Confessions Of A Door-To-Door Monkey Salesman

Given its title, one could be forgiven for thinking that Confessions Of A Door-To-Door Monkey Salesman is a 1970s British sex comedy film starring Robin Askwith. In fact, it is a Bildungsroman of fierce intensity. Annoyingly, its author has chosen to remain anonymous. The book begins thus:

I was born in a cornfield. The first sound I heard was the shrieking of crows. My mother put me in a burlap sack and dropped me down a well and went on with her rustic drudgery. At the bottom of the well ran an underground stream. I was carried along for miles until the stream surfaced alongside a dilapidated pig farm. The pig farmer’s wife was washing potatoes in the stream as I came by in my sack. Never one to waste a good piece of burlap, she plucked the sack from the stream and found me inside it. I was gurgling.

We might think this far-fetched, were it not that there are many true tales of babies, and hamsters, surviving journeys fraught with much more peril. The note about the crows is intriguing, reminding us of the old saying, I think from Filthshire, “a child born to the cawing of crows will have too few fingers and too many toes”. And what do we learn on page 26?

I remember quite clearly the night my adoptive pig farming mother read to me, as a bedtime story, passages from a book describing freakish human anomalies. There was a two-headed boy and a girl with eight kidneys, a giant with yellow lips and a woman with upside-down ears. As she closed the book, at the end of a chapter on people with lobster claws, and I was falling into sleep, she whispered “and you, my cherished tiny one, are a freakish anomaly, with your two thumbs, seven fingers, and eleven toes”. I sprang up, wide awake. Until then, I had not noticed my irregularity. Of course, I had counted my own fingers and toes many times, as a way of passing the time on rain-soaked pig farm afternoons. But being very short-sighted, I had never looked at other people’s hands and feet with any acuity.

Shortly after this realisation, the boy is bought his first pair of spectacles. The prescription is flawed, for the corrective lenses are obtained from an optic rascal, and the world remains blurry and distorted. Our hero can still not see well enough to count the toes and fingers of others unless they shove their hands or feet right in his face, and he is too diffident to ask. But he gains inner strength from his status as an anomaly.

I read and reread my mother’s freak book, poring over the details, and fantasising that I had more enigmatic qualities than were outwardly apparent. For example, because I was mad for eating nuts, any nuts I could get my hands on, I became convinced that I had the brain of a squirrel. I spent long hours in the woods near the pig farm talking to squirrels in a language I thought they might understand. I trained myself to quiver and tremble and dart about as if I had the high metabolic rate of a squirrel. This behaviour continued until my thirty-first birthday.

No longer a child, but with little experience of life away from the dilapidated pig farm, the author of the Confessions reports abruptly the cataclysmic change that occurred on that birthday.

 My adoptive parents perished in the Munich air disaster. They had won a raffle to attend the second leg of the European Cup quarter-final between Manchester United and Red Star Belgrade. It was the first time they had left me in sole charge of the pig farm. When the postie came up the lane with the telegram telling me the terrible news, in my convulsive grief I suddenly realised that I did not have the brain of a squirrel, and never had had, and that life held for me greater prospects than mucking about in the woods babbling gibberish and gnawing nuts. I was now the master of a dilapidated pig farm.

Was he its master? Or did the farm master him, in the shape of the pigs? There were very few pigs left on the farm, no more than half-a-sty’s worth, and they were belligerent, cunning, and rancorous. They were, in a way, freakish anomalies themselves, very different from the peaceable intelligent pigs we are so fond of. For years, the deceased pig farmer and his wife had been adding a secret ingredient to their bran mash, on the advice of a plausible pigfeed rascal, a crony of the equally plausible optic rascal who had supplied our hero’s defective spectacles. Quite what the pigs had been ingesting for decades is unclear, but it had wrought psychic pig havoc. They were more than a match for a myopic innocent who was trying to adjust to his new life. Within weeks, charming bucolic dilapidation became utter ruin.

The last straw was a tempest which flattened the barn and the pigsty and sheds and huts and outbuildings and even the farmhouse itself. The local newspaper described it as “an unusual weather event”. In the teeth of the storm, the pigs ran amok, and vanished up in the hills. I sat on the ottoman surrounded by collapse. Fate decreed that a pig farmer’s life was not for me. I had a sudden urge to regress, to return to the woods and commune with squirrels, but I fought it. My spectacles had been smashed during all the chaos, and I determined that, as soon as the wind died down and there was daylight, I would seek out the optic rascal to get a new pair.

Our credulity is strained somewhat when we are told that the only item to survive the devastation of the tempest, apart from the ottoman upon which he is sitting, is the narrator’s dead adoptive pig farming parents’ hand-compiled Directory Of Countryside Rascals, a ring-binder jam-packed with details of hundreds of rustic chancers, including full contact details, mugshots, handwriting samples, maps, and of course their areas of persuasive rascality, whether it be optics or pigfeed, and much else besides. Armed with such exhaustive information, even our short-sighted hero could not fail to track down the rascal he sought. Or could he?

