On The Screaming Abdabs

In the annals of light entertainment, few acts have been as universally loved as the Screaming Abdabs. It is curious, however, that as much as they were adored, they were completely misunderstood. Many, if not most of their fans loved them for all the wrong reasons. The misapprehension of what they were about niggled certain members of the troupe, though others were content enough with the popular adulation, and the rewards it brought in its train.

They began as circus performers, under the direction of Maud Abdab, usually known as Old Ma Abdab. Contemporary reports of their first appearances suggest that the act was fully formed from the very beginning. Old Ma and her brood of little Abdabs would stand together, in a line, in the middle of the big top, and scream their heads off for about a quarter of an hour. It is difficult to give the flavour of the act in plain prose without resorting to long strings of capital letters and exclamation marks. EEEEKKKK!!!! and AAAARRRRGGGGHHHH!!!! will have to do, I’m afraid, though they fail to convey the sheer volume and blood-curdling terror of the Abdabs’ screaming.

Early audiences seem to have believed that the Screaming Abdabs were screaming in response to the circus clowns. This may indeed be the origin of the cliché that clowns are in some ways disturbing and frightening. They are not. The circus clown is simply a man or woman who cuts capers and cavorts and blunders about while wearing bright baggy apparel and caked in makeup. Only a milquetoast would be scared of them.

Whether their audiences were composed of milquetoasts and milksops or not, the Screaming Abdabs were an immediate hit. They were soon enough too big for even the biggest of big tops to contain them, and they progressed to the music hall. From the music hall they moved on to variety theatres, and then to radio, television, and the big screen. Throughout, the act remained in all essentials exactly the same. As Old Ma Abdab got old and doddery, and the little Abdabs grew to adulthood and had tinies of their own, so the troupe replenished itself. It remained a family affair.

It was once they were away from the circus, and thus away from the supposedly frightening clowns, that the various misunderstandings about their act began to proliferate. The point to recall is that Old Ma Abdab made very clear the nature of the Screaming Abdabs in her memoir, where she wrote: “We are just simple folk who stand in a line and scream our heads off.” So straightforward an explanation seems not to have satisfied many of their fans, who devised all sorts of theories to account for their mass appeal.

The most notorious was probably that of the French existentialist Jean-Luc Existent, who bashed out innumerable essays and colour supplement feature articles and even entire books. The gist of his theory is difficult to disentangle from the thicket of clogged and unreadable texte in which he expounded it, over and over again. At a guess, and with a headache, I would say that he saw, or heard, in the Screaming Abdabs something akin to “original man, shouting his consonants… in yells of awe and anger at his tragic state, at his own self-awareness and at his own helplessness before the void”. The quotation is from that terrible old fraud, the American painter Barnett Newman, himself a great devotee of the Screaming Abdabs. There is a story that a wealthy patron commissioned Newman to paint a group portrait of the troupe, unaware that, as the critic Robert Hughes noted, he “had no discernible talent as a draftsman” and “a reductive cast of mind”. The patron was apparently not best pleased to be presented with a large canvas painted a single shade of red, with a vertical yellow stripe slightly off-centre.

The French pseud’s theory, however, led many to take a similar view of the Screaming Abdabs, seeing their screaming as somehow representative of something other than pure unbridled screaming. What this “other” was varied according to the particular hobbyhorse of whoever was chucking their ha’penny’s worth into the critical pot. Echoes were found of Franz Kafka, Edvard Munch, Sylvia Plath, E M Cioran, Samuel Beckett, Rolf Harris and Harold Pinter. It is telling, I think, that when questioned, at length, by Russell Harty, Popsy Abdab, a second generation Screaming Abdab, insisted she had never heard of any of these people. While we must acknowledge that the purity of their screaming is sui generis, I must reluctantly admit that the link with Pinter may carry some weight, if only because the late playwright was occasionally mistaken for a member of the Screaming Abdabs, for instance when he was thinking about American presidents or having to deal with waiters, taxi drivers, and other representatives of the little people.

The twenty-first century has, alas, not been kind to the Screaming Abdabs. Old Ma Abdab is long dead, the most committed members of the troupe are elderly and infirm, and the younger Abdabs seem more inclined to post videos on YouTube rather than to engage in live performance. We shall not see, nor hear, with our hands over our ears, their like again.

On Counting Corks

See these corks aligned upon the baize. They were placed so for a purpose. Count them. Count the corks and when you are done totting them up write the tally in chalk upon the board. The board is affixed to the wall with tacks. So we have totting and tallying, tacks and corks. We have baize too, and chalk, and the board on the wall. Isn’t this exciting?

What we are witnessing here is the birth of a new pastime. After all, everything has to be invented, at one time or another, even traditional games and pastimes. There was a first time people played draughts or chess or billiards or shove ha’penny or nine men’s morris. And so we see cork counting played for the first time. If it does not catch on, this may be the only time. We are perhaps witnessing something unique. That is what makes it exciting.

It would be equally, but differently, exciting if cork counting does catch on. If it becomes a popular pastime, with its own subculture, just imagine how you will be able to tell tales of how you were there at its birth. Goggle-eyed cork counters will stand you drinks till kingdom come to hear you tell your tale.

You can, if you wish, embroider your tale, so that in addition to the totting and tallying, the tacks and corks, the baize and chalk and the board on the wall, you add other elements, ones not yet mentioned, like the sawdust on the floor and the shiny shiny glint of the tacks, or ones you have made up, like the cloud of ectoplasm hovering at head height in the room and the volcano erupting just outside the door. Astute listeners, as they come back from the counter bringing the drink they have stood you for the joy of hearing your tale, may raise an eyebrow at your invented embroideries if those embroideries are outlandish. Both the ectoplasm and the volcano could be considered to be so. But even the most outlandish of embroideries, if delivered persuasively, and made vivid by flamboyant waving of the arms as you speak, has the advantage of grabbing the attention of those of your audience who are unimpressed by the mundane detail of the totting and tallying, the tacks and corks, the baize and chalk and the board on the wall, the sawdust on the floor and the shiny shiny glint of the tacks. Remember that such things are the everyday currency of certain people’s lives, in which they have forgotten how to take an interest.

