The story of the handful of hope that became a fistful of hell! Nicholas Ray’s 1956 film Bigger Than Life, in which James Mason declaims, as only James Mason could, “God was wrong!”
A Website by Frank Key
The story of the handful of hope that became a fistful of hell! Nicholas Ray’s 1956 film Bigger Than Life, in which James Mason declaims, as only James Mason could, “God was wrong!”
I sat bolt upright in bed in the middle of the night and realised that I am dissatisfied with the word “post” to describe an individual blog entry. Henceforth, at Hooting Yard, what was once a “post” will be known as a “postage”. That, by way of preamble to this:
In a comment on yesterday’s Gubbinsy postage, Georgy Riecke wrote: Punchy, Zippy, Bangy, Crashy – aren’t they the names of characters from the infamous Belgian kid’s TV show ‘War Zone’? A mean-spirited bunch, make no bones about it, but they’re embarrassingly photogenic and would sell a corpse for a bride if you paid them in jellybeans. Mr Riecke is almost, but not quite, correct. Punchy & co are indeed characters from a Belgian television programme, ostensibly designed for children, but it is not called “War Zone” and they are not mean-spirited. The adjective that best suits these characters is, I think, “bewildering”.
Punchy is an intricately-constructed puppet of wire and cardboard and straw and sandpaper and tin foil and rubber bands. Zippy is a tea strainer the handle of which has been punched through the top of a bag of icing sugar. Bangy is a rag. Not a rag doll, merely a rag, and a singularly grubby one at that. Crashy is a piece of special effects digital wizardry and takes one’s breath away, if one is the sort of person to have one’s breath taken away by special effects digital wizardry. Not all of us are. Some of us are more likely to be breathtaken by, oh, I don’t know, the unbridled energy of Boswell’s London Journal, or, in a different register, the sixteen Revelations Of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich.
Certainly Julian’s classic text inspired Gus Van Der Vim, the creator of Punchy and Zippy and Bangy and Crashy. In fact the entire series of shows, screened between 1972 and 1976, is a thickly-disguised adaptation of the first Revelation, the one with the hazelnut. Although none of our bewildering quartet resembles a squirrel visually, there is something of the squirrel in the personality of Punchy, if a puppet can be said to have a personality as such. Perhaps what it has is, rather, a puppetality. That being so, it allowed Van Der Vim to express his frankly hysterical response to the First Divine Revelation in the form of a weird, knockabout, psychedelic, baffling, and occasionally creepy children’s television programme, in which pursuit of a hazelnut is the starting point of each show.
The fact that the programme was cancelled by Belgian television executives in 1976 has led many soi disant cultural commentators to argue that it was a victim of punk’s Year Zero. Jon Savage and others, who have forged careers based on their real or counterfeit presence at early Sex Pistols gigs, like to claim that Gus Van Der Vim was ousted from Flemish children’s television because he had long hair and wore Lennonite granny glasses. The truth, as ever, is more mundane, but what it is, that shining truth, is clouded in the mystical mists of which Julian of Norwich gave us such a majestic account, an account which gives due prominence, in the First Revelation at least, to the hazelnut.
Last week, Mrs Gubbins suffered some sort of mental collapse and called in a team of consultants to overhaul the Hooting Yard “brand image”. The octogenarian crone put aside her knitting and got it into her head that what was needed was a brand new logo. “It has to be punchy and zippy and bangy and crashy,” she drivelled, adding that she wanted something that a half-blind orphan child could reproduce with a crumbling crayon. I have no idea how much the consultants charged for their work, but knowing these charlatans it was probably thousands and thousands of pounds. When the invoice turns up I shall cast it into a waste disposal chute. Anyway, here is the new logo, based I am told on an illustration from an alchemical treatise of long, long ago.
Adam Faith’s famous last words, spoken in a Stoke-on-Trent hotel room, were apparently “Channel Five is shit, isn’t it?” I am not qualified to judge whether the dead popster was right or wrong, but there is at least one programme on the channel today which deserves our attention.
