Further opinionated matchbox label observations are likely to follow, so watch this space. Many thanks to Ed Baxter.
A Website by Frank Key
Further opinionated matchbox label observations are likely to follow, so watch this space. Many thanks to Ed Baxter.
More than twenty years ago, I wrote a short piece in which I described being hunched among shimmerings. Looking back, it occurs to me that I didn’t really know what I was talking about. I was just blathering. I often blathered in those days, both vocally and when doing my scribblings. I think I was simply unclear about what I wanted to say. Much has changed, for now I have a clear, eagle-eyed vision, and am somewhat better able to communicate it. Oh, I still fall prey to blather, more often than I ought to, but I have learned to nip it, if not in the bud, then before too many tendrils have swarmed across the sun-dappled pathway that leads to truth and beauty and insight. You see, there really is a bright magnificent upland upon which we can prance, if we can but reach it. I know that now.
So when, twenty-odd years ago, I wrote about hunching among the shimmerings, I was unable to do much more than to simply report the fact. The significance of my experience escaped me. But last week I found myself once again so hunched, among shimmerings, and now I am equal to the task of writing about it properly.
It was Tuesday morning, and I was exhausted after a sleepless night. Fuelled by Vimto and boil-in-the-bag liquidised macaroni, I had been sitting up studying the flight patterns of bitterns and sanderlings to prepare myself for a bird-related Q&A session I was due to attend. There are many such calls on my attention, and I usually decline them, but this one was a fundraiser for a cause close to my heart, so I was taking part. If I could help to raise a pittance for the Tord Grip Tracksuit Museum, I was ready to immerse myself in bird flight patterns for as long as it took. And, if truth be told, I found the subject fascinating. By the time Tuesday dawned, however, my poor brainpans had turned to mush, and I needed some fresh air.
Not far from where I live, beyond the pollarded willows by the canal just before the level crossing, there is the shack of a mystic. I am in no doubt that, like most mystics, the mystic who dwells in the shack is a fraud. Like TV psychologist Dr Raj Persaud, he is an incorrigible plagiarist, culling his mystic pronouncements from other mystics, some of whom live like him in shacks by level crossings, some of whom live in palaces, and some of whom are dead. Yet I often find it refreshing to head out at dawn and to bestir him by throwing pebbles at his shack. That, at any rate, was my plan. I filled my pockets with pebbles from my pebble pot and thudded out of the house, stamping my feet with vigour upon the green earth. I do not mean that the earth upon which I thumped was literally green. I am trying to impress upon you that I am attuned to nature, a true friend of the earth, a sort of pebble-throwing version of Jonathan Porritt. It is true that I do not care two pins about my carbon footprint, and perhaps that is why I do not get to jet around the world in gleaming aircraft to attend conferences on global warming. But I do not complain. I have my little bailiwick, and I trudge the green earth, hugging the occasional sycamore or yew tree when to do so takes my fancy.
On this particular morning, though, I did not stop to commune with any trees. I was fired up, and in a hurry, and I whistled as I made my way past the weird caves and the duckpond and the industrial funnel manufacturing compound and Zaleski’s gazebo and the enormous cruncher and the two different statues of Condoleezza Rice towards the shack of the mystic, beyond the pollarded willows by the canal just before the level crossing. I am no expert whistler, by any means, but I am enthusiastic, annoyingly so, and as I walked I whistled Existential by prag VEC from their 1978 debut EP. It suited my mood.
So there I was, purposeful and full of vim, yet within ten minutes I was hunched among shimmerings, my pockets empty of pebbles and my teeth chattering. I wish I could tell you how it happened, but I cannot. The eerie shimmerings engulfed me with terrible suddenness. I sank to the ground. The pebbles in my pockets somehow dissolved, or vanished, as if they had never been there at all. The air grew cold, then hot. I hunched there, defenceless, a tiny blob in a vast universe of shimmerings.
This had happened to me before, two decades ago, as I mentioned. Then, I wrote: Hunched among these shimmerings – forget what I just said.
Forget what I just wrote.
