounding land”.

23. Pelicans are the most pious of birds.

24. To avoid being bitten by a rabid dog, tuck the heart and right foot of an owl under your left armpit.

25. Cranes migrate south for the sole purpose of launching savage attacks on miniature people, about seven inches high, who they gobble up.

26. You can protect your house from lightning strikes by keeping a blackbird in your living room

27. Crossbills watch over children who fall asleep in direct moonlight and may therefore otherwise come to harm.

28. If bird eggs are incubated by frogs, the birds that hatch from them, irrespective of the parent birds, will be stonechats.

29. Migrating quails are terrified of the sea, and shut their eyes when crossing it, thus often colliding with ships.

30. Nail a dead owl to your barn to protect against storms.

31. The earth was created from mud collected by white-billed divers.

32. If you eat roasted swallow, you are likely to be attacked by dragons.

33. A crossbill tried, but failed, to wrench the nails from Christ’s cross during the crucifixion.

34. You can kill gnats and flies with a handful of soil taken from where you are standing when you hear a cuckoo call.

35. If you are lucky enough to find a stone known as an alectorius in the gizzard of a chicken, you will become invisible.

36. The Virgin Mary decided to marry Joseph after she saw a dove land on his head.

37. Three Roman emperors died after owls perched on the roofs of their villas.

38. If you dissolve the eyes of a quail in water, then mix with oil and rub it onto a burning rag, you will take on the appearance of a devil on fire.

39. Eagles can look at the sun without blinking.

40. The god Asmodi appears in the form of a goose and envelops Frisian peasants in darkness while they engage in sex orgies.

41. Cuckoos turn into birds of prey around June or July.

42. Widowed doves only drink from muddy puddles after dark.

43. Barnacle geese are hatched from shells attached to waterlogged timbers tossed along the sea, and are at first like gum.

44. You will be admired by everyone you meet if you keep in your pocket the eyes of a hoopoe.

45. It is advisable to be sitting down when you see a swallow.

46. If you hear a lapwing call, you should throw a bowl of water into the air.

47. Kingfishers live on riverbanks because they are searching for Noah’s Ark.

48. Magpies have a drop of human blood on their tongues.

49. When putting on a play, avoid having any peacock feathers on stage, or disaster will strike.

50. Nightjars attack cattle with their beaks and give them a disease known as puckeridge.

51. You will not get a proper night’s sleep if you have the heart and eyes of a nightingale in your bed.

52. Pelicans are known to set fire to themselves by flapping their wings excessively near bonfires.

53. You can forecast wind direction by hanging a dead kingfisher upside down from a length of thread, and watching which way its breast faces.

54. The liver of a hoopoe, pounded to a pulp and mixed with crocus, is a surefire cure for lung disease.

55. The god Odin had two pet ravens called Hugin and Munin, who spent all day flying around the world, returning at night to perch on his shoulder and tell him what they had seen and heard.

56. If you are holding a robin when it dies, your hand will never stop shaking.

57. On Sundays, rooks sit quietly on branches and do not carry sticks in their beaks.

58. To encourage rainfall, it is a good idea to get some swallows and throw them into a pond.

59. Sometimes you should pretend that a wren is a beast of enormous size, and drag a dead one into town on a wagon drawn by four oxen.

60. There are some trees which fall into the sea and become birds.

My source for much of this information is Flights Of Fancy : Birds In Myth, Legend & Superstition by Peter Tate. Highly recommended.

Unmixed Fiery Hair Like The Flower Of A Pomegranate

“Black hair announces cowardice and great craftiness, excessively yellow and pale white hair, such as the Scythians and Celts have, reveals ignorance and clumsiness and wildness, and that which is gently yellow points towards an aptitude for learning, gentleness, and skill in art. Unmixed fiery hair like the flower of a pomegranate is not good, since for the most part their characters are beastlike and shameless and greedy. Legs which are very hairy with thick black hair indicate slowness at learning and wildness. Those whose loins and thighs have lots of hair separately from the other parts of the body are very lascivious.”

Quoted in The Philosophy Of Physiognomy

The Great Emblotchment

Today is the one hundredth anniversary of the Great Emblotchment. There were countless other emblotchments throughout our history, but the one we commemorate today was of a blotchy magnitude well above those other emblotchments.