6.30 PMÂ Wild Animal ERÂ An escaped weasel is in trouble.
Ahoy there Key!, writes Dr Ruth Pastry, possibly trying to pretend she is aboard an ocean liner, I have a few questions for you about Dobson’s magnificent collection of boots. Yesterday we were told about the Austrian Postal Service ones and the Nova Scotian Seabird Tagging Patrol ones, and we can add to these the many other boots we have learned about over the years, those designed for Hungarian Flying Officers not least among them. What I want to know is, did Dobson have some sort of official connection with the many and various organisations whose boots he saw fit to wear? Are there gaps in the biography where he was, unbeknownst to us, actually employed by them? If this is the case, I really think it is time we were filled in on the details. Or, if not, it begs the question of how an out of print pamphleteer managed to obtain what I presume were pairs of boots normally made available only to those tireless servants who, for example, delivered the post in Austria or tagged seabirds in Nova Scotia. I do not want to think, even for a second, that Dobson may have gone marauding around the globe thieving boots wherever he found them. It pains me to consider the very real possibility that my favourite pamphleteer may have been wallowing in a fetid swamp of moral turpitude. I suppose it is only fair to declare an interest here. As you know, I am a woman of impeccable rectitude, and would never, ever stoop to thievery, but for many years now I have been coveting a pair of Uruguayan Butcher’s Assistant’s Boots and I cannot for the life of me think how in heaven’s name I can get my mitts on such an item, short of becoming an assistant to a Uruguayan butcher, a position for which I am hopelessly unqualified. My final question, then, is to ask if you have any advice for me in this regard. Not that I am expecting sensible answers to any of my queries, given the Key track record, but I live in hope, and at least I have got this off my chest. I am now going to wander up on to the deck of this entirely factual ocean liner, and stare at the sea, before eating my dinner at the captain’s table, jealously eyeing his Peruvian Sea Captain’s Boots which have been cobblered in a fashion very similar to the boots I covet. Passionately yours, Dr Ruth Pastry.
The other day I very belatedly installed a programme that provides statistics on this site, telling me how many visitors have alighted here, which posts they have looked at, and so on. The most amusing feature is of course the list of search terms, typed into Google or some other engine, which have brought the innocent and unwitting to the big iron gates of Hooting Yard. I am preparing a post on this topic, which should appear in the next few weeks.
Meanwhile, however, I was startled by one item in today’s list of “search terms people used to find your blog”. It is this:
is frank key will self? hooting yard
Well, to whomsoever typed that, the answer is a resounding: No, of course not.
Although I would like to add that towards the fag end of last year, I went to see an art installation calledÂ Seizure. It was located in a derelict and abandoned housing estate in southeast London and, because it had gained rather a lot of publicity, I thought it would be a good idea to arrive early to avoid being at the end of a long and straggly queue. On the morning of my visit, however, the rain was teeming down and Pansy Cradledew and I were only the second people to arrive. Ahead of us was a family group, and I recognised among them the tall lugubrious figure of Will Self. Shortly thereafter, I discovered that my cigarette lighter was kaput. So I asked Mr Self for a light. In the downpour, he twice tried unsuccessfully to light my cigarette, grumbled miserably about lighting his own cigarette first and, having done so, proceeded to light mine. I said thank you, and he carried on moaning to his family about the rain. So, although I am not Will Self, he did light my cigarette in a downpour.
In one corner of the room a huge church bell lies on its side. It is battered and dented but its clapper remains intact.
Next to the bell is a crate of toads. The toads have been counted, and re-counted, at least three times, by the toad counting person, whose coat and cap are hung on a hook on the back wall between the bell and the crate. The toad counting person himself is no longer present. We are to understand, later, that he has been called away to an urgent toad count elsewhere, one for which he is permitted to dispense with his coat and cap, hence their presence on the hook. The toads have all been injected with a narcotic drug. They are still. Some of them are toxic toads, but it is not immediately apparent which ones, and this will prove significant, later on.
Alongside the crate of toads is an occasional table on which has been placed a fiendishly embroidered tablecloth. It is a bit tatty around the edges, which overhang the table almost to the floor. The tattiness, we will learn, is the result of it having been gnawed by wild beasts. Arrayed atop the table, upon the cloth, are a whisk and a jar of unidentified paste and a Bible and a squirting utensil moulded from bright plastic. Later, we will learn that an accompanying funnel has been stolen from this tabletop arrangement, by person or persons unknown, as the legal parlance has it. Detectives will become involved.
