Monthly Archive for May, 2009

John Ruskin On The Train

OK, I am going to stop babbling on about John Ruskin, I promise. As a way of saying farewell, here is an extract from Fors Clavigera, Letter LXIX ,”The Message Of Jael-Atropos”, 1876. With minimal changes, what I have called John Ruskin On The Train could quite easily become Frank Key On The Bus:

I had driven from Brantwood in early morning down the valley of the Crake and took train first at the Ulverston station, settling myself in the corner of the carriage next the sea, for better prospect thereof. In the other corner was a respectable, stolid, middle-aged man reading his paper.

I had left my Coniston lake in dashing ripples under a south wind, thick with rain; but the tide lay smooth and silent along the sands; melancholy in absolute pause of motion, nor ebb nor flow distinguishable; – here and there, among the shelves of grey shore, a little ruffling of their apparent pools marked stray threadings of river-current.

At Grange, talking loud, got in two young coxcombs; who reclined themselves on the opposite cushions. One had a thin stick, with which, in a kind of St Vitus’s dance, partly affectation of nonchalance, partly real fever produced by the intolerable idleness of his mind and body, he rapped on the elbow of his seat, poked at the button-holes of the window strap, and switched his boots, or the air, all the way from Grange to the last station before Carnforth, – he and his friend talking yacht and regatta, listlessly; – the St Vitus’s, meantime, dancing one expressing his opinion that “the most dangerous thing to do on these lakes was going before the wind”. The respectable man went on reading his paper, without notice of them. None of the three ever looked out of the windows at sea or shore. There was not much to look at, indeed, through the driving, and gradually closer-driven, rain, – except the drifting about of the seagulls and their quiet dropping into the pools, their wings kept open for an instant till their breasts felt the water well; then closing their petals of white light, like suddenly shut water flowers.

The two regatta men got out, in drenching rain, on the coverless platform at the station before Carnforth, and all the rest of us at Carnforth itself, to wait for the up train. The shed on the up-line, even there, is small, in which a crowd of third-class passengers were packed close by the outside drip. I did not see one, out of some twenty-five or thirty persons, tidily dressed, nor one with a contented and serenely patient look. Lines of care, of mean hardship, of comfortless submission, of gnawing anxiety, or ill-temper, characterized every face.

The train came up, and my poor companions were shuffled into it speedily, in heaps. I found an empty first-class carriage for myself: wondering how long universal suffrage would allow itself to be packed away in heaps, for my convenience.

At Lancaster, a father and daughter got in; presumably commercial. Father stoutly built and firm-featured, sagacious and cool. The girl hard and common; well dressed, except that her hat was cocked too high on her hair. They both read papers all the way to Warrington. I was not myself employed much better; the incessant rain making the windows a mere wilderness of dirty dribblings; and neither Preston nor Wigan presenting anything lively to behold, I had settled myself to Mrs Brown on Spelling Bees, (an unusually forced and poor number of Mrs Brown, by the way).

I had to change at Warrington for Chester. The weather bettered a little, while I got a cup of tea and a slice of bread in the small refreshment room; contemplating, the while, in front of me, the panels of painted glass on its swinging doors, which represented two troubadours, in broadly striped blue and yellow breeches, purple jackets, and plumed caps; with golden-hilted swords and enormous lyres. Both had soft curled moustaches, languishing eyes, open mouths, and faultless legs. Meanwhile, lounged at the corner behind me, much bemused in beer, a perfect example of the special type of youthful blackguard now developing generally in England; more or less blackly pulpous and swollen in all the features, and with mingled expression of intense grossness and intense impudence; – half pig, half jackdaw.