I was two days distant from the rubble that had been my home when, sheltering under a sycamore from a sudden shower, I peered for what felt like the umpteenth time at the sheet I had taken from the ring-binder. My intention was to check that I was following the map accurately, and had remembered to veer left after crossing Sawdust Bridge. Now, holding the page the right way up, I suddenly discovered that I had mistakenly brought with me the information sheet not for the optic rascal, but for quite another rascal entirely. I supposed, back at the obliterated pig farm, I must have been befuddled. I pondered whether I could cope without a new pair of spectacles. Before the interruption of the shower, it had been a sunny day, and I was in high spirits. After all, here I was on the open road, a free agent, no longer tied down by pig farm responsibility. I could do as I pleased. And I was coping well enough blundering about in a blur. I held the paper up close so I could read my dead adoptive mother’s scrawl. No doubt about it, I had the wrong sheet. It was headed “Monkey Rascal”, not “Optic Rascal”. I could not recall a time when a monkey rascal had ever called at the pig farm, but my adoptive parents were resourceful folk, and they gathered details of sundry rascals of whom they had no immediate need. The monkey rascal was one such, his information sheet compiled with care just in case his services might one day be required. As the rain spattered down around me, I wondered what those services were.

He finds out soon enough. It takes just three more days trudging, faithfully following the map, for our hero to arrive at a monkey compound on the outskirts of a macabre village. Wisely, he avoids going through the village itself, and bypasses it, taking a detour through a long, muddy, puddle-pitted but not disagreeable ditch. The gate of the compound is unlocked. Though he can barely see in front of him, he hears the whistle of a steam kettle and, shortly afterwards, the telltale glug and clatter of cocoa preparation. Heading for the sound, he finds himself in the monkey compound canteen, where the monkey rascal is holding court, sipping cocoa and surrounded by monkeys. He is in for a surprise.

“You must be the pig farmers’ adopted son,” he said, as soon as I blundered through the canteen door, “I’ve been waiting for you”.

He is given a cup of cocoa, and everything is explained.

“When I heard your parents had been killed in the Munich air disaster I knew it was time for me to fulfil the pledge I made to them on the day you were hoisted out of the stream,” he continued, “I was there. I was about to sell the pig farmer and his wife a monkey when they found you instead. I must have looked peevish at the loss of a sale, because they came over very guilt-ridden at the thought of sending me away empty-handed. So they said that, so long as I was happy to keep hold of the monkey they had planned to buy, they would rent it instead. They paid me on the dot every month from that day until that tragic day in Munich. And as part of the monkey rental, they made me promise that, should anything ever happen to them, I would take you under my wing and look after you until the day one of us died. That’s why, when you were asleep in a hedge a few nights ago, one of my trained monkeys took the optic rascal’s details out of your satchel and put mine in there instead. So here you are.”

He sounds like a splendid fellow, but we must remember that he is as rascally a countryside rascal as all the other rascals in the Directory. It rapidly becomes apparent that he has concocted a plan. Yes, he will fulfil his pledge to care for our hero, but he expects something in return, and it is no small thing.

“That monkey rental money has kept my head above water these past thirty years,” he went on, pausing now and then to slurp his cocoa, “I sorely miss it, and these old bones of mine aren’t getting any younger. I am mindful, too, that the woods hereabouts are fairly riddled with squirrels, and I don’t want you tempted to go down there and rekindle the squirrel-brain nonsense your adoptive parents told me all about in the long, tear-stained letters they sent me with their monkey rent cheques. So I propose that in return for your cocoa and soup and a mattress in the monkey compound, you are to act as my very own indentured door-to-door monkey salesman, starting at dawn and clocking off after nightfall, every day except St Abodwo’s Day, he being the patron saint of monkeys, according to some. I hope you will be pleasantly surprised at the number of householders willing to purchase a monkey there and then from a myopic stranger who bangs on their door out of the blue. Now finish your cocoa and you can get to work.”

And so begins a period of more than twenty years during which our hero pounds the streets of villages and hamlets and towns and cities, a string of monkeys in tow, banging on the doors of people from all walks of life, high and low, professional and prole, refining his sales patter, which grows in expertise the more surely as his sight fails, until towards the end, it is he who is led by the monkeys, on a length of string, and then one day…

One day it happened there was a mix up, and a kindly retired vicar who had taken a shine to Martin the howler monkey handed his cash to Martin and took me into his vicarage by mistake. I have been here, happily, ever since, fed on cornflakes and brazil nuts, and living in the overheated conservatory among dripping plants with fat bulging leaves. It is here I have written my Confessions. From time to time I think of the monkey rascal, and how distraught he must have been when I did not come home that day. He must feel he has broken the pledge he made to my adoptive pig farming parents more than half a century ago, albeit through no fault of his own. I weep for him sometimes, thinking of him in his canteen, perhaps with Martin at his side, howling. But then I snuffle and dry my eyes, and remember that he is a countryside rascal, and like all rascals he will have other irons in the fire. I wave to the kindly retired vicar through the conservatory window, and I chew another brazil nut and I pour another bowl of cornflakes down my throat.

