On Cretinous Neurotics’ Countries

In yesterday’s cryptic crossword in the Grauniad, the solution to 10 across was CRETINOUS, to 11 across NEUROTICS, and to 27 across COUNTRIES. This was an extraordinary coincidence, as earlier in the day I had been thinking, and thinking hard, about cretinous neurotics’ countries. I hasten to add that these thoughts were not in any way connected to the Olympic Games. No doubt each country has both the cretinous and the neurotic among its participants, but that is a matter for the sports writers, not for me.

Though sport is a field in which the cretinous neurotic can, and does, excel, in the countries I was thinking about their purview is much wider. These are the lands where cretinism and neurosis are extolled as the ne plus ultra, where the cretinous neurotic is not merely coddled and pampered but sits at the top table, is given the keys to the kingdom, rules the roost. Countries like Tantarabim and Gaar.

Gaar – sometimes spelled Ga’ar or G’aar – is fertile ground for neurotic cretins. Once upon a time this land of marshes, moors, and mountains was ruled by a Sheila Parslow-like figure, a “nymphomaniacal moron” in Josephine Tey’s memorable phrase for La Parslow given in Brat Farrar (1949). But a coup toppled the old regime, led by a particularly neurotic cretin, or an especially cretinous neurotic, according to which sources you trust. Certainly Fab Slobber, who pronounced himself King, was a proper caution. His brain was tiny and curdled and often overheated, and the list of his neuroses would fill several thick leather-bound ledgers. A debilitating fear of badgers was just one of his derangements. It was the presence of a badger motif on the national flag that precipitated the coup. Fab Slobber’s first act was to banish the nymphomaniacal moron. His second was to replace the flag with one showing a badger trampled underfoot by a neurotic cretin’s boot. Not long after, it was redesigned again, and this time the badger was entirely obliterated, leaving the boot stamping on nothing.

The court of King Fab became a playground for cretins and neurotics. Anyone with a jot of sense, or an untroubled cast of mind, swiftly fell from favour and went into exile. Yet Gaar thrived. Exports of pig iron went through the roof. Nobody who remained in the country knew what the hell it was, so when foreign prospectors flooded in and offered to dig it up and take it away, they were given the King’s blessing. Civil strife became a thing of the past, and the past itself was abolished, as if it had never been, save for those whose neurosis compelled them to live in it, proffering outdated coinage, wearing strange pointy hats, and babbling archaic argot. It was a happy land, perhaps the happiest that ever was. Cretins gambolled o’er the marshes and moors and mountains, neurotics gave unbridled vent to their neuroses, and the cretinous neurotics were happiest of all, if a neurotic can ever be truly happy.

Several academic studies have been carried out to determine how a country under the governance of a neurotic cretin could be so prosperous, so successful. No firm conclusions have yet been reached, though it is instructive to compare the example of Gaar with that of Tantarabim. In the latter case, there was no coup d’etat. There was no nymphomaniacal moron to be deposed. As far as anybody has been able to ascertain, Tantarabim has always been ruled by cretinous neurotics, in spite of the fact that the vast majority of its populace are neither cretinous nor neurotic. Indeed it has been estimated that, by any measure, the typical Tantarabimer has greater brain power and a more equable temperament than the average citizen of any other realm, on earth as it is in heaven. Yet year after year, when the time comes to call on the haruspex to slaughter a chicken and cast its hot steaming entrails upon the civic square, and to read therein the name of the Potentate who will rule, tyrannically, Tantarabim for the following twelvemonth, the name is invariably that of a neurotic cretin, one who until they rule is kept chained up in somebody’s cellar or attic, drooling, and batting flies away from their misshapen pointy head. It is a unique system of government, so rare it has never been given a name. Yet it works perfectly, so much so that Tantarabim exports even more pig iron than Gaar, if you can imagine so bewildering a statistic.

For the term of his or her rule, the Potentate’s word is law. It matters not if the word, mumbled from a mouthful of drool, is cretinous or neurotic. It is at once transcribed by the Potentate’s amanuensis, the frizzy-haired so-called “Winterson” of Tantarabim, and multiple copies made on an old and creaking Gestetner machine, and the copies ferried out across the country by eager sprinters, who post the word up on every available flat vertical surface, not excluding those that are crumbling or due for demolition. And woe betide the Tantarabimer who does not follow these cretinous and neurotic edicts! Woe betide them indeed! Woe, woe, and thrice woe! And yet further woe, yea, unto every generation!

Perhaps the secret of Tantarabim’s success is the guarantee, according to the constitution, that precisely a year to the day after the Potentate’s accession, they will be taken back to their cellar or attic and chained up again. They will be given a pewter pot in which to catch their drool. Flies will be reintroduced through ducts and vents, so they can be batted away, thus keeping the cretinous neurotic fully occupied. And outside, life will go on, under the iron rule of a brand new Potentate, whose decrees will bear no relation whatsoever to those of the last one, nor indeed to reality, as apprehended by the citizenry. Thus is the body politic ever renewed and refreshed, and the pig iron exports increased.

I am told there are yet other countries where cretinous neurotics hold sway. I must get down to some serious research, and discover where they are, and pay them a visit, armed with my notepad and a camera and a strange pointy hat.

On Horses


Back in February, in the piece On Certain Books I Have Read, I noted that “there is rarely any pattern or method to my reading. I flit from one thing to another, often jarringly”. Of late, my flitting has often been determined by recommendations from other blogpersons. Nige, for example, alerted me to the comic genius of Charles Portis, and it was by way of a comment by Gaw that I immersed myself in The Lion And The Unicorn, a double biography of Gladstone and Disraeli by Richard Aldous.