As usual during a major football tournament, I have been keeping note of the bon mots (and bon Motsons) of the commentary teams, always a joy to listen to. Euro 2008, hosted by
“Here we are in the field of dreams, surrounded by fields of cows.”
Peacay, the onlie begetter of BibliOdyssey, draws my attention to the excellent Book Of Accidents Designed For Young Children (1831).
I’m sure this must have been a set book for the tinies of Pang Hill Orphanage. The anonymous author “conceives he cannot render a more important service to the rising generation and to parents, than by furnishing them with an account of the accidents to which Children, from their inexperience or carelessness, are liable. If generally studied it will save the lives of thousands, and relieve many families from the long and unavailing misery attendant on such occurrences”. Among the potential mishaps addressed in this invaluable book are Playing With Horses, Worrying Dogs, Scalded At The Table, Playing With Fire-Arms, Falling Out Of A Coach, and Troubling The Cook.
There are some sample pages here, where you will also find a link to the entire book online.
The global merchandising arm of the Hooting Yard franchise, always keenly aware of what passes for the zeitgeist, will shortly be launching upon a delighted public its latest product. Years of ruinously expensive research come to fruition with the appearance in a shop near you of the Malevolent Homunculus Action Figure.
Deceptively innocent-looking, this tiny homunculus-sized homunculus is actually a model of a particularly evil homunculus, one which can be sent out on nocturnal escapades to terrorise one’s unsuspecting neighbours. Although not as minuscule as the homunculus favoured by spermist theoreticians, it is still remarkably small, about the size of a newborn squirrel. It has moveable arms and legs, a fully rotating head, and a well-ironed shirt the better to conceal its inherent malevolence. Package also includes a scenic backdrop, made of sturdy cardboard, of “those pollarded willows by the canal just before the level crossing” from Brief Encounter (David Lean, 1945) against which the malevolent homunculus can be posed, spookily.
Time for another exciting Hooting Yard poll. This time we ask that burning question…
Corncrake. Brink of extinction. Dove-sized. Coots and moorhens. Hay meadows. Rural. Devastated. Insistent crek-crek. Scythes. Tractors.
Number One in a series where Mr Key will post something brief and without comment on his enthusiasms, discoveries, and passing fads.
Thanks to OutaSpaceman for telling me about Ms Rockmore, by the way.
This piece first appeared in March 2006.
For a brief period in the middle of the last century, the phrase “two men in a boat” tripped off the tongue as easily as the more familiar Three Men In A Boat of Jerome K Jerome’s comic novel. It was a very brief period, no more than a fortnight, but during that time the whole world was a-buzz with Basil and Guido’s Kropotkin Fanfaronade. Unusually for a dance routine in praise of a totemic anarchist, performed on a rowing boat to the accompaniment of a shorebound orchestra, dance band, light show, perfumes and fireworks, it captured the popular mood. Thousands of people – some say millions – trekked to the lake near Bodger’s Spinney to witness the spectacle during its two-week run, and Basil and Guido became overnight celebrities, fawned over in what, with retrospect, was an outbreak of mass hysteria. Within days of the final performance, during which an orphan child in the audience became overexcited and was clonked on the head with an oar, the whole thing was forgotten.
Trudging around the lake today, it is hard to picture the ecstatic scenes that took place here fifty years ago. There are no longer any boats to be seen, and the lake itself is surrounded by a tall electrified security fence. It is said that monstrous aquatic beings with flippers and tendrils swim and writhe below the surface, or that the water is poisoned, or even that the lake is haunted by the shade of that orphan child, though she only suffered mild concussion and lived long after the oar incident. These are just stories, believed only by the credulous, but what is beyond doubt, and readily apparent to anyone who wanders there, as I do, is that the lake is dead, choked by weeds, choked beyond hope.
It was so different on the bright summer afternoon in 1951 when Basil and Guido disembarked from their hired charabanc and stood hand in hand, rapt in wonder, before laying out their picnic rug by the jetty. Freshly graduated from Doctor Blodgett’s Terpsichorean Academy For Keen Young Chaps, the ill-matched duo were touring the land seeking a lake, pond, or other body of water on which to stage their Kropotkin Fanfaronade.