This is why you need to take care to explain that what you witnessed, on that long ago day, was the birth of a popular pastime. Drive this point home with absolute ferocity. If there is hubbub, you may need to shout your head off to be heard. The danger is that the more gormless members of your audience, whose daily lives are filled with totting and tallying and tacks and corks and baize and chalk and boards on walls, all in entirely different contexts, will fail to appreciate the sheer excitement of these mundane items when they are clumped together within the specific realm of a brand new leisure activity. They will stand you no drinks if they think you are boring them to tears.

It is also a good idea to make the actual counting of the corks upon the baize more thrilling than it tends to be in practice. One way to do this is to have a stammering tallyman, whose struggle to spit out the number “six”, for example, creates an atmosphere of Hitchcockian suspense. Or you might drop in to your tale, casually, the observation that the initial alignment of the corks upon the baize was skew-whiff, and they had to be taken away into an anteroom and buffed with a rag, and realigned before the totting and tallying could take place. There are several more strategies for injecting excitement mounting to unbridled hysteria in even the most workaday telling. You will be able to tell if you are succeeding by keeping an eye out for beads of sweat appearing upon the foreheads of your audience, or by listening for yelps and cheers, or by totting and tallying the number of drinks you have been stood by the assembled company.

When your tale is done, there will probably be a flush of enthusiasm on the part of the crowd to recreate the birth of the pastime. Someone will fetch a roll of baize. Another will gather corks. There is bound to be someone with a pocketful of tacks, quite possibly tacks with a shiny shiny glint. A board will be found and affixed to the wall, and somebody will volunteer to run off to the butcher’s to get a piece of chalk. You will almost certainly be picked to be the tallyman, in which case you should adopt a pretended stammer the better to inject the Hitchcockian suspense so decisive in the success of your tale-telling. The scene is set for an exciting end to the evening. What could possibly go wrong?

Oh, there is so much, so much that can go wrong. It is heartbreaking. You would weep if only you knew, weep and wail and gnash your teeth and rend your garments. The trials and tribulations of Job would be as nothing compared to what could befall you. Sackcloth and ashes would seem the veriest luxuries. It is best you do not know, not now, not yet. Go ahead. Stand in the sawdust. Align the corks upon the baize. Count them, tot them up, write the tally in chalk upon the board tacked to the wall, the tacks glinting so shiny shiny. There will be time enough, later, to do the necessary uncounting of the corks.

On Silent Monkey

Silent Monkey is an anagram of Milton Keynes. Silent Monkey is also the name of a fictional ape, the mute monkey hero of a series of fat doorstopper novels written, as it happens, by my distant relative Mo “Linnets” Key. For the record, such is the distance of our cousinage that I have never met Mo, am not entirely sure whether “Mo” is short for a male Mohammed or Malcolm or a female Maureen or Marjorie, nor indeed why he or she has attracted the nickname “Linnets”. What I do know is that the Silent Monkey books are bestsellers, flying off the shelves of airport bookstalls, earning my distant cousin untold millions.

The basic premise of the series is that the Silent Monkey itself is a sort of ratiocinative detective, à la Sherlock Holmes or Solar Pons or Prince Zaleski. Unlike these fictional human detectives, it is a fictional monkey detective, and as if to underline its monkiness it spends much of its time swinging from bough to bough in the Milton Keynes tree cathedral. Mo’s incredibly detailed descriptive passages on the tree cathedral lead one to think that he or she has spent many many hours in the shade of its trees, rapt in diligent study, and is probably in possession of an advanced qualification in arboreal science. Indeed, one can learn much more from the books about trees than one can about monkeys. One learns, too, about Milton Keynes, including the startling and rather unexpected information that the town, when built, was quite deliberately aligned with the angle of the sun in the sky on midsummer’s day. It thus has a certain Wicker Man resonance, foreknowledge of which is very helpful if one pays a visit and finds cause to ponder the eerie nature of its citizenry.

There is perhaps less eeriness in the Silent Monkey books than one might expect, or hope for. They are highly formulaic, though who can blame Mo for sticking to a formula which has proved so dizzyingly successful? Having skim-read my way through the canon, I am able to offer the following summary of a typical Silent Monkey book:

Chapter One. We are introduced to the Silent Monkey, swinging from bough to bough in the Milton Keynes tree cathedral. Usually there will be excessively detailed tree descriptions, though these are carefully aimed at the general reader rather than the tree specialist.

Chapter Two. Somewhere in Milton Keynes, a crime is committed. Often, though not always, a murder of peculiar savagery will have occurred, so that one imagines the town to be as littered with corpses as Inspector Morse’s Oxford. The police – dimwits all – scratch their heads in consternation.

Chapter Three. A person tangentially involved with the crime goes to the tree cathedral to consult with the Silent Monkey. Cue much more tree description, interspersed with crucial information about the crime.

Chapter Four. Gratuitous passages of civic Milton Keynes puffery.

Chapter Five. The Silent Monkey ratiocinates. Given that the signal characteristic of the Silent Monkey is that it is silent, its ratiocination is hinted at, rather than made explicit, in fine descriptions of it swinging from bough to bough. Certain facts about the trees it is swinging to and from are dropped in, with a light touch.

Chapter Six. A second crime is committed in Milton Keynes. It is, of course, directly related to the first, but in a thoroughly bewildering manner. The police scratch their heads again.

Chapter Seven. The person from Chapter Three, or possibly somebody else entirely, goes to the tree cathedral to tell the Silent Monkey of the new developments. This scene usually takes place at lunchtime, and we are given valuable insight into the Silent Monkey’s nut-based diet. There is often an extended passage about one particular type of nut.

Chapter Eight. While swinging from bough to bough in the tree cathedral, after a postprandial nap, the Silent Monkey reratiocinates, to take account of the new information given in the previous chapter.