Monopod Angels

May choirs of angels sing you to your rest. But before you nod off, or keel over, try to take note how many among them are monopod angels. There will be angels of monosodium, and caustic soda, and pure cobalt, but the monopods are quite rare, and are not always welcome in angelic choirs. They have a tendency to screech. This may be because their pods, or feet, are almost invariably those of birds, such as the foot of a crow or an ostrich or a kittiwake. We do not like to think of angels shunning other angels, but alas it is true.

The monopods are unpopular for reasons other than their screeching in choir. It is thought that their hopping is ungainly and lacks angelic grace, and that in some way they are letting the side down. The obvious retort to this is that, as monopods, they have no other means of unassisted locomotion than to hop from place to place. “Then at least hop with elegance!” some mighty archangel might cry, dismissively.

More sympathetic angels, such as the majority of the monosodium ones, while nauseated by the hopping, have suggested that the monopods could get about in carts, and thus need hop not. The flaw in this angelic vision is that someone would have to pull the cart, and no angel, not even one both monosodium and cobalt, would demean themselves by doing so. The only angels likely to be keen to pull a monopod in a cart would be other monopods, a fact which makes a nonsense of the whole idea. Identical objections can be raised against the possibility of monopod angels being pushed about in barrows.

When in flight, monopod angels appear as graceful as their biped colleagues, but of course no angel can remain in the air constantly, with the exception of gossamer angels. Sooner or later the beating or fluttering of its wings exhausts even the fittest angel, and it must descend from the boundless firmament to rest on something solid, such as the branch of an oak tree in Peckham Rye. This was the landing place of a 1767-vintage angel, spotted by William Blake as he was out walking. It was not a monopod.


In this 1878 painting by William Bouguereau, we see just how elegant a monopod angel can appear when in flight. The lower, red-clad angel is the monopod, though unusually it does not have the taloned foot of a bird.

Career Opportunities

Yesterday I posted an extract from The Devil’s Party : A History Of Charlatan Messiahs by Colin Wilson. Wilson is quite a maddening writer, slapdash and hurried, but I have to admire the way he litters his text with marvellously entertaining snippets of information. On page 73, for example, we learn that Jim Jones of the People’s Temple funded his early cult-building efforts by being a door-to-door monkey salesman.

Naked Somersaulting Emissaries

I think the time has come for me to acquire a team of naked somersaulting emissaries…

In 589, a man went insane after being surrounded by flies in a forest near Arles., in France; two years later, he dressed himself in animal skins and made his way down to Gevaudon, in the Cevennes, declaring that he was Christ, and that he had the power to heal the sick… He began to accumulate an army of followers, which reached three thousand, and towns they approached were asked to acknowledge that he was Christ – which most of them did to avoid trouble. Approaching the town of La Puy, he quartered his army in halls and churches, and sent naked messengers to announce his arrival to Bishop Aurelius.

When the bishop saw these emissaries turning somersaults, he had no doubt that they were inspired by the devil, so, hiding his disgust, he sent some of his men to welcome the man who called himself Christ. They bowed as if to kiss the messiah’s knees, then dragged him to the ground and stabbed him to death. Without their leader, the followers quickly dispersed… but St Gregory of Tours, who records the story, adds that the messiah’s followers continued to believe in him until the day they died.

From The Devil’s Party : A History Of Charlatan Messiahs by Colin Wilson (2000)

Wilson, who knocks out books at a Pebbleheadian rate, can’t be bothered to provide us with footnotes and references (other than that allusion to St Gregory of Tours). I think by “Gevaudon” he means Gévaudan, which, intriguingly, was terrorised by man-eating wolf-like creatures between 1764 and 1767. Could it be that, clothed in his animal skins, the fly-maddened Christ returned after twelve hundred years as the Beast of  Gévaudan? I suspect this is highly likely, for as we all know, the Lord moves in mysterious ways His flies to swat away wonders to perform.

Sieve Project

Give me a sieve or a riddle and, boy oh boy, before you can say “lumme, guvnor, knock me down with a feather”, I’ll have a pan of fine powder from which all the cloddy clumps have been winnowed. By pouring a little warm water in to the pan from a bowl, and stirring it with a stick, I will soon have a paste. And you know what? I can add dye to the paste to make it any colour I like. It doesn’t matter what colour the powder was originally.