It all started in a commercial laundry on Pudding Boulevard. A man named Pim – who may or may not have been related to the late Francis Pym, Foreign Secretary from 1982 to 1983 – was bundling some towels into a basket when he noticed that one of the towels had been subjected to emblotchment. A man of piercing eyesight, a bit like Ray Milland in The Man With X-Ray Eyes (1963) but obviously not quite as piercing as that, Pim was able at a glance to divine the cause of the emblotchment, and it sent him into a panic. He scampered up the staircase from the laundry to street level, and ran the length of Pudding Boulevard waving the emblotched towel in the air. Thus microscopic blotchy bits were released into the atmosphere, invisible but none the less blotchy.

The authorities acted with admirable speed. Pim was carted off to a mysterious institute hidden behind trees in the countryside, the sort of place that would later become familiar to viewers of the 1960s television series The Avengers. He was placed in isolation and fitted with a metal helmet wired up to bleeping consoles. The emblotched towel was torn from his grasp and sent to another mysterious institute in the countryside to be analysed by trained emblotchment analysts. Meanwhile, Pudding Boulevard was cordoned off with what at the time was an entirely new cordoning technique. A controlled explosion destroyed the laundry and its neighbouring buildings, and the rubble was taken away by over fifty horse-drawn carts and tossed down a pit. It was not a bottomless pit, but the nearest thing to a bottomless pit that could be identified at short notice. When the last bit of rubble was thrown down it, the pit opening was covered with layers of cement over which a rich, loamy soil was scattered, and lupins and primroses were planted there. A similar operation was carried out on the site of the laundry, except that hollyhocks and hyacinths were planted instead of lupins and primroses. There were compelling reasons for this.

Before the day was out, big pumps were moved into position at either end of Pudding Boulevard, and the air was sucked into them, deblotched, and pumped back out. Thousands of starlings were lured to flock over the laundry site and kept there by a magnetic barrier. They were monitored by a team of top ornithologists in a lead-lined cabin just beyond the Boulevard, around which a flowerbed was dug and planted with geraniums and wisteria. At nightfall, volunteers from Pang Hill Orphanage were sent to scurry through the cordoned-off area and, as soon as they emerged, were tested for emblotchment in a hastily-rigged up lab the floors of which were strewn with lilies and petunias.

As we know, none of this hectic activity succeeded in stopping the emblotchment. Not only were the starlings and orphans and top ornithologists emblotched, so too were the gardeners who planted the lupins and primroses and hollyhocks and hyacinths and geraniums and wisteria. Soon everything was emblotched, and I mean absolutely everything. Even the stars in their heavens, the outer planets, the gas giants, all succumbed to what is rightly called the Great Emblotchment. And exactly one year later, on the fifteenth of May 1909, the actor James Mason was born in Huddersfield. Some see this as a coincidence, but those of us who have studied such things see deeper patterns, patterns not unlike the embroidered curlicues on the towel that Pim waved as he dashed frantically down Pudding Boulevard and let loose the Great Emblotchment, one hundred years ago today.

Grizzled Old Fool At The Haberdashery

I am very pleased to announce that the latest episode in the Grizzled Old Fool series of multi-platform cultural interventions has been released. Grizzled Old Fool At The Haberdashery sees the grizzled old fool going to a haberdashery to buy buttons and cloth and pins. As usual, he is chewing a plug of tobacco and wearing his trademark battered old hat. He behaves ineptly in the haberdashery, piddling in his trousers and overturning a display stand of thread samples. In a particularly poignant moment, he is mistaken for Mark E Smith of The Fall and prevailed upon to sing an extempore version of “City Hobgoblins” to the haberdasher’s excited children.

Much attention is given to the purpose to which the grizzled old fool intends to put his purchases. Buttons, cloth, and pins are hardly the kinds of things we expect to see deployed by our hero, who we are more used to seeing traipsing between his shack and his outdoor privy, shouting at the sky. He does plenty of shouting in the haberdashery, at nobody in particular, and he also leaves a trail of drool upon the countertop.