The spark of the idea came from Guido. Guido’s brain was thick with Bible-learning, but he held the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921) in high esteem, having fallen under his spell after reading a translated copy of “Research On The Ice Age”, an article Kropotkin published in Notices of the Imperial Russian Geographical Society in 1876. Thereafter, impressionable young Guido devoured everything by the Russian he could lay his hands on. When Blodgett demanded that his students choose a subject to interpret via the medium of dance, Guido was already decided.
Basil, roped in as collaborator, was initially reluctant until shown a photograph of Kropotkin, whose beard thrilled him, as no doubt it would thrill anyone who has the slightest interest in majestic nineteenth century facial hair. It was Basil who brought to their partnership the rowing boat element, possibly because he misunderstood Blodgett’s instructions. Basil was by no means stupid, but he was notoriously inattentive. We should be glad it was so, for who can imagine the Kropotkin Fanfaronade taking place on dry land? By confining the dance to the limited space afforded by a rowing boat, Basil forced himself and Guido to find radical solutions to seemingly intractable problems. Ideal as it was as a stage upon which to show Kropotkin’s periods of imprisonment, in the Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg, and later in France, the rowing boat had to be wholly re-imagined when the dance addressed the anarchist’s field trips to Finnish and Swedish glaciers. Basil and Guido succeeded triumphantly.
A fanfaronade can be defined as an ostentatious display. It certainly was. There was the rowing boat on the lake, with the two dancers aboard, pirouetting, jumping about, striking poses, and of course rowing, while on the shore a full orchestra supplemented by a dance band with a slick crooner played what can only be described as very frightening music. Guido’s parents, meanwhile, were scampering around operating the light show and the complex piping system that sent jets of exotic perfumes wafting over the crowds.
And yet, and yet… what ought to have been the beginning of a whole new strand of rowing boat-based dance extravaganzas, with Basil and Guido the pioneers and masters of the form, was in the end just a flash in the pan. Though they had sold enough tickets to keep the Kropotkin Fanfaronade running well beyond its two-week run, Bodger’s Spinney bye-laws meant it had to end. In any event, Guido now fell victim to the jangles and was carted off to a mysterious clinic hewn into an inaccessible mountainside, and Basil became a bus conductor. They never worked together again.
I want to take this opportunity to thank those readers and listeners who click that rectangular orange emblem over to the right and make donations to Hooting Yard via Paypal. There aren’t that many of you, and you know who you are, and you should be aware that your donations are genuinely appreciated. They do actually help me to meet such essential costs as my gas bill or bus fares.
If you haven’t yet donated, and enjoy the teeming thousands of words here or the countless hours of podcast audio of me babbling into a microphone, please consider doing so. If nothing else, you will get your reward in heaven, or in hell via a handcart, depending upon your moral probity.
I know next to nothing about computer games, but tireless Hooting Yard researcher Tristan J Shuddery tries hard to keep me abreast of the latest developments. Many thanks to Tristan, then, for alerting me to an exciting “interactive text adventure computer game” called Lost Pig. What topic could possibly be more thrilling? I admit myself to be befuddled by it, but for those of you who know how these things work, here is a link to it. Happy pig finding!
This piece first appeared in August 2006.
It was in the Days o’ Bootpolish that I was banished from the palace. I had done nothing wrong, but one Thursday morning they came for me in my cubicle and tore the paperwork from my elegant hands and told me that I was to be banished. I was led to a cupboard where I was told to deposit my pencils and my hats, and then to another cupboard where there were many, many shelves stacked oh so high with packets of nuts. They told me I could take six packets, two each of peanuts and hazelnuts, one of pine nuts and one of
Once I had packed my pockets with my six packets of nuts and patted down the flaps, they told me to come out of the cupboard, and as soon as I was in the corridor they slammed the cupboard door shut with such unnecessary violence that I jumped into the air for a second. The ceiling was high enough that I did not crack my head on it. I understood why they had instructed me to pat down my pocket flaps, because had I not done so, one or more of the packets of nuts may have fallen from my pockets during my inadvertent little jump. I got the impression, waiting for their next move, that they had expected me to jump.
