I would sing to you of Tarleton, of the gleets, of the balcony, if I could. If I could sing I would. But how can I sing, mouth crammed with pebbles, penned in a pound, atop the tor? And what an irony that it was Tarleton who bustled me hence, arms flapping, half blinding me with the glint of his shiny shiny epaulettes? I would have sung of him surely, and without smirking. Cars passed below as we climbed the tor. I would have waved to them, to their drivers, for help, if I thought help would come. My mind was a chaos. The higher we climbed, the tinier the cars appeared, until they seemed like motes of dust. They put the pound at the top of the tor to discourage attempts to escape. As further discouragement, the fence was electrified. Tarleton had keys to the panel upon which a lever or knobs or whatever could be pulled or depressed or whatever to cut off the circuit, temporarily, to allow the gate to be opened. He crammed my mouth with pebbles before he pushed me into the pound. I thought of the gleets, and of Krakatoa.

Oh, Tarleton, Tarleton! What became of the balcony you? Things were so different then. Fresh from your Messerschmitt, not a hint of the gleets, eating a crab apple and suffering in silence. It was noble suffering. Even the crab apple was noble. Certainly your shiny shiny epaulettes gave you a noble cast. I wanted to fashion a laurel wreath for your brow, but there were no laurels. Just the bare balcony and a vista of snow. Nor did I sing then, though I could have done, I ought to have done, I wish I had done. I would have sung of you, Tarleton, and recorded it upon magnetic tape, and had a platter made of it, and it would have shot to the top of the hit parade. It would have dislodged Russ Conway.

Regrets, regrets. Now there are pebbles in my mouth, and I am penned in a pound, and you have stomped away back down the tor. You will get into your car, parked in a gully, tiny as a mote of dust, from up here, and you will drive away, or be driven away, by your chauffeur, his own epaulettes less shiny shiny than yours, ignoble epaulettes. And when you drive away, will you think of the gleets, the balcony, Tarleton? Or will your head be filled with flummery?

The dog in the pound on the tor is small and hairy and oriental. Its yap curdles my blood. Would that the pebbles had been crammed in my ears and not my mouth! Or as well as, for all the difference it would make. The sun passes behind a cloud. The electrified fence hums. I think, not sing, of Tarleton, of the gleets, of the balcony. And Boodles yaps.

Cornelius Cardew’s Houseguests

After a break, I have returned to John Tilbury’s mammoth biography of Cornelius Cardew. It is 1966; Cardew is swanning about in Buffalo, New York while back in London his wife Stella struggles with four children and virtually no money in their top-floor flat off Warwick Road. She writes a stream of letters to Cardew complaining bitterly about the couple who have come to stay at the flat. They add to both her childcare responsibilities, leaving her to act as nursemaid to their pneumonia-wracked child while they go off gallivanting to swish parties, and to her financial problems, in that they never contribute a penny towards the housekeeping – this in spite (or more likely because) of what Stella describes as their exaggerated and unseemly preoccupation with money. She is desperate to get rid of them, but all her efforts fail until eventually Cardew writes a letter ordering them to leave.

And the names of these charming guests? The man is Tony Cox, and the woman is his then wife, a Japanese artist called Yoko Ono.

Hudson’s Head Revisited

Like Hudson, I wanted to gain possession of a man’s head, to carry it across the sea and drop it like an apple. And like Hudson, I wanted to do so without violating any laws or doing harm to the man whose head it was. I was not so concerned about the head having a set of unique and terrible teeth, in fact any head would do. But the logistics were an absolute nightmare. In spite of a first class education and the possession of an acute and incisive mind, I could not fathom how I might get hold of someone’s head, detached from the rest of their body, without either breaking the law or doing them a mischief.

When first this desire consumed me, I did not bother myself with such niceties. I might be at an elegant and sophisticated cocktail party, and I would take someone aside, steer them to a corner where we would not be overheard, and say:

“Can I have your head? I want to take it across the sea, and drop it like an apple of discord.”

There would then follow a discussion in the course of which the familiar objections, of criminal intent and physical harm, would be raised. I blustered my way through these by wearing a fixed grin and waving my arms a lot, but the difficulties would not go away.

I was unwilling to abandon the project entirely, however, so I sought advice from a Jesuit priest. The Jesuits are rightly famed for their casuistry, and I felt sure I would gain some useful tips. If anyone could pluck from the air a method of gaining possession of a man’s head, legally and harmlessly, Father Ninian Tonguelash was that man!

I found him, kneeling, deep in prayer, at the altar rail in the Lady Chapel of a large and important cathedral. I knelt down beside him and whispered:

“A man’s head, Father. How might I gain possession of one?”

He turned to me, did something mysterious and significant with his rosary beads, and asked me to explain further, so I did so.

