A Complete Vacancy Within The Cranium

Regular readers will have noted a lack of postages here over the past few days. This is due to what boffins call “a complete vacancy within the cranium”. In short, Mr Key is terribly, terribly uninspired. No doubt things will get back on track in the new year. Meanwhile, if anybody can suggest profitable lines of enquiry, please do so.

Tolls And Jingles

I thought, today, I would repost that old favourite What Dobson Did On Boxing Day and have done with it. But another matter has barged in on my attention, and must be addressed. Here is a letter received from moany reader Tim Thurn. It begins pleasantly enough:

Dear Mr Key. Thank you so much for sending me Christmas greetings in the form of a black and white photograph of some old bells. If I am not mistaken, they look very much like the bells removed from the tower of St Wulfram‘s church in Grantham, Lincolnshire, in 1946/47, and subsequently recast in Loughborough.

Tim then starts in on his complaint:

Though I like the photograph very much, I cannot say the same for the caption you have added to it. “Never send to ask for whom the jingle bell tolls; It tolls for thee” is, of course, a doctored quotation from John Donne’s Meditation XVII, Nunc Lento Sonitu Dicunt, Morieris from the Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions. You have inserted the word “jingle”, presumably in a hare-brained attempt to lend a Christmassy air to what is in fact a more sombre sentiment. That might be excused, or even chuckled at, mildly, were you not doing violence to sheer sense. The point is, Mr Key, while the bells shown may well have tolled, when in their tower, they would never jingle, for they are not jingle bells. Even if we strip away the picture and consider the caption in isolation, it remains nonsensical, for a jingle bell, by definition, does not toll. It jingles. That is the point of it. A jingle bell is similar, if not identical, to a sleigh bell, as deployed in legend by Santa and in fact by the Russians, who for reasons of their own attached such bells to their sleighs as they hurtled across the freezing desolate steppes, bent upon some mission authorised by the Tsar, in the old days. Other inhabitants of cold climes, like Finns and Lapps, would also go a-jingling ‘cross the snowy wastes from time to time. None of them, not the Russians nor the Finns nor the Lapps, would ever think to weigh down their sleighs with a big, tolling bell, for to do so would be insane. Might I suggest either that you amend your Christmas greeting or withdraw it entirely and replace it with something less stupid?

Tim then provides a list of what he considers suitable subjects, including robins, puddings, or a Victorian pater familias placing a bauble upon a fir tree. He is, of course, quite right about jingling and tolling, and I really ought to have thought more carefully before messing about with the quotation from Dr Donne. But for crying out loud, Tim, have you nothing better to do?

Gravelly Pightles

The first thing of note I learned on Christmas morning is that in Berkshire, to the south-west of the village of Hermitage, is a small area of land with the sonorous name Gravelly Pightles.

Perhaps a kindly Berkshireist Hooting Yard reader with nothing better to do could hie over there with a camera and photograph it, preferably in black and white, during a drizzle?

Tear-Stained Letters

During the past few days, postie has been struggling along the lane towards Haemoglobin Towers heaving a sack filled, not, I am afraid to say, with seasonal greetings cards, but with tear-stained letters from listeners to the Hooting Yard radio show on Resonance 104.4 FM. Lazy writers, and those of a hackneyed bent, are fond of describing tears as “copious”. I thought I had the full measure of that word until postie tipped out the daily sack of correspondence. By god, every single envelope was drenched, drenched with the salty sobbings of ungovernable anguish. I had to make use of a sponge and a mop before I could open them and read the scribbled lamentations therein.

The cause of all this misery is that this year I failed to record a Hooting Yard Christmas Special. A twelvemonth ago, if you recall, Resonance broadcast my reading of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s selection from The Natural History Of Selborne by Gilbert White detailing the activities of Timothy the Tortoise, and the year before that I was given a whopping three hours of airtime to recite, with Germander Speedwell, Christopher Smart’s poem Jubilate Agno, a reading which proved to be an historic piece of radio.

Alas, come this year’s festive season I simply could not alight upon a suitable text. I pondered reading bits from A Withered Garland Of Mawkish Pap by Prudence Foxglove, but somehow it seemed too withered and mawkish. I was tempted by the idea of broadcasting two of Richard Nixon’s Six Crises, but was unable to choose among them. For a while I even considered devoting a programme to the latest sorry outpourings of beatnik poet Dennis Beerpint, but neither I nor the radio station could face the prospect of the inevitable legal proceedings. So, with some regret, I threw in the towel, which was a pity, because I could have used it to more effectively soak up the tears contained in postie’s sacks. The sponge and the mop only did half the job.

