Bird Challenge Rebuke

Oi, FK!, writes Tim Thurn in his usual artless manner, I am appalled at the latest evidence of your slipshod treatment of your loyal readers. I very much welcomed the Daily Bird Challenge instituted here on Monday, and I was even preparing to acknowledge that perhaps you do know a little bit about ornithological matters and are not a hopeless avian dumbkopf, as I have always suspected.

I threw myself heart and soul into the first of your challenges, removing my binoculars from the satchel wherein they have been gathering dust since the last century and stalking up and down and around my bailiwick hoping to spot a bluebird and a robin and a starling and a grackle. I took a bag of reconstituted meat paste sandwiches and a flask of piping hot tea, because I was in this for the long haul, and could see myself being stranded on a hillside come dusk. I even had a picnic blanket thrown over my shoulder, just in case. I spent the whole bloody day in the open air, in spite of the weather, though I would have liked nothing better than to be curled up on a rug in front of a roaring fire, like a well-kept dog.

Now, perhaps it is my own fault that I failed to check the noticeboard outside the civic hall, and thus was unaware that Monday had been designated And No Birds Sing Day by the authorities, in honour of some ailing palely loitering knight-at-arms of yesteryear. Clearly, the birds, their tweeting and chirruping forbad, voted with their wings and scarpered to a different neighbourhood for the day. That is why I failed to spot any birds at all, let alone the ones designated in your challenge. But I repeat, I put a great deal of effort into it, at some risk to my holistic wellbeing, for I suffered much, much!, until I eventually threw in the towel, towards midnight, and staggered home in a state of mental and corporeal exhaustion. The straw that broke the camel’s back was when I was impugned by a peasant while trudging around the lake, upon which even the sedge was wither’d.

I slept in fits and starts, having hideous dreams about eggs and monkeys, but when I rose on Tuesday and plunged my head into a bucket of icy water, I consoled myself that the day would bring a new bird challenge. I resolved to be better prepared, and before dawn I took a little hike over to the civic hall to check the noticeboard for any further bird-related announcements. There were none, but to be on the safe side I popped in to Old Pa Kropotkin’s Bleach ‘n’ Fags ‘n’ Periodicals Kiosk to pick up the local newspaper. Back home before cock-crow, I read This Particular Bailiwick’s Daily Intelligencer front to back, line by line, twice, over a breakfast of goat milk slops. I did not want a repeat of yesterday, with its crushing humiliations, so I meant to be absolutely sure I was apprised of all pertinent local ornithological goings-on before I took the daily Hooting Yard bird challenge.

There was much to take in, for the Intelligencer was packed with special reports from its tiptop bird reporter, young Dagobert Stalin, whom I had had the pleasure of meeting a couple of times as he scampered around the bailiwick with his reporter’s pad and propelling pencil. There on page one was his “take” on the success (or otherwise) of And No Birds Sing Day. Apparently a crone on Rolf Harris Avenue had failed to muffle her sandpiper, while an avant-gardist at the Conservatoire had insisted on rehearsing his Passacaglia For Three Electronically Enhanced Buffleheads. Both crone and composer were to be shot at dawn, I learned, and in fact, in the distance, I heard the firing squad. Turning to page two, Stalin had a piece about owls, from which I could wring no sense, since he had written it aping the style of Terry Eagleton. The next few pages were taken up with the dismal and the mundane. I was looking for announcements and pronouncements of a birdy hue, and eventually found some on the inside back page. Today, Tuesday, I learned, there was to be an ostrich display in the park, the unveiling of a tin blue-footed booby statue in the market square, some flummery with birdseed and tea-strainers at the Opera House Annexe, and, according to Dagobert Stalin, the expected appearance, in the sky, of an enormous flock of migrating swallows, a flock so enormous it would blot out the sun. On the back page there was a small item about a siskin, an attractive little finch, caged, and to be presented as a prize to the orphanage’s Orphan Of The Month. Spooning the last of my goat milk slops down my gullet, I was well pleased and confident that I was as prepared as ever I could be for today’s bird challenge.

Inside the technohut, I depressed the computer knob which began the process of “powering up” my Macrohard Vista operating system. In just a few hours now, I would be plugged in to the information superhighway of which Mr Blair had spoken with such enthusiasm. It seemed so long ago, that bright new dawn when things could only get better. I could barely remember whether it was before or after Peter Mandelson sported a dapper moustache, and which guide dog accompanied David Blunkett at the time. Thinking these thoughts, with time to kill, and savouring the goaty residue coating my tongue, I strode manfully over to the town gymnasium to throw medicine balls around to no apparent purpose and to spend a while on the simulated bobsleigh machine. At the corner, as luck would have it, I bumped into young Dagobert Stalin, but he was in a frantic hurry, rushing to some newsworthy incident, of which I would no doubt read in tomorrow’s paper.

