On A Museum Piece

Today we don a stout pair of boots and lace them up with due care, having first threaded through the holes strengthened bootlaces of tough material, sisal perhaps. We have not stinted. The aglets, one at each end of each bootlace, are made of iron, forged in a white hot furnace and beaten into shape with a mighty hammer by our favourite blacksmith at his anvil. Remember that hammer.

Boots donned, we step out of the chalet door. The air is cold and clean and bracing. This is Alpine air, of the kind recommended to those who would lie shattered upon balconies. Today, we are anything but shattered. We have had no need to move our mattress on to our chalet balcony. We pull our hat of leather and wool, with its attendant earflaps, more snugly about our head. We light our pipe and puff the acrid Montenegrin tobacco. We gaze up at the summit of a nearby Alp, then scan our eyes a little further down, to where, perched somehow on the slope of the mountain, stands a Schloss.

Later, we shall climb up to the Schloss, and enter its majestic carved wooden portal, the height of twenty men. But first we must descend to the village below, Ack-on-the-Vug, or Vug-on-the-Ack, I can never remember which. It is the kind of village where, at dusk, packs of peasants brandishing pitchforks and tarry burning torches roam the streets, a vigilante force ready to confront werewolves, Golems, mad kings, and similar horrors. Imaginary the horrors may be, but these are violent and ignorant peasants. In glorious morning daylight, they are more tractable, and thus we may prance into the village without fear of harm.

We stop to purchase a pastry from a pie-and-pastry man plying his wares from a cart. There is icing on the pastry and, within, a mash of pulped unidentifiable fruit. We sit on a cold stone slab in the village square and munch the pastry, gathering crumbs on the greaseproof paper bag in which it was sold to us, the bag spread flat on our lap to serve as a napkin. When our munching is done, we scatter the crumbs in an elegant sweeping motion, as food for birds, and then we crumple the bag and toss it into a waste bin. Today there are no birds. Peasants will fall upon the crumbs when our back is turned.

Turned it is, towards a kiosk. The kiosk has a hatch at head height through which, in the interior gloom, can be seen the gaunt and loathsome figure of the couponeer. He is either wall-eyed or pop-eyed. At this late date we can no longer recall which, just as we can no longer recall the name of the village nor of the river, nor of the Alp on which the Schloss was built. The day of which we speak was so long ago, in the last century. The couponeer must be dead by now, and if ever we return to the village we will dance a hoocha upon his grave. He was not a pleasant fellow.

Not pleasant, to be sure, but sadly necessary. We need our coupon, for without it the purpose of our venturing out of our chalet will be lost. Without it, we may as well have remained indoors, or at a pinch upon the balcony. Once out, we must confront the couponeer. He wears a copper cone upon his head, an affectation. We make purchase of our coupon with as few words as possible. The couponeer himself says nothing. Is he mute?

A donkey has been tied to a post some yards away from the kiosk. It wears a ragamuffin air, as donkeys sometimes do. We pat it on its flanks. Its owner, or rider, or master, or torturer, is nowhere to be seen. We are tempted to unloose it from its post and send it off, along the path beside the Vug, or the Ack, until perhaps it comes to a bridge to cross, and in crossing meets a new master, a kindly one, out this morning looking for a stray donkey to pamper. But we suppress the temptation and prance past. It was merely a dream of liberty, a fatuous illusion.

The coupon tucked for safety into one of innumerable pockets of our reindeer-hide anorak so apt for the Alpine climate, we begin to climb the lower slopes of the Alp. We no longer prance, on such a gradient, we trudge. Our sisal bootlaces hold firm. There will be no inelegant pratfalls. As the path becomes steeper, we pant, but still we puff our pipe, indomitable. The sun, still rising, is blinding, and we put on a pair of Guglielmo Boffo sunglasses. They were a gift from Maisie, poor, poor Maisie.

Shortly after midday, we arrive at the Schloss, flash our coupon at the sentry, and enter through the majestic carved wooden portal, the height of twenty men. The carvings are of werewolves, Golems, mad kings, and similar horrors. Long long ago, these were the last things a peasant saw as he was dragged in chains through the portal before being pitched into the Schloss’s oubliette. The oubliette is cemented over now, the cement covered by rugs. The Schloss is now, has been for fifty years, a museum.

