On Essays

Forgive me if I lapse into a wee splurge of self-referential twaddle, but I thought I would mark the end of the first quarter of the year with a review of my daily essays project. Back on the first of January, in On Perpilocution, I set myself what I described as a “foolhardy” task, to write roughly a thousand words a day on whatever topics arrived in my head. I was pretty well convinced that this plan would fail, probably about halfway through January. (A few years ago, I had the less rigorous ambition of updating Hooting Yard with a daily postage, of indeterminate length, and this collapsed early on when I missed a day.) So I am mightily surprised to have got through three entire months without a hitch.

On three occasions, I cheated, in that I reposted older pieces from the archive, though in each case they were sufficiently elderly that they may well have been new to the less than indefatigable devotee. And one day in February I was pleased to offer Hooting Yard space for a guest postage by the blogger BlackberryJuniper And Sherbet for her expert analysis of the magnificence of Peter Wyngarde, a topic she is far better qualified to address than I am. Other than on those four days, I have managed to bash out around a thousand words.

Including those mentioned above, the essays covered perpilocution, the moustache of Archduke Stephen, Palatine of Hungary, east and west and left and right, potatoes, fogous, naming your child after your favourite reservoir, the falsely negative portrayal of U-boat sailors, voodoo athletics, my father, gulls’ eggs, clunks, Skippy the bush kangaroo, feral goblins, first encounters, tin foil, apps, control of the fiscal levers, Babinsky’s idiot half-brother, the Goliath bird-eating spider, Dickensian characters, true grit, barking up the wrong tree, government-controlled origami, Porridge Island, the devil in the detail, Speed, the Latin Mass and Moby-Dick, quadruple points, truculent peasantry, The Love Song Of Ah-Fang Van Der Houygendorp, scree, blessing cotton socks, the collapse of civilisations, the administration of lighthouses, groovy bongos, Balaam and his ass, replacement bus services, “the Scottish play”, groaning minions, having the prize within one’s grasp, nitwits, gods, the lambing-hall boogie, Pontiuses, the one-eyed crossing-sweeper of Sawdust Bridge, certain books I have read, the magnificence of Peter Wyngarde, sand robots, birds, my own Zona, The Wellspring Of Debauchery, a yapping dog and a bramble patch and a bog, the dubbin club, jelly, Belgian archery, marshy punting, a darkling plain, silent monkey, counting corks, the screaming abdabs, the air, a spook’s briefcase, etiquette, “on and on and on,” dreams of Pointy Town, chairlift dingbats, mods and rockers and widows and orphans, the plains of Gath, curlews, the thing that smelled of birds, pickles and pluck and gumption, fate, reggae for swans, the newty field, a couple of art exhibitions, Soviet hen coops, certain ants, bravura bunkum, Captain Nitty, the bad vicarage, sudden darting movements in the insect world, the pecking order, my transformation, bringing the good news from Ghent to Aix, the naming of nuts, razzle dazzle and its avoidance, the balletomane Nan Kew, King Jasper’s Castle, Its Electrical Wiring System, Its Janitor, And Its Chatelaine, King Jasper’s bones, and eggheads. I think there is a pleasing variety of subject matter, and I have done my best not to bang on and on about the same old guff day in day out.

I do wonder how many people actually bother to read all of these outpourings, and have had a few crises of confidence, when siren voices called to me to chuck the whole thing in, and put my feet up, and return to conventional itsy bitsy blogging. But, as Outa_Spaceman discovered with his cardboard signage project in 2011 – which inspired the idea of the daily essays – a plan such as this has its own momentum. I reached the point a fair few weeks ago where I could not imagine allowing the day to pass without its allotted screed.

Two things occur to me on looking at that list above. One is that I have made use of almost none of the suggestions made by helpful readers in response to my plea, in On Perpilocution, to nominate topics I might profitably address. This may make me seem dismissive and ungrateful. I am anything but. I am consciously keeping many of those suggested titles in reserve. Bear in mind we have three-quarters of the year yet to come, and who knows when I might be struck by a more severe case of vacancy-between-the-ears than has yet afflicted me? The sense of security in having a batch of possible essay titles available to me in times of mental befuddlement is most welcome. So thank you – and keep ’em coming!

The second thing that occurs to me is that it might be interesting to rearrange the essays into something approaching alphabetical order, for the forthcoming paperback edition. This should be available very shortly, I hope, entitled Hooting Yard Quarterly, Volume I Number I, Spring 2012. Alphabetical order would grant the collection an encyclopaedic air, and it has long been my ambition to present the world with an encyclopaedic body of knowledge wrung from my cranium. This might also help me to identify gaps. Well, we shall see what the next quarter of the year brings. By the end of June, if all goes according to plan, there should be another ninety-one essays, on divers topics, posted here daily.

Do bear in mind this is serious work undertaken in a serious frame of mind, with not a jot of levity.

Calamities And Disasters

I noticed that on BBC1 yesterday there was the first in a short series of programmes called Titanic With Len Goodman – Mr Goodman being one of the judges from Strictly Come Dancing. It is a curious combination of presenter and subject, and I wonder if we can look forward to Hindenburg With Alesha Dixon, The Munich Air Disaster With Bruno Tonioni, The Tay Bridge Disaster With Craig Revel-Horwood, The Lisbon Earthquake With Arlene Phillips, and, perhaps, The Black Death With Tess Daly.


