A Shuddering Miasma Of Crepitant Dread

Listeners to Hooting Yard On The Air will be aware of my boundless admiration for the pulp writer Hal K Wells. Many’s the time I have read out on the show one particular quotation from his story Black Pool For Hell Maidens, to wit:


Carlin’s deep-shadowed eyes were flaming pools of mad menace.

“I could shoot you both down where you stand,” he rasped, “but that would be a foolish waste of valuable material… I shall turn the two of you over to the Dweller in the pool!”

 Dorothy Lane cried aloud in terror. Carlin’s thin lips writhed in a snarling smile…

“Who, or what, is the Dweller in the pool?” demanded Kent, “And what devil’s work is Carlin doing here anyway?”

“The Dweller in the pool,” Dorothy answered, her low voice trembling, “is my brother, Raoul!” …

Small wonder that the throbbing agony of so many tortured minds should combine to taint the very air with a shuddering miasma of crepitant dread!

That “My brother, Raoul!” gets me every time.

I am pleased to report, via Odd Ends, that another Wells story has been added at Project Gutenberg. In Devil Crystals Of Arret, young Larry faces a six-hour deadline of death, plus rat-men, octopus-bats, eldritch music and tinkling devil crystals! So alluring is the prospect of wallowing in a Wellsian miasma, I have had to put on hold my plan to read the umpteen volumes of John Ruskin’s Fors Clavigera : Letters To The Workmen And Labourers Of Great Britain, a work Guy Davenport suggested is comparable only to Tristram Shandy in its magnificent eccentricity.

The Sun newspaper – yes, The Sun! – once commanded its readers “Go thee to H P Lovecraft and shudder!” Excellent advice, you’ll agree, and I would like to echo it by recommending you do the same with Hal K Wells. A few more of his tales are available online here.


The Last Ditch

Look over there, beyond the pond and the puddles and that ramshackle owl enclosure and the ditches. Now, count the ditches. You see there are one, two, three of them? Take this telescope. Can you see, way beyond the third ditch, across the flat muck, there is another ditch? That is the last ditch. That is where we are headed. Give me back the telescope and take my hand.

I have a palsied hand and a withered arm and unsightly scars hidden under my cloak, the results of a botched medical procedure. It was both invasive and pointless. I sense further withering of other limbs and appendages. Call it guesswork or hypochondria, I feel it in my water. That is why I am so keen to get to the last ditch. It is where I will wallow, pending the last trump.

You must help me across the pond and through the puddles and past the owl enclosure and then over one, two, three ditches, and then through the flat muck until we get to the last ditch. After that, it’s up to you. You can come and wallow with me, or turn around and make your way back. Either way, keep hold of your first aid kit. It’s of no use to me.

It’s interesting that the carrion crows are hovering over the pond and the puddles rather than over the ditches. I suppose they have a completely different perspective, up there, bewinged and raucous. My wife became a crow. The Woohoohoodiwoo Woman cast a spell on her and off she flew. I was standing by the pond, in a puddle, watching my crow wife soar through the sky. I took out my telescope to follow her until she vanished in the blue. That is when I saw the last ditch for the first time.

I thought it was just another ditch, the fourth one, after those three you can see from here. I supposed there were other ditches beyond it, a fifth and sixth and so on, as the flat muck stretches to the horizon. But one day I put on my hiking boots and carried a stick and strode out that way, for miles. This was before the witherings, of course, before the medical procedure. I had vim. I walked all day and all night, and I got as far as the mountains, but I didn’t come across any other ditches. That really is the last ditch.

You remember Istvan? I heard that he carried on past the last ditch all the way to the mountains, as I did, but instead of turning back, he started climbing. Of course, he had grappling hooks and pitons and sturdy rope, so he was prepared. His vim made mine seem like lassitude. I received one postcard from him. It was ice cold to the touch. After that, nothing.

Unregistered Ice Cream Vans

At the end of the Pneumatic Belligerometer Update the other day, I mentioned an unregistered ice cream van, and I have been asked to explain in what ways such an ice cream van differs from a registered one. It is all to do with robins.

Some years ago, an inpector appointed by the regime started to notice the presence of threatening robins whenever an ice cream van went barrelling along the lanes around Pang Hill and its satellite dire and dirty villages. The more the inspector looked, the more robins he saw, in the sky, upon branches, in shrubbery and hedges, atop buildings, and even perched on the power lines that are strung from paling to paling with no apparent purpose in this gas-fuelled bailiwick. When the wheezy tinkling of an ice cream van was heard, the number of robins seemed to double, then triple, and a sense of menace was made manifest.