Then there is a gap. There is a trapdoor in the gap, but it has been secured with fastening pins to prevent accidents.
Beyond the gap is a sofa, plumply upholstered. BAXTER is reclining on the sofa, wearing a cardigan and slacks and plimsolls. He is smoking a pipe, and, between puffs, is whistling Oh Danny Boy. He is an inexpert whistler, and the sound he makes is grating upon the ears. His hair is absolutely caked with brilliantine.
Behind the sofa looms a piece of classical statuary. It is a representation of a generic Greek or Roman God. Later, there will be a brouhaha over the identity of the God, which will remain unresolved, even after blood has been shed and a terrible vendetta sparked. The head of the God is out of proportion to the body, and the legs are ill-made and of a Wordsworthian lack of ornament, although they are for the most part hidden by the sofa.
Past the sofa there is another toad, this time solo and uncrated, although like the other toads it has been anaesthetised and is still. This toad may have escaped the earlier toad counting, and it may be toxic. Or the converse may be the case, on both counts, that is, the counting and the toxicity. The toad may have been counted, and it may be a non-toxic toad. BAXTER will be compelled to address these issues later, leading to the irretrievable loss of his wits.
Finally, at the opposite end from the battered and dented bell, there is an iron spigot. By dint of a faulty washer it is leaking, and drops of water are falling into a pan placed at its foot. It is quite a big pan, tin, and pristine, as if it has come directly from the manufacturer’s production line. Lights are cleverly directed to shine upon it, making it gleam brightly, almost as brightly as the sun.
Enter, stage right, THE ANTI-BAXTER
These are the opening stage directions for Istvan Scrimgeour’s drawing-room tragicomedy The Bell And The Toads, Etcetera. Its 1951 production at the Festival of Britain closed twenty minutes in to Act I. It has never been revived.
“To begin with his figure:— Wordsworth was, upon the whole, not a well-made man. His legs were pointedly condemned by all the female connoisseurs in legs that ever I heard lecture upon that topic; not that they were bad in any way which would force itself upon your notice — there was no absolute deformity about them; and undoubtedly they had been serviceable legs beyond the average standard of human requisition; for I calculate, upon good data, that with these identical legs Wordsworth must have traversed a distance of 175 to 180,000 English miles — a mode of exertion which, to him, stood in the stead of wine, spirits, and all other stimulants whatsoever to the animal spirits; to which he has been indebted for a life of unclouded happiness, and we for much of what is most excellent in his writings. But, useful as they have proved themselves, the Wordsworthian legs were certainly not ornamental; and it was really a pity, as I agreed with a lady in thinking, that he had not another pair for evening dress parties — when no boots lend their friendly aid to masque our imperfections from the eyes of female rigorists — the elegantes formarum spectatrices. A sculptor would certainly have disapproved of their contour.”
From Literary Reminiscences, chapter X (William Wordsworth)
De Quincey seems to think that the wearing of boots can pull the wool over the eyes of female rigorists, but this was certainly not the case with Marigold Chew. Indeed, it was the boots Dobson trudged around in that often caused her acute, even physical, disgust. The out of print pamphleteer had a huge and unlikely collection of boots, including those of the Austrian Postal Service and the Nova Scotian Seabird Tagging Patrol. Unlike John Prescott, he usually managed to pair them up correctly.*
* NOTE : In his forthcoming mem-wa A View From The Foothills, Chris Mullin MP writes: “[Prescott’s] black mood is compounded by the fact that he has come to work this morning wearing unmatching shoes. We are permitted a brief giggle at this. Towards the end of the meeting a minion appears with a plastic bag containing an assortment of shoes.”
This is a guest postÂ by Vladimir Ilyich Foxglove
In his piece on the Hooting Yard to O’Houlihan’s Wharf branch line, Mr Key at one point tries to emphasise the horribleness of the Horrible Cave by suggesting that “it makes every other cave… seem like a Prudence Foxglove Sunday School”. We are meant, I think, to gasp and gawp at the force of the contrast. Well, I for one do not. I am Prudence Foxglove’s grandson. I was both a pupil and, later, an instructor in her Sunday Schools. What I know, which Mr Key clearly does not, is that each and every one of my grandma’s religious and moral education hubs was situated in a deep and dark and dank and damp and gloomy cave. This makes a nonsense of Mr Key’s attempt at vividness.