When the haberdasher eventually calls the police, the grizzled old fool is bundled onto the back of their cart and ferried to the riverside police station. Cruelly, they shove him into the river, not realising that he is of course amphibious, like unto a toad. Happily splashing about in the water, the grizzled old fool makes his way to the opposite bank. He clambers ashore and pops into a chemist’s shop where he buys some bandages, a bottle of mouthwash, and the boiled head of a goat. This last is a prized medicament in the land on the other side of the river, where scrapings from it are used as an aperient. Tossing his purchases into a greaseproof paper bag, the grizzled old fool waits for nightfall before plunging back into the river and returning to his own country. The police station is shuttered and deserted, so he pauses to spit a gobbet of phlegm onto the door before heading back towards the haberdashery under a gibbous moon.

The haberdasher’s excited children are all tucked up and fast asleep, but before gulping down their bedtime milk slops they left some buttons and cloth and pins on a tray outside the haberdasher’s catflap. They also left a note in spidery handwriting for the grizzled old fool, but they wrote it in Latin, so to him it is merely mumbo-jumbo. Nevertheless, he puts the note in his greaseproof paper bag together with the buttons and cloth and pins. Then he goes to the bus shelter to await what will be a lovely magnificent dawn.

The colours for the dawn, in the pictorial version of Grizzled Old Fool At The Haberdashery, were created by a pigmentist whose previous contributions to the series include the garden of the mentalist, the daubs of paint on the cuffs of a hobbledehoy, and the eerie twilight in Penge. I have a great deal of respect for this pigmentist, more than I have for the grizzled old fool himself, who has always seemed to me a rather one-dimensional character. It is true that he is grizzled and old and foolish, which are three separate characteristics, but quite honestly I think it is time he extended his repertoire. We have seen him go the haberdashery and the chemist’s shop and, in previous adventures, to the clinic and the post office and the library and the community hub and the football stadium and the pie shop and the orchestra pit and the marina and the gigantic forbidding temple atop the craggy mountain and the slums and the duckpond and the archipelago and the glue factory, but wherever he goes he remains simply grizzled and old and foolish. Might I suggest that for his next appearance he grows a moustache and sits, shattered, in a vaporetto, while the strains of the Adagietto from Mahler’s fifth symphony wash over us, and we burst into tears?

Small Basket Problem

This morning on the Today programme on Radio 4, a titan of industry (whose name I have already forgotten) said “this is the problem of small baskets trying to survey very complex… things”. He paused beautifully at the point where I have inserted that ellipsis. Leaving aside the intriguing notion of baskets carrying out surveys, this seems to be a statement of brilliant profundity. I have been thinking about it for a couple of hours now and have yet to winkle from it the core of its wisdom.

Dirk Bogarde, With A Moustache, In A Vaporetto

Whenever I think about Dirk Bogarde, with a moustache, in a vaporetto, I hear the Adagietto from Gustav Mahler’s fifth symphony. Such is the power of cinema. If you’ve seen Luchino Visconti’s Death In Venice (1971), you will know exactly what I’m talking about. I often find myself thinking about Dirk Bogarde, with a moustache, in a vaporetto, probably more often than is normal, and I have absolutely no idea why. If I am able to snap out of the thought within thirty seconds or so, all is well, but once I hit the half-minute mark I invariably break into great heaving sobs, and have to dab at my eyes with an expensive handkerchief, or a rag, whichever comes readily to hand. I try to make sure there is always an expensive handkerchief in one of my pockets, or tucked into the waistband of my trousers, like a midget cummerbund, but if I am going to muck out a pig sty, say, or to scrape grease off the wall of a drainage chute, I am more likely to opt for a rag.

Foppishness has its attractions but it is ill-advised in some circumstances. Dirk Bogarde was occasionally foppish early in his career, but by the time he sported that moustache in a vaporetto he had become a sort of Euro-thespian, a serious man, of a kind I would like to see youngsters emulate today. No one has ever asked me how I would tackle the modern plague of feral inner city youth. If they did I would recommend that young tearaways grow moustaches and sit, shattered, in vaporettos. The Adagietto from Mahler’s fifth could be piped at them through loudspeakers, or loaded onto their pods. If the government was willing to stump up the cash it might even be possible to have orchestras sent in to the more gruesome sink estates to play the Adagietto live.