Chapter Nine. A few choice morsels from the civic history of Milton Keynes.

Chapter Ten. The criminal or villain is lured to the tree cathedral by fair means or foul. The least dimwitted of the police officers happens to be there. After some flowery descriptive prose about some of the trees not previously mentioned, the Silent Monkey leaps from a bough on to the head of the villain, and the police officer snaps on the handcuffs and places them under arrest. The Silent Monkey then leaps back up into the trees, and swings from bough to bough.

Chapter Eleven. The entire plot, including any loose ends and wild improbabilities, is tidied up, just in time for dawn to break on midsummer’s day and the startling and rather unexpected alignment of Milton Keynes with the angle of the sun in the sky is revealed.

It is interesting. I think, that though my distant cousin packs the books with extremely detailed information about trees, we are never told what kind of monkey the Silent Monkey is. I have no idea whether this is a deliberate omission, but in among the millions and indeed billions of happy and satisfied readers there are a few dissenting grumpy monkey-lovers. Due to a postal mishap, I recently received a letter clearly intended for Mo “Linnets” Key. It was scrawled, savagely, in purple ink, which might possibly have been dried blood, and read as follows:

Oi, Key! It is all very well wittering on about larches and laburnums and oaks and sycamores and pines and planes and poplars and cedars and cypresses and yews and alders and boxes and beeches and birches and elms and wych elms and willows and what have you, some of which, according to my researches, do not actually grow in the Milton Keynes tree cathedral, but what some us more monkey-oriented persons among your huge readership wish to know is what kind of monkey the Silent Monkey is! Please put this right in your next bestseller.

The signature on this missive was illegible.

On A Darkling Plain

And you may find yourself on a darkling plain. Under a vast purple cloud-bruised sky, you smoke your pipe. The air is still. It is cold, but not bitter cold, and you have the warmth from the bowl of your pipe. You are wearing a scarf, too, silken, and embroidered with scenes of historic military endeavour. The same scenes recur on the embroidery of the handkerchief you have stuffed into the breast pocket of your stylish Hubert Clompstock dress suit, over which you are wearing a thick black overcoat. The soldiery in the military scenes sport moustaches similar to your own, which bristles in the cold air out on the darkling plain. You forgot to bring with you your shooting stick, so you must stand, as the purple of the sky grows deeper, deeper, darkening the plain, almost featureless save for here and there a sprig or shrub, a ditch or sump. What in heaven’s name are you doing here?

You were summoned by a mysterious telegram. The mystery of the telegram lay in its provenance, not in the message it conveyed, which could not have been more explicit. It summoned you to the darkling plain, and specified the date and the time, and the exact location, with points of latitude and longitude. The sender knew you were an aficionado of maps and, in your younger days, of the sport of orienteering, and that you would therefore respond to a summons which spoke to your inner pangs, for map reading and past orienteering triumphs. Before leaving the house that evening you took a duster to the cups and trophies on your mantelpiece. You buffed them till they shone. Then, after a last look at the map of the terrain of the darkling plain, you popped in to one of the trouser pockets of your stylish Hubert Clompstock dress suit your trusty compass, battered and dented by age, and not quite as accurate in its readings as once it was, due to magnetic decay. You know its ways so well, however, that you are able to make the mental calculations necessary to correct its inaccuracies as easily as falling off a log. On the darkling plain, there are no felled or fallen logs for you to fall off, nor even to trip over or to bump into, for no trees grow nor have ever grown here on the darkling plain. You obeyed the summons but you still do not know why you are here.

You take from another of the pockets of the trousers of your stylish Hubert Clompstock dress suit your pocket watch. It is a reliable timepiece. You wound it up forty years ago and it has never needed to be wound up again. It ticks and tocks relentlessly, implacably, and almost silently. Somehow it even manages to adjust itself when there are sudden shifts in the official calculation of time within your territory. What a watch!, you have been known to say to yourself, in wonderment, when prompted. This is no time for such wonderment. You take it from your pocket merely to satisfy yourself, for the umpteenth time, that you are here present upon the designated spot upon the darkling plain at the time required by the summons. You made sure you were early, for you have always set great store by punctuality. Now the hours and minutes have ticked and tocked away and the moment has come. You have no idea what will happen.

Suddenly, over to your left, to the west, according to your compass, there is a terrible sound, a fearsome din as terrible as an army with banners. You turn and peer and see, looming into view through the cold darkness, an army with banners. Almost at once there is a terrible sound, a fearsome din, over to your right, to the east, and you spin around and peer and see, looming into view through the cold darkness, equally terrible, another army with banners. The two armies are heading directly towards one another, and you are in the middle, at the spot where, soon enough, soon enough, they will meet.

And when they meet, they will clash. They are ignorant armies, destined to clash by night upon a darkling plain. At the head of one army, the one to the west, is Capitano Alphonso Fathead. He is reputed to be the most ignorant commander of an army in the known world. His troops are hand-picked for their fathomless stupidity. Most of them display such witlessness that they cannot even tie the laces of their military boots, a task which is outsourced to a bootlace-tying consultancy at ruinous cost, so ruinous that they can barely afford any weaponry. That is why the ignorant army is armed merely with sticks and pebbles, elastic bands and bags of icing sugar.

The other army, the one to the east, marches to the drumbeat pounded by Generalissimo Fulgencio Dimwit. If such a thing were possible, he is considered to be as ignorant as the Capitano, his foe. The Generalissimo is so dense he looks upon every phenomenon presented to his senses as a thing of profound and utter bafflement. He understands nothing. He cannot even hand-pick his soldiery, so the ragtag rabble who march in his wake have fetched up with him by accident or calamity or mishap. They only march in the right direction because each is tied to the Generalissimo by a length of string, the knots tied by a knot-tying consultancy retained at ruinous cost, so ruinous that they can barely afford any weaponry. That is why this second ignorant army is armed merely with twigs and sawdust, pin-cushions and clementine pips.

