Monthly Archive for July, 2008

The Temple Of Hoon Fat Gaar

Because it was constructed mostly from canvas and cloth, and the canvas and cloth were fed on by moths, the Temple Of Hoon Fat Gaar is sometimes known as the Moth-eaten Temple Of Hoon Fat Gaar. Ravaged by moths and time, and lashed by wild winds that blow across the tarputa, it is a wonder the temple still stands, a thousand years after the first devotees entered it through the sacred flap. It has of course been much patched and stitched over the centuries, and its fabric is regularly stiffened with starch, carried in canisters for miles upon miles by worshippers of the hideous bat-god Fatso. For it is He to whom the temple is dedicated.

The wild winds that lash and batter the temple are meteorologically very interesting indeed. Students of the weather have been perplexed by them ever since modern wild wind studies began. Before our scientific age, of course, the sheer weirdness of the winds that blow across the tarputa was ascribed to the mercurial and petulant nature of the hideous bat-god Fatso, for it was thought that He was responsible for them, as He was for everything in the universe. We are wiser now, but no closer to getting to grips with the wild lashing winds.

Those who still believe in Fatso have a simple explanation. For them, the winds are the physical manifestation of the temperament of Fatso’s magic pig. Actually, He has two magic pigs, but we can safely ignore one of them for a moment or two. The idea is that this particular pig – which, it must be understood, is not a real pig in any sense – somehow sends the winds howling across the tarputa whenever it is fractious or hungry or obstreperous or maddened or otherwise out of sorts. Why the hideous bat-god Fatso does nothing to placate His magic pig is an ineffable mystery. The religion dedicated to Him is short on theologians of any stripe, although one of the few to have addressed the problem contended that Fatso spent much of his time pacifying the other magic pig, which, if ever it fully awakened, would make the wild winds that batter the temple seem like tiny pipsqueak gusts of summer breeze. Other so-called scholars argued that this implied the other magic pig was somehow more powerful than Fatso Himself, a clear heresy, so the first theologian was put in a crusher and crushed.

There used to be at least five crushers on the mud plain around the Temple Of Hoon Fat Gaar, so we must assume that there were plenty of heretics to be crushed. Occasionally, a bright young whippersnapper archaeologist will announce plans for a dig at the site, hoping to exhume a fantastical hoard of crushed bones, but not one of these schemes ever succeeds. It is said that Fatso Himself sabotages the expeditions, by causing shipwrecks and helicopter crashes and by pickling the archaeologists’ brains while they sleep. In these ploys he calls on the assistance of his flock of bitterns. Unlike the two pigs, the bitterns are not magical, but nor, of course, are they real. They are phantom, spectral bitterns, beholden to Fatso for some service He did them in the distant past. We cannot guess what that might have been, for it is a topic suspiciously neglected by all the priests and wizards and jumping-about men who interpret Fatso to his followers. Or, I should say, who used to do so. There are none of them left alive today, at least none that we know of. Believers in Fatso are a dwindling band, often greasy and myopic and spindly and gormless. They tend to lack élan. Most of them, probably, would be crushed in the crushers if the crushers were still there, because one thing we can be quite clear about the hideous bat-god Fatso is that He expected His devotees to cut a dash. There may have been few opportunities for glittering social panache on the prehistoric tarputa, especially with those wild winds, but what rare chances there were were seized on by Fatso’s followers. Great attention was paid to the angles of hats, the tying of cravats, and affectations of toffee-nosed insouciance. This is not to discount a concomitant yearning for the mud, encouraged by one of the magic pigs.

So today there are few who haul their canisters of starch for miles and miles to stiffen the moth-eaten canvas and cloth of the Temple Of Hoon Fat Gaar. Perhaps in a hundred years there will be none at all. Yet Fatso himself will still, as far as He is concerned, hold sway over the universe, and His magic pig will still make the wild winds blow, and His other, even more frightening magic pig will doze and slumber, dreaming of havoc. It is easy for us to dismiss their very existence. Until, that is, we have struggled, stylishly, across the inhospitable tarputa, and stooped down to crawl through the sacred flap, to enter the Temple. Then we see what all those believers through the centuries saw, a sight so magnificent and terrifying that we sprawl helplessly in the mud, shrieking, brains bedizened, gaga for the god of all gods.

On The Behaviour Of Bees

“There are differences in the ways serial killers and bees behave, obviously.” – Dr Nigel Rayne, bee-and-serial-killer expert, on Radio 4 this morning.

Tea Cosies : Your Questions Answered

After I posted the piece entitled Denktash Fugue Syndrome, in which mention is made of Mrs Gubbins and her knitted tea cosies, I was deluged with mail from younger readers who complained that they had no idea what I was talking about. The general tone of these missives was along the lines of “Oi, Mr Key, what in the name of heaven is a tea cosy, for crying out loud, innit?”

