On The Massacre Of The Innocents At Hoon

And while we are on the subject of Hoon

Splattered with seagull droppings, the Woman of Twigs stood at the very edge of the cliff, her back to the sea. Barefoot, she rocked gently back and forth on her impromptu podium. The villagers were gathered about her, wretched and snivelling. Some carried pitchforks, or dainty little tin boxes full of bip. They were all ears as they waited for the Woman of Twigs to speak. She had blindfolded herself with a threadbare bandage, bound her hair into tufts with flaxen yarn and roots, and held in her hands a ribbon of bloody silk. Precisely at the moment that the thousandth wave of the day crashed against the rocks below, the Woman of Twigs ceased her rocking, cast the ribbon to the winds, and, shouting to make herself heard over the screeching gulls, began:

“You asked me to save the village from Doom. I have communed with a variety of weird and tiresome shades to seek guidance. You are correct, your village is imperilled. There is only one way to rescue it from the coming agony. Three of your number must travel many miles distant, to the town of Hoon. There, they must find a churn, possibly broken, the churn of Hoon, which has had engraved upon it a rather fetching likeness of myself. Do not ask why. Having scoured Hoon for this churn, and found in Hoon this churn of Hoon, it must be brought back here, with due haste, and hurled into the boiling sea from this very spot on the cliff’s edge. That task complete, your village will once again know glee. I have left unmentioned one crucial point. The three who will venture to Hoon, there to find and return the Hoon-churn, must all be called Ned. That is all.”

Work began at once on building the chariot. In the kitchens, the villagers boiled up huge iron pans full of mud and silt dredged from the riverbed. Trees were felled in the spinney. The smithy at his anvil beat out a goodly number of nails, spikes, and very sharp hooks. Within a week, the foul-smelling but indestructible vehicle was ready. Volunteers fanned out across the countryside to trap a suitable beast of burden. Horses, oxen, even a crippled reindeer of great elegance, were sighted and stalked, but another week elapsed without success. Eventually it was decided that the three Neds would have to travel under their own steam, pulling the chariot by themselves. Ned, Ned and Ned agreed, drooling with excitement in their eagerness to set out on so glorious a journey, one that would save the village and bring them renown.

They left the village at a gallop, in the middle of the night. Without maps, they relied entirely on local lore and superstition. From infancy, each Ned had been imbued with a long catechism of saws and proverbs. Now, each had engraved upon his skull a different couplet, handed down through the generations:

If you wish to go to Hoon / Spit three times and follow the moon

Hoon’s beyond yon crumpled hedge / Hemmed around by gorse and sedge

When you see eight pebbles strewn / You’re eight days and nights from Hoon

They travelled without pause, two dragging the stinking chariot while the third lay bundled in it, sleeping or feeding from a polythene bag full of curdled slops. At first they followed the course of the Great Frightening River, until suddenly it wormed its way underground. For eighteen months they travelled through a desolate landscape, flat, grey, and curiously redolent of shurd. But as they entered Hoon’s hinterland, things changed. In rapid succession, they passed an asbestos works, a barrel of rainwater, a customs post, damp hectares, elk encampments, fenceposts, grotesque wooden carvings, horrifying shrubbery, improbable water tables, jerrybuilt huts, a kaolin quarry, lumps of disgust, monstrous gulches, nebulous stretches of pointed brambly things, ornithologists’ hideaways, parakeet enclosures, quarantine sheds, rusk markets, strange gobbets of sludge, a tremendous farmyard, urn burials, a vacuum, wrestling pythons, extravagant banks of yellow fog, yeast traffickers, and a zither-crushing factory. Ned said to Ned and Ned, “Soon we shall be in Hoon. I can feel it in my water.” He was not mistaken.

The great South Gate of Hoon was over a thousand years old, and completely overgrown by clumps of hideous, fleshy foliage oozing poisonous sap. All attempts to destroy this abominable vegetation had met with failure, and it had not been possible to open the gate for at least two centuries. Rather than blasting a hole in the town wall, a ramshackle lift contraption was knocked up close by. Two wooden platforms, one either side of the great wall, were raised and lowered by an exciting system of pistons, pulleys and winches operated by a team of gate-keepers wearing boa constrictor masks. In return for their labours, they exacted a hefty price; unfortunately the three Neds were utterly penniless. Muttering among themselves, our heroic trio decided to proffer gifts in lieu of payment. Ned offered the gate-keepers his cap, which was made of rusted whisks. Ned presented them with a sick toad he had been pampering for the past month. Ned gave them a handful of silt scraped from the underside of the chariot. Well pleased with these gifts, the gate-keepers allowed the exhausted threesome to clamber onto the platform.

Two days later, the three Neds were lowered to the ground on the other side of the wall. At last they were in Hoon! Finding the possibly broken churn of Hoon could only be a matter of time. They would be implacable, ferreting into every corner of the ancient town. As soon as they disembarked from the wooden platform, however, they were set upon by a whirling tangle of ruffians who bashed them senseless, stole the shirts off their backs, emptied their polythene bags of slops into the gutter, wholly dismantled the chariot, had at them with ferocious scimitars, and left them for dead. And indeed, Ned and Ned were dead. Ned was carted off by a passing stretcher patrol, but panted his last breath an hour later, by which time the ruffians had scampered away, heading for the mountains. They stopped by the kaolin quarry to eat their packed lunches, and then, as night came down, they strode up the mountainside, these ruffians, their gazes fixed on the sky above, to look at the numberless stars, to view the boundless firmament.

On The Ascent Of The Mountain At Hoon

A story from the last century …

There were four hundred of us. Lars carried the water in a shallow basin, spilling a small amount of our vital supply each time he stumbled over concealed heaps of bauxite or other points of geological interest. Helga was able to top up the basin by melting patches of snow with her bunsen burner, but there was very little snow on the lower slopes, and what there was had invariably been shat on by pigs, wildebeeste, geese, and bats. By the second day, Lars had managed not only to spill the entire water supply, but had also cracked the basin in half by accidentally bashing it against a rogue shard of basalt. The rest of us were furious. Venables wanted to hurl Lars over a precipice. Van Gob brandished his rifle with menace, muttering threats. Lars merely sulked, squatting in the bracken and whittling away at a small piece of wood he had painted crimson some years earlier. The tension mounted.