And so the ignorant armies approach each other to clash by night upon a darkling plain. And you have been summoned there, you realise, to act as referee. You dig into yet another pocket of the trousers of your stylish Hubert Clompstock dress suit and retrieve your whistle. It is a whistle which has served you well, over untold years, in circumstances fair and foul. As the ignorant armies prance and mince and lollop ever closer, you hold the whistle to your lips and prepare to PARP!!!

On Marshy Punting

In the poetry of Tennyson, boating has “a very marshy and punt-like character”. This is the view of John Ruskin, in The Harbours Of England (1856), in a passage where he claims all poets “somehow or other, express an honest wish for a Spiritual Boat”.

Now I have not read enough of Tennyson’s work to assess whether Ruskin is correct. I have certainly not been through it with a fine-toothed comb, noting down all Tennyson’s boating references and judging the marshiness and punt-like character of each, although it occurs to me that such an enquiry would actually be quite easily achieved, armed with a twenty-first century digitised e-edition of the complete works of Tennyson. Perhaps I will save that study for a rain-soaked winter’s day, or an insomniac night.

For the time being, I am minded to trust Ruskin on the matter. I do not think it likely that the greatest of all Victorian writers would have said Tennyson’s boating was marshy and punt-like if it was not. And, in fairness, it should be noted that Ruskin qualifies his remark by saying that the poet’s boating “in the ordinary way, has a very marshy and punt-like character”. We might also bear in mind that when Ruskin was writing, in 1856, Tennyson was only forty-seven years old, and he lived, and continued to pour out poetry, for a further thirty-six years, dying in 1892 at the age of eighty-three. Again, I am insufficiently familiar with his work to know whether, in those post-The Harbours Of England years, Tennyson’s boating may have emerged from the punty marshes on to the wide and billowing seas. That is something else I can find out on a rain-soaked winter’s day or during an insomniac night. It is always a good idea to have a number of projects in hand, to keep the brain perky.

Perkiness is not, however, the usual sensation one experiences when punting through marshes, or even when rowing through marshes. There is a sense in which one is forced to use one’s oar more like a punt in a marsh in any case. Clean, brisk rowing becomes, at first difficult, then well nigh impossible, as one creeps further into the marsh and one’s oars become entangled with weeds. The thicker the weed, the greater the entanglement, the more desperate the rower. Sooner or later, one has to plunge the oar as near as dammit vertically, like a punt, into the marsh water, in hope of gaining sufficient purchase to push oneself free of weed-entanglement. It is difficult to think of a waterborne experience less like the Spiritual Boat wished for by all poets.

Consider, for example, the boating pickle of Dr Alec Harvey, played by Trevor Howard in Brief Encounter (David Lean, 1945). Dr Harvey and his soon-to-be-acknowledged-as-such inamorata Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) are not even on a marsh, but on a boating lake in a park. They are indeed perky. But by dint of what we might term “issues” with the steering of the boat, Dr Harvey is forced – as if he were stuck in a Tennysonian marsh – to stand up and plunge the oar into the water as near as dammit vertically in hope of gaining purchase to push. He falls into the lake. This is an important episode in the film, in that it immediately precedes the scene where Dr Harvey and Mrs Jesson first broach, in repressed and almost strangulated conversation, the fact that they are besotted with each other. In that sense – and perhaps only in that sense – the boat out of which Dr Harvey falls into the lake can be seen as a Spiritual Boat, one worthy of attention by a poet. I do not know if any versifier has ever composed a poem upon this scene in the film, but I for one would like to have read what, say, Sylvia Plath might have made out of it. Unlike Dr Harvey and Mrs Jesson, Sylvia Plath and her inamorata Ted Hughes do not seem to have suffered from that tendency to be “withdrawn and shy and… difficult”, as Mrs Jesson puts it. Indeed, when they first met, and kissed, Sylvia Plath drew blood from Ted Hughes’s cheek, or it might have been the other way about, I can never quite remember. Whichever it was, there is no such savage bloody kiss in Brief Encounter. In a rewritten, updated version, perhaps there could be, while the couple are in the boat on the lake in the park, before Dr Harvey falls in to the water.

There is another filmic boat, or rather raft, which becomes hopelessly stuck in a marsh, or rather on a river, in Aguirre, The Wrath Of God (Werner Herzog, 1972). Here we can well imagine blood being spilled, though not by kisses. And though we have a raft on a river rather than a boat on a marsh, few I think would argue that the ambience, especially towards the end of the film, is close to what Ruskin called Tennyson’s “marshy and punt-like” boating. Also, there are monkeys. Lope de Aguirre’s raft is, spectacularly, a Spiritual Boat, and would have made an ideal subject for either Sylvia or for Ted, had they once decided to turn their poetic brains towards it.

Tennyson, too, might profitably have addressed the story. Though he was of course long cold in his grave before Werner Herzog made his film, Aguirre is based on real events that took place in 1561, events known about by, for example, Sir Walter Ralegh, who read about them before swanning off to discover El Dorado in 1595. Intriguingly, at the time he was preparing for his expedition, Ralegh was living at Sherborne Lodge in Devon. As Charles Nicholl describes it in The Creature In The Map (1995), “the Lodge stood on rough land above a boggy stretch of the Yeo known as Black Marsh”. Did Ralegh go boating on Black Marsh? Did his oar or punt become entangled in weed and did he plunge the oar in as near as dammit vertically in hope of gaining sufficient purchase to push himself free and, like Dr Harvey, topple out of his boat into the water? And were there, as with Aguirre, monkeys?

There is a poem to be written about such a scene.

On Belgian Archery

Today is a special day at Hooting Yard. We leap out of bed before dawn, we do our ablutions, and we tuck into breakfast, eschewing the usual eggy fare for a big pile of waffles. Then we take a bow and a quiver of arrows, throw open the window, and send the arrows flying into the air, taking care to avoid any moving bird targets. For today we celebrate the birthday of Belgian archery ace Hubert Van Innis.