I recognise that many teenage girls are as violent and unruly as the boys, but the stick-on false moustache is a perennial favourite in joke shops and theatrical costumiers, so the resources are there. It just takes the political will to make it happen. Clearly there would have to be a major increase in vaporetto imports, but a beneficial side-effect would be the regeneration of our canals and estuaries. Speaking as one who has to haul a cart along winding country lanes, sweating like a pig, I would certainly welcome that. I use my expensive handkerchiefs to wipe the grime and perspiration off my neck as often as I dab the tears from my eyes when thinking about Dirk Bogarde, with a moustache, in a vaporetto, if truth be told. If the contents of my cart could be shoved on to a barge and go by canal I would be a happy man. I am already, like the later Dirk Bogarde, a serious man. Happy and serious would be a fantastic combination. I live in hope.

O’er The Hills And Far Away

Have you ever been o’er the hills and far away? I have. I flew o’er the hills in a spy plane. And yes, before you ask, I was a spy. The plane flew very low o’er the hills, not to avoid radar, for this was before radar, in the early days of aviation. The pilot flew very low o’er the hills so I could spy on them more clearly, peering over the side of the plane, my gummy eye fitted with a monocle the better to aid my vision. My scarf flapped in the wind. Those were the days.

Beyond the hills, far away, was the airfield where we came into land. A person with a couple of flags guided us down. Inside the hangar, I made my report to Control. I never did know Control’s name, nor what he or she looked like. There was a desk in a dark corner of the hangar, and Control sat behind it, engulfed in shadow, smoking. I had to remove my monocle before sitting down. Then I spilled the beans.

My report was simply a list of all the things I had seen while flying low o’er the hills. Farmyards, barns, cows, duckponds, charcoal burners, goats, bracken, tarns, lime pits, those sorts of things. I tried to arrange my list in alphabetical order for Control, off the top of my head. I had no idea what was going to be done with all this information. I wasn’t even clear which side I was working for, but that is the nature of the trade. We creep about in shadows, literally and metaphorically.

While I was giving my report, the pilot went off to the canteen for a cup of tea. In the early days of aviation every airfield had a canteen with a big tea urn. This may have been a Soviet influence, for these were also the early days of the Bolshevik revolution. I did not go to this particular canteen myself, so I can’t say if the tea urn resembled a Russian samovar. I could have asked the pilot, later, had the question occurred to me at the time. I don’t know if airfield canteens still have big tea urns, because it is a world I have left behind. My flying and spying days are long past.

I consider myself lucky that I did not end up shot in a ditch. That happened to quite a number of my fellow spies. Well, actually, I was shot while huddled in a ditch, but I was only wounded, and they didn’t finish me off, whoever “they” were. They may have been the enemy, or they may have been on the same side as me. The ditch in which I was shot happened to be at the edge of the airfield where I landed after flying o’er the hills and far away, so it was a very, very long walk home, with blood pouring out of my wounded head, across the hills instead of o’er them. I passed by all those farmyards and barns and cows and duckponds and charcoal burners and goats and bracken and tarns and lime pits and whatever else on foot this time. At ground level everything looked different, but that may have been because I no longer had my monocle. One of the bullets had smashed it to smithereens, and I left each smithereen where it lay scattered in the ditch.

That is my story of going o’er the hills and far away, and I returned to tell it. Not everyone does.