My grandma decided to set up a network of Sunday Schools because she was much troubled by the moral dereliction she witnessed all around her. In a letter to the football ace known as “the daisy cutter”, Steve Bloomer (1874-1938), she listed some of the things she had seen on a weekend outing:
I saw a gravedigger with an unwaxed moustache, a butcher without a hat, a tiny cadet loitering near a bordello, an urchin with rickets whistling in the presence of a widow, a tippety fellow manipulating figs, a wretch in the gutter, a Papist on the loose, and I saw much else besides.
Convinced that the nation’s moral resurgence could only be effected by brainwashing every five-year-old in the land, Prudence Foxglove fell under the spell of the pedagogue Walter Mad. Mad is best-known today for his involvement in a curious postage stamp scandal, but it ought not be forgotten that he was the author of dozens and dozens of tracts, the one that compelled my grandma’s attention being An Essay Upon The Brainwashing Of Five-Year-Olds Through A System Of Pedagogy Conducted Within The Confines Of Dank And Gloomy Caves.
My grandma went to meet Walter Mad to discuss his ideas. The man was an athletic, and, obviously, a most powerful ruffian. On his face he carried more than one large glazed cicatrix, that assisted the savage expression of malignity impressed by nature upon his features. And his matted black hair, with its elf locks, completed the picturesque effect of a face, that proclaimed, in every lineament, a reckless abandonment to cruelty and ferocious passions. Prudence herself, familiar as she was with the faces of pedagogical madmen in the dreadful hours of sack and carnage, recoiled for one instant from this hideous ruffian, who had not even the palliations of youth in his favour, for he seemed fifty at the least. But appearances, as we know, can be deceptive, and Walter Mad was all bonhomie and good cheer, albeit of a stern Protestant kidney, and not remotely the ruffian reminiscent of a minor character in Thomas De Quincey’s Klosterheim, or The Masque (1832) whom he so strongly, if not exactly, resembled.
My grandma was astonished at the scale of the pedagogue’s ambition. He had a vision of a vast network of caves where tinies would be entrapped from their fifth birthdays onwards, learning by rote a curriculum of decisive moral rectitude. She fretted, however, that Walter Mad seemed quite oblivious of the impracticality of his project. She fired questions at him, to which he had no answers save an airy wave of his arrestingly hairy hand.
Had he sent out a scouting party of spelunkers to identify caves suitable for his purpose? Conversely, was it his intention to employ a gang of geologists familiar with explosives to blast brand new caves where now stood only grim forbidding rock? How would he propel the tinies into his caves? Did he see himself acting as a sort of Pied Piper of Hamelin figure? Was he not concerned that so prolonged a stay in the cavernous gloom would ruin the sight of the tinies and render many of them almost blind?
Prudence swept away from their meeting convinced that Walter Mad was a nutcase, and a sinister one at that. She wondered if he had more in common with the Klosterheim ruffian than she had at first supposed. I am not sure if she ever learned of his later involvement in that postage stamp business, but had she done so, she would have felt to some extent vindicated in her decision, when she arrived home, to make a waxen doll of Walter Mad and to stick it with pins, with many, many pins.
But my grandma saw, too, that beneath all the weirdness, there was a grain of sense in his cave-based education hub scheme. His plans were too lavish, too grandiose, but reined in and properly organised, they could, she thought, usher in a transformation in civic life. It was this insight that made her, rather than Walter Mad, the true visionary.
She wrote her own version of Mad’s tract, entitled An Essay Upon The Brainwashing Of Five-Year-Olds Through A System Of Pedagogy Conducted Within The Confines Of Dank And Gloomy Caves, But Only On Sundays, and threw herself into making it a reality. She took on an assistant, a man even more like the Klosterheim ruffian than Walter Mad. This fellow’s name was Ed Balls, incidentally, though as far as I know he was unrelated to the current government minister. Balls sought out apt caves, kitted them out with Sunday School furniture and equipment, and appointed tweedy bespectacled types to teach the tinies, allowing Prudence Foxglove to concentrate on devising the curriculum, much of which was devoted to the more alarming passages in the Old Testament, with a leavening of twee drivel about fluffy animals and pretty flowers and submarine warfare.