Had he lived, Van Innis would be 146 today. As it is, he lived to the ripe old age of 95, a pretty fair whack when you consider the dangers inherent in the sport of archery. Stand in the wrong place, even for a moment, and you could be impaled by an arrow launched by one of your competitors, or even by one of your team-mates. Most archers are sensible enough not to go and stand between another archer and the target, but it can happen. Or it may be that a fellow archer is maddened, for example by a buzzing within the head, and begins to fire arrows indiscriminately, in directions other than that of the designated target. One of these stray arrows could well strike you, if you had not been alerted to the fact that the maddened archer had gone doolally, and you had thus not run for cover behind the nearest bale of hay. Again, such incidents are rare, but nevertheless possible.

Luckily no such tragedy cut short the life of Hubert Van Innis, and he died peacefully in his bed, to the best of my knowledge, in November 1961. Decades had passed since his triumphs in the Olympic Games, when he won six gold and three silver medals between 1900 and 1920. Three of these medals were for arrows fired at moving bird targets, at distances of twenty-eight metres and thirty-three metres (both gold, 1920), and fifty metres (silver, also 1920). Perhaps Van Innis did so well that year because he was on his home turf, in Antwerp. Incidentally, as I have already made clear, here at Hooting Yard, when we fire our celebratory early morning Hubert Van Innis birthday arrows into the air, we take care to avoid moving bird targets. Actually such avoidance is fairly easily accomplished, what with the speed and swooping trajectory of birds in the sky. It is quite difficult to hit them.

In addition to his aptitude for firing arrows with pinpoint accuracy at moving birds and other targets, Hubert Van Innis set new standards for sartorial elegance within the Belgian archery community.


This is a “look” to which we can all aspire, whether or not we are brandishing a bow and arrow. Dressed à la Van Innis, one can sashay along the city boulevards full of confidence and élan, and not just in Belgium. One can also profitably sport this apparel in non-urban settings. It goes equally well in flat, canal-criss-crossed terrain such as one finds in the Low Countries, and in mountainous regions such as the Swiss Alps. Speaking of Switzerland, one recalls the legendary Swiss archer William Tell. I am afraid I do not know if Hubert Van Innis ever shot an arrow at a piece of fruit balanced on the head of his son, nor even if he had a son on whose head a piece of fruit could be so balanced, but I have no doubt that, if such a son existed, and if Van Innis balanced a piece of fruit on his head and then took some paces back, to stand at a distance of, say, twenty-eight metres or thirty-three metres or fifty metres, the distances from which he fired arrows at moving bird targets at the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp, he would have successfully split the piece of fruit in two with his arrow without harming a hair on his son’s head, the head on which the piece of fruit was balanced.

According to Space Station Plaza, the Galactic Harmonizer which connects people using the Dreamspell 13-Moon Natural Time Calendar and promotes universal peace and galactic harmony with Mayan cosmology, Hubert Van Innis was both of the Red Galactic Earth and the White Cosmic Worldbridger types. He was thus in both the Wizard and Dog wavespells. I cannot say I am surprised by this information, as it seems to fit neatly with what we know of his career as a tiptop medal-winning twentieth century Belgian archer.

Though Van Innis remains the most successful archer in Olympic history, we ought not forget the compatriots who fired arrows alongside him in Antwerp in 1920. Edmond Cloetens, Jerome De Maeyer, Firmin Flamand, Joseph Hermans, Louis Van De Perck, and Edmond Van Moer also took part, and to the best of my knowledge not one of them was maddened by a buzzing within the head and went on the rampage, firing arrows indiscriminately and thus imperilling their fellow archers or the watching crowds. On the other hand, none of them lived as long as Hubert Van Innis, and further research will have to be undertaken to ascertain how they met their deaths, and whether any of them were felled by stray arrows during archery accidents.

On Jelly

“Out, vile jelly! Where is thy lustre now?”

This is a line from Shakespeare I have declaimed many times. But I am no actor. I have spoken the line in my role as a judge of jellies, for I am a jelly judge. I am accredited as such by the Jelly Judge And Jury Empanelment Board, the official body which regulates jelly judges throughout the land and oversees our activities. If ever you have a jelly to be judged, do make sure you look out for the badge of accreditation worn by all authorised jelly judges when on duty. If it is not displayed upon the lapel, insist on having it produced from the pocket or reticule of the person claiming to judge your jelly. You might be surprised at how many rogue jelly judges infest the jelly judging world. Be on your guard.

Also surprising, at least to the neophyte, is just how often a jelly judge has to boom that line spoken by the Duke of Cornwall in Act III Scene VII of The Tragedy Of King Lear. Sadly, in my many years of jelly judging I have learned that there is almost invariably at least one vile jelly among the jellies lined up, on a cloth-covered tabletop, to be judged. It is the jelly I try to identify first, before turning my attention to the others. I cast my jelly-alert eye over the line-up, I prod and I snort, and the vile jelly will usually become apparent. It can then be cast out and the proper business got down to. Sometimes, however, the vileness of a vile jelly can be camouflaged, by various stratagems of subterfuge or legerdemain, and in these cases the experienced jelly judge shows their true mettle. I would be mad to give away any trade secrets. Suffice to say that the vile jelly will out, by hook or by crook.

There are other unacceptable jellies, though none so vile as the vile jelly. Still, these below par jellies are the next to be winnowed out. They may be, for example, hideous or gruesome or insipid or lacking in wobbliness. Again, the experienced jelly judge, with his or her panoply of jelly judgement techniques and strategies, can swiftly consign the horrible jellies to the jelly bin, leaving only those few splendid, or alpha, jellies to be ranked. It is no easy task, and carries with it a weight of responsibility that might give the ordinary man or woman a heart attack, or worse. Hence the years of apprenticeship, and the many intermediate levels one must work through before becoming a fully qualified jelly judge and receiving accreditation, and that all-important lapel badge.