On Eggheads


Alfred Hitchcock was terrified of eggs. In 1963, he said: “I’m frightened of eggs, worse than frightened, they revolt me. That white round thing without any holes… have you ever seen anything more revolting than an egg yolk breaking and spilling its yellow liquid? Blood is jolly, red. But egg yolk is yellow, revolting. I’ve never tasted it.” This is what we can call a “foolish fear”. After all, why should a rich and successful film director be scared of an egg?

There is nothing foolish, however, about a fear of eggheads. I do not mean “eggheads” in the conventional sense, to denote extremely brainy persons and boffins. To be terrified of that sort of egghead would be as foolish as to be afraid of eggs. It is true that one might be frightened of a demented and power-crazed egghead about to press the knob on the Doomsday machine, but that is a rare event, and in general one is more likely to be scared by rampaging thicko barbarians than by eggheads.

The egghead it is not foolish to fear is the literal egghead. I mean, it is hard to imagine something genuinely more terrifying than a human body with an egg where its head ought to be. Picture it – a man or a woman, of average height, average build, averagely dressed, but with a neck tapering to a sort of eggcup formation, atop which rests an egg. Not some kind of giant human head-sized egg, but a common chicken egg, of the kind one buys by the half dozen in a carton. I don’t know about you, but if I was sashaying along the boulevard of an important city and came face to face with such an egghead, I would run away screaming.

We are used to heads that have eyes and a nose and a mouth and ears. However arrayed, fortuitously or in a somewhat lopsided manner, these are the features we associate with what we understand as a head. Human heads deformed by horrible accidents or mishaps at birth will still largely conform to a generic headness, as do, in their own ways, the heads of beasts and birds. Some insect heads, under a microscope, can appear alien and mildly alarming, but they retain a set of recognisable features with which we can become familiar and accommodate ourselves, particularly when we are reminded that they are grossly magnified and really quite tiny.

It is the awful blankness of the egghead that is so unnerving and ruinous to our sanity. That smooth, fragile shell, white or brown or sparsely speckled, admits of no features whatsoever. We cannot, Mr Potatohead-like, poke eyes and a nose and ears and a mouth in to it, for in so doing we would only crack the shell. And not only is it an awful blank, but its size is out of proportion to the body atop which it rests, somehow making it all the more frightening.

We must consider, too, that its smooth and featureless form robs it of senses. Without eyes, it cannot see. Without a nose, it cannot smell. Without ears, it cannot hear. Without a mouth, it cannot speak. Even if we allow that within the eerie shell there may lurk a brain, that brain would be tiny in comparison to the human brain, and, devoid of sensory stimulation, an unimaginable horror. In short, the egghead would be akin to a zombie. It is truly the stuff of nightmares.

I count myself fortunate that I have never actually had a nightmare about eggheads. I hope I never will. But it strikes me that they could well prompt nightmares in others were they to be deployed in a blockbuster horror film. Attack Of The Eggheads From Outer Space has a pleasingly 1950s ring to it. One imagines the spaceship landing conveniently close to a major American city, and the eggheads rampaging through the streets trailing chaos in their wake. Though it is unclear how a zombie-being with an egg for a head might cause harm, other then by creating terror in those who see it lumbering towards them on an otherwise uneventful sunny day.

One could, alternatively, devise a film from the perhaps even more terrible perspective of the egghead itself. Our hero goes to bed one night and wakes up in the morning with an egg where his head used to be. This would be a suitable premise, not for a horror film, but for a piece of mawkish pap starring, inevitably, Robin Williams. Only he, I think, has the chops to make an audience weep at the plight of an egghead. Indeed, he has the talent – if one can call it that – to make believable a scene where the egghead itself weeps. But would its tears be yellow?

This brings us back to Hitchcock. Had he not been such a scaredy cat about eggs, he would surely have made the definitive egghead film, Eggheado, perhaps, or Eggheads By Eggheads West or To Catch An Egghead or The Thirty-Nine Eggheads or Dial E For Egghead or The Man Who Knew Too Many Eggheads or Eggheads On A Train or The Wrong Egghead or Eggheadbound or The Egghead Vanishes or Shadow Of An Egghead or even just The Eggheads. Hitchcock being Hitchcock, there would no doubt have been a scene where Tippi Hedren gets splattered with egg yolk. Or would it be revealed that her blonde hair is neither blonde nor hair, but an eruption of thin strings of egg yolk from what, in a heart-thumpingly suspenseful scene, we discover is not Tippi’s human head at all, but… an egghead!

App Dabbling

Dabbler-3logo (1)

This week in The Dabbler I present a round-up of exciting new apps for those of you who carry about hand-held computerised devices. I eschew such newfangled gewgaws myself, but that is no reason to miss the opportunity to make my fortune. If millions, or indeed billions of fatheads buy one of my apps, I shall not be complaining.

One app I forgot to mention in the piece is the iPadde, named after Knud Padde, a minor character in the Danish television crime drama Forbrydelsen. This handy app does instant translations into Danish of common phrases such as “computer password fuckup” and “girl power wet tee-shirt competition”.

