Monthly Archive for January, 2012

On Scree

I failed to mention, in yesterday’s essay about his love song, that Ah-Fang Van Der Houygendorp was a mountaineer. So let me put that right without further ado. Ah-Fang Van Der Houygendorp was a mountaineer, a noted mountaineer. Elsewhere, I wrote of him that “Physically, [he] was not really cut out for mountaineering. He was described by a contemporary as ‘a figure of untold puniness’, and he was indeed tiny and weak, short-sighted, lanky and prone to swooning fits. He was terrified of gnats, horseflies and fruitbats. He had an oversensitive digestive system and had to subsist mostly on thin soup or broth. It was difficult to find a mountaineering team willing to recruit so wretched a specimen, so Ah-Fang did most of his clambering up sheer rock faces solo, a man alone testing himself against the elements”.

This description was called into question by Brian Phantasm, who took me to task in the pages of Puny Mountaineers Monthly, accusing me of getting my Ah-Fangs mixed up. As if! There were not exactly dozens of Ah-Fang Van Der Houygendorps who were accomplished mountaineers, in love with Mrs Gubbins, and perished in the Hindenburg disaster. Granted, there may have been a couple of others, but – tellingly – Mr Phantasm – sorry, Doctor Phantasm – though what he is a doctor of God alone knows – the doctoring of signatures on counterfeit documents, probably – um – I think I have lost my thread. Let me begin that sentence again. Granted, there may have been a couple of other Ah-Fang Van Der Houygendorps who met the necessary criteria, but – tellingly – Doctor Phantasm does not identify the one he accuses me of getting mixed up with the Ah-Fang Van Der Houygendorp I was writing about. I hope that is clear. I am becoming somewhat befuddled in defending myself against these outrageous charges, and outrageous they are, as is Doctor Phantasm’s dress sense, but it is best to cast a veil over that, and a very thick veil, made of many blankets, as if he were a prisoner being ushered between police car and police station, covered to outwit the press photographers. It is my fond hope that one day Phantasm himself will be placed under arrest, and then he might stop attacking me in the pages of little-read magazines.

Our initial falling out, some years ago, was occasioned by a piece he wrote in News Of The Screes, a small circulation mountaineering journal devoted, as its title suggests, to scree, the accumulation of broken rock fragments at the base of crags, mountain cliffs, or valley shoulders. It was an ill-written and intemperate rant, the gist of which, when one got past the swearwords, was that the word “scree” should be dropped and replaced by “talus”, which means the same thing and has become the scientifically-approved term. “Scree” is of Old Norse origin, whereas “talus” derives from French. Now, I am neither Norse nor French, and Ah-Fang Van Der Houygendorp was Sino-Dutch, so my championing of “scree” is not based on any infantile sense of chauvinism. But champion “scree” I do, without apology, in all weathers. It is clearly the more apposite word for the accumulation of broken rock fragments at the base of crags, mountain cliffs, or valley shoulders which serves as its definition. Go to a scree and have a go at clambering across it if you don’t believe me. Better, be there when tumbling rock fragments from the upper slopes come crashing down to add to the scree, and raise the earflaps of your mountaineering hat to listen carefully. I am sure you will agree that “scree” beats “talus” hands down, whatever our French amis and scientists might say on the matter.

I wrote a letter to the editor of News Of The Screes, arguing my point and suggesting that Doctor Phantasm was an oaf and a dunderpate and probably a forger of doctored signatures on important documents. Thus our war of words began, and it continues to this day. So when he writes to accuse me of mixing up my Ah-Fangs, I swat his article aside as I might swat one of the gnats Ah-Fang Van Der Houygendorp was so affrighted by. That is my Ah-Fang, of course, not one of Brian Phantasm’s putative unidentified Ah-Fangs.

My Ah-Fang spent much of his mountaineering time clambering across scree. His puniness was such that he often grew exhausted, panting, panting, panting, while barely across the scree, whatever the steepness or otherwise of its gradient. For remember that some scree is steeper than other scree, depending on its geographical location and indeed the circumstances of its geological formation, whether created by dint of mechanical weathering by ice, chemical weathering by mineral hydration and salt deposition, thermal stresses, topographic stresses, or biotic processes. [Note to self: make a study of the word “dint”.] Sometimes Ah-Fang was so puffed out from clambering over a mere few yards of scree that he collapsed upon it, gazing hopelessly upwards to where the summit he aimed to ascend vanished in the clouds. Could there be a more pitiable image of a mountaineer?