Then Horst discovered some strange blueish flecks in a piece of rock. Gritting his teeth, he set about it with his iron hammers, and we were astonished to watch incandescent liquid spurt forth, forming a bright arc over the ramshackle encampment of pitched tents we called home. Glubb was the first to drink the liquid, for his thirst was the stuff of legend. He collected some in a battered tin cup and swallowed it at a gulp. Moments later, just as we were lighting a bonfire, his eyes glazed over and he stamped his feet in a demented rhythm. He began to declaim, slowly, in a booming voice quite unlike his usual prissy prating. He said:

“I have seen red shelves stacked with a thousand corks. The corks have teeth-marks in them, as if they have been gnawed, by a billy-goat or other beast of the field. Then, and only then, a vision of mud. I have listened to the sound made by chaffinches, and walked a hundred miles in driving rain, burning clay until it explodes, tying endless knots in brown canvas flags. My breath is the breath of a man who has the gift of tongues, a man who has spoken with corncrakes. Gemstones have I for ears, and putty for a hat. Wrap me in chrysanthemums, inveigle me with truncated proverbs – I shall not hear, for I hear only the clanking of broken churchbells set swinging high in towers when the air is still and the sky has vanished. I say to you that I am as of Ack, that which has a light known not unto you. Nor shall it ever be known unto you, for yours are the eyes and ears of pebbles lying scattered on the floor of the vasty deep. I have lavished you with ice and wood and Ack, and now I must begone from your sight. Farewell.”

So saying, Glubb marched away, uphill, towards the summit. He did not look back. We never saw him again.

The next morning, Lars was detailed to return to the sordid village at the foot of the mountain to get a new supply of water and a new basin in which to carry it. Lip’s attempt to glue the cracked basin back into one piece had failed, because the paste he used was contaminated. Waving farewell to Lars, and leaving Lip to catch up with us after extricating his arm from a narrow vertical crevice in the mountainside, we pressed on. Brabant took snapshots along various stages of the climb. There was a particularly good one of Helga making final adjustments to her snorkelling gear before diving to the bottom of the Imaginary Lake At The Mountain At Hoon, which has enticed so many earlier pilgrims on this route. Brabant himself was heroic, urging us onward whenever we became disconsolate or morose. He handed out his special biscuits, which tasted of bones, but were as nutritious as pemmican. On the eighth day, while everyone else was asleep, Brabant shaved off his massive walrus moustache. When we awoke, not one of us recognised him. Charming japes like this kept our spirits up.

It was on the eleventh day that we became worried about Lars, who had still not rejoined the party. Venables, Piccolo and Chasuble volunteered to go back in search of him. Before they left, Father Todge offered Mass. Just as Lip was about to take the communion wafer, we were distracted by a thunderclap, and the rains began. We sheltered under a limestone outcrop that seemed terribly crumbly. Van Gob did sterling work shoring it up with some of the zinc and titanium rods which he carried in his knapsack for such an emergency. The only sour note that day occurred when Dennis, spotting a lame horse through his tin telescope, witlessly left the shelter in order to parley with it. He was struck by lightning and incinerated. The horse whinnied and limped away.

Some days later, the rains stopped at last. Delaying only to bury what was left of Dennis, we made rapid progress towards the summit. Jean-Pierre and Istvana carried my wheelchair over ravines and gullies, at the bottom of one of which I noticed a huge pile of cutlery. It was perplexingly free of rust.

As we climbed higher, a yellow foul-smelling mist descended. On the fortieth day, Annette’s flask disappeared in a puff of roseate vapour. Brabant’s head took on the appearance of a turnip. It was he who announced that we had not brought enough oxygen tents. I began to knit furiously, doling out scarves, balaclavas, and woolly leggings to the company as fast as I was able. But we all realised things could not continue for much longer. When we estimated that we were four days’ climb from the summit, we gathered in Strob’s big tent for a meeting. Tempers were frayed, and Minnie’s attempts to jolly us along by singing selections from Ezra Pound’s Cowboy Songbook met only with hissing. We chewed what was left of the pickle supply and tried to iron out a strategy. After some aimless discussions, Venables announced that he had carried out an inventory. His eyes gleamed dangerously as he said:

“I have divided the inventory into three distinct categories, as follows. Category A, supplies we have exhausted; category B, supplies which we will exhaust within the next eighteen hours; and category C, supplies of which we have a huge and unwarrantable surplus. My inventory gives the following results: A – asbestos, bails, crimping irons, doilies, electric shoes, febrifuge, grey bags, and harpoonery; B – ip, jumble, kohl and largesse; C – muck, nose cones, operating tables, polevaulting equipment, querns, rosary beads, starch, talc, urns, varnish, whisks, expropriated jam, yashmaks and zobb. Hmm. You all look rather surprised. I don’t blame you. We have not been sensible of our peril. We cannot – ”

He was interrupted by a commotion at the entrance flap. We all looked round, and were startled to see Lars, heavily bearded, broken sunglasses hanging off one ear, struggling into the tent. He was carrying a giant bolt of sailcloth which appeared to be threaded with gold. Ashen-faced, Lars lurched to the podium and began to speak. We could hardly hear him, for he was close to death, and his words were mere gasps. It was only later I realised that he was revealing to us the knowledge he had kept hidden all along, thus consigning us to an icy fate on this terrible mountain. Why had he not told us before? As it was, none of us caught his meaning at the time. We heard only incoherent wheezing, which we dismissed as the raving of a dying imbecile.