Peter Hitchens would probably baulk at being called a blogperson, but one of the advantages of Het Internet is that one can read his Mail On Sunday columns as a blog without having to fight one’s way through the rest of the paper. A few weeks ago, having spent the weekend in Lewes, Hitchens wrote:

I always have the country round Lewes in mind, and especially a certain old-fashioned hotel in Lewes, when I read Josephine Tey’s tremendous mystery novel ‘Brat Farrar’. I re-read it every few years, even though I shall never again have the disturbing thrill of suddenly realising the appalling truth at the heart of the story, which only first-time readers can have.

That was enough for me to trot off to the London Library to borrow the book. (I have already sung the praises of that paradise on earth, so shall not babble on about it yet again.) And I am very glad I did so. It is indeed a “tremendous mystery”, and I have not yet got as far as the “appalling truth at the heart of the story”, so I want to dash off this postage as quick as I can so I can return to it.

What Hitchens does not mention is that the setting of Brat Farrar is a stud farm, the characters a horsey lot. Had he done so, I fear I may have ignored his encomium and never bothered to read the book. Though I have read much more in the field of crime and mystery than in any other fictional genre, I have studiously avoided any sniff of horseyness. I have never read a word of Dick Francis and am confident that I never will. I am as far from a horsey person as it is possible to be. I have never sat on one, ridden one, or bet on one. The pleasures of the turf are a mystery to me. To be told a novel is set in a horsey milieu is a guarantee that I will not go near it with a bargepole.

Brat Farrar, however, is superb, in spite of the horseyness, crucial though that is to the plot (at least as far as I have read). Thus immersed in horses, for once, my mind turned to their appearances in Hooting Yard. For all that I care not a jot for horses, they do turn up in my fictional universe from time to time. Without bothering to trawl through the archives, I can say that generally speaking, Hooting Yard horses are divided into three main categories – (a) elegant, (b) inelegant, and (c) tubercular. In addition, some horses can be a combination of the elegant, or the inelegant, and the tubercular. How I arrived at these basic horsey types is lost in time. All I can recall is that the first time I wrote about a horse, I made it (I think) inelegant and tubercular, and having done so once saw no reason ever to consider any other type of horse, save for the elegant and tubercular. If you are going to apply adjectives to beasts of burden, choose them quickly and with determination, and try never to vary them, that’s my motto. Well, it’s one of my mottoes. There are others, about which I shall perhaps write on some other occasion.

I hope I am not about to contradict myself by stating that, more than once, I have referred to diseases of the horse other than tuberculosis, to wit glanders, headshaking, lethal white syndrome, mud fever, contagious equine metritis, rainscald, strangles, quiltor, hereditary equine regional dermal asthenia, choke, grass sickness, recurrent airway obstruction, cerebellar abiotrophy, lavender foal syndrome, pythiosis, and poll evil. I used to think withers was some kind of horse disease, given that withers, unless in the context of Googie, sounds like a disease. But a horse’s withers are something else again, though exactly what is not clear to me, and I am insufficiently interested in horses to find out. I know, or think I know, that horses have shanks and withers, and that is quite enough to be going on with.

Thus far, in Brat Farrar (I am up to page 176), there has been no mention of a single one of the horse diseases listed above. Either the stud farm at Latchetts is fortunate in having a paddock’s worth of healthy horses, or Josephine Tey did not wish to dwell on the maladies to which horses can fall prey. Or, indeed, she knew less about horses than she wants the reader to believe. If I were to write a whole novel set in a horsey milieu, I would find it difficult to bash out page after page without mentioning glanders, headshaking, lethal white syndrome, mud fever, contagious equine metritis, rainscald, strangles, quiltor, hereditary equine regional dermal asthenia, choke, grass sickness, recurrent airway obstruction, cerebellar abiotrophy, lavender foal syndrome, pythiosis, or poll evil, not forgetting tuberculosis. I would probably have to give my novel a title something like The Island Of Sick Horses.

There may be some of you who think I am more interested in horses than I claim to be, given that only the other day I was writing about crazy horses. But that piece wasn’t really about horses at all, and a careful rereading will show that one never actually sees a horse, from beginning to end. It could be argued that the teeth of the Osmonds are as salient a feature as the huge gleaming teeth of horses, but that would lead us into the topic of horse dentistry, best avoided I think.

Having said all that, it occurs to me that the nomenclature of racehorses is an intriguing subject, and one to which I would do well to turn my attention. But first I must finish reading Brat Farrar, and discover the appalling truth at the heart of the story. Thank you, Mr Hitchens.

On The Blötzmann Manoeuvres

Ever mindful of the need to trim the wicks of his tallow candles, Dobson employed for the purpose a tiny pair of shears which he deployed using the so-called Blötzmann Manoeuvres.

I took against electricity from an early age, he wrote, lying shamelessly, and often found myself in a quandary because untrimmed wicks set my teeth on edge. For a long time I thought the remedy for this was to imbue my teeth with greater strength, foolish young pup that I was. I crunched nuts morning, noon, and night, nuts of many different kinds. I had no favourites in the nut world, although of course the harder the nut, and the greater the effort needed to crunch it into a digestible pap, the hardier my teeth became, and the better they could withstand being set on edge by the appearance of untrimmed wicks on the tallow candles I used to illuminate my habitat.

