Monthly Archive for June, 2012

On Dobson’s Urban Diary

Shortly after his stint on the Country Diary, and his abortive plans for a country dairy, Dobson conceived the idea of writing an Urban Diary. By keeping his observations to town and city, he reasoned, he would have no need to trespass in the countryside and thus run the risk of encountering peasants who, as he put it, “babble gibberish in the guise of rustic wisdom and so befuddle my brain”. Dobson hawked his idea around a few newspaper and periodical editors, but found no takers. Unwilling to abandon the idea, however, he issued what he intended would be the first in a lengthy series of pamphlets. This work, Trudges In Towns (out of print), has recently been hailed as a pioneering work of psychogeography, a judgement which may be based on a misreading of the critic Brent Crude, who suggested that “there is more psychosis than geography on display in this tatty pamphlet”.

The title, with its plural Towns, is somewhat misleading, as so far as we know Dobson never went further than a single town, Pointy Town, in search of material. In fact, unstinting research by hothead young Dobsonist Ted Cack suggests that the pamphleteer barely moved from one spot while working on the text.

This is by no means, writes Cack, the work of a flaneur, nor even of a pedestrian. What I have discovered in the course of my unstinting research is that Dobson barely moved from his escritoire while writing Trudges In Towns. He might have popped into the kitchen to boil some water in a kettle preparatory to pouring it into a teapot into which he had already spooned, from a caddy, a modicum of tea leaves, and he may have remained in the kitchen, staring vacantly out of the window, at crows or cows or trees or whatever it was that was visible outside his window at that time, while he waited for the tea leaves to infuse the hot water, and he would still have been in the kitchen, away from his escritoire when, eventually, he rested a tea-strainer over his cup and poured tea through it from the teapot, into the cup, before adding a dash of milk, poured delicately from a bottle taken from the refrigerator, also located in the kitchen, and, making use of a teaspoon from the cutlery drawer, stirred the decoction so that milk and tea-infused water were throroughly and inextricably intermingled, and he would only return to his escritoire and get some bloody scribbling done when, having placed the cup of tea atop a saucer, he carried it out of the kitchen, before which he would have ensured that the tea-strainer and the teaspoon had been rinsed under the tap and placed for the time being on the draining board anent the sink, there to dry in the warm fug of kitcheny air. But that was about as far away from his escritoire as he got. There is no evidence that he ever trudged the streets of Pointy Town, alert to the sights and sounds and smells of what Keith Pratt, husband of the toyshop assistant Candice-Marie Pratt, famously termed “the hurly burly of the urban conurbation”. I forgot to mention, by the way, that before rinsing the tea-strainer under the tap in the sink, Dobson would have deposited the tea leaves caught in the strainer into a waste bin in the kitchen, one with a flip top lid, a lid raised and lowered by depressing a pedal at the exterior base of the bin with the sole of his foot. Some might accuse me of wittering away with far too much detail about the inconsequentialities of Dobson’s doings, but in my view it is the duty of a biographer to act as a conjuror who makes his subjects “walk and appear that have layen in their graves many hundreds of years”, as John Aubrey put it. And, yes, I am well aware that Dobson has not been dead that long, but I am writing for posterity, even if I am writing a short article for a tatty magazine rather than a big fat biography.

Ted Cack need not justify his methods to me. I am always delighted to read even the most trivial prattle about the twentieth century’s titanic out of print pamphleteer. In fact, I would be spellbound by an account of his making of coffee, or cocoa, or his boiling of potatoes, or his chopping of carrots, or a myriad of other activities, those performed in the kitchen and elsewhere. Each fragmentary glimpse of Dobson contributes to our portrait of the man, in all his Dobsonosity. Quite frankly, I don’t care if all that stuff he wrote in his Urban Diary was mere figment, embroidered from the stuffing of his brain, rather than based on direct observation of whatever was going on in Pointy Town at the time.

But what, precisely, was that stuff? And why did not a single newspaper or periodical editor show the slightest interest in it? After the initial rejections, Dobson thought that by issuing the pamphlet as a kind of sampler, and sending copies to editors, he would have them fighting tooth and claw, bidding ever more ridiculous sums of money, to engage him as a regular urban diarist. In the event, the tatty pamphlets were chucked, unread, into bins, much like the tea leaves from Dobson’s tea strainer. Trudges In Towns was meant to be the first in a series, but no subsequent pamphlets were ever written, and it stands alone and isolated in the Dobson canon.

The problem, I think – and Ted Cack agrees with me – is that the day Dobson chose to write about for his first Urban Diary happened to be a day on which all the countryside persons for miles around descended upon Pointy Town en masse, with their carts and horses and hay and straw and turnips and potatoes and shapeless hats and smocks and muck and slurry and what have you. Even if the pamphleteer had roamed further than his kitchen, in the streets and alleys and mews of Pointy Town he would have met with nobody but peasants, wide-eyed and dribbling and, of course, babbling gibberish in the guise of rustic wisdom and so befuddling Dobson’s brain.

It is his very befuddlement that is expressed in the text, which makes no sense whatsoever, and is largely unreadable. Even young hothead Ted Cack doesn’t understand it, nor even claim to, and that is saying something.

A new edition of Trudges In Towns, in which all the original words are crossed out and replaced by others, from opposite ends of the dictionary, is currently in preparation. Ted Cack is writing an extremely lengthy foreword, in which he promises to examine in detail Dobson’s habitual method of tying his bootlaces in the first week of March 1954.

A Brief Life Of Dr Stokes

Here is the entire brief life of Dr Richard Stokes:

Scholar to Sir William Oughtred for Mathematiques (Algebra). Made himself mad with it, but became sober again, but I feare like a crackt glasse. Became Roman Catholique. Married unhappily at Liège, dog and catt, etc. Became a sotte. Dyed in Newgate, prisoner for debt, April 1681.

One of the briefest of John Aubrey’s Brief Lives, quoted in “Noticing Everything : A Celebration Of John Aubrey” in Traces Remain : Essays And Explorations by Charles Nicholl (2011).