PT done and puffed out, not unlike a magic dragon, I returned to the hut and was pleased to see steam hissing from the i-ears of the computer, a sure sign that only a few minutes remained before its “booting up” would be complete. I was already booted, of course, and, in anticipation of the challenge to come, had changed into my dappled dun suburban rambling fatigues. I sat at the console and waited for the Brian Eno Parp. As soon as it parped, I logged in to what our Belgian chums call het internet and steered my way to Hooting Yard.

What did I find? A picture of Rolf Harris, never unwelcome, but of no ornithological interest. Some drivel about Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss. The mention, twice, of “certain swooping birds of the air” momentarily sparked my interest, but no challenge was laid down to the reader, so I spat into my spittoon and moved on. Nineteenth century twaddle about mesmerism, followed by blather about soup. And? And? Nothing else. No Daily Bird Challenge.

This, Key, is what I mean when I rebuke you for being slipshod and abusing the devotion, sometimes fanatical, of your readers. It has become quite clear that you know not a jot about ornithology, but I am now forced to ask if you actually understand what the word “daily” means. The newspaper I pored over with beetle-browed concentration is This Particular Bailiwick’s Daily Intelligencer. Has the significance of that title occurred to you? It signals, even to a halfwit, that the paper comes out every day. Not just now and then. Not just on rainy days. Not just when young Dagobert Stalin, its tiptop bird reporter, can be bothered to clamber out of bed a-morning and arm himself with his reporter’s pad and propelling pencil and charge with the vigour of youth through the streets and fields keeping his eyes peeled for all manner of birdy activity. No, the paper appears, on Old Pa Kropotkin’s kiosk counter and on other counters, and on shelves and racks and turny display carousels, every single day of the year, except of course for important festive holidays when everything shuts down. I speak of days such as the anniversary of the Hindenburg disaster and Yoko Ono’s birthday. But otherwise, “daily” means “every day”. How in the name of the Prince Elector of Tantarabim can you claim as much for your bird challenge? It appeared once, and then the very next day it was gone, pfft!, vanished in the haze, like that conjuring trick with the magnet and the whisk and the attractive little caged siskin which I have been practising in my leisure hours.

I am surely not the only reader to find myself sorely tested by your cavalier ways, Mr Key. Why don’t you just come clean and admit that what little you know of birds could be written, in very big bold block capitals, on a pinhead, and the head of a tiny, tiny pin at that, not one of the bigger ones you find in shops for the larger pin and pointy thing user? Were you to confess as much, believe me, you would feel refreshed, as if washed in the blood of the lamb and wrapped in a towel of unimaginable fluffiness. If I were not due back at the gymnasium in a few minutes to put all the medicine balls back in their cupboards and to tweak and grease the simulated bobsleigh machine in readiness for the orphans’ simulated bobsleigh cup tie needle match tomorrow, I would happily draft a mea culpa for you, with vivid and sprightly wording you could be proud of. As it is, I and the rest of your despicably ill-treated readers will have no choice but to entrust you to do the decent thing.

Yours, more in sorrow than in anger, well, in truth, boiling with rage and minded to strangle a few hens to assuage my fury, Tim Thurn.

Mr Key would like it to be known, and not just known but shouted from atop tors and promontories, that he has no intention of writing any such confession of avian ignorance, now or at any time in the future, for he knows all there is to know about birds, from the Arabian babbler to the barn owl to the carrion crow to the dotterel to the Egyptian goose to the fulmar to the Goliath heron to the hoopoe to the indigo bunting to the jackdaw to the kittiwake to the little stint to the moorhen to the nightjar to the Oriental pratincole to the pin-tailed snipe to Quetzalcoatl, albeit a mythical serpent, but with feathers, with feathers, like a bird, to the ruddy shelduck to the sombre tit to the twite to the upland sandpiper to the veery to the whimbrel to the yellow-bellied sapsucker, yea, unto Zino’s petrel. Shame on you, Tim Thurn, shame on you! Next you will be telling me there is a bird beginning with X. There is not.

Become Empanelled!

I am extremely pleased to note the formation of a Google Group entitled The Soup Committee, devoted to all things Hooting Yard. Though I have been empanelled as a sort of honorary member, the Committee is the brainchild of a number of very very sensible readers and listeners, its mission to promote Hooting Yard throughout interwebshire and the wider world until inevitable global domination is achieved. It is also a gathering place for enthusiasts to wallow in an online Hooting Yard wallowing facility.

If you wish to be empanelled as a Soup Committee Person (and who would not?) please visit by clicking the link above, and make your application. Please note that to avoid an onslaught of annoying pill-peddling spam gits, it is imperative that you write something compelling when asked to provide your reason for wishing to be empanelled.


Further Soup Committee information is available in both text and audio.