We buried Lars in a shallow grave and proceeded to unroll the sailcloth. The thread was indeed spun of gold, but if the cloth had any significance it was not apparent. Using Helga’s cutlass, we cut it into sections to make hoods, blankets, bandages, and tourniquets. The next day, before we continued boldly on, Curwen challenged Horst to a wrestling match. The two of them had been arguing for days, following a brouhaha over the pitons. We formed a circle around

[The manuscript breaks off at this point. We are indebted to Waldemar Ng for this translation from the Hungarian. Unlike earlier translators, Ng had access to the actual woodblocks on which the narrator carved his journal. It is now over forty years since they were discovered, wedged in a crevasse halfway up the mountain at Hoon. Did the expedition reach the summit before they vanished without trace? We shall never know. The woodblocks, incidentally, are housed in the Museum at Ack-on-the-Vug, where they are guarded by a surly curator named Mungo. Gifts of raw meat and insect repellant are likely to melt Mungo’s cold black heart, should one wish to examine the woodblocks at leisure.]

On The Clopping Of Hooves

Ned! Ned! Prick up your ears, for you must listen out for the sound of clopping hooves! It is a sound that betokens the coming of the preacher man astride his horse. The horse has been shod with iron horseshoes by the fat florid farrier at the fearsome fiery forge. While he waited for his horse to be shod the preacher man stood by the horse trough in the market square, preaching. He preached of a sulphurous vision of times to come, and the villagers trembled. Then the farrier’s urchin came running to tell him his horse was duly shod, and the preacher man stalked off to the farrier and paid him for his labour and mounted his horse and came a-clopping along the high ridge, silhouetted against the darkening sky. As night fell, he dismounted from his horse and tied it with a halter to a sturdy tree trunk by a brook, and he unrolled upon the ground his sleeping bag, a secondhand sleeping bag that once had belonged to an Antarctic explorer. Then the preacher man dipped his tin cup into the brook and gave water to his horse, and dipped the tin cup again and drank it off, and then he made a fire using gathered sticks and kindling. The moon looked down upon him, and he looked up at the moon. He shook his fist at it, but shouted no imprecations, for he did not wish to cause his horse alarm. The horse was timid.

Ned is tucked up in a makeshift bed on the balcony. The stillness of the night is punctuated by the hacking of his cough. Ned is tubercular, hence the balcony. His parents had not the means to send him to a high and healthful Alpine sanitarium, but their simple home has a balcony, so that is where they put him. Out there, he will be the first to hear the clopping hooves of the preacher man’s horse, when at last he comes a-calling. In the fug of their parlour below stairs Ned’s parents huddle around their radio, listening to dance tunes by Xavier Cugat & His Orchestra, and to strange buzzes and whistles and hisses and hums and crackles which interrupt the broadcast now and then, as if some alien intelligence far away in the boundless firmament is trying to communicate with them. There is a fire in the grate, made with gathered sticks and kindling, and it crackles like the radio.

The preacher man tied a nosebag filled with feed to his horse, and then he squatted by the fire and plucked from the griddle balanced over it the sausages he had cooked for his supper. As he chewed, the stars twinkled in the black sky. He could not bear to look up at them. He stared instead into the fire, and saw imps and demons dancing, and souls in torment. The horse shuddered, and kicked the sturdy tree trunk, but weakly. The preacher man had rescued it from the knackers yard, paying a pittance to the knackerman. He had yet to give the horse a name. In a pocket of his preacher’s black suit, as black as the sky, he had a list of the names of racehorses. He would pick one, all in good time, for this horse, if it lived. Musing over the names of racehorses was sinful, but like all men, he was a sinner. There was gristle in his sausages.

In the bed upon the balcony, Ned, his ears pricked up to hear the clopping of hooves, should they come clopping, cannot stir. He is tied to the bed with bindings. His parents had listened to a radio programme in which Blötzmann propounded his views on the treatment of the tubercular. Several parts of it had been inaudible due to buzzes and whistles and hisses and hums and crackles, and they had pieced together afterwards what they understood. Balcony air, plenty of milk, and binding to the bed. Ned hears nothing but the racking of his cough and the howling of distant wolves. He stares up at the stars, and gives them names. In one of his pyjama pockets he has a list of the names of racehorses, a list he has committed to memory, and he passes his tubercular time allotting the names to the stars in the sky.

Morning came, and the preacher man kicked the embers of the fire and smeared his face with the ashes. Birds were twittering in the trees, and he cursed them. He had specific sets of curses for different types of birds, and he knew all their songs, he had learnt them long ago at his mother’s knee. He cursed his mother too. He pictured her in her cell at the lunatic asylum, perched on an Alpine slope. She would greet the morning with her own demented song. He was thankful he no longer had to hear it. The horse was still asleep. The preacher man pissed into the brook. He fought a craving to eat an eel for breakfast. He awoke his horse and mounted it and set it a-clopping with a kick.

As dawn comes, Ned falls asleep, bound to his balcony bed. Below, his parents tend to their cows and their poultry. They keep their eyes peeled for the postman. They are expecting a parcel.

Outshone by the sun, the stars were no longer visible, so the preacher man could gaze up at the heavens without fear. His horse clopped along, back on the high ridge, out of the valley.

Ned’s head is awash with dreams. He dreams of cows and poultry and racehorses, all horribly intermingled, cows with chicken heads and racehorses with beaks and feathers and chickens that snort like racehorses. Stars burst and explode, birds sing, and alien beings from far in the boundless firmament buzz and whistle and hiss and hum and crackle. And there comes a sound of the clopping of hooves, at first very quiet, as if from afar, but it grows louder and louder, closer and closer, and Ned wakes from his dreams, and still he hears the clopping of hooves, and he rises as far as he can from his makeshift bed and weakly he calls to his parents below, “Ma! Pa! I hear the clopping of hooves! The preacher man is come!” and the effort of calling makes him cough and cough, and he collapses back on the bed on the balcony, thin and frail and tubercular. But his parents do not hear him, for they have spotted the postman, in his little red van, chugging along the lonely road below, and they run down the hill to wave him to a halt.

Up on the bridge, the preacher man’s horse, exhausted, collapsed beneath him.

The birds fall silent. The radio crackles. Ned coughs.

There is no parcel from the postman today.

On The Picnic Fly

The picnic fly is among the most vexing creatures ever created by the Almighty. While it is indubitably true that He moves in mysterious ways His wonders to perform, it baffles the brain to wonder what moved Him to move in such a way that He felt inspired to think up, fashion, and let loose upon the world the picnic fly.