Two generations of five-year-olds were brainwashed at my grandma’s Sunday Schools, and it is an experience none of them forgot. Balls, as we know, turned out to be a less than competent judge of caves, for one by one they suffered collapses, or flooding, or seismological trauma, until no trace of Prudence Foxglove’s magnificent obsession remained.
In closing, may I say what a fantastic time I have had writing this piece for Hooting Yard, and should I be invited to contribute again, I have a cupboard full of articles ready to publish, including several about beatniks, one about the shovelling of agricultural waste materials, and a potted biography of Ed Balls. Not my grandma’s assistant, but the new one, the government minister.
Every now and then I receive letters from readers asking me to give some account of the geography of Hooting Yard and its hinterland. I have a standard reply to such requests, which is to say that through diligent study of the writings you could draw a map yourself. It would involve very close reading, being on the alert for clues and pointers, but all the information any half-competent cartographer needs is present in the texts.
Today, I am going to make things a little easier for aspiring mappers by saying a few words about the train journey from Hooting Yard to that ill-starred fishing village O’Houlihan’s Wharf. Last week it would have been fairly pointless to do so, but the exciting news is that the branch line, long fallen into desuetude, is running again. Using the proceeds from a winning raffle ticket (number 666, beige) a team of volunteers has reopened the line as a cross between a “countryside heritage family leisure facility” and a “cutting-edge arts praxis installation”. I have taken those two phrases from their brochure, a shabby piece of work duplicated on a Gestetner machine, designed perhaps to look like one of Dobson’s out of print pamphlets. Someone has gone to the trouble of hand-colouring all the covers, though, which shows the fanatical devotion of these enthusiasts.
I am not one of these nutters myself, but I know the journey as well as I know the first three books of Paradise Lost, so take my hand, encased in a butcher’s mitten, and I shall lead you along the way.
Our thrilling railway excursion begins, naturally enough, at Hooting Yard. What was once a gigantic terminus alive with hubbub is now a ruin which serves mostly as a roost for sparrows. However, the volunteers have recreated a very convincing facsimile of one of the original platforms, and it is from here that the decrepit steam engine creaks into gear.
It is, of course, the Civic Platform. It had been hoped to place a commemorative copy of the Central Lever at one end, but Hazel Blears put the kibosh on that with a series of threatening letters. Diminutive and bumptious she may be, but she – or her officials – can certainly write poisonous prose. The branch line volunteer who opens the post has been admitted to a clinic for neurasthenics and has taken to wandering the grounds in a daze, like Ronald Colman at the beginning of Random Harvest, without the military uniform, of course, but with the pencil moustache. Anyway, off we go!
The first stop, some five hours down the line on a good day, is Blister Lane. When I say “on a good day”, I mean on a day when the train does not sputter to a halt about twenty yards out of Hooting Yard because the track is blocked by cows. This can happen distressingly often, for the fields hereabouts are teeming with cows, thousands of cows, and though they may be content to stand still staring at nothing, the likelihood is that mad Old Farmer Frack will come bellowing and waving his stick and drive them back and forth across the railway line for his own, no doubt profound, purposes. He is not a farmer who can be bribed, so if he is doing his thing with the cows, the train just has to wait.
From Blister Lane we head on to Hoon. There are many who contend that Hoon is a place of myth, like Atlantis or Lemuria. Even if they are right – and remember, there is no definitive evidence either way – that is no reason Hoon cannot have its own railway station. The station itself shimmers, as if in mist, even on a clear day, and eerie sounds echo about its turrets and crenellations, for the station building is both turreted and crenellated, if blurry. It is not advisable to disembark from the train at Hoon.