A Brief Note On Comments

Comments at Hooting Yard are moderated – that is, I have to approve them before they appear. WordPress cleverly sorts out the spam and deposits it in a separate inbox. I used to keep a check on this to ensure no legitimate comments had accidentally been dispatched there, but there are currently hundreds of spam comments arriving daily. My brain is already puny and curdled enough without reading through all that bollocks just in case a witty and learned comment from one of my readers has been dumped there by mistake. I mention this in case anybody is sitting there fuming and cursing because their comment has not appeared. This will not be because I have failed to approve it, rather that it has been erroneously designated as spam and I have never even seen it. If your comment does not appear, please either resubmit it or alert me to its absence by email.

On Dobson’s Country Dairy

I have a picture postcard of the Old Town of Prague, on the reverse of which there is printed a quotation from “The Dairies Of Franz Kafka”. For many years, in fact until yesterday, I assumed this was a misprint. It was only when I conducted some mopping up research into the whole business of Dobson and his Country Diary that I realised I had misread some of the paperwork. My source material actually referred to Dobson’s Country Dairy. This leads me to wonder if the picture postcard is indeed correct, and Franz Kafka, too, had his own dairy in the Bohemian countryside, over which his biographers have drawn a veil. I will look into this matter in due course, but for the time being, while I still have these masses of Dobsonia strewn around my boudoir, I think it best to winkle out what facts I can about the titanic pamphleteer’s dairy.

Apparently, one windy March morning in the early nineteen-fifties, Dobson made a sudden announcement at breakfast. He and his poppet, Marigold Chew, were in the midst of an experimental breakfast phase at the time, what with postwar rationing, and were tucking into boiled viper-heads on toast. Suddenly, Dobson put down his fork, finished chewing, swallowed, and said:

“God Almighty, I’ve had it up to here with this pamphleteering lark! I am out of print and nobody cares what I have to say about any topic under the sun. I think I shall retire to the countryside and surround myself with goats.”

“Anglo Nubian, Toggenburg, Golden Guernsey, or Bagot?” asked Marigold Chew, raising an eyebrow.

“I beg your pardon?” said Dobson, who had no idea what she was talking about.

“I am wondering which types of goats you intend to surround yourself with,” said Marigold Chew. Then, noting that Dobson’s countenance was expressive of the most profound bafflement, she added, “Those are the names of four breeds of goat. There are others, but I did not wish to overstimulate your brain and have it explode so early in the morn.” It was five-thirty, and the sun had not yet risen.

“In my world, a goat is a goat,” said Dobson, and he left the breakfast table to go rummaging in a pile of old magazines, one of which be brought back triumphantly.

“I knew I had this somewhere,” he said, “It’s The Listener, Vol I, No 16, 1st May 1929, and I kept it because it has a very interesting article by H S Holmes Pegler on goat-keeping. Listen to this. Many people have a prejudice against goat’s milk, thinking it has a peculiarly goaty flavour. This misapprehension has probably arisen from the experience of tourists in Switzerland and Italy where goat’s milk is in common use, and frequently offered in mugs or glasses which have not been properly cleaned.

“And your point is?” asked Marigold Chew.

“My point is,” said Dobson, becoming exasperated, “That if I retire to the countryside and surround myself with goats, I can serve their milk to tourists in properly cleaned mugs or glasses and thus demonstrate that goat’s milk does not have a peculiarly goaty flavour. It’s a guaranteed money-spinner. Tourists will shun Switzerland and Italy with their goaty flavoured goat’s milk and throng to the Dobson Countryside Goat Dairy instead!”

So feverish with excitement was the pamphleteer that, leaving half a slice of toast and a boiled viper-head untouched, he leapt up again from the breakfast table, donned his Panamanian Canal Inspector’s boots, and crashed out of the door into a downpour. He caught the first bus of the new day into the countryside, alighting at a godforsaken spot on a blasted heath. It was desolate and windswept and foul, but in his mind’s eye Dobson saw a gleaming space age dairy with his name emblazoned over the gates, and happy goats frolicking and gambolling, and queues of tourists lining up to purchase properly cleaned mugs or glasses of non-goaty flavoured goat’s milk. The rain had stopped, briefly, and Dobson sat down on a stone and lit a cigarette and pondered his next step. The first thing to do, he decided, was to obtain some goats.

Dobson waited several hours before a countryside person hove into view, toiling across the heath with a pitchfork over his shoulder.

“Hail, peasant!” cried Dobson, “Tell me, where is the nearest goat shop?”

The rustic squinted at him.

“What sort of goats would you be after, sir?” he asked.

“In my world, a goat is a goat,” said Dobson for the second time that day.

“That’s as may be, sir,” said the peasant, pausing to flick bits of muck off the ends of his pitchfork with horny fingernails, “But I’d have to know whether you want Anglo Nubians or Toggenburgs or Golden Guernseys or Bagots before deciding which direction to point you in. But choose your goat, and point you I will, through copse or spinney, past brook or rill.”

“Is that some kind of rustic saying?”

“It is sir, countryside wisdom, hard won, and ancient, and timeless.”

“Look,” said Dobson, “It’s really very simple. I just want to buy a goat. Or several goats. I don’t care what type of goats they are.”

“Beware the man who chooses no goat,” said the peasant, and he brandished his pitchfork with some menace.

“Is that another rustic saying?” snapped Dobson. But it was a rhetorical question, and before the peasant could answer, the pamphleteer turned away and began trudging across the blasted heath as the clouds burst and rain began to fall again. Not for the first time, Dobson felt defeated by the countryside. By the time he reached home, hours and hours later, he had abandoned the idea of running a goat dairy.

“I am going to have another crack at pamphleteering,” he told Marigold Chew, and, still sopping wet, he sat slumped at his escritoire and wrote the opening lines of his pamphlet Let Tourists Go To Switzerland And Italy And Drink Goaty Flavoured Goat’s Milk From Improperly Cleaned Mugs And Glasses, And See If I Care! (out of print).

Basic Dabbling

Dabbler-3logo (1)

Over at The Dabbler this week, I am prompted to discuss such non-Hooting Yardy topics as dosh, booze, foopball, politics, and seventies rock. All at one fell swoop. You will be pleased to note that my piece is illustrated with a not entirely gratuitous photograph of monopod Jethro Tull flautist Ian Anderson.