On King Jasper’s Bones

So lost, so hopelessly lost is he in the peasouper of history, that very few people today realise King Jasper, of the Pickles play King Jasper’s Castle, Its Electrical Wiring System, Its Janitor, And Its Chatelaine, and of its later adaptation as a ballet by Crepingeour, was a real person of the past. Whether he was a real king is moot, as we shall see. But there is no doubt at all that King Jasper existed. His bones rest in a box in my allotment shed.

I came by the bones through a secret network of kings’ bones collectors. It is not so secret now I have told you about it. We do our collecting underground, in the shadows, under cover of night, far from places where common folk tramp. It is highly unlikely you have ever seen us at work, collecting bones of kings and trading them among ourselves. A couple of ribs from King X might be swapped for a femur from King Y.

More often than you might imagine, the bones of a king will be scattered hither and yon. If his throne was usurped by a wicked nephew, for example, a toppled king when killed might be chopped to bits, and those bits buried in pits at spots dispersed across the kingdom. The wicked nephew will arrange this, and pay off the gravediggers accordingly, in fear of vengeance from beyond the realm of death. He will have been brought up on tales of grisly and ghostly avengers, heard at his governess’s knee. He will believe that only by scattering far and wide the king’s bones can he avert an awful fate.

Even when a king dies, at peace, in his bed, or accidentally, after a surfeit of lampreys, his bones may still be scattered. Buried with all due pomp, of a piece, in one place, the dead king’s corpse will feed the worms and rot, and when all that remains is a heap of bones it can happen that the grave will be opened, at dead of night, by ignorant peasants. Immured in rustic poverty, the peasants will not have been brought up by governesses, but they will have heard the weird tales of the village Woohoohoodiwoo Woman, and believe in the talismanic properties of kingly bones. So, fighting and squabbling over the opened royal grave, each peasant will snatch a bone or two and carry them away, to be hung on a nail on the wall of their hovel as a lucky charm. And later, when their villages are laid waste by marauding barons or barbarians or both, the bones, along with all the other pitiful belongings of the peasants, will be scattered and strewn across the burning ruination of the land.

I would not claim that we kings’ bones collectors act from some mystical belief that by uniting the scattered bones of a particular king we are somehow calling him back from the dead. Perhaps one or two of my fellow collectors entertain such delusions. The rest of us are simply collectors, as we might be of stamps or coins or foopball programmes. Nor do we all necessarily seek to gather all the bones to complete a king. Some go just for shins, or skulls, or phalanges. But from the moment I joined the secret network, I was intent on collecting each and every bone of King Jasper I could lay my hands on. Why?

Why?, indeed. As I said, it is not even clear that King Jasper was a genuine king. Doubts were first raised shortly after his death, before even worms and rot had reduced him to naught but bones. His head, it was said, was not a kingly head. It was large and lopsided and had the pallor of curd. His gait was not a kingly gait, for he moved in an ungainly lollop. His crown was unbejewelled, and, on close examination, made from pewter and tin. He sat uneasy on the throne, a furtive look in his milky half-blind eyes, as if he had no right there to sit. Questions were raised and bruited abroad. If King Jasper were truly a king, why was the lady of the castle a mere chatelaine, and not a queen? And was it true, as some said, that the castle janitor had a large and lopsided head with the pallor of curd, that his gait was an ungainly lollop, and that instead of wearing a janitorial tatty cap, atop his bonce he sported an odd pointy hat made of pewter and tin?

I knew of all these doubts and questions. I was, after all, the author of a fat and breathtaking biography of King Jasper, albeit unpublished and, according to certain sour-faced kingly chroniclers, unpublishable. I keep the manuscript in the same box in which I keep the bones, in my allotment shed. The pages I scribbled upon over untold years are suffused with the charnel pong of the king. Lately it has occurred to me that I might use them to make a papier maché model of King Jasper, moulded around his reassembled bones. But first I have to complete my collection. There is a knuckle to be tracked down and exhumed, buried in some faraway field, dropped a century ago by a baron or a barbarian from a bag of looted peasant gewgaws. I must listen to the gossip on the grapevine of the secret network, alert for hints and clues. Then one night I shall set out with my spade.

King or janitor, it makes no difference to me. I have already made his throne, from the cobblings of a dozen discarded chairs. It is covered with a shroud in the corner of my shed. And when the missing knuckle is at last dug up, and all the bones put together and encased in my mashed up manuscript moulded into kingly shape, I will have a mannequin to plop on to the throne. I will haul it out of the shed and on to my cart, and trundle it along the country lanes for mile after mile, reconstructing the legendary journey made by King Jasper as he traversed his kingdom. It is said that he stopped off at many villages along the way to do a spot of repair work or mopping, just like a janitor. But he never lost sight, half-blind as he was, of his eventual destination, the electrified castle perched on a bleak promontory overlooking a bleaker sea, wherein awaited the chatelaine who had stolen his heart.

Heart, spleen, liver and lights… all are long rotted away. But I have his bones. All but one.