Zoist Spasms

Spasms (kraempfe) are an affection to which almost all sensitives are especially inclined. Many, especially those of a higher degree, suffer from them severely. They form the last term of the series – stomach-ache, head-ache, fainting, spasm. They may be occasioned by magnets, by terrestrial magnetism, by poles of crystals, by amorphous, unipolar, bodies, either odo-positive or odo-negative, by human odic poles, by the prismatic rays of either the solar or lunar spectrum, particularly the green rays, by down passes, but oftener by up passes, by charging and conduction, whether immediate or approximative, by the mere odic atmosphere, by the psychical action of insult, grief, anxiety, fear, annoyance, jealousy, quarrels, mental exertion, joy, or even dreams. They are most conspicuous in the extremities, solar plexus, and head. They can be artificially excited and calmed, or depart naturally. They often follow a tolerably similar course from the toes through the abdomen to the brain, and thence down the spinal cord, like a pass. In most cases they can be more or less easily calmed by down passes. Hence as they are essentially related to sensitiveness, and immediately dependent on odic motions, they undoubtedly belong to the domain of od.”

From Reichenbach and his Researches : the principal “Laws of Sensitiveness” abstracted from Reichenbach’s work DER SENSITIVE MENSCH, by ALEXANDER J ELLIS, B.A., Trin. Coll., Camb. in The Zoist : A Journal Of Cerebral Physiology And Mesmerism, And Their Applications To Human Welfare, No. LI., October 1855.

Chambers And Hiss At The Pumpkin Patch

In Maryland, Whittaker Chambers pointed across the fields towards his pumpkin patch. Beside him, Alger Hiss peered uncertainly through the morning mist.

“There, Hiss,” said Chambers, “You can see my pumpkin patch?”

“Barely, Chambers, barely. It is a misty morning,” said Hiss.

“Let us go then, you and I,” said Chambers.

Unlike the shabby Whittaker Chambers, Alger Hiss was dressed elegantly, and he worried that his expensive shoes would become caked with the Maryland mud through which, perforce, he must squelch to reach the pumpkin patch.

“I am worried that my expensive shoes will become caked in mud, Chambers,” he said.

“Oh, don’t you worry your little Hiss head about that,” said Chambers, “It is wooden mud, that is, mud cleverly carved from wood, to give the appearance of mud. Your expensive shoes will remain clean and shiny, or my name is not Whittaker Chambers!”

“Or indeed George Crosley,” said Hiss.

“Dammit, Hiss!” hissed Chambers, rounding on his alleged pal, “Don’t speak the name I use when spying for the Soviets, even here in this rustic neck of Maryland! Remember that our capitalist government has agents fanned out across the land. Why, even that scarecrow over there may be made of more than straw! It may contain wires and a radio transmitter in its noggin.”

“Sorry, Chambers, you are right of course,” said Hiss.

The pair stalked across the wooden mud, which Whittaker Chambers had laid to surround his pumpkin patch for security reasons. As they walked, arm in arm, Chambers explained to Hiss how one of the pumpkins had been hollowed out so that top secret microfilm could be hidden inside it.

“Are you not worried,” asked Hiss, “That the microfilm might be rendered useless on account of chance gnawing by small scavenging animals such as squirrels or field mice or raccoons or indeed certain swooping birds of the air, Chambers?”

“Well, Hiss,” said Chambers, “I have quite enough to fret about with the lamentable state of my rotten teeth and my stained and shabby suit, not to mention my many illicit homosexual encounters up and down the eastern seaboard. I trust in Stalin to protect my top secret microfilm from the predations of squirrels etcetera.”

Alger Hiss wondered exactly how Stalin, far, far away in the Kremlin, could protect a Maryland pumpkin patch, but he said nothing. After all, who was he to question the omnipotent wisdom and ideological genius of the pockmarked Party leader? The two alleged chums arrived at the pumpkin patch.

“Now, see if you can spot the hollowed-out pumpkin, Hiss,” said Chambers.

“B-but they all look almost identical, Chambers,” said Hiss.

“That, Hiss, is the beauty of my scheme,” replied Chambers.

A few yards from where they stood, a Federal agency radio transmitter hidden in the head of a scarecrow sputtered and buzzed. Far away, in Langley, Virginia, an operative snapped to attention and clamped his headphones tighter against his ears. Pencil poised, he was ready to transcribe what he heard… but he heard only the sound of gnawing, as a squirrel, or possibly a field mouse or a raccoon or a certain swooping bird of the air dug its fangs or beak into the wiring.

In Maryland, Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss stood in the morning mist, in the pumpkin patch, pointing at pumpkins and plotting the overthrow of the capitalist system.


Much cause for cheer and wassail today, as we celebrate Rolf Harris’ eightieth birthday, or Rolfmas. As far as I recall I have never written extensively about the cultural phenomenon that is this beardy – and now octogenarian – Antipodean, but one day I shall, when my poor prose is sufficiently boosted to address it properly.