On Dobson’s Country Diary

I am enormously pleased to see that an enterprising publisher has issued a collection of Dobson’s so-called nature writings. At some point in the early nineteen-fifties the pamphleteer managed to persuade a harassed and overtired newspaper editor to let him loose on the paper’s Country Diary column. The regular correspondent had been incapacitated in a badger-gassing episode that went spectacularly wrong, and Dobson, weirdly alert to such things, immediately presented himself at the newspaper offices. It is the columns he wrote, in his temporary incumbency, which have now been gathered together and published in a handsome volume. Most of this material will be new, even to the most indefatigable Dobsonist.

Albeit he was only a stand-in, it was a daring appointment, perhaps an act of desperation. For all his undoubted talent as a crafter of sweeping paragraphs of majestic prose, Dobson was profoundly ignorant of the natural world. He was perhaps the least-qualified person ever to write a nature column in a national newspaper. Had the editor not been harassed and overtired, he would surely have sent the pamphleteer packing with a flea in his ear. Instead, Dobson was given a desk and a notepad and a pen and some blotting paper and told to knock together a thousand words in time for the next print-run, in a couple of hours’ time.

Have you ever gassed a badger? he began, and followed it with nine hundred and ninety-four words recounting the badger-gassing episode that went spectacularly wrong which led to the incapacitation of the regular Country Diary columnist and explained why he, Dobson, was sitting at his desk and using his pen and notepad and blotting paper. Not that I will need the blotting paper, he wrote, As so surely do I craft my sweeping paragraphs of majestic prose that nary a blot of ink e’er besmirches them. By the time it was typeset and printed, of course, none among his readers could know that, on the contrary, the pamphleteer’s manuscripts were hideous to behold, a mass of scratches and scribbles and nib-stabbings liberally splattered with blots, of ink and sweat and spit and blood.

Did you gas a badger yesterday? he wrote the next day, and the day after his column began Well, have you gassed any badgers yet? At this point a subeditor stepped in and suggested, tentatively, that Dobson might want to broaden the subject matter of his column. There was more to nature, this chap suggested, than the gassing of badgers, a topic of which, after all, the pamphleteer appeared to know next to nothing. Dobson flew into a temper and accused the subeditor of being harassed and overtired, which was undoubtedly true. But after calming down and smoking a few acrid Serbian cigarettes and doodling a map of Pointy Town on a sheet of blotting paper, he relented, and apologised, and promised to extend his range, as he put it, for the next day’s Country Diary.

The beauty of this new collection is that it includes some of the columns Dobson wrote which were spiked and never appeared in the paper. Among them are the next day’s piece, his fourth, and the first not to fixate upon the gassing of badgers.

Over the last few days, he wrote, I have had much to say about the gassing of badgers. Several letters have landed on my desk from readers, suggesting that I have no idea what I am talking about. Be that as it may, it is time to move on to pastures new. There is more, much more, to the natural world than badger-gassing, or so I have been advised. For instance, have you ever gassed a swan?

These and the following nine hundred and twenty-five words were spiked, or rather set fire to, and their space in the paper taken up instead by a mezzotint of a badger by the noted mezzotintist Rex Tint. Dobson was summoned to the editor’s office and told to avoid, if possible, any mention of gas in his future columns. He asked if the interdiction included marsh gas. Marsh gas, declared the editor, after some thought and pencil-chewing, was an acceptable topic, but only after a week or two. First Dobson would have to show that he was capable of writing a wholly gasless Country Diary column. Seething, Dobson agreed.

The pamphleteer was now in something of a pickle. What on earth was he going to write about? Thanks to this invaluable collection, in hard covers, we know the answer to that question. Dobson somehow managed to string together sweeping paragraphs of majestic prose about voles, spinneys, farm implements, tractors, riverbanks, weasels, owls, canal towpaths, orchards, copses, bogs, ditches, rainfall, slurry, pigs, flocks of Stalins, hollyhocks, mud, lupins, nuthatches, wild rampaging boars, ungassed badgers, henbane, hen coops, Vanbrugh chickens, puddles, ponds, linnets, and a legion of other suitably rustic topics. All of them were addressed in his column the next day, Friday.

Before he sloped off home that evening, Dobson was surprised to learn that in the paper’s Saturday edition, the Country Diary was given double the space. Two thousand words?, he asked, incredulous. Quite so, said the harassed and overtired subeditor. Dobson went away fuming. He decided not to head for home after all, but to seek inspiration by spending the night in the open, sprawled in the middle of a field, out in the countryside. Ignorant as he was of country ways, he did not know that the field in which he chose to sprawl was a haunt of badgers, and that at dead of night, farmers bent on badger destruction came stamping through the muck armed with gas canisters.

When dawn broke, Dobson was sprawled, not in an open field, but in a bed in a clinic for gas victims. Incapacitated, and unable to file his copy, he was told the newspaper no longer required his services. The regular Country Diary correspondent had made a full recovery and was back at his desk, or rather, at a desk alongside it, his own desk, which Dobson had commandeered, having been taken away by the janitor to be scrubbed clean of the stains of ink and sweat and spit and blood with which the pamphleteer had besmirched it.

Several months later, Dobson contacted the editor to suggest he write a daily column about gas. The editor dropped his letter into a waste chute.

Southerners

Babcock resented Popper, or his shadow, and he was uneasy around Ed, who was all too palpable. He took Ed for a Southerner and tried to stay clear of him. He seldom spoke to him, and then only in the imperative mood, master to servant. Babcock knew no Southerners personally but he had seen them in court often enough – Boyce and Broadus and Buford and Othal, and queried the spelling of their names – and Ed’s manner and appearance said Dixie to him. He imagined Ed at home with his family, a big one, from old geezers through toddlers. He saw them eating their yams and pralines and playing their fiddles and dancing their jigs and guffawing over coarse jokes and beating one another to death with agricultural implements. Later, through a quiet investigation, using his court connections, Babcock found that Ed was actually from Nebraska, so it wasn’t as bad as it might have been, though Nebraska was bad enough.

from Masters Of Atlantis by Charles Portis (1985). I am very grateful to Nige for alerting me to this comic masterpiece. The above is merely one excerpt from a novel whose every page provokes guffaws of mirth.