There got in with me, when the train was ready, a middle-class person of commercial-traveller aspect, who had possessed himself of a ‘Graphic’ from the news-boy; and whom I presently forgot, in examining the country on a line new to me, which became quickly, under gleams of broken sunlight, of extreme interest. Azure-green fields of deep corn; undulations of sandstone hill, with here and there a broken crag at the edge of a cutting; presently the far glittering of the Solway-like sands of Dee, and rounded waves of the Welsh hills on the southern horizon, formed a landscape more fresh and fair than I have seen for many a day, from any great line of English rail. When I looked back to my fellow-traveller, he was sprawling all his length on the cushion of the back seat, with his boots on his ‘Graphic’ – not to save the cushions assuredly, but in the foul modern carelessness of everything which we have ‘done with’ for the moment; – his face clouded with sullen thought, as of a person helplessly in difficulty, and not able to give up thinking how to avoid the unavoidable.

In a minute or two more I found myself plunged into the general dissolution and whirlpool of porters, passengers, and crook-boned trucks, running round corners against one’s legs, of the great Chester station. A simply-dressed upper-class girl of sixteen or seventeen, strictly and swiftly piloting her little sister through the populace, was the first human creature I had yet seen, on whom sight could rest without pain. The rest of the crowd was a mere dismal fermentation of the Ignominious.

The train to Ruabon was crowded, and I was obliged to get into a carriage with two cadaverous sexagenarian spinsters, who had been keeping the windows up, all but a chink, for fear a drop of rain or breath of south wind should come in, and were breathing the richest compound of products of their own indigestion. Pretending to be anxious about the construction of the train, I got the farther window down, and my body well out of it; then put it only half-way up when the train left, and kept putting my head out without my hat; so as, if possible, to impress my fellow-passengers with the imminence of a collision, which could only be averted by extreme watchfulness on my part. Then requesting, with all the politeness I could muster, to be allowed to move a box with which they had occupied the corner-seat – “that I might sit face to the air” – I got them ashamed to ask that the window might be shut up again; but they huddled away into the opposite corner to make me understand how they suffered from the draught. Presently they got out two bags of blue grapes, and ate away unanimously, availing themselves of my open window to throw out rolled-up pips and skins.

General change, to my extreme relief, as to their’s, was again required at Ruabon, effected by a screwing backwards and forwards, for three-quarters of an hour, of carriages which one was expecting every five minutes to get into; and which were puffed and pushed away again the moment one opened a door, with loud calls of ‘Stand back there’. A group of half a dozen children, from eight to fourteen – the girls all in straw hats, with long hanging scarlet ribands – were more or less pleasant to see meanwhile; and sunshine through the puffs of petulant and cross-purposed steam, promised a pleasant run to Llangollen.

I had only the conventional ‘business man with a paper’ for this run; and on his leaving the carriage for Llangollen, was just closing the door, thinking to have both windows at command, when my hand was stayed by the father of a family of four children, who, with their mother and aunt, presently filled the carriage, the children fitting or scrambling in anywhere, with expansive kicks and lively struggles. They belonged to the lower-middle class; the mother an ideal of the worthy commonplace, evidently hard put to it to make both ends meet, and wholly occupied in family concerns; her face fixed in the ignoble gravity of virtuous persons to whom their own troublesome households have become monasteries. The father, slightly more conscious of external things, submitting benevolently to his domestic happiness out on its annual holiday. The children ugly, fidgety, and ill-bred, but not unintelligent, – full of questionings, ‘when’ they were to get here, or there? how many rails there were on the line; which side the station was on, and who was to meet them. In such debate, varied by bodily contortions in every direction, they contrived to pass the half-hour which took us through the vale of Llangollen, past some of the loveliest brook and glen scenery in the world. But neither the man, the woman, nor any one of the children, looked out of the window once, the whole way.

They got out at Corwen, leaving me to myself for the run past Bala lake and down the Dolgelly valley; but more sorrowful than of late has been my wont, in the sense of my total isolation from the thoughts and ways of the present English people. For I was perfectly certain that among all the crowd of living creatures whom I had that day seen, – scarlet ribands and all, – there was not one to whom I could have spoken a word on any subject interesting to me, which would have been intelligible to them.