Around the corner of the corridor one of them now appeared, wheeling a gurney. They told me to clamber on to it and to lie down on my back, and then they strapped me to it with a series of buckled woolen belts. It was explained to me that this was all part of the standard banishment procedure and that I should read nothing sinister into it, so I didn’t. I felt quite relaxed, staring at the grimy yellow ceiling of the corridor as I was wheeled along. I mused about the Days o’ Bootpolish, and wondered if they were coming to an end. It was hard to tell.
We arrived at a junction and turned into another corridor. This one had a ceiling that was also yellow, but much less grimy. After a while my gurney juddered to a stop, I was unbuckled, and they told me to get off it and stand up. I did as I was told, and saw that I was in a part of the palace that I had never seen before, but this did not surprise me, for I always knew that I was kept to only certain areas of what must have been a tremendously large building. Now I was going to be thrown out of it altogether, with six packets of nuts to see me on my way. I did find this all very curious, but they showed no sign of giving me any explanation, so I kept my mouth shut.
There was a cold rush of air to my left, and I looked around and saw that a sliding door had swooshed open, and beyond it was open air, a field, some shrivelled vegetation, distant cows, and a magnificent blue sky. I had not seen the like since before the Days o’ Bootpolish, and for the first time since they ejected me from my cubicle I spoke.
“Gosh,” I said.
One of them whacked me on the windpipe with a tally stick, and I crumpled to the floor. My patted-down pocket flaps kept my six packets of nuts safe from spillage. It took me some while to get my breath back, and then they lifted me to my feet. I heard an ungodly beeping noise. This was coming from a wall-panel which formed part of the stupendously complicated palace communication system, installed at the very beginnings of the Days o’ Bootpolish, when inventions were still welcomed. I knew it ran on electricity and pneumatics, but beyond that its workings were a mystery to me. The beeping turned out to be a signal confirming my banishment. They turned out my pockets, and as soon as they were satisfied that I was carrying no more than six packets of nuts, I was shoved in the small of the back, out into the field, and the sliding door swooshed shut behind me.
I walked away from the palace, in more or less a straight line, for about an hour. Then the sky was filled suddenly with dozens of Swordfish jet planes with military markings, dozens of planes, skitting and swooping, making a terrible din. I clapped my elegant hands over my equally elegant ears to stifle the racket, without much success. While I was standing there being a bit weedy, one of the planes came into land about fifty cements away and disgorged a troop of howler monkeys, who immediately came charging towards me, howling and howling. They grabbed my arms and legs, lifted me off my feet, bundled me into a tarpaulin, and carried me off towards the plane. I noticed a solitary starling in the blue sky.
Once inside the plane, which took off again as soon as I had been ferried aboard, I was tossed from the tarpaulin onto a surprisingly comfortable bunk and injected with a serum. This gave me a splitting headache but also caused me to begin babbling in urgent and breathless gulping sobs everything I knew about the palace and the Days o’ Bootpolish. I couldn’t stop myself, even when one of the howler monkeys passed me a tumbler of refreshing milkshake. I ended up spitting most of it onto the floor, so desperate was I to tell everything I could dredge up from the deepest nooks of my brain. It was all quite involuntary. None of the howler monkeys was taking notes, in fact they did not seem particularly interested in what I had to tell. I prattled on for at least a day, if not more, before falling back on the bunk completely spent. They gave me some more milkshake, and this time I drained my tumbler with lip-smacking relish. Then I fell asleep.
That was last week. This week, the howler monkeys have asked me to help them to make a scale model of the palace out of corrugated cardboard. I will give them what help I can. I have already given them the six packets of nuts that were the tokens of my banishment. The Days o’ Bootpolish are over now, at long last, and I for one will not miss them. I have enough on my plate, ushering in the Days o’ Cellophane to a colony of a hundred thousand howler monkeys, learning to howl just like them, but perhaps with a touch more elegance.
This piece first appeared in September 2005.
Pabstus Tack, Pabstus Sludge, Pabstus! Pabstus! Of him we sing. We sing his praises, it seems to me, for want of anything better to do. Pabstus Tack sits on his great golden throne, belching out light, a blinding light as gorgeous as it is uncanny. And yet it is an impure light, that is certain, for with Pabstus Tack comes Pabstus Sludge. It is the latter who is the source of those scarcely perceptible low booming noises, grave and deep and sinister.
