“I am actively hostile to the ‘New Year’.” – Peter Hitchens
So then, Mr Key, I have just had the dubious pleasure of reading Old Key’s Almanacke in today’s Dabbler. I note that in your prognostications for the coming year you failed to mention birds. Knowing, as I do, that you are a man of exceeding ornithological perspicacity, this came as something of a surprise. You will protest that eggs get a mention, in October, but as I need hardly tell you, eggs are not birds. Some of them may become birds, in due time, but that is beside the point.
I myself would never presume to foretell the future without first making a very careful study of our wing-blessed friends. It is, I think, well known that accurate forecasts about the future doings of princes and potentates and popes depend upon acute “reading” of the various timbres of coos and caws and clucks and chirrups and shrieks of all sorts of birds, not excluding budgerigars and pratincoles. Similarly, by plucking and arranging in significant array the plumage of certain birds, including avocets and owls, one gains eldritch insight into the likely outcome of the coming year’s important sporting fixtures. Of course, you need to know which type of bird to pluck the feathers from, how to lay out the feathers upon a plain flat surface, and, crucially, how to interpret the pattern thus formed.
I do not claim, however, to be a haruspex, for the simple reason that it is against my moral code wilfully to slaughter a bird – any bird – that I might wrench out its entrails, hot and bloody, for the sole purpose of fortune telling. I leave that kind of thing to the Woohoohoodiwoo Woman.
Anyway, I wish you a happy new year, whatsoever may come to pass, and now I must dash, because the iFry I received as a Christmas gift is wittering imbecilically upon every subject under the sun, and I shall be driven insane unless I silence it by plunging it into a bucket of scum-coated rainwater. Toodle pip!
O show us the way to the next Brecht symposium. O don’t ask why, o don’t ask why. For we must find the next Brecht symposium and spout twaddle, or if we don’t attend the plenary session and spout twaddle I tell you we must die, I tell you we must die, I tell you, I tell you, I tell you we must lose out on tenure in a professorship in Brecht studies at an important university where we can be paid handsomely to spout twaddle until kingdom come, which is surely not unlike death, in a spiritual sense, is it not, Lars?
O Father Duggleby, did you hear about your horse? It went a-clopping all alone upon the awful cliffs. It is a dreadful thing indeed when a priest’s horse plummets into the sea. You ought to have tied it to a post. See, there is a post there, outside the church repository, a stout post, and it even has a rope attached. You neglected the safety of your horse and your status as a priest will not protect you from the wrath of the Equine Welfare Board. I am told a deputation is already on its way, galloping across the heath.
And come they did, four members of the Board, like the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, terrible in their fury. Father Duggleby hid in the confessional box, but they smoked him out, with incendiary devices. He was tied to the post to which his own poor perished horse should have been tied. And judgment was passed on him.
Father Duggleby prayed that night. Still tied to the post, under a gibbous moon, he begged the Lord his soul to save. But when morning came, they untied him from the post and bundled him into a sack and they carried him on a cart up to the awful cliffs. Banners were flying. The sun burned, brilliant and golden.
When the sack hit the sea, its impact made a splash the like of which none had seen nor heard before. Nor did any of these simple coastal folk have the words to describe what was so anomalous, so eerie, about the splash. They called it the Duggleby Splash, and ever since, on the anniversary, they have tried to recreate it, by tossing the latest priest into the sea in a sack, without success. And every year, on the eve of the anniversary, it is said that a phantom horse is heard a-clopping along the cliffs, each clop sounding like the clack of rosary beads.
And the day after, they send for a new priest, and lo! he comes galloping across the heath.
“Ah! what a beautiful idea occurs to me at this point! Once, on the hustings at Liverpool, I saw a mob orator, whose brawling mouth, open to its widest expansion, suddenly some larking sailor, by the most dexterous of shots, plugged up with a paving-stone. Here, now, at Valladolid was another mouth that equally required plugging. What a pity, then, that some gay brother page of Kate’s had not been there to turn aside into the room, armed with a roasted potato, and, taking a sportsman’s aim, to have lodged it in the crocodile’s abominable mouth! Yet, what an anachronism! There were no roasted potatoes in Spain at that date (1608), which can be apodeictically proved, because in Spain there were no potatoes at all, and very few in England. But anger drives a man to say anything.”