The next thing I can do is to make the paste a little tacky by adding a binding agent. In 1859, William H Gregory published Egypt In 1855-56, where he remarks, inter alia, that “The rocky walls were black and sticky, and seemed to sweat a thick, fatty, viscous liquor”. That is precisely the kind of paste we want in our pan.

Now we return to the sieve, or riddle, which holds all the clumps that didn’t make it through. The first thing to do is to remove them, one by one, and place them in a line on your countertop. Sort them in order of size, so that you have a row of clumps gradually ascending from tiny to titanic. Of course, the tiniest of the clumps will not be too tiny, for remember that what you have here are the leavings in the sieve. What I always do at this stage is to count the clumps, just to give me some idea of what lies ahead, in terms of time and effort. Then I get a duster from the duster drawer and very carefully swab all the clumps, one by one, wiping off any grime or filth from them.

When this part of the process is complete, shake the duster violently over a bucket or pail, to collect all the bits of unutterable filth. However energetically you shake the duster, some minuscule crumbs of dirt may cling to it. These can be removed by aiming a jet of fast-rushing air from a nozzle over the whole surface of the duster, pointing the jet in such a way that the last remnants of grubbiness fall plop into the bucket or pail.

If you have got this far with the project, give yourself a pat on the back, or, better, get someone else to pat you on the back, or to give you a bear hug. Try, though, not to be tempted to take a breather for a cup of tea and one of your cheap Bosnian cigarettes. I make every effort to press right on, fearing a lack of momentum. Maybe that’s just me. You might be able to put your feet up and even take a nap, but I wouldn’t risk it.

Next we wash our hands, before pouring the viscous paste out of the pan into a clean bowl. We lay paper towels out on the countertop. We grasp a pair of tongs. There are three basic classes of tongs, to wit: (a) tongs which have long arms terminating in small flat circular ends and are pivoted close to the handle, as in the common fire-tongs, used for picking up pieces of coal and placing them on a fire. (b) tongs consisting of a single band of metal bent round one or two bands joined at the head by a spring, as in sugar-tongs (a pair of usually silver tongs with claw-shaped or spoon-shaped ends for serving lump sugar), asparagus-tongs and the like, and (c) tongs in which the pivot or joint is placed close to the gripping ends, such as blacksmith’s tongs or crucible-tongs. Which class of tongs you use is entirely up to you. I did not tell you what colour to dye your paste, nor am I going to limit your choice of tongs. There are ancient freedoms we must strain with all our might to protect.

Starting at the end of the row of clumps where you placed the tiniest clump, pick up the first clump with the tongs and dip it into the paste, until it is coated, and then place it carefully on the paper towels. Relax the tongs, and proceed to the next clump. Continue without pause until you have dipped and coated all the clumps with paste. Do not allow a squadron of Messerschmitts screaming across the sky to distract you.

While waiting for the clumps to dry, I take the opportunity to carry the bucket or pail full of filth to a municipal filth depot, where I upturn the bucket or pail and empty it. Back home, wipe the insides of the bucket or pail with a rag. Do not use one of your dusters. That is not what dusters are for.

You now have a set of pasted clumps, each of which has two little unpasted patches where it was gripped by the tongs. There is likely to be a third anomalous patch after you have picked up the clump to place it in the bucket or pail. Given the viscosity of the paste, a shred of paper towel may remain stuck to the clump. Treasure this imperfection.

When all the clumps are gathered in the bucket or pail, I always feel like singing a round of glees, but you don’t necessarily have to. What you must do is to take the bucket or pail and place it in your porch. Nothing quite pulls a porch together as winningly as a bucket or pail of clumps covered in paste, each clump with its two or three little unpasted patches. And if you don’t believe me, consider this entry from the diaries of Lady Chlorine Skippington-Pip, denizen of the Café Showoff:

28th March 19–. Dennis [Prong] came to visit, accompanied by his wolfhounds and a crack troop of snipers fresh from dispersing unseemly rioters. I had hoped to treat them to tea and biscuits and lobster, but they spent the whole time shuffling around in the porch, absolutely transfixed by my bucket or pail of clumps covered in paste, each clump with its two or three little unpasted patches. It proved quite a hit. It was dark by the time they scuttled off. Despite the cheerfulness of the porch time, I felt suddenly overcome with desolation and anguish, and slumped on one of my carpets, sobbing, sobbing, long into the night, until distracted by a squadron of Messerschmitts screaming across the sky.

Flamboyance And Palsy

Q – When stricken with the palsy, can one maintain a flamboyant demeanour?

A – As the recently elected Potus might say, yes one can. Not only can one maintain flamboyance, but also poise. It is important to bear in mind that both these qualities, and indeed many others, such as spark and dash and élan, are innate, and need not be corrupted by any paresis of the limb or limbs. If, as often happens, the paresis is accompanied by violent and uncontrollable trembling, it can prove a tad more difficult to maintain one’s flamboyance, but it is by no means an impossibility.