On The Raking Of Gravel, Yet Again

Have I exhausted the topic of the raking of gravel, specifically the raking of gravel by an eerie and enigmatic handyman-gardener? I suspect I probably have. It is high time we moved on to other topics, ones of more import, even perhaps of lesser import, but irrespective of their relative import at the very least different, wildly, vertiginously different, from gravel, and its raking. There is only so much to be said. Indeed, one might be better occupied actually, physically shifting gravel about with a rake than writing about it. Do not for a moment think that that has not occurred to me. Had I a stretch of gravel on a pathway outside my domain, I would certainly have raked it by now, several times, during the past few days. But the pathway outside my domain is covered with flagstones, and I own no rake. Thus I am compelled to write about the raking of gravel rather than to do it.

It is not beyond me, of course, to go sashaying around my bailiwick until I spot a pathway with gravel scattered upon it, and to march up the pathway to the door, and to hammer my fist upon the door and, when it is opened, to greet the person answering and to offer to rake their gravel for them, with the proviso that they would have to supply the rake, a rake which I would of course return to them immediately after I had finished raking the gravel. I would have to put a stress on this last point to avert the possibility that the person might eye me with suspicion as a potential rake-thief, my offer to rake their gravel mere subterfuge. I like to think I do not cut a thief-like figure, do not carry a fishy stink around with me, but some persons are more trusting than others, and if, for example, the person at whose door I come calling has suffered recent theft of garden implements, I could not blame them for smelling a rat, even if there is no rat to be smelled.

That entire paragraph, however, hinges on the idea that I might be desperate to rake gravel, and I am not. Not really. I do not say that I would not spend a happy five or ten minutes raking gravel if the opportunity presented itself. But it is not an opportunity I actively seek. I am content, as I am sure you have twigged, merely to write about it. I wonder, momentarily, whether one might find an equivalence between writing and raking, the writer and the raker, words and gravel, but only momentarily. After a moment, I slap my forehead with the palm of my hand, with some force, and remind myself that I have all but exhausted the topic, and need to move on to fresh pastures, pastures not strewn with gravel.

Before doing so, however, it will be a good idea to mop up any loose ends. Then we can be sure that the raking of gravel has been covered, absolutely, with the guarantee that we need never return to it. Otherwise there will always be that nagging thought, in the brains of both writer (me) and reader (you), that something has been left unsaid, that we will need to return, at some future date not yet allotted, to the subject, to wring from it further insights, and this thought will necessarily distract us from whatever else it is we ought to be concentrating upon. To paraphrase Lord Denning, “this is such an appalling vista that every sensible person in the land would say that it cannot be right that this thought should be allowed to nag at us”. Lord Denning was not talking about the raking of gravel, nor of what we might have neglected to say about it, but his remarks are apposite, which is why I paraphrased them. I could draw upon other paraphrases, and even direct quotations, in my support, were I so minded. But I am not. We do not want to string this business out longer than we have to.

Here, it is nevertheless worth asking “how long might that be?” What if I, or indeed somebody else entirely, were to start a blog entitled The Raking Of Gravel, of which the only subject under discussion was the raking of gravel? Can one imagine daily postages, for years and years, where the topic is ever more thoroughly examined and, as beardy postmodernist fatheads would put it, interrogated? You would have to be mightily interested in the raking of gravel to read such a blog, and to keep reading it, until kingdom come. I am sure there are at least one or two people out there who fit the bill. They will be the ones becoming somewhat tearful and melancholic as we at Hooting Yard now approach the final mopping up.

There may be something to be said about the relationship between mopping and raking, between the duties of a janitor, with a mop, in a corridor, and those of a handyman-gardener, with a rake, on a gravel-strewn pathway. Certainly a janitor can be as eerie and enigmatic as a handyman-gardener, and as given to gnomic utterances. They are cut from the same cloth, generally speaking, though I think it would be a mistake to regard them as interchangeable. Not a serious mistake, with world-shuddering consequences, but a mistake nonetheless.

Note to self : find out the difference, if any, between a janitor and a janissary.

Christ Almighty! I have had it up to here with the raking of gravel by handymen-gardeners! It remains to acknowledge that the original eerie and enigmatic handyman-gardener, Huw Halfbacon, mentioned here explicitly the other day, is a character from Alan Garner’s The Owl Service (1967). It was adapted into a television series in 1969, where Huw Halfbacon was played by Raymond Llewellyn. Here he is, on the right, in a still from the series, many more of which can be seen here.

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On The Raking Of Gravel, Again

With my rake and my shovel
I shift around gravel
For I am the handyman-gardener of Hoon
I am weird and uncanny
And I look at you funny
And wolves howl at the full moon

This was, apparently, the song attributed to the handyman-gardener of Hoon, a weird and uncanny fellow with a squint in one eye whose chief occupation was the raking and shovelling of gravel. The song, thought to be broadly autobiographical, was recorded by folk song collector Cecil Flat, to an accompaniment of piccolo, accordion and marimbas. More recently, the argumentative German improv group Weltschmerz devised an argumentative improv version, in which the words are recited in guttural shouts against a backdrop of tuneless tape-recorded shovelling and raking of gravel. Inevitably, this shot to the top of the hit parade and the band appeared on several overexcitable teenage pop television shows. Eagle-eyed viewers noticed, in the heaving throng of the studio mosh pit on one such show, an elderly man, weird and uncanny, with a squint in one eye, holding in one hand a shovel and in the other a rake. He appeared to have gravel sprinkled in his hair. He was only on screen for a few seconds, but those who saw him were convinced they had spotted the handyman-gardener of Hoon. Alas, this was in the days before Het Internet and YouTube, and no copy of the broadcast is known to exist. We have only the letters pages of the following week’s teenage pop press to turn to.