But the first broad sum of fact, for the sake of which I have given this diary, is among certainly not less than some seven or eight hundred people, seen by me in the course of this day, I saw not one happy face, and several hundreds of entirely miserable ones. The second broad sum of fact is, that out of the few, – not happy, – but more or less spirited and complacent faces I saw, among the lower and the mercantile classes, what life or spirit they had depended on a peculiar cock-on-a-dunghill character of impudence, which meant a total inability to conceive any good or lovely thing in this world or any other: and the third sum of fact is, that in this rich England I saw only eight out of eight hundred persons gracefully dressed, and decently mannered.

The Cow & Pins

Every so often I receive letters from readers asking for background information on particular features of Hooting Yard. My usual practice is to ignore such enquiries and stuff them into a cardboard box, and to shove the cardboard box into a dark cranny. But sometimes I feel impelled to shine a torch into the cranny, to rummage in the cardboard box, to take out one among the mouldering scraps of paper, and to give it due attention. There is no particular method in my choosing, though a letter written neatly and grammatically on scented notepaper headed with a heraldic device, however spurious, is likely to win out over a scribble on a torn bit of breakfast cereal carton stained with grease. You may wish to make a note of that in your pocketbook for future reference. Elsewhere I will provide some tips on drawing spurious yet strangely compelling heraldic devices for your letterhead, but there is no time for that now.

The letter I have just retrieved from the cranny is pithy, even curt. Oi Mr Key, it says, How did the Cow & Pins get its name? And that’s it. It is not even signed! But the handwriting is exquisite, and done in mauve ink on lime-green tissue paper, scented with bergamot, or what smells like bergamot to my untrained nostrils, and there is a simply fabulous hand-drawn heraldic device, now somewhat faded, for god knows how long the letter has been squirreled away, in which I can make out a cassowary rampant, a snow shovel, and six buttons gules.

Readers will recall, I hope, that the Cow & Pins is the finest tavern in existence, albeit something of a hellhole and a sink of vice. It is many long years since I sat in its snug, but if I shut my eyes and concentrate, I can imagine myself there, in the gloom, with that telltale sense of befuddlement at the way in which, yet again, a scattering of sawdust from the floor is floating atop the froth of my pint. Ah, such dejection in the fug!

One of the reasons this letter would have been consigned to the cranny is, I am embarrassed to say, that I have absolutely no idea why the Cow & Pins is called the Cow & Pins. The best I can do, now, is to repeat the story I heard from an old bloated barnyard behemoth with whom I used to sit, sometimes, of an evening, at the bench outside the tavern, tossing breadcrumbs to crows, under a thunderous sky.

He told me that the Weird Woman of Woohoodiwoodiwoo once took a dislike to a certain cow that chewed the foxgloves or lupins she grew in flowerpots outside her cave. How or why this cow wandered away from its fellows was not explained. It may even have been different cows on different days. The Weird Woman of Woohoodiwoodiwoo was celebrated, and feared, for her spooky eldritch powers, but no one ever claimed that she had great expertise in farmyard animal identification skills. Be that as it may, she satisfied herself that a single cow was causing the depredation of her foxgloves, or possibly lupins, and reacted in a tiresomely predictable way. That’s right, she cast a spell on the cow. What else would you expect of the Weird Woman of Woohoodiwoodiwoo?

She gathered much wax, and moulded it into an effigy of a cow, double the size of any cow that ever lived, and stuck it with thousands of pins from her big crate of cursed pins. Then she babbled imprecations and incantations in her usual harsh hissing way.

We do not know if any calamity befell the cow, or cows, as a result. But according to the old bloated barnyard behemoth, the tavern outside which we sat chucking breadcrumbs to crows was built over the field where once the cows had grazed.

I am not convinced by this story. It would make more sense if the tavern was on the spot where the Weird Woman of Woohoodiwoodiwoo’s flowerpots had stood, bursting with foxgloves or lupins, in serried ranks outside her cave. In the absence of any other explanation, however, it will have to do. And now I can put the letter back in the cardboard box in the dark cranny, and forget about it forever.

Some Words From Inside A Barrel

Mr Key has lately been described, elsewhere, as a “Diogenesian recluse”. There is an element of truth in this. How many readers were aware that the material at Hooting Yard issues forth from inside a barrel, or large tub? Now you know.