There is a body of opinion that the picnic bee, picnic wasp, and particularly the swarm of picnic hornets are more vexing than the picnic fly. Bee, wasp, and hornet, runs the argument, have tiny pointy envenomed protuberances with which they can sting any patches of bare flesh paraded by a picnicker, sometimes, though not often, resulting in an agonising death. The picnic fly, on the other hand, is by comparison harmless. This argument carries much weight, and even as I write I find myself wondering how it can be that I can possibly justify a claim that the picnic fly is the more vexing flying beastie. But I shall plough on regardless of common sense. That is my way.

Picnic flies usually go about in small swarms. They will hover in the air, at about human adult head height, at something of a loose end, awaiting the arrival of a brake containing picnickers with their picnicking appurtenances. Upon the arrival of the brake in the buttercup-dappled meadow by the gurgling brook, the picnic flies will disperse upon the air, temporarily. They do this because no picnicker in their right mind would lay the picnic blanket on ground immediately below a hovering swarm of picnic flies.

Note : this is not to say that all picnickers are necessarily in their right minds. Some are deranged or otherwise have dislodgements of the brain which cause them to make foolish picnic decisions. The terms “picnic fool” or “picnic fathead” have been coined to describe such persons. Neither are terms which should be bandied carelessly about. It is advisable to be on firm ground when uttering the charge.

Each picnic fly will now watch carefully as the preparations for the picnic are made by those who tumble out of the brake. Timing, for the picnic flies, is of the essence. They will not reconvene, forming a hovering swarm at human adult head height over the picnic, until it has been fully assembled. Thus, the picnic blanket is laid out and, if there is a hint of wind, stones will be collected to weigh down the corners. Folding chairs may be unfolded and placed around the blanket for the elderly, the infirm, or the picnic-inexperienced. The hamper or hampers will then be removed from the brake, and the contents arranged upon the blanket. In addition to cups and beakers and plates and saucers and bowls and dishes and cutlery, cutlery, cutlery, there will be sausages and pies and fruits of various kinds and bloater paste sandwiches and flans and tarts and Laughing Cow foil-enwrapped cheese triangles and biscuits and trifle and marmalade and pickled onions and butter and roll-mops and salads and iced buns and sliced cold meats and pastries and boiled eggs and chocolate buttons and boiled sweets and toffee and pork scratchings and puddings and potato snacks and soup in flasks. Other flasks will contain tea, and there will be lemonade and wine and Tizer and dandelion-and-burdock and beer and sherry and cans of Squelcho!. Depending on the picnic demographic, there may also be laid out, near to but not on the blanket, tennis racquets and tennis balls and medicine balls and the appropriate kit for sword-fights, archery contests, and hammer-throwing.

Within seconds of the last item being laid out and each picnicker sat or sprawled, the swarm of picnic flies will suddenly reappear, hovering directly over the picnic blanket. Taking their turns, a few flies at a time will separate from the swarm and make darting flights down towards the blanket, where they will plod on their tiny suckered feet across, say, the icing on an iced bun. They will regurgitate some sort of godawful gack from their innards on to the icing, then suck it, together with a modicum of the icing, back up into their tiny but ravenous fly’s maw. Momentarily sated, this grouplet of picnic flies will return to hovering-height, and another contingent will descend.

It is important to note two things about the activity described. First, that it all takes place in a matter of a few seconds, if that. Also, that flies are pretty tiny, as well as quick, so the disgusting business with the regurgitation and the sucking is not generally visible to the unassisted eye of the picnicker. What usually happens is that one of the picnickers – it may be a chap with a decisive moustache and a blazer and cravat – flails his arms in an attempt to swat the fly. Unfortunately, by the time the chap’s brain has sent the signal to his arm to flail, the fly will have done its unseemly feeding and be halfway back to the hovering swarm. I told you they were quick. And because the unseemly feeding is not apparent to the unassisted picnicking eye, what then happens is that another picnicker – it may be a demure young lady in a bonnet, clutching a slim volume of twee verse, or a bluestocking with a thick hefty book of intractable German philosophy – will pick up the iced bun with her free hand and take a dainty bite from it. Along with bun and icing, she will then of course swallow what remains of the picnic fly’s godawful gack, that part of it which it did not suck back into its maw.

I would argue that this is precisely why the picnic fly is the more vexing. At least you know where you are with a bee or a wasp or a hornet, singly or in swarms. If they cannot be swatted away, and a picnicker is stung, then the first aid kit can be fetched from the glove compartment of the brake, and salve and bandages applied. As I said, agonising death is rare, and basic cosseting will usually be all that is required. The picnic flies, being smaller and quicker and more determined than bees, wasps, and hornets, will be as near as dammit impossible to swat away, and their predations of the sausages and pies and fruits of various kinds and bloater paste sandwiches and flans and tarts and Laughing Cow foil-enwrapped cheese triangles and biscuits and trifle and marmalade and pickled onions and butter and roll-mops and salads and iced buns and sliced cold meats and pastries and boiled eggs and chocolate buttons and boiled sweets and toffee and pork scratchings and puddings and potato snacks will be all the more relentless. Each and every picnicker will climb back into the brake with a small amount of godawful gack in their stomachs, or lodged in their gums, with who knows what dastardly eventualities.

The best one can hope for is that at least some of the picnic flies will be fated to drown in the soup or tea or lemonade or wine or Tizer or dandelion-and-burdock or beer or sherry or, if they manage to negotiate the narrow opening in the lid, the cans of Squelcho!.

On Wod & Pym, The Choc Ice Men

Does anyone remember the rhyme children used to sing, long long ago?

Wod & Pym, the choc ice men
Clattering towards the buffers
Their choc ices melt in the noonday sun
They’re such a pair of duffers!