Nor is it a good idea to alight at the next stop, the Horrible Cave, unless you are an emboldened spelunker. Actually, there is a reasonable chance you may be so, for last time we did a readership survey it turned out that almost three-quarters of Hooting Yard readers have survived terrifying imperilment in caves, though not of course in the Horrible Cave itself. And it has to be said that the Horrible Cave is so horrible that it makes every other cave in any given subterranean system seem like a Prudence Foxglove Sunday School. The branch line volunteers refused to place any health and safety notices at the stations, even here, so you will have to keep your wits about you and use that unfashionable tool, common sense. But if you are a regular reader of Hooting Yard, you will of course have plenty of that.
And so we steam on, still creaking, to the Macabre Village. Please note that this is not the Macabre Yet Goofy Village you may have read about in the works of Jean-Claude Unanugu, nor the same writer’s Goofy But Macabre Village. Those are fictional. This is just a macabre village, with no goofiness to be found, however hard you might search. If you jump off the train here, try not to go too close to any of the buildings, and take a torch with you, the more powerful the better. In fact, take a torch and a bag of pebbles. You can throw the pebbles at anything macabre that looms out of the shadows intent upon attacking you.
Anybody with any sense will have stayed on the train, and be rewarded by arriving some hours later at The Ponds. This used to be a popular destination for picnicking parties, particularly the pond known as Stagnant Inky-Black Fathomless Spooky Pond, where generations of tinies cavorted and capered. Some of them even made it home alive.
From The Ponds it is a short hop to Pang Hill, where the famous Orphanage graveyard is well worth a visit. Take a cotton napkin to mop up your tears. Various mawkish pamphlets are available from the graveyard gift shop, including some insufferably dreary collections of verse by Dennis Beerpint, penned (as he would say) before his reinvention as a twenty-first century beatnik. On that point, it appears that our cherished poetaster has disavowed his earlier work. He issued some kind of manifesto the other day declaring that he intends to rewrite each and every one of his pre-beatnik poems in the beatnik style. Whether or not that is something to look forward to I am not sure. It might be a good idea to snap up as many of his twee verses as you can while you are at Pang Hill, if you can cease sobbing and do a Winslety gather.
The next stop is Pointy Town. The station is, of course, magnificent, and very pointy. Indeed, it is thought to be the pointiest railway station on the planet. Before reopening the branch line, the volunteers made a special effort to eradicate any blunt bits on the station concourse, using a sort of antisandpaper, supplies of which they found untouched in a basement storeroom of Hubermann’s, the gorgeous department store.
And so, finally, to the benighted fishing village itself, O’Houlihan’s Wharf. For obvious reasons, the timetables are less than accurate, but you should arrive within two or three weeks of setting out from Hooting Yard. You will be exhausted, and your head will be enveloped in steam, but you will I hope experience a Lovecraftian shudder as you step on to the platform, with the sudden, hideous realisation that there is no way back, and you must spend the rest of your days trudging up and down the rotting jetty, befouled seawater sloshing against your boots, and squalls blowing in from the west.
NOTE : Signage by OSM, to whom many thanks. The picture of the train on the cover of the brochure is from Agence Eureka.
I know I shouldn’t allow such twaddle to exasperate me so much. I know it is a sign of weakness, even of imminent mental collapse, when one feels compelled to post a comment at the Guardian. But alas, I couldn’t help myself. To discover the cause of my intemperance, go and read this. If you can’t bear to wade through all the comments, mine is here. (It will be distressingly familiar stuff to Hooting Yard readers, of course.)
Now I am going to apply a cold compress to my forehead, and throw pebbles at swans.
If time moved backwards, Hannah More (1745-1833) could have been the offspring of Dobson and Prudence Foxglove:
She helped to initiate a line of publications called Cheap Repository Tracts. These were inexpensive chapbooks – softcover books of four to twenty-four pages that often were illustrated with woodcuts. More embarked on this project, which she said “barely leaves me time to eat”, because she was disturbed that contemporary chapbooks were secular works that often were ribald. She told Hester Piozzi that “30,000 Hawkers are maintain’d by this dissolute Traffic, and Boat loads of it [chapbooks] are sent away from the Trading Towns to infect the villages”. She wanted to circulate “Religious and Useful Knowledge as an antidote to the poison continually flowing thro’ the channel of vulgar and licentious publications”.