By his own account, a temporary nut shortage forced Dobson to readdress the problem, but official statistics give the lie to this. Indeed, at the point where the pamphleteer adopted the Blötzmann Manoeuvres, there was a nut glut in the land. According to Pocock & Gabbitas, the squirrel population had been decimated by unexpected lupine savagery, leaving millions of nuts unhidden. If there was no lack of nuts, what made Dobson nail his colours to Blötzmann’s mast? It is significant that at this time, unlike later, Dobson’s colours were cherry and dun, and that a new Blötzmann mast had been erected atop Pilgarlic Hill, not far from the pig farmer’s hut where Dobson had regular sunrise gleanings. The siting of the mast, illegal then as now, was a stroke of genius by the Blötzmannist Erno Von Straubenzee, who had smuggled himself into the country aboard a packet steamer some months earlier.

Intriguingly, no sooner had Von Straubenzee disembarked from the boat, the Googie Withers, than its captain scuppered it, set it ablaze, and promptly vanished. Some say he still haunts the warehouses down at the harbour, rattling an old tin cup and begging for alms from the rough tough sailors thereabouts. Other stories have the one time packet steamer captain retired to the countryside keeping bees, like Sherlock Holmes. All that is known for certain is that a single charred plank dredged from the quayside was all that survived of the Googie Withers, and it was incorporated into a wooden altarpiece in St Bibblybibdib’s church, where it can be seen today, if you buy a ticket from the sexton, a monkey-faced man who sits in a little canvas kiosk in the churchyard each Thursday afternoon, awaiting redemption.

From the lych-gate of St Bibblybibdib’s, looking westward, on a clear day one can see the top of the Blötzmann mast, with its cherry and dun pennants. Turning to the east, the prospect is of fields rippling with wheat and rhubarb and hollyhocks and stinkwort, punctuated by ha-has and the occasional scarecrow. No wild jabbering pigs are to be seen, for they were eradicated by the same unexpected lupine savagery which did for the squirrels during the nut glut, just at the time Dobson falsely claimed a nut shortage led to his adoption of the Blötzmann Manoeuvres as his favoured way of trimming the tallow candle wicks the untrimmedness of which set his teeth on edge so.

But why did Dobson forever deny his association with Erno Von Straubenzee? Decades later, when it was put to the pamphleteer that he and the untidy Blötzmannite had been fast friends, often cooped up together for days on end in the pig farmer’s hut on the hill, scheming and plotting and cackling and letting sawdust trail through their fingers, reading the runes, Dobson blushed as he protested that the name Von Straubenzee meant nothing to him. He came up with improbable tales to account for his whereabouts on certain days when it was suspected the Blötzmann mast had been activated. And he was never able to explain how he had learned to trim his wicks so deftly with the tiny shears essential to the Blötzmann Manoeuvres. The one time he mentions the shears in a pamphlet, he is curiously abrupt.

In Ten Short Essays On Chopping And Cutting And Hacking (out of print), he gives full vent to his thoughts on scissors and scimitars and pastry-cutters, for example, devoting over twenty pages to the latter alone. There is detail here aplenty for the student who wishes to learn from scratch how to cut up bits of pastry in hundreds of different ways. Yet not only is there not a separate essay about the tiny shears, they are only mentioned in a footnote, and in such small type that only the most assiduous of readers is likely to be bothered with it. I freely admit that I have not read it myself, and rely entirely upon the account of the footnote given in the latest issue of Marginalia Dobsonia, the scholarly journal edited by Aloysius Nestingird.

Now here’s the thing. Parish records seem to show that Nestingbird is directly related to Erno Von Straubenzee, may indeed be his grandson. If true, it would explain a lot, although I am not entirely sure what precisely is explained, and Nestingbird has never replied to any of my letters. Last week I fired off a sort of questionnaire to him, demanding what they call full and frank answers to over a dozen accusations. I wanted to know if he had copies of the construction plans for the Blötzmann mast, or for any similar mast, if he ever worshipped at the wooden altar in St Bibblybibdib’s and, if he did, what god he worshipped there, and did he worship standing up, sitting, kneeling, or sprawled prostrate on the cold stone floor. I pumped him for an answer to the important question of whether he knew the name of the captain of the packet steamer Googie Withers, and what had become of that mysterious old sea dog. I threw in a sneaky query about the accounting procedures of his scholarly journal, convinced as I am that the profits are being salted away to fund the salt mines from which far-flung members of the Nestingird clan draw their dubious salaries. I asked all this and more, but of course got nothing in return, not even the threats I have become used to from the badly-dressed buffoon. I know for a fact that it is Nestingbird, or one of his cronies, who has sullied my reputation with the electricity people, and with the gas people too, and that both utilities have cut off supplies to my seaside cabin, and that is why I, like Dobson before me, now rely upon candlelight, and well-trimmed wicks. To date, I have not had to resort to the Blötzmann Manoeuvres, for wicks not neatly trimmed have yet to set my teeth on edge. If they do, with much bluster I shall begin to crunch nuts, and Nestingbird will be laughing on the other side of his pasty face. I will crunch nuts, and cackle, and be righteous and roopty-toot.

[This piece previously appeared on 25 March 2007.]

On An Ascent By Hot Air Balloon


Extracts from the journal of M. de Sorr, a literary man from Paris:

27 April 1854. Faffing about aimlessly, wondering how to celebrate tomorrow’s feast day of Saint Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort (1673-1716). As luck would have it I bumped into a vague acquaintance, M. Hardy, who said he was making a balloon ascent tomorrow, and would I care to join him? I replied that I would very much like to do so.

28 April 1854. I met with M. Hardy as arranged, in a field on the outskirts of Cannes. Beyond some palings, les vaches were mooing. We ignored them and clambered into the basket, or “car” of the balloon. Shortly afterwards, responding to a call from someone in the crowd of spectators who had gathered, the chap holding the ropes let them go, and we began our ascent. I noted that Hardy looked somewhat disconcerted, and asked him why.

“We have begun our ascent prematurely,” he replied, “The aeronaut who was meant to be with us had not yet clambered aboard. I myself am entirely ignorant of the management of a balloon. What about you, is that something you know of?”