We head directly for a gallery on the third floor. It is cold and vast and bare but for a glass case in the middle of the room and a sentry sat on a stool against one wall. The sentry is a cousin of the couponeer, a fellow with a goitre, as affable as his cousin is unpleasant. He murmurs a few polite words of greeting and welcome and hands us an information leaflet. Without looking at it, for we know why we are here, we step over to the glass case. And there it is, returned after theft, the Babinsky hammer. Babinsky was the huge lumbering walrus-moustached psychopath who committed numberless savage enormities. The hammer is the one he used to prosecute dozens upon dozens of those enormities.

We told you to remember the hammer. The man who stole it from and then returned it to the museum was our favourite blacksmith. He used it to hammer our aglets into shape on his anvil.

Initially Implausible

The first sighting of the Hooting Yard “Implausible” emblem, on the back of the cover of the Records Quarterly Magazine Volume 2 Number 3. The emblem in the bottom left corner tells us that the pictures were drawn by Mr Key on the third and fourth of October 1988. Click once (or possibly twice) for enormousness.


On The Great Frost

Over in his Inexplicable World yesterday, Outa_Spaceman conducted “an experiment in writing something using the first word I read after waking this morning”. Sacré bleu!, I thought, now that is a simple and efficacious way to solve the problem, which often besets me, of having to summon up from within the deep interior cranial nooks and crannies a topic each day to which I can devote a thousandish words.

Two questions may occur to you about my thinking process: (1) Does Mr Key habitually think in French oaths? (2) Why is his thinking so prolix?

I would like to address both those queries, though I fear that my response to (2) would in itself be prolix. I therefore intend to put it to one side, as a topic for a future essay on prolix thinking. Had I an in-tray, I would scribble the question on a sheet of paper and pop it into the tray, which I visualise as being constructed of wire. In the absence of such a tray, I shall merely shove the idea into one of those deep interior cranial nooks and crannies and pluck it out, as one would thine eye if it offended thee (Matthew 18:9) at an appropriate time.

As for (1), it is not the case that I habitually think in French oaths. I am to all intents and purposes a monoglot, regrettably, though like most people I have a little store of foreign words and phrases I am able to deploy when the fancy takes me. When my thought processes call for a foreign oath, it is probably more likely to be the Russian Боже мой. This is pronounced “bozhe moy”, and translates as “My God!”, for as you will know if you have been reading Hooting Yard assiduously, God in Russian is Bog, the root form of “bozhe”. And if you have not been reading Hooting Yard assiduously, then I am afraid all I can say is God – or Bog – help you.

Outa_Spaceman claims that the first word he encountered after he woke up yesterday was “opinionated”. Plenty of room for manoeuvre there, and had it been by some inexplicable Koestlerian coincidence the first word I had read today, I think I could quite easily have strung out a thousandish words, particularly if I considered truncations such as pinion and pin. Pinion would have allowed me to “go off on one” about birds, a topic upon which I can expatiate for umpteen thousands of words, as assiduous Hooting Yard readers will know (see above).

Unfortunately, however, the first word I read after waking this morning held less promise. While slurping coffee, I picked up the book I am currently reading – Saturnine by Rayner Heppenstall – opened it at the page where I had slipped my cardboard bookmark – bearing a photograph of St Alberto Hurtado SJ, Jesuit, Priest, Companion of God, Saint, Born 22 January 1901, Died 18 August 1952, Canonised 23 October 2005, given to me by Chris Weaver of Resonance104.4FM, who believes that I have a “thing” about Jesuits – and scanned my eyes down the right-hand page (p. 9) where I had left off reading yesterday. As is apparent, I have only just started reading this book, but I am enjoying it immensely. The Acknowledgements and Disclaimer alone (p. 5) made me laugh (though not out loud). Assiduous Hooting Yard readers (see above, see above) will I hope have shared that laughter as I fatally interrupted my reading to transcribe p. 5 yesterday evening. I say “fatally” as I barely returned to Saturnine, managing only pp. 7-9 (or most of 9) before I began to feel sleepy.