But we must bear in mind that some scree can prove to be devilishly difficult terrain. All those rock fragments, often loose, can be perilous, even when one is not puny. So let us not mock Ah-Fang, or rather his memory, as the despicable and quite probably criminal Brian Phantasm has done in his latest piece of grievous folderol. No fewer than ten pages of last week’s issue of Screeds On Scree were given over to a disgraceful rewriting of history, in which Phantasm claims that Ah-Fang Van Der Houygendorp used stilts and some kind of anti-panting elixir to cross the scree at the foot of Big Oddly-Shaped Mountain Number Seven in 1929, one of his most famous ascents, and the one for which he was awarded a medal – the very medal I snapped up at an auction of Ah-Fang memorabilia which was then stolen from me by a footpad who bore a striking resemblance to Brian Phantasm. I have no proof, and I have never knowingly met this hellhound, but my assailant had a bouffant and cummerbund and winklepickers identical to those sported by Phantasm in the one grainy black and white photograph of him that I have seen, a copy of which I keep pasted in my Enemies Book (page 149, lavender series).

And so once again I must take up my butcher’s pencil to rebut, or refute, I can’t remember which, the calumnies rained down upon Ah-Fang. But I will continue to defend his memory until the cows come home. And no, they are not coming home now, o’er the rain-soaked loam.

EggPal

This morning I received an email from PayPal containing – among other things – this curious claim:

bird eggs

It had never before occurred to me that, when seeking to identify birds’ eggs, the first port of call should be a PayPal customer services person. However, now I know, and I shall be bombarding them with all my birds’ egg identification quandaries. You should do likewise.

ADDENDUM : While you’re there checking your birds’ eggs, don’t forget to give alms to the Hooting Yard Fighting Fund. (I’m not sure yet who or what we’re fighting, but don’t you worry about that.)

Questionnaire

In cities, do social meetings abound? and what are their purposes and character? Are they most religious, political, or festive? If religious, have they more the character of Passion Week at Rome, or of a camp-meeting in Ohio? If political, do the people meet on wide plains to worship the Sun of the Celestial Empire, as in China; or in town-halls, to remonstrate with their representatives, as in England; or in secret places, to spring mines under the thrones of their rulers, as in Spain? If festive, are they most like an Italian carnival, where everybody laughs; or an Egyptian holiday, when all eyes are solemnly fixed on the whirling Dervishes? Are women there? In what proportions, and under what law of liberty? What are the public amusements?…In country towns, how is the imitation of the metropolis carried on? Do the provincials emulate most in show, in science, or in the fine arts? In the villages, w hat are the popular amusements? Do the people meet to drink or to read, to discuss, or play games, or dance? What are the public houses like? Do the people eat fruit and tell stories? or drink ale and talk politics or call for tea and saunter about? or coffee and play dominoes? or lemonade and laugh at Punch? Do they crowd within four walls, or gather under the elm, or spread themselves abroad over the cricket-field or the yellow sands?… In the manners of all classes, from the highest to the lowest, are forms of manners enforced in action, or dismissed in words? Is there barbarous freedom in the lower, while there is formality in the higher ranks, as in newly settled countries? or have all grown up together to that period of refined civilization when ease has superseded alike the freedom of the Australian peasantry, and the etiquette of the court of Ava? What are the manners of professional men of the society, from the eminent lawyer or physician of the metropolis down to the village barber?

from Harriet Martineau, How To Observe : Morals And Manners (1838)

On The Love Song Of Ah-Fang Van Der Houygendorp

Bathsheba Gubbins, thou art so fair!

With your crochet hooks and your basilisk stare.

Come away with me to the Land of Trolls

Where we’ll live underground like a pair of moles.

Bathsheba Gubbins! I know I’m a chump

But meet me tonight at the village pump.

Let the villagers mock, let the villagers gawp.

I am Ah-Fang Van Der Houygendorp

And I shall love you till the cows come home

They’re coming home now, o’er the rain-soaked loam.

Which of us has not, when in mawkish or maudlin mood, sung those words, with tears rolling down our cheeks? Ah-Fang Van Der Houygendorp’s song of love to his inamorata is both cloyingly sentimental and, in its last line, not sentimental at all. Perhaps it is this duality of affect that has made it a verse adored, memorised, and recited – while weeping – by the entire nation.

Curiously, however, the nation in question is neither the country of Ah-Fang nor of Mrs Gubbins, but the distant, possibly legendary, land of Tantarabim, in which neither of them ever set foot. How The Love Song Of Ah-Fang Van Der Houygendorp became so dementedly popular in that faraway land is an instructive tale, and it begins with cows, as so many things do.