Take, for example, the case of that magnifico we know as Quintus Pabstus Compostus. The ancient world had its fair share of flamboyance and poise and spark and dash and élan, but seldom were all these attributes present in one man. From rooftops to arcades to fora, the name of Pabstus was bruited about as a paragon. He may indeed have lacked virtue, and horse sense, and he certainly never cut his martial chops, but his name was, as it still remains, a byword for flamboyance. A vivid portrait of him is drawn in the second of Puny’s Six Pantopragmaticons, viz:

[Depending on the type of computer system you are using, text in a variety of ancient languages may not be visible to the naked eye, nor indeed to the eye enhanced by visual perspicuity aids.]

At the peak of his public esteem, Pabstus was struck with the palsy. He was, we are told, in an arcade, on a hot morning, cutting a dash, the cynosure of the civity, when, as if struck by a bolt of lightning, he crumpled to the paving. Borne on a stretcher to a place of pallets, he was laid upon one and moved into cool and shade. Vestal nymphs soothed his brow, and a beardy haruspex was summoned to prognosticate upon his case by careful reading of the entrails of a freshly slaughtered hen. The palsy was confirmed.

A less flamboyant paragon might have withered away. Consider Crotus Loppo, at one time the rival of Pabstus, who, when felled by a debilitating ague, was swiftly revealed to be a boor and a poltroon. All semblance of flamboyance deserted him, and he did indeed wither away. At the very end, his bones were tossed into the Vastulus, and the medals on which his head appeared were melted down for horseshoes.

Not so with Quintus Pabstus Compostus. Transferred from the pallet on to a litter, he had himself paraded through the city, his weakened tremulous limbs covered by a cloak that might have been thought gaudy were it not so flamboyant. He had his beard and bouffant preened and scented with unguents and, because his speech was not impaired, was able to dazzle the populace with his rhetoric and repartee. This seldom made any sense, but his voice was sonorous and his delivery had great poise. Thus he is the epitome of the palsied flamboyant.

Less distant in time, we might look to the Victorian dandy Auberon Wildbadger. Forever enwrapped in a cloak as flamboyant as the one that once covered the palsied limbs of Pabstus, Wildbadger is sometimes mistakenly thought of as a fop. But fops rarely sprout moustachios as decisive as his, nor show such effortless poise when leaning against large important buildings. It is no doubt pertinent that he was the son of a brimstone-and-sulphur preacher, a reverend gentleman who shook the walls of tin tabernacles with his frankly insane ravings. Wildbadger learned much from his father, but not what the latter would have wished to teach his son. The young Auberon smirked at the content, but lapped up the style. So later, when he made his way in the world, he knew precisely how to make people gasp, and even swoon, merely by the flamboyance with which, for example, he adjusted his cravat.

Wildbadger too was struck by the palsy, while dining on oysters and lobster at the Café Showoff. Slumping in his chair, his limbs limp, and the trembling, the trembling of his limbs not yet set in, as it would shortly, and continue, relentlessly, for decades, the dandy merely raised an eyebrow and called the maitre d’ to his table to demand, in his fluting voice, more oysters and an extra lobster. They were brought, but without the flamboyance he desired, so he sent the hapless waiter away to try again. Back came the oysters and lobster, carried on a gilt platter, but again without the kind of dash and poise that Wildbadger, even in his physical collapse, thought apt. Other diners could not but be struck by his élan as he commanded the waiter back and forth until he was satisfied. As the diarist Lady Chlorine Skippington-Pip, who was present in the Cafe, wrote:

Rare it is to witness such flamboyance in one so palsied. Methinks we must go back as far as the ancient world, and the example of Quintus Pabstus Compostus, to be swoony with awe at such poise and spark and dash.

In summary, then, my questioner need have no fear. I have told of two exemplars, a pair of paragons. Even in your present adversity, you may yet prove to be a third.

Mystic Badger Prophecy

The other day, Little Severin the Mystic Badger was seen scrubbling around in a patch of wasteland. It rapidly became apparent that his scratching and snuffling were in fact mystic prognostications about next week’s G20 summit in London. We asked an expert to translate Little Severin’s prophecies into human prose.

And lo, people wearing woolly hats will take unto the streets. And there will be among them many young folk of the middle classes. And in the streets they will shout imprecations at anyone wearing a tie and they shall shout slogans also. And all the omnibuses carrying poorer people to their work will become snarled up in the jams of traffic. And there will be much incoherence and smug self-satisfaction. There will be the throwing of pebbles and the smashing of glass and the claims of oppression. And in the leafy streets of north London, in large houses, there will be nodding of approval from academics and media folk equally oppressed. And there will be no focus to the rage of those in woolly hats save their enjoyment of unfocused rage. And in Bishopsgate the more well-heeled of the young folk will set up a “climate camp” and shout ill-thought-out demands. And many of these persons will fly off around the world in the summer on their “gap years”. And it will be seen as a great victory when many people are inconvenienced or bloodied. And in the days succeeding much twaddle will be written and spouted by those of the airhead persuasion. All this I foretell.