I think there are far too many parenthetical and subsidiary clauses in this essay. But I am not going to rewrite it. You will just have to cope as best you can.

So there I was, slurping coffee, shortly after 6.00 a.m., taking Outa_Spaceman as my guide, and I read “The”. Or rather “THE”, for the typesetting of the book (1943) renders the first line of each new section entirely in upper case. “THE”. And what was my project? To write “something using the first word I read after waking this morning”. A thousandish words on “THE”, then. Any prospect of finding, however tangentially, an ornithological angle and thus being able to spout effortlessly until the cows come home was cruelly blocked.

Now I am sure that if I put my mind to it, I probably could bash out a thousandish words on the definite article, and the fact that in Saturnine it was printed in capital letters would be of enormous help, in that I could prattle on about upper and lower case. Well, another time perhaps. For now I decided that On “THE” was a topic for my imaginary wire in-tray. Instead, I would resort to cheating. I read on:

THE GREAT FROST OF 1938 BEGAN ON DECEMBER 20TH, the date of my first visit to the Middlesex Hospital.

Much, much more promising than a mere “THE”. I could take as my topic either the Great Frost Of 1938 or, failing that, The Great Frost. The latter would allow me to write either about the Great Frost of 1683, or of 1709, or indeed of Great Frosts generally, with their attendant frost fairs. (If I wrote about frost fairs and frozen rivers I would no doubt be able to shoehorn in a paragraph or two about birds, river birds such as moorhens and kingfishers.) Alternatively, I could write about Robert Frost or David Frost, or both, tackling the thorny question of which more justly deserved the title of “The Great Frost”, were such a title to be bestowed, and were it to be limited to the poet or the television person, to the exclusion of any other Frosts you might care to name. In fact, such a vista of possibilities opened up before me that there was an ominous rumbling noise in the deep interior cranial nooks and crannies. I know from bitter experience that this betokens an overheated brain, so instead of writing a single word, I slammed Saturnine shut and wrapped a cold wet towel around my head and stared out of the window, at crows and starlings and sparrows and linnets and pipits and swifts and nuthatches and so an ad infinitum.

Acknowledgements And Disclaimer

Rayner Heppenstall’s 1943 novel Saturnine opens with the following “Acknowledgements And Disclaimer”:

Fragments of this narrative have appeared in Harper’s Bazaar, Kingdom Come, The New English Weekly and Partisan Review. It is fiction. Outside pp. 130-134, all the characters are imaginary, and no further reference is made to a living or recently deceased person except Messrs. L. N. Fowler of Ludgate Circus, Dr. Pearson of the Middlesex Hospital, the Grand Duke Cyril of Russia, Lifar, de Basil, Balanchine, Nijinsky, Legat and Diaghilev of the Russian ballet, Lawrence of Arabia and D. H. Lawrence, Duke Ellington, the late Canon H. R. L. Sheppard, Jessie Matthews and Sonnie Hale, Isobel Baillie and Anna Wickham, Lady Astor, Henry Moore and Ben Nicholson, Gabo, Miró and George Bernanos, Gordon Craig, Heifetz and Rudolf Steiner, a number of all-in wrestlers and Joe E. Brown, Clark Gable and the Chinese naval attaché, Marshal Pétain, M. Stalin and Mr. Winston Churchill, the late Mr. Neville Chamberlain, the Hangman and the reigning house of this realm.

On Mafeking

In yesterday’s piece on foopball I gave due credit for the (correct) spelling of that word to Geoffrey Willans, chronicler of St Custards. I was led, naturally, to think of his co-creator Ronald Searle, and to realise how educational Searle’s cartoons were in my formative years. I still have the copy of The Penguin Ronald Searle which was on my parents’ bookshelves when I was growing up, and which I pored over with delight over and over again – and still do. It was from Searle that I learned of the existence of certain great books (Gibbon’s Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire, Roget’s Thesaurus), grammatical terms (the gerund), and historical events (the Relief of Mafeking). He did not of course tell me anything about them, but it was clear to me that they were part of an inherited cultural knowledge, things I ought to know about, that I would learn about at school as I grew older. Alas, it was the 1960s, so by the time I might have expected my teachers to enlighten me, the rot had set in. With the exception of the Thesaurus, I do not recall hearing about any of them at my 1970s grammar school. What knowledge I did pick up came from the same source as the cartoons themselves – the bookshelves at home.