NOTE : For those following the link above, further details of The Fatal Duckpond – in the form of a blatant advertisement – will appear here when it is actually available (soon, as far as I’m aware).

If Only The Rev. James McCosh Were Here!

I must admit to being perplexed at my uninspired state. I have been tapping the keyboard in a desultory way before abandoning the few lines of guff that result, or, more commonly in recent days, feeling a reluctance even to begin tapping. And the reason I am puzzled is that much of my reading, at the moment, is of a writer whom I find fantastically inspiring.

I decided to immerse myself in the eight volumes of Fors Clavigera after coming across Guy Davenport’s lament that nowadays, hardly anyone reads John Ruskin. Well, I had never read him, and I thought I would have to fight my way through these ninety-six letters “to the workmen and labourers of Great Britain” (one each month for eight years), the reading being a challenge rather than a pleasure. Ah, but what a pleasure lay in store – and still does, as I am currently just halfway through volume five.

Ruskin is a magnificent writer, not least in his ability to veer off at unexpected angles. One minute he will be ranting about the iniquities of industrialisation, then he will launch into a transcription of what he readily admits is a fairly dull folk story about Swiss peasants, before reminding himself that he meant to write about glacier theory.

“If only the Rev. James McCosh were here!” begins a paragraph, for no apparent reason. I adore the surprise and the sheer ease of his prose. You can sense the whirrings of the gigantic and eccentric Ruskin-brain as he flits from topic to topic, but somehow never quite gets lost. He writes about barging into someone’s cottage to wish a happy new year “to whoever was there”, has some thoughts on the proper education of children, and suddenly embarks on a sustained passage about the nature of bees, what he does and doesn’t know about them, and pauses to rummage among his bookcases looking up bee information in Bingley, Cassell, Petter, Galpin, and Ormerod. The latter’s History Of Wasps, he decides, ought to be a standard book in the primary education of girls.

Am I so awestruck by Ruskin that his prose intimidates rather than inspires me? I don’t think that’s the case. Anyway, I have regular fads and enthusiasms for writers. I once read about a dozen novels by Nabokov one after another, in a frenzy, with no ill effects. So I shall remain vaguely perplexed, but try my best to start tapping away again with bluster and vim. If all else fails, I shall have to summon the phantom of the Rev. James McCosh from out of the shadows.

Muggletonian Curses

Immediately after God’s revelation on the third, fourth, and fifth of February 1652 to John Reeve that he and his cousin Lodowicke Muggleton were the “Two Last Witnesses”…

“There followed a period of hectic blessing and cursing which could have been lifted straight from the pages of Edwards’s Gangraena. A few examples will convey the flavour. John Robins, and a rival prophet [Thomas] Tany, were cursed and destroyed. A man called Pearson smote blows on Muggleton’s head; ten days later he was dead. At a Ranter tavern in the Minories Reeve placed his head on the ground for an enemy to trample upon. The infidel’s foot was arrested in flight. He could not go through with it. Muggleton noted ‘the people all marvelled at this thing’. Barker tricked Reeve into blessing him, but was then exposed and damned by Muggleton. An over-zealous follower called Cooper cursed fifteen fellow silk-weavers off his own bat. The cynical Captain Stasy arranged dinner for the prophets with Goffin, a divine. The dinner ended with a predictable damnation for the clergyman.”

From The World Of The Muggletonians, Christopher Hill, Barry Reay, William Lamont (1983).

Elsewhere we discover that Lodowicke Muggleton was himself cursed by that saintly Quaker William Penn: “To the bottomless pit are you sentenced, from whence you came, and where the endless worm shall gnaw and torture your imaginary soul to eternity.” I am not clear whether this curse was pronounced before or after Muggleton published a pamphlet with the resounding title The Neck Of The Quakers Broken (1663).

Heaven On Earth

One explanation for Mr Key’s uncharacteristic silence. Reading, reading, reading, when he should be writing. But Hooting Yardists will reap the benefits in time.