Letter Of Complaint

Dear Mr Key : As someone with sausages on the brain, I was dismayed to note that you listed this condition as among the characteristics of the contemptible scoundrel who stole Dobson’s blotter. We are no more likely to turn to criminality than any other common or garden person you might encounter among the teeming masses, and to suggest otherwise is deeply unhelpful. I run a support group for people with sausages on the brain and am proud to say we do a lot of good work. We have organised sponsored archaeological digs, for example, and also other sorts of digging, with spades and shovels and special little forks, in loose soil, with prizes donated by wealthy television personalities, some of whom are newsreaders, who give their time freely, or almost freely save for small administrative fees, for the greater good. It might surprise you to know that some of these magnetic personalities have sausages on the brain themselves, and they are proving successful in life rather than languishing in prisons after being convicted of blotter theft. Digging up the ground in pursuit of archaeological knick-knacks, or just for the fun of it, is not the only activity we sponsor. Last month we held a fund-raising event at the perimeter of a remote airfield. There were balloons and ice cream wafers and clay pigeon shooting and a bran tub and scale model trench warfare novelty sing-songs and inflatable cloud chamber daredevil rides and all sorts of other things, hosted by Jimmy Savile, and the whole event passed off without any police involvement whatsoever, apart from a couple of cases of moral besmirchment. You can check the police log for yourself, and you will find not a scintilla of evidence that anyone with sausages on the brain thieved as much as a scrap of blotting paper, let alone an entire blotter. It is true that the stationery department at Hubermann’s has installed a state-of-the-art electronic security system with bleepers and klaxons and magnetic resonance panels for the exclusive detection of people with sausages on the brain who might find themselves wandering in a footloose and shabby manner therein, but that is just a sensible precaution in this disgusting world. Our support group was happy to provide advice to Hubermann’s management team, when a delegation visited our headquarters here on the atoll. Our single rowing boat plies back and forth to the mainland twice a week, by the way. Stories that the boat’s captain has to be bribed with frankfurters are completely baseless, as is the vindictive tittle-tattle suggesting there is a leak in the boat and that constant baling with buckets is required in order not to drown. The sea hereabouts is not always wild and dangerous, and attacks by shrieking demented guillemots have become much rarer, with only a handful of lacerations to passengers’ heads reported last Thursday. Uninvited visitors to the atoll are never beaten insensible with heavy cast iron frying pans, as has been reported in the scummy end of the press. We abandoned this custom some weeks ago after a plenary vote. Of course, if a wayfaring stranger turns up without a gift of boil-in-the-bag sausages for the welcoming committee, that is construed as unforgivable bad manners and the culprit simply gets what’s coming to them. Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind, and sometimes you just have to be cruel, cackling like a maniac as you enact your cruelties. That has always been my motto. In fact, I had it tattooed across my chest and my back, in vivid empurpled Gothic lettering, with flamboyant curclicues and bloodstains. Just try telling me I am wrong, and I will meet you at dawn at a place of your choosing, somewhere out on the moors, to engage in hand to hand combat, providing you do not try to enhance your musculature with chemical boosters. Here at the sausages on the brain support network we fight ferociously but fairly, as you will be able to see at first hand if you attend one of our daily rehearsal bouts. Daubed with the blood of goats and wearing special contact lenses to give them hallucinatory visions, the best of our warriors would curdle the fluids of the most jaundiced observer. Even Jimmy Savile swooned when we laid on a display for him, and I am not sure he has ever fully recovered. So by all means make your spiteful little remarks about us, but be warned that our vengeance will be immediate and savage and utterly, ridiculously disproportionate. Yours faithfully, Sausages On the Brain Person.

Dobson’s Blotter

Dobson was very fond of his blotter. Whenever he wrote about it, which was more often than considered normal for a grown man, his prose attains a pitch of purple enthusiasm modern readers can find uncomfortable, not to say distressing. It has been said that the pamphleteer even had a pet name for his blotter, as if it were an animate being, like a puppy or a hamster, but nobody claims to know what it was. Citation needed, as they say on the Wikipedia. There has been some debate, of crushing tedium, as to whether Dobson’s attachment was to the blotter itself or to the sheets of blotting paper he inserted under its four leatherette corner flaps. He made something of a ritual of this, changing his blotting paper every Thursday afternoon at about four o clock, just before he had a cup of tea and a plate of bloaters. He seems to have inserted a fresh sheet irrespective of the state of the one to be discarded. As often as not, his blotting paper remained pristine, as he almost always wrote in pencil. The used sheets he kept in a cardboard box shoved underneath the sink in an outbuilding. Each time he filled the box, he secreted it somewhere, like a squirrel, and went to Hubermann’s Department Store to get a new cardboard box. To date, nobody has ever discovered where he hid all those boxes of slightly-used blotting paper. It is one of the enduring mysteries beloved of Dobsonists.