It would appear that today’s youth have been seduced by something called “tea in a bag”, and no longer make use of teapots and, thus, of tea cosies. This is a sorry state of affairs. However, here at Hooting Yard we occasionally make attempts to be “with it” and “groovy”, so we decided to track down some of these so-called “tea bags” and see what all the fuss is about.

Our delegated rapporteur, decked out in trendy East European clothing, strode manfully into an indoor retail-and-leisure consumer park and, selecting a boutique at random, went up to a counter and said, politely yet forcefully, “I would like a bag with tea in it, please”. He had chosen an inappropriate boutique to make such a request, however, for the only bags for sale at this counter were empty ones, with handles, made of leather or plastic or cotton or the pelts of various endangered animals. Surmising, not unreasonably, that bag and tea had to be purchased separately, our doughty rapporteur picked from the display a small dimity pippy bag and, having paid the criminally expensive asking price with his Hooting Yard Card™, made off along the rattling pneumatic pedestrian express walkarama in search of somewhere to buy tea.

Locating an emporium packed to the gills with grocery items, our chap hunted the aisles until he found a cardboard box of shredded tea leaves. After paying for this at a bleeping self-service console, he wasted no time in ripping open the box with his gnarled fingers, until it looked as if it had been savaged by a squirrel. He then poured the contents of the box into the pippy bag.

The next step was to eke from the bag a lovely cup of piping hot tea, so our rapporteur repaired to a yard where he knew he would find an outside spigot. Holding the pippy bag open under the spigot, he filled it with brackish water, then zipped it shut. He then caught the bus back to Haemoglobin Towers, where Mrs Gubbins was waiting with her array of giant bunsen burners. Using a contraption of coat-hangers to suspend the pippy bag over the fearsome flames, crone and rapporteur waited for the tell-tale sight of steam escaping from the partly-unzipped bag to alert them that the bag’s innards were coming to the boil. From there, it was a simple matter of detaching the bag from its coat-hangers and placing it under a tea cosy. Of course, Mrs Gubbins used a pair of heat-resistant padded mittens to perform this action.

Giving the infusion a few minutes to brew, the rapporteur then borrowed the mittens from La Gubbins, fully unzipped the pippy bag, and upturned it, sloshing the tea inside into a couple of dainty tea cups. There was a little spillage, but that was soon mopped up by a passing factotum armed with a mop and a pail. A dash of milk added, and the duo sat on a threadbare ottoman to enjoy their well-earned cuppa.

All in all, and in spite of the sterling efforts of both the rapporteur and Mrs Gubbins, this seems to be a frankly foolish way of obtaining a cup of tea, and it is not an experiment we will be repeating.

Denktash Fugue Syndrome

Mrs Gubbins, the octogenarian crone given to knitting and villainy, has recently come under the supervision of a doctor. It will not be too long before she becomes a nonagenarian crone, and though she is in terrifyingly tiptop health for one so aged, there have been signs that all is not well. First there was the abduction of Little Severin, the Mystic Badger, after which she went on the run for several months, holed up in a dank cave guarded by bats and owls. This was followed by her becoming smitten by the unlikely figure of Mark E Smith, and her habit of playing the complete works of The Fall at ear-splitting volume on a brand new Bang & Olufbangbangbang hi-fi system, with her windows open, at all hours of the day and night. A dawn visit from Blunkett and Blears, respectively sightless and diminutive, and somehow all the more minatory for being so, set her back on the straight and narrow.

A couple of weeks ago, La Gubbins’ knitting circle invited Rolf Harris to give a talk. Unable to attend, yet honoured to be asked, Harris instead sent a tape recording of an entertaining address in which he spoke for some hours about various Rolfs and Ralphs and Rafes and Raufs. Fatefully, at one point he mentioned the name of Rauf Denktash, the one-time President of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Hearing those two syllables, denk and tash, together, Mrs Gubbins was propelled into a fugue state, from which she has yet to emerge.

Denktash Fugue Syndrome is a thankfully rare condition, so rare that Mrs Gubbins is only the second person in history to display the symptoms. It was first identified by the Victorian mountaineer and eccentric Dr Henry Hyde Hargreaves Hopton Hibbingdibhoondoon during a sojourn in Tashkent. The journals in which he wrote of his discovery have long been lost, or disfigured by potato mould, depending on who you believe, but the basic facts were retailed by Dobson in one of his early pamphlets. Atop a Tashkent mountain one day in 1862, the doctor’s brain was ravaged by mysterious fumes, and, when he tried to say “Tashkent” it came out as “Denktash”. With him upon the peak was a dumpy, bearded sage, a man not unlike the Beatles’ pal the Maharishi in appearance, who, when he heard the word “Denktash”, was sent into a fugue state. In his journal, Hibbingdibhoondoon spelled it “foog”, but it is clear what he meant.

What remains unclear is for how long the sage remained so affected. Dobson’s account simply peters out, in that annoying way he had, and which can make his early works such a trial to read. Also unclear is the nature of the fugue itself. In Mrs Gubbins’ case, it appears to take the form of dribbling, staring vacantly into the fireplace, and absentmindedly unravelling not only the tea cosy she has herself been in the midst of knitting but also those of her compañeros in the knitting circle.