Dear Teenage Pop Press, reads one typical letter, Yesterday evening, as we do every week, my family gathered around the bakelite television set in our ill-starred yet snug hovel to watch The Overexcitable Teenage Pop Television Show. There were some fantastic beat combos playing, including Agnetha and Anni-Frid and Benny and Bjorn, John and Yoko, the Bernard Levin Madrigal Singers, Gordon Sumner’s Gordon Sumner Tribute Band, Level 42, A Flock Of Seagulls, Tony Gubba’s Gubtastic Gubba Gubba Hey Group, and a chap standing on one leg playing the flute. What we were waiting for, of course, was the smash hit Song Of The Handyman-Gardener Of Hoon performed by Weltschmerz. Now here is the intriguing thing. When the argumentative German improv group were making a din with their shouting and their rakes and their shovels, the camera cut away for a few seconds to the studio mosh pit, wherein a teeming throng of overexcited teenage persons were cavorting and cutting capers, as is de rigueuer. In among them, I am sure I spotted an elderly man, weird and uncanny, with a squint in one eye, holding in one hand a shovel and in the other a rake, who appeared to have gravel sprinkled in his hair. Could it be that this was the handyman-gardener of Hoon himself? And if so, why was he in the mosh pit, rather than up on stage with the band, shouting out his own song?

In the following week’s issue came a response:

Dear Teenage Pop Press, it read, Further to the letter in last week’s issue regarding the elderly man, weird and uncanny, with a squint in one eye, holding in one hand a shovel and in the other a rake, who appeared to have gravel sprinkled in his hair and who appeared for a few seconds on screen during Weltschmerz’s deafening performance of the Song Of The Handyman-Gardener Of Hoon on television recently, I think the person your correspondent spotted was me. I am elderly. I have been described, both by strangers and by members of my own family as weird. There is certainly something uncanny to be seen whenever I look in the mirror. On the evening in question I attended the television studio with both a rake and a shovel about my person, for reasons I have been advised by tiptop legal advisers not to bruit about in the popular press. The one point on which I would take issue is that I did not have gravel sprinkled in my hair. I tend my magnificent bouffant with great care, and would never be so neglectful of its preening to allow gravel to become sprinkled in it. There is the possibility that what your correspondent saw was electrical or electronic interference, given the primitive state of transmission on black and white television screens at this point in history, when we have not yet progressed to colour, or high definition, or whatever further wonders the pipe-smoking boffins have up their sleeves. Though it may be thought that I am a tad too elderly to go cavorting and cutting capers in a mosh pit, it has long been my habit to go in search of the hero inside myself, until I find the key to my life. This has led me down some unexpected by-ways. It is not, for example, the only time I have been mistaken for the handyman-gardener of Hoon, even by myself. The day after the television show I was taking a stroll along the canal towpath near fields and a spinney and standing stones and an army firing range surrounded by an electrified fence when I came to a rustic cottage. Its grounds were strewn with gravel. As I had my shovel and my rake with me, for reasons which again I am not minded to divulge, I took it in to my head to do a spot of shovelling and raking of the gravel, on the spur of the moment. After all, it occurred to me that this might be the key to my life. And so it proved. I have been happily shifting about gravel with my rake and my shovel ever since, and I am now waiting for the next full moon, to hear if wolves will howl, as was foretold in the song.

I have studied all available documentation from that time and that place but am so far unable to confirm whether or not wolves did indeed howl at the full moon. The only hint I found was a report in Recordings Of Wolves Howling magazine, in which the member of Weltschmerz with the severest haircut gave an argumentative interview in which he revealed that the band had been making tape-recordings of the howling of wolves. He did not explain why.

On The Raking Of Gravel

The raking of gravel in the grounds of a rented country cottage is usually the lot of the handyman-gardener who comes with the property. You will first meet him when he comes to the railway station to meet you off the train. He will load your luggage on to the brake after the briefest greeting, and drive like the clappers along twisting bosky lanes. When he has debouched you outside the cottage, and unloaded the luggage, he will drive off again to park the brake in a nearby barn. You will not see him again for some hours, until evening, when, looking out of the cottage window, you will spot him raking the gravel.

The next morning, after a slap up breakfast, and it being a sunny day, you will all go for a stroll together. You will explore, in a not too systematic fashion, the countryside surrounding the rented cottage, the fields, the canal, the spinney, the standing stones, the army firing range with its electrified fence. Towards midday, returning to the cottage for a slap up lunch, you will see the handyman-gardener raking the gravel in the grounds. One of you will try to engage him in friendly if condescending conversation, but his only response will be a gnomic utterance which you find baffling. You will discuss your bafflement over lunch. Before your afternoon nap, you will look out of the window, but there will be no sign of the handyman-gardener, though you will see his rake leaning against a low wall next to the fruit beds.

That evening he will appear for about half an hour, raking the gravel.

The next day you will go for a stroll after breakfast again. This is when you will learn that, other than the fields and the canal and the spinney and the standing stones and the army firing range with its electrified fence, there is nothing else of interest to see. On your way back to the rented cottage, you will decide to pick the brains of the handyman-gardener, and devise a series of questions to ask of him. How extensive is the farm to which the fields belong? Where does the canal begin and end? Has any event of local historical significance ever taken place in the spinney? What legends are associated with the standing stones? You will decide not to make any queries regarding the army firing range with its electrified fence, mindful as you are of national security. But when you arrive back at the cottage, the handyman-gardener will not be there. His rake will be leaning against the low wall. After a brief exchange of views, you will decide to walk the short distance to the barn. You will peek inside. There is the brake. Where is the handyman-gardener?

After lunch, and after your afternoon nap, you will gather in the living-room. All those questions about the fields and the canal and the spinney and the standing stones and the army firing range with its electrified fence will seem so much hogwash now. You will have a quite different set of questions, all of which relate to the handyman-gardener. What is his name? Who pays his wages? What does he do, other than rake gravel and collect people from the railway station in the brake? Where does he sleep? You will discard a suggested question about whether he is a deaf mute on the basis of his gnomic utterance the day before. Then your ears will prick up. You will hear, outside the cottage, the raking of gravel. But when you pile outside to approach the handyman-gardener and fire questions at him, he will already be gone.

The following day will pass without any sign of him. The gravel will go unraked.