Swans On A Towpath

Clutching a bag of feathers in his sweaty fist, the nameless miscreant stalked along the towpath of the canal. It was a paper bag. It was a stinking canal, into which thoughtless gits dumped such debris as toffee apple wrappers and cartons and bent bits of metal. The feathers in the miscreant’s bag were the feathers of swans. He had not plucked them himself, but stumbled upon them, a pile of swan feathers swept into a heap by the side of the canal a mile or so south, where there had been a short-lived swan war earlier in the day. The feathers had been scattered, and swept together by a broom wielded by the lock keeper. The lock keeper was the father of the miscreant, the long lost father. He did not know the miscreant was his son, nor did the miscreant know the lock keeper was his father. In physical appearance, there was nothing to connect them. The one was improbably tall, and loose-jointed, and lantern-jawed, like a giant, the other chubby and squat. Morally, too, a chasm lay between them, for the lock keeper was civic-minded and held down a steady job and used his broom to sweep up that which was scattered alongside the canal, be it the feathers of swans or the discarded wrappings of toffee apples and other confectionery. The miscreant, by contrast, was a miscreant, who would, if given a broom, use it not to sweep up rubbish but to beat about the head of someone weaker than he whom he could rob.

The miscreant had not stuffed the feathers into a paper bag for any motive of beautifying the canalside. He had simply taken them, as miscreants will take, opportunistically, anything they can take. He saw the swan feathers in a pile and thought to himself that he could sell them to a dishonest milliner of his acquaintance. This milliner, he knew, would decorate his hats with all sorts of gaudies of dubious provenance. His customers never asked questions, not even when their heads grew boils and sores because their hat harboured toxic elements the milliner was too careless to decontaminate. A ruffian might sell him a box of beads for cash, and the milliner would stitch the beads into a hat, and sell the hat, and neither know nor care that the box of beads had been robbed from a hazardous waste compound.

So the miscreant was confident he could sell the bag of feathers to the dishonest milliner, even though the swan war was occasioned by disturbance in the brains of the swans caused by weird turquoise sludge through which they had glid, so gracefully, some hours earlier. The sludge was almost unbelievably poisonous. It had been dumped in the canal and in nearby ponds by boffins, bad boffins, who were engaged in secret and fiendish experiments in their lab. One of these boffins was the cousin of the lock keeper. There had been much interbreeding, over the course of untallied generations, in this part of the land. The milliner shared a bloodline with the boffin too, and thus with the lock keeper, and thus with the miscreant.

There was even talk, in the tavern, of squalid couplings with swans, in the past, when people knew no better. “There’s been traffic with beings aquatic,” an oldster might mutter, staring gloomily into his tankard. Only the most observant might note the feathers visible when he hitched up his trousers, or the way he waddled slightly as he left the tavern, later, heading into the night to none knew where. And was that a faint splash that could be heard, not so distant, within minutes of his leaving?

It is tempting, when writing of swans and boffins and canals, to regurgitate great chunks of prose written on these topics by the acknowledged masters, men like Dobson and Definzi and women like Hattie Meldrum. It is a temptation which must be fought and defeated, partly in respect for the copyright laws and partly from sheer pomposity. One must breathe through one’s nose, in an actorly way, and make a world with words of one’s own. The fact that that last sentence is a direct quotation from Definzi is neither here nor there.

The toxic sludge dumped by the boffin was a by-product of the experiments going on in the lab. The purpose of those experiments was monstrous, and related in some wise to the matter muttered by the oldster in the tavern. Not all boffins are miscreants, by any means, but some are, and the bad boffin whose daily duty it was to roam the canalside and the ponds pumping hazardous sludge into the waters was one such. He was impudent in his criminality, not caring a jot if it was witnessed by innocents. He was of the view that all souls are besmirched, that guilt gnaws away at the innards of everybody. In this part of the land, with its history of sordid breeding, he may have been correct.

Just as not all boffins are miscreants, nor are all miscreants boffins. For example, the nameless miscreant with his paper bag of feathers was no boffin. He had a tiny brain, and one which did not always work properly, not due to contact with toxic sludge, but rather because of repeated blows to the head received from other miscreants, once upon a time, in his fighting days. Had he been a boffin of any kind, he might have devised a way of resolving the dilemma that faced him now, as he stalked along the canal towpath. For his way was blocked by a gaggle of swans. Recently at war, the swans were peppy with adrenalin, their aggression by no means diminished. A truce with each other struck, they turned their cold horrifying eyes on the miscreant, whose approach was impertinent.