Doctor Drainditch, who has been called in to treat the loveable yet spiky crone, claims to be the only living expert on Denktash Fugue Syndrome. Unfortunately, the treatment she recommends consists of a two-week retreat in a dank cave guarded by bats and owls with an abducted badger for company, followed by a therapeutic course of listening to the complete works of The Fall at ear-splitting volume. So round and round we go, it seems.

If you, or anybody close to you, is suffering from Denktash Fugue Syndrome, there is a helpline number available. Premium rates apply, and if you manage to get through you might be lucky enough to hear a pre-recorded message from Rolf Harris telling you not to worry yourself sick. All callers are entered in a raffle, with the chance to win one of Mrs Gubbins’ tea cosy knitting patterns. You must tell your parents before placing the call, and if your parents have passed to the ethereal realm beyond our puny understanding, there is a range of ouija boards and ectoplasmic goo on special offer at Hubermann’s department store.

Brains In Bags

It is, I think, common knowledge that by eating the brains of certain animals we can boost our own mental powers. Granted, this is not a practice which has won the backing of the greatest living Maestro of the Mind, Tony Buzan, but the results can only be described as buzantastic. The difficulty, of course, has always been obtaining brains in the first place, and making them edible. Few of us are so ruthless that we would consider tearing the brains out of the heads of our domestic pets, our cats and dogs and budgerigars, and in any case, those are not the kinds of brains that will do much to supercharge our mental abilities. I know a poor soul who lived on a diet of budgerigar brains for a week, and he is now fit for little else but dribbling and writing features for the Guardian weekend magazine. Similarly, although your local zoo will provide a far greater range of animal brains, some of them particularly mind-enhancing such as the brains of giraffes and of exotic birds, zoos tend to have security guards who will Taser you without compunction should you creep towards the enclosures at dead of night armed with a jemmy, a skull-slicer, and a spoon. Being Tasered does not improve your mental prowess, despite what you may have read in the Guardian. That article was written by budgerigar-brains man.

It is a very welcome development, then, that there is a new section on the delicatessen counter at Hubermann’s where lucky shoppers can buy a huge variety of boil-in-the-bag animal brains at ridiculously low prices. The selection seems to have been made with human mental agility boosting as the basic criterion, for we can find the brains of weasels and pigs and crows and cows and giraffes and hoopoe birds and jellyfish and starlings and wolves and locusts and okapi and trout and flamingos and bears and monitor lizards and corncrakes and carp and badgers and hornets and lobsters and ducks and gazelles and dozens of others, all conveniently packaged and ready to boil.

Faced with such a cornucopia there is an obvious temptation to go overboard and stuff your gob with particularly toothsome brains, such as those of the rooting hog. This is why the staff at Hubermann’s are fully trained to advise on the government’s five-a-day guidelines, and hand out free leaflets with every purchase. To maximise your brain potential, it is important to follow certain tips:

  • Your daily intake should include the brains of five different animals
  • Make sure you boil the brains in the bag until they are piping hot
  • Do not eat the bag
  • Best accompanied with a side dish of suet pudding

Having said that, there may be occasions when, in order to boost a particular area of your mental apparatus, a judiciously limited diet can be helpful. For example, you may wish to improve your ability to interpret the scores of the more complex madrigals of Thomas Weelkes (1576-1623), in which case you might want to eat a couple of boil-in-the-bag conger eel brains for breakfast and supper each day. Studies have shown that there are substances in the brains of all eels, but especially the conger, which stimulate those parts of the human mind receptive to madrigal score complexities. Admittedly, these studies are very much in their early stages, and have yet to be given the imprimatur of any recognised academic institute, but the experiments conducted so far have been more than promising. Separate research is being done by historians of both eels as food and of choral music on whether Thomas Weelkes himself ate the brains of conger eels during his time as a Gentleman Extraordinary at the Chapel Royal.

Generally speaking, however, unless you have a specific mind empowerment scheme you wish to propel forward, it is best to stick to those five-a-day guidelines. Make sure you pick up one of the leaflets from Hubermann’s delicatessen counter, and study carefully the many diagrams in the fold-out section so you can learn to tell the difference between the various animal brains available, as it must be said that they all look quite similar when packed into bags.

One final note. Those of you who fret about things can rest assured that, according to the latest press release from Hubermann’s, boil-in-the-bag budgerigar brains are most definitely off the menu.

All Around My Hat

All Around My Hat is an English folk song, popularised in the 1970s by folk rock titans Steeleye Span. Their version was very similar to the one published in A Garland Of Country Song by Sabine Baring-Gould in 1895. Apart from folk song and folklore collections, Baring-Gould wrote hymns, a sixteen-volume Lives Of The Saints, many novels, a study of werewolves, grave desecration and cannibalism, and a biography of Robert Stephen Hawker (1803-1875), the eccentric country vicar who spent much of his time smoking opium in a clifftop hut made from driftwood, talked to birds, dressed up as a mermaid, excommunicated his cat, and had a pet pig.