Some years ago, a wandering minstrel of Tantarabim wandered so far, so very far, that he found himself in Jaywick, the jewel of the Essex coast. Plopping himself on a bench outside the Never Say Die tavern, he took his piccolo from its cotton pochette and prepared to play and sing. Before he could begin, however, out of the mist emerged several cows. As luck would have it, the minstrel had arrived in Jaywick on the Sunday morning of what is still commemorated, at least in Jaywick, as “the day the cows came visiting”. Entranced – as who would not be? – the minstrel slipped his piccolo back in its pochette and followed the cows in their cowy progress around the town. Being a minstrel, he composed a ditty about the experience, which he added to his repertoire.

It was some years later, outside another tavern in another town, still far from his homeland, that the minstrel was interrupted in a performance of his ditty.

Oh I have travelled through many lands

But none so fair as Jaywick Sands

was as far as he got before an unkempt dishevelled hairy sallow pockmarked greasy infected dippy doo-dah person, with a glass eye and a pair of worm-eaten crutches, loomed in front of him, blocking out the sun, and boomed “Is this going to be a song about cows?”

“Why yes, it is indeed!” said the minstrel.

“I know a better one,” said the unkempt dishevelled hairy sallow pockmarked greasy infected dippy doo-dah person, plucking out his glass eye and polishing it with a filthy rag, then leaning his crutches against the tavern wall and slumping to the ground. And then, in a baritone so gorgeous it was barely conceivable that its possessor was one so unkempt and dishevelled and hairy and sallow and pockmarked and greasy and infected and dippy doo-dah, the stranger sang The Love Song Of Ah-Fang Van Der Houygendorp. As he held the final note, protracting the word “loam” to wrench from it more heartbreak than is present even in the closing scene of Random Harvest (Mervyn LeRoy, 1942), the minstrel burst into tears. He continued to weep as he travelled far and wide, was weeping still when eventually he puttered into the harbour at Tantarabim aboard a packet steamer, many many moons later.

Now it must be understood that they are a cold-hearted lot, the indigenous Tantarabimers. They snarl and growl and grunt, but rarely sob. At screenings of Random Harvest, they are infamous for their mockery and chortling and fruit-chucking. Yet now a miracle occurred. The minstrel, returned to his homeland, perched on a harbourside crate and slipped his piccolo from its cotton pochette and tootled the yearning melody of The Love Song Of Ah-Fang Van Der Houygendorp. And then, he began to sing the words. Frankly, his baritone was weedy and reedy in comparison to that of the unkempt dishevelled hairy sallow pockmarked greasy infected dippy doo-dah person, but that mattered not a jot here in faraway Tantarabim. Those loitering at the harbour were soon weeping, and as he was cajoled to sing the song again and again, so Tantarabimers came scurrying from their hovels and caves and country estates, thronging the harbour so densely that many were shoved into the sea. Those who could, trod water, weeping still. Others drowned. And on and on the minstrel sang, until even the thickest and most stupid of Tantarabim fatheads could remember the words, and all took up the song, and they sing it still, morning, noon, and night, weeping, weeping, in that distant, possibly legendary, land.

On Truculent Peasantry

A recent survey suggests that the truculence of peasants comes top in a list of baronial dissatisfactions. A huge percentage of barons expressed the view that a truculent peasantry caused them greater mental anguish than the crumbling of castle crenellations, outbreaks of disease in cows, and torrential rainfall.

Elspeth Grimpenmire, of pollsters YouBaron, said “This is an important finding. It shows that subjugation of the peasantry is high on the list of policy initiatives most barons would support. For the king to faff about with pie in the sky ideas about improving the lot of belligerent rustics shows just how out of touch he is.”

The king has not issued an official statement in response, although a palace spokeschamberlain insisted that plans were well under way for increased smiting, burning of villages, destruction of crops and associated mayhem.

No one from the peasantry was available for comment. That doesn’t really matter, as they are all illiterate and would be incapable of reading any snag-toothed babble reported here in any case.

Questions were raised about the reliability of the survey, however, when it came to light that only three barons were polled, each of whom was an empanelled official of the Association of Brutish Barons. From its grim headquarters in a castle keep on the edge of a marsh known locally for the poisonous vapours which hover in a mist o’er it, the Association regularly sends out marauding gangs of ruffians to bash up and lop the limbs off selected peasants. These gangs will usually haul back to the castle carts piled high with whatever agricultural produce they can gather from the peasantry’s pitiful patches of tillage, together with a few hostages.

An Association spokesbrute explained “If we don’t terrorise the peasantry, who will?”