Daily Bird Challenge

The time is right, I think, to flex my ornithological chops by setting a daily bird-related challenge. By doing so, I hope to silence forever those fiends who mutter darkly that “Actually, Mr Key is a complete ignoramus in matters avian”. It is astonishing, is it not, that such brickbats can be thrown? Yet they are, with distressing regularity. Well, let us see how the birdy know-alls deal with the first of these challenges!

Your task, which you must accept on pain of Aubreyan kim kam, is, bebooted and with your bird spotters’ book tucked in to the pocket of your rainwear, to locate and identify the following birds, as mentioned in Slouching Towards Kalamazoo by Peter De Vries (1983):

“That there is no bluebird of happiness, only the robin of resigned acceptance of things as they are. The plain everyday starling of common, undeluded reality… and then what next?… The grackle of total disillusionment?”

So there are four birds to spot, and spot well. No ordinary bluebirds, nor robins, nor starlings, nor grackles, mind. And, once spotted, you must execute pencil or crayon sketches of each, and post them, or links to them, in the Comments carton. Off you go!

Celebrity Hoofprint Patterns

For some time now, I have been considering making a proper study of the hoof-patterns imprinted in mud or snow by celebrities. I speak, of course, of those celebrities who are hooved, either because they are centaurs, or are goat-footed beasts spawned by Beelzebub. The latter is often true of those celebrities one commonly sees only from the waist, or indeed neck, up. Celebrity centaurs are rarer, but can easily be spotted by the eye trained to spot such things. “Centaurs”, incidentally, is an anagram of “Etruscan”. That is well worth remembering.

It will be objected that the last thing the world needs is for Hooting Yard to descend into the brain-dead realm of celebrity fixation, and I agree. See me nod. See me nod more. See me nod so much my head all but detaches itself and rolls along the lane into a ditch. See a cloud of flies settle upon my head in the ditch and poke their probosces into my scalp to suck upon my brain. See Old Farmer Frack disperse the flies with fumes from his aerosol repellant canister. See Old Farmer Frack pick up my head and place it in his sack. See Old Farmer Frack trudge along the lane swinging my head in a sack as he heads for the eerie barn.

Sorry, where was I? Ah yes, celebrity hoof patterns. They have much to teach us, and I do not think we should ignore those lessons just because of celebrity involvement. For example, it was reported to me by an unimpeachable source that a trail of hoof imprints left in an Alpine snowdrift by a well-known celebrity centaur from the world of television cookery programmes shows an identical pattern – identical! – to the disposition of sightseers on the grassy knoll in Dallas at the very moment of the first shot from Lee Harvey Oswald’s Mannlicher-Carcano rifle on 22nd November 1963. Unfortunately, because the snowdrift melted, as snowdrifts do, this cannot be independently verified.  Those of you muttering that I ought to have inserted the word “allegedly” somewhere alongside Oswald’s name should go and read your Posner.

A second example, again well attested, is the extraordinary set of hoofprints left in mud by a Booker Prize-nominated celebrity goat devil in Penge. The pattern formed by the prints, viewed from a certain angle, in a certain light, on certain days, in certain mirrors, appears to spell out a line or two from the Book of Revelation, if written in spidery handwriting by a hamfisted shaking person. I have seen a blurred black and white photograph of this phenomenon, and I am convinced.

There is much more material, suitable for a lavish coffee table book. Both the book and the coffee table designed to uphold it will be lavish, the latter perhaps more so than the former. It will be built from wood, teak or mahogany, stained with the most excellent varnish available, each leg carved to form a mythological figure, representing in turn Europe, America, Africa and Asia, similar to that of the splendid wooden carvings on the massive pulpit in St Peter’s church in the university town of Leuven in Brabant. The sole deviation from the standard iconography will be that each figure will have the hooves of a goat, embedded in wooden mud or snow.

Wooden mud, ah! It is a fine, fine thing.

Fantastic Architecture Of The Burning Cities

When I was young, I was keen to study the fantastic architecture of the burning cities. I enrolled in a college run according to Blötzmannist principles. We were taught to build scale models of the more outlandish buildings, from paper and cardboard and gum, and to set fire to them and watch them burn, keeping a safe distance. Viewed through heavy duty hectorscopes, from behind the potted begonias and chrysanthemums in our workroom, the effect was astonishing. One could imagine oneself standing, windswept, upon the tor, watching from that high peak, with its glistening mere, the city in flames far below.

And when it was reduced to ashes and dust, what then? What then? Had we really been upon the tor, we would have no city to return to. As the smoke dispersed, would we have trooped down the far side of the tor and set out for new, undiscovered lands, to build and burn anew? Pimply students, we need not risk such adventure. We took our brooms and dustpans and swept up the ashes and then we left the workroom, laughing and babbling, heading across the lawn, with its glistening pond, for the cafeteria.