“All around my hat” are also the opening words of one of Dobson’s more curious pamphlets, in which he describes wearing a hat lined with lead to deflect weird invisible rays aimed at his brain. It is not clear who, or what, is sending these putative rays, nor why the Dobsonian cranium needs to be protected from them.

“All around my hat” writes the pamphleteer, “the air is a site of constant barrage from weird invisible brain rays!” Note the exclamation mark, an uncharacteristic touch which has convinced some critics that Dobson was fooling around. The idea that this pamphlet is an unserious blotch on the canon has gained ground in recent years, with Nestingbird, for one, going so far as to claim that Dobson did not even write it, but simply copied out random paragraphs from a booklet given away as a free gift with a packet of breakfast cereal. This argument loses a certain force when Nestingbird has to admit that he has not managed to identify the said booklet, nor the breakfast cereal. In any case, as upstart young Dobsonist Ted Cack has pointed out in a series of increasingly aggressive letters, Dobson usually ate bloaters for breakfast.

The Nestingbird-Cack correspondence is a perfect example of the way in which the minutiae of Dobson studies can be magnified to the point where common sense is blotted out, much as the bulk of a pig the size of Robert Stephen Hawker’s pet pig would blot out the sun if you were sprawled in a particular patch of muck in its sty. It was a very large pig. Thus, the senior critic floats the idea of the breakfast cereal booklet, the upstart counters with the point about bloaters, the elder counters that the packet of breakfast cereal may have been purchased by and munched by Marigold Chew, the youngster replies with a computerised database of known breakfast cereal free gift booklets for the period in question, the old man picks out flaws in the research, the rookie lets loose a vituperative attack on his opponent’s atrophied brain sinews, and before long the columns of a reputable literary journal read like the ravings of H P Lovecraft in his more hysterical passages. All of this can be great fun for those entertained by Dobson-related pap, but sober-minded scholars are, I think, ill-served. There is a great temptation to take both Nestingbird and Ted Cack by the scruffs of their necks and crack their heads together. Hairline fractures in the skulls of both might just allow in thin shafts of light, akin to the weird invisible rays Dobson feared may be beaming towards his own brain. Or, I should say, the weird invisible rays Dobson possibly feared, unless of course he was just fooling around for reasons which must remain obscure to us.

Without wishing to generate further controversy over what is, in any case, a pointless and trivial matter, I should add that I have recently completed a lengthy work, at fifteen volumes just one book short of Sabine Baring-Gould’s Lives Of The Saints. It is a comprehensive study, with lots of illustrations and diagrams, of all Dobson’s known and suspected hats. I conclude that not a single one of them was lined with lead.

Enthusiasms, Number Three

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Earlier enthusiasms are here and here.

Beppo’s Banishment

Beppo was banished to a pompous land where he knew nobody. At the docks, under Kleig lights, for they disembarked from the boat in the middle of the night, his chains were taken off by the skipper himself. Mussing Beppo’s filthy hair, the skipper reminded him that he was now in a land of much pomposity, and forbidden to leave it for forty years.

Beppo saw little pomp at the docks. He saw crates and stevedores and container ships and much else one might expect to see at docks in any land. Never having hung around any docks before now, Beppo was smitten by the novelty of the sights and sounds and smells, and he stayed put. He sat for hours on a bench on the docks watching ships and sailors and crates. He begged for bloaters from the crews of smacks which brought their catch to the docks. He found shelter under a neglected tarpaulin and rubbed unguent into those parts of his flesh where the chains had chafed it. He gawped at floozies roaming the docks in their satins and silks. A floozie with a cloche hat befriended him and talked of the pomposity of the land beyond the docks.

After one hundred days at the docks, Beppo nerved himself to leave. His cloche hatted friend convinced him to go to the capital city, where majestic buildings scraped the sky and the blades of helicopters whirred and the paving slabs along the boulevards were free of grime and grease. But she forgot to tell him about the pompous sentries at the city gates whose lips curled in sneers at Beppo’s approach.

Beppo explained that he had been banished from his own land and that he had come to the capital city to get work piloting a helicopter. His plan, which he did not divulge to the sentries, was to become fat and to grow a moustache and to pilot a helicopter back to his own land where he hoped his new fat moustachioed appearance would deceive his banishers.

The sentries chuckled pompously and marched Beppo off to an area of disused railway infrastructure, where they tied him to the rails. They got this idea from watching a number of silent film serials starring Pearl White (1889-1938), including The Perils Of Pauline, The Exploits Of Elaine, The Iron Claw, The Fatal Ring, The House Of Hate, and Plunder. The sentries overlooked the fact that, the railway being disused, no locomotive would come hurtling towards trapped Beppo as he struggled with the cords that bound him.

The sentries’ knot-tying skills were lamentable, and Beppo managed to free himself within minutes. Then he wandered off along the disused railway track, skirting the capital city. He hoped to find a spot where he might breach the massive granite wall, a spot without sentries and where a certain amount of crumblement had occurred.