By Wednesday morning, in the absence of any other focus for your attention, you will be wholly consumed by the handyman-gardener. There will almost be a whoop of joy when, shortly after breakfast, peering out of the window, you see him raking the gravel. The previous evening, in the course of animated discussion around a blazing fire, you will have decided to delegate one of your number to approach the handyman-gardener to put your questions to him. Your thinking will have been that he may open up to one, whereas he may be intimidated by all sixteen of you. Now you will wait in the living room, crowded around the window, while one goes out and strolls nonchalantly up to the handyman-gardener. You will be somewhat surprised that he does not pause in his raking of the gravel during the conversation that ensues. Later, there will be disappointment intermixed with mild outrage when it is reported that, in answer to such questions as your delegate managed to frame, the handyman-gardener responded only with baffling gnomic utterances. You will feel yourselves back at square one.

The next day, trudging disconsolately after breakfast by the fields and the canal and the spinney and the standing stones and the army firing range with its electrified fence, there will be common agreement that the handyman-gardener is a halfwit. It will be decided to pay him no more attention, and to discover other points of rustic interest, though what they might be will tax your ingenuity. This will be the most dangerous time.

For now the handyman-gardener has the measure of you. His patient raking of the gravel, his disappearances, his deliberately baffling utterances, his leaving the brake untouched in the barn, all have served their purpose. He is almost ready to strike.

The following Saturday, as on the Saturday before, the handyman-gardener will drive the brake to the railway station, and collect the people who have rented the cottage for a week. Only he will know, as he nods the briefest of greetings, that there is no chance they will survive that long.

Udo Luckner And The Magical Nucleus

The British explorer Percy Fawcett vanished in the Amazon jungle, along with his son Jack and a friend of Jack’s, in 1925. Fawcett was searching for the remains of an ancient mythical (and mystical) city he called Z. Over the following years, many attempts were made to find him…

Many Brazilians told us that, over the past few decades, religious cults had spring up in the area that worshipped Fawcett as a kind of god. They believed that Fawcett had entered a network of underground tunnels and discovered that Z was, of all things, a portal to another reality. Even though Brian Fawcett had concealed his father’s bizarre writings at the end of his life, these mystics had seized upon Fawcett’s few cryptic references, in magazines such as the Occult Review, to his search for “the treasures of the invisible World”. These writings, coupled with Fawcett’s disappearance and the failure of anyone over the years to discover his remains, fuelled the notion that he had somehow defied the laws of physics.

One sect, called the Magical Nucleus, was started, in 1968, by a man named Udo Luckner, who referred to himself as the High Priest of the Roncador and wore a long white gown and a cylindrical hat with a Star of David. In the 1970s, scores of Brazilians and Europeans, including Fawcett’s great-nephew, flocked to join the Magical Nucleus, hoping to find this portal. Luckner built a religious compound by the Roncador Mountains, where families were forbidden to eat meat or wear jewelry. Luckner predicted that the world would end in 1982 and said that his people must prepare to descend into the hollow earth. But, when the planet remained in existence, the Magical Nucleus gradually disbanded.

from The Lost City Of Z : A Legendary British Explorer’s Deadly Quest To Uncover The Secrets Of The Amazon by David Grann (2009)

On Scroonhoonpooge Marshes

One March morning, Agnetha and Anni-Frid and Benny and Bjorn became hopelessly lost in marshland. They were on their way to a picnic engagement, for which they had been booked to perform a set of cover versions of songs by the Carpenters. This was something of a departure for the Scandinavian foursome, and the circumstances were murky, occasioned it was said by a gambling debt Benny had accrued after a marathon game of blackjack with Richard Carpenter. Hired thugs were involved, and telephone calls in the middle of the night, and packs of wolves. The whole business made Agnetha shudder, and she tried to concentrate on her piccolo practice. She had recently taken up the instrument, and hoped to make her public debut with it at the picnic.

But as the morning wore on, the chances of attending the picnic grew more and more remote. Their map indicated that they would have to cross Scroonhoonpooge Marshes, with which they were unfamiliar. Had they listened to Huw Halfbacon, the handyman-gardener at their rented cottage, perhaps they would have devised a different route, and made a diversion, however lengthy, in order to avoid the marshes altogether. But now, as a mist descended, they were hopelessly lost.

There is a difference we would do well to consider between being lost and being hopelessly lost. To be lost, yet still in possession of hope, suggests that with the application of common sense, or true grit, or luck, one might yet find oneself back on the correct path, or in territory one knows, or even at one’s intended destination. Bjorn, for example, had once got lost in the cemetery where he went to visit the grave of Karen Carpenter. He roamed among the headstones for hour upon hour, becoming thirsty and peckish. Fortunately it was a bright, clear day, warm but not too hot, utterly different to the chill mist hanging over Scroonhoonpooge Marshes on this March morning. Had Bjorn used his noggin, he would have done as I and my sister did when we were once searching fruitlessly, in Saint Patrick’s cemetery in east London, for the grave of the five Franciscan nuns drowned off the Kentish Knock and commemorated by Gerard Manley Hopkins in his poem The Wreck Of The Deutschland (1876). Unable to locate the grave, and with the last light of a winter’s afternoon fading, we knocked on the door of a lodge at the cemetery gates, where a helpful gravedigger named Mario led us directly to the last resting place of “them nuns what drowned”. Had Bjorn determined to find such a gravedigger in such a lodge by the gates of the cemetery wherein Karen Carpenter lies buried, he would no doubt have been able to lay the bouquet of campions and pansies he had brought with him in their proper place. Instead, he wandered haphazardly, and eventually chucked the flowers into a waste bin, in a fit of temper.

For all that, he was never hopelessly lost. One cannot, on a clear day, become hopelessly lost in a cemetery. By its very nature, it will be bounded by walls or railings, and even if one trudges around for hours as Bjorn did, always there is the reassurance that sooner or later one will stumble upon the cemetery limits, at which point one need merely follow the walls or railings until one reaches the gates.

But out here on unfamiliar marshes, in a mist, with little visibility, it is possible indeed to lose hope, and thus to become hopelessly lost. Such were the circumstances as Agnetha and Anni-Frid and Benny and Bjorn stopped by a puddle. Had any of them spoken, they would have said “Where the hell are we?”, in Swedish. But they were too exhausted, and they simply looked at each other, in silence. In spite of the chill, Benny was sweating profusely. He was overdressed. Anni-Frid was on the verge of tears. Agnetha was wondering if she might make a few toots on her piccolo to attract the attention of any wandering marsh-guide, if such a person existed. And Bjorn was about to fly into a temper, just as he had done when failing to find the grave of Karen Carpenter. The mist was so thick it hid the sun, though it was the crack of noon.