When Pabstus! Pabstus! was installed on his throne there was carnival and carousing. Fools danced around maypoles and jesting roisterers roistered and doistered as if tomorrow would never come. No one has ever been able to count the pies that were cooked that day. Many, many people drowned at the swimming gala at the Old Crumbling Outdoor Pool, and ravens were seen hovering in the sky. A post office person stuck pictures of Pabstus Tack to his hat and was chased across the fields by happily screeching children. But was there a trace of desperation in their screeching?
And tomorrow did come, of course, as everyone knew it had to. That was when the first rumbles were heard of Pabstus Sludge. To appease him, the throne was moved to a higher point on the hill, just above the coppice, where moles betrayed their presence in their usual mole-like way. A gang from the tavern headed thither armed with rifles, until Pabstus! Pabstus! made it known that moles were sacred and must never be harmed. Some say the men turned their rifles on themselves in terror.
Terror, it is said, is the only proper response to Pabstus Tack and to Pabstus Sludge. Wrapped up tight in their cardigans, hanging Tilly lamps from the rafters of their cabins, the braver villagers plot his overthrow. Turnips are chewed. Cigarillos dangle from the soot-blackened lips of the vanguard. Secret anthems, never written down, are mumbled rather than sung. Food poisoning has wiped out most of these souls since Pabstus! Pabstus! first emitted his light and his booms, seventeen years ago.
The throne has been moved again, moved and reinforced. Now it is perched on a sort of concrete veranda by the edge of a lake in which only puffy and bloated fish may swim. Larval creatures are strewn on the shore, watched over by one of Pabstus Tack’s lieutenants. The air is thick, clotted, far too hot for this region. With each faint boom from Pabstus Sludge, the shoreline creatures twitch. It is never dark here, thanks to Pabstus Tack.
Between the lake and the coppice lies the village. A deranged tangle of overhead wiring stretches beyond the horizon, supported on high wooden poles which sway and creak in the constant wind. Nowadays children are no longer taught to sing “Pabstus Tack, Pabstus Sludge, Pabstus! Pabstus! made the wind / Pabstus made it because we sinned”, but they should be. It is dangerous to forget.
This piece first appeared in July 2006.
Intriguing news from the world of letters, where weedy poet Dennis Beerpint has turned his hand to a work of prose fiction. We have received a review copy of the novel, entitled The Unspeakably Squalid Becrumplement Of Tadzio Gobbo, presumably on the basis that we will give it a favourable notice and thus boost Mr Beerpint’s bank balance, albeit flimsily.
“An immense mass of clotted nonsense”. That was the verdict of the magazine Teachers’ World upon the first publication of Ulysses* by James Joyce, and I am tempted to say the same about this Beerpint book, and leave it at that. Astonishingly, however, this thousand-page tome has already been made a set book for schools, colleges, and orphanages throughout the land, which means that your tots, if you have any, or you, if you are a tot, will have to become familiar with it. When examination time comes round, everyone’s knowledge of Dennis Beerpint’s fictional farrago will be tested to the full. And so, public-spirited as ever, I am going to try to save you from wasting your precious time actually reading the damn thing, by telling you what you need to know.
Plot : Tadzio Gobbo is a princeling in a fictional Renaissance city state, clearly meant to remind us of the setting of a Jacobean drama such as The Courier’s Tragedy by Richard Wharfinger. As the novel opens, Gobbo is pristine, even, and uncreased. “If he were a piece of cardboard,” writes Beerpint, “he would not be of the corrugated kind.” Chapter by chapter we watch as the princeling becomes ever more becrumpled in a variety of unspeakably squalid ways, until at the end there is a deus ex machina and he is unfolded and ironed out.
Characters : Tadzio Gobbo is a crude self-portrait of the author, sharing his weediness, neurasthenia, predilection for twee verse, and hypochondria. Many of his becrumplements are accompanied by the onset of an imagined disease, such as yaws, the bindings, ague, flux, black bile, bitter colic and the strangury. Beerpint attempts to play up a certain devil-may-care foppishness, but this is never convincing. In fact it is laughably inept.
