On A Plague Of Boils

When one is covered from head to toe in suppurating boils, one finds that invitations to sophisticated cocktail parties, unlike the boils, dry up. I discovered this through personal experience. There was a time when, like Job, I was tested by the Lord. One such test the Lord devised was to strike me with a plague of boils. It could not have come at a worse time, hot on the heels of a plague of locusts, an infestation of mice, and a bloody ridiculous gas bill. I wouldn’t mind, but it’s not as if I actually get to see any of the gas unless it is already up in flames, burning away. But try telling that to the automaton on the other end of the so-called gas helpline. All you get is a flea in your ear. Speaking of which, I forgot to mention the plague of fleas. That was another test from the Lord, between the locusts and the mice. So I was not best pleased to find myself one day completely covered in suppurating boils, particularly when I was due to attend a sophisticated cocktail party that very evening.

“O Lord,” I implored, on my knees, “I understand why thee tormentest me so, for I am but a snivelling wretch unworthy to crawl upon my belly like a worm or other creeping thing. Having said that, could thee perhaps show mercy and remove from my hideous flesh this plague of suppurating boils, given that I have received an invitation to attend a sophisticated cocktail party this evening and in my present state am barely able to present myself in civilised human company?”

To which I am afraid the Lord replied in a booming authoritarian roar which made the walls tremble. I cannot recall His precise words, but the tone was not reassuring. I got the distinct impression that He expected me to suffer the boils in silence, with hopeless resignation to his Lordly whims, and not to bother Him with pathetic self-pitying supplications. So after a while I got to my feet and went out to the chemist’s.

Luckily there were not many people about at this early hour. Those few that did see me looked on me with horror, or turned their backs, or shielded their eyes. One or two vomited. I cannot say I blamed them, as before leaving the house I had checked my appearance in the hallway mirror. I was not a pretty sight. I dressed as best as I could, in the few pitiful mice-nibbled rags the Lord had seen fit to leave me with, and I wafted a sprig of hyacinths in front of me as I walked, to mask as far as possible the stink of the suppurations, which was considerable.

The chemist and I went back a long way, having been childhood tobogganing pals. Indeed, we had even tobogganed as adults, when conditions were right on the slopes, and he was able to drag himself away from his dispensary. I knew that he, too, had been driven crackers by his gas bills. So I expected a degree of sympathy as I pushed open the door and the little bell clanged and he hove into view behind his counter.

“By Saint Spivack and all the holy martyrs of mediaeval Ravenna!” he cried, “You’re a sight for sore eyes!”

I nodded in agreement, which was unwise, as a glob of pus was shaken free from one of my boils and landed on the clean scrubbed linoleum of the chemist’s shop floor.

“The least you can do is mop that up,” he said, handing me a mop.

I did so, while my pal rummaged among his pills and potions for a suitable unguent.

“I can’t promise this will eradicate your suppurating boils,” he said, handing me a tube of Dr Baxter’s Patent Palliative Cream For Suppurating Boils, Sores, And Buboes, “But it is a cream, and it is a palliative, so in tandem with your sprig of hyacinths it might make you a slightly less noisome and offensive creature.”

I thanked him and paid him and edged carefully out of the door, hoping not to leave any further deposits of pus on the linoleum.

“Are you up for some tobogganing come Sunday?” he called after me, which was thoughtful of him, but we both knew I could hardly enjoy swooping down a snowy slope aboard a toboggan while plagued by suppurating boils.

“That is in the hands of the Lord,” I replied, and hurried off along the lane towards the canal. I would find a shrubbery-sheltered bench somewhere on the towpath and smear my boils with unguent. That, at least, was the plan. I was not to know, nor had my pal the chemist seen fit to warn me, that Dr Baxter, when concocting his Patent Palliative Cream For Suppurating Boils, Sores, And Buboes, had used several ingredients which, in combination, proved absolutely irresistible to swans. Thus it was that, as I hunkered in the shelter of shrubbery, on a bench, smearing my boils, a baker’s dozen of swans came padding out of the canal and surrounded me. It is one of my iron rules never to antagonise a swan, so I tiptoed away as quietly as I could, with only a few of my boils smeared. But the swans, driven to delirium by the whiff of Dr Baxter’s recipe, pursued me. I made it home, and they simply waited outside, occasionally thumping their beaks against the front door.

When evening came, and it was time for me to leave for the sophisticated cocktail party, the swans were still there. I had no choice but to let them follow me, along the lane and past the allotments and through the tunnel under the bypass and past the industrial estate and the science park and the oil refinery and the other allotments, until I reached the gated community wherein the sophisticated cocktail party was taking place. I flashed my permit at the security guard in the booth, who depressed the knob which opened the gate. I hoped he would shut it again quickly, to keep the swans out, but he seemed to think they were my pets, so closely did they tail me. Thus it was that I arrived at the sophisticated cocktail party wafting my sprig of hyacinths, covered from head to toe in suppurating boils made only slightly less noisome and offensive by Dr Baxter’s Patent Palliative Cream, and accompanied by a gaggle of delirious swans.

I plucked a drink from a tray and leaned as insouciantly as I could against a mantelpiece. I was not a social success. In fact, throughout the evening, the only person who came within ten feet of me was a blind flapper with a streaming cold which had robbed her of her sense of smell. We were getting on like a house on fire until she confessed that she was allergic to swans. I did the gentlemanly thing and revealed that there were thirteen swans in close proximity.

“Ah,” she said, “That explains why I have developed a splitting headache, have a ringing in my ears, and pins and needles in my extremities. I had better go out on to the balcony, away from your pet swans, or I am liable to break out in suppurating boils all over my body. Toodle-pip!”

“Wait!”, I cried, “The swans are not my pets and I have a half-full tube of Dr Baxter’s Patent Palliative Cream For Suppurating Boils, Sores, And Buboes!”