And as we gobbled and drank, the college janitor locked up his cupboard, hung his keys on the hook in the porch, and took the bus to the foot of the tor. Up he trudged to the top, and he sat by the glistening mere, and looked upon the city, and he wept.

The Grubby Man

That tiresome spring there appeared in the town a man surpassing grubby. The sheer filthiness of him, in body and soul, caused untold jitters in the townsfolk. Tongues wagged in taverns, and they did more than wag. There was spitting and cursing and imprecation, until hotheads were quieted by the sending of a citizens’ delegation to the good burghers of the town. These burghers were good, and they were elderly, and had terrific beards, and some were blind or losing their sight, but this betokened, for the townsfolk, great wisdom, on account of lore and legend.

A hammer thumped thrice upon a panel indicated the good burghers had made a decision, and the townsfolk gathered in the square to hear it pronounced. The grubby man was to be coaxed into a tub of hot water, and scrubbed with soapy brushes, scrubbed and rinsed and scrubbed and rinsed until all trace of visible filth was expunged, and he would step from the tub to be enwrapped in a large rectangular towel albino white while the water in the tub was poured down a drain into the sewer.

And so it came to pass.

But voices were raised, in taverns and on street corners and in civic hubs of social cohesion. The visible filth still lurked below, in the sewer, bubbling and frothing and ready at any time to burst up through the piping, and also, also, never forget, there was the grubbiness of the grubby man’s soul, invisible yet the more potent for that. A second citizens’ delegation, a second thumping of the hammer, a second gathering in the market square.

This time the good burghers made two determinations, to meet the two concerns of the townsfolk. First, that each day, forever, the sewers would be scrubbed and rinsed, with brushes and hot water and carbolic soap, scrubbed and rinsed from end to end, by volunteers. Second, that the grubby man would endure a course of moral instruction and his soul examined daily, for hours and hours, under duress, until every fleck of turpitude was obliterated in the pitiless light of Blötzmannist Lovely Thought.

And so it came to pass.

And hard as it may be to hold in your head, that man surpassing grubby became, oh after many a year of instruction and examination, a pillar of the community, never quite a good burgher yet one whose advice was sought by townsfolk young and old on such matters as dogs and cats and postal deliveries and running track maintenance and lamppost height and Belisha beacon brightness and the fish market and soup recipes and ballet troupe recruitment and gusts of wind and air temperature and flocks of swooping scavenger birds and bus stop furniture and mountaineering equipment and oil waste and Japanese fog monitoring systems and duck calls and the vanity of human wishes and snow flurries and the raking of autumn leaves and pig feeding and the brains of lobsters and the Flemish Primitives and mulching garden plots and filth and muck and untold grubbiness.

For scrub and rinse as they might, the volunteers never quite managed to eradicate the visible filth from the sewer.

And on the seventh day, petals fell in Petaluma.


Call me Puff. I live in a cave by the sea, the very same sea where Ahab sailed in the Pequod. As it happens, I am a dragon, and not just any dragon, but a magic dragon. So put that in your pipe and smoke it. For many long years, I used to entertain paper children with my conjuring tricks, accompanied by my lovely assistant Winifred. Well, I say “lovely”, but in truth Winifred was a bit frumpy for a magician’s assistant. She had a pronounced stoop and a runny eye. However, she was game for anything, including being sawn in half or plunged into a cauldron of boiling tar – or appearing to be, of course – and there are very few magician’s assistants willing to live in a damp dark cave by the sea with only a dragon for company, albeit a magic one.

Winifred was also absolutely indispensible in enticing the paper children from the various seaside villages thereabouts to our magic shows. Had I lolloped into the square, snorting fire and thumping my great scaly tail upon the ground, the paper children would have run screaming and their paper parents would have bustled them indoors and bolted and shuttered their hovels. The hovels, too, were of paper, so I could simply have set them ablaze with a couple of fiery belches, but I am civic-minded as well as magical, and in any case laying waste the land has never appealed to me, on aesthetic grounds as much as anything. I much prefer to frolic in the autumn mist.

The magic shows, which we held either outside the cave or in cow-strewn fields between the villages, were always a great success. My prestidigitative skills are second to none, though I say so myself, and certainly the envy of the magic dragon community. It took long years of practice, manipulating my fearsome great talons, to shuffle a deck of cards so that it was in perfect order, both numerically and alphabetically, ace to king, clubs, diamonds, hearts and spades. I killed or wounded countless doves and rabbits before I learned to handle them with utmost delicacy. That was before Winifred joined me, and I had to fight off attacks by vengeful doves and rabbits singleclawed. Later, on the very rare occasions when I was set upon by the great-great-great-grandchild of a dead or maimed dove or rabbit, Winifred smashed it on the head with her spade and shoved it in her cooking pot. This was the same pot I would chuck her into under the illusion it was brimful of boiling tar, a trick which always elicited gasps and nausea from the paper children. Ah, those were heady times!