“Not a sausage,” I replied, as we rose through the clouds. Below, the earth disappeared from view.

It seemed we were in a proper pickle. But an aeronautical pickle did not quite explain the expression on M. Hardy’s countenance, where disconcertment had now been replaced by abject terror. Deploying the interrogation techniques I had learned as chef d’interrogateurs for the French postal service, I questioned him closely. Hardy turned out to be a Muggletonian, and as such, he believed that when we got six miles up we would crash into the sky. I shook him by the lapels and slapped him round the chops in an attempt to knock some sense into him. He curled up in a pitiable ball on the floor of the basket, weeping.

Considering him a hopeless case, I busied myself by making an inventory of the basket. There was a hand-held rudder, a fan, a packet of biscuits, five bottles of champagne, a barometer, and an illustrated album of bird engravings. The air was growing thinner as we continued our ascent. I said a prayer asking Saint Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort to intercede on our behalf, and then took a refreshing nap.

When I awoke, we were much much higher, and Hardy was no longer curled up on the floor. He was standing, leaning against the side of the basket, gazing out at the boundless firmament. I snapped my fingers in front of his face – foof-la! – but got no response. Instantly, I realised that he had suffered a complete mental collapse. We must have passed the six mile mark, I reasoned, and not crashed into a solid sky, thus utterly destroying the Muggletonian concept of the cosmos. Hardy’s brain had lost its moorings, and he could not comprehend the inexplicable new world he had entered.

Luckily for both of us, I could. I cracked open a bottle of champagne.

“Onwards to the moon!” I cried.

29 April 1854. Hardy seemed a little more composed today. I have been running through some of his theological difficulties with him, and giving him the opportunity to use my rosary beads. I explained that the Mariolatry of Saint Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort knocks Muggletonianism into a cocked hat. The air around us is thinner still, and no longer blue but black, and shimmering with stars. To my surprise, there are still one or two birds flitting around, though not ones I recognise, nor are they depicted in the album of engravings. Indeed, the only reason I call them birds is because they have wings. Come to think of it, they may be some form of high-flying insect. Hardy suggests they are angels. He may be right. There is one bottle of champagne left, and a couple of biscuits.

30 April 1854. As I suspected, we are heading straight for the moon. After two days of continuous ascent, it is a curious feeling to be descending. Hardy has made a grand recovery, though he will not let go of the rosary beads and thumped me on the windpipe when I foolishly attempted to retrieve them from his grasp. When I was able to speak again, I told him to prepare himself for our moon landing.

“Hold on to your hat!” I cried.

Ten minutes later, we settled gently on the lunar surface. It was all very exciting. We both peered into the distance, and were surprised to see a little trail of dust-clouds heading towards us. On closer inspection, we saw the billows of dust were caused by the footsteps of a man – or, we supposed, an angel, or a moon-being. But no, it was a man after all.

“What are you doing here?” he said, as he reached the basket. His accent was American. He was rather diminutive and weedy, with a little moustache and a haunted look in his eyes.

“Greetings good fellow,” I said, “I am M. de Sorr, a literary man from Paris, and this is my vague acquaintance M. Hardy, a Muggletonian recently converted to Roman Catholicism, who has developed a fanatical devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. As you can see, we arrived here by hot air balloon.”

“As did I,” said the American, “Five years ago. And I too am a literary man. I am also neurasthenic, and I do not wish to teeter over the edge into full-blown insanity by having to deal with you two. Please leave me alone.”

“You are a prickly little fellow to be sure,” I said.

“Prickly I may be, but at least when I have written of ascents by hot air balloon to the moon, and similar tales of unlikely adventure, I have taken care to be as scientifically accurate as the present state of knowledge makes possible. You strike me, if I may say so, as the kind of literary gentleman who takes no such care with your narrative. Even if you disguise it as a factual journal of events, it would not surprise me if you roundly ignore all claims of credibility.”

“I fear you are correct, sir,” I said, “And M. Hardy and I will leave you to your own devices. We shall once more ascend in our hot air balloon, though we are both entirely ignorant of its management, and go forth, wherever it takes us.”

As an afterthought, I offered him our remaining bottle of champagne as a parting gift.

“No thank you,” he said, “One drop of the hard stuff and I stagger around as if in the advanced stages of inebriation. It won me a rather unseemly reputation by the time I left the planet Earth in 1849.”

“Well, good luck to you, sir,” I said. And Hardy and I ascended once more, bound for who knows where?

Whither Hardy And De Sorr?

Many thanks to Futility Closet for this clipping from The Times, 9 May 1854:

An accident, the consequences of which are expected to be fatal, took place at Cannes on Sunday last. A M. Despleschin, of Nice, had announced his intention of making an ascent in a balloon, and two gentlemen, M. Hardy, of Cannes, and M.A. de Sorr, a literary man from Paris, had made arrangements to accompany him. These two gentlemen had taken their seats in the car, M. Despleschin not having yet entered it, when some person in the crowd, anxious to see the balloon start, cried out ‘Let go.’ The man who held the ropes, thinking that the order had come from the aeronaut, obeyed, and the balloon rose rapidly into the clouds, and disappeared. M. Hardy and M. de Sorr are both entirely ignorant of the management of a balloon, and it is feared that they have been carried out to sea. Up to the 2d. no intelligence had been received of them.