Doctor Dust, an alchemist and necromancer retained by the Association as a consultant, recently passed his hands in oddly significant sweeping movements over a bowl containing a decoction of boiled amphibians, herbs, blood, semen, twigs and black bile and, after gazing into it for an hour, announced something which, unfortunately, came out as gibberish. But it is thought his eldritch manoeuvres, accompanied by various portents seen in the sky, suggest an uprising of the peasants at a future time.

“What Doctor Dust can see in his mysterious bowl is all the more reason to suppress the rabble in the here and now,” said a brutish baron, sharpening the blade of his bloodstained axe upon a whetstone, “We should certainly pay no heed to those so-called enlightened barons.”

The reference is to a newly formed groupuscule, the Association of Enlightened Barons, whose castle headquarters, far from being engulfed by poisonous marsh vapours, is decorated with pretty pink flags billowing in a balmy breeze.

“We like to think of the peasantry as stakeholders,” said one enlightened baron, “And though it may be hard to do blue sky thinking under this leaden pall, with threats of a downpour, we are convinced that they need not be truculent and belligerent, if treated with a little loving kindness and offered the prospect of a future world with many enticing leisure and retail facilities.”

Interestingly, even the peasants themselves ridicule this fatuity. We cannot quote them for obvious reasons, and as it happens most of the peasants we approached for an interview were to be found drunk out of their heads on some gruesome brew, fighting among each other, or lying unconscious in ditches.

Such scenes are welcome to the brutish barons, who will take the opportunity to charge out of their castles on horseback and trample the distracted and insensible peasantry under the clattering hooves of their mighty steeds.

“I often find it gives my horse quite a fillip if I let him crush the skulls of a few peasants while out on an afternoon gallop,” said one baron, “Though of course that is not the only method we use to crush their skulls and other bones. That is why we have dark dank dungeons in our castles, where the more truculent peasantry can be subjected to episodes of barbaric cruelty that would make the devil himself blanch. Even the most belligerent rustic tends to be a little more tractable after he’s had most of his bones crushed.”

In spite of the galloping horses and the dungeons, there has to date been no diminution in the truculence of the peasantry. Some commentators put this down to social factors such as the baronial tendency to have great feasts, with hunks of venison and pig’s heads and puddings made from wrens and quail and coot and partridge and widgeon, and foaming tankards of mead, while the peasants subsist on gruel. Others claim this is the natural order of things, and to tamper with it would turn the world upside down and bring chaos and, ultimately, undermine our entire understanding of the cosmos.

One enlightened baron pops his head over the parapet to offer a different view.

“It can seem one must be on the side either of the brutish barons or of the truculent peasantry,” he opines, “But luckily there is a so-called Blairite third way. It will come to pass.”

We shall see.

Pet Bee

Over in his Inexplicable World, Outa_Spaceman tells us he has adopted a bee as a domestic pet. Curiously, he has not yet given it a name. I would ask all readers to head over to his postage right away and bombard him with suggestions. To assist you in choosing an apposite and beguiling bee name, here is a photograph of the little chap.

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Collecting

Items removed from the house included baby carriages, a doll carriage, rusted bicycles, old food, potato peelers, a collection of guns, glass chandeliers, bowling balls, camera equipment, the folding top of a horse-drawn carriage, a sawhorse, three dressmaking dummies, painted portraits, pinup girl photos, plaster busts, Mrs Collyer’s hope chests, rusty bed springs, the kerosene stove, a child’s chair (the brothers were lifelong bachelors and childless), more than 25,000 books (including thousands about medicine and engineering and more than 2,500 on law), human organs pickled in jars, eight live cats, the chassis of the old Model T with which Langley had been tinkering, tapestries, hundreds of yards of unused silks and fabric, clocks, 14 pianos (both grand and upright), a clavichord, two organs, banjos, violins, bugles, accordions, a gramophone and records, and countless bundles of newspapers and magazines, some of them decades old.

from the Wikipedia article on the Collyer brothers, brought to my attention by R., to whom many thanks.

On Quadruple Points

I wish I could remember where I saw it. I remember distinctly what it said. NOW! GET QUADRUPLE POINTS!!! The writing was in big bold bright block capitals, red, I think. There was an accompanying graphic and some smaller print, which it might have been a good idea for me to have read. As it is, not only do I not remember where I saw it, I have no idea what I need to do to get the quadruple points, nor indeed what I might do with them if I got them. I just remember the blazoned promise, so urgent, so life-changing.