“Hmm,” he said, Jesuitically, when I had outlined my plans, “It is a pretty conundrum, to be sure. Now, listen. Moored at the docks there is a Jesuit packet steamer, the Ignatius Loyola. It is due to set sail across the sea tomorrow night. Meet me at the dockside at ten o’ clock. I will have something for you.”

I thanked him, and left him to his prayers. I spent the next twenty-four hours sorting out my affairs and packing a suitcase. At the appointed time, I made my way to the docks. Father Tonguelash was already there, leaning against a wooden dockside appurtenance smoking a high tar cigarette.

“Here,” he said, handing me a bag, “Take this, with my blessing.”

It was a burlap bag, and from its size and shape and heft I knew at once that it contained a man’s head. I was about to fire a volley of questions at the Jesuit, but he held a nicotine-stained finger to his lips and shooshed me.

“You had better go aboard,” he said, “The Ignatius Loyola is about to chug out.”

“Thank you, Father,” I said, “How can I repay you?”

“There is no need,” he said, “Just don’t open the bag until you reach land.”

I promised I would obey, as one should always obey a Jesuit, and I boarded the steamer, where I was shown to my cabin. I placed the bag carefully in a cubby, then went back up on deck to wave goodbye to Father Tonguelash and an odd assortment of dockyard persons and seafarers’ wives and Jesuits who had gathered to see us off.

That was a Thursday evening a quarter of a century ago. We are still at sea, plying the oceans, the vast and illimitable oceans, far from any land. The burlap bag is still there in the cubby of my cabin. I have not opened it.

Hudson’s Head

I have never been worried with the wish or ambition to be a head hunter in the Dyak sense, but on this one occasion I did wish that it had been possible, without violating any law, or doing anything to a fellow-creature which I should not like done to myself, to have obtained possession of this man’s head, with its set of unique and terrible teeth…

When I coveted possession of that head it was not because I thought that it might lead to any fresh discovery. A lower motive inspired the feeling. I wished for it only that I might bring it over the sea, to drop it like a new apple of discord… inscribed, of course, “to the most learned”, but giving no locality and no particulars.

W H Hudson, The Naturalist In La Plata (1892)

Gorey Ripper

A further snippet from Sober Truth : A Collection Of Nineteenth-Century Episodes, Fantastic, Grotesque And Mysterious compiled and edited by Margaret Barton and Osbert Sitwell (1930) reveals that the hunt for Jack the Ripper was a scene from Edward Gorey:

Whitechapel bristled with policemen, whose work was rendered infinitely more difficult by the swarms of amateur detectives from the West End. Medical students and newspaper reporters paraded the streets unconvincingly disguised as women, and in every corner there lurked assassin-hunters in tennis shoes or galoshes.

Variation On A Theme Of Gerard Manley Hopkins

I caught this morning morning’s minion, with a combination of cunning, inhuman patience, and a big net weighted with baffles. I lay in wait from before dawn, behind an arras, primed by a flask of vitamin-enhanced Squelcho! from which I took regular slurps. Then, as morning broke, as the kingdom of daylight’s dauphin came prancing into the room carrying a breakfast tray, I pounced, leaping out from behind the arras, shouting, and chucking the net over him. He dropped the tray, and flailed and screeched, dapple-dawn-drawn, and I bashed him on the bonce with a brick and dragged him off to my lair elsewhere in the castle.

Later in the morning my father, the king, ran me to ground in a pantry, my heart in hiding, scoffing cake. He was in a filthy temper, because, of course, he had had no breakfast. That was why he came barging into the pantry; he was hoping to forage for toothsome treats among the leftovers. At sight of me, however, his hunger was suppressed by a great eruption of rage.

“Unworthy princeling!” he roared, “Preening milksop! Rancorous varlet!”

He continued with this tirade of insults for some time, his kingly boom growing louder and louder, so loud that the tins on the pantry shelves began to wobble and clatter.

Whether it is because of my twisted spine, my slobbering, or my pointy little head, my father harbours the conviction that I am unfit to succeed him on the throne of his shabby kingdom. Blind to my brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, he has been plotting to do away with me, enlisting the help of his minions, morning’s one and afternoon’s one and evening’s one, Freeman, Hardy and Willis. That he has no other heir, nor is likely to spawn one in his ancient dotage, does not seem to have occurred to him.

I, in turn, was plotting against the minions. Having nabbed Freeman at first light, I planned to entrap Hardy and Willis by similar means in the coming hours. Once I had the three of them safely imprisoned in my lair, I could move on to the next stage of the plot, though what that might be had not yet formed in my brain, buzzing and pulsating and rather too big for my abnormally tiny head.