I am often asked to give talks at their community self-esteem and diversity hubs to young persons wishing to pursue careers in jelly judgement. Often they sense a generational disadvantage, in that they have not been brought up in a world where jelly and ice cream is seen as the very pinnacle of toothsome desserts, as it was when I was a tot. I was lucky if I was given a few spoonfuls of jelly twice a year, on special occasions such as the king’s birthday. These poor contemporary barbarians have been fed all sorts of puddings and treats, packed with additives and flavourings, to the point where they consider a bowl of jelly, even with a dollop of ice cream, as akin to prison rations. Teaching the young the pleasures of jelly can thus be fraught with obstacles, not least the fact that, on the rare occasions they are given jelly, it may well turn out to be vile jelly. I do not know why this is so, but I have seen it – and prodded it, and snorted it – myself, more times than I can count, in the kitchens and canteens of rich and poor alike.

My own nascent appreciation of jelly emerged not during my tinytotdom when, as I say, I had so little opportunity to feast on jelly. It came during my teenage years, specifically after my fourteenth birthday, when I received as a gift a copy of the double LP Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart And The Magic Band. Those of you familiar with the record will know how ears-widening it can be. Brought up in a home with a musical diet of Russ Conway and Kathy Kirby, I had never heard anything like it. I was transfixed. One particular track soon became my favourite, the song “Old Fart At Play”. Actually it is not so much a song as a spoken-word recitation with musical accompaniment. It was recently revived in a cover version for the television series Lark Rise To Candleford, performed in a generic BBC peasant accent, and can be listened to here.

Although the eponymous old fart claims our attention, as he breathes freely “from his perfume bottle atomiser air bulb invention”, I became increasingly fascinated by the smells which he sniffs through “his important breather holes”. The sources of these smells are listed, and the last mentioned are “special jellies”. What, I wondered, were these “special” jellies?

Over a period of months I subjected the lyrics to close, if not demented, textual analysis. I wrote all the words out in alphabetical order, then in qwerty keyboard order. I constructed anagrams, acrostics, lipograms and all sorts of other wordy flimflam. I pestered the father of one of my schoolmates, a continental postmodernist with a beard and an open-necked shirt and a pair of hornrimmed spectacles. All to no avail – I could still not fathom what was special about the special jellies. Eventually I wrote to the Captain himself, Don Van Vliet, hoping to wheedle my way into his affections by commending him on his pluck when, as a young man working as a door-to-door salesman, he tried to sell a vacuum cleaner to the astonishingly tall, half-blind, California resident English writer Aldous Huxley, shortly before the latter’s death on the twenty-second of November 1963, the day of the Kennedy assassination in Dallas. Mr Van Vliet did not reply to my letter, nor to any subsequent ones I wrote. Much later I was to discover that I had sent them all to the wrong address.

I never did find out the nature of the special jellies in “Old Fart At Play”, but my interest in jellies of all kinds was sparked. Even before I embarked on the long years of study to qualify as a jelly judge, I had become acknowledged as an expert on the jelly of jellied eels, combining my two passions, jelly and eels. I will write about eels on another day, though here I might just mention that one of the pseudonyms adopted by a member of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band, Elliot Ingber, was Winged Eel Fingerling. It is probably a good thing he joined the band only after the recording of Trout Mask Replica, or I would have had to devote further fruitless months of study to ascertaining the significance of his alias, and whether there was any connection between winged eels and special jellies.

On The Dubbin Club

I have never been much of a joiner. I can count on the fingers of one hand the clubs or associations to which I have signed up over the years, and almost invariably I have allowed my membership to lapse after the minimum period has expired. In the late seventies, however, I actually formed my own organisation. There was only one other member, and as far as I can remember it lasted about two weeks before being consigned to the dustbin of history. I am not sure what made it pop into my head yesterday, for the first time in decades.

This short-lived yet important society was the Dubbin Club. I am afraid I recall very little about it, save that it issued certificates of membership and it was intended that members purchase one tin of dubbin each month. I think in total one tin of dubbin was bought, shared between the two members, before the club petered out due to lack of enthusiasm. It may also be pertinent, in terms of the club’s collapse, that neither Member Number One (me) nor Member Number Two (my friend David) had any pressing need for dubbin, as we were not engaged in any sporting activity for which the rubbing of dubbin in to boots would have proved beneficial. In short, the Dubbin Club was an ephemeral private amusement between a pair of pals. I would not say it is a memory I cherish, and indeed I cannot for the life of me think what on earth we were doing, wasting what little cash we had on a polish or unguent for which we had not the slightest use. But I suppose I was young, and given to preposterousness of one kind and another, and it raised a few laughs at the time.

Over thirty years later, there is one point about the Dubbin Club that I still understand, which is the fact that dubbin is inherently funny. Now, we know from bitter experience that any attempt to analyse humour, or to explain a joke, leaches the life out of it and leaves it curled up, shrivelled and dead, so I am not going to be so foolish as to fret away at the intrinsic amusement value of dubbin. You will either share my appreciation or you will not. You will chortle along with me at the sight of a tin of dubbin, and at the very sound of the word, or you will not.

If, like me, you find dubbin amusing, you will be equally likely to see the comedy inherent in both swarfega and linseed oil. A few years after the demise of the Dubbin Club, I was pleased to note that the Monty Python team recognised the comic value of linseed oil, with that splendid line “Now, two boys have been found rubbing linseed oil into the school cormorant” from The Meaning Of Life (1983). Obviously the school cormorant has a large part to play in our uproarious laughter here, but we must not overlook the fact that, of all the goos or unguents or substances that could be rubbed in to it, linseed oil is almost certainly the funniest. Though I think it is significant that the line still works with dubbin or swarfega substituted for linseed oil.