It is not that I am particularly seeking to change my life at this moment. I am reasonably content. But there was something about the big bold bright block capital words that gave me pause. Not sufficient pause, admittedly, to pay attention to the graphic and to read the smaller print. What lodged in my head was the thought that, right now, I was being offered the chance to quadruple my points. Only a fool would walk away. So I suppose I must be a fool, for walk away I did, either literally, if I saw it on a hoarding while traipsing the streets, or figuratively, if I saw it on one of those advertising leaflets that fall out of magazines and which one tosses into the wastepaper bin having barely glanced at. If only I could remember, I could retraipse the same streets, or rummage in the bin… but thereagain, perhaps I saw it in another context entirely. I would feel even more of a fool fruitlessly traipsing or rummaging, in pursuit of what, after all, might be a chimera.

For what are the points I can increase fourfold? Do I already have some? What would be the implications of having four times more than I already have? If the points are redeemable, as I understand some points are, then having four times as many is clearly going to be a good thing, for the more points I have, the greater their redeemable value, in any coherent universe. It hardly matters what they are redeemable against, if “against” is the word I am looking for, which I think it is. If it turned out that my points were redeemable against something of no worth to me, still, I could barter them, with another points-possessing person, who might be overjoyed to be able to redeem his points for whatever gewgaw or frippery I had turned my nose up at.

If only I knew the precise nature of the points I was being offered the chance to quadruple. I almost wrote “the once in a lifetime chance”, for who knows if I will ever see those words, that promise, ever again, in all my days? I rue my ignorance. Rue, rue, rue, that’s me. I know so little about the points that I don’t even know if I already have some. But that is the inference, is it not, of the wording GET QUADRUPLE POINTS!!!? Unless one starts with four points as the minimum, but that doesn’t quite make sense. It is as easy as pie to think of situations or circumstances with three, two, or even a single point,

Consider, for example, a cathedral city with a majestic pointy steeple atop its cathedral. That might be the only point in the city, if, say, the remainder of its architecture is rounded and blunt and unpointy. Such a city is conceivable, though off the top of my head I cannot think of a concrete example. Equally conceivable is the idea that, if the burghers of the city took up the opportunity to GET QUADRUPLE POINTS!!! they might find themselves commissioning an architect to design three more buildings with pointy tops, or, the cheaper option, install three pointy lightning rods here and there across the city, thus increasing its pointiness fourfold at a swoop. If they then quadrupled their points again, they would have sixteen points, and if they quadrupled them again, sixty-four points, and if they quadrupled them again, two-hundred-and-fifty-six points, at which point the mind, or my mind, begins to boggle. Carry on like that and you are in Pointy Town territory.

Perhaps that is akin to the process by which Pointy Town became the pointiest town on earth. It cannot, of course, have begun with a pointy-steepled cathedral, for a cathedral would confer city status, usually, and for all its unfathomably numerous points, Pointy Town remains – is proud to remain – a town. But by all that is holy is it pointy! There have been several surveys of the town in recent decades, and none has been able to find even a smidgen of bluntness or roundedness or anything remotely resembling unpointiness. Each and every one of the surveyors has been defeated in their attempts to come up with a definitive count of the pointy bits in Pointy Town, so we cannot say if the total number is a multiple of four. I would like to think it is, but alas I am never going to know. I did, off my own bat, try to count the pointy bits by studying images of Pointy Town on Google Earth (Pointy Version) (Beta), taking the resolution as high as possible, to the point where steam was hissing out of my computer, but somewhere around the two and half million mark my counting was interrupted by a godawful din outside my window, where a cat and a crow and a squirrel were engaged in some kind of bestial contretemps. Being a fool, as, reluctantly, I have already admitted to, I had not been keeping a tally of the pointy bits of Pointy Town, with a butcher’s pencil on graph paper, which is what I would have done if I was no fool. So I would have had to start counting all over again, and quite frankly, I decided I had better things to do with my time. What those things might be, I leave for you to wonder about.

Badgers In The News

Now here’s a quandary. Hooting Yard strains every sinew to pretend that certain “celebrities” do not actually exist. We simply ignore them. They are banished from our mental purview, dumped into a gigantic imaginary dustbin, the lid of which is clanged shut.

Badgers, on the other hand, we consider splendid creatures, always worthy of a few lines here and there. We don’t go overboard, we don’t babble on and on and on about badgers, but we take note of their doings, and bring you interesting badger news when appropriate.

What to do then, when a non-existent “celebrity” and badgers collide? It is with a heavy sigh that I bring you this four-month old headline which has only just been transmitted to the Hooting Yard news hub substation…

Gordon Ramsay’s Dwarf Porn Double Found Dead in a Badger Den in Wales

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A badger

On The Latin Mass And Moby-Dick

I remember the Latin Mass. Dimly, dimly, but I do remember it, in all its mystery. It was perhaps made all the more unfathomable because, until I was six or seven years old, we attended Sunday morning Mass in a pub. Not in a function room within a pub, but in the main bar area. Towels were draped over the beer pumps, that I remember. These were the only visits to a pub my family made.