The “religious and useful knowledge” would be contained in short stories about “Striking Conversions, Holy Lives, Happy Deaths, Providential Deliverances, Judgements on the Breakers of Commandments, Stories of Good and Wicked Apprentices, Hardened Sinners, Pious Servants &c”. More wrote many tracts herself (they were published anonymously but those marked Z were written by her). The tracts are well written and often describe accurately the lives of the rural poor, but they always have a predictable ending. According to Anne Stott, More’s biographer, “everything always turns out for the best provided one goes to church and keeps the sabbath”.
From The Peculiar Life Of Sundays by Stephen Miller
One man who knew a thing or two about boiling My Lady Kent’s pudding, apart from Sylvester Patridge, was Blodgett. Blodgett first came upon the recipe when he was under the culinary tutelage of the so-called Culinary King of Cuxhaven, Binsey Poplars. Poplars himself unearthed the pudding details during his researches in an archive of pudding recipes at the Texas Recipe Book Depository in Dallas, bang next door to the more famous – or infamous – Texas Schoolbook Depository, from a sixth floor window of which, on a November day in 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald shot President John Fitzgerald Kennedy with a mail-order Mannlicher-Carcano rifle. Some would add “allegedly” after that statement, but not me. I have read my Posner.
Nobody, so far as we know, ever shot anyone from a window of the Recipe Book Depository, not even Binsey Poplars, who, when he was not rummaging through old recipe books, could himself be impelled to acts of senseless violence. He once broke Blodgett’s legs, for example, quite deliberately, with blows from a tent peg mallet. Poplars called this mallet his Hammer of Pedagogy, which was something of a misnomer, as he also used it to crack eggs, to bash out dents in his pans, and to hammer tent pegs into campsite mud. He was fond of taking his students on camping trips to the outskirts of Cuxhaven, and having them forage or starve.
It was on one such escapade, when Blodgett was still on crutches, that teacher and student fell into a lengthy conversation about puddings. The Culinary King had only recently returned from his Texas trip, and his head was full of the recipes he had discovered in the pudding archive. The countryside around Cuxhaven was at the mercy of roaring winds that weekend, and Poplars and his students were huddled in their tents. It was not foraging weather. The pedagogue made a point of sharing his tent with any student whose bones he had broken in a fit of temper, and so it was Blodgett on this occasion who sprawled at his master’s feet. As far as puddings went, Blodgett knew almost as much as Binsey Poplars. He had immersed himself in the world of puddings since infancy, and it was this enthusiasm that had led him to sign up to the Culinary King’s Crash Course in the first place. For though Blodgett could tell you about thousands of different puddings, he had no idea how to make a single one of them.
In the tent, as gales howled and canvas flapped, Poplars and Blodgett talked about puddings for hours.
“Of course,” said Binsey Poplars pompously, “Sylvester Patridge claimed to know the correct boiling time for My Lady Kent’s pudding, but the man was a charlatan and a fool, and if you boiled it for the time he recommended you would end up with a pretty sorry excuse for a pudding”.
“Tell me more,” said Blodgett, all ears, because here was a pudding that, remarkably, he had never heard of. And as his tutor prattled on, Blodgett scraped shorthand notes on to one of his crutches with a sharpened twig.
Years later, far from Cuxhaven, restored in limb, and now a dab hand at cooking the puddings he had once merely salivated over, Blodgett stumbled upon his old crutch and deciphered the scrapings he had made upon it. He transcribed them into a notebook, embellished them, and published them as part of Blodgett’s Book Of Many Puddings, a copy of which, fittingly, was acquired by the trustees of the pudding archive at the Texas Recipe Book Depository on Elm Street in Dallas, just along from the overpass on the Stemmons Freeway.