Thomas De Quincey, The Spanish Military Nun (1854)
I must investigate the means by which one can schedule postages in advance, where one saves one’s words o’ wisdom as a draft and then they plop into place on the blog at a date and time of one’s choosing. Those Dabbler people know all about such interweb magic, and so, today, you can read why (nearly) every day is Christmas inside my head
It may be a little quiet here for a few days while I watch my flocks and muck about with gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and stare at a star, and other such important activities. I will, however, try to post the traditional Hooting Yard pictorial Christmas greeting tomorrow, if I can find something suitable.
Meanwhile, over at The Dabbler, you can find a seasonal tale exhumed from the Archives. Devoted readers will probably have it by heart, and be ready to recite it to the tinies at bedtime, but I learned that apparently there are a few visitors to The Dabbler who have not spent the past six months poring over the accumulated treasures of Hooting Yard (2003-2010), so we must help them get up to speed before the new year.
This photograph has yet to be authenticated by the Tiny Enid Photographic Authentication Bureau, but appears to show a tot who could possibly be Tiny Enid standing next to her cardboard submarine. That the plucky little fascist had a cardboard submarine we already know. Remember that stirring line in the Memoirs, “I had a submarine and it was made out of cardboard”?
Photo from the superb Ptak Science Books
Does our environment shape our language, or is it the other way about? Often, tracing the links between the words in our heads and the things in the world outside our heads is well nigh impossible. Sometimes, though, it can be child’s play. Consider this: I once lived among cowboys, all of whom wore leathern chaps, and in that dusty desert town, men were invariably referred to as “chaps”. Later, when I spent some time in a blasted volcanic landscape riddled with geysers, I found that all the men were called “geezers”. And when I retired to an idyllic cove, sheltered by the happy disposition of cliff and bluff from the wild boiling sea, I was not surprised to learn that the men there were all “coves”.
Though the term originated in thieves’ cant, not one of the coves in the cove was a thief, so far as I was aware. Several of them became my fast friends. There was the one-eyed cove whose life’s work was to translate the Abba songbook into Latin; the cove who grew rhubarb in a hut abutting his house; the snooker champ cove with his natty weskit and hair slathered in shiny shiny oil. And then there was the cove whose tale I shall tell, who can only be described as an enigma.
How to describe him? He was the most unemphatic cove I ever came across, by which I mean that he singularly failed to make even the slightest impression. He seemed to have no definition, no emphasis, neither vigour nor intensity. You might see him every day, but in his absence be quite unable to recall what he looked like. And when he spoke, which was often, alas, he spoke in a monotone, neither fast nor slow, giving every single word equal weight. That might be thought sufficiently odd to give him a certain curiosity value, and thus “character”, but somehow the overwhelming sense was one of blankness. He was so unemphatic that it seemed he did not even disturb the atoms in the air when he entered a room.
One would think such a cove would make no mark upon our cove, but he did. It was the night of the storm so ferocious that ever after it was called the Ferocious Storm. We were snugly sheltered in our cove, of course, but beyond the cliff and bluff the sea was a hideous seething broiling monster of rage and roaring, whipped by a wind that lashed and howled as if demons were unloosed. At the height of the storm, the lantern in the lighthouse off the cove was extinguished. We coves gathered in the tavern, fearing shipwreck, hating the thought of having to provide succour to half-drowned sailors, battered and lacerated on the jagged rocks, for we were cowardly and selfish coves and we liked our idyllic cove just as it was.
And then the singularly unemphatic cove said something, in his blank unmemorable monotone, and he walked out of the tavern and climbed up on to a promontory overlooking the wild and pitiless sea. He took off his topcoat and his wooly and his shirt, and he simply stood there, all night, in the teeth of the gale. For beneath his shirt he wore a vest, and what a vest! It was golden, and luminous, and it shone brighter than the sun. For ships in peril on the sea, it was a warning signal, a thousand times more brilliant than the poor extinguished lantern of our lighthouse. When dawn eventually came, and the storm died, not a ship had been wrecked upon the rocks, not a sailor came crawling, bedraggled and bloody, begging for our help. Atop the promontory, the unemphatic cove put on his shirt and wooly and topcoat and made his way down to the tavern.
We were nonplussed and excitable, firing questions at him. What in the name of heaven was that vest he was wearing? How did it shine so brightly? Where did he get it? Blah blah blah.