But she was already gone.

A social pariah, I at last realised I had outstayed my welcome, and I made my way home, swans in tow. The Lord alone knew when next I would be invited to a sophisticated cocktail party, so I got down on my knees and asked Him. Back came that booming authoritarian roar. Again, I could not make out the individual words, but the tone was if anything even less reassuring than it had been in the morning. I headed for bed convinced that those swans were going to be following me for the rest of my life. When I opened the bedroom door, there they were. They had somehow managed to get into the house, and now they were lined up, all thirteen of them, at the foot of the bed, their black eyes gazing at me, pitiless, savage, and mad.

On Blind Jack Of Knaresborough

As a child, I gained my first understanding of the grand sweep of our national story from a book entitled British History In Strip Pictures, undated, but published by Odhams Press at some point in the 1950s. I used to pore over this book for hours, and was going to pore over it again, preparatory to writing today’s essay. Alack and alas!, I am mortified that I cannot find it on the tottering teeming Hooting Yard bookshelves. Now I am not exactly the most organised of persons, but I can usually lay hands on a book I am looking for. The current whereabouts of British History In Strip Pictures must, for the time being, remain a mystery. I know I have it somewhere.

Not being able to find it, I was going to postpone this essay for another day. But then I determined to soldier on, as my subject would have soldiered on, determinedly, and regardless of handicap. My handicap is merely that I cannot find the book I was looking for. His handicap was that he was blind. For I speak of that titanic figure Blind Jack of Knaresborough.


In British History In Strip Pictures, Blind Jack was granted a whole page, the same amount of space given to, for example, the Magna Carta, Shakespeare, and the Civil War, and twice that given to Gladstone and Disraeli, who had to share a page, as I recall. I thus grew up with the idea that Blind Jack of Knaresborough was a pivotal figure in British history. I fully expected, when I went to school and studied these matters in greater depth, that Blind Jack would probably have a few lessons devoted solely to his doings, if not an entire term’s worth. As it turned out, in thirteen years at school, from age five to eighteen, I do not think I ever heard his name mentioned.

At some point the sheer wrongness of this must have occurred to me, along with the thought that perhaps the editors at Odhams Press had made him up for a lark. “Tee hee! Let’s insert a page about a wholly convincing yet completely fictional character to play a trick on the tinies!”, I imagined a couple of them, resembling Gabbitas and Thring from the Molesworth books, chuckling to each other over their printers’ proofs. Such scampishness could be the only explanation for my history teachers’ neglect of the man I believed had single-handedly brought about the Industrial Revolution. I had been led to believe that, were it not for Blind Jack of Knaresborough, we might still be living in rustic squalor, a nation of peasants consigned forever to remain in Lork Roise because we would never have been able to travel to Candleford.

Blind Jack, you see, was a road builder. And the way he built roads, British History In Strip Pictures told me, was that he walked along tapping his stick in front of him to gauge the smoothness and straightness of the road he had just built… er… something along those lines, they had but six pictures and captions to tell the story, so obviously some of the finer detail was left out. I recall being haunted by the picture of Blind Jack out on the road, dressed just like the man on the Quaker Oats carton, gazing at nothing. I am sure there were times when I dreamed of him, relentlessly approaching me, the tap of his stick, the eerie sightlessness of his eyes… I think for a time I even managed to get him mixed up, in my fevered mind, with the much more malign figure of Robert Mitchum’s preacher man in The Night Of The Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955), which I saw when very young and impressionable.

Without having the book to hand, I am unable to confirm whether it mentioned other titans of the Industrial Revolution such as Thomas Telford and Isambard Kingdom Brunel. I am fairly sure that neither of them had a whole page to himself. Blind Jack did, and that was good enough for me to credit him with creating a world that lifted me out of peasantry. And to my relief, I have since learned that he was not an invention of a couple of scallywags at Odhams Press, that he really did exist.

His name was John Metcalf, born 1717 and died in 1810, blind from the age of six.. One of the intriguing things about him was that part of his success in building roads was a matchless ability to make accurate estimations of costs and materials, using a system of his own devising which he was unable (or unwilling?) ever to explain to others. He also worked out a method of constructing  roads over bogs, using matted rafts of marsh grass and furze. No wonder he is my hero, when we consider that that previous sentence alone contains at least three words essential to the Hooting Yard lexicon.

His gravestone, in the Yorkshire village of Spofforth, bears this epitaph:

Here lies John Metcalf, one whose infant sight
Felt the dark pressure of an endless night;
Yet such the fervour of his dauntless mind,
His limbs full strung, his spirits unconfined,
That, long ere yet life’s bolder years began,
The sightless efforts mark’d th’ aspiring man;
Nor mark’d in vain—high deeds his manhood dared,
And commerce, travel, both his ardour shared.
’Twas his a guide’s unerring aid to lend—
O’er trackless wastes to bid new roads extend;
And, when rebellion reared her giant size,
’Twas his to burn with patriot enterprise;
For parting wife and babes, a pang to feel,
Then welcome danger for his country’s weal.
Reader, like him, exert thy utmost talent given!
Reader, like him, adore the bounteous hand of Heaven

ADDENDUM : I wonder if Anna Pavlova named her swan after Blind Jack of Knaresborough? Perhaps a balletomane reader might know, and could enlighten me.

The Spitting Mills

When they were apart, they questioned and instructed each other minutely on the state of their health. “How is it my darling,” Mill inquired, “that you say you have broken the habit of expectoration? When you cough are you not obliged to swallow something if you do not spit it up?” “I cannot but think,” replied Harriet with her characteristic note of self-righteousness, “that if you tried as earnestly as I have done since October to avoid any expectoration that you would lose the habit altogether as I have done.” It was her idea that Mill was bothered by phlegm because he was in the habit of spitting, not that he was forced to spit because he was bothered by phlegm. Perhaps she was right.