On King Jasper’s Castle, Its Electrical Wiring System, Its Janitor, And Its Chatelaine

If I knew the first thing about the ballet, I would tell you all about Crepingeour’s ground-breaking work King Jasper’s Castle, Its Electrical Wiring System, Its Janitor, And Its Chatelaine. It was literally a ground-breaking ballet, in that some of the steps choreographed involved tremendously heavy thumping, in big boots, upon caked mud. But alas and alack, I completely lack ballet chops. So instead I will turn my attention to King Jasper’s Castle, Its Electrical Wiring System, Its Janitor, And Its Chatelaine, the play by Pickles on which the ballet is based. My source is Basing Ballets On Pickles Plays : A Study Of Crepingeour And His Followers In The Crepingeourist School by Biff Blunkett, the noted balletomane and Crepingeourist. I had best press on before I get bogged down in further folderol.

The plot of King Jasper’s Castle, Etcetera is so convoluted that I am not going to attempt to summarise it here. What you need to know is that the setting is a castle, belonging to King Jasper, situated on a bleak promontory overlooking a bleaker sea. The castle’s electrical wiring system is as complicated as the plot of the play, if not more so. Its maintenance and seemingly endless tweaking and repair is the responsibility of the janitor, who is employed by the castle’s chatelaine. Neither the janitor nor the chatelaine has a given name, though whether this is an oversight on Pickles’ part, or an oh so clever literary device, is moot. Arguments have been thrashed out on both sides. There are other Pickles plays with nameless characters, some where characters swap their names around between acts, and several where, though every character has a name, those names are unpronounceable in any human tongue, or indeed in bestial grunts, howls, or birdsong. Not for nothing is Pickles labelled a “difficult” playwright, just as he was called a “difficult” child by those paid to watch over him in his infancy.

But King Jasper’s Castle, Etcetera is not, in itself, a difficult play, for either actors or audience. Indeed it is often the case that the cast, whether professional or amateur, will dispense with rehearsals entirely, and simply jump on to a stage impromptu and start performing it. The only people who are disconcerted by this are the scene-shifters, who become all a-dither. Still, from what I have read, that is only to be expected of scene-shifters. See for example Biff Blunkett’s magisterial study Dithering Scene-Shifters In Theatrical Performances Of Pickles Plays. That said, Pickles has to bear some responsibility for the dithering, for his plays have become notorious among scene-shifters for their rapid and bewildering shifts of scene. In King Jasper’s Castle, Etcetera, for example, Act One alone requires twenty-two different sets in its seven separate scenes, as can be tabulated by a competent tabulator with an eagle on the script, as follows:

Scene One : The pantry in King Jasper’s castle – a greyhound racing stadium – hotel lobby – the castle drawbridge.

Scene Two : Electrical wiring cupboard in the castle – plague pit – castle balcony.

Scene Three : Hell.

Scene Four : Bates Motel – interior of giant Jiffy bag – apple orchard – pear orchard – jetty.

Scene Five : The castle larder – the castle oubliette – the O.K. Corral – persimmon orchard – chatelaine’s boudoir.

Scene Six : Uncle Tom’s cabin – King Jasper’s cabin – janitor’s cubby.

Scene Seven : The Great Hall of King Jasper’s castle

Those of you who have not seen the play might infer from this competently tabulated tabulation that it must be hard to follow the action, what with so many changes of scene, even, as we can see, within the same scene, to the point where one calls into question quite what Pickles meant by the word “scene” in the first place. But that would be to underestimate the sheer genius of Pickles’ stagecraft. Also, if you have not actually seen the play in performance you would have no appreciation of its exceedingly slow pace. Think snails, and lame snails at that. Snails on crutches. Snails on crutches battling against a gale force wind. Uphill. At a steep gradient. Think even steeper.

Why, then, does a critic as acute as Biff Blunkett insist, more than once, that the play “fairly rattles along”? Is he obtuse rather than acute? Is he a fool? Has he been watching a completely different play all this time? That is a possibility. It is not only scene-shifters who get all a-dither in the face of Pickles’ dramaturgy, but the printers of playbills and publicity posters too. Blunkett himself has written a magnificent and coruscating study of this very issue in his A Magnificent And Coruscating Study Of The Issue Of Dithering Playbill And Publicity Poster Printers Of Pickles Plays. If you only read one of Biff Blunkett’s verbose and prolix spoutings, this is the one worthy of your attention. The chapter in which he sounds a warning regarding the tendency to confuse King Jasper’s Castle, Its Electrical Wiring System, Its Janitor, And Its Chatelaine with Pickles’ companion piece King Jasper’s Castle, Its Gas Mantles, Its Chatelaine, And Its Janitor is particularly magnificent, though not quite as coruscating as it might be, all things considered. Among the things considered should be the fact that Blunkett was bedridden with double pneumonia and a collapsed lung when he wrote it.

Rumours are afoot that a young hothead Crepingeourist is at work on a ballet based on King Jasper’s Castle, Its Gas Mantles, Its Chatelaine, And Its Janitor. If so, that will be something to see, at least for balletomanes. The rest of us can spend a profitable evening queuing up at a soup kitchen.

On The Balletomane Nan Kew

I have been commissioned to write the Life of the balletomane Nan Kew. I’ll say it again. I have been commissioned to write the Life of Nan Kew, the balletomane. Now, never having written a Life before, I don’t know what to do. I have no idea how to set this Life in train. I only know one thing about Nan Kew for certain, and that is that her eyes were blue.