The inspector passed this information on to an officer back at headquarters. The officer, resplendent in furry pelts and Hohenzolleren cavalry marshal’s boots, immediately hauled in as many ice cream van drivers as his agents could pull from their beds at midnight, and had them questioned.

Have you, or has your van, ever been attacked by robins?

This was the gist of all the interrogations, however they were phrased. The replies contained much dissembling, many evasions, and outright lies, but that was only to be expected, and the graph on which the results were plotted was adjusted accordingly. The officer had half a dozen copies of the graph printed, in four colours, green and pink and dun and scarlet, and sent them by pneumatic tube to his superiors. He was commended for his rigour, and awarded yet another medal, this one of tin, circular, and expensively beribboned.

The committee of six, recognising their own lack of ornithological expertise, empanelled a birdy nutter to add weight to their deliberations. He was no robin specialist by any means, being more of a corncrake man. He spent most of his time out in the wilds, living in tree hollows, surviving on berries and water from rills, and the first meeting of the committee to decide what to do about the menacing robins had to be delayed while he was tracked down. The task of doing so was assigned to a cadet who happened to be a cousin of the original ice cream van investigator. Though cousins, they had been reared as brothers, as close as twins. The cadet’s name was Bim and the investigator was called Bam, and they were both fanatically loyal to the regime, in spite of the fact that their other cousin, Shevelham, was a treasonous cur languishing in one of the prison forts on the windswept plains out west.

Bim found the corncrake expert hiding in a forest, eating a choc ice, peering at birds through a pair of binoculars. They were not robins.  

There was a deal of difficulty in getting a seventh copy of the graph printed for the birdman. There was no shortage of coloured inks, nor of paper, but the regime was faced with terrific transport problems. So many vans had been converted to the vending of ice cream, despite the robins, that few vehicles remained abroad for other purposes. Ink and paper could not go by rail, nor by coastal paddle-steamer, due to ancient regulations none dared overturn. It was, after all, that sort of regime.

More and more robins were gathering in the sky and the trees and between the palings.

It was on the third or fourth day after the empanelment of the committee that the idea of registering the ice cream vans was proposed. The bird person, hefty and somewhat disorientated out of his woods, remained unconvinced that robins were intelligent enough to tell a registered ice cream van from an unregistered one. The person sat to his left explained that unregistered ice cream vans would, if found upon the lanes and boulevards, be blown up with bazookas.

Fewer vans, fewer robins.

This was the committee’s slogan. They had it stamped on items of stationery and teacups and beakers as part of a campaign. A protocol was devised whereby ice cream van drivers could apply for registration, at post offices and bureaux and at vanishing points down grim horrifying alleyways. This last was picked as a wheeze to do away with the more stupid ice cream van drivers, those whom it was thought may be attracting more than a fair share of the maleficent robins. The birdy panellist was asked to draw up a special report on the meaningful brain activity of both ice cream van drivers and a sample of captured robins, to find out if there was any correlation. He decamped back to the forest before completing his work, and no search party ever found him, however frantically they crashed through the undergrowth beating the foliage with sticks.

Much was left undone that ought to have been done. Yet the registration of ice cream vans remained as an emblematic law. As the robins gradually dispersed, due to the depredations of owls and weasels and monkeys and a change in the shapings of the sky, so the enforcers with their scanners and firearms were removed from the kerbside kiosks, and unregistered ice cream vans again braved the roads.

That is how it was.

Seven Stints

First Stint

1. Dragon: roars, opens its mouth; 2. Bird: twitters, a small door in the tower opens, the bird looks out, flaps its wings and opens its beak; 3. Stork: rapidly opens and closes its beak; 4. Prince: strikes the dragon with his sword; 5. Ghost: appears suddenly from behind the tower and wails; 6. Young Boy: strikes the bell with a hammer.

Second Stint

1. Dragon : turns into a ghost; 2. Bird : caws, revolves at a terrifying speed; 3. Albatross : emerges from beneath a bejewelled ermine cloak; 4. King : distributes alms to hobbledehoys; 5. Sedgwick : does Sedgwicky things with a thimble and a balloon; 6. Myrmidon : strikes the bell with a towel.