The blotter itself was unexceptionable, as blotters go. It was a flat leatherette rectangle with corner flaps under which the four corners of a sheet of blotting paper were tucked. Several witnesses have noted that, contrary to what one might expect, the blotter was not always in place on the pamphleteer’s escritoire. Sometimes he left it leaning, upright, against the wainscot. At other times he put it in a bag and carried it around with him for no apparent purpose. It was not unknown for him to eat his bloaters off it, or to use it as a bird table. Dobson was fantastically ignorant of the diet of birds, though, and would place his blotter on top of an upright stick in the garden and then scatter hard toffee marbles upon it. Such confectionery was avoided by any little birds alighting on the blotter bird table, for rare is the bird which can digest hard toffee. They would also risk breaking their little beaks on it, for Dobson’s preferred toffee marbles, which he bought in paper bags from a pedlar, were the hardest known to humankind, and he gave them an extra bake in his oven, for hours at a time, to make them harder still.

In a new, as yet unpublished book, Pamplog and Gloveages tell the story of how Dobson’s blotter was stolen and later recovered. Melodramatically, the pamphleteer once described this as “the worst week of my life”. On a rambunctious Wednesday, when the zodiac was in a meaningless alignment, the pamphleteer decided he needed to stiffen the back of his blotter to restore its rigidity. He filled a pail with starch and carefully lowered the blotter into it, and then he strode off full of vim to Blister Lane Lido for water polo practice. Dobson was a keen if inept player of that most thrilling of aquatic team sports, and he wrote a number of pamphlets about it, the best of which is probably A New And Improved Method Of Drying Your Puck With A Towel (out of print). In standard water polo, of course, pucks are not used, but the Blister Lane Academicals was no ordinary water polo team. Nor was this an ordinary practice, on this fateful Wednesday, for the coach wanted the team to try out a new tactic which involved distracting their opponents by imitating the calls of loons and shoveller ducks and grackles. By the time he returned home, Dobson was hoarse and exhausted. He went straight to the room in which he had left his blotter steeped in a pail of starch and was distraught to find it gone. The pail itself had been knocked over, and the starch had soaked into the floorboards.

Here is how Pamplog and Gloveages describe what happened next:

Dobson cried out. Dobson sobbed. Dobson crashed about the house. Dobson called Detective Captain Cargpan. Dobson told Detective Captain Cargpan that his blotter had been stolen. Dobson sat in a chair and waited for Detective Captain Cargpan to arrive. Dobson drank a tumbler of milk from a goat. See Dobson sit. See Dobson drink.

This sort of thing becomes tiresome after a few dozen pages, but I admire the authors’ attention to detail. Apparently they won a medal for an earlier book about the Watergate Hearings. What we learn in this new work is that the thief was a contemptible scoundrel with a pencil moustache, the look of a startled rabbit, a fixation upon blotters, a cheap pair of gloves, a corrective boot, a skewed sense of morals, a weak chin, a hacking cough, a sordid past, the wit of a drainpipe, a collapsing lung, a dubious parentage, odd socks, an odder cravat, bats in his belfry, shares in the Bradford and Bingley Building Society, corks on his uppers, plums in his pockets, catastrophic measle scars, rent arrears, vinegar in his ears and sausages on the brain. Detective Captain Cargpan tracked him down four days after the theft of Dobson’s blotter, hiding out in a House of Miscreants hard by the banks of Lake Foofy.

Dobson’s first words, when one of Detective Captain Cargpan’s henchmen returned the blotter to him at a rendezvous in a dismal canteen, were “Thank you so much for retrieving my natty blotter!” Studious Dobsonists will recognise that as the title of a dirge the pamphleteer composed for the Second International Anthony Burgess Festival Of Uncompromising Dirges, in Ṻlm, where it won fifteenth prize.