Alas! When Beppo found such a spot he discovered that it was used as a conduit by feral, zombie-like ruffians. These creatures had once been full citizens of the capital city but had been shunned due to their lack of pomposity. They now lived in a twilight world, staging raids into the city through the crumblement zone and setting upon passing wayfarers outwith the wall, such as Beppo. They sheared the hair off his head and sprinkled the cuttings on to the soup in their billycans. They made him wear a foolish hat. They poked him with pointed sticks and drooled upon him. His humiliations ceased at nightfall when searchlights from a patrolling helicopter picked out the ruffians and made them flee. The helicopter landed in an adjoining field and Beppo was bundled aboard.

The flight to the helipad in the pompous capital city was a short one, but halfway there the helicopter was engulfed in thick, thick fog, fog so thick that visibility was zero. On 15th December 1944, Glenn Miller took off in an aeroplane from RAF Twinwood Farm in Bedfordshire, en route to Paris. The aeroplane, and Miller, vanished without trace over the English Channel. Beppo met a similar inexplicable fate.

He has a headstone in the graveyard of the capital city of that pompous land. It is marked with an X, and the earth beneath it holds no bones.

Windowsill Bird

Number one in a series of paintings showing birds on windowsills. This is Ein Besuch by Carl Spitzweg (1808-1885).

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Stormy Weather

James Joyce was terrified of thunder and lightning, and used to cower beneath a table during electrical storms.

Dr Franklin first showed that lightning is the same as the electricity made by the electrical machine. As the electricity of the electrical machine is got by rubbing glass, so much of the electricity of the air is caused by the rubbing of moist air against dry air. A great deal is made by the turning into vapour or mist of the salt water of the ocean by the sun’s heat or by the blowing of the wind. More water is turned into vapour during the heat of summer and autumn than in winter, and this is why there is more lightning in warm than in cold weather.

There is always a good deal of electricity in the air, and in clear weather it is generally positive electricity. But during fogs, rains, or snows it is usually negative electricity, though it changes often. It sometimes happens that two clouds, one charged with positive electricity and the other with negative electricity, come near each other, and then the two kinds of electricity rush together, when a flash of lightning is seen and thunder is heard.

The lightning is the same thing as a spark from an electrical machine, the only difference being that a flash of lightning is sometimes several miles long and the spark only a few inches. The little spark gives out only a snapping sound, but if we were able to make a spark as large as a flash of lightning it would cause as much noise as thunder.

When a cloud filled with one kind of electricity comes near the earth while the earth is filled with electricity of the opposite kind, the cloud may discharge its electricity to the earth. If any tall object, such as a tree, a steeple, or a house, happens to be near where the cloud discharges, the electricity will often pass down it to the earth. In this way houses are sometimes injured and set on fire, and great trees are blasted into tiny pieces. Sometimes, too, human beings and beasts of the field are struck and killed. It is not safe, therefore, to stand under a tree or close to a high house during a thunderstorm. James Joyce was safe enough cowering beneath his table.

We see lightning in several different forms. Sometimes its flash is straight, sometimes it is forked or zig-zag, sometimes it is round like a ball, and sometimes it spreads over the clouds like a sheet of fire. When a thunder-cloud is near the earth the flash comes straight down to the earth, because there is but little air for it to pass through, but when the cloud is at a considerable distance from the earth, the air in the path of the lightning is made denser or thicker by being pushed together, and as lightning can pass quicker through thin than through thick air, it flies from side to side so as to pass where the air is thinnest. Thus its path is zig-zag or forked. When there is a very great charge of electricity in a cloud it sometimes forces its way through the air in the shape of a ball. What is called sheet lightning is either the reflection or shine on clouds of a stroke of zig-zag lightning which is too far off to be seen, or light discharges of electricity from clouds which have not enough to cause zig-zag lightning.

When lightning passes through air it leaves behind it a vacuum – that is, an empty place – and the air rushing in to fill it makes the noise which is called thunder (ukkonen in Finnish). We do not usually hear this until some time after the flash of lightning, because light travels more than a million times faster than sound. Both light and sound travel incredibly faster than a human being, James Joyce, say, taking a stroll in the streets of Trieste. When the thunder-cloud is at a distance, the sound comes to us little by little, and it is then called rolling thunder, just like one of Bob Dylan’s concert tours in the 1970s. But when the cloud is near the earth the sound comes in one almighty crash. We can generally tell how far off a thunder-cloud is by noting how much time elapses between the flash of lightning and the sound of the thunder. If we can count to five as slowly as the ticktocking of a clock between the two, it is certain that the cloud is more than a mile away, and we can probably come out from beneath the table, if that is where we have gone to cower.