For the time being, I simply stood there, twisted and hunched and scoffing cake, as my father heaped imprecations upon me in the pantry, and the tins on the shelves clattered and shook until one fell to the floor and as it hit the tiles I saw the metal

Buckle! AND a fire broke from it then, a billion times told lovelier, more dangerous than my father’s temper. The blaze that broke from the buckled tin of compressed reconstituted snacktime meat substitute was so surprising it even shut my father up. He stopped shouting and looked at it with awe and terror in his eyes.

The fire quickly burned down to blue-beak embers. I kicked the charred tin across the pantry floor with my club foot and snapped my fingers.

“Ah my dear,” I said to papa, “Fall, gall yourself, and gash gold-vermilion”, and I left the words hanging, and hobbled out of the pantry, stuffed with cake, to waylay Hardy, afternoon’s minion, as he came on duty.

Satan In The Snow

The Times, February 16, 1855

Considerable sensation has been evoked in the towns of Topsham, Lympstone, Exmouth, Teignmouth, and Dawlish, in the south of Devon, in consequence of the discovery of a vast number of foot-tracks of a most strange and mysterious description. The superstitious go so far as to believe they are the marks of Satan himself; and that great excitement has been produced among all classes may be judged from the fact that the subject has been descanted on from the pulpit.

It appears that on Thursday night last there was a very heavy fall of snow in the neighbourhood of Exeter and the south of Devon. On the following morning, the inhabitants of the above towns were surprised at discovering the tracks of some strange and mysterious animal, endowed with the power of ubiquity, as the foot-prints were to be seen in all kinds of inaccessible places – on the tops of houses and narrow walls, in gardens and courtyards enclosed by high walls and palings, as well as in open fields. There was hardly a garden in Lympstone where the foot-prints were not observed.

The track appeared more like that of a biped than a quadruped, and the steps were generally eight inches in advance of each other. The impressions of the feet closely resembled that of a donkey’s shoe, and measured from an inch and a half to (in some instances) two and a half inches across. Here and there it appeared as if cloven, but in the generality of the steps the shoe was continuous, and, from the snow in the centre remaining entire, merely showing the outer crest of the foot, it must have been convex*.

The creature seems to have approached the doors of several houses and then to have retreated, but no one has been able to discover the standing or resting point of this mysterious visitor. On Sunday last the Rev. Mr. Musgrave alluded to the subject in his sermon, and suggested the possibility of the foot-prints being those of a kangaroo; but this could scarcely have been the case, as they were found on both sides of the estuary of the Exe.

At present it remains a mystery, and many superstitious people in the above towns are actually afraid to go outside their doors after night.

* Read concave.

Quoted in Sober Truth : A Collection Of Nineteenth-Century Episodes, Fantastic, Grotesque And Mysterious compiled and edited by Margaret Barton and Osbert Sitwell (1930)

Spite For Dabblers

Dabbler-3logo (1)This week in The Dabbler I pose a tricky problem one might encounter in the game of Spite, or Lantern Jaw as it is known in some circles. Amateurs ought not to be intimidated by the seemingly “expert” solutions posited in the Comments, all of which so far – to my eye, at least – have the fatal flaw of mistaking Spite for a card game. A simple enough error, I suppose, considering that the symbols

heart club diamond spade

are employed, but any truly experienced Spiteologist will know that these denote something wholly different from the hearts and clubs and diamonds and spades of the standard card game, so different indeed that to gain a full understanding one needs to have one’s brain artificially modified by the Blötzmann Procedure, from whence there is no turning back. It is true that everyday life can become somewhat problematic after the modification, but the benefits to one’s Spite skills are immense and glorious and majestic, so only a pipsqueak would dare to complain or, ruinously, to pursue Blötzmann through the courts.


Frank Key today answered mounting speculation about the nature of his new project and announced Dobsonmore, a unique and free-to-use website which builds an exciting online experience around the reading of his hugely successful Dobson piffle, and is partnered by Blodgett Global Domination Enterprises GmbH.

The announcement today was heralded by the revealing of the website’s name via an online search for its letters, and a ‘coming soon’ holding page which received over 36 visits within a million hours of launching.

For this groundbreaking collaborative project, Frank Key has written extensive new material about Dobson, his pamphlets, and his boots, which will inform, inspire and entertain readers as they journey through the storylines of the piffle. Dobsonmore will later incorporate an online shop where people can purchase exclusively the long-awaited Dobson ePamphlets (out of e-print), in partnership with Frank Key’s publishers worldwide, and is ultimately intended to become an online reading experience, extending the relevance of Dobson to new generations of readers, while still appealing to existing fans. As the Dobsonmore Shop develops, it is intended that it should include further products designed specifically for Dobson fans, offering a potential outlet for Blodgett Global Domination Enterprises GmbH products and services related to Dobsonmore. In keeping with Dobson’s international appeal, the site will launch in English, Afrikaans, Ugric, Ket, Generic BBC Drama Peasant, and Glosa, with more languages to follow.