Alas, Winifred and I eventually had a falling out. It was my fault. I felt in need of a holiday, and hired a boat with a billowing sail, planning a sight-seeing voyage to take in the crumbling coastal castles of kings and princes who had been exiled following the revolution. I knew the sea was riddled with pirates, and it was for that reason I chose as shipmate a paper child instead of Winifred. Far better, I reasoned, that in the event of a pirate attack I could sacrifice a child made of paper, and flimsy tissue paper at that, than risk my lovely, frumpy assistant coming to harm. She did not see it like that, insisting she was no shrinking violet and would give any piratical waylayer the same treatment she meted out to doves and rabbits. But I was stubborn, in that characteristic way of dragons, magical or not, and on a misty autumn morning the paper child and I set sail, leaving Winifred seething with rage on the shore, glugging from a bottle of doves’ blood. I did not expect, in the long months of our voyage, that every single pirate ship we encountered, and there were many, would lower its skull-and-crossbones flag at our approach. Even the most ruthless pirate, it seemed, became a quaking knock-kneed jelly at the sight of me, roaring my name and snorting fire.

When I grew tired of having kings and princes bowing to me from their dilapidated castle ramparts, we set sail for home. Winifred had upped sticks and gone, I knew not where. And, at the very moment we docked, a sharp gust of wind blew my shipmate paper child away, away, he was swept away and gone. I was alone. Never again would I frolic in the autumn mists along the cherry lane. I retired to my cave, where I slouch in the gloom, shuffling cards to pass the time, surrounded by the bones of doves and rabbits, and memories of happier days.

Singalonga Stamp Cancellation

Your favourite radio programme, Hooting Yard On The Air, will be six years old next month. As happens from time to time, I have been pondering whether or not to change the theme tune, which, since very early in the show’s run, has been the “Caucasian Lullaby” by Slapp Happy & Henry Cow, from the Desperate Straights album of 1975. When I mention to people that I am considering a change, I am almost invariably met with gasps of horror, as if by dumping the eerie lullaby in favour of something else I would be doing violence to a well-loved national institution, much as if I were to throw pebbles at Stephen Fry. So there is every likelihood the sixth anniversary will come and go without any change whatsoever. I am enamoured, though, of the University of Ghana Postal Workers’ Stamp-Cancelling Song, also from 1975, which was brought to my attention by Glyn Webster, to whom many thanks. Should this become the new Hooting Yard theme? Please make use of the Comments to air your views.

More From Chalmers

Here is some more from Thomas Chalmers, a master of blithering nonsense wrapped in majestic prose. This is again from Discourses On The Christian Revelation, Viewed In Connection With The Modern Astronomy (1817):

“What we have now to remark is, that the Infidel who urges the astronomical objection to the truth of Christianity, is only looking with half an eye to the principle on which it rests. Carry out the principle, and the objection vanishes. He looks abroad on the immensity of space, and tells us how impossible it is, that this narrow corner of it can be so distinguished by the attentions of the Deity. Why does he not also look abroad on the magnificence of eternity; and perceive how the whole period of these peculiar attentions, how the whole time which elapses between the fall of man and the consummation of the scheme of his recovery, is but the twinkling of a moment to the mighty roll of innumerable ages? The whole interval between the time of Jesus Christ’s leaving his Father’s abode to sojourn amongst us, to that time when He shall have put all His enemies under his feet, and delivered up the kingdom to God even His Father, that God may be all in all; the whole of this interval bears as small a proportion to the whole of the Almighty’s reign, as this solitary world does to the universe around it; and an infinitely smaller proportion than any time, however short, which an earthly monarch spends on some enterprise of private benevolence, does to the whole walk of his public and recorded history.

“Why then does not the man, who can shoot his conceptions so sublimely abroad over the field of an immensity that knows no limits – why does he not also shoot them forward through the vista of a succession, that ever flows without stop and without termination? He has stept across the confines of this world’s habitation in space, and out of the field which lies on the other side of it has he gathered an argument against the truth of revelation. We feel that we have nothing to do but to step across the confines of this world’s history in time, and out of the futurity which lies beyond it can we gather that which will blow the argument to pieces, or stamp upon it all the narrowness of a partial and mistaken calculation. The day is coming when the whole of this wondrous history shall be looked back upon by the eye of remembrance, and be regarded as one incident in the extended annals of creation; and, with all the illustration and all the glory it has thrown on the character of the Deity, will it be seen as a single step in the evolution of His designs; and long as the time may appear, from the first act of our redemption to its final accomplishment, and close and exclusive as we may think the attentions of God upon it, it will be found that it has left Him room enough for all His concerns; and that, on the high scale of eternity, it is but one of those passing and ephemeral transactions which crowd the history of a never-ending administration.”

Chambers And Hiss At The Chamber Of Hissing

Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers were skulking along a corridor in a top secret intelligence facility under cover of darkness when they heard, from a heavily padlocked chamber, the unmistakeable sound of hissing.