How one wishes it were meet to copy out a screed by Hattie Meldrum here. In her magnificent compendium of violent swan anecdotage, she relates dozens of instances not unlike this confrontation. Some of her tales even take place alongside canals, albeit that in her world the canals are clean and well tended, the lock keepers need not go brooming about, and miscreants are few and far between. It is true that more than one bad boffin hoves into view in her five hundred pages, but their sins are not of a sludge-dumping character. The badness of Hattie’s boffins is limited to swan cruelty, or one should say attempted swan cruelty, with one exception, and in that case the boffin is a blasphemer.

Had our paper bag-clutching miscreant known that, deep in his past, there had been several occurrences of congress with swans and other waterfowl, he might have burrowed into the nooks and crevices of his tiny brain to deploy some atavistic sound or gesture with the effect of placating the swans blocking his path. But he knew nothing of his past. He did not even know his own father, who at that very moment was coming towards the swans from the rear, having swept up, with his broom, a couple of tin cans and stray toggles torn from a duffel coat. The lock keeper was returning to his lock keeper’s hut for tea and toast, his broom over his shoulder, his lips pursed in the whistling of a happy, happy tune.

So. We have a gang of swans, rancorous swans, their innate savagery compounded by the effects of the traces of toxic sludge still present in their systems, their malevolence focused upon a hapless miscreant carrying a paper bag of swan feathers destined for a dishonest milliner. Unseen by the swans, because behind them, and not one of them looks back, comes a lanky man with a broom. That there will be violence, pecking, bashing, blood, screeching, laceration, splashing, all in the dapple of sunlight by the side of the canal, along its towpath, is, it would appear, inevitable. We expect the swans to attack the miscreant, the lock keeper to attack the swans, the outcome of course being beyond our wit to foresee. Oblivious to their parts, the boffin is siphoning sludge into a pannier, the milliner is sewing infected buttons on to a cap. For make no mistake, these two cannot be forgotten in the telling of the tale. Hattie Meldrum, for one, would have done more than sketch them in. You would get potted biographies as likely as not.

There is a moment, in all anecdotage, where we can stop, as if freezing a frame in a motion picture. Some say events are foretold in the stars. Even if we disparage such twaddle, it remains the case that sometimes circumstances are such that we are convinced we know what is about to happen. Ah, but we forget. We forget, in the present instance, that there is another fellow who plays a part. At the very moment the swans are about to launch their attack on the miscreant, the same moment the lock keeper takes his broom from his shoulder ready to attack the swans… there is a gurgling in the canal. Bubbles disturb the filthy surface. And with a mighty splash, emerging from the depths comes the oldster, the mutter-man from the tavern, now transformed, half man, half swan, gigantic, and he, it, enwraps the lock keeper and the miscreant and all the swans within the folds of its enormous beating wings. It holds them close, close enough almost to suffocate them. But it does not suffocate them. It holds them whole.

The Pavilion By The Shore

There is a pavilion by the shore. I do not go there any more. I used to visit every day on my clomping horse with its rattling dray, and I’d hammer my fists upon the door of the pavilion set beside the shore, but I do not go there any more. I cannot go there any more.

I used to clomp along the lane lined by beech and larch and plane, but something went wrong in my brain and now I languish in the drain.

I languish in a drainage ditch. I’m smeared with grease and tar and pitch. I’ve lost the use of my lower limbs and at the mercy of vermin’s whims.

All sorts of vermin suck my blood as I lie sprawling in the mud, and others gnaw my skin and bones while I groan my dramatic groans.

Above me, a hot air balloon will be arriving very soon. I’ll be winched up by a length of rope, and washed with disinfectant soap.

The balloonist will sing rousing hymns to cure my withered lower limbs, and we’ll hover in the boundless sky eating a snack of lemon meringue pie.

Then I’ll be dumped back on the lane, a few tweaks putting right my brain, and then I shall return once more to the bright pavilion by the shore.

I’m sure there’s something, before I go, that you are very keen to know. The balloonist’s name – don’t be a clot! It was Tiny Enid, the heroic tot! 

Was Dobson A Pantopragmaticist?

The Rev. Dr Opimian – Why, Lord Michin Malicho, Lord Facing-both-ways, and two or three other arch-quacks, have taken to merry-andrewising in a new arena, which they call the Science of Pantopragmatics, and they have bitten Lord Curryfin into tumbling with them; but the mania will subside when the weather grows cool…

Miss Gryll – But pray, doctor, what is this new science?