On Ford Madox

Detective Captain Ford Madox Unstrebnodtalb was not related either to the writer Ford Madox Ford (1873-1939) nor to his grandfather, the painter Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893). Ford Madox Ford was born Ford Hermann Hueffer, went by the name Ford Madox Hueffer, and in 1919, decided to ditch the Hueffer because, in the aftermath of the Great War, it sounded too German. Casting around for a new surname, he did not look far, and simply repeated the Ford. Similarly, there came a point when Ford Madox Unstrebnodtalb decided to get rid of the Unstrebnodtalb, allegedly because it sounded too foolish, and in choosing a replacement went for Madox, so he became known as Ford Madox Madox.

I have tried to discover if there are any notable persons named Madox Ford Madox or Madox Ford Ford, but so far without success. Nor have I found anybody called Ford Madox Green or Ford Madox Black or Ford Madox followed by any other colour on the spectrum. One will turn up eventually, of that I am sure.

As a Detective Captain with a clutch of exciting cases under his belt, Ford Madox Unstrebnodtalb had a vast amount of paperwork to do when he changed his name to Ford Madox Madox. He had to go back over all his old case files in the basements of several different police stations, crossing out Unstrebnodtalb and inserting Madox. This was in the days before Liquid Paper correction fluid had been invented by the mother of the Monkee Mike Nesmith, so the Detective Captain had to scratch out the Unstrebnodtalbs with a sharp pointy blade, without actually gashing a hole in the paper, and then gingerly write Madox in the resulting off-white space. How much easier the job would have been had Liquid Paper, or its rival, Tipp-Ex been invented!

Incidentally, there are those who claim Mike Nesmith’s mother invented Tipp-Ex, but that was a separate innovation devised by Wolfgang Dabisch in Germany. Dabisch was not related to any Monkee. Liquid Paper was invented in 1951, and Tipp-Ex in 1959. Quite what the difference between these two products is I have no idea, save that one is American and the other European. Nor do I know if Bette Nesmith Graham and Wolfgang Dabisch ever met, at some kind of correction fluid summit. Had they done so, it would certainly have been a clash of the titans. I must do further research on this particular point, and if I get nowhere, just make something up in lieu of facts.

Before leaving this absolutely fascinating topic and getting back to our main business of the day, which is Ford Madox Unstrebnodtalb aka Ford Madox Madox, it is worth noting that Dabisch is a splendid surname for an inventor of correction fluid, given that you sort of dab the stuff carefully on to the paper, or at least you used to, in the days when we used typewriters rather than these newfangled space age computers. Of course, some writers stick loyally to their typewriters, and some indeed even more loyally to pens and pencils. For all I know there may even be writers who still use goose quills. I have been tempted to do so myself, were it not that the logistics of creating a daily blog from scratchy goose quill manuscripts seems so fearfully complicated.

I apologise, by the way, for using the word “logistics”. It is one of those words much favoured by the kinds of people who like nothing more than to obfuscate and to make simple tasks sound complex. Coupled with “solutions” it is even more horrifying. Though I have to say if I saw a van passing with Ford Madox Logistics Solutions emblazoned on its side I would be very tempted to scribble down the telephone number or email address for future reference. One final logistics note: I have seen an advertising poster repeatedly in recent days inviting me to “Imagine the Olympic Games without logistics”. I have, and they were remarkably like the Olympic Games with logistics, but that is perhaps a failure of my imagination.

A few paragraphs ago we left Detective Captain Ford Madox Unstrebnodtalb, now Ford Madox Madox, in the basement of one among any number of police stations altering old case files, scratching out Unstrebnodtalb and inserting Madox. Now admittedly, this is not the most enticing of scenes. Even tiptop writers like frizzy-haired Jeanette Winterson and that equally frizzy-haired chap, what’s his name?, oh yes, Sebastian Faulks, would be hard-pressed to make something of it. Grunting detective, in basement, armed with sharp pointy thing, scratching away.

I suppose one could introduce a thrilling time-travel element, where a being from the future suddenly materialises behind the Detective Captain. Unstrebnodtalb / Madox spins around, a look of astonishment on his chops. The being from the future tells him to be not afeared, the way angels do in Bible stories, but then assures the Detective Captain he is not an angel.

“I am merely a being from the future,” he says, “1960, to be precise. And in that future which you must find as unimaginable as the Olympic Games without logistics, do you know what? We no longer need to scratch out writing with sharp pointy blades, for we have something called correction fluid! Look!”

And the being takes from one pocket a bottle of Liquid Paper, and from another pocket a bottle of Tipp-Ex, and says:

“Not only do we have correction fluid, we have two different types. One is American, and it is called Liquid Paper, and the other is German, and called Tipp-Ex.”

Ford Madox Unstrebnodtalb aka Madox is goggle-eyed. He reaches out his hands to take one, or both, of the bottles. But the being pops them back into his pockets and slaps the Detective Captain’s hands away.

“Sorry, but I cannot let you use them. Were you to do so, an anomaly would be created in the space-time continuum that could have cataclysmic world-shuddering effects on the very fabric of the universe!”

And with that, he dematerialises, leaving the Detective Captain once again alone in the basement of a shabby provincial police station.

Beat that, Winterson and Faulks, with your frizzy hair and Oxbridge backgrounds and publishing contracts!

And Mr Key softly and suddenly vanishes away, in search of a bottle of ink and a goose quill . . .