That was the version I knew, which I sang lustily, with my tiny pals, as we skittered and scampered and made mischief in the bomb craters. I had absolutely no idea what we were singing about, and I had forgotten the song itself, until, the other day, I heard it on the radio. I was listening to a play. It was dull and foolish and badly acted, and beset by awful hissing and feedback, which may or may not have been deliberate. I would have switched the radio off had I had the chops to rise from my pallet of straw and cross the barn to do so, but I had a splint on my leg and a bandaged head and no sense of purpose. So I just lay there listening, in the small hours of the morning, before the crows began to caw, before the milkman started on his rounds.

There was a scene in the play, set, as far as I could gather, in the dystopian ruins of a bombed city, where the protagonists, a milkman and his floozie, were having a terrible row about crows. Exhausted by shouting, they both fell silent, and then, as from a distance, I heard the song, chanted by children somewhere in the rubble. It faded, there was hissing, and the pair started arguing again.

It would be nice to be able to say that hearing the song again after all these years brought memories of childhood flooding back, but it didn’t, not really. It did make me sit up on my pallet of straw, as best as I was able. Alert, I scribbled the words on the back of a cornflake packet. I might never sing again, if my childish caterwauling could have been called singing, but I felt a great sense of urgency to know more about Wod and Pym. Who were they? Why were they clattering towards buffers? Did their choc ices really melt in the noonday sun? Had they ever really existed? I suppose I thought that if I could find answers to those questions I could learn something, too, about my own life, about my past, about the trajectory that had taken me from the bomb craters of a ruined city to this barn, through the roof of which the rain came in, when it was raining, where my only visitor was the milkman on his morning rounds, where the only sounds were the cawing of crows and radio broadcasts, where time passed slowly, and there were no clocks.

When the milkman came that morning I pressed the torn scrap of cornflake packet into his hand, and pleaded with him to find out everything he could about the rhyme. He said he was a busy milkman, but that once a fortnight the mobile library parked on a patch of ground hard by the dairy, and he would try his best to help me. I told him he was a saint. He said he must be getting on, as he had much milk to deliver. I asked him to turn off the radio as he left. They were playing music now, Xavier Cugat or some such, and I could not bear it. Outside, the crows were cawing.

They say there was once a grisly murder in this barn. I have seen no ghosts. There is an ethereal albino hen that haunts my dreams, with its terrible eggs, but I do not think that counts.

The milkman was as good as his word. I do not know how many days passed before he came bearing a few pages torn out of a reference book, for I did not keep a tally. He gave me the pages, and a bottle of milk, and asked me if I wanted the radio turned on before he left. Again I compared him to a saint, and he blushed. One does not often see a milkman blush. I told him I was done with radio broadcasts, and that he could take the radio set away with him, and if he did not want it for himself then to drop it into a pond. He thanked me and unplugged it and left. He did not say what he would do with it. I listened out for a splash, but the rain was dripping through the roof, relentlessly, and the bandages around my ears would have muffled any other sound.

What I learned from the pages torn from the reference book by the milkman was that Wod and Pym were, indeed, true historical characters, from the previous century. They were a pair of chancers, continually thinking up money-making schemes, schemes invariably doomed to failure, sometimes leading to spells of imprisonment, sometimes leading to riot in small shabby townships. They made and sold decoy ducks, pin cushions, alarm bells. They planned but did not realise a crocus plantation. They hawked taffy. And with the coming of the railways, they devised their travelling choc ice shop. The idea was to be constantly mobile, aboard a locomotive, selling choc ices to hot and eager tinies at each railway station they stopped at. But neither Wod nor Pym gave a thought to refrigeration, and the train they commandeered crossed desert and prairie, not realms of ice and snow. This was the flaw that sunk their scheme, and for which they were ridiculed by the tinies gathered at hot sun-bashed stations along the line.

Hence the song I had sung in my very different childhood, when it was cold, when the wind howling through the ruins chilled my bones, when I sucked icicles and shivered in the porch of the ruined dancehall, wherein those adults who had not yet fled the city danced to the sounds of Xavier Cugat & His Orchestra, piped through a Tannoy, loud as bombs.

On Hiking Pickles

I have written before about hiking pickles, and I make no apology for turning to the subject once again. It is, I would attest, a topic of endless fascination. Most reasonable people would agree that there are few spheres of human activity which lend themselves to the likelihood of becoming embrangled in a proper pickle as hiking. When we consider just three of the challenges with which the hiker must contend – weather, terrain, and human folly – it is hardly surprising that pickles are a commonplace of the hiker’s lot.

But let us not make the mistake of muddling the pure hiking pickle with such other pickles as one might be plunged into when hiking. Take, as mentioned, the terrain. A hiker might be hiking in the fells, and, in the enshrouding mist, come suddenly upon a tarn, so suddenly that he fails to break his hiking stride, and instead finds himself ankle- or knee- or, good heavens!, waist-deep in tarn-water. In itself, this is not a proper pickle, as the hiker merely needs to turn around and hike back out of the wet tarn on to the dry fell. There will be a bit of a pother about drying out the tarn-soaked boots and socks and trousers, never an easy task in the moist air of the enshrouding mist, but this hardly constitutes a pickle. The hiker can sit on a stone and smoke his pipe and consult his map of the fells while awaiting a sunburst. No, for it to be a proper pickle we would have to add the detail that, lurking in the tarn, below the surface, is an unimaginably tangled tangle of subaquatic creeper or nettlevine, possibly with an eerie primitive sentience, such that at the first hint of the hiker’s legs invading its watery domain, it wraps itself round and round, with the rapidity and colossal strength of a boa constrictor, thus entrapping the hiker helplessly. Up on the remote fells, in the mist, his cries for help will be unheard, except by the birds of the fell, and other creatures. If he dares plunge his arms into the tarn, to make an attempt to untangle his lower limbs from the fiendish vegetation, then his arms too will become entangled, making his predicament all the more terrible. This, you can be sure, would be a proper pickle. But is it a hiking pickle per se?

I would argue that what we have here, in this mercifully theoretical scene, is not a hiking pickle but a tarn pickle, or even an uncanny subaquatic sentient vegetation pickle. The fact that our hiker hiked across the fells to get into this pickle is, in a sense, incidental. Given the mist, and the tarn, the very same pickle could happen to, say, a farm-person in search of a lost sheep, or an athlete in training for a prize race, or a commando parachuted on to the fell with instructions to survive until picked up in a week’s time. You get all sorts of people on the fells, and not all of them are hikers.