Third Stint

1. King : has penny on tongue, lifts instep, fells wrongdoer; 2. Stork : dissembles; 3. Prince : falls through trap door; 4. Ghost : shakes its manacles; 5. Idiot : collects drool in a beaker; 6. Grunty Man : swipes at the bell with his big hairy paw.

Fourth Stint

1. Dragon : blasts metallic fire through a hoop; 2. Duck : peeps out from behind tower and clucks; 3. Nixon : parades dog in front of bell; 4. King : lollops about; 5. Bird : cries out, eerie, eerie!; 6. Ghost : makes bell resound with a blast of icy breath.

Fifth Stint

1. Prince : shovels coal into a brazier; 2. Potter : strains lettuce in riddle; 3. Stork : flaps wings at pig; 4. Pig : flaps ears at stork; 5. Baron : spreads butter on cracker; 6. Dragon : strikes bell with spoon.

Sixth Stint

1. Albatross : slumps in horror; 2. Yoko Ono : waves napkin; 3. Ghost : elicits Lovecraftian shudders from passers-by; 4. Prince : resembles the man with the twisted lip in the Conan Doyle story; 5. Has-Been : writhes, gibbers, bleeds on rug; 6. Pig : bashes bell with trotter.

Seventh Stint

1. Baron : engraves name on skylight; 2. Bird : suffers pangs; 3. Dragon : smothers Nixon with embroidered pillow; 4. Idiot : abandoned on platform of oil rig; 5. Ghost : all tucked up and fast asleep; 6. King : melts down bell and fashions it into a crown.

(Many thanks to OSM for drawing my attention to this.)

Belgian + Cat + Rheumatism + War

“The inhabitants of Southwark considered a particular remedy, such as the use of cat skin as a remedy for rheumatism and chest complaints, as ‘traditional’ when it had in fact been newly introduced to the Borough of Southwark by Belgian refugees during the First World War.”

Religious belief and popular culture in Southwark, c. 1880-1939 by S C Williams (OUP, 1999)

Pneumatic Belligerometer Update

Watch this, as I hoist from its sublunar obscurity in the Comments Crate this observation from R. upon Bird Imperilment And Pig Terror:

 I would greatly like to acquire a pneumatic belligerometer, (not least because it would serve as such a handsome source of anagrams such as

Barometric legume penlite,

Beagle courtier implement,

Beetle-glimmer precaution,

Collegiate number-emptier,

Cremation temple beguiler,

Electable meringue import,

Emblematic leering troupe,

Enigmatic petroleum rebel,

Geometrical perineum belt,

Globule empire remittance,

Immutable ogre percentile,

Impermeable ingot lecture,

Lemming teepee-lubricator,

Mantelpiece goitre-rumble,

Memorable eugenic triplet,

Metabolic eremite plunger,

Mincemeat bilge poulterer,

Molecular beeping emitter,

Nebulae piglet micrometer,

Noticeable glum perimeter,

Piecemeal mongrel tribute,

Plebeian telecommuter rig,

Pliable morgue centimeter,

Polemical brunette regime,

Renegotiable lime crumpet,

Republican grime omelette,

Rubella peering-committee,

Telegenic pubertal memoir,

Temper guillotine embrace,

Tolerable genetic premium

etc) … can Mr Key perhaps advise about a source? I have a feeling the answer will be Huberman’s … in which case, some link to an online ’store locator’ would be helpful.

I may have mentioned before my view that R. was born a few hundred years too late, and would clearly have been a prime candidate for the post of Royal Anagrammatist at the court of Louis XIV, or possibly Louis XVI. I always get them mixed up, unlike the earlier Frankish kings, with whose doings I am frighteningly familiar. Whether XIV or XVI, Louis did indeed employ someone to devise anagrams for the purpose of foretelling the future and bringing arcana to light. R., too, may have foretold the future, in the sense that any or all of the above phrases may spark some fizz in Mr Key’s cranium, resulting in a piece of sensible prose. Watch this space.

The last I heard, Huberman’s sold off their dwindling supply of pneumatic belligerometers to a passing pedlar, who careens along the lanes of some godforsaken part of the country in an unregistered ice cream van. Hail it to a halt, and he might sell one to you.

A Startling Number Of Eggs

It has been quite a while since I have drawn attention to George Orwell’s daily egg count, as I am sure all my readers are keeping abreast of it of their own volition. Today’s entry, however – or rather, the entry for this day seventy years ago – is rather intriguing, and raises, in my mind at least, certain questions.