I have been advised by a tiptop biographer of many persons of the past that I will have to talk to people she knew. But apparently, nearly all her surviving pals live abroad, in Belgium, Luxembourg, and Spain. Some are even as far flung as Peru. I do not even own a passport, as I have always found travel to be an unbearable strain. I am reluctant even to travel by train. Call me unadventurous, but I stick to my familiar surroundings like glue. I would much rather sit fast than board one of those gigantic lumps of metal they call an aeroplane.

An added problem is that everything I have written to date has been fiction, but of course every last detail of this Life has to be true. That much is plain. She had, though, a very long life, so there are many facts upon which to chew. After doing a bit of research, I can add, to the colour of her eyes, that she was a Jew. And that she had a pet dog, a Great Dane. Other than that, so far, I haven’t got a clue.

It would help if I knew something about the ballet, too. But nothing bores me to tears as much as a prancing ninny in a tutu. If you buy a ticket for the ballet you may as well pour your money down the drain. That’s my view. The sole reason I agreed to write this Life was the prospect of financial gain. I accepted an advance, so I suppose that if I don’t produce a manuscript the publishers will sue. That would be a pain.

Last time I was threatened with legal action I spent six months hiding in a zoo. Granted, as a solution to my problems it was not entirely sane. I pretended to be a veterinary surgeon, there to care for a pregnant gnu. One day my cover was blown and I saw some coppers approach and I ran off down a lane. Just my luck, I was set upon by a ruffian crew. Their bashings to my head did something untoward to my poor poor brain.

That was not the end of my worries, because after that I caught the flu. And I had a migraine. And I had a stone in my shoe. And then I was drenched by rain. Somehow I managed to hobble into a church where I collapsed on to a pew. I let out a little gasp of relief: “Phew” Too soon, for then I noticed that in my collapse I had cut myself and blood was pouring from a vein. I rummaged in my pocket for a jar of wound-soothing goo. It was an ointment containing linseed and mugwort and feverfew. Oh, and with a smidgen of henbane. As I smeared the wound, I heard the uncanny rattling of a chain. Trust my luck, or lack of it, to have taken shelter in a church that had been deconsecrated and was now used for purposes new. In this case, the rehearsal of a ballet, King Jasper’s Castle, Its Electrical Wiring Systems, Its Janitor And Its Chatelaine.

I could not help wondering if it was a ballet Nan Kew had seen and favoured with a review. For at some point within all the legal shenanigans and hiding out I had discovered something else about the balletomane. That she wrote a column for a ballet journal, and the more she wrote the more her reputation grew. I had found in an archive a bound copy of this journal and had a read-through. God it was boring, I won’t do that again. She communicated her enthusiasm for the ballet with a lot of verbal pyrotechnics and ballyhoo. And it seemed to me she stuck to received wisdom, there was nothing she wrote that went against the grain. Not that I know anything about ballet, that’s true. But it occurred to me that if I was going to write this Life, now I knew from where to take my cue. I could bulk it out with quotes from Nan, and who would spot them, I mean, who? In the unlikely event that some ballet nutter did, I was sure I could think up a way to explain. And a combination of plagiarism and controversy could prove a heady brew. At least, from the publisher’s point of view. Who knows what a huge amount of sales my Life might attain? I might even earn back the advance that was my due. I envisioned the launch of the Life, and outside the bookshop an enormous queue.

My attention suddenly reverted to the ballet rehearsal in the deconsecrated church, where they were trying out an exciting scene in which King Jasper is slain. So complicated is the choreography that one cannot tell if he is killed by the janitor or the chatelaine. I am more used to pantomime, so when the culprit was revealed I gave a great hiss and a boo. At which point the ballet dancers withdrew. Fool that I am, my hiss and boo had revealed my presence to the ruffian crew. They came crashing through the church door, armed to the teeth, demented and insane. But hot on their heels came the coppers, so fast they almost flew. In the confusion and brouhaha I managed to flee, but my flight proved to be just another turn of the screw. I ran slap bang into the side of a huge metal crane.

I was taken to a clinic where clinicians prodded my brain. When I woke up, they said “We have some news for you”. I wondered if they were going to tell me I’d gone cuckoo. And that, in so many words, was true. They said, “You have a derangement of the brain. You are in no fit state to write the Life of Nan Kew, the balletomane.” As if to prove their point, I asked “Who?” They said “The balletomane, Nan Kew”.

On Razzle Dazzle, And Its Avoidance

Bombarded by razzle dazzle, he had hankerings. All was buzz and zip, clash and ring, and he sought the peace that passeth all understanding. Therefore, he dug a burrow, and into the burrow he went tumbling head over heels. He had worms for neighbours. He studied their ways. Their ways were not his, nor were they attractive. Indeed they filled him with disgust. The slightest sound became magnified in the burrow, so he could hear the worms and their ways as clearly as the upper din he had fled. What a quandary. He dug further, to where there were no worms. Now it was hot but silent. His eyes adjusted to the lack of light. The walls of the burrow were adamantine. He rested. Fumes woke him. They came from below. Below it was hotter still, darker still, more silent still. He carried on digging. The fumes were those of rot. They grew more noisome as he dug. He gagged on them but persisted. Suddenly he was sloshing about in a torrent. No up nor down. He was carried for miles. Hissing in his ears. Gulping. Then he was deposited, after many a buffet, on a hard landing. Hard and hot. And there was a glow. And a distant din. As he crawled the glow grew brighter, the din louder. Fathoms deep, below his burrow, below the sloshing torrent, there was razzle dazzle, buzz and zip, clash and ring.