Lightning, in its way to the earth, will always follow the best conductor, and when it strikes a building or a tree it will leap from side to side to find it. It likes pointy things rather than blunt or rounded things, and this is why lightning rods have sharp points. Buildings properly fitted with lightning rods are safe from being struck by lightning, because the rods lead off the electricity into the earth. When a cloud filled with electricity comes over the rods, the electricity will flow silently down them until the cloud is discharged, and we see no flash and hear no thunder. We can feel sure the building will not be struck. The tops of lightning rods are usually made of silver or are gilded, so that they may not rust and thus become worthless. The lower end of the rod must be carried down into damp earth. If the earth is dry it is better to carry the end of the rod into a well, because dry earth is not so good a conductor as moist earth, and the lightning might leap from the rod at the lower end and go into the cellar of the building. High chimneys should have lightning rods on them, because the soot in them is a good conductor, as is also the vapour which rises from them when fires are burning.

The word lightning in Finnish is salama. A flash of lightning is salaman leimahdus.

Janitor

For a long time, I used to go to bed early. I was exhausted from long days working as a janitor in an evaporated milk factory. There are those who think that being a janitor is an easy life, little more than a matter of rattling a set of keys, sloshing a mop along a corridor floor, and glaring reproachfully at all who pass by. There may be janitors of that kidney, but I was not that kind of janitor, and never had been, neither in this nor in any of my earlier janitorships. It is a curious fact that the buildings in which I have been a janitor have all housed milk-related activities. Before being appointed to my post in the evaporated milk factory, I worked at a condensed milk canning plant, a milk of magnesia research laboratory, and a milk slops sloppage tank.

When I was younger I lacked application and was frequently reprimanded, on a carpet, as is usually the case, by my superiors. The overseer of the sloppage tank was particularly rancorous, as I recall. But by the time I fetched up at the evaporated milk factory, I took my duties seriously, excessively so, and that was why I was exhausted at the end of the day. To be precise, I was exhausted before the end of the day, hence my going to bed early.

There is a pamphlet by Dobson, entitled Tips For Janitors (out of print), which helped to mend my ways. One boiling hot summer Sunday, at a loose end, I went to visit a dying janitor in a Mercy Home. His brow was beetle and his jaw was lantern, and he was slowly perishing from a malady which had set in after an attack of the bindings and which he could not shake off due to his advanced age. It was not entirely clear just how old he was, for his birth certificate had been destroyed by worms. He certainly looked unbelievably ancient when I went to see him on that boiling day. Propped up in a sort of collapsible medical chair, surrounded by dripping foliage, like General Sternwood in The Big Sleep, he had made a vain attempt to mask his decrepitude by dyeing his hair black with boot polish and by sporting the type of tee shirt worn by young Japanese trendies. Neither ploy fooled me. I knew I was looking at a janitor who had begun his career in the age of gas mantles and steam.

My visit was prompted by a plea from the Charitable Board For Janitors Close To Death, seeking volunteers to pay social calls on janitors close to death to brighten their last days. I thought myself too lugubrious to be suitable for such a good deed, but the Board’s director, an ex-flapper by the name of Mimsy Henbane, said that this particular dying janitor rejoiced in the lugubrious and funereal and bleak and that my presence would lift his spirits.

Like the Italian castrato opera singer Luigi Marchesi (1754-1829), who, irrespective of the part he was playing, insisted on making his stage entrances on horseback, wearing a helmet with white feathers several feet long, I liked to cut something of a dash when entering a Mercy Home. On this particular Sunday I was ensmothered in fine kingly raiment, complete with the pelt of a wolverine (Gulo gulo, the largest land-dwelling member of the weasel family), a burnished golden helmet Marchesi would have died for, and a bauble or two. It was stiflingly hot, of course, but my blood is ice cold, and I had achieved a temperate equilibrium as I strode majestically into the greenhouse wherein the dying janitor awaited me. I am unable to tell you his name, not because I do not know it, but because I found it completely unpronounceable. He was of Tantarabim parentage, and bore one of those impossible, and I must say foolish, names they are so fond of in that land. He was also wearing a pair of dentures which had been designed for a mouth much larger than his, so it was not only his name I failed to catch. I had brought with me, as a gift, a bag of Extra Crunchy Hard Crunchable Crackers, and it looked to me as if those gigantic teeth would be more than a match for their crunchiness. Indeed they were. For a few minutes, as the dying janitor shovelled the crackers gratefully into his gob, it was like being in a hot damp greenhouse with a snapping turtle. He crunched his way through the whole bagful so rapidly that I wondered if he was ever fed. I had not seen any staff in the Mercy Home, not even a janitor. In fact, I had not seen any other patients. There were some pigs in a sty between the greenhouse and the main building, but otherwise the place seemed deserted.