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Paying For Ducks

While I have fallen silent due to blockage of the inspirational funnels in my cranium – about which more later – the media has been merrily obsessed with MPs and their expenses. I have been following all the details with far more intensity than is advisable for a sensible person. Today, I wish simply to leap to the defence of the Tory Sir Peter Viggers, who claimed £1645 for a floating duck island. This seems to me to be a legitimate and imaginative use of taxpayers’ money, quite unlike such abuses as moat-cleaning, mortgage interest, and food – except food for ducks, which is fine.

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Four Types Of Reader

An eighteenth-century subscription library in London* divided its readers into four categories: the Sedate, the Historian, the Theatrical Amateur, and the Gay and Volatile.

If I can destroy the blockage which has made Hooting Yard fall silent in recent days, I shall devise a quiz so you can work out which type of reader you are.

*NOTE : Not the London Library (see above).

Bee In Bonnet

There is always a risk, at Hooting Yard, of creeping monomania. A bee finds its way into my bonnet, and buzzes about. Fortunately for readers, and for my own sanity, the bee tends to buzz off after a few hours or days and things get back to normal.

That by way of preamble to a note which might lead some to think this place has become AntiFry Central. The Most Intelligent Life-Form In The Known Universe was interviewed on BBC’s Newsnight yesterday – mercifully briefly – about the MPs’ expenses hoo-hah. He claimed that everybody, including himself, fiddled their expenses, that it was nothing to get worked up about, and that making a fuss about it was “bourgeois”. (This while suited and booted in black tie for some event he was attending.) Oh, how we vomited here at Haemoglobin Towers!

I have a new heroine, however. Back in the studio, discussing the same topic, the MP Kate Hoey referred contemptuously to “that actor, whoever he is” and how he was talking twaddle. Gold star for her.

Bonkers Syndrome

Call me a hypochondriac if you will, but I fear I have succumbed to a highly dangerous syndrome so baffling to medical science it has not yet been given a proper name. Boffins in their underground labs have taken to calling it “bonkers”, for the chief – and so far only – symptom is that victims finds themselves agreeing with Peter Hitchens. The terrifying thing is that it can be a progressive illness, where at first one nods in perplexity that the columnist’s words match one’s own thoughts, almost anomalously, until towards the end the patient has to be carted away, raving. Yesterday I had a definite twitch of the early stage condition, when I read this:

Stephen Fry, in an interminable article in a London lifestyle magazine, complains that he doesn’t like being called a ‘Quintessential Englishman’.

Glad to hear it. No danger of that happening to him here. In this column, he  is regarded as a Quintessential Left-wing Luvvie, swollen by years of fashionable flattery into absurd prominence.

I’d also like to popularise the description once given of him in The Dictionary Of National Celebrity: ‘A stupid person’s idea of what an intelligent person is like.’

I’ve been longing to say this since he (an educated man with a duty to take the side of the civilisation that sustains him) rallied to the defence of the coarse barbarian oaf Jonathan Ross.

Fine Words

I am having to stop myself from copying out vast swathes of Ruskin’s Fors Clavigera for your entertainment and edification. How can you not love a writer who refers in passing to looking something up “in one of my thirteenth-century Bibles”? Here, in any case, are a few lines from Letter XXIII, The Labyrinth:

[H]aving been obliged to write too young, when I knew only half truths, [I] was eager to set them forth by what I thought fine words. People used to call me a good writer then; now they say I can’t write at all; because, for instance, if I think anybody’s house is on fire, I only say “Sir, your house is on fire;” whereas formerly I used to say , “Sir, the abode in which you probably passed the delightful days of youth is in a state of inflammation,” and everybody used to like the effect of the two p’s in “probably passed,” and of the two d’s in “delightful days”.

I do like them… probably too enthusiastically.