Anyway, all I can do is to apologise, and to suggest to the bereft that they hie on over to the Wikipedia page for Jubilate Agno. Scroll down, and there at the foot of the page, you will find a link to my and Ms Speedwell’s reading, preserved forever on the interweb. May I recommend listening to it in its entirety, at top volume, every day?

Oh, and I have exciting news! After untold years in preparation, Jubilate Agno : The Motion Picture is due to be screened at your local multiplex early in the new year. Directed by Mel Gibson, starring Christopher Plummer and using old footage of Valentine Dyall and Basil Rathbone, this epic production has already won plaudits from my favourite film critic, the grunting and snaggle-toothed peasant with a rusty spade who stands, mysteriously, under an elm tree at the edge of the cemetery, spitting at crows.

How To Get Up In The Morning

“On Thursday morning, he awoke heavy, confused and splenetic. On Friday, he remembered a friend’s prescription that, on arising, he should cut two or three brisk capers round the room, which he did and found attended with most agreeable effects. It expelled the phlegm from his heart, gave his blood a free circulation and his spirits a brisk flow, so that he was all at once made happy. He resolved to persist in the exercise.”

The James Boswell approach to getting up in the morning, as noted by Rayner Heppenstall in Reflections On The Newgate Calendar (1975).

Rosh Sal Ber Yon

Another thing I learned from Koba The Dread was that Stalin, for a time, backed the theories of the linguist Nikolay Yakovlevich Marr (1865-1934). One of Marr’s more amusing beliefs was that all words derive ultimately from the root sounds rosh, sal, ber and yon. (“Linguisticians who held otherwise”, Amis tells us, “were jailed or shot.”)

Dobson came across Marr’s work at some point, and as a result produced what must be, by any measure, his most preposterous essay. In The FA Cup Final Of 1962 As It Might Have Been Reported By One Of Our Troglodyte Ancestors, the out of print pamphleteer “channels” the caveman mindset, as he sees it, and constructs a forty-four page text of blithering inanity. A (mercifully) brief extract will suffice:

Ber. Sal-ber. Yon yon yon. Rosh ber sal ber yon rosh ber. Ber. Sal rosh rosh, rosh. Yon. Yon sal rosh ber sal ber yon sal yon ber rosh rosh ber ber ber ber ber ber rosh yon. Sal.

And so it goes on. Unaccountably, this drivel scooped up no fewer than five prizes during 1963 and 1964, including the Prix Des Brochures Incroyable and the Pearl Carr And Teddy Johnson Glistening Golden Medal For Pamphlets Out Of Print Within Days Of Publication.


N Marr

Completely Spineless


Thin and spineless, We Were Puny, They Were Vapid is the fourth Hooting Yard book now available from Lulu. Volume One in a projected series of Out Of Print Pamphlets Reprinted, it contains three stories from before Mr Key’s Wilderness Years, together with recently discovered illustrative matter by Dan Chambers and a brand new bit of prefatory twaddle from Mr Key himself. So go and buy it, right this minute.

Note to subscribers : Those of you who have subscriptions at Old Halob level or above will receive a signed and dedicated copy, brought to you by your postie. To ensure delivery, please send an email giving me your current postal address (even if you think I already know it), and be patient while I get so complicated a business organised.

Note to putative subscribers : Anyone taking out a subscription at Old Halob level or above by 31 December 2009 will also receive a signed copy.

Piling Ossa Upon Pelion

My appointment with destiny, or dentistry, I forget which, was cancelled, and I had an afternoon to play with, so I thought I would try my hand at piling Ossa upon Pelion, as the Aloadae did in the old story. In some versions, they piled Pelion upon Ossa, so to be on the safe side it seemed best to attempt both. Now obviously my withered limbs and general puniness prevented me from literally piling one mountain on top of another. I had in mind to construct miniatures, to scale, out of cardboard and rags and cotton wool and glue.