In the new website, the storyline will be brought to life with sumptuous newly-commissioned illustrations and interactive ‘Moments’ through which you can navigate, starting with the first appearance of Dobson bent over his escritoire, scribbling. On entering, you choose a foolish username and begin your experience. As you move through the chapters, you can read and share exclusive writing from Frank Key, and, just as Dobson barges through the door of his dilapidated hovel, so can you. You visit Pointy Town, get sorted into a chalet, write pamphlets and chuck pebbles at swans…

That’s quite enough of a rewritten press release to be going on with.

A Ticket

Like Spandau Ballet, I bought a ticket to the world. I wish I had paid more attention at the counter, however, because there was a misprint – I hesitate to say whether it was accidental or deliberate – and what I had actually bought was a ticket to the wold. Now, I am as much an aficionado of ranges of hills consisting of open country overlying a base of limestone or chalk as the next man, but my ticket did not specify which wold I could gain admittance to. I assumed it would be a wold within the Lincolnshire Wolds or the Yorkshire Wolds or the Cotswolds, but could narrow it down no further. I suppose I could have gone back to the kiosk where I bought the ticket, but frankly the person behind the counter frightened the wits out of me. Without going into details, just imagine a combination of Rolf Harris, Douglas Bader, and Beelzebub, and you will have some idea why I hadn’t stopped shuddering for a week.

For it was indeed a whole week before I was able to really put my mind to working out which wold to go to. There were so many distractions, apart from the shuddering. I had to deal with albinos, bloating, crises (six in number, like Nixon), Dungeness moths, embranglements, flotillas, grease, hens, ice maidens, jigsaw puzzles, kinetic sculptures, lemonade, and monkeys, to say nothing of the second half of the alphabet. It was a wonder to me that the issues I had to deal with presented themselves in such an intractable order. I was impatient for W to fall due, because I thought I would then be able to investigate the wold, but an influx of wax put paid to that fond hope.

Eventually, having managed with some panache to tip a zombie off the end of the pier, I took my ticket out of my pocket and gave it a closer look. Surely there must be some indication, in the wording, regarding the wold it was a ticket to? But no. I even put it under a microscope, when I paid a visit to a lab, for other reasons, of which you need not be apprised, for you know nothing of science, at least not of the science that concerned me, which is my own special field, buster!

After poring pointlessly over gazetteers for hours upon end, it suddenly occurred to me that the wold referred to on my ticket was not a place but a person. Could it be what I needed to pass through the cemetery gates to visit the tomb of Terje Wold, the Norwegian politician who died in 1972, or the grave of Herman Wold, the Swedish statistician who met his maker twenty years later? It might even be a ticket to grant me an audience with a living Wold, Erling Wold the American composer or, on the same continent, the politician John S Wold, or, back in Scandinavia, among the living rather than the dead, Susse Wold, the Danish actress?

A trip to the United States or Norway or Sweden or Denmark would cost rather more than going to Lincolnshire or Yorkshire or the Cots, so I made an appointment to see my bank manager. He is almost as frightening as the man who sold me my ticket, but in a different way, not so much Harris and Bader and Beelzebub as Ringo Starr with indigestion and a sniper’s rifle. But needs must when the devil drives.

So there I was, sitting in the bank waiting to see Mr Tugendhat, clutching my ticket to the wold in the fruitless hope that all would become clear when, unexpectedly, all became clear. Sitting next to me was a pale spotty teenperson to whom I suspected shampoo was a rare and inexplicable substance. He turned to me and said:

“Wow. You lucky git, innit.”

I overlooked his ungrammatical infelicity and asked wherein lay my good fortune.

“You’ve got a ticket to the Wold,” he said.

“I have indeed, young whippersnapper,” I replied, with the easy bonhomie I deploy with young whippersnappers, “And I would be luckier still if I knew which was the wold in question.”

“Well that’s obvious, innit?” he said, grammatically this time, “See that little runic symbol in the corner? It’s a ticket to the Wold in Middle Earth, the area north of Rohan!”

“Are you speaking to me of Tolkien?” I shrieked, almost vomiting.

“Too right, grandad,” he said.

Without a word, I thrust the ticket into his hand and staggered out of the bank, disorientated and bedizened and sick. After a week of shuddering, just when I thought things were looking up, I was cast into black and bottomless despair. I took to my bed, and have been there ever since. As I toss and turn and gnaw my pillow, I wonder how a tiny misprint could have turned my simple and innocent desire to emulate Spandau Ballet into the nightmare of traumatic Tolkieny twaddle.