John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor recalled in Parallel Lives : Five Victorian Marriages by Phyllis Rose (1984)

On The Busie Old Fool

I was casting around in my head to find a topic for today’s essay, but it was difficult to think straight because of that confounded sun. Usually, gazing vacantly out of the window works a treat, but how can a man gaze out of the window into the awful glare of relentless battering sunlight? I have always been perplexed by its popularity. Blindingly bright and ridiculously hot, the sun is better considered as John Donne’s busie old fool. It has long been my contention that the reason the Middle East is a powder keg of demented Islamist nutcases has more to do with climate than religion. They all get so frenzied and bad-tempered and psychotic because of the sunlight and the heat. In this weather, I might well be tempted to fire round after round from a Kalashnikov into the air, had I a Kalashnikov.

Normally, at such times, my thoughts turn easily to a different sort of madness brought on by the sun. As an Aztec fundamentalist, I mourn the passing of the practice of human sacrifice designed to assuage the anger of the Sun God. But those were simpler times, I suppose. Nowadays one would probably need to apply for a permit from the council just to set up a stone altar upon which to splay one’s victims out, preparatory to gouging them open and wrenching out their still-beating hearts. There would be paperwork, risk assessments, equalities monitoring forms. Who would have the energy to tackle all that bureaucracy while the sun beats down so?

Instead, mopping my brow, I thought instead, as I so rarely do, of Rod McKuen. His “Seasons In The Sun”, adapted from Jacques Brel, seems to me a very foolish response to sunlight. “We had joy, we had fun”? Really? As my friend Robert Matthews said so pertinently more than thirty years ago, “You have to define fun, or you will have none”. Rod McKuen signally fails to define the fun he thinks he was having in his seasons in the sun. If he came right out and said he was tearing out the hearts of sacrificial victims splayed on a stone altar, and that he had fun doing so, then fair play to Rod. But he doesn’t. I think we have to agree with Nora Ephron, who said his verse was “superficial and platitudinous and frequently silly”, and with Karl Shapiro, who pronounced magisterially “it is irrelevant to speak of McKuen as a poet”.

Incidentally, and while we are speaking of both risk assessments and Rod McKuen, I can reveal that I was taken to see the mawkish troubadour, performing at the Royal Albert Hall, when I was but young. I was taken either by my father or by one of my older sisters. So far as I know, whichever one took me was never charged in a court of law with imperilling the sensibilities of a still formative juvenile mind. Had a proper risk assessment been carried out, surely the doors would have been barred against me? In the event, we must all count ourselves fortunate that I was not permanently scarred by the experience. A Rod McKuenised version of Hooting Yard simply doesn’t bear thinking about.

Back in the present, it was not so much a season in the sun as a morning spent avoiding the busie old fool. I pondered the idea of donning a yellow polo neck sweater and sculpting my grey mop into a magnificent bouffant, pretending to be Christopher Lee and going to find a virgin police officer to set fire to. Not quite Aztec sun worship, but it would pass the time. Then I had a stomach-churning vision of Nicolas Cage in The Wicker Man remake and had to lie down with a cold compress on my forehead. I was only revived when I pondered the idea of Nicolas Cage starring as Rod McKuen in a biopic of the latter. If this film is not yet in production then it damned well ought to be. It would make a fitting addition to the Cage canon. There could even be a scene set in an inaccurately rendered mockup of the Royal Albert Hall, where Cage/McKuen croaks his winsome piffle and we see, sitting in the audience, Mr Key as a tiny. The youngster chosen to play me would have to be able to express a subtle range of reactions, somehow suggesting that the titanic grandeur of Hooting Yard is nascent within his cranium, imperilled by McKuen yet resisting an awful descent into superficiality, platitudes, and silliness. Perhaps I ought to set to work on the screenplay.

I wrung out the no longer cold compress and decided to go for a walk around Nameless Pond. As far as I am aware I do not yet need a council permit to do so, and it was simply a matter of preparing myself against the sun’s onslaught. The busie old fool was still high in the sky, blistering hot, bright and golden, and deeply irritating. I fashioned a protective shroud and stepped out of the door.

I had not gone ten paces when I was set upon by a whirling gaggle of urchins, who pelted me with birds’ eggs and thrashed me with nettles.

“What what what?” I cried, “Unhand me, teeming urchins!”

I was tempted to add “Get back to your tenements!”, as if I were Keith Pratt, but something about my assailants gave me pause. They did not seem like the usual rampaging members of what used to be called, in less queasy times, the lower orders. My intuitions were confirmed when one of them stood forward from the pack. I could not help noticing that he wore atop his bonce a crown of golden cardboard, upon which the sunlight was reflected, blindingly.

“We shall continue to pelt you with birds’ eggs and thrash you with nettles until you attach to your frankly weird shroud a sprig of shick-shack,” said the urchin.

“I beg your pardon?”, I said, shielding my eyes from the horrid glare of the sunlight.

“It is Oak Apple Day,” he said, When we commemorate the Restoration of 1660. All hail Charles II, the true Sun King!”

And they pelted me with birds’ eggs and thrashed me with nettles until I retreated indoors, where I rummaged about in a drawer for a sprig of oak apple. O! how I wished I had instead that Kalashnikov.

Hopkins On Krakatoa


There is a piece in The Public Domain Review about Gerard Manley Hopkins’ reportage on the remarkable “Krakatoa sunsets” of 1883.

according to my observation, the ground of the sky in the east was green or else tawny, and the crimson only in the clouds. A great sheet of heavy dark cloud, with a reefed or puckered make, drew off the west in the course of the pageant: the edge of this and the smaller pellets of cloud that filed across the bright field of the sundown caught a livid green.

On Lothar Preen

One two three four five six seven. All good children go to heaven.
Eight nine ten eleven twelve thirteen. That won’t be the fate of Lothar Preen.