Thinking back, I must have found the world a very confusing place, at least on Sunday mornings. All smartly dressed, we would walk together to this big pub on a crossroads, wherein a man in a black soutane would intone what must have struck me as gibberish, while performing slow ritualistic manoeuvres, against a backdrop of a counter lined with a row of unknown objects hidden under towels, behind which was a glittering array of bottles and glassware. I remember that when Mass ended, many of the parishioners, and the priest, remained behind, eager for the pub to open, but we always left to go home.

There was no Catholic church on the council estate where I grew up, and I assume the parish had persuaded the pub landlord to offer his premises to ensure our souls were saved. In my memory, I date the change to the vernacular Mass, and the longer walk to the parish church proper, as happening at the same time, when I was six or seven. Thus passed forever a curious feature of my childhood. I was old enough for it to have become a familiar, even reassuring, routine, and I recall a vague yet definite sense of disappointment with the new regime. I didn’t mind the longer walk – it took us through a park, with a playground and a duckpond and immense green well-mown lawns – but instead of the wood-panelled gloom of the pub, Mass now took place in a bright, modern church and, worse, I could understand the words. All the mystery was leached out of my Sunday mornings.

It took only a few years of that before, one morning when I was fourteen, I woke up with the clear conviction that the whole Catholicism hoo-hah – actually, no, the whole religion hoo-hah – was absolute twaddle. I have never seriously diverted from this view in the succeeding years, despite a couple of wobbles. My devout yet tolerant parents never made an issue of it, never forced me to attend that ghastly bright modern church against my will, though I remember my father telling me, with a strange admixture of the world-weary and the smug, that the day would come when I would return to the bosom of the church and re-embrace the faith of my childhood. Who knows?, he may yet be proved right.

I find myself wondering if my loss of faith, which really did seem to happen overnight, would have been quite so decisive had the Mass still been said in Latin, had we still celebrated it in the pub. There was something very seductive about those incomprehensible words. I would happily have swapped the pub for a church that was old and stony and cold and gloomy, but knowing the sense of what the priest was saying, and what I was bidden to respond, was fatal.

The name of the pub was the Moby-Dick. It is still there, on the crossroads. Not so long ago, I passed it, on the way to somewhere unconnected with my childhood, and I was pleased to note – for the first time, but also for the first time consciously checking – that the hyphen in the title of the novel is present and correct in the name of the pub. (Just as Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is often given as 1984, so Moby-Dick loses its hyphen, to my minor irritation.) When tiny, and attending Mass, I was of course wholly ignorant of Melville’s novel. It was not among the many many books on the shelves at home – a huge number of books, the possession of which I thought was commonplace, until I grew a little older and learned that most of our neighbours on the estate had no books at all. But I did know that Moby-Dick was a whale, for so it was depicted, white and thrashing about in the sea, on the pub sign. I cannot remember how old I was when I learned of the existence of the book, though I do recall, as a teenager, buying the copy I still have, the Penguin edition bulked out with Harold Beaver’s remarkable critical apparatus. Years passed before I actually got round to reading it, and I read more of Melville – Bartleby The Scrivener and Typee and The Confidence-Man : His Masquerade – before I read Moby-Dick. Which, of course, if I am to insist on the hyphen, I should also take care to give its proper title Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. And typing that last word reminds me, all of a sudden, that the name of the road on which the pub is situated, one of the four meeting at the crossroads, is Whalebone Lane. I have no idea what possible connection there is between this road, far from the sea, and whales or whaling. No doubt I could find out.

I do know, incidentally, that close by, for many years, lived Eva Hart (1905-1996), one of the longest-living survivors of the sinking of the Titanic. There is a local pub named after her too.

Pure Unbridled Dabbling

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I hesitate to provide this link to my cupboard in The Dabbler on this fine Friday, for this week I have chosen to besmirch the pages of that splendid blog with a stream of pure unbridled filth. Those of you who, in spite of that warning, proceed to wallow in a swamp of moral turpitude may be amused to discover that, in the Comments, a fellow named George has devised a diverting parlour game which will provide much fun and frolic to those who commandeer their parlours for the playing of games.

That Bird-Eating Spider Again

Courtesy once again of Mike Jennings, here is the first known illustration of the Goliath bird-eating spider, made by Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717). She has a ship named after her, but not (as far as I know) a spider.