On This Day

On this day, eight long years ago, I asked some questions about Gilead:

Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Is the chemist’s shop shut? Has the clinic been boarded up? Why does the Ambulance of Gilead sit rusted in a locked and bolted garage, its siren broken and its tyres punctured flat? What happened to all that balm anyway? Was it stolen by a ruthless gang of aromatic resin smugglers? Did the gang abduct the physician as part of the plan? Was the local television station prompted to show Celebrity Balm In Gilead Sniffer Dog Challenge? Did the massed bloodhounds and their permatanned owners fail to find even the merest trace of resin? Did the gang succeed in carting off all the balm in Gilead to their mountain lair? What are we to make of the conjecture in the press that the physician’s abduction was a piece of fakery and that he was the mastermind behind the plot? How long did it take for a hack on the Daily Shackle to dub the affair Balmingileadgate? Will there ever again be balm in Gilead? Who is the young whippersnapper who has arrived, announcing himself as the replacement physician? Is there something reproachful and oily about his manner? Why does he keep referring to the missing balm as “gumme” or “triacle”? Is he unable to spell “treacle”, or is he up to something? Why does he refuse to divulge the recipe for the bandage paste he uses? Is he in league with his predecessor, and with his predecessor’s alleged gang? Is there any connection between the fact that the new oily physician has put posters up all over the place promising to rid the populace of “evil humours” and that “malign bile ad” is an anagram of “balm in Gilead”? What on earth is that stuff the new physician smears on his hair? Must it pong so offensively? Has he no shame? If you know the answers to any of these questions, or can assist the Gilead medical authorities in any way, please write to the Balm In Gilead Appeal c/o Detective Captain Unstrebnodtalb.

As I say, eight years have passed since I posed those questions. Today I found myself wondering if Detective Captain Unstrebnodtalb had made any progress. Some of you may recall the Detective Captain from the part he played in what became known as the affair of the immense duckpond pamphlet. For those of you who do not recall, here is an account of his arrival upon the scene:

The next day all hell broke loose. Early in the morning, as Blodgett polished the outside spigots, an ogre or wild man hove into view atop the southern hills. Its progress towards the House was implacable. It stamped through the bracken, vaulted the ha-ha with a single bound, negotiated the massive basalt wall with surprising elegance, and sprang towards the terrified Blodgett, whirling its hirsute arms alarmingly and making disgusting guttural noises. It was matted with filth. Flies, gnats, and tiny things emitting poisonous goo crawled all over its flesh. It seemed to be decomposing. It drooled. It picked up Blodgett, sank its fangs into his skull, and hurled him aside.

Pausing momentarily to spit out particles of Blodgett’s head, it smashed its way through the wall of the House, oblivious to the fact that there was an ajar door three feet to its right. Once inside the House, its rage seemed to increase. It rushed wildly from room to room, obliterating the furniture, tearing up floorboards, destroying chandeliers, bashing holes into walls and ceilings, sucking the wallpaper off the walls. It chewed up banister rails and regurgitated them, disgorging them with such force that each rail acted as a lethal projectile. At least one urchin was impaled as a result. Five minutes after the ogre’s arrival much of the lower part of the House lay in ruins. Small fires were starting, but they were doused by water spurting from uprooted taps.

Euwige and Jubble were still sprawled in the Room of Distressed Wooden Bitterns when the ogre eventually came upon them. It let out an inhuman cry. It picked at its sores. It became becalmed. Fixing it with a bemused stare, Jubble rose to his feet.

“You know, there might still be some dandelion and burdock left,” he said, “Would you care for a drop?”

The ogre pounded its fists against its own head. Then it blinked, shuddered, twitched. Jubble pushed a tin mug into its paw. It gulped the sweet muck down greedily, then threw the mug back at Jubble, missing his ear by a whisker, as they say. Something in its manner seemed to change. By now, blind Euwige too was on her feet. She sniffed at the violent pongs emanating from the ogre, then stepped towards it.

“Thank heaven! You have come!” she said, “Jubble, meet my dear friend Detective Captain Unstrebnodtalb! He comes from a far country, and his brain is hot.”

I knew that these days Unstrebnodtalb was based in some sort of new-fangled police kiosk perched on a promontory overlooking the wild and broiling sea. I caught a bus and then trudged the last mile or two until I was in sight of the kiosk. The Detective Captain was sitting in a deckchair outside, staring at the sea, a bit like King Canute but high on a promontory rather than down on the beach, and thus not in any danger of being o’erswept by the briny. As I approached, I hailed him.

“Any news on that balm in Gilead business?” I asked, getting straight to the point. Then I saw that he was weeping.

“Have you ever read The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford?” he asked, in his grunty way.

“Yes, I have,” I said.

“Then you will know it begins with the line ‘This is the saddest story I have ever heard’. Well, that may be true for Ford Madox Ford, but not for me, Detective Captain Ford Madox Unstrebnodtalb, for I have heard a story even sadder.”

“I didn’t know your first names were Ford and Madox,” I said.

He waved a paw at me.

“In pursuing the case of the missing balm in Gilead I have been driven to ruination and despair and sitting on a deckchair next to a new-fangled police kiosk perched on a promontory staring at the sea and weeping, because it is all so very, very sad,” he said.

“Yes, but have you answered any of the questions?” I asked, mercilessly.

“Come back in another eight years and ask me again,” he said, “And now leave me to weep.”

A gull swooped in to scavenge breadcrusts from the kiosk roof. I turned and trudged back to the bus stop. Instead of going home, I stayed on the bus as far as Gilead. There was still no balm.

On Light Pouring Out

Magazine’s 1978 song “The Light Pours Out Of Me” is a splendid example of a lyric in which the singer claims to have light pouring out of him. A couple of others that spring to mind are “See Me Emit A Remarkable Effulgence” by Periodical, and Gazetteer’s “I Bear A Striking Resemblance To A Switched On Incandescent Lightbulb”. Neither of these had the success of Magazine’s foray into the genre, perhaps with good reason.

By any measure, Magazine’s song is both musically and lyrically superior. Those of us who have calculated the Blötzmann units (Second Handbook, Lavender Series) arrive at 14.76 for Magazine, 8.35 for Periodical, and a lamentable 2.06 for Gazetteer. It is important to stress that Blötzmann’s is an exact science, so there is no room for manoeuvre.