This pretty little rhyme was devised by the maestro himself, Lothar Preen, he of the majestic bouffant, flailing baton, psychopathic personality disorder, and criminal associations in the dockyard taverns of the Marseilles underworld. One can see here Preen the self-mythologiser, relishing his seemingly inevitable descent into the bowels of hell. There will be no heaven for him.

We do not of course know what became of Lothar Preen after death, save that his corpse was eaten by worms. So great had his legend grown that his grave, in the pretty little churchyard at St Bibblybibdib’s, was dug up, a few months after he had been buried, just to make sure he was actually dead and gone. That is when they saw the worms, gobbling up what was left of the maestro, by the light of their tarry torches on a foul October night. The churchyard did not look so pretty then.

Some said that is how he would be remembered, as supper for worms – the worms that had even gnawed through his conductor’s baton, which was buried with him, alongside his favourite tea-strainer and oodles upon oodles of unpaid bills. But of course that is not why we remember Lothar Preen today. We remember him for the magnificent recordings of The Phlogiston Variations, of Clamp’s Fifth, of The Pretty Little Tea-Strainers song cycle. We remember him, too, for the incident in a Marseilles dockyard tavern when he stabbed a rival maestro in the eye, as if he were Marlowe, and for the many many wells he poisoned, and for feeding that cellist into a sausage mincer. He was never convicted of any of these crimes, for it was said he committed them when the balance of his mind was disturbed, when he was unhinged. But quite frankly, was he ever hinged, from the moment he first became conscious, in the pretty little convent hospital of St Spivack’s, as his mother lay dying?

His childhood alone is a tale of unhingements, best avoided by those without strong stomachs. For every example of precocious musical genius, there are twenty or thirty murders, stabbings, slicings, loppings, poisonings, stranglings, and other gruesome and grisly doings. Few people have been able to read his memoir, A Childhood Of Precocious Musical Genius And Murderous Psychotic Unhingement, without keeping a bucket beside them in which to vomit.

Vomit, indeed, seems to have played an important part in the life of the adult Preen, if we are to believe his accounts of riotous carousing in the more insalubrious taverns down at the Marseilles docks. It was in such squalor the maestro would hold court, his bouffant a thing of blinding grandeur. When he was not stabbing rival maestri in the eyes, he was jabbing at them verbally, taunting them with his superior baton flailing technique, or simply waiting for them to keel over drunk before giving them a good kicking in the head. It is part of the legend that at no time did he ever pay for a single drink during these nights of high debauch.

His finances, or lack of them, were always a mystery, and in the years since his death various lawyers and accountants have been kept busy untangling the chaos he left behind. There are claims that Preen’s Byzantine wheeler-dealings are at the root of the world’s current financial meltdown. That one man could be responsible for the global chaos seems on the face of it absurd, until we pause to consider that the man was Lothar Preen. Of what was he not capable?

This is a man, remember, who quite apart from all the murders and stabbings and slicings and loppings and poisonings and stranglings and other grim and grisly doings, was capable, in what we might call his more humane moments, of gathering together thousands of pretty little birds – siskins and linnets and wrens and hummingbirds and jackdaws – and training them to sing the long, complex, and breathtakingly beautiful choruses from Prog’s comic opera based on the life of Charles Hawtrey (1914-1988). That the maestro devised his own grand finale, in which the birds are savaged by cats and then electrocuted one by one, we may deplore yet recognise as a characteristic and ineffable Preenian touch.

“Preenian”, “Preenesque”, “Preenish”. It is a mark of his genius, perhaps, that none of these words has entered the vocabulary. In the last analysis – actually, in the first analysis – he was simply unique. Did those worms beneath the soil in the pretty little churchyard of St Bibblybibdib’s know how fortunate they were, to be gnawing and munching the rotting remains of the great maestro? One bit of him, of course, they did not get to eat, and that was the bouffant, which was removed from his head before burial, and placed in a preserving jar. It has had its own adventures. Initially sold at auction in order to settle at least one of the debts he left unpaid, the bouffant-in-a-jar was stolen from its (anonymous) purchaser, who was found, the morning after the sale, chopped into a thousand pieces. It was next seen adorning the beer-stained counter of a tavern in a particularly sordid Marseilles tavern, but disappeared after a knife-fight among thugs. A year or so later, it turned up next to a waste bin on a pretty little towpath next to an unimportant canal. The bouffant, in its jar, is currently thought to be under lock and key in a bank vault, though by all accounts it is the kind of vault, and the kind of bank, favoured by criminal gangs planning heists which can later be immortalised on screen.

Lothar Preen himself has never been depicted in a film. No cinema would dare to show it.

Fourteen fifteen sixteen seventeen. I am the maestro Lothar Preen.
Eighteen nineteen twenty twenty-one. When I am gone they will blot out the sun.

And they did. It is still pitch dark.

On Natty Dread

Natty Dread. Like it or lump it, it has become clear to any thinking person that Emperor Haile Selassie, or Ras Tafari, was indeed a living god. Admittedly, the thinking done by those persons is conducted with brains ravaged by pot, but that does not make their thinking any less cogent. Well, it does, and perhaps they might think a teensy bit more cogently with clearer heads. But they would surely reach the same conclusions regarding Haile Selassie and Jah Rastafari and the escape from Babylon and all that business. Natty Dread indeed.

It has long perplexed me that F. R. Leavis, in expounding his so-called Great Tradition, wholly ignores Emperor Haile Selassie. Notwithstanding that Leavis was batty rather than natty, and while today we might dismiss his prescriptive insistence that the only great English novelists are Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and poor demented D. H. Lawrence, it beggars belief that Leavis can construct his grand edifice without placing Jah at its pinnacle. It is true that Jah did not actually write any English novels, and can thus safely be left out of account, but that just won’t do, will it? Not for me, anyway, or I and I, I should say.