He told us everything we wanted to know. But so dull and featureless was his monotone that everything he said went in one ear and out the other, and was instantly forgotten. Over the coming days, one or other of us might have asked him to strip off his topcoat and wooly and shirt and treat us to another look at the glorious vest, but to do so we would have to have noticed his presence, and of course we did not, for if anything he became even more insubstantial, more shadow than cove. Eventually, he vanished altogether, as if he had never been. But I know he was no mere figment, for today, up on the promontory, there is a stone statue of him, stone eyes gazing at the sea, his stone vest painted the brightest yellow we could muster, repainted every day, that it may never lose its lustre.
You will recall, I hope, the time when plucky tot Tiny Enid discovered the Waste Chute of History on the Large Flat Windy Uninhabited Plains. Well, to say she discovered it is something of a misnomer, for others had been there before her, not the least of whom was the very sensible Swiss researcher Erich Von Daniken (b. 1935).
As we know, by the time Tiny Enid came upon the Chute, it extended, as Rossi would put it, down, down, deeper and down, to the very centre of the Earth. So intent was she upon her mission that the wee adventuress never bothered to wonder when and by whom the Chute was built. Yet these were precisely the questions that exercised Von Daniken’s fizzing brainbox. Considering the matter with his characteristic cast iron logic, he worked out that there must have been a time, during its construction, when the Chute was much shorter, and only went a little way into the bowels of the earth. Could it have been, he asked himself, staring out of the window at Swiss cows in Swiss fields under the shadow of looming Swiss Alps, that the original Chute was in fact designed to terminate only a few hundred feet below the surface, at the point where it punctured, perhaps, the roof of a subterranean cave?
And if that were so, was it not the case that its purpose must therefore be not as a Waste Chute, but a Supply Chute? And whom else could it be intended to supply but a race of troglodyte beings inhabiting the subterranean cave, beings perhaps of extraterrestrial origin the velocity of whose spaceship, billions of years ago, had been so freakish that, when it crashed into our lovely planet, had simply kept going, boring through rock until eventually juddering to a halt in the cavernous underworld? Sipping his Swiss Schnapps, Von Daniken realised that his watertight theory actually accounted for the otherwise difficult problem of how the Chute had been built in the first place!
He was about to turn from his chalet window and sit down at his typewriter to bash out a bestseller when a further point occurred to him. As the years passed, the troglodytes, breeding like extraterrestrial space-rabbits, would surely have outgrown their habitation. They must have burrowed their way into other subterranean caves, setting up new colonies. Then they would have faced the problem of how to supply every outpost of their underground empire. Rather than building new chutes, was it not obvious that the simplest way was to retain the original Chute, but to fit it with a series of pivots, so that it could be directionally adjusted to serve each cave as required?
Clapping his Swiss hands with glee, Von Daniken was satisfied that his theory was utterly unassailable. In his mind’s eye, he could already see tottering piles of copies of his next bestseller, Chute-Pivots Of The Space Troglodytes?, eagerly snapped up not just by Swiss persons, but by his fans around the world.
What happened next was a circumstance even Tiny Enid herself would have been powerless to avert. Just as Von Daniken was about to sit down and begin typing, there came a knocking at his chalet door. He opened it and came face to face with a person from Porlock. Yes, that person from Porlock!
Listening to the hysterical news reports of our current snow-blanket, one might think we had entered a new Ice Age. But this too shall pass. As far as I recall, there are such things as seasons. For a sense of perspective, let us turn to George A B Dewar :
“At the acme of the year, days of great June with its clouds of endless forms and phantasies, wisp, stipple and fleece of cirrus and cirrostratus, snow mountains of cumulus; July with sorceries of silence and the scented breath of its eve, with its strange dance of ghost moths at dusk, when Capella is flashing intensely out of the afterglow and the gold taper of Mars is alight in the awful blue; August knee-deep in the copse grasses with yellow-hammer days; autumn with its golden-haired larches; winter with a wine-coloured withy wood by the estuary, and the ghost-like earth-cloud, stratus, creeping over the darkening marsh or heath; and at the same seasons the whirling columns of winter-gnats and the glittering gossamer weighted with rainbow dewdrops. Then there is the faery year of our English birds : spiral evolution of linnets in the frosty skies, loop of the rooks going home to rest, a flock of starlings in autumn black-budding the ash tree a field away, swans angel white clipt out on the leaden lake, thrushes singing like mad in the grey stormy March dawn.”
It is surprising, perhaps, to find that an English nature writer in the first decade of the last century was some kind of proto-Stalinist, but then there is this :
“The right enjoyment and study of these things must make men and women happier, completer in understanding in taste and eye, and therefore better members of the State.”