There the foursome stood, when of a sudden a figure loomed towards them. It was Huw Halfbacon, the eerie Welsh handyman-gardener. He seemed to have materialised from nowhere. A strange smile played over his lips.

“Would it be the picnic spot you are looking for?” he asked.

Agnetha and Anni-Frid and Benny and Bjorn all gabbled at once, such was their relief. Now there was hope!

“You will not be finding a picnic spot in the middle of Scroonhoonpooge Marshes,” said their saviour. Was there a trace of mocking laughter in his voice, or something more sinister? “Come, follow me,” he added.

And he turned his back on them and his wellington boots splattered through the puddle.

“Quick now!” he called, and they understood the urgency of his words, for though he had taken only a few steps he was already vanishing into the mist. They hurried in his wake, their unwellingtonbooted feet getting soaked as they followed through the puddle.

The eerie silence of the misty marshes was suddenly broken by the roar of a jet aircraft zooming, invisible, across the sky. In the passenger seat, craning to look out of the window with a pair of mist-probing superbinoculars, cackling his head off like a villain in a Victorian melodrama, was Richard Carpenter. In his pocket was a wallet stuffed with cash, the bribe he had ready for Huw Halfbacon. He would meet the handyman-gardener later in the afternoon, at the now empty cottage. In the weeks and months to come, when Swedish detectives came to find traces of the foursome, Huw Halfbacon would assume his most cretinous expression, and mumble enigmatic yet senseless Welsh twaddle, and point them in the direction of Scroonhoonpooge Marshes, upon which the mist had never lifted, and which led nowhere, save to oblivion.

On A Prang

The ventriloquist Claud Plon was out for a spin in his jalopy when he had a prang. He hit a lamppost, the collision with which rent and twisted the bonnet of the jalopy, exposing part of the engine, which belched forth jets of steam.

“Oops!” said his dummy, a puppet called Bonko. Bonko was a sock stuffed with kapok who had a couple of glass beads sewn on to serve as eyes.

“Sorry about that, Bonko, I wasn’t looking where I was going,” said the ventriloquist, “Are you all right?”

“I think I have suffered a whiplash injury,” replied Bonko, who may have been lying, as to the untrained eye he looked perfectly okay.

“Goodness gracious!” said Claud Plon, “We shall have to get you to the doll hospital.”

“Why on earth would we go to a doll hospital?” asked Bonko, “I am not a doll. I am a sock stuffed with kapok with a couple of glass beads sewn on to serve as eyes.”

“Yes, I see your point,” said Plon, “Then what about a puppet clinic?”

“Is there such a place as a puppet clinic?” asked Bonko.

“I have heard tell there is one in Pointy Town,” said the ventriloquist.

“But we are miles and miles away,” said Bonko, “And I fear my whiplash may be fatal, for I can already feel myself succumbing to faintness and a lack of oxygen to the brain, pins and needles, darting pains behind my glass beads, and the gradual oozing of the very life out of me.”

This time Bonko was definitely lying, or at least embroidering the truth. But Claud Plon was both devoted and gullible. It would never occur to him that Bonko might be trying to pull the wool over his eyes, which in the ventriloquist’s case were real, working eyes, not mere sewn-on glass beads. There had been occasions in the past when people suggested that Bonko might be a mendacious fantasist, and Plon had been so inflamed with outrage that he had beaten the accusers about the head with a shovel. Bonko egged him on, urging him to bash and bash and bash until the bashee was dead.

Plon was now in something of a panic. Bonko, who was a fine judge of distance, was absolutely correct that they were very far away from Pointy Town and its puppet clinic. Also, the prang had been severe enough to render the jalopy motionless. Crank it as frantically as he could, it was not going anywhere. Steam continued to hiss from the bonnet.

“What are we going to do?” wailed Plon.

“You had better think of something quickly, because I am fading fast,” said Bonko, “It is as if I am in a long, dark tunnel, and there is an unearthly light towards which I feel impelled to go.”

“Don’t go into the light!” screamed Plon, remembering certain supernatural thriller films he had seen.

“But it is such an attractive light,” said Bonko, “I feel drawn to it.”

Claud Plon could think of nothing but to repeat his shrieked words. At which point the jalopy burst into flames. The ventriloquist and his dummy would surely have been engulfed and burned to a crisp had not a big red fire engine screeched to a halt beside them, bells clanging, and the fire been doused by untold gallons of water spurting from a hose trained upon the jalopy by three heroic firemen. Seconds later, there was further clanging, and an ambulance pulled up, out of which poured three heroic paramedics. They grabbed the ventriloquist and shoved him with skilled gentleness onto a stretcher.

“Never mind about me,” he cried, “Save Bonko!”

But as he cried out a needle was injected into his arm and a fast-acting narcotic coursed through his veins and he lost consciousness.

*

Claud Plon awoke next day, flat on his back in a bed in a ward of the Hattie Jacques Memorial Hospital. His brain was dizzy, he bore a few singe-marks here and there, but was otherwise as fit as a fiddle. He looked wildly around, but there was no sign of Bonko. He pressed a buzzer at his bedside, summoning an angel of mercy. Plon raved; was not understood; and was drugged back into unconsciousness.

*

There is, high on a hill in a rustic backwater some miles from Pointy Town, a big grim crenellated smoke-blackened mansion, once the home of robber barons but now a home for the bewildered and befuddled and frankly bonkers. Claud Plon, the ventriloquist and one-time star of the variety theatre, has lived here for twenty years, having been delivered on a stretcher, manacled, at dead of night. In his room in one of the towers, he raves and mutters. He goes barefoot, for the staff have a standing instruction never to allow him anywhere near socks. His simple tunic and trousers are fastened with zips, for it is thought best not to give him buttons, so easily mistaken for beads of glass. He has no visitors.