If one trawls through the collected works of Austen, Eliot, James, Conrad, poor demented Lawrence and Leavis himself, the first thing that strikes one is that Jah does not even get a mention. One retrawls, with closer attention, hoping to find stray references one has missed the first time round, but again emerging empty handed. This actually takes rather a long time, given the sheer amount these people wrote, and as one begins the third, desperate, trawl, one begins to wonder if it might not be better simply to ravage one’s brain with pot and call it a day. But one persists, as one must, where Emperor Haile Selassie is concerned. Once again, one finds not a trace of Jah. Truly we are in Babylon.

It is of course always possible that, had either Austen or Eliot or James or Conrad or poor demented Lawrence or Leavis issued dub versions of their work, we might find what we are looking for. To take just one example, Mansfield Park In Dub, had it ever existed, would I think be a more sure-footed text than the original. It would probably also find room for natty dread. I say ‘probably’, rather than ‘certainly’, for one does not wish to engage in fruitless conjecture. Fruitlessness must always be avoided. That is not a lesson I have taken directly from Jah, incidentally, except in a roundabout way. But then a roundabout way is by definition indirect. Could it be, I wonder, that one can approach His Highness The Emperor Haile Selassie, Jah Rastafari, similarly indirectly, in a roundabout way, in the works of our canonical authors, albeit in the absence of dub versions of their books? This will of course necessitate a fourth, even more eagle-eyed, trawl. Still we must put off the ravaging of our brain with pot.

And so once again we slump against a tree-trunk with a huge pile of books next to us. Above, in the higher foliage, monkeys cavort and chatter. They are not, so far as we can see, monkeys with typewriters, who might, given time, type out the complete works of Austen and Eliot and James and Conrad and poor demented Lawrence and Leavis. Could they, in a fraction of the time, type out dub versions? Setting aside the copy of Under Western Eyes we have just opened, for the fourth time, we look up and count the monkeys. Nine monkeys, for which we will require nine typewriters. Entrusting our pile of books to the safe keeping of a dreadlocked rasta slumped against a neighbouring tree, his brain ravaged by pot, we set off for the nearest typewriter shop. By one of those curious coincidences one meets in certain songs by Sumner, the name of the shop’s proprietor is F. R. Leavis.

“Are you any relation?”, we ask.

There follows a lengthy and somewhat ill-tempered account of distant cousinage. We are relieved to hand over the cash and make our exit from the shop, nine secondhand but reconditioned typewriters heaped upon our barrow. Under the neighbouring tree, the pot-ravaged rasta is leafing through The Mill On The Floss.

“Have you found any trace within the text that Eliot is conscious of the divinity of the Emperor Haile Selassie?” we ask, more to make conversation than in hope of a coherent reply.

“There is great sufferation in Babylon,” he says, puffing on his pot, “You wouldn’t have a dub version of this novel, would you?”

“Not yet,” we reply, “But soon, I hope, soon!”, and we point at the barrow of typewriters and then at the monkeys cavorting and chattering atop the trees.

With the assistance of the affable rasta, we set up the typewriters in a line along the beach. Then we coax and cajole the monkeys down from the trees, using fruit as a lure – another reminder of the perils of fruitlessness. Soon enough they are tippy-tapping away, taking occasional rest breaks to pick nits from each other’s hairy coats. Waves lap against the sandy shore. The sun blazes in the sky. Eschewing the offer of pot, and instead glugging a tumbler of lemonade, we keep our brain unravaged, our head clear. But our heart is thumping, for what we are witnessing, watching our monkeys typing away, is the birth of a brand new Great Tradition, one which will propel F. R. Leavis into the dustbin of history, one in which Jah Rastafari assumes his proper place atop the pinnacle of English literature, in dub. Natty indeed. Natty dread.

A Man Of Letters

[F. J. Furnivall (1825-1910)] was… besides being a redoubtable scholar himself, one of the great rock-blasting entrepreneurs of Victorian scholarship, the kind of man who if his energies had taken another turn might have covered a continent with railways. As secretary of the Philological Society, he spent twenty years amassing materials for the New (Oxford) English Dictionary, of which he was one of the first editors; as founder of the Early English Texts Society, he performed an indispensable service for medievalists. Societies were his natural element. Apart from the E.E.T.S., he also founded the New Shakespere Society [he insisted on spelling it that way], the Ballad Society, the Chaucer Society, the Wycliffe Society, the Shelley Society, the Browning Society. It is a measure of his optimism that he even tried to start a Lydgate Society, though it failed to get off the ground…


There are times when it is impossible not to applaud his fighting spirit, or marvel at his vitality. Like the young Shakespeare, he was a lithe and active fellow; at the age of seventy he had enough surplus energy left to found the Hammersmith Sculling Club for Girls and Men, and he was still turning out with them on the river every Sunday at the age of eighty-five. He was also an ardent old-fashioned socialist, who refused to be bound by snobbish convention. It is characteristic that the memorial volume published after his death should have contained, along with contributions by scholars from all over the world, a simple tribute from a waitress in the ABC tea-shop in Oxford Street where he used to hold court.

from The Rise And Fall Of The Man Of Letters by John Gross (1969)

On Tarleton And Pelf

Tarleton, the amateur’s amateur, had been missing for a fortnight when one evening he came crashing through the door of his consulting rooms, twitching and shattered.

“Good grief, Tarleton!” cried his sidekick, companion, amanuensis and consulting roommate, Not-Tarleton, “Where in blazes have you been?”

“I have been muffled, wallowing in the sink of vice that is a Limehouse opium den, if you must know,” said Tarleton, “I was in pursuit of a man with a twisted lip.”

“I… I… corwumph!” expostulated Not-Tarleton, who resembled, in both manner and appearance, Old Wilkie from Linbury Court, so much so, indeed, that we shall hereinafter refer to him as Old Wilkie in order to avoid confusion with his near-namesake Tarleton.