In interviews, Periodical’s singer and lyricist Hereward Scrimgeour has always insisted that “See Me Emit A Remarkable Effulgence” paints a far more vivid picture of light pouring out of himself than Howard Devoto’s effort. But the Blötzmann units do not lie, and one listen to the song after all these years serves to remind us why it was roundly ignored. The music is very plinky-plonky. This is not always a bad thing, of course, and some plinky-plonky records have been chart hits, or at the very least acceptable filler as album tracks. That said, plinky-plonkiness is a difficult art to master, as Dobson proved conclusively in his majestic pamphlet The Difficulty Of Mastering The Art Of Plinky-Plonky Musical Composition, With A Mezzotint Of Chas ‘n’ Dave (out of print). Dobson argues that the balance of plinks and plonks is critical, and it is this balance, I think, or the lack of it, that undermines the Periodical piece. At times it is all plinky, at others all plonky, and the plinks and plonks never seem to coalesce into plinky-plonkiness proper.

Challenged on this score in a notorious interview by Russell Harty, Hereward Scrimgeour babbled some bollocks about Ravel, Buxtehude, and Scriabin before bursting into tears, tearing the microphone from his lapel, running out of the studio, and flinging himself into a canal, from which he was rescued by screaming teenagers who had been encamped outside the television studio, mistaking the Periodical front man for Gilbert O’Sullivan, to whom he bore a passing resemblance from a certain angle in a certain light on certain days of the week.

It is not just the flawed plinky-plonkiness of the music, however, but the lyrics too, which fail to match up to Magazine’s song. Fatally, Scrimgeour seems to have taken as his guide that “See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me” twaddle from The Who’s Tommy. Indeed, when first he caterwauls the words “See me …”, and pauses, we are startled to think we are listening to Roger Daltrey himself. Scrimgeour then tries to jam the words “emit a remarkable effulgence” into the exact same melody as Daltrey’s “feel me, touch me”. Try it yourself and you will appreciate that only a madcap could ever think it would be something teenyboppers would want to hear more than once. With the plinks and plonks accompanying the words, it really is the most godawful racket.

Well, perhaps not the most. That accolade, if accolade it is, must be reserved for Gazetteer’s “I Bear A Striking Resemblance To A Switched On Incandescent Lightbulb”. The title suggests a novelty record, or one of those disarmingly naïve amateurish postpunk ditties which used to amuse us all those years ago. In fact, it is the most godawful racket, and determinedly so, a twenty-minute barrage of improvised din produced by amplified cheese-graters, coathangers, bags of cement, hammers and nails and screwdrivers and funnels and hooters and the Lord knows what else. Accompanying this cacophony, Gazetteer’s singer and lyricist Harold Stalin alternately shrieks, whispers, declaims and mutters a rhyme so foolish it beggars belief. I will not try your patience by reproducing the whole thing, but here is a sample:

I bear a striking resemblance to a switched on incandescent lightbulb, yeah?
My lightbulb-shaped head is entirely bald because this morning I shaved off all my hair.
I might do the whole thing again later.
Take it away, amplified cheese-grater!


Harold Stalin took his amplified cheese-grater with him when he made an appearance on Russell Harty Plus, a week after Hereward Scrimgeour had fled the studio. A more convincing interviewee than the Periodical singer, Stalin charmed Harty with a series of verbal sallies that seemed incongruous coming from the mouth of such an idiotic lyricist. He demonstrated wit, verve, erudition, and a kind of gumption, all in the space of five minutes. Harty was so bowled over he asked if he could have a go with the cheese-grater. Fiddling about with the attached wiring just before passing it to the chatshow host, Harold Stalin got his sockets mixed up and managed to electrocute himself. He survived the accident, but was never quite the same. He certainly lost his wit, verve, erudition and kind of gumption. He disbanded Gazetteer and formed a new group, adopting a new pseudonym, and went on to huge international success followed by lute-playing. As far as I am aware he still goes under the same name, which I think is “String”, or something like that.

There are several other songs in which the singer claims to have light pouring out of him, but they are quite difficult to track down. Dobson wrote a pamphlet about his own, tireless, efforts to do so, to which he gave the title Lead, Kindly Light, To Bald Men Wearing Specs (out of print). If ever you stumble upon a copy in a secondhand pamphlet shop, be very very careful. Marigold Chew devised a special cover which, when opened, reveals a blinding incandescent light not unlike that which shines forth from the mysterious case in Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, 1955), starring Ralph Meeker and Cloris Leachman.


The Deutschland Unwrecked

An eerie photograph arrives in the post from Salim Fadhley


If you click to enlarge, you will see clearly that the name of this big ship is the Deutschland. Yet as we know, because Father Gerard Manley Hopkins SJ told us, the Deutschland was wrecked off the Kentish Knock on the morning of the seventh of December 1875. Five nuns were drowned! So could this be a ghost ship? And if we peer very very intently at the photo, can we see, there on deck, the Tall Nun? It is all very mysterious.

On The Nincompoops’ Bazaar

Summer is here, and with it comes the annual Pointy Town Nincompoops’ Bazaar. This year, as ever, the Nincompoops’ Bazaar will be held in a particularly pointy part of Pointy Town. Preparations are well in hand, and several nincompoops have already laid out their stalls.

This year, among the bargains available to punters will be antimony, breadcrumbs, curd, digestive biscuits, egg tapestries, frozen milk, galoshes, hats, ink, joggers’ funnels, kaolin, lemon meringue pie, mother’s wreckage, narthex rubbings, obsidian cat helmets, preening equipment, quicklime, rusty pins, sausages, talc, urban pointy things, vulgar snoods, wax, xylophones, yeast bags, and zookeepers’ cushions.