“What do you suppose that hissing sound is, Hiss?” whispered Chambers, “It sounds like a writhing tangle of asps.”

“I very much doubt that it is the hissing of asps, Chambers,” replied Hiss, “Consider where we are.”

Whittaker Chambers looked perplexed.

“You perplex me, Hiss,” he said, “How can I know where we are when the entire point about the siting of this top secret intelligence facility is that it is unmarked upon any map, and that to get here we had to crawl through subterranean tunnels which twisted and turned in such convolutions that all sense of direction, indeed all sense of mental balance, is lost, and lost utterly?”

Alger Hiss smiled at his alleged friend, and stooped to remove from the hollowed-out heel of his shoe a small mechanism, fitting easily into the palm of his elegant hand, that looked much like a compass.

“By heavens, Hiss!” hissed Chambers, “You have a compass!”

“Not so, Chambers,” replied Hiss, “This is in fact a miniature savage rotary magnetic machine, akin to the one devised by Dr Henry Hall Sherwood of New York but designed for quite a different purpose from his original.”

The pair were now directly outside the chamber door, and the hissing sound was louder, and more hissy than ever.

“Brilliant, Hiss!” whispered Chambers, “To use a magnetic machine of American design to help facilitate the ultimate overthrow of the capitalist system. Stalin would approve such cunning. But what does it tell us?”

“Well, Chambers,” said Hiss, “Note the savagery of its magnetism and rotation, which increases the closer we get to the door of the chamber. If I am not mistaken, beyond that door is the bottomless viper-pit of Gaar!”

Whittaker Chambers’s eyes nearly popped out of his head.

“The bottomless viper-pit of Gaar did you say, Hiss?” he said.

“I did, Chambers,” said Hiss.

“B-b-but how in the name of Lenin…?”

Alger Hiss told his alleged friend that the time for explanations would come later. For now, he said, it was enough that they had located the top secret bottomless viper-pit. It was time to turn back, make their way through the twisty turny subterranean tunnels, and meet up with their Soviet contact, in heavy disguise, at the cocktail bar of a swish hotel. He stowed the savage rotary magnetic machine back in his false heel, and, taking Whittaker Chambers by his shabbily-suited arm, led him away from the mysterious door, behind which the hissing of untold numbers of vipers continued, growing fainter and fainter as the duo skulked away along the corridor.

Chambers And Hiss At The River Basin

Alger Hiss lay sprawled on the jetty in his wetsuit. Oops, there ought to have been a space there… in his wet suit. It was a stylish and elegant suit, from Gabbitas & Thring, and it was sopping wet because some minutes earlier, Alger Hiss had toppled into the river basin, inadvertently, and had to haul himself back on to the jetty with no little exertion. He was still panting, and making a half-hearted attempt to wring out his soaking cuffs, when who should come striding along from the direction of the ice cream kiosk but Whittaker Chambers? Alger Hiss hailed his alleged pal with a weedy wave of his besuitsleeved arm. Whittaker Chambers waved back, and came lolloping along the jetty. His suit was less stylish, less elegant, and its crumpling was born of neglect rather than fashion.

“How now, Hiss,” he said, “I see you have been for a swim in the basin.”

“Not so, Chambers,” Hiss replied, his panting somewhat abated, “I am afraid I fell in, clumsily.”

Whittaker Chambers removed a shred of lettuce from between his blackened rotting teeth and flicked it to the ground, but it sank gently in the air and came to land on the natty shoulderpiece of Alger Hiss’s suit.

“Do you insult me, Chambers, for my clumsiness?” cried Hiss, shattered and woebegone.

“Forgive me, Hiss,” said Chambers, “I did not aim that lettuce-shred at you, and its falling upon you was as accidental as your toppling into the basin.”

“On this occasion I shall believe you, Chambers,” said Hiss, marshalling his dignity, though he still lay sprawled, “Though you cannot claim to have been distracted, as I was when I toppled.”

“Oh?” said Chambers, “And what was it that distracted your attention and caused you to lose your footing at the very edge of the basin?”

“My gaze was fixed upon the immensity of the heavens above us, rather than as it more wisely would have been upon the muddy path along which I trod,” said Hiss.

A glimmer of understanding flashed across Whittaker Chambers’s face.

“Ah,” he said, “You were looking up hoping to spot perhaps a Soviet spy plane scanning our terrain for valuable intelligence?”

“Not at all,” replied Hiss, clambering at last to his feet, “I was lost in contemplation.”

Whittaker Chambers looked at his alleged pal in some surprise.