If things were beginning to fall apart by the 1970s, how much have they crumbled to collapse today? I doubt the words “the Relief of Mafeking” have been spoken in a state school for decades past. It was, after all, a magnificent example of British Pluck, a concept wholly alien in our brave new world. Now British Pluck may be laughable – and it is, it is – but at the very least the tinies ought to be told about it. For younger readers wondering what in heaven’s name I am talking about, here is a quotation which encapsulates something of the spirit:

We certainly have the habit of stepping off the kerb without looking round, but this is not so much from blank foolishness as from the feeling that the road belongs to foot sloggers as much as to any motorist; and if, as a consequence, we get it in the back we merely die asserting our right. That’s British.

To which one feels compelled to respond, on the contrary, it is blank foolishness. But it is also magnificent in its way. It should come as no surprise to learn that those words were written by Robert Baden-Powell, a man who appropriately shared his initials with British Pluck. And Baden-Powell was propelled to fame, before he created the Scout movement, by his role at Mafeking.

Why did an insignificant railway siding on the line between Bulawayo and Kimberley assume such talismanic importance? News of the Relief of Mafeking gave rise to such unbridled rejoicing back in Britain that a new word – mafficking – was coined to describe it. And as we have seen, decades later Ronald Searle could make it the basis of a cartoon knowing that his audience implicitly understood the reference. Briefly, what happened was that, under the command of Baden-Powell, British troops hunkered down at Mafeking to resist an expected Boer invasion of the Natal Colony and to draw Boer troops inland, away from the coast, thus making it safe to land further British troops. It was, in that sense, a pre-planned siege.

No one really expected it to succeed, given the comparative strength of the forces on either side. But the Boers reckoned without the sort of man who would breeze into the path of speeding motor vehicles just because he considered it the inviolable right of an Englishman to do so. Baden-Powell seemed to consider the whole thing as a boyish prank, and employed “joyous little dodges” to outwit the enemy,

transmitting mock orders through a megaphone, sowing sham minefields, climbing through imaginary barbed wire, casting grenades by fishing rod.

There were other, more substantial defensive methods, of course, but what may really have tipped the balance was his ability to keep morale and spirits high. In those far off days, there was an agreed ceasefire every Sunday, and the future Chief Scout used the opportunity to provide well-organised opportunities for entertainment and recreation:

There were Beleaguered Bachelors’ Balls and beautiful baby competitions, cricket matches and horticultural shows, bicycle races and tea parties, gymkhanas and fetes . . .On Guy Fawkes’ Day he mounted a firework display, first having warned the Boers not to be alarmed. At Christmas he presided over a dinner . . . He arranged polo fixtures on week-days – when occasional shells added to the game’s excitement.

No doubt Baden-Powell was inspired, in both his tactical and entertainment activities, by the memory of his early days in the 13th Hussars:

their favourite mess amusement . . . was to pile all the furniture into a heap and turn somersaults on top of it while proclaiming ‘I am a bounding Brother of the Bosphorus’. The height of comic sophistication reached by the Hussars was to twirl the chandeliers at mess balls and spray the dancers with hot candle wax . . . [Baden-Powell’s] favourite music hall ‘artistes’ were the trick cyclist, the ‘fellow with a spring necktie’, and the ‘champion smasher of plates’ .

As with his road sense, one is tempted to dismiss Baden-Powell as a blithering idiot. It is a sobering thought, however, that it is precisely such blithering idiots, of the same mould, who explored the world and built an empire. They had British Pluck, and it is something that may never be revived, but is certainly worth remembering.

Incidentally, well to remember too that among the troops who arrived to relieve Mafeking was Baden-Powell’s brother, who had the splendid name Baden Baden-Powell.

NB : The quotations above are all taken from Piers Brendon’s Eminent Edwardians (1979).