Raining most of the day, & cold. 14 eggs. [From 25 April to 9 May Diary is written in Eileen’s hand.]

Now, we are used to one egg or two eggs, and very rarely three eggs, but fourteen? Can it be mere accident that this anomalous number of eggs is counted on the very day that Eileen has commandeered the writing of the diary? Has George been lying? Is it conceivable that all along the daily egg count has been higher than he has reported, and that he has been hiding the undeclared eggs from Eileen? One pictures Orwell sneaking off to the eggery while Eileen is out on an errand, making himself a secret omelette, perhaps, or hardboiling a clutch to carry in his pockets and give as gifts to any orphans and distressed widows he meets on his roamings. Or, conversely, is Eileen pretending to a larger egg count than is true, for her own purposes, which we can only guess at?

We shall have to see how many eggs are reported between now and the ninth of May, when Eileen gives George his pen back. 

Bird Imperilment And Pig Terror

We have learned, in recent years, to be on our guard against the terrors of bird flu. Those who cannot avoid handling hens now ensure they wear full protective body armour when doing so, and the rest of us steer clear of members of the hen community at all times. Here at Hooting Yard we have been at the forefront of a campaign to address the particular perils faced by those who have pet swans. General avoidance of birds is well nigh impossible, given their tendency to swoop and perch and paddle and nest pretty much wherever they like, but with judicious use of netting and frighteners and wild gesticulations of the limbs, most of us have been able to keep ourselves safe. Predictions of a world ruled by flu-ridden crows and cassowaries and nightjars, common enough at the turn of the century, have proved to be alarmist twaddle.

Now we face a new danger. As I mentioned yesterday, it is no longer just birds we need to worry about, but pigs too. Virulent strains of so-called swine flu threaten to engulf us. This brings with it new problems, not the least being a wholesale rethinking of the practice of becalming our boiling brains through lengthy contemplation of pigs while leaning against the fence of a sty. As a tried and tested relaxation technique, pig contemplation is unsurpassed. It has been estimated that several wars have been averted through its organised application, and readings on a pneumatic belligerometer confirm its effectiveness. Any outbreak of swine flu will thus be devastating, with fizzing cranial disturbances inside people’s heads having no easy remedy. I am not referring here only to countryside persons, for there are innumerable urban pigsties where mental relief can be sought… or could be sought before this new and terrifying development.

At a special conference to be held at the Blister Lane Bypass Pig Study Building Hub, a panel of boffins will be devising ways to counter the threat. Until they release the results of their deliberations in the form of handy pamphlets, try not to go near any pigs. However, if you are the sort of person for whom traffic with pigs is unavoidable, a course of Dr Baxter’s Antipig Calmative tablets is recommended. Take a dozen daily, with a bowl of cornflakes, and do not in any circumstances operate heavy machinery, such as one of those mechanical pig hoists we’ve been hearing so much about in the hoisting-and-winching press.

Twitching Antennae

There hasn’t been much key-tapping here at Haemoglobin Towers today, what with such distractions as the monkey feng shui consultant and the sandpaper palaver. But a few things twitched the Hooting Yard antennae, among them:

The imminence of a global pig flu epidemic

The fact that it was once common, in fashionable society, to call a humble or paid companion a “toad-eater”

The splendid news that Resonance magnifico Ed Baxter appeared in the Independent On Sunday list of 100 people who make Britain happy

Bela Tarr’s film The Man From London, characteristically slow and grim and bleak and black and white, contains a scene with a pair of tailors reminiscent of The Fast Show

There is a Hooting Yard Appreciation Society on Facebook, with 28 members and little or no activity

If I can rouse myself from indolence, I will insert links so readers can scoot off elsewhere on the web to investigate these matters. If not, you shall have to do your own research, which will no doubt be good for your moral fibre, if not mine.


“Strangle a pig and burn down the barn and doh-si-doh your partners!”

It was a rallying cry, and in its wake pigs were strangled, barns were burned, and doh-si-dohs were essayed. How sweet the memory of those dances of my grandparents’ youth. I was not alive then of course, so I have no direct memory, but I recall, as an infant, sitting in a basket slung over one of grandpa’s bison, and he goading the beast along the lane, and telling me tales of his childhood in the Wenkenblatt, the strangled pigs and the burning barns and the doh-si-dohs.