A fantastic challenge for any maker of boiled puddings, he wrote, is the pudding named after My Lady Kent. Should it be steamed before boiling, or afterwards? Should it indeed be steamed at all, or should one just get on and boil it? What is the best type of pan in which to chuck the pudding ingredients prior to boiling? Does the pan matter? If the pan is dented, should one bash out the dents with the Hammer of Pedagogy beforehand? If one neglects to do so, will any indentations in the finished pudding caused by the dents add to its savour, or will they detract from it? Is there a place, in the contemporary world, for dented puddings, or should we be aiming for clean lines and smooth edges? Can a modern version of My Lady Kent’s pudding compete with the original? Should we allow indentations irrespective of their effect simply because, in all likelihood, given the rough and tumble of the times, My Lady Kent’s own pans would have been outrageously dented? Rare was the pan in those days that did not get bashed about and suffer because of that bashing. That may be one reason for the popularity of puddings, for there are cogent arguments claiming that the final shape of a pudding, particularly a boiled pudding, matters not a jot to the eater of the pudding. Are there any cases we can advert to where a pudding has been sent back from table with the complaint “I cannot eat this pudding. It is dented.”? Such reservations are likely with other things one might eat. A duck of the wrong shape, likewise a pig’s head or a pie full of misshapen blackbirds, will cause revulsion, for the eater may think, rightly, that they are being fobbed off with abominations of nature. But there is no such thing as the correct shape of a pudding, not even of My Lady Kent’s pudding. And yet to make one that is succulent and lip-smacking remains a challenge, and takes years of study, sometimes in a tent, on the outskirts of Cuxhaven, while canvas is buffeted and fierce winds blow.
It does not escape the reader’s notice that Blodgett fails to answer many of the questions he – or Binsey Poplars before him – raises, and nor does he provide a workable recipe for the pudding he so enthuses about. That is Blodgett all over, of course, infuriating and exasperating yet strangely adorable for all that.
Incidentally, it is said that the dressmaker Abraham Zapruder, who filmed the famous footage of the Kennedy assassination on his top-of-the-range Model 414 PD 8 mm Bell & Howell Zoomatic Director Series movie camera, was planning to spend the afternoon, following the passing of the presidential motorcade, in the Texas Recipe Book Depository, specifically to consult Blodgett’s book. Whether he was intending to boil My Lady Kent’s pudding, and was looking for helpful hints, we do not know, and now we never will, for history took a fateful turn on that sunny day in Dallas, and the dressmaker’s boiled pudding thoughts were wiped clean from his brain. But not from yours, or mine.
Never one to be troubled by the chronology of cultural fads, poet Dennis Beerpint is trying to reinvent himself as a beatnik. He has been seen about town sporting a goatee beard and a jet black polo neck sweater. A concerned Beerpint-watcher suspects a copy of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl may have fallen into his hands.
“Knowing Dennis Beerpint,” writes my correspondent, “His version of Howl will probably be called Bleat or Oooh, Missus!”
This seems a bit harsh to me. Though Beerpint can be incorrigibly twee, and often fatuous, at its best his work has reduced me to a sincerely sobbing heap of woebane. I am thinking of such pieces as Lines Upon The Collision Of A Little Peewit With A Hot Air Balloon, a poem I consider to be the finest peewit-related poem of the last millennium. It will be interesting to see where he goes in his new beatnik persona, daddy-o. Well, perhaps not interesting, but at the very least mildly diverting in a Beerpinty way for those of us who follow his doings.
In looking through Thaumaturgia, or Elucidations Of The Marvellous the other day, for that quotation about the delusional glass man, I came across this:
We shall conclude our astrological strictures with the following advertisement, which affords as fine a satirical specimen of quackery as is to be met with. It is extracted from “poor Robin’s” almanack for 1773; and may not be without its use, to many at the present day. We will vouch for it being harmless, but as we are not in the secret of all that it contains, our readers must endeavour to get the information that may be wanted, on certain important points, from other quarters…
“The best time to cut hair. How moles and dreams are to be interpreted. When most proper season to bleed. Under what aspect of the moon best to draw teeth, and cut corns. Pairing of nails, on what day unlucky. What the kindest sign to graft or inoculate in; to open bee-hives, and kill swine. How many hours boiling my Lady Kent’s pudding requires. With other notable questions, fully and faithfully resolved, by me Sylvester Patridge, student in physic and astrology, near the Gun in Moorfields.”
“Of whom likewise may be had, at reasonable rates, trusses, antidotes, elixirs, love-powders. Washes for freckles, plumpers, glass-eyes, false calves and noses, ivory-jaws, and a new receipt to turn red hair into black.”