*

There is, at the foot of a hill in a rustic backwater some miles from Pointy Town, a rubbish dump. Over the years it has grown as it is piled ever higher with waste, things discarded, things bent and broken, things forgotten and abandoned, big and small, from lollipop sticks to wrecked jalopies. Within this midden, open to the elements, frayed around the edges and still bearing the singe-marks from a fire twenty years ago, there is a sock. It was once stuffed with kapok, much of which has fallen out. It once had two glass beads sewn on, where now there is only one. Sometimes urchins and wastrels and beggars will come trudging through the waste in search of scraps and scantlings. It is said that, when the air is still and the gulls cease shrieking, a voice can be heard, from somewhere in the dump, a peevish, rancorous, cursing voice, spitting with vituperation.

“Let me into the fucking light!” it cries.

Snow-Covered Penguin

snow covered penguin

On The Rare Golden Enigmatic Tatterdemalion Corncrake

There are certain beasts and creatures for which the names we use are inaccurate and misleading. A seahorse is not a horse, nor is a jellyfish a fish. Doubly erroneous is the guinea pig, which does not come from Guinea and is not a pig. It is all very perplexing, never more so than in the case of the rare golden enigmatic tatterdemalion corncrake. Let us take each element of its appellation in turn, and examine just how foolish it is of us to name it so.

Rare. This is not, by a long stretch, a rare beast. There are teeming millions of them, if not billions, though naturalists have yet to arrive at a definitive number. To list their habitats would take us all day, and probably into tomorrow. Suffice to say there is nowhere on earth they will not thrive, from grasslands, heaths, and moors to densely forested woodland, polar wasteland, steaming jungles, and urban hellholes. You will find them both near and far from any sea. I realise I have begun to list their habitats, and will stop now, bearing in mind what I just said about how bloody long it would take. The point is made, that the rare golden enigmatic tatterdemalion corncrake is not at all rare. You might protest that you have never seen one, or at least cannot recall ever seeing one, but that is because they are shy and retiring and extremely skilled at hiding from humankind. Even if you did see one, there is every likelihood you would not recognise it for what it was, as you would be on the lookout for something rare and golden and enigmatic and tatterdemalion and corncrakey, and as I shall demonstrate, it is none of these things.

Golden. Pish! There is no way this creature can be described as “golden”. Red, maybe, or blue, perhaps even orangey-yellowy, but never golden. At blaze of noon, perhaps, you might think it golden, or goldenish, but what you would be seeing is the mighty burning golden rays of the sunlight, not the actual colour of the rare golden enigmatic tatterdemalion corncrake.

Enigmatic. What does that even mean? Let us turn, as always, to the OED, which defines “enigmatic” as Pertaining to, or of the nature of, an enigma, containing or resembling an enigma: ambiguous, obscure, perplexing. Of persons: Mysterious; baffling conjecture as to character, sentiments, identity, or history. An enigma itself, we are told, is A short composition in prose or verse, in which something is described by intentionally obscure metaphors, in order to afford an exercise for the ingenuity of the reader or hearer in guessing what is meant; a riddle. How far does that get us, in considering the rare golden enigmatic tatterdemalion corncrake? If we extend “Of persons” to “Of persons and beasts and creatures and all the birds of the air”, which I think we are justified in doing at this stage of our investigation, then I would aver that the most enigmatic thing about the rare golden enigmatic tatterdemalion corncrake is that we apply the word “enigmatic” to it. That in itself is perplexing and mysterious and baffling, is it not? But if we continue down that road we are going to become horribly entangled in a hall of mirrors. Oops, I am mixing my metaphors. Let me say instead that we are going to become horribly entangled in a thicket of nettles which has unaccountably sprouted in a patch of soil within a hall of mirrors. For that image, I can rely on historical precedent, as it is said that Prince Fulgencio, that black-hearted monster, had such a thicket of nettles within the hall of mirrors within his palace. But that is a topic for another time, tomorrow perhaps. For now, I do not wish to become disorientated in the hall of mirrors suggested by the idea that the only thing remotely enigmatic about the rare golden enigmatic tatterdemalion corncrake is that the word “enigmatic” appears in its name. See, I am already repeating myself, dizzy-brained, my mind in chaos. We had best move on to the next word in the chain.

Tatterdemalion. A person in tattered clothing; a ragged or beggarly fellow; a ragamuffin – the OED again. How indispensable it is! And again we must extend “person” to include beasts and creatures and all the birds of the air. Even minimal familiarity with the pernickety grooming habits of the rare golden enigmatic tatterdemalion corncrake shows us that this is a wildly inaccurate description of the beast. Several tiptop naturalists have written at length on its neat and tidy appearance, achieved through hour upon hour of pernickety grooming. Given the vicissitudes of the natural world, however, it is only to be expected that there will be circumstances every now and then when even the neatest and tidiest of creatures will appear ragged and tattered and bedraggled. In the case of the rare golden enigmatic tatterdemalion corncrake, these might include exposure to gale-force winds, dunking in storm-tossed oceans, and being caught and dragged, by one of its many, many predators, through a thicket of nettles on its way to the predator’s lair or nest. At all other times the word “tatterdemalion” is completely inappropriate.

Corncrake. The rare golden enigmatic tatterdemalion corncrake bears about as much resemblance to a standard corncrake as a seahorse does to a standard horse, a jellyfish to a standard fish, or a guinea pig to a standard pig. We can try to make more sense of this part of its name if we split the word into two, corn and crake. While it is emphatically the case that the creature is to be found in rippling cornfields, we have already stated that there is nowhere on earth it is not found. Thus it is just as likely to be hiding in a field of rippling corn as it is in a field of other rippling crops, or on moorland or heath, or anywhere else you might possibly think of. The question of how it hides itself on open land such as moor and heath is so complicated that I cannot bear the thought of trying to explain it to you in language you would understand. As for the crake, that is merely an approximation of the kind of noise it might make, were you to overhear it and try to write down in letters of the alphabet what you thought you had heard. But please, on no account should you pay any attention to the fathead who claims that “crake” is the noise it makes if you cause it alarm and it flees in fear and terror. On the contrary, it will softly and suddenly vanish away – for the rare golden enigmatic tatterdemalion corncrake is a Boojum, you see.