He told me how he and my grandma met at such a rally, the one with a bale of straw and the other with a can of paraffin, and how they kissed as they set a barn ablaze, and clambered to safety over the corpses of pigs, and doh-si-dohed in the light of the flames.

It is another world. Now, pig protection teams stand guard over the sties, and barns are built from fireproof panels, and the doh-si-doh is classed as a criminal act, the penalty terrible. It is perhaps a more civilised world, even here in the Wenkenblatt, but though I know it only from my grandparents’ stories, still I miss that rustic mayhem. There is a hole where my soul should be.

I wander past the pig sty and beat my fists upon the side of the barn, and very very quietly, so I will not be overheard, I put my lips together and whistle a tune from the old pneumatic hoedownolator, a mad and giddy tune.

Notes On Skippy

Serial correspondent Tim Thurn is perplexed. O beloved Mr Key, he writes, For some years now, Hooting Yard has been my unerring guide, informing my opinions and attitudes and in some cases even my behaviour. Rarely will I venture a viewpoint upon any topic without first doing a mental accounting of what the Yard has taught me. Thus I find myself in a state of some beflummoxment on the subject of our canine pals. I am unmoored. I am unable to work out the approved “line” on dogs. One day you tell us dogs are boring, but then you write, with some affection, of Skippy, a dog you feed and pamper and which appears to be your domestic pet. I cannot be the only reader who is utterly confused by these divergent dog attitudes, and would be extremely grateful if you could, in some wise, shed light upon the matter.

I will not reproduce the remainder of Tim’s wordy letter, which veers off into an account of the many and various dogs with which he has come into contact during his life. Better that I set him straight without further ado. Clearly, when reading of Skippy, Tim picked up on the words “bark” and “hound” and “cur”, and also I assume on the detail that Skippy is fed, from a bowl, on reconstituted meat chunks in jelly. Any reader, not just Tim, could be forgiven for thinking that I was referring to a dog. But dogs are not the only beasts that bark. Seals bark. Skippy is, in fact, a seal.

Now, it is certainly true that seals are rarely, if ever, referred to as hounds or curs, and are not, in the general run of things, fed in the manner or with the fare Skippy enjoys. But Skippy is a particular kind of seal, known as a selkie or sealchie, that is, an allegedly mythical type of seal which, when on land, can shape-shift, and take on other forms, often human, but sometimes dog or cat or cow or, extraordinarily, wasp or hornet. The selkie is not, however, a wholly convincing shifter of shape, and whatever form it takes as it flops onto land from its watery domains, it always retains a recognisably pinnipedian character. If one were lazy, one might call Skippy half-seal, half-dog, but that is too simplistic and gives quite the wrong impression of his physical appearance. Depending upon the time of day, and the play of light, and the humidity of the air, Skippy can look almost exactly like a common seal, or a mastiff, or even, from some angles, like a giant ungainly sparrow.

Whatever form he takes, on land, he barks, and tends towards other dog-related behaviour, such as fetching thrown sticks, drooling, and, when allowed, leading blind people safely through the many imperilments of the cityscape. Though myopic, I am not blind myself, but I make a little bit of pin money by renting Skippy to sightless folk who require a canine guide for half an hour or so while their regular dog is meeting an appointment at the veterinary surgery, which happens to be bang next door.

It will be said that I must have known, when describing Skippy as a hound and a cur, that readers would leap to the conclusion that I was referring to a dog rather than to a selkie. After all, selkies are not the most common of beasts to keep as domestic pets. I grant that. In mitigation, all I can say is that, on the day I was writing about, the quality of the light seeping in through the windows, and more particularly through the bathroom window, a sort of milky, soapy, lucence, lent Skippy a dogginess such that even I could forget for a moment that he is in fact a seal.

More problematic is the matter of Skippy’s diet. As far as I am aware, most seals like to eat fish, often swallowing them whole. Whether it be sprats or sardines or dabs, the average seal, and indeed the average selkie, if there is such a being, can happily eat nothing but fish throughout its life, a life, by the way, which an actuary would calculate at roughly twenty-five to thirty years. On the other side of me from the veterinary surgery there is a seal actuary’s office, and I checked those figures with him, a few minutes ago, in a break between paragraphs. I did not mention it at the time, thinking it better to present the information at a pertinent point, rather than interrupting my flow to buttonhole you with a newly-discovered fact. Incidentally, Mr Ten Boom, the actuary, is blind, and he has a sickly guide dog often in need of stomach pumpings at the veterinary surgery, so I regularly hire Skippy out to him for little trips to the newsagent or the greengrocer, located as they are on the other side of a wide boulevard frantic with hurtling container lorries. Mrs Ten Boom, the actuary’s wife, knitted a splendid little tabard for Skippy to wear on such excursions, yellow with black stripes, which can give him a disconcerting resemblance to an enormous bee.