The true hiking pickle, then, is one in which the action or deed or pursuit of hiking is fundamental to the pickle itself. What we must –

Excuse me, I have just been handed a piece of paper, rife with scribbling.

I see, when reading it, that the scribbling is pertinent, not just to the topic of hiking pickles in general, but to the specific theoretical pickle I have just described. I had better copy it out, so that you may read it too, and to avoid accusations that I am trying to set myself up as the sole authority on this breathtakingly exciting subject.

A Counterblast To Mr Key’s Assertion That The Theoretical Pickle Described Is Not A Hiking Pickle

In attempting to portray the pickle as a tarn pickle or an uncanny subaquatic sentient vegetation pickle, Mr Key posits three non-hiking persons to whom the pickle could have happened. I will take each of these three in turn and demonstrate, in each case, the absolute wrong-headedness of Mr Key’s argument.

I. The farm-person in search of a lost sheep. It is well known that farm-persons know every inch of their land. Be it fell or meadow, field or dale, they know every blade of grass, every pebble, every ditch, every sprig. They certainly know where a bloody tarn is. Even in an enshrouding mist, high on the fell, the farm-person would never plunge inadvertently into a tarn. And even if we wildly surmise that he did, he would, like all farm-persons, be wearing wellington boots, from which he could easily extract his lower legs and leap with great agility out of the tarn and on to the fell, before the submerged creeper or nettlevine had sufficient purchase to entrap him, the outer part of wellington boots being smooth, unlike a hiker’s boots.

II. The athlete in training for a prize race. In this case, Mr Key’s error is so blindingly obvious that a slow-witted monkey would not make it. We have an athlete scampering across the fell, his brain focussed entirely upon the finishing tape of the prize race he is in training for. So, when he plunges all unawares into the mist-hidden tarn, does he stop and allow his legs to be entangled by creepers and nettlevines? Of course he doesn’t! He keeps on running, like the tiptop athlete he is, emerging on the other side of the tarn before any eerily sentient vegetation has a chance to bring him to a halt.

III. The commando parachuted on to the fell with instructions to survive until picked up in a week’s time. Commandos are armed to the teeth. Within seconds of having his lower limbs entangled, the commando would have unsheathed a knife so sharp it would make you shudder, and hacked and slashed at the vegetation to free himself. If, in the process, he hacked and slashed his own legs, he would not care one jot, for as well as knives and guns he has packed in his kit swathe upon swathe of bandages, and sachet upon sachet of disinfectant unguents, and as soon as he has clambered commando-fashion out of the tarn and on to the fell, he will smear and patch up any wounds he has inflicted and be on his way, bent on survival.

It is thus clear that the pickle Mr Key describes is indeed purely a hiking pickle, and could not in any circumstances short of arrant stupidity be considered as any other type of pickle whatsoever.

I stand – no, I hike – corrected.

Whole Platoons Of Lamprey Robots!

I am grateful to Glyn Webster for alerting me to the latest fiendish schemes of the US Navy:

the lamprey’s body contains a single wavelength of oscillation at any given time, and thus always maintains an S-shape during swimming. Speed is proportional to the frequency of this wave, and can vary by an order of magnitude. Lampreys can even swim backward. Ayers is building an autonomous robotic lamprey that can do the same thing.

Ayers is not new to this. He’s been building robotic lobsters for years, and he’s basing his lamprey’s technology on those

“Now we’re almost to the point where theoretically we could begin building whole platoons of robotic lampreys and putting them on operational maneuvers in the water,” says Dr. Joel Davis, “A robotic lamprey is ideal for stealthy underwater search and identification missions.”


On The Owl Of Celestial Protection

Well, this is exciting! Today I received in the post a personal letter from “one of the greatest clairvoyants in France and throughout the world”, David Phild! You know, David Phild, Clairvoyance, Numerology, Astrology, Medium, Magical Sciences and Remedial Magnetism! And he has written to me with the thrilling news that all good things will come to me in 2012. Just consider this:

All January – General improvement

18 February – Enormous Money Win

In March – An encounter with love

All April – Lucky at gambling

One day in May – Huge success

In June – Luxury travel

July – A loved one returns

19 August – Big secret revealed

September – Colossal inheritance

October – Good health confirmed

November – Your luxury home

24 December – 12 Sumptuous Gifts

David’s letter was obviously delayed in the post by those scallywags at the Royal Mail, which explains why the predictions for the first quarter of the year didn’t come to pass. There is a very simple reason, which is, as David says, “Important! You will not succeed without your Celestial Owl. Ask for it immediately.” I am going to ask for my owl as soon as I have finished writing this, so at least the rest of the year will go according to plan.

What I like about David is that he does not raise false hopes. He takes pains to point out that by asking for the Owl of Celestial Protection I will not actually receive a real bird in the post. No, what I get will be more valuable than that – a medallion!

This Magnificent Golden Talisman of Great Value has Recognised powers of Protection from evil spells, from misfortune and from health problems.

The engraving and the consistency of your medallion make it one of the most powerful protection domes. It is recognised as fabulous by the greatest Grand Sages and Mediums in the World.

The catalysis of the golden metal and the structure of your skin will generate a variety of beneficial waves that will be your rampart against evil. Some vibrations extinguish witches’ spells as well as spite and bad rumours and tittle-tattle against you.

The very composition of the medallion provokes a type of recuperative energy that prevents you from wasting money and having to pay out amounts pointlessly that gradually plunge you into ruin. Under the protection of the Talisman, you will see that a single pound will enable you, under certain conditions, to live for as long as if you owned one hundred pounds.

The Owl can also reactivate your energy and your drive by inundating your cells with a redeeming force of renewal. You will be able to feel better, faster, and for longer, without any medical treatment.

Who wouldn’t want an owl like that?