Mermaid Research

You will be pleased to hear that I have been indefatigable, over the last couple of days, in my mermaid research. In a bunker deep underground, I was able to view several hours of footage from various demonstrations, hoping to spot a committed member of the social justice movement, in other words a mermaid, being clubbed senseless, possibly even to death, by a brutish copper or two. Well, when I say that is what I was hoping to see, I do not mean that I was excited by the prospect of watching a semiaquatic being being roughed up by the forces of law and order, rather if that is what I did see it would confirm mermaids’ status as committed members of the social justice movement. Are you still with me? This isn’t particularly complicated stuff, but I am having some difficulty explaining myself. Though I must say it was fun to write a grammatically correct sentence containing two adjacent “being”s. Anyway, to my infinite regret the footage was shaky and blurry and I couldn’t make anything out in detail, so I am still unable to reach a definitive mermaid conclusion. What I do have, courtesy of OSM, is a photograph of a gathering of mermaids, perhaps protesting in favour of world peace or against capitalism. Neither George Galloway nor Annie Lennox, say, is visible in the picture, so it’s hard to be sure what exactly the mermaids are making a fuss about. Careful study of the photo will be necessary, through a microscope, which I shall have to borrow from my next door neighbour, a somewhat perplexing individual with cake-crumbs in his beard. He is often reluctant to respond to my urgent hammerings at his door, so please be patient and I will return to this important topic when I have something concrete to report.

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Project Ṻbercoordinator

Long-term readers, and those who regularly frequent the 2003-2006 Archive, will be aware that in those distant days Hooting Yard had a certain ramshackle charm. Mr Key had to be dragged kicking and screaming to use a proper blog format, though clearly there are innumerable benefits in terms of indexing and commenting and so on. It was the lack of any helpful method of navigation that led to the old site having what was rightly called an “Unhelpful Index”.

Now, through the titanic efforts of Glyn Webster, the 2003-2006 Archive has been helpfully indexed. Readers can zip to any item at the click of a mouse. This also means Mr Key can refer you back to some age-old piece without having to use that increasingly annoying instruction to “go to the page and scroll down”.

Mr Webster’s work is very much appreciated, and it seems all good Yardists ought to spend a few days, or weeks, or even months scrubbling around in the Archive to dig out their favourites, or to discover things they didn’t even know were there.

NOTE : The link in the sidebar now directs straight to what Mr Webster calls Project Ṻbercoordinator. He has also provided this handy diagram:

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I Can Hear The Mermaids Singing

“Mermaids are committed members of the social justice movement.” – David Tuffley.

Is this a blindingly obvious truth? Or is it arrant nonsense? It has a certain Radio 4 Today programme “Thought For The Day” ring to it, but actually it comes from a po-faced dissection of Bob Dylan’s Desolation Row, to which Mick Hartley links.

Mr Hartley thinks Mr Tuffley, of Redland Bay, Australia, is talking twaddle, but I’m not so sure. For one thing, Mr Tuffley’s location suggests he lives next to the sea, and thus may from time to time have seen, conversed with, or otherwise had traffick with mermaids. As far as I can ascertain, Mr Hartley is a Londoner, and thus is unlikely to be familiar with such semiaquatic beings, other than at those times they splash and cavort in the Thames.

I note that Harriet Harman’s latest Equalities Bill has not a jot to say about mermaids, and this may indeed have led to a justified sense of grievance, even of victimhood. But for the time being I shall reserve judgment. I plan to view footage of marches and demonstrations, seeing if I can spot any mermaids among the more common students, crusties, and beardy higher education lecturers. I shall report back when my researches are at an end. Ah, but when is research ever at an end?

L’Homme Qui Grogne

L’homme qui grogne was, and possibly still is, the French counterpart of the Grunty Man. History tells us that he was active in the countryside around Avignon during the period when it was the seat of the Papacy, that is from 1309 to 1377, between the reigns of Pope Clement V and Pope Gregory XI. There are some mischievous wags who claim this as evidence that the Grunty Man is a practising Roman Catholic, but I think we may safely turn our noses up at them, sniffily. It is of course the case that for as long as anybody can remember the Vatican City at Rome has been periodically menaced by the so-called l’uomo grugnito, and I will have much to say on that at a future date, if you are good.