Three Examples Of Uncontrollable Flapping About And Twitching

Our first example of uncontrollable flapping about and twitching took place in a pantry cluttered with jars in much disorder. Some of the jars contained goo or curd or pips or suet, in varying quantities, and some of the jars were empty. None were clean. All the jars had a coating of grime, as if they had lain untouched for many moons, as indeed they had, for this was an abandoned pantry. The lids of the jars would not have been easy to loosen had a determined person entered the pantry bent upon loosening the lid of any one of the jars, perhaps to eke out some goo or curd or pips or suet, or perhaps to pour into one of the empty jars a new and exciting substance. And hark! Here comes such a person, a wheezing person stomping down the passage towards the pantry and kicking the door in. He is a liveried attendant gone to seed and become a brute and he is holding a hammer. He has come to smash all the jars in the pantry for he has lost all sense of decorum. And then an Angel of the Lord appears, all a-shimmer, and commands him to lay down his hammer and leave the cluttered jars untouched. This is when the person begins flapping about and twitching uncontrollably, for about thirty seconds, in fear and shame, before fleeing the abandoned pantry. That happened on a Thursday.

The second example involves a peasant and a cow and many bees. It was a Saturday. The peasant had trudged into the field to take a close look at the cow, for the cow had been fractious and the peasant was concerned. Though unlettered, the peasant had a goodly store of country wisdom and was confident that if the cow was sick he would be able to identify the nature of its malady and cure it. Like many a tragic hero in fiction, the peasant sought redemption for an enormity in his past, an enormity committed due to a character flaw. Careful study of tragic heroes will reveal that they often have such a flaw. One thinks of Coriolanus, for example, or Dobson. Neither the nature of the peasant’s fatal flaw, nor of the enormity for which he sought redemption, need concern us here, for this is not a tragedy, it is just an example of uncontrollable flapping about and twitching. In any case, it is reportage rather than fiction. That being so, the reader is entitled to hard facts, rigorously researched, and the winnowing out of all fluffiness. That is why I have employed a Hooting Yard Fact-Checker so you can be absolutely sure that what you read here is the pure and unvarnished truth. Obviously you need to have confidence in the person charged with the fact-checking, and that is why I fought hard to get someone for the job who I know can be relied upon. Yes, it is easy to laugh at an ex-schoolteacher pushing sixty who still wishes to be known as “Sting”, but this was the man, remember, who first pointed out to the world that “Russians love their children too”. It is just such acuity of insight that makes him perfect for the job I have employed him to do, and for which I pay him a pittance each month. “Sting” has promised to set up a separate Hooting Yard Fact Check website, so we can all look forward to that.

I ought to point out here that, just as you can rely on me (and “Sting”) to provide you with big tough facts, so in return I expect a degree of attentiveness from you. Toe-tapping, head-scratching, and sloshing out of the ears with some sort of wax-crumbling fluid, these can surely wait until my report is done. That is the bargain we strike.

Now we’ve got that cleared up, like a rash, we can return to the peasant and the cow and the bees. But wait! You will want to be sure that they are bees, and not hornets, or wasps. Wait for a minute while I fire off a quick instruction to “Sting” to check up on that. Hmm. I have just realised how apposite his absurd nickname is for such a task.

OK. I have sent my missive and imagine that, as I write, “Sting” is checking his encyclopaedias and databases and whatnot. Unless I tell you otherwise, you can assume that the bees we are about to encounter in our second example of uncontrollable flapping about and twitching are indeed bees.

So the peasant with the tragic flaw trudged into the field to look at the cow, hoping to ascertain the nature of its sickness. Because it was a Saturday, the field was muddier than usual. The cow was standing more or less in the centre of the field, gazing at nothingness in a cow-like way. Its hocks had lost their shine, and the cardboard tag stapled to one of its ears was smudged. In this day and age, it is quite common for cows to have pieces of cardboard or plastic stapled to their ears, serving a number of purposes, and the staplers used are not so different from the staplers used in offices up and down the land. “Sting” told me that.

As he approached the cow, the peasant tried to dredge from his brain some of the folk wisdom with which it had been crammed since infancy. He remembered “If your cow is sick on a Monday morning / Go and spit upon a spade just as the day is dawning”, but that was no use to him, as it was Saturday. He remembered “Cow, cow, blotchy and stiff / Spray it with a bottle of Jif”, but that particular spell lost its efficacy when Jif products were renamed Cif as part of a marketing exercise early in the 21st century. And he remembered “Your cow is sick, it’s got bird flu / But the Russians love their children too”. As a piece of countryside lore this was useless, of course, as it did not suggest any remedies for the sick cow, but it is evidence of the extent to which the terrific profundities spouted by my fact-checking employee have entered the collective wisdom of the world.