But I must keep on track and return to the important matter of Skippy’s diet. I recognise that, having described my pet selkie as a hound and a cur, and mentioned his barking, the clincher for Tim Thurn and other readers, leading them to assume I was writing about a dog, was the reference to a bowl of reconstituted meat chunks in jelly. After all, long years of experience tell us, whether we are dog owners or not, that such a meal is de rigueur for our canine pals. I will not muddy the waters by pointing out that cats are commonly fed on broadly similar lines. I have not received any readers’ letters asking me to clarify whether or not Skippy is of the feline persuasion.

As a selkie, one might expect Skippy to salivate happily at the sight of the aforementioned sprats and sardines and dabs, but not at food fit for a dog presented in a bowl set upon the floor. Many seals jump in the air to catch thrown fish, rather than snuffling with their faces buried in a bowl. Yet recall, one of the defining characteristics of the selkie is that, while in water it is wholly a seal, upon land it shifts shape and takes on, partially and spookily, other forms. We cannot expect a transformation, in certain lights, of its outward appearance to go unaccompanied by a corresponding terrestrial enjumblement of its innards. The innards of a seal or a selkie are not merely blubber, they are as complex and miraculous as the innards of many another organism. If you have ever dissected anything, be it a fruit bat or a buttercup, you will know whereof I speak. Thus, once having heaved itself ashore, and bid goodbye to the sea, either temporarily or permanently, the selkie’s transmogrification, even if it is mythical, is startling. In Skippy’s case, by becoming in some manner doggish, he discovered doggish appetites. We have already ascertained that Skippy enjoys chasing after thrown sticks. Why, then, should he not see the allure in a bowl of reconstituted meat chunks in jelly placed before him on the floor? That does not make him a dog. It makes him a selkie which, on land, in the play of light, appears to the human eye to be a dog, more or less, if one does not examine him too closely.

It will be asked whether a selkie chooses the terrestrial form it adopts, or whether, as it emerges from the sea, it is subject to forces both eerie and inexplicable, and takes the form destined for it by the seal-gods. I confess I do not know the answer to that question. Better minds than mine have wrestled with it, not least Mrs Ten Boom, the seal actuary’s wife, the tabard knitter. As she knits, she devotes her powerful brain to all sorts of abstruse and thorny problems, regarding not merely seals and selkies but to anything that exercises her. By no means does she confine herself to the aquatic and amphibious. She is, it is said, one of the few people living who has read every word ever published by the out of print pamphleteer Dobson, and not just read them but annotated them. Unfortunately, though dozens of Dobsonists have beseeched her to make public her notes and marginalia, she refuses, point blank, often with the aid of a baseball bat. She is a dear old thing, a good neighbour and a tabard knitswoman of genius, but, just as there are religionists who claim to have a personal relationship with Jesus, Mrs Ten Boom insists upon an exclusive Vulcan mind-meld with the pamphleteer, and bashes senseless with her bat anyone who tries to broach it. For my part, I salute her, as does Skippy, who has recently devised a fantastic saluting gesture with his right flipper, which looks, in a certain cast of light, like a paw.

Shepperton And Hampstead

I haven’t read anything by J G Ballard since I was a teenager. Nor have I read, or enjoyed, much science fiction. A simple statement by Ballard, filmed in 2006 and shown on a Channel Four News obituary last night, makes me suspect I’ve been missing something. He said:

“The great thing about science fiction is that nobody lives in Hampstead.”

Compare and contrast with this extract from a book review by some airhead a few years ago, which I shall have to paraphrase because I cannot track down the exact quote:

“This is a perfectly-observed portrait of North London literary life, with such telling details as the copy of the weekend Guardian Guide on the coffee table.”

I don’t recall which novel was under review, but it could have been one among hundreds, couldn’t it?