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On Speed

You will recall the film Speed (Jan de Bont, 1994) in which Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves are aboard a bus which will explode if it goes below fifty miles per hour, having been primed with a bomb by cackling evildoer Dennis “Don’t try to grow a brain, Jack!” Hopper. I have been wondering if a similar adrenalin-thumping conceit could be applied to the writing of prose.

I am not suggesting I do anything so foolhardy as to ask a disgruntled and slightly maimed ex-police officer to hitch me up to a bomb which will detonate if I stop writing… well, I suppose that is what I am suggesting. Cowardice, or sheer common sense, persuades me, however, to hit upon a less perilous incentive.

I have just spent ten minutes staring vacantly at the screen trying to think what that incentive might be.

In Speed, Dennis Hopper is gleeful when a television reporter describes the fiendish quandary into which he has placed the bus passengers as “the whim of a madman”. He repeats the phrase to himself, chuckling. Now I am an almost inhumanly sensible chap, and not a madman at all, but perhaps the whim of a madman is precisely what I need to give vent to, if I wish to prime my prose with the innards-wrenching pell-mell momentum of the film.

Of course, not everyone would agree that Speed is an appropriate model. Dennis Hopper rather overdoes the criminal mania, Keanu Reeves is wooden, and the best that can be said of Sandra Bullock is that she is irritating. And even though Keanu’s fellow bomb-defusion expert Jeff Daniels is killed off, you know that Keanu himself, and Sandra Bullock, will escape unscathed, and Dennis Hopper come to a grisly end, because it’s that sort of film. But predictability has its own special charms. And predictability plus innards-wrenching pell-mell momentum is clearly popular, when we consider that Speed reportedly earned its makers over three-hundred-and-fifty million dollars. Now if I could only devise my madman’s whim, perhaps I could make a similar sum from a piece of prose.

The glum bat of misery swoops o’er my bonce as I stare at the screen and, regretfully, admit to myself that this present piece of prose is not the one that will earn millions. Having said that, should any readers feel impelled to deposit a vast sum of money into the Hooting Yard Paypal account, I would be most grateful.

But, just as Sandra Bullock has to keep her foot on the accelerator of that bus, I have to keep tippy-tapping away. It is true that I will not be blown to kingdom come if I stop. In fact, nothing at all will happen. I do not need to grow a brain to know that. Indeed, I have the freedom to get up and walk away and make a cup of tea, so I think that is what I shall do, right now. If I had a University of Arizona Wildcats tee-shirt, I would take the opportunity to change into it while the kettle is a-boiling.

You will recall that Sandra Bullock’s wearing of a top with the Arizona Wildcats’ logo proves to be a pivot on which the plot of Speed hinges. When last I saw the film I had not yet learned of that other great mainstay of Arizona life, the regional dish greasy doings. It seems to me that either Jan de Bont, or his screenplayperson Graham Yost, or indeed Keanu Reeves or Sandra Bullock or Dennis Hopper or even poor killed-off Jeff Daniels might, at some point during the production, have suggested adding a further layer to the Arizona reference by mentioning, or – better – showing, greasy doings. It would probably be stretching credulity to have any of the imperilled bus passengers tucking into greasy doings, but Dennis Hopper spends much of his screen time gobbling snacks while watching his madman’s whim unfold, so how difficult would it have been to make at least one of those snacks greasy doings? Now I come to think of it, given that, as I said, the dish was unknown to me when last I saw the film, perhaps we are shown Dennis Hopper eating greasy doings! Obviously I shall not rest until I have confirmed whether or not this is the case, so I shall have to watch Speed again, with an eagle eye on the Dennis Hopper scenes.

It has just occurred to me that I do not know what greasy doings look like. I must embark on further research before my next viewing, or I will not know them if and when I see them, and that would be a bloody tragedy.

I don’t know about you, but my feeling is that, were this present piece of prose the bus in Speed, it would be dangerously close to dropping below fifty miles per hour, and thus exploding. Innards-wrenching pell-mell momentum is easier to blather about than to maintain, in spite of the cup of tea which I was hoping would fuel a jamboree of thrills and spills. That may be a lot to ask from a cup of tea, but it has been argued that generations of British chaps could not have built an empire without their cups of tea, and I am not trying to build an empire, merely to write deathless prose, and perhaps earn millions, or thousands, or hundreds, or even just a pittance, by so doing.

Yet all the while the urge to cease and stare, not at the screen but out of the window, at trees and crows, grows ever more intense. What would Keanu do?