In the Kathy Kirby Memorial Tent we are promised Quetzalcoatl puppets, wind chimes, earmuffs, ratcatchers’ trousers, tin, yoghourt, uncooked pork, instant mashed potato, offal, portable anvils, anchors, sock hoists, damp cloth, fierce wild beasts, glue, hornets, jam, kevlar dog helmets, limestone, zookeepers’ pin-cushions, x-rayed innards, custard, vinkensport scorecards, bait, noodles, and marzipan. There will be a flag atop the tent, and a Tannoy belting out nincompoopised versions of the instrumental bits from Kathy Kirby’s chart-toppers, played on the glockenspiel.

A map of the site should soon be available, done in crayon and pencil by orphans from Pang Hill Orphanage. The light is dim in the Orphanage cellar, and the orphans are somewhat cack-handed, so the map may not actually be very helpful. As an alternative, visitors can be guided around the bazaar by a goat on the end of a chain. There is only one goat, so expect lengthy queues. The goat is an authentic nincompoop’s Toggenburg, with three natural legs and one made of wood. The wooden leg has been given a slap of bright yellow paint to aid visibility in the more tenebrous areas of this pointy part of Pointy Town, where the enormous pointy bits block out the sunlight with pointy black shadows.

In the lee of these shadows are several specialist stalls offering mole nets, nasal sprays, blood oranges, vapour, Chumpot patent soap, xysters for bone-scraping, zookeepers’ pin-cushion holders, lettuce, kedgeree, jumping fleas, helicopter pilots’ insignia, grease, froth, desk tidies, string, asbestos, potato novelties, orpiment, isinglass, unhelpful maps, yachting caps, trick propelling pencils, rotogravures, embossed badger badges, will-o-the-wisps, and quince jelly.

Following certain unspeakable tragedies that occurred at last year’s Nincompoops’ Bazaar, the organisers are at pains to point out that no nincompoops will be armed to the teeth this time around. Of course they should not have been allowed to bring all those pointy sticks and poison-tipped pointy lances and pointy swords. Signpost chaos meant they mistook the Nincompoops’ Bazaar for the Nincompoops’ Jamboree, which was unfortunately scheduled to take place at the same time, and not that far away, but in a marginally less pointy part of Pointy Town. That both the Bazaar and the Jamboree had a Kathy Kirby Memorial Tent only added to the confusion, and the bloodshed.

Just in case anything untoward does take place this year, there will be an ambulance on site, with a crate of bandages and various gooey substances. The ambulance will be stationed next to, or near, or at least in the general vicinity of the inky-black fathomless pond teeming with blind slithering horrors, next to the swings. For the duration of the Nincompoops’ Bazaar the swings will be chained up and electrified, to discourage tinies from frolicking upon them. We do not want any swings-and-pond mishaps, after all.

If you are crawling towards where you think the ambulance is, pierced with pointy arrows like St Sebastian and rapidly losing both blood and the will to live, but cannot find the ambulance, listen out for the klaxon. The klaxoneer’s podium is among the stalls selling zookeepers’ pin-cushion holder’s padlocks, yapping dogs, x-box wiring, weird coathangers, vouchers for dough, ungodly cravats, turps, siphons, rubber Beelzebubs, quartered pigs, pips, orreries, nothing, muck, lumps, klaxons, jugs, impenetrabilia, horrid squashed things, glove compartment tat, flimflam, earwiggery, dust, creosote, buzzy bees, and aniseed.

Just a reminder that you do not need to be a nincompoop to come to the Nincompoops’ Bazaar. For a small fee you can be made an honorary nincompoop for the day, with a pointy cap and a badge and some embroidered emblems and your arm in a plaster cast and a small sluicing procedure to your brain through a trepanned vent, the trepanning carried out by a qualified nincompoop with a hand-held iron pointy twisty boring and screwing contraption daubed in a gooey substance and wiped clean with a rag between screwings. For directions to the Julie Felix Folk Singing ‘n’ Trepanning Tent, follow the pointy arrows in the flowerbeds, planted with lupins and phlox and bindweed and buddleia.

One small note about the werewolves patrolling the site, fangs bared, howling. Remember that these are nincompoop werewolves, and are generally harmless. They will cease stalking you if you toss them a bucketful of liver and lights and other innards from something freshly slaughtered. Even the innards of a goldfish or a newt will do. It also helps to pat the werewolves on the head, as if you are not terrified of them, and make gurgly cooing noises.

Tickets for the Nincompoops’ Bazaar are available from a number of pointy kiosks in Pointy Town, and further afield, in unpointy places which aspire to pointiness. You will require several forms of identification in order to purchase tickets. These include a bus pass, a three-dimensional computer-generated hologram of your head, a fistful of your hair torn out at the roots, nail clippings, voice-recognition tape-recordings made on a clapped-out old cassette player, a letter from your priest, your dental records, a recent utility bill, and a replacement bus pass for replacement bus services.

The Nincompoops’ Bazaar really is a spectacular day out for the whole family, including the dribbling and incontinent ones, and those with criminal records. Take your protein pills and put your helmet on, and we hope to see you there!

News Of Goats

Many thanks to Glyn Webster for alerting me to this exciting headline:

Fears for goat-man in Utah wild herd

I cannot help wondering if the fellow togged up as a goat might be related to the goat-boy in that favourite children’s rhyme, which I am sure all Hooting Yard readers have by heart:

Incey-wincey goat-boy, creature of two realms.
We can see you darting in between the elms.
Half of you is human, the other half’s a goat.
Incey-wincey goat-boy, drowning in a moat.