Quotes from the prefatory note to The Faery Year by George A B Dewar (1906)
[Apropos the title, see here.]
In the early days of the regime, we attended a briefing every morning at 0800 hours in the pavilion. One day, the Commodore himself addressed us.
“Men,” he said, “If the regime is to succeed, and succeed it will, we must hunt down the nincompoops, the dunderpates, and the chumps. They are legion. We must hunt them down, round them up, and then inject their brains, one by one by one, with a serum. At this stage the serum is experimental, but early tests on the brains of stoats show promise. You will know George A B Dewar’s dictum that ‘craft, cruelty, concentration – these, with a wonderful suppleness, are the characteristics of the stoat… No animal’ he goes on to say, ‘has the stoat’s reputation for devilry’. How true that is. Yet once the serum has worked its way into their brain-jelly, the guinea pig stoats, if I may use the term, become what we might call regime-fit. And it is an essential part of our programme that our nincompoops and dunderpates and chumps, they too, in their massive numbers, become regime-fit. So you will hunt them down, men, starting today. Nincompoops commonly gather in chalets on mountainsides. The dunderpate will be found in our cities, in the vicinity of important railway stations, or queuing up at kiosks. As for chumps, they tend to inhabit nests, like vipers or robins. You will be divided into three squadrons, with different-coloured socks, and go hence on your essential mission. Any questions?”
My hand shot up.
“To which squadron have I been assigned, O Commodore?” I shouted, with absolutely sincere enthusiasm.
With his mastery of detail, the Commodore was able to rap back at me that I was to be second-in-command of Chump Squadron. My socks would be gash-gold vermilion.
Later that day, after clambering over a hedge in the rain, I saw my first chumps’ nest.
“Look!”, I hissed to my squadmate, “Over there, next to the pylon. If I am not mistaken, that is a nest of chumps.”
There were several foolish people, encamped in a sort of bivouac, behaving foolishly, as chumps would, at a picnic, say.
“Ach, God!” cried my squadmate, channelling Rupert Brooke, “Is that not an evocative sight?”
“Is it?” I replied, irritated. I was already fossicking in my knapsack for the serum.
“Yes,” he said, “Does it not evoke for you that wonderful poem by Dennis Beerpint? How does it go? We ate breakfast in the coppice, squatting on our haunches. Our breakfasts were more toothsome than our lunches. Something something something, in the shade of elms and larches. We tried to stop the toast and jam from smearing our moustaches.”
“Have you taken leave of your senses?” I snapped. “First, it is mid-afternoon, so whatever they are picnicking upon, those chumps are not engaged in breakfast. Second, they are squatting under a looming electricity pylon, not under elms and larches. And third – ”
“Yes, I suppose you are right,” he interrupted, “But still, it is an evocative sight. It seems such a pity that we should destroy it by setting upon them and injecting their brains with the serum.”
“We must do our duty,” I said.
“Would Dennis Beerpint have done his duty?” he asked, irrelevantly. He reached into his knapsack and took out a sketchpad and pencil. “At least let me capture the essentials of this evocative scene with paper and pencil. Then when we are back at camp I can work it up into one of my noted mezzotints.”
It was then I realised that my squadmate was none other than Rex Tint, the noted mezzotintist. And thus I learned an invaluable lesson, about poetry, and mezzotints, and chumps, and picnics in the rain. I poured the serum, every last drop of it, into a ditch, and there and then I vowed to do all in my power to topple the regime. We never returned to camp. Instead we joined the chumps in their nest, and shared their toast and jam. I smeared some on my moustache. It felt like a badge of honour.
Beware, earthlings, for the tentacles of Hooting Yard creep ever further in our tireless pursuit of global dominion. Most recently, Mr Key turns up on the SubGenius Hour Of Slack Podcast (The Church Of The SubGenius Weekly Radio Ministry) where he can be heard reciting the Lark Rise To Candleford peasant version of Captain Beefheart’s Old Fart At Play, in among an hour of sound collages and Devo cover versions. Thanks to Outa_Spaceman for his “intervention”, if that is the word I am looking for.
“I used to go to the seaside on holiday and expect beauty : now I observed more closely the infinite cruelty and indifference of the sea.” – The “religious cobbler” in The Professor by Rex Warner (1938)
“The sea is harder than the land.” – Dermot Todd, Filth (1987)