David’s letter warns me that “what I am doing for you must remain our secret”, so very cleverly, the owl medallion is designed to look like a piece of cheap mass-produced tat., which clearly it is not. I contacted several Grand Sages, using ethereal powers not dissimilar to David’s, and they all confirmed that the Owl of Celestial Protection is absolutely the bee’s knees in the field of talismanic celestial protection through the medium of embossed owl on trinket. “There is no more powerful owl,” said one of these Grand Sages, whose name I didn’t quite catch, though I understand he resides on a mountain peak in a distant eastern realm, obscured by clouds.

I admit to being slightly disappointed that, fantastic as the owl is, David nowhere states that it is anything but silent, and emits no hoots. Quite frankly, even though my Owl of Celestial Protection is a free gift, I would prefer one that hooted. I am sure the construction of a battery-powered hooting medallion cannot be beyond David’s wit. If he needs financial help for its development and protection, he can use the thirty-two pounds I am sending him, as he requests, though nominally this sum is to guarantee my receipt of the Sublime and Detailed Revelation of the 12 Major Visionary Phases. As far as I can gather the free owl doesn’t work without the paid-for revelation, or vice versa. Perhaps I need to clear this up with the Grand Sages before committing myself.

POSTSCRIPT : I had the devil of a time trying to get in touch with the Grand Sages again, what with the weather and the aether and a severe case of the Blavatskys, so in desperation I turned to Het Internet. It made for interesting reading, not least in demonstrating just how selfless “dear David” is. While he is offering me a free owl which will protect me against “spite and bad rumours and tittle-tattle”, there is little else about him on the interweb except spite and bad rumours and tittle-tattle, much of it quite vicious. The man is sorely in need of his own owl, with or without battery-driven hooting. Indeed, I am so appalled at the contempt in which he is held, I have a good mind, as soon as I receive my owl in the post, to send it back to him, that he may be celestially protected from the brickbats of the spiteful hordes.

In the meantime, I have set to work on the design and production of a Hooting Yard Owl Medallion. Clutch it to your bosom, and you will be granted the power to scamper up mountainsides and shimmy up flagpoles and disport yourself in other high places, there to crow your unstinting devotion to Mr Key from dawn till dusk, and from dusk till dawn. Await your personalised letter, offering you this fabulous owl entirely free of charge except for the charge that has to be levied on the advice of Mr Key’s bank manager.

On The Report Of Dr Slop

For previous episodes of Maud, see here

Herewith my report of the events of the 14th inst. If I am required at a future date to give similar accounts of the 14th ult. and the 14th prox. I will be happy to oblige, present circumstances permitting.

My name is Dr Slop and I am a mesmerist, duly certified as such by the Worthy Fellowship of Victorian Mesmerists. On the morning of the 14th inst. I received a summons to the bungalow adjoining the bungalow of which I had recently taken possession. I was given to understand that the maidservant of the bungalow, one Baines, of slovenly yet devoted disposition, had taken leave of her senses and was giving vent to her inner life, in spite of being a person of the lower orders. In a matter of such urgency I dispense with the social niceties and I swept with élan and steely determination out of doors without wearing a hat.

Upon opening the gate of the adjoining bungalow and proceeding along the garden path, I was disconcerted to encounter a cad. The cad began to explain that his dearest wish was to entice the lady of the bungalow into the garden, and could I assist in persuading her? I cut him short with a clean gentlemanly thrust of my fist into his windpipe, a ploy I learned when serving overseas in the tropics, where it saved my bacon on more than one occasion. The cad collapsed upon the garden path and will not, I warrant, pester the lady for some time to come. My ears were offended by his unmanly gasping and gurgling noises, so before continuing to the front door I kicked him in the head several times.

I rapped upon the door of the bungalow with great urgency, whereupon I was ushered inside by a sloven I took to be the maidservant, Baines. Before I had the opportunity to place her head in a vice and make strangely significant passing movements of my hands in order to mesmerise her, her mistress cried weakly to me from the breakfast parlour. She insisted that I join her for a breakfast of devilled kidneys before dealing with the patient. My own preference has always been for kedgeree, bloaters, and raw liver as the first meal of the day, and indeed I had already eaten double helpings of all, and had additional portions tucked in my pockets in case of sudden peckishness, but one does not refuse a breakfast invitation from a neurasthenic lady, so I sat at the table with her and tucked my napkin under my chin.

While I waited for Baines to pile my plate high, the lady, who I was given to understand had already eaten one devilled kidney, began to rock back and forth on her chair. Her pallid face blushed crimson, her Pre-Raphaelite tresses stood stiffly on end as if she were attached to one of those newfangled electromagnetic machines, and she began to declaim incomprehensible gibberish in a grating and disturbingly masculine voice. This was no mere attack of the vapours.

I leapt up from my chair and was about to place the lady’s head in a vice and make strangely significant passing movements of my hands over her, when Baines, behind me, dropped the plate and clutched at my arm. Before I was able to berate her for the unseemly and socially reprehensible nature of her action, she gibbered something. Incapable of understanding her strangulated lower class vowels, I slapped her several times across the face, then several more times, and demanded that she speak slowly and clearly and in the best approximation she could manage of civilised human speech.

I must commend her efforts, for by listening closely I learned that in all likelihood the lady’s alarmingly unladylike plight was due to some malign tampering with the devilled kidneys, which had been prepared by a person from Porlock who was the devil incarnate and who was chained up downstairs in the basement where he had been acting as a skivvy but today had been recklessly entrusted with cooking the breakfast.

Apprised of this information, I tossed the maidservant a penny, as one might to a performing monkey, and proceeded with élan and steely determination down to the basement to confront the fiend. The sloven had spoken the truth, for there he was, red and horned and cloven-hooved and goaty. I was about to place his head in a vice and make strangely significant passing movements of my hands over him when something quite unprecedented happened. Nothing in all my experience, not even when I was serving overseas in the tropics and was regularly subject to all sorts of weird and mind-numbing doo-dah, was anything like this.

One moment I was taking a quick bite out of a bloater from my pocket preparatory to manoeuvring the vice into position, the next I was chained and red and horned and cloven-hooved and goaty and gazing back at… myself. I, or he, had not even swallowed the mouthful of bloater. Somehow the person from Porlock, the devil incarnate, had exchanged bodies with me, in an instant. I watched in horror as he proceeded up the stairs with élan and steely determination, bent on who knows what maleficent purpose. I rattled my chains and wept.