There is a host of secondary characters, the most important being Lugubrio, the princeling’s mad, stiletto-wielding uncle. Beerpint is constantly harping on about his “frantic black eyebrows”, which soon becomes tiresome. Lugubrio’s sole motive for all his actions, from eating his breakfast to murdering a crippled beggar, is revenge, but what or whom he is avenging is never made clear to the reader.
Other characters in the novel are a mixture of fictional, legendary, and real historical figures. Among the latter are Anthony Burgess, Edward G Robinson, Emily Dickinson, L Ron Hubbard and
Imagery : As a poet, Beerpint has been praised for his imagery (although I cannot think why) and The Unspeakably Squalid Becrumplement Of Tadzio Gobbo is jam-packed with all his old favourites. Crows, cows, burnt toast, pencil-cases, weather systems, the blood-spotted handkerchief of a tuberculosis patient, chaffinches, hedgerows, the horn of plenty and the Garden of Gethsemane, mud, chutes, Mudchute, potato recipes and pastry fillings, starlings, pigs, more starlings, more pigs, a nightmarish albino hen and the Munich Air Disaster are all evoked at one time or another in imagistic ways, as the princeling become ever further becrumpled.
Does the book have heft? : Yes it does.
Structure : The book is divided into forty nine chapters, fairly uniform in length. Each chapter ends with a reminder, as if the reader needed one, that a further stage of unspeakably squalid becrumplement has taken place, except for the last chapter, to which I have already referred. Beerpint is clearly fond of the practice found in the picaresque novel of summarising the plot in his chapter headings. To take a random example, Chapter XXVI is titled: “In which the becrumpling of Tadzio Gobbo proceeds apace, as his mad uncle Lugubrio unleashes a swarm of killer bees into the sports arena during a wrestling contest, and a false eclipse of the sun leads to rioting and flux; together with some notes on the flocking of chaffinches and the nesting habits of starlings, an aside in which a missing punctuation mark spells doom for an apothecary, and the reappearance of Lugubrio’s lobster.”
Plagiarism or quotations : Certain passages in the book appear to have been copied verbatim from novels by Barbara Taylor Bradford, Elias Canetti, Dan Brown, and the sociopathic ex-jailbird Jeffrey Archer. Dennis Beerpint presumably considers this to be postmodernist irony, a dangerous medical condition best treated by having one’s brain sluiced out with a violent purgative.
Narrative sloppiness : Untold oodles of it. It is a sloppy, flabby and slapdash book from first to last. At its core is a burning jewel of flummery and poppycock.
Brow : Neither high, middle, nor low. Not even no-brow. This book’s brow is frantic and black (see above).
Bookcase location : Finding the right spot for this volume on your bookcase or bookshelf is likely to be fraught with difficulty. Dobson’s invaluable pamphlet on the shelving of books, which is sadly out of print, will not help you, even if you manage to track down a copy, for as the titanic pamphleteer readily admits, “There are certain books, especially those written by twee poets such as Dennis Beerpint, which resist proper shelving on even the most well-ordered of bookcases. Top left corner? No. Squeezed in among the drivel and tat on the bottom shelf? Hardly. Shoved behind the collected works of Edward Upward and quietly forgotten? Certainly not, because you will always remember that it is there, and its hidden presence will reproach you every time you go anywhere near the bookcase, and you will be as the lowest worm or beetle or that which creepeth on its belly in the foulest muck of the earth.” Maddeningly, Dobson goes no further, he leaves us in the lurch, he refuses to say what I think he means – set fire to the damn thing in your garden, just as Burgess biographer Roger Lewis was tempted to do with a rival Life of the absurd Mancunian polymath.
Marketing ploy : Each copy of The Unspeakably Squalid Becrumplement Of Tadzio Gobbo comes with a free gift, viz. a paper bag of badger food. For that reason alone, I recommend that you buy a copy at once.
*NOTE : James Joyce always pronounced it as “Oolisiss”.