L’homme qui grogne is said to be hairier, huger, and gruntier than the Grunty Man, and thus more terrifying. He made regular incursions, by nightfall, into Avignon itself, but never managed to scale the immense eighteen-feet thick walls of the Gothic Palais des Papes, and so was never able to carry off one of the Popes, or his nuncios, back to his nest in the woods. You raise your eyebrows at my use of the word nest, but it is carefully chosen, for one of the chief differences between the Grunty Man and l’homme qui grogne is that the latter lurked not in a lair, but in a series of nests built of twigs and branches and forest debris high in trees. When exhausted from his countryside predations, or just in need of a bit of peace and quiet, l’homme qui grogne would clamber in his ungainly and grunty way up the trunk of a mighty hornbeam or cedar and flop into the nest he had made there. It must have angered him that, with all his climbing practice, the Palais itself remained impregnable. No doubt that is why the peasantry told tales of loud and frustrated grunting noises being bellowed from treetops around Avignon. Sophisticated cityfolk sneered at their rustic neighbours for such stories, but we hear an echo of them in, for example, the Ballades et Bagatelles of the fourteenth century überminstrel Lothar Pangue. Dennis Beerpint’s grandmother made prose translations of some of Pangue’s pieces, and in one of them we find this:

A woodsman ran screaming from the woods. He had lost his cap and his hair was dishevelled. He threw himself into the river and swam downstream until he reached the village of distressed mumbling. There he was hauled out of the water by a tavern keeper who put smelling salts under his nose. “Pray to God in heaven!” shouted the capless woodsman, “For I have heard loud and frustrated grunting noises from atop a gigantic hornbeam and I am too frightened ever to go back into the woods! How am I to feed my children?” The kindly tavern keeper handed the woodsman a mop and told him he would give him a sou if he swabbed the filthy floor of the tavern. And every day he swabbed the floor he would get another sou. And a year passed, and the woodsman had enough sous to feed his scrawny children with slops and gruel. He thanked the tavern keeper and jumped into the river to swim upstream back to his horrible cottage bordering the woods. But the weight of the sous in his pippy bag dragged him under, and he drowned, and his children starved.

It is a typically Panguesque fable, ending in horror and ruin and death, and it seems clear to us that the source of the woodsman’s fright is l’homme qui grogne. There is a sense in which we wish Lothar Pangue was explicit about this, perhaps having the French Grunty Man lumbering out of the woods at the end of the tale and gobbling up the defenceless children in the cottage. But perhaps Pangue was mindful of a rival set of legends about l’homme qui grogne, in which, far from being a grunting ogre of terror, he is a tragic figure, a huge and hairy lumbering monster who thinks he is a little sparrow. In this tradition, his nesting habits are explained, but the constant attempts to clamber over the walls of the Palais des Papes are ignored. As a sparrow, of course, or rather, in the delusion of sparrowdom, l’homme qui grogne does not feed on human flesh, and thus would have no motive for attacking the woodsman’s orphaned tinies in the cottage.

Several researchers have tried to tie the two sets of legends together. The stumbling block is always the dilemma of why a grunty man which believes itself to be a bird would be so desperate to see the Pope. Hattie Meldrum’s paper entitled The Giant Savage Catholic Flightless Grunting Sparrow Theory is bogged down by far too many footnotes to forward a convincing argument, and in  any case her witterings were demolished by Tob during a television chatshow appearance. Sadly, Tob is better at crushing other’s reputations than advancing his own peculiar lines of thought, and to date he has published nothing.

After the Papacy returned to Rome in the Great Schism, stories about l’homme qui grogne, in either of his incarnations, became fewer, until gradually he was utterly forgotten. Then suddenly, early in the twentieth century, he reappeared, blamed for a series of railway accidents in and around Avignon. This latterday l’homme qui grogne is yet another variation on the legend, still hairy and huge and grunty, still terrifying, but now waylaying steam trains as they putter along French rural branch lines. There is no suggestion that he thinks himself a sparrow, nor any kind of bird at all. But neither, according to the tales, does he threaten children, except inadvertently, should they be railway passengers. Now, l’homme qui grogne is impelled by a ravening hunger, a hunger that can only be sated by shovelling great pawfuls of burning coal down his gullet. And that is what he does, or did, in the last century. Every day. In and around Avignon. Grunting.