Thus far, I have nothing further to report. So loud does the steam hiss through the pipes in this basement kitchen that I cannot hear anything of what is transpiring upstairs. I must wait for Baines, I do not know for how long. My only solace is that the length of my chain is sufficient to allow me unhindered access to the pantry, where there are handsome supplies of kedgeree and bloaters and raw liver.

Mother Russia

Her own people were mostly miserable. They wrote long glum books and sang glum songs and went on glumly about the extent of winter and the sound of the rivers freezing and the shortage of meat – not just the serfs who had had every reason to feel thoroughly depressed, but the rich and privileged. They worried about their souls and stared deeply and hopelessly into the depths of themselves. Well, that was how they had always carried on in the past anyway. It might be different since the upheavals, but Aunt Irene doubted it – circumstances did little to alter the nature of populations. They were probably worse, if the truth were known.

Alice Thomas Ellis, The 27th Kingdom (1982)

More From The Midden

A further find in the paper-midden: a scrap dated 16th February 1992.

Yesterday I considered a string of words to form an alphabet, words beginning and ending a-b, b-c, c-d and so on. Let’s see if I can remember it. Alb, basic, cod, drone, earmuff, flailing, garish, hoi-polloi, [imaj?], jack, kernel, loom, marzipan, no, orlop, [p-q], quiver, railings, squirt, tofu, [u-v], vow, wax, xerophilously, [y-z], zeugma. The idea is (after finding something for the missing words – invented proper names if necessary) to write a story which mentions all those in order.

This story was never written, twenty years ago, but perhaps I shall apply myself to it now, or in the near future.

On My Plankton Theory

Long, long ago, so long ago that the Malice Aforethought Press was not even a twinkle in my eye, I wrote a poem entitled My Plankton Theory. Here it is:

All my life I’d waited
To announce my plankton theory
The public laughed
Top scientists jeered
When they heard my plankton theory

When I was a small boy
I swam in ponds and lakes
Then I grew up
Got diving gear
And I worked out my plankton theory

Now I’m about to die
I won’t go skindiving again
It’s in my head
On my deathbed
But I never, ever tested my plankton theory

As I remembered, there was another version of this in which I had a bauxite theory rather than a plankton theory. That can’t be right, because the middle verse would make no sense. The flaw in my recollection was confirmed when I came upon a big fat book of poems in the same paper-midden as I found the old Malice Aforethought Press mail order catalogue. It turned out I was confusing My Plankton Theory with a wholly separate piece, a love song entitled 40 Years Of Hell In A Bauxite Mine. I shall draw a veil over that one.

The point is that this book is crammed with over one hundred poems, written I would guess between 1980 and 1986, and they are almost uniformly dreadful. I can just about tippy-tap out the words of My Plankton Theory without running screaming into the hills to throw myself into a tarn, but only just. I find myself thanking the Lord and his angels and the hideous bat god Fatso and many another deity that Het Internet as we know it did not then exist, for there would have been a very real risk that I would have posted my verses for the world to read instead of scribbling them in a private notebook. Youth of today, be warned! Think before you commit your burblings to the interweb!

It is not as if I can excuse the drivel as the product of teenage angst, as I was no longer a teenager. I do not understand, looking back, why I was writing verse instead of prose. But verse it was, page after page of it. It is true that I had a very short-lived career as a performance poet, in those heady post-punk days when performance poets were all the rage. When I say short-lived, I ought to be clear and explain that I did one gig. This was in Norwich, in 1982, where I supported the amusing band Serious Drinking. (The amusing thing about them was that they pretended to be oiky proles but were of course university graduates, and at least two of them were in receipt of healthy trust funds. I suspect genuine oiky proles spotted the imposture without too much difficulty.) My approach at the gig was that, after shouting – yes, shouting – each poem (examples, Snackbar Hooligan and Ten Days In a Shed), I scrunched up the sheet of paper on which it was hand-scribbled and threw it into the audience. I think I was generally well-received, and I am not entirely sure why this remained my one and only appearance before I resurfaced on a stage, twenty years later, shortly before the dawn of the Hooting Yard you know and adore. I do recall feeling a tingle of pleasure when the Norwich gig was announced by John Peel on his radio show. I was billed as “Frank Key The Poet”.

Perhaps, in spite of the lack of actual performances, it was the thoroughly wrong-headed idea of myself as “The Poet” that kept me beavering away at verses for the next few years. I moved away from Norwich and was no longer in contact with any kind of local music scene where I might have been prevailed upon to spout my stuff to crowds of adoring fans. The big fat hardback notebook was, then, quite consciously, just for me. I am pleased to be able to say that I never badgered family and friends with it. Few experiences are as discomfiting as being trapped in a room with someone who says “Let me read you a few of my latest poems”, and I had been at the listening end of that particular horror often enough never to inflict it upon anyone else. But it does make me wonder why on earth I was writing all this stuff, and that it was all verse and no prose.

As for My Plankton Theory itself, the roots of this towering work lie in the late 1970s, when I recall watching a television programme – probably Horizon – in which it was confidently asserted that “krill is the food of the future”. Well, almost forty years on, here we are in the future, and I am not eating krill. At least, I don’t think I am. Maybe I ought to take a closer interest in packaging, and lists of ingredients, and modern food production processes. It may be that I am eating a lot more krill than I suspect, shredded or pulped and somehow injected into my breakfast cereals and snack items and smokers’ poptarts and so forth. But I envisaged a more explicit krill-centred diet, chains of fast food restaurants called Krill R Us or Kentucky Fried Krill, krill-based delicacies for the gourmet, or even that staple of science fiction imaginings, the krill-pill, which I would obtain from a Krill-O-Mat before zooming off on my jetpack. Alas, the future has not turned out quite as forecast. Thereagain, when I was a little boy I swam in municipal swimming pools rather than in ponds and lakes, I have never been skindiving, and I never, ever really had a plankton theory.