“Corwumph! away to your heart’s content. You know my methods,” said Tarleton, “The man with the twisted lip was in possession of pelf. I could tell it was pelf because he carried it in a sack slung over his shoulder with the word PELF stencilled upon it in big black block capitals. I pursued him through the streets and mews and boulevards. He was hot under the collar. I dogged his every footstep. The sky was overcast. He entered the stews of Limehouse and still I followed him. He scuttled down an insalubrious alleyway. It was a nest of opium dens. Mayhew surveyed them at one time or another, I am sure.”

“And?” shouted Old Wilkie.

“And I spent a fortnight in an opium-addled daze, from which I have only recently emerged. The man with the twisted lip was nowhere to be seen. But while we were both sprawled upon divans in the Oriental hellhole, I affixed to his ankle, unbeknown to him, a tracking device, which works with light reflecting booster technology developed by L’Oreal. I am going to eat some kippers, and then I shall find out where he is, with his sack o’ pelf. Having located him, I will run him to ground. If he digs himself into a burrow in the ground, like the narrator of Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household, I will entrap him, as did Quive-Smith, but I shall ensure I do not meet Quive-Smith’s sticky end.”

“But how, Tarleton? How?” screamed Old Wilkie.

“By wearing this metal head-harness,” said Tarleton, donning a metal head-harness, “If the man with the twisted lip tries to kill me by shooting an arrow between my eyes from an improvised crossbow, it will ping harmlessly against the metal.”

“I… I… corwumph!” screeched Old Wilkie, “Was the head-harness also developed by L’Oreal?”

But answer came there none, for the amateur’s amateur was already gone.

He returned some weeks later, twitching and shattered.

“As soon as I have eaten some kippers, I shall apprise you of my doings,” he announced, and as soon as he had eaten some kippers, he apprised Old Wilkie of his doings. Being, among other things, his amanuensis, Old Wilkie wrote down what he heard, and thus it is that we, too, are apprised of Tarleton’s doings, long after he ate some kippers.

It seems that, shortly before seeing the man with the twisted lip hauling his sack of pelf along the streets and mews and boulevards, Tarleton had been approached by Old Farmer Frack. The mad old farmer was distraught, because his eerie barn had been broken into and all his farm implements and equipment, stored therein, his clodding mell and two Kentish binding rakes and a disc coulter and a subsoil pulveriser plough and a potato grading shovel and five Morris’s turnip fly catchers and two hand-cranked threshers and a seed rusky and an automatic sheaf tying mechanism and a whin bruiser and Keevil’s cheese-making apparatus and a mouldbaert and fan tackle and chogger and a Nellis fork and a plough graip and half a dozen liquid manure pumps and a pair of hedger’s gloves and Gilbert’s improved iron sack holder and four American butter separators and a cauterising iron and a mouth cramp and a charlock slasher and Blurton’s tumbling cheese rack and eight barley hummellers and an adze and a curd agitator and grinding stones and Drummond’s iron harvest sickle and a dairymaid’s yoke and a clod knocker and Biddell’s scarifier and Fowler’s self-adjusting anchor and a bitting iron and fifteen creels and two caschroms and a dung hack and a Crees lactator and five horn trainers and a fagging stick and a pea hook and two Lipmann glass stoppers and a trenching fork and Gilbee’s horse hoe and a drain ladle and hackle prongs and a flax brake and Hall’s smut machine and a heckling board and three flauchter spades and a hay tedder and an Ivel three-wheeled petrol-powered machine and Finlayson’s grubber and a potato riddle and four root pulpers and paring mattocks and Morton’s revolving harrow and Samuelson’s cake-breaking machine and a foot pick and sheep netting and two oilcake crushers and Reade’s patent syringe and various instruments for destroying moles and a barrow turnip slicer and a Paul net and a Sandwich clean-sweep hay-loader and probangs and castrating shears and Hannaford’s wet wheat pickling machine and a scutching board and a swath turner and a plank-drag harrow, had been stolen.

Tarleton put two and two together. It was blindingly obvious that the man with the twisted lip was the thief. He had sold Old Farmer Frack’s barn’s-worth of booty to a fence, and put the pelf in his sack. It was, then, a simple matter of finding the fence and bludgeoning him to death using one of the instruments for destroying moles, and restoring to the mad old farmer his rightful possessions.

“Just one question, Tarleton,” said Old Wilkie, “These various instruments for destroying moles. Were any of them developed by L’Oreal?”

But answer came there none, for the amateur’s amateur, his mouth stuffed with some more kippers, had fled to a Limehouse opium den, to wallow in vice, sprawled on a divan.

The Convolutions Of His Syntax

His students realised that they had a legend on their hands, and made the most of it. Dozens of stories circulated about his rumbustious asides, his impossible handwriting, the convolutions of his syntax.*

* In the Saintsbury Memorial Volume a former student recalls learning a specimen sentence by heart: ‘But while none, save these, of men living, had done, or could have done, such things, there was much here which – whether either could have done it or not – neither had done.’

George Saintsbury (1845-1933) recalled in The Rise And Fall Of The Man Of Letters by John Gross (1969)

A Swan Called Jack

Imagine for a moment that you have a pet swan. What would you call it? Alan? Belinda? Clive? Dot? I could continue through the alphabet, but I won’t, not for the time being. If I did, we would soon enough get to J. I like to think that I would not, at that juncture, pick the name Jack. Not for a swan. It doesn’t seem right. Yet that is the name Anna Pavlova gave to her swan, as can be seen in this tremendous photograph, kindly sent to me by David Cranmer. Click for gigantic version.

anna & jack

On Crevasse Wankers

I have never read Touching The Void, Joe Simpson’s 1988 account of clambering, crawling, and hopping down a snowy Peruvian mountainside with a broken leg. It was recommended to me, by someone whose recommendations I generally trust, but for some reason I never got round to it. Today I learned, via the Grauniad, that the book has become a set text for teenpersons in our self esteem ‘n’ diversity hubs. I was startled, as I had no idea they were still encouraged to read. It was not this revelation, however, that was the point of the story. Rather, it was that various scallywags have been conversing with Simpson through the medium of Twitter. All this social networking and internettery can bring writers and readers together, you see.