This was a disappointment to him. His hankerings had been betrayed. He was at the core, and could burrow no further. He sought a nook, a hot dark silent nook, but there was no such nook. He crept closer to the glow and din. It was incomprehensible. Thus he felt freed, unloosed from sense. This was a novelty, and not unwelcome. So it was without thought that he flung himself into space. Falling pell mell. Into a jet, elemental, of gas or steam upgushing. Atop the jet he was shot ever higher, passing strata through which he had toiled to burrow, past torrents and worms, and up, up, into cold bright dazzling light and air. Then with a thump he was on land, on the surface. And he rubbed his head and sat up, and looked, and was assailed by razzle dazzle.

And so he roamed until he arrived at the foot of a mountain. And he climbed until the air grew so thin he was panting. It was cold up here, and silent. He was higher than birds.

There is a sort of heroism in pursuing one’s hankerings so indomitably. There is, too, stupidity. He repeated this journey, a journey of escape from razzle dazzle, over and over again. First the burrowing, then the climbing. The sloshing and the upgush. Hot dense fumes and cold bright air. It was the thinness of the air that drove him back down the mountain, down through where birds swooped, down to earth, to buzz and zip and razzle dazzle. The stupidity lay in the fact that it was always down or up he went, and never sideways. Sideways might have been a wiser choice.

His objection to sideways was that it was not truly possible. On this planet, one could only go round and round. Better, he thought, to try down or up. His hobbyhorse was the fatuous idea that one day, one day, he might plunge deeper, or clamber higher. That was why he kept pursuing his hankerings, in the face of common sense. It was put to him that he could go, not just round and round, but round and round and round and round, almost but not quite ad infinitum, were he to adjust his trajectory each time round, ever so slightly, by a fraction of a compass point. This gave him pause. He even obtained a compass.

To get the compass, though, he had to immerse himself in the razzle dazzle and buzz and zip and clash and ring of a major leisure and retail facility. Exposure to it, at such close quarters, sundered what little sense he had. He fell out of the compass shop gibbering. A Good Samaritan gathered him up and shoved him on to a bus. The bus creaked and rumbled off, on a trip that, until it stopped, would take it round and round. Thus he might have gathered his wits and seen the beauty of the plan. He might even have tinkled the bus bell and caused it to stop and let him off at a place as far as could be from razzle dazzle. But it happened that the compass he had bought was subject to magnetic anomalies. Its needle spun like the crackers, this way and that, chaotically. He had no understanding of magnetism, none at all, but he could see something was not right. And so he threw himself off the bus as it crossed Sawdust Bridge. And then he threw himself off Sawdust Bridge into the Great Frightening River. And he threw himself from the river into a rowing boat that happened to be there in midstream. And he rowed. He rowed until he came to the sea. And then he kept rowing. He rowed and rowed. Far from land masses of any considerable size, he reached an atoll. That is where you will find him, staring at his compass, day in, day out. Here, he is annoyed by seabirds. This is the best he can do, for the time being.

On The Naming Of Nuts

I once knew a man whose chief interest in life was the naming of nuts. He devoted much of his leisure time to etymological investigation, to the discovery, for example, of when, where, and by whom a Brazil nut was first called a Brazil nut. The same went for other nuts, the filbert and the hazel and the pea and the macadamia, to name but four further nuts. Or rather three, for the filbert and the hazel are different names for the same nut, just as wolfram is the same element as tungsten, wouldn’t you know?

That the hazel nut and the filbert nut are both the same nut was something my friend learned only after many years of nut name study. He was an unsystematic fellow, with a scatter gun approach, and often distracted. Thus it is less of a surprise than it ought to be that he could study nut names for years and years while remaining ignorant of a fact that even the most cursory knowledge of nuts and nut names would afford you or me.

He was not, you see, much interested in nuts per se, in and of themselves. As far as I know, he never actually ate any nuts. It was their names that obsessed him, and I think it is true that had he not, early on, lit upon nuts as his special field, he might equally well have devoted himself to worrying away, fanatically, about the naming of something else entirely, strains of potato or types of bridge construction. But nuts it was, for him, after it once occurred to him to find out why a coconut was called a coconut. This happened in a fairground, when he was young, and wandered past a coconut shy. Puny and short-sighted and lacking in coordination, he was never likely to dislodge a coconut from its stand with any of his three throws for a penny of a projectile. The said projectile was, he told me, in spite of his fading and unreliable memory, a small rubber ball. By some miracle, with his very first throw he did dislodge a coconut, and was therefore given it to carry home with him as a prize. It was as he walked home, out of the fairground and past the otter sanctuary and along the canal towpath and through a landscape it would do my head in to try to describe to you, and which is in any case barely relevant, that he began to wonder why the nut he had tucked into his satchel was called a coconut. Thus, though he did not know it, was the course of his future life set.