One of the things I have always liked about people from Tantarabim is that they are so easy to rub along with. After he had scoffed his crackers, the dying janitor sat there smiling weakly but, I supposed, contentedly, while I loomed above him lugubrious and funereal and bleak, just as Mimsy Henbane had suggested. I decided to stay until his smile faded, and propped myself against a pane of glass, having first twisted the dying janitor’s neck round slightly so I was still within his sight. It felt good to be doing something selfless for one who had trodden the path of janitordom before me. I pondered if this was what being a boy scout was all about. My only connection with the toggled tribe had been a single incident, in the year of the Tet Offensive, when I failed to stop a snackbar hooligan pushing a puny boy scout into a lake. I would have intervened, but I was preoccupied at the time with recalibrating a mechanism, one of my leisure pursuits in the days when I was an indolent janitor rather than the indefatigable one I became at the evaporated milk factory, when I no longer had time nor energy for leisure pursuits of any kind. Despite his puniness, the boy scout had passable swimming skills, and he managed to avoid drowning in the lake, a lake in which many had met a watery death. I knew this because their names were inscribed on a plaque affixed to a post at the edge of the lake, and I had bashed the post into the mud myself, with a hammer, one day many years before when I had nothing else to do. I used to roam the lakes and ponds and thereabouts with my hammer, looking for posts to bash into the muck. If I could not find any posts I became disconsolate and squatted on the nearest available tussock, sobbing, until it was time to wend my way home.

I had plenty of time to dwell upon my past as I leaned against the pane of glass in the hot greenhouse, for the dying janitor’s smile never wavered. It seemed that he was so pleased with the crackers and with my lugubrious presence that he had entered a state of transcendent bliss. I was determined, however, to keep to my plan of staying with him until he was no longer smiling. I knew Mimsy Henbane would approve, and in a sense it was also a way of assuaging the guilt I still felt about failing to prevent the snackbar hooligan shoving that puny boy scout into the lake. That had happened many years before, as I have indicated, but as time passed my conscience gnawed at me with ever increasing ferocity. In those days, far from going to bed early, often I never went to bed at all, instead marching up and down countryside lanes all night, incapable of sleep. I was keeping the same hours as owls, and if nothing else that fraught insomniac period helped me to extend my ornithological education. If I was a pamphleteer like Dobson, rather than a janitor, I am sure I could churn out innumerable essays on owls and other nocturnal birds. As it is, I make do by buttonholing the occasional evaporated milk factory employee and sharing my bird-learning with them, whether they like it or not. It was a pity that the dying janitor was from Tantarabim, and wearing dentures far too big for his mouth, and thus would have been unintelligible to me were he to be prodded into speech, for there was something in his demeanour which told me that he, like me, was an erudite janitor. I could not guess what his area of expertise was, of course, so I made a mental note to ask Mimsy Henbane when next I called into the Charitable Board For Janitors Close To Death HQ.

Mimsy’s journey from flapper to charitable board director was an extraordinary one. Her story has inspired poets, novelists, composers, film makers, and creative titans in just about any field you can think of, not least the designers of tee shirts worn by young Japanese trendies. Dennis Beerpint wrote a series of Cantos about her. Anthony Burgess struggled for years with a novel based on her life, but was forced to abandon it when he concluded that such a work was beyond his imaginative powers. An opera bouffe by Boof was inspired by her. Dan Brown is apparently working on a potboiler called The Mimsy Henbane Code. Before his untimely death, Rainer Werner Fassbinder planned a film about her set in a tough foreign dockyard full of tough homosexual sailors. The list goes on. Yet intriguingly, not one of the works based on her life ever addressed the root of her devotion to janitors close to death. There is always plenty about her flapperhood, and about the Antarctic expedition, the beekeeping, the shipwreck, the surgical interventions, the gladsome spring and the buffets of autumn, the postage stamp mystery, the years of crime, the gutta percha interlude, the bittersweet romances, the collapsed lung, the other collapsed lung, the delicate little fists beating hopelessly against wooden panels in the hut in the forest, the evil chickens, the gaudy boudoir, the Karen Carpenter incident, the vandalism, the scuba diving, the pitfalls, the obelisk, the gravel pathways, the euphonium band, the pint of milk, and the gruesome business in the tough foreign dockyard full of tough homosexual sailors. Yet of janitors, dying or otherwise, not one word. I know, because I’ve checked. Before I started working myself to exhaustion in the evaporated milk factory, I was able to spend some of my leisure time making a thorough study of all the Mimsy Henbane-related books and films and plays and opera bouffes and trendy Japanese tee shirts etcetera. From Beerpint to Burgess, from Boof to Brown, no creative titan deems janitors worthy of a mention. I try not to take this personally, and deny that I have poked pins into miniature wax effigies of any of those named, or of any others, such as Harrison Birtwistle and Salman Rushdie and the paperbackist Pebblehead, during spooky midnight ceremonies where I have been joined by jabbering chanting hooded bloodsoaked wild-eyed whirling drooling drugged-up maniacs. In any case, whatever lugubrious dismay I may feel towards those who have ignored my profession is more than outweighed by the fact that Mimsy Henbane herself devoted her latter years to my kind. And she did so selflessly, apart from the excessive fees she charged to those lucky enough to find a haven in one of her Mercy Homes, or in one of the greenhouses next to the pig sties in one of her Mercy Homes, and the extra charges she levied on the relicts of those janitors who, dying, died, and passed into the realm of which we know naught. So despite my hours of study, I am as clueless as the next janitor as to Mimsy’s motives. All I know is that she fully deserves my gratitude, and that is why I stood leaning against a pane of glass in that greenhouse while a dying janitor propped up in a collapsible medical chair, his hair slathered in boot polish and his dentures too big for his mouth, smiled at me for three whole days. I did it for Mimsy.