(As I know myself. In a fit of madness, I once sent an email to Alain De Botton to berate him for not knowing the difference between deprecate and depreciate. He replied, the sensitive soul, within about thirty seconds, to protest that he did know the difference, and went into a lengthy and convoluted justification of his misuse. I was not convinced.)

Anyway, I am afraid I must report that, rather than taking the opportunity to applaud Joe Simpson for his valour and grit and gumption, the teenpersons have been whingeing at him. Much of this is not worthy of comment, but I have to applaud the youngster who coined the term “crevasse wanker”.

Now I tend not to use the language of the gutter myself, not from any sense of prudery, but simply because I consider it a bit lazy. I once knew a man whose every single utterance included at least one “fuck”, and usually more. It was very tiresome to listen to him, and after a while one wanted to stuff a rag into his mouth and have him whipped out of town, as they might have done in an earlier, less barbarous age. Or perhaps I mean more barbarous. If so, it would suggest that a certain modicum and type of barbarism is actually a good thing. I must ponder that.

Generally speaking, the rarer the fuckery the more effective it is. Pansy Cradledew, for example, a woman of great elegance and grace, lets rip with a “fuck fuck fuck!” about once a year, on average. So unexpected is it that jaws drop, glass tumblers shatter, and birds fall stone dead from the skies. Ms Cradledew’s last outburst, at some point in the year of Our Lord MMXI, was occasioned by some finicky faffing with thin strips of cardboard and adhesive paste in the course of constructing a cardboard model of an important building. She was not using the proprietary paste known as Cow Gum. Perhaps that is what caused the sudden fuckery.

If one must swear more often than annually, then I think one should at least approach the task with mad creativity. The baroque flights of sweary fancy in the scripts of The Thick Of It are a model here, but I think it is no accident that they are, precisely, scripted. Few of us could come up with those verbal fireworks spontaneously. The sadly-unnamed Twitterer who called Joe Simpson a “crevasse wanker” belongs, I think, in Malcolm Tucker’s company. It is a phrase of genius. I only wish I could think of occasions when I might use it myself.

Knowing not a jot about Joe Simpson, and not having read his book, nor seen the film documentary which was adapted from it, I have no idea if he deserves to be called a crevasse wanker. But without for one moment discounting the valour, grit and gumption of those who pit themselves against nature’s terrors – mountains, oceans, uncharted territories, polar wastes – there is something faintly laughable about the whole business, is there not? I have read more widely in the accounts of Simpson’s predecessors in earlier centuries, and part of the pleasure, if not most of it, is in the contemplation of the sheer foolishness at large. The following quotation, very dear to me, seems to sum up an entire ethos. In Ex Libris : Confessions Of A Common Reader (1998), Anne Fadiman writes

Who but an Englishman, the legendary Sir John Franklin, could have managed to die of starvation and scurvy along with all 129 of his men in a region of the Canadian Arctic whose game had supported an Eskimo colony for centuries? When the corpses of some of Franklin’s officers and crew were later discovered, miles from their ships, the men were found to have left behind their guns but to have lugged such essentials as monogrammed silver cutlery, a backgammon board, a cigar case, a clothes brush, a tin of button polish, and a copy of The Vicar Of Wakefield. These men may have been incompetent bunglers, but, by God, they were gentlemen.

Incompetent bunglers, gentlemen, and very probably crevasse wankers. It is a term we can also apply to the doomed Scott and his chums, perishing at the South Pole a hundred years ago. I am beginning to think it would make a splendid title for an anthology.

Incidentally, does one have to be British to be a crevasse wanker? Perhaps I am blinkered, but somehow certain foreign persons seem less preposterous when pitting themselves against the etcetera etcetera. For example, Werner Herzog’s various forays, and accounts of others’ forays, into inhospitable wildernesses are, to be sure, ridiculous, but there is a mad grandeur about them. Could Aguirre, The Wrath Of God be retitled Aguirre, The Amazonian Jungle Wanker? I think not.

Agatha Christie’s Mystery Potatoes!

I mentioned yesterday Jack Warner’s fantastic cheese-and-biscuits recipe, included in The Curious Cookbook by Peter Ross. The original source is a wartime collection entitled A Kitchen Goes To War : Famous People Contribute 150 Recipes To A Ration-Time Cookery Book (1940). Among the other dishes is the splendidly-named Agatha Christie’s Mystery Potatoes. I was intending to transcribe the recipe here, then realised that in so doing I would shatter the mystery, so instead I will urge – or indeed egg you on – to buy the book.

Meanwhile, you might be interested in making imitation bacon out of marzipan. Who wouldn’t be?

Take some of your marchpane [marzipan] Paste, and work it in red saunders [sandalwood – a red dye] till it be red; then rowl a broad sheet of white paste, and a sheet of red paste; three of the white and four of the red, and so one upon the other in mingled sorts, every red between, then cut it overthwart, till it look like collops [slices] of bacon, then dry it.

That is from A Queen’s Delight of 1671, and given the title I suggest you make some to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee.


The Queen Of Crime, contemplating her mysterious potatoes

On Tarleton And The Mysterious Affair Of The Buff Envelope

Tarleton was visited in his consulting rooms one April evening by a padding fellow clutching a buff envelope.