Having said that I will not try to analyse the source of my hilarity, it does occur to me that both dubbin and linseed oil are intrinsic elements in what we might think of as a certain British twentieth century sporting milieu. We can imagine baggy-trousered chaps rubbing linseed oil into their cricket bats, and rubbing dubbin in to their football boots. These are the same sort of chaps, with their clipped accents and emotional repression and thorough decency, who amuse us today because, perhaps, they seem so impossibly distant from our own barbaric age. It is a vein of humour explored by many, the funny and the hopelessly unfunny, over the past fifty years, from Beyond The Fringe onwards. I think we ought to acknowledge that dubbin and linseed oil and, to a somewhat lesser extent, swarfega are important elements of it.

This was surely the – unconscious – motive behind the establishment of the Dubbin Club and its sadly curtailed activities. My friend David and I recognised, even if we did not know why, that dubbin was not just something that could be bought in a tin and then rubbed into boots, but was more than that – a waxy goo that signified a lost world, so the comedy was tinged with nostalgia, a nostalgia for a world that, if it ever existed, was dying or indeed dead before we were born.

The fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol, of whose doings you will have read here, belongs to that same era, as I trust is evident. Like Tupper of the Track, Bobnit Tivol is a clean-living and morally upright athlete, a far cry from the reprehensible scalliwags of today. His fictional world is richly infused with dubbin and linseed oil, though for his chosen sporting activities he wears spikes rather than football boots, and brandishes a pole-vault rather than a cricket bat. His coach and mentor Old Halob, on the other hand, comes from a different world, though a roughly contemporaneous one. Old Halob’s is a world of fog and trenchcoats and Homburg hats and Stalinism. It is in some ways a shadow world, the morally ambiguous, shifting and uncertain other side to the clean bright decency of the dubbin-and-linseed oil world of gentlemanly sport.

Perhaps it is time I revived the Dubbin Club for the twenty-first century. Those of you keen to join may express an interest in the Comments section. If sufficient numbers perk up, we can begin long and detailed discussions on such matters as the club’s constitution, purpose, and activities. Most importantly, we should decide on a coat of arms and a Latin motto.


Phantoms Or Bees?

NPG D28020; Thomas Allen

In those dark times, astrologer, mathematician and conjuror were accounted the same things, and the vulgar did verily believe [Thomas Allen] to be a conjuror. He had a great many mathematical instruments and glasses in his chamber, which did also confirm the ignorant in their opinion, and his servitor (to impose on freshmen and simple people) would tell them that sometimes he should meet the spirits, coming up his stairs like bees.

from John Aubrey, Brief Lives (1972 edition edited by Oliver Lawson Dick)

On A Yapping Dog And A Bramble Patch And A Bog

I had a vision. I saw, in my mind’s eye, a small dog, yapping at a patch of brambles. I could not see what, if anything, was hidden in the brambles that had attracted the attention of the dog. The bramble patch was close by a bog. This was a terrain of both fens and bogs. I was not clear on the distinction between a fen and a bog, so I sought to educate myself on the matter. The water in fens is rich in minerals, and it is alkaline, and supports many animal and plant life forms, including tall marsh plants. But the water in a bog is acidic and low in minerals and in terms of plant life is dominated by low-growing sphagnum and other mosses. Because the vision was so vivid, and burned on to my brain, I was able to revisit it, as if it were a snapshot, and so could confirm that the body of water by the bramble patch was a mossy bog and not a reedy fen.

It might be asked why I did not educate myself likewise about types of small dog, so I could be more specific in my description of the pooch that was yapping in the direction of the bramble patch. To which I would say in response that there is only so much educative material one can cram into one’s head in a single day. Dogs, small and large, are invariably fairly low down on my list of things I wish to learn about. There always seems to be something of more interest, of more urgency. I can only speak from my own perspective. There may be some readers who do not give two hoots whether the bramble patch at which the dog in my vision was yapping was close by a fen or a bog, but who are avid, avid!, to know what type of dog it was. I could dissemble, for those readers, and say “Oh, it was a Jack Russell terrier”, but that would be conjecture on my part. As I said, the vision was vivid, but I do not know enough about dogs to identify with pinpoint accuracy precisely what type of dog it was. It was a small dog, that much I can state, unequivocally, and it yapped.

It did seem important to me to be able to distinguish the type of the wetland, whether bog or fen. That is why I consulted certain reference materials, with the mental picture of the bog or fen clear within my brain. Why my insistence on precision in this case, and not in the case of the dog? After all, it could be argued that the dog was the more critical element of my vision than the bog in the vicinity of which lay the bramble patch at which it yapped, and yapped relentlessly. The bog was merely a side issue, a wet marker the better to place the vision within some recognisable terrain.

This begs a couple of questions. Was the vision one brewed in my brain, a phantasm with no counterpart in reality, or was it the swimming into consciousness of a long-suppressed memory? As far as I know, there are no reference materials I could consult to assist me in answering that question. It must remain moot, pending the intervention of a psychobabbler or a neurosurgeon, neither of whom, I hasten to add, I am in any hurry to have gain access to my cranium.

A second question which arises is why the marker in my mind is a wet marker. Either because I have imagined it, or summoned it from half-forgotten memory, the marker that gives me a sense of the location of my vision is a bog. Other wet markers might be a fen or a marsh or a puddle or a lake or a mere or a cwm or a pond or a duckpond or even the vast and roaring sea. I will not even begin to catalogue the multitude of unwet markers, or dry markers if you will, which could have served equally well. On the other side of the bog there might be, for example, the remains of an ancient burial mound, or an abandoned cow byre, or something base and brickish. Dammit, I am in danger of beginning the catalogue I said I would not list. So I shall cease while I yet have my wits about me. The point is that my focus all along was on the bog, the bog.

So there is the dog and the bog, but what of the third element? I have been silent so far on the bramble patch. That too, of course, could be more specifically defined, had I the gumption. After all, there are many different types of bramble patches, possibly as many as types of small dog, or wet markers. Of thorny foliage there is a huge variety. Again, in the purview of my vision, the bramble patch was at best a generic bramble patch. I can give no specific details. In any event, what was clear was that it was the focus of the dog’s yapping, either in and of itself or because of something that lurked within it.