The Sunday Just Gone

On Sunday, for the first time since the fifteenth of December last year, there was no postage at Hooting Yard. So yesterday, when I leapt out of bed at 5.15, and went to the ablutions pod to submerge my head in icy water, I wondered if I should proffer an apology to my readers for this dereliction. But when I reflected – head still submerged – on the unexpectedly trying day I’d had, it seemed clear to me that far from apologising, it would be more appropriate to whimper in a bid for sympathy. What promised to be an average April Sunday became a nightmare of mishaps, catastrophes, and disasters which left me with no opportunity whatsoever to tap gubbins into this blog.

First of all, before I lifted my head out of the bucket, I was reaching blindly for my towel and inadvertently knocked over a jar of grease, the lid of which had not been fastened properly, with the result that some of the grease spilled on to the floor and formed a small puddle, in which Skippy slipped as he came bounding and barking into the ablutions pod, as he usually does when he senses that I am up and about, ravenous as he is for his bowl of reconstituted meat chunks in jelly, and in slipping, Skippy, huge of bulk, bashed right into my bucket, which clonked me on the side of my head, and more specifically on my ear, before falling over so that the icy water it held sploshed all over the floor, some of it dripping through slits in the planks on to the wiring beneath, causing a short circuit which knocked out all the electrical power not only in my hub but in the entire building. There are reasons, I think, why wiring is tucked away behind wainscots and floorboards and walls, partly because it is inherently dangerous and partly because it makes sense to keep it hidden from people like me, who have no understanding of it whatsoever but who might be tempted to fiddle with it, as a way of passing the time.

Even though I was temporarily deaf in one ear and my head was soaking wet, I resolved to dislodge one of the planks so I could, with my towel, dab at the wet wiring and dry it off, not realising, in my ignorance, that this would not restore the power supply. Nor did it occur to me that I would receive an electric shock that would knock me down dead. Luckily, before I had extracted sufficient nails from the plank to lift it clear and thus have revealed to me in all its complexity and dazzle the underfloor wiring system, two things happened. Skippy leapt upon me growling his happy but hungry growl, flattening me beneath him, and there came an insistent thumping at my door. I wrestled with Skippy, trying to throw him off, but he was as a limpet, so I forced myself across the floor in a sort of serpentine wriggle, like one of those creatures carrying a Biblical curse, although in my case it was a giant slobbering hound.

Before I reached the door, however, it had been kicked in by one of those thumping upon it. Now, in my hallway, under a cur, I was confronted by a combination of enraged neighbours, who blamed me for the power outage, and a pair of uniformed goons from the electricity police. It was these latter brutes who had kicked the door down. One of them now grabbed hold of Skippy and, with main force, threw him at the wall, which, being of plaster, and weak, collapsed. As I choked on dust, I was bundled out by the other copper, shoved down the stairs and into the street and into the back of a van, the doors of which were slammed and locked behind me.

I wasn’t too worried about Skippy, who was massive and savage enough to look after himself. But I wondered at my own predicament, which might prove perilous. The electricity police had a fearsome reputation, and not without reason. I lay on the floor of the van as it sped clanging through the deserted Sunday morning streets, consoling myself with the thought that at least I was not in the hands of the gas police, who, as rumour had it, were much, much worse.

Funnily enough, it had once been my ambition to join the gas police. Unfortunately, I failed all the entrance tests, due to myopia and ignorance of gas, and instead I ended up, as you know, tapping drivel into a blog. It was this thought that made me panic, in the back of the van, still clutching my towel, parts of my head still wet and the hearing only imperfectly returned to one ear. If I was going to be taken away somewhere by the electricity police, how was I going to do my daily Hooting Yard update? I hammered on the partition between my cage and the driver’s nest, or whatever it’s called. This was a mistake. The van screeched and bumped and came to rest. I waited for the back doors to open and for one of the coppers to come and rough me up. Instead, there was only an eerie stillness and silence.

I remained trapped in the back of the van for hours and hours, until after nightfall, until Sunday had become Monday. During that time I suffered hallucinations, or possibly even real occurrences, involving electricity and gas and rent anomalies and zombies and vampires and crustaceans and talking sparrows and ethereal shimmerings and large boiling ovens and beings with tails that thumped the ground as they skittered and voodoo hobgoblins and starched Nazi boffins and crazy paving and things with suckers and tendrils and globular appendages and wrinkled crones and, oh, all sorts of stuff, either in the back of the van or up in the air or in a gloomy cellar or out in a field menaced by machine-gunning crop duster planes. What did I imagine and what really happened? I don’t know, nor do I know if the whole thing was set up by the electricity police or if they were the victims, for Lars and Tad, the two who had dragged me from my flat, were bulldozed into brimming pits at around four-thirty in the afternoon.