Be that as it may, before the peasant got a chance to inspect the cow, a swarm of bees came in from the west, and buzzed menacingly about his head. Cue his uncontrollable flapping about and twitching, perfectly understandable in the circumstances. The bees harried the peasant until he turned tail and fled the field on that Saturday morning. The cow, by the way, had only a minor ailment, from which it recovered without human intervention, although I understand that it is currently in a cow-based twelve-step programme in an adjoining field. As for the peasant, he would have to await a new challenge to redeem himself from the peccadillos of his past, whatever they were.

We move on now, breathlessly but with vigour, to the third of our examples of uncontrollable flapping about and twitching. Forget pantries, forget peasants, this is a case of unearthly sci-fi stuff, set on a spaceship roaring through galaxies unimaginably distant, on a Tuesday evening. Captain Biff Bucklebim is at the controls on the deck of the USS Milquetoast Jesuit. He is a bit like Captain James T Kirk from Star Trek, but has a larger head and a speech impediment. As he likes to joke, it has been no impediment to his rise through the ranks of Starship Command, which has been meteoric. Captain Biff is still only twelve years old, although such are the warps and wefts of intergalactic travel that he is simultaneously ten thousand years old, and yet unborn, and akin to a god. Hard to get your head round, I know, and probably too much of a challenge for “Sting”, who is still working on those bees.

The USS Milquetoast Jesuit is sponsored by L’Oreal, and is powered by light-reflecting booster technology, just like Andi MacDowell’s hair. Captain Biff is contractually bound to use various L’Oreal hair products, but if he had his way he would smear his ginger mop with grease from the engine room. He is that kind of captain. When danger threatens, as it often does, he tousles his mop with one hand while punching the starship’s complicated control panel expertly with the other, all the while barking out commands to his crew. His accent is a curious mixture of Wyoming, Luxembourg, and vampire. He is extremely fond of Janacek’s String Quartet Number One, “The Kreutzer Sonata”, and likes to have it played by the starship band at moments of high peril. When they are otherwise engaged, for example if they have been beamed down to a newly discovered planetoid to give an impromptu concert of Thomas Beecham Lollipops, Captain Biff loses his rag and flies into a temper tantrum, with much uncontrollable flapping about and twitching.

I hope you have found these three examples helpful. Please add your own in the Comments. And please note that as soon as “Sting” gets back to me about the bees, I will add his findings here as a post scriptum.

Grovel With Dampier

Let us turn our attention to the world of gaming. There has been a fantastic buzz in the industry as we approach the launch of the latest version of one of the most popular games on the planet, a multibillion-dollar money-spinner instantly recognisable from the three letters GWD.

I am speaking, of course, of Grovel With Dampier, the cardboard and chickenwire strategy game that numbers among its fans Yoko Ono, Dale Winton, President Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov of Turkmenistan, and Stephen Fry. I have been fortunate enough to get a sneak preview of version four and, let me tell you, it is everything it’s cracked up to be.

As with the earlier releases, the basic concept of Grovel With Dampier is deceptively simple. Sorry, that’s not quite right. There’s no deception involved. It is simple! You, the player, accompany a simulacrum of buccaneering sea captain Sir William Dampier (1651-1715) on his three circumnavigations of the globe. Every now and again, you both disembark from your ship, whether it be the Cygnet, the St George, or the Duke, and grovel in the stinking, muddy tidewaters of whichever land mass you are at the edge of. Then, your hair festooned with kelp and your eyes sore from salt water, you clamber back on to your ship and voyage onwards to seek further grovelling grounds.

Aficionados will be pleased to learn that most, if not all, of the irritating additional features have been removed from this new edition, allowing players to concentrate fully on the essence of the game. There is no distracting music, no bleeps and blips and high resolution graphics, just a sheet of cardboard and some chickenwire and the opportunity to pretend you really are grovelling with Dampier. Does it get any better than this?