The Rev. Dr Opimian – Why that, Miss Gryll, I cannot well make out. I have asked several professors of the science, and have got nothing in return but some fine varieties of rigmarole, of which I can make neither head nor tail. It seems to be a real art of talking about an imaginary art of teaching every man his own business. Nothing practical comes of it, and, indeed, so much the better… Like most other science, it resolves itself into lecturing, lecturing, lecturing, about all sorts of matters, relevant and irrelevant; one enormous bore prating about jurisprudence, another about statistics, another about education, and so forth; the crambe repetita of the same rubbish, which has already been served up “twiës hot and twiës cold”, as at many other associations nicknamed scientific…

[Lord Curryfin] had been caught by the science of pantopragmatics, and firmly believed for a time, that a scientific organisation for teaching everybody everything, would cure all the evils of society.


Thomas Love Peacock, Gryll Grange (1860)

Shipwreck Is Everywhere

Si bene calculum ponas, ubique naufragium est. – Gaius Petronius Arbiter. That is, “if you consider well the events of life, shipwreck is everywhere”. Nobody considered the events of life with as much rigour as the out of print pamphleteer Dobson, and he came to agree with Petronius. Indeed, late in life he became notorious for breaking up happy gatherings, such as cocktail parties and jaunty sporting occasions and infants’ birthday celebrations, by brandishing mezzotints of famous shipwrecks in the faces of those gathered and reciting, in a booming voice, The Wreck Of The Hesperus or The Wreck Of The Deutschland, or both.

The mezzotints Dobson clipped from a magazine to which he subscribed for many years. Partridge & Peacock’s Weekly Shipwreck News collected accounts of shipwrecks real and fictional, usually written in lurid prose, and illustrated them with mezzotints, many from the hand of noted mezzotintist Rex Tint. Neither Partridge nor Peacock had the slightest interest in improving safety at sea, nor did they campaign for better lifeboat provision or similar initiatives. Quite the opposite, in fact. Partridge and Peacock were a gruesome pair, who relished the horror of shipwrecks, clapping their hands in unseemly glee when they received fresh tales of maritime disaster. They employed a team of backroom scribblers to empurple and embroider the basic reports which came clicketyclacking into the office on some kind of tickertapeyfaxy gubbins the duo had themselves invented.

Dobson never wrote for the magazine, although both Partridge and Peacock begged him to do so. There was one particular winter when either or both of the creepy cousins came banging on Dobson’s door offering blandishments, but the pamphleteer never succumbed. Even in the depths of penury, he appears to have held himself aloof, which is the more curious when one considers how devoted a reader of the weekly he was. Odder still that shipwreck is one of the few topics, one of the few “events of life”, to which Dobson did not devote a pamphlet of his own. It is true that he penned more than one blitheringly infantile encomium upon mezzotintist Rex Tint’s shipwreck mezzotints, the ones he clipped so carefully from the magazine every Tuesday morning for untold years and which, late in life, he took to pressing upon the attention of jolly partygoers, but of shipwrecks in and of themselves, he wrote not a word.

Although she did not share Dobson’s macabre interest, Marigold Chew once set The Wreck Of The Deutschland to music. She was, at the time, a pupil of grim beetle-browed composer Horst Gack, who set her the task of using Father Hopkins’ great poem as the basis for a harmochronotransduction for voice, piping, valves, and flute-to-be-played-while-standing-on-one-leg. Legend has it that she tried to get Dobson to sing the words during rehearsals in a farmyard barn, but that the project had to be abandoned when cows toppled over and goats got the vapours, hens became hysterical and rooks and bluebirds plummeted from the sky.

Poets Of Porridge

Weedy poet Dennis Beerpint recently received a commission from PIG to write a ballade in celebration of the election of its new Presidento. PIG, for those of you wallowing in ignorance, stands for the Porridge Information Groupuscule, a body devoted to promoting the sale and consumption of porridge in every corner of the land.

Since he became a beatnik, Beerpint’s Muse has deserted him, and he has written nothing except for fragmentary squibs. He accepted the commission, partly because of the generous fee and partly in the hope that his versifying gifts might be reborn. Alas, he spent many hours sat staring hopelessly out of the window with an empty brain.

Finally, in desperation, he cast around in anthologies for something which, if he could not quite pass off as his own, he could tinker with, or use as a model. As luck would have it, he discovered George Huddesford’s 1802 poem The scum uppermost when the Middlesex porridge-pot boils over :  an heroic election ballad with explanatory notes : accompanied with : An admonitory nod to a blind horse. Here was a work that fitted the bill perfectly, featuring not only porridge and elections, but horses and scum. As I write, Beerpint is mucking about with the text to turn it into something he can call his own.

Huddesford, incidentally, had a way with titles, among his other published pieces being Bubble And Squeak : A Gallimaufry of British Beef with the Chopped Cabbage of Gallic Philosophy (1799). As for PIG, it is held by some of the members that the proper title of Timothy Mo’s 1991 novel The Redundancy Of Courage should in fact be The Consistency Of Porridge, though this is thought to be a comment on its prose style.