It is this last point that leads us, perhaps, to the significance of my vision and to the form it took, and to that part of it upon which I sought to educate myself and those parts which I was happy to leave blurry and beclouded and phantom. It is quite obvious that the nub of the vision is the object of the yapping of the dog. That may be in plain, if blurred, sight – the bramble patch itself in all its pointy brambliness – or it may be hidden, occult, concealed within the brambles. If I am to have any understanding of my vision, and of what it means, then surely that should be my focus. Yet I shy away from it, and instead turn my attention to the scarcely relevant bog, the wet marker. It commands my attention, so much so that I consult reference materials to ascertain if it is indeed a bog, or might possibly be a fen. I show no such compelling interest in the dog, nor in the bramble patch.

While the vision is yet imprinted upon my brain, I ought to revisit it, to winnow from it further and better particulars of its secrets. If I delay, the vision will fade, and I will have learned nothing from it save for the basic distinction between a bog and a fen. Perhaps that is enough, at least for today.

On The Wellspring Of Debauchery

Perhaps the most neglected work of the Renaissance scholar Gabbitas Hatpinne, the thousand-plus pages of Fons de luxuria (1549) have been newly translated as The Wellspring Of Debauchery. This is a significant academic achievement, and one which should rescue Hatpinne from the oblivion that beckoned. Few read him in his lifetime, and in the four hundred years since his death those few have dwindled still further. Indeed, his new translator, Desdemona Snodgrass, suggests she may be the only person alive to have read Fons de luxuria in its entirety, and even she admits there were several occasions when she nodded off and had to go on a brisk hiking expedition in order to wake herself up so she could continue with her important task.

The Wellspring Of Debauchery attempts, at great length, to answer the question “does salacious knavery, untrammelled sauciness, and inappropriate hobnobbing in sinks of vice lead, inescapably, to the excesses of high debauch?” I will not give away Hatpinne’s conclusion here, for fear you would use that as an excuse not to read the book yourself, and in the time thus saved, you may be tempted to acts of salacious knavery and untrammelled sauciness and inappropriate hobnobbing in sinks of vice. It is much better for your moral fibre, and indeed for the fate of your immortal soul, that you have your head stuck in a very fat book. It will keep you out of mischief.

But though I do not wish to divulge the contents of this lengthy and by no means untedious work, it is perhaps worth recalling the circumstances in which it came to be written. If we have but world enough and time, we may even look into the circumstances in which it came to be translated, here in the twenty-first century space age, but let us not jump too far ahead of ourselves. In any case, Desdemona Snodgrass may not want her motives to be inquired into too pointedly. She is a sensitive soul, with many a skeleton stacked up in her closet, or so I have been told by perfidious rumour-mongers and her rivals in the groves of academe. So even if we do have time, we are not going to be discussing that episode with the siphon and the pastry cases and the Chris De Burhg [sic] bootleg tape. I have taken legal advice and I shall not be swayed.

Unlike his translator, Gabbitas Hatpinne himself is safely dead, and can be impugned without fear of litigation. Shall I therefore impugn him? It would be easy enough to do, not because he lived a life of high debauch and naughtiness, but because the likelihood is that you know nothing about him. I could thus make up all sorts of stories about his salacious knavery and untrammelled sauciness and inappropriate hobnobbing in sinks of vice, and you would soak them all up, o! credulous reader. Tempting though it may be to wend my way down that particular path to perdition, lined as it is by lightning-blasted pine trees and shrivelled lupins and blighted potato patches, swept by fearsome gales and battered by hailstones, patrolled by ravening wolves and stampeding half-starved bison, it is a path I shall turn away from, in my prissy mincing morally upright manner, I shall turn my eyes instead upon the glorious light shining atop the mountain of saintliness and piety, and begin to clamber up towards the summit, there to grasp in my unworthy paws the halo of virtue.

You see how, even without reading The Wellspring Of Debauchery, I am become a model of sanctity? For it is indeed the case that I have not been able to concentrate my mind on this hefty doorstopper of a book, with its seemingly endless paragraphs of hectoring prose. I have better things to do with my time, and, no, they do not involve salacious knavery and untrammelled sauciness and inappropriate hobnobbing in sinks of vice. Would that they did! I have occasionally wondered if I might abandon myself to a life of high debauch. Though perhaps when I say “occasionally” I ought truthfully say “often”. Indeed, just before sitting down at my escritoire to pen these timeless words, I was weighing up in my overheated brain whether to contact Desdemona Snodgrass and, under the guise of academic rigour, to seek an assignation with her, in some leafy arbour, far from prying eyes, bent on sin. Fortunate indeed that I averted the besmirchment of my soul by leaping from my escritoire and plunging my head into a pail of icy water, and then embarking on a hike through the hills in wind and rain, until such time as I had cooled my phantasmal ardour, and was ready once more to sit, and to write, and to banish all thought of Desdemona Snodgrass from my brain.

Now, with regard to the circumstances in which The Wellspring Of Debauchery was written, as I seem to recall that is what I was intending to write about before I got carried away. We have only fragmentary details of the biography of Gabbitas Hatpinne. We know neither the year of his birth nor the year of his death. We do not know where he lived, nor what he lived on, and we know nothing of his forebears or any progeny he may or may not have had. The sole traces of him that survive are a few widely-dispersed and unreliable references in fusty musty damp and dog-eared unauthorised documents found wedged in the walls of crumbling parish churches. And such references as there are may well relate to several different Gabbitases, several different Hatpinnes, and have nothing whatsoever to do with our man.

It is all a great historical conundrum. The only way it might be solved is if someone were to devote themselves to the research required to write a proper biography. It is the sort of job ideally suited to, let us pluck a name at random, Desdemona Snodgrass.

I think I shall contact her to suggest this course of action. I will arrange for us to meet, in a leafy arbour, far from prying eyes, bent on scholarship,  bent on sin.