“What is there to contemplate?” he asked, “The sky is blue, and has clouds in it, and, fugitively, now and then, birds. And, if we are lucky, spy planes. But…”

“Oh Chambers, Chambers!” said Hiss, interrupting him, “Be mindful of what Chalmers said. What is seen may be nothing to what is unseen; for what is seen is limited by the range of our instruments. What is unseen has no limit; and though all which the eye of man can take in, or his fancy can grasp, were swept away, there might still remain as ample a field, over which the Divinity may expatiate, and which He may have peopled with innumerable worlds. If the whole visible creation were to disappear, it would leave a solitude behind it – but to the Infinite Mind that can take in the whole system of nature, this solitude might be nothing; a small unoccupied point in that immensity which surrounds it, and which he may have filled with the wonders of his omnipotence. Though this earth were to be burned up, though the trumpet of its dissolution were sounded, though yon sky were to pass away as a scroll, and every visible glory, which the finger of the Divinity has inscribed on it, were to be put out for ever – an event, so awful to us, and to every world in our vicinity, by which so many suns would be extinguished, and so many varied scenes of life and of population would rush into forgetfulness – what is it in the high scale of the Almighty’s workmanship? a mere shred, which, though scattered into nothing, would leave the universe of God one entire scene of greatness and of majesty. Though this earth, and these heavens, were to disappear, there are other worlds which roll afar; the light of other suns shines upon them; and the sky which mantles them, is garnished with other stars. Is it presumption to say, that the moral world extends to these distant and unknown regions? that they are occupied with people? that the charities of home and of neighbourhood flourish there? that the praises of God are there lifted up, and his goodness rejoiced in? that piety has there its temples and its offerings? and the richness of the divine attributes is there felt and admired by intelligent worshippers?”

Alger Hiss paused, and Whittaker Chambers took the opportunity to suggest that they stroll together, arm in arm, to the ice cream kiosk. Hiss nodded in agreement, and continued.

“And what is this world in the immensity which teems with them – and what are they who occupy it? The universe at large would suffer as little, in its splendour and variety, by the destruction of our planet, as the verdure and sublime magnitude of a forest would suffer by the fall of a single leaf. The leaf quivers on the branch which supports it. It lies at the mercy of the slightest accident. A breath of wind tears it from its stem, and it lights on the stream of water which passes underneath.”

“Just as my dislodged shred of lettuce lighted upon your natty shoulder,” said Chambers.

“Indeed,” said Hiss, “In a moment of time, the life we know, by the microscope, it teems with, is extinguished; and an occurrence so insignificant in the eye of man, and on the scale of his observation, carries in it, to the myriads which people this little leaf, an event as terrible and as decisive as the destruction of a world. Now, on the grand scale of the universe, we, the occupiers of this ball, which performs its little round among the suns and the systems that astronomy has unfolded – we may feel the same littleness, and the same insecurity. We differ from the leaf only in this circumstance, that it would require the operation of greater elements to destroy us. But these elements exist. The fire which rages within, may lift its devouring energy to the surface of our planet, and transform it into one wide and wasting volcano. The sudden formation of elastic matter in the bowels of the earth – and it lies within the agency of known substances to accomplish this – may explode it into fragments. The exhalation of noxious air from below, may impart a virulence to the air that is around us; it may affect the delicate proportion of its ingredients; and the whole of animated nature may wither and die under the malignity of a tainted atmosphere. A blazing comet may cross this fated planet in its orbit, and realize all the terrors which superstition has conceived of it. We cannot anticipate with precision the consequences of an event which every astronomer must know to lie within the limits of chance and probability. It may hurry our globe towards the sun – or drag it to the outer regions of the planetary system – or give it a new axis of revolution; and the effect, which I shall simply announce, without explaining it, would be to change the place of the ocean, and bring another mighty flood upon our islands and continents. These are changes which may happen in a single instant of time, and against which nothing known in the present system of things provides us with any security. They might not annihilate the earth, but they would unpeople it; and we who tread its surface with such firm and assured footsteps, are at the mercy of devouring elements, which, if let loose upon us by the hand of the Almighty, would spread solitude, and silence, and death, over the dominions of the world.”

“Your own footsteps were not so firm and assured when you toppled into the river basin,” said Chambers, “But I should not tease you. Let me buy you a choc ice.”

The pair had arrived at the ice cream kiosk.

“Just one thing,” added Chambers, “When you speak of the Almighty, I assume you refer to Stalin?”

“Hush, Chambers!” hissed Hiss, putting his finger to his lips, “Be careful. The fellow behind the ice cream kiosk counter may be a Federal Agent!”

Whittaker Chambers slapped his forehead dramatically.

“Dammit, Hiss, you are right of course. I am sorry.”

To be on the safe side, he made a great show, as he purchased two choc ices, of saluting the paper stars-and-stripes fluttering from the kiosk’s shingle roof.

Munching their confectionery, as cold and chilly as the Siberian steppes, Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers walked off together in the blazing sunshine.


Further reading : Discourses On The Christian Revelation, Viewed In Connection With The Modern Astronomy by Thomas Chalmers D.D. & LL.D. (1817)