On The Devil In The Detail

They say the devil is in the detail, but is that a fact? I decided to find out. First of all, though, I wanted to have a better idea of “the detail”. I was pretty sure I would know the devil when I saw him, but somehow, paradoxically perhaps, “the detail” seemed a more nebulous entity. So I turned, as always, to the Oxford English Dictionary, which, for its main definition, has this to say:

The dealing with matters item by item; detailed treatment; attention to particulars. Esp. in phrase in (†the) detail , item by item; part by part; minutely; circumstantially. So to go into detail , i.e. to deal with or treat a thing in its individual particulars.

Fair enough. That gave me somewhere to start. If the detail is a minute individual particular item of a thing, what better way to test the thesis than by taking something apart, bit by bit, until the devil in all his evil burning foulness is found, lurking within – or not, as the case may be?

The next step was to choose something to dismantle. Now, it must be said that I am not the most dexterous of chaps. On the contrary, I am a bit of a butterfingers. Dangling on string from the ceiling of my boyhood bedroom were many, many Airfix model aeroplanes – Spitfires and Stukas and Messerschmitts and Sopwith Camels and Boeing 747s and Parker Double Teenies and Harrier Jump Jets and so on – all expertly fitted and glued together and their insignia transfers impeccably transferred, but all these were constructed by my older brother, with whom I shared a room until I was about ten or eleven. I think I tried, at least once, to emulate him, but the resulting plastic plane did not turn out well. As I recall, the only successful model I made was a cardboard head of Henry VIII, cut and folded from a template printed on the back of a Kellogg’s Cornflakes carton.

It occurred to me that I could just smash something to bits, for generally speaking violent smashing requires not dexterity but gung ho and a big hammer. Tempting though this was, however, I felt it would be going against the spirit of the project. I am not sure that fragments and smithereens count as “details” according to the dictionary definition. No, I must be methodical, and pick something apart piece by piece, neatly aligning the individual parts on a suitable surface such as a baize cloth laid out and flattened smooth upon a tabletop. Green baize would make the most suitable background to contrast with the gaudy scarlet hue of the devil, were he indeed to be hiding in the detail.

After much reflection, I had a brainwave. I was sitting there staring glumly out of the window at some crows, humming and hawing whether to dismantle an alarm clock or a bicycle pump or an orrery, when it struck me that of course the simplest thing to take to bits would be something that was child’s play to put together in the first place. Child’s play, literally. I scampered off to a toyshop and bought a Mr Potato Head.

For those of you who have put away childish things (First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, 13 : 11), and put them away so decisively that you can no longer remember who, or what, Mr Potato Head is, let me remind you. Mr Potato Head is an American toy consisting of a plastic model of a potato which can be decorated with a variety of plastic parts that can attach to the main body. These parts usually include ears, eyes, shoes, a hat, a nose, and a mouth. The toy was invented and developed by George Lerner in 1949, and first manufactured and distributed by Hasbro in 1952. The toy was originally produced as separate plastic parts that could be stuck into a real potato or other vegetable, such as a parsnip or turnip, or even a fruit such as a clementine or a Carlsbad plum. Before leaving the toyshop with my purchase, I checked to see that the model was sold in its constructed state, rather than as a jumble of bits. It would be pointless for me to have to put it together before dismantling it, and in any case, if the devil is in the detail then he would likely be visibly evident within the Mr Potato Head packaging box, his goaty horns and perhaps his pointy fork poking holes in the cardboard or cellophane.

Back home, I took Mr Potato Head out of his box and set him on the green baize cloth upon the tabletop. Was that a whiff of sulphur I smelled? It might have been. Perhaps the devil sensed I was closing in on him, and was giving off hellish vapours in his panic. Thereagain, would the devil panic at being discovered in the detail? He might, rather, be gleeful at being unloosed. I had not thought of that. I sniffed again, and took a very careful look at Mr Potato Head, seemingly so innocent upon the baize. Was I about to take an awful, irrevocable risk? Was I about to unleash Satan from his bondage?

I gazed into the eyes of Mr Potato Head and asked myself, was I being criminally reckless, playing taradiddle with the fate of nations, just to prove or disprove a familiar saying? Was there not an easier way? I came to the conclusion that I have not studied demonology with sufficient intensity to answer the question. And that is why I have made an appointment to see Father Ninian Tonguelash, the Jesuit exorcist, to seek his advice, and why Mr Potato Head is still sitting, all his constituent parts connected, undismantled, upon the baize.

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Sea Monster Attacks Lighthouse

Perhaps this lighthouse is on the tip of Porridge Island! That sea monster has probably had a sniff of the greasy doings…

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Exciting sea-monster-attacks-lighthouse film still from Chilling Scenes Of Dreadful Villainy