He pored over reference books, encyclopaedias, glossaries, dictionaries, and compendia, both at home and at the municipal library in the town where he grew up. It was a somewhat hopeless and vile and squalid town, but the library was a good one, as was often the case in those days before our current barbarism. It was in the course of his research into coconut etymology that my friend became diverted into both filbert nut and walnut etymology. The heady days of almond etymology lay ahead. As time went on, he pursued his studies of different nut etymologies concurrently.

As I said, he was often distracted. I am sure he would have given all his time to nut names, had that prospect opened before him, but it did not. He had to eat and pay his rent and his gas bill and other living expenses, and thus he found a position as a janitor. He was something of a wizard with a mop, though he discovered that he had to concentrate very hard upon his duties, and could not think too much about nut names while mopping.

It was a janitorial colleague who, mistaking my friend’s interest in the names of nuts with an interest in nuts themselves, gave him a bag of pistachio nuts. He opened the bag, took one nut out of it, and threw the rest away. When he got home he preserved the pistachio nut in a jar filled with some kind of clear jelly suspension and placed it on a shelf in his parlour. It was the first in what went on to become a collection of single nuts, each in its own jar, each jar labelled accordingly. On Sunday evenings he dusted the lid of each jar with a rag and polish, janitorially, and checked that it was sealed tight. Otherwise he paid little attention to the nuts, and later in life he actually moved the jars from the shelf into a cupboard, where he need no longer look at them.

It is important to recognise that there was no end to his studies. Even when he had tracked down everything anyone could possibly wish to know about the name of a nut, he went on to explore the other names given to the nut in other languages. In doing so, he became a masterful polyglot, albeit one with a very limited vocabulary. And, as his memory was faulty, and full of holes, he constantly had to remind himself of that which he had already learned. So, for example, you might ask him to tell you what they called, for example, a cashew nut in, for example, Flemish, and he would stare at you blankly and go off to consult one of his notebooks, which he kept in a cardboard box in an upper room. And while he was up there he might forget what he was looking for, and become distracted, and you would be waiting below, in the parlour, your cup of tea rapidly going cold, and he would be gone so long that eventually you would give up on ever being enlightened about the Flemish word for cashew nut, and you would sigh and quietly let yourself out, only to discover that it was now pouring with rain and you had no umbrella.

Did I explain that I knew my nut naming friend when I was young and he was very old? He was ancient and wrinkled, and once I tried to joke with him that his head had taken on the appearance of a giant walnut. This remark fell flat, as he had no sense of humour whatsoever. He was interested in the names of nuts, to the exclusion of pretty much everything else in the world. A curious case, certainly, but I liked him immensely, and he taught me a lot. I know, thanks to my friend, the etymology of the name of any nut you care to call out, in your sleep, tossing and turning, and frantic, your moorings lost, now and forever, until the dawn, when you awake, safe in port.

The British In Africa

“To begin from the top: I have five sabre cuts on the crown of the head and three on the left temple, all fractures from which much bone has come away; one on my left cheek which fractured the jaw bone and has divided the ear, forming a very unsightly wound; one over the right temple and a dreadful gash on the back of the neck, which slightly grazed the windpipe; a musket ball in the hip, which made its way through my back, slightly grazing the backbone; five sabre cuts on my right arm and hand, three of the fingers broken, the hand cut three-fourths across, and the wrist bones cut through; three cuts on the left arm, the bone of which has been broken but is again uniting; one slight wound on the right leg and two with one dreadful gash on the left, to say nothing of a cut across the fingers of my left hand, now healed up.”

Almost as an afterthought he added that on arrival at Sidi el Muktar he had caught the plague – “a dreadful malady somewhat similar to yellow fever in its symptoms” – and had spent nine days “so ill with fever that it was presumed, expected and hoped that I should die”. While he was sick most of his possessions, including his gun, had been stolen and sent to be sold in the Timbuctoo market. “I am nevertheless doing well,” he concluded, writing with only the thumb and middle finger of his left hand, “and hope yet to return to England with much important geographical information.”

… “My father used often to accuse me of a want of common sense,” he once confided to his sister, “‘Tis true, I never possessed any, nor ever shall.”

Gordon Laing in Africa in 1825, from Barrow’s Boys by Fergus Fleming (1998)

On Bringing The Good News From Ghent To Aix

Good evening. My name is Guus. If I may, I will tell you an anecdote. I am an ancient and somewhat crumbling gent, and it might be thought that I would have a veritable storehouse of anecdotage to draw upon, but there is only one tale I am called upon to tell, so that is the one I shall repeat this evening. There has been the odd occasion in the past when I have had a bash at telling a different anecdote, but I get howled down and beseeched to tell, yet again, the one I shall tell you now. It is the story of how I brought the good news from Ghent to Aix, on horseback.

The horse upon whose back I brought the good news from Ghent to Aix was called Roland. Unlike me, he is long dead. He ended up, pitiably, in the knackers yard in the town of Knackers, which was not one of the towns between Ghent and Aix we sped through. Roland ended his days in Knackers because he died while I was upon another mission, one which nobody ever wants to hear about. If there were any demand for the anecdote, I would probably dub it “How I Brought The Faintly Dispiriting News From Ghent To Knackers”. Though it is unlikely that horses go to heaven, I did take the trouble to erect a little cross in memory of Roland at the roadside leading in to Knackers. Shortly thereafter I learned it had been uprooted and chopped up for firewood by cold peasants. Rule one : never trust a Knackers peasant.