As I said, it was a trying day, and by the time I got home, via the hospital helicopter, it was the small hours of Monday morning. Skippy was asleep in plaster-dust, dreaming the dreams dogs dream, so I put out a bowl of reconstituted meat chunks in jelly ready for him when he awoke, and I retired to my pallet, wondering at the fresh tattoo of a stylised chaffinch which had appeared on my ankle, and what it meant, and what it portended for my future. When I find out, I will let you know.


There is a slight possibility that Hooting Yard may be offline for a couple of days, due to ludicrous shenanigans with which I shall not bore you. If this happens, get your fix by burrowing in the 2003-2006 Archives. With luck, however, I may be able to delete this entry. Fingers crossed.

UPDATE : I am pleased to report that the shenanigans, such as they were, have been averted. I was on the point of deleting what I had written above, when a thought popped unbidden within my brain, and my hands, looming in readiness above the keyboard, loomed still, in mid-air, as if frozen in a snapshot. The thought was this: if I leave those measly words in place, could I not use them as a pretext upon which to tap out a further barrage of sensible prose? Each day one struggles, as if through fog, or mud, or foggy mud, for ideas, for things to say, for observations to make, for words to add to the teeming words already bashed from the keys, between glugs of tea, or Lemsip, between staring out of the window at the sky and the clouds and the flocks of swooping unidentified birds. There are of course more bitter struggles, let’s not get carried away. And sometimes it is not a struggle at all. Sometimes the words come as easily as falling off a log, as they say. Twenty two years ago, on the morning after the Great Storm, there were more logs lying around from which one could fall, having first clambered to stand upon them, than one usually finds in this bailiwick. Ordinarily one might have to walk a mile or two, or more, to find a log lying on its side, riddled with worms and burrowing tiny beings and grubs. But there were logs aplenty after so many trees had come crashing to the ground in the night, battered by howling winds. But perhaps I am confusing fallen trees with logs, when they are not quite the same thing, or not at all the same thing, and I am just displaying my ignorance of certain aspects of the world. It would not be the first time. I rarely check the accuracy of my assertions before I tap ’em out, and I never feel constrained to write, as that witless piece of advice has it, “only about what you know”. How dull would that be? Only yesterday, for example, I stumbled upon a reference to the German film director Wieland Speck. I had never heard of him before, but something in his name appealed to me. “Wieland”, with its echoes of Gothic from Charles Brockden Brown’s novel of that name, and “Speck”, a lovely chunky word one can spit out, and its meaning of a thing tiny and evanescent and fugitive. Within five minutes, I had embroidered inside my head a majestic canon of Speck films about which I might hold forth, pretentiously, waving my arms in dramatic gestures, the cynosure of a salon’s worth of credulous admirers. I might be wearing a beret, and sporting a goatee, in this little mirage, taking languid puffs on a Gitane between singing the praises of an intense black and white melodrama of sulky demimondaines directed by Speck in 1966. For me, Speck – pronounced Shpeck, being German – was up there with Fassbinder and Herzog, as fecund as the one and as unhinged as the other, and I was ready to write a monograph about him. Alas, a couple of minutes of research, made so effortless by the interweb, told me that Wieland Speck was not the cinegod of my dreams, merely the director of a handful of features that sounded, frankly, a tad mediocre. Twenty two years ago, at the time of the Great Storm, before the interweb as we know it, it would have taken me much longer, weeks or months or even years, to track down information about Wieland Speck, assuming I maintained my interest long enough to do so. My private Speck would have had a longer life, with time to grow and develop, before the disappointment of the real Speck obtruded. At interweb speed, my dream Speck is come and gone in minutes, become a mere mental speck in my own history, and would be swiftly forgotten. Ah… but never forgotten if I write him down, no, and never deleted. Had I been so rash as to obliterate the shenanigans above, I might never have found myself recalling the glorious fictional cinematic career of my mental Wieland Speck, who has as just a claim to posterity as the real one. Well… probably not, all things considered, but you know what I’m saying, daddy-o, because I’ve just said it.