I think what wiped the smile off his face at last was that he felt pangs of hunger for more crackers. He mumbled something at me in that weird, impossible Tantarabim accent, and pointed a bony finger at the empty cracker bag he had dropped on the floor. I told him that I would go to Old Ma Purgative’s clifftop superstore, a lengthy hike away, to get another bagful. I wondered if he would still be alive when I returned. As I turned to sweep out of the greenhouse as dramatically as I had entered, in my kingly raiment, he rummaged in a little wooden cupboard next to his chair, took out the Dobson pamphlet Tips For Janitors, and pressed it into my greedily outstretched hands.

Over the next few days, as I made my slow lugubrious funereal bleak way towards the coast and the clifftop, I stopped from time to time to sprawl on bright summertime lawns and I read the out of print pamphlet from cover to cover. When I had finished it, I started again from the beginning. I was thunderstruck. In spite of my various milk-related janitorial posts, I felt I was reading about an entirely new and different calling, one of which I was profoundly ignorant. Between them, the dying janitor and Mimsy Henbane and Dobson changed my life.

Eager as I was to become a reborn janitor at the earliest opportunity, I was mindful of my promise to the dying janitor in the greenhouse next to the pig sty. I had made him so happy with that bag of Extra Crunchy Hard Crunchable Crackers, and had vowed to fetch him another bag. Torn between duty and desire, I spent a miserable morning sobbing on a tussock. Then Fortune smiled upon me, just as the dying janitor had done, by sending into my path a boy scout. As puny as the one who, years before, I had seen pushed into a lake by a snackbar hooligan, the child appeared at the side of my tussock and inquired if I had a job for him to do in exchange for a shilling. I took his coinage and sent him off towards Old Ma Purgative’s clifftop superstore, having armed him with full instructions and a map, and his shilling back to pay for the crackers. Then I turned my face towards Pointy Town and headed for the evaporated milk factory, and a new life.

What News Of Geese?

Here are some photographs. The brief accompanying text is splendid.

A Pious Infant

If, like me, you are unreasonably obsessed with the weird goings-on in the Anglican church, you might have discovered the blog being tapped out by Bishop Gene Robinson*. I am certainly pleased that I stumbled upon it, for I have learned about Saint Rumwold.

Saint Rumwold was born at King’s Sutton in AD 662, the son of Saint Cyneburga and King Alchfrid. His first words, on the day he was born, were “I am a Christian”. He then asked to be baptised, and to receive Holy Communion. The next day he preached a sermon, quoting freely from Scripture. On the third day he addressed another sermon, to his parents, and then he keeled over and died. A pious infant indeed.

Possibly even more pious than Edward Gorey’s Henry Clump…

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*NOTE : Pansy Cradledew has asked me to point out that Bishop Gene Robinson, a gay bishop, should not be confused with Gay Bishop, the TV newsreader who sometimes presents news items about gay bishops.

Bees Attack Crows!

Hooting Yard has a number of bee monitors who keep us up to speed with various bee doings around the globe. Many thanks, then, to Tristan Shuddery (Bee Monitor No. 56A) for alerting us to this article which tells us about some Japanese bees and their tendency to attack anything dark-coloured that approaches their hives.

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Frabbo Bilks Beppo

Beppo was bilked by Frabbo, so he plotted his revenge. Beppo came armed with a stiletto. We are in Verona, circa 1566. Frabbo was something of a dab hand at bilking, but no match for a pointy thing prodding at his torso. That was why he wore an iron vest.

They say that Frabbo walked away unscathed that day in 1566. But he never again bilked in Verona. He had been shaken, and there were dents in his iron vest. He embarked upon a ship and sailed away to the New World.

Aboard ship, Frabbo considered the rigging. All those skeins and knots reminded him of the plots in which he had so loved to become entangled. But for Frabbo a New World meant a New Leaf. He would be a good and simple exile.

Frabbo’s brain became dizzy at the exotic strangeness of the New World. Seeking comfort in the familiar, he fell in with Jesuits. He helped them to convert the Inca through fire and flame. He lost all reason.

Frabbo’s tongue cleaved to the roof of his mouth and he scampered into the interior naked and loose of limb. The interior was a wild place of dripping foliage and shrieking birds and globular fruits. Frabbo found it horrible.

Come 1576 and Frabbo is enswathed in turquoise raiment. He is deep in the interior and when he snaps his fingers monkey acolytes do his bidding. Ah, but hacking through fronds and creepers comes bilked Beppo at the head of a clanking platoon. It will be man versus monkey, and much blood will be spilt.