But we must go back a few years, to when Roland was still hale and hearty, in a horse sense, and I was slumped in a tavern with my pals Joris and Dirck. You may wish to be given potted biographies of them both. Well, dream on!, as the young persons say. This is all about me, me and my horse Roland, the late lamented. Granted, both Joris and Dirck played their parts in bringing the good news from Ghent to Aix, parts I have always acknowledged. I have not tried to airbrush them from history, to make of them unpersons, as if I were Starling, or do I mean Stalin? At the same time, let us not pretend that the good news would have failed to reach Aix had Joris and Dirck not set out with me from Ghent. I would have made it to Aix in any case, mounted on Roland.

Roland, being a horse, was not with us in the tavern. He was tied up outside, feeding from a nosebag, alongside Dirck’s horse, which for some unfathomable reason he called Roos, and Joris’s, a roan which he had not even bothered to give a name. Within, Dirck and Joris and I were glugging from tankards of foaming grog, in the throes of carousal. I cannot remember what we were carousing about, perhaps it was simply that we were Ghentpersons, or Ghentniks, having a lark.

Anyway, late in the evening an official from the post office came crashing through the door. He was sweaty and frantic.

“O calamity! and O disaster!” he cried, “The post office hot air balloon has suffered a puncture! How, now, shall I send the good news to Aix?”

“Leave it to me,” I said, resolute and determined and utterly fab, “My horse Roland is tied up outside feeding from a nosebag. I shall mount my steed and gallop like the wind.”

The post office person fell to his knees and kissed my boots in gratitude. I mussed his filthy hair, and then he ceased to grovel and whispered the good news into my ear. Meanwhile, Joris and Dirck were looking at one another, and at me, casting significant glances.

“You will need us as backup,” said Joris.

I did not think I did, but I could see no harm in allowing them to join me. If I left them behind they might plot against me, or at the very least spread unwelcome gossip.

And so we untied our horses and galloped off, at moonset. Roland, in a weird psychic presentiment of his future fate, headed in the direction of Knackers, but I yanked him round and, in mid-gallop, I turn’d in my saddle and made its girths tight. Then I shorten’d each stirrup, set the pique right, rebuckled the cheek-strap, and chain’d slacker the bit. If one is a skilled horseman, one can make such adjustments while galloping at great speed. Jealous of my expertise – insanely jealous, actually – both Dirck, on Roos, and Joris, on his nameless roan, tried to shorten and set and rebuckle and slacken. Had I been paying attention, I would have laughed at their cack-handed nincompoopery. As it was, they somehow managed to keep pace with me all night, as we passed through Lokeren, Boom, and Duffeld, then Mechelm and Aershot, where up leap’d of a sudden the sun. In the mist, I was amused to note that the cows all looked black, like silhouettes. I reminded myself to practise my cow shadow puppetry when I got back to Ghent. It is always a hit at children’s parties.

By the time we reached Hasselt, Dirck was no longer able to spur Roos on. I had never had much faith in a steed with such a foolish name, and it came as no surprise to me when I heard the quick wheeze of her chest, saw the stretch’d neck and staggering knees, and sunk tail, and horrible heave of the flank, as down on her haunches she shudder’d and sank. As Joris and I sped on, I shouted back at Dirck, telling him to get a nosebag of hay for his horse and to take it to the Hasselt Horse Hospital, of which I had heard good report. This was a lie. I did not even know if there was a horse hospital in Hasselt. My fibs were meant, I think, for Roos rather than Dirck. When I can, I like to spout encouraging words to beasts of burden. It’s a Ghent thing.

Joris must have said something to his roan, because to my surprise it kept going, past Looz and Tongres. It was only when we got to Dalhem, with Aix in sight, that the horse suddenly keeled over, dead as a stone. Whether or not Dalhem had a horse hospital mattered not a jot. The roan was beyond all help and had passed into whatever realm horses pass into when they are no longer of this mortal world.

“At least give the damned horse a name before you bury it!”, I shouted at Joris, as Roland and I galloped ever onward. I never did find out if he named the horse, nor even if he had it buried. I never saw hide nor hair of Joris again. The last I heard of him, he was wandering the puddle-pitted streets of Dalhem, raving, and not in a good way. By all accounts it was madcap raving, the unbearable raving of the horseless. Such raving afflicted me, in Knackers, when Roland neighed his last. But that is another story, an anecdote nobody seems to want to hear.

Roland and I made it to Aix eventually, bringing the good news. No sooner had I imparted it to the burgesses, and poured a celebratory glass of wine down Roland’s throat, than up in the sky the post office hot air balloon, its puncture repaired, hove into view. Shortly afterwards, it bumped down to land in a cow-strewn field on the outskirts of Aix, and postie clambered out of the balloon basket and came running with a wax-sealed parchment, and I learned that I had misheard the whispered news from the post office person in the din of carousal in the tavern in Ghent. The news was not good after all. It was faintly dispiriting.