Glossary :
Tarleton, “the amateur’s amateur”.
Consulting rooms, address unknown but probably in an ill-lit alleyway off the main thoroughfare in Pointy Town.
April, fourth month of the year. Abolished during the French Revolution and replaced by Germinal (to 19 April) and Floréal (from 20 April). Tarleton’s internal “clock” was regulated accordingly, though not for ideological reasons.
Evening, latter part of the day, descending into dusk and twilight and, eventually, nightfall, wherein terrors are unloosed (see Thomas Nashe, Terrors Of The Night, 1594).
Padding, moving like a cat.
Buff envelope, an item of stationery, not to be confused with the Buff Orpington, a type of duck.

“Why are you padding into my consulting rooms clutching a duck?” asked Tarleton. Then, putting on his spectacles, he added, “I beg your pardon, I ought to say clutching an envelope.”

“Within this buff envelope,” said the visitor, “Are papers which, if revealed to the press, could bring about the collapse of several crowned heads, and seething unrest throughout the continent!”

Then, here indicating the next action or event in a sequence. Can also refer to the past, as in the model sentence “I was happy then, in my childhood, before the revolution, before the shambles wrought by our new masters”.
Spectacles, eyeglasses, two monocles stuck together with connecting wire. Often rose-tinted, though not in Tarleton’s case.
Papers, top secret quasi-official documents of world-shuddering significance.
The press, generic term for newspapers, both tabloid and broadsheet, even, great heavens to Betsy, Berliner format!, not to be confused with Papers (see above).
Collapse, can happen to puddings and soufflés if cooking times go awry.
Crowned heads, done away with, violently, during revolutionary upheavals.
Unrest, second album by Henry Cow, released in 1974. Sock on cover.
Continent, seven known to exist, in alphabetical order Africa, Antarctica, Asia, Australia, Europe, North America, South America. There may be others, hidden or occult. Continental location of Tarleton’s consulting rooms not yet identified beyond every shadow of a doubt (Alfred Hitchcock, 1943).

“Good grief!” spluttered Tarleton’s sidekick Not-Tarleton, sprawled on a beanbag by the fireplace, “If what you say is true we must act immediately to stop the collapse and unrest in their tracks!”

An enigmatic smile played over Tarleton’s lips.

“May I have the buff envelope?” he asked the visitor.

Grief, Hardship, suffering; a kind, or cause, of hardship or suffering. Hurt, harm, mischief or injury done or caused by another; damaged inflicted or suffered; molestation, trouble, offence. A wrong or injury which is the subject of formal complaint or demand for redress. Gravity, grievousness (of an offence). Feeling of offence; displeasure, anger. A bodily injury or ailment; a morbid affection of any part of the body; a sore, wound; a blemish of the skin; a disease, sickness. The seat of disease; the diseased part; the sore place. Physical pain or discomfort. Mental pain, distress, or sorrow. Deep or violent sorrow, caused by loss or trouble; a keen or bitter feeling of regret for something lost, remorse for something done, or sorrow for mishap to oneself or others. Accidents in steeplechasing or in the hunting-field. Also in Golf. (OED). Not-Tarleton’s usage encompasses all these meanings, and more, oh! so many more, for he is that kind of chap, sprawled on his beanbag, spluttering.
Sidekick, a companion, colleague, junior partner, straight man.
Not-Tarleton, specifically in this case, Tarleton’s sidekick. More generally, can be applied to any organism, animate or inanimate, other than Tarleton himself. Thus, everything in the universe. Space precludes a complete list.
Beanbag, a large sealed bag containing synthetic beans, upon which to sprawl. Similar to the “Protean armchair” in The Confidence-Man : His Masquerade by Herman Melville (1857).
Fireplace, as the name suggests, a place of fire, of licking flames, of heat and blaze. Often located within an inglenook. Beanbags (see above) ought only be placed near to inglenooks if they are fire-resistant, otherwise a single spark from a hissing spitting coal upon the fire and, pfft!, up they go in flames. For fictional treatments of the catastrophic effects of fire upon persons, see Dickens, in particular Miss Havisham and Krook.
Tracks, “So take a good look at my face / You’ll see my smile looks out of place / If you look closer, it’s easy to trace / The tracks of my tears” (The Tracks Of My Tears, Smokey Robinson And The Miracles, 1965). In The Song Of Investment Capital Overseas (1981), the Art Bears hint at tracks without quite mentioning them : “The roads and rails run like cracks / And carry me upon their backs”.
Enigmatic smile, cliché used to impart spurious depth to a fictional character.
Lips, important parts of the mouth.
Buff envelope, remember not to confuse it with a Buff Orpington duck.

Hesitantly, the visitor handed the buff envelope to Tarleton. Without opening it, he in turn passed it to Not-Tarleton, still sprawled on a beanbag by the fireplace.

“Toss it on to the fire!” he commanded.

Not-Tarleton did as he was bid, and within seconds the buff envelope, and its mysterious world-shuddering contents, were consumed by the awful flames.

“I think we can say that the world is a safer place,” said Tarleton, smugly. “Now, shall we toast some crumpets?”

It would be a shame to add a further gloss on terms at this point. We would distract from the thrilling climax of the tale, and in any case few new words have been introduced. Hesitantly, toss, bid, awful, toast and crumpets can be looked up in any decent dictionary, and sometimes it is beneficial for readers to take the initiative, rather than having everything handed to them on a plate.

Plate, or platter, an item of crockery on which toasted crumpets are served in the consulting room of Tarleton, the amateur’s amateur, at the conclusion of the famous story Tarleton And The Mysterious Affair Of The Buff Orpington Envelope.

Goblins In The News

Now here is an intriguing (if ungrammatical) headline:

Goblins attacks family, burn down homestead

Readers will be aware that I take a keen interest in goblins of all types. These ones are new to me:

Others went on to claim that snake-like creatures wearing sunglasses, a suit and a pair of shoes had been seen at the homestead.

Truly baffling. What type of snake-like being could wear shoes? Sounds like a job for Investigating Officer David Icke.