Before turning my hand to this exciting if pointless project, it occurred to me that it was just the kind of thing Tiny Enid might have done when she found herself at a loose end. The plucky infant fascist could not bear to be idle, and it was quite possible that, between adventures, she might have piled Ossa upon Pelion, or vice versa, although in her case I am sure she had the resourcefulness to tackle the real mountains instead of small lightweight copies. Had she ever passed the time in this fashion, I was keen to pick up any tips, so I consulted the literature. Ever since the publication of Mavis Gasball’s majestic Complete Reference Guide To All The Doings Attributed To Tiny Enid, In Twenty Volumes, With Rotogravures, it takes even the dull-witted a matter of minutes to track down the most obscure episodes in the life of the heroic tot. The afternoon was still young when I slammed the books shut, satisfied that there was nothing Tiny Enid could teach me about the task ahead. There was mention of neither Ossa nor Pelion in the index, nor of the Aloadae, nor of Otus nor Ephialtes, and the sole reference to Mount Olympus led to a thrilling, yet unrelated, account of Tiny Enid setting fire to a paper aeroplane upon its pinnacle at the culmination of the affaire désagréable in 1955. I was too familiar with this to reread it, so I replaced the books on the shelf, buckled up my boots, and pranced off across the greensward to the hut wherein I kept my cardboard and rags and cotton wool and glue.

Was ever a hut so cherished as mine? It is filthy and in a state of collapse, but to me it is a kind of paradise.

I switched on my radio to listen to Cardboard Mountain Modeller’s Playtime as I worked. They were playing Scriabin. How curious, I thought, that so accomplished a pianist had such tiny little hands! My own hands are leaden and fat and clumsy, more’s the pity. I am afraid that after an hour or two of inexpert fumbling and mashing and prodding I had created a quartet of shapeless compacted clumps. A quartet, because I strived to make two model Ossas and two model Pelions, that I might pile Ossa upon Pelion, and pile Pelion upon Ossa, simultaneously rather than consecutively. Perhaps, in so doing, I was overambitious, and would have obtained better results had I been satisfied with a single pair, the positions of which, Ossa atop Pelion, or Pelion atop Ossa, I could have switched as often as the fancy took me, or, indeed, never, were one tableau more pleasing to the eye than the other. As it was, all I had to show for an afternoon of strenuous cackhandedness were four almost identical messes of cardboard and rags and cotton wool and glue, a fuming temper, an overheated radio set, and a sense of defeat I would struggle to shake off for years to come.

I bundled my Ossas and Pelions into a burlap sack and, on my way home, chucked the sack into a pond, where it floated for a while, until it was eventually destroyed by the ferocious pecking of swans.

The Way We Were

Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis. The way things used to be, unimaginable now…

“Probably the most curious by-product of the famous Palmer poisoning case was a book, published in London some four years after the doctor’s execution [ie, in 1860 or thereabouts] which translated the entire trial record, along with an account of Palmer’s sporting activities, into classical Greek.”

From Victorian Studies In Scarlet by Richard D Altick (1970)

In A Cardboard Box

In a cardboard box on a wooden shelf in a broom cupboard behind a door in a corridor on the ground floor of a shabby house on an ill-lit lane winding towards the sea in a land whipped by blizzards and gales, there is an old picture postcard, stuffed in among a jumble of papers and scraps and cotton-reels and bobbins and pins and clinker and orts and scantlings. The picture on the postcard is of a pavilion on a green by the sea. On the other side of the postcard, to which in one corner is stuck a postage stamp, there is scrawled in fading ink an illegible name and address, and a message, written in block capitals and unpunctuated, and it says DO NOT FORSAKE ME O MY DARLING.

If we knew who lived in the shabby house on the ill-lit lane, if we rapped upon the door with a stick to coax them into the open, ah, then we might be able to find out who had forsaken whom, so many years ago, before the ink faded on the postcard, in the past, when the blizzards and the gales whipping the land were more violent, or so we are told in the tavern near the beach, by ancient sailors who remember, remember the weather, the weather.

Now We Are Six

I must apologise for echoing A A Milne in the title of this postage. (In 1928, in her Constant Reader column in The New Yorker, Dorothy Parker wrote, immortally, “and it is that word ‘hummy’, my darlings, that marks the first place in The House at Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader fwowed up”, thus telling us all we ever need know about Milne.) But “now we are six” is, in the present case, literally true, for it was on this day in 2003 that the Hooting Yard website came into being.

There was, as aficionados know, an earlier Hooting Yard presence on the interweb, but it was a static site containing a jumble of pre-Wilderness Years odds and ends. On 14th December 2003, however, regular postages from Mr Key’s pea-sized yet pulsating brain began tumbling forth, and continue to do so, with the occasional hiatus.

Many thanks, on this anniversary, to the readers and listeners who stalk the muddy lanes in and around Haemoglobin Towers and Bodger’s Spinney for your support and enthusiasm.