On Foopball

[Please note that I follow the Geoffrey Willans / St Custard’s spelling ‘foopball’ throughout, as part of my campaign to supplant the more common, yet erroneous, spelling of the word.]

Between the ages of about seven and fourteen, I had two overwhelming passions, foopball and nisbet spotting. I have written about the latter earlier, though it is a topic of abiding interest so I shall probably return to it from time to time. Foopball, it turned out, did not abide, in my case. I went from fanatical interest to caring not a jot seemingly overnight, though I suppose it must have been a more gradual process. Ever since, there have been occasional faint stirrings of the old enthusiasm, for example during World Cup tournaments, but it never holds my attention for long. And in thinking about it, I realise that foopball itself – foopball as foopball – was never the real focus of my youthful absorption.

I played, but ineptly – myopia tends to limit one’s abilities on the pitch. I went to a few live matches, but not many. I watched a lot of foopball on television, but then as now, I had no real appreciation of what I was looking at. The finer points always eluded me. Superb displays of skill, when they occasionally occur, are obvious and breathtaking, but the general run of games, twenty-two chaps darting about (if near the ball) or strolling around (if far from it) is enormously tedious. I never quite manage to comprehend the tactical blather of commentators and pundits, in terms of what I am seeing. What I was fanatical about, when young, was reading about it.

More precisely, I read the history. I was less interested in contemporary doings, match reports, transfer speculations, and whatnot, than I was in the past. One of my favourite players was Steve Bloomer, “the Daisycutter”, and he retired before the First World War. I pored over books and encyclopaedias and part-works, hoovering up and retaining an incredible amount of information. I have forgotten it all now, but at the time I could have recited a list of every league champion and every FA Cup winner, told you the scores of every FA Cup Final and every World Cup Final and every European Cup Final, and on and on ad nauseam. That this had anything at all to do with the brute reality of chaps kicking a ball around on grass was, I now understand, incidental. Had I taken it into my head to pursue any other subject – cricket, or stamp collecting, or ornithology – and pursued it with the same single-minded devotion, I would merely have stuffed my head with a different body of knowledge.

And I further realise that never, since, have I concentrated my mind so determinedly on one particular subject. In adulthood, it has been my way to flit from one thing to another, magpie like, with the result that I know a little about a lot, but could never consider myself an expert on anything. What if, today, I decided to immerse myself in a topic as deeply as I immersed myself in foopball all those years ago? I was certainly an expert then. Perhaps, with age, my brain has shrivelled, and would no longer be capable of the feats of concentration and memory which once came so easily.

The few memories I do retain from my foopball fanaticism are fragmentary. If pushed, I could still name every player in England’s World Cup winning side of 1966. Equally, I could list those who died and those who survived the 1958 Munich Air Disaster. That, incidentally, being the then recent past, I considered the signal event of the twentieth century. I mourned Duncan Edwards with soppy sentimentality.

I remember Puskas and Di Stefano. I remember Nat Lofthouse and Tom Finney. I remember a player named Derek Dooley whose career ended when he was badly injured and had his leg amputated, and the goalkeeper Bert Trautmann, who was also badly injured – a broken neck – but carried on playing in a cup final. I remember the “Matthews final” of 1953. Well, for all of the above I should say rather that I “remember” them, for they were all before my time, they were already in the past. Foopball was something that happened in grainy black and white.

There was history, and there were words. Foopball provided many instances to feed my fascination with words. Why were Real Madrid called Real Madrid? Was there an Unreal Madrid, or a Pretend Madrid? Later on, towards the end of my foopball days, as other areas of human activity began to impinge upon my consciousness, I wondered if there was a Surreal Madrid. Very likely, I thought, given that as far as I understood surrealism equalled Salvador Dali, and he was Spanish.

There was (probably still is) a Scottish team called Partick Thistle. I misread this at first as Patrick Thistle, but after realising my mistake I concocted the idea that the manager ought to be scouting the country for a promising young player called Patrick Thistle, just so he could sign him and make him team captain.

I devised a “dream team” of players whose surnames were also the names of birds – Partridge, Finch, Pratincole – and another of players who shared their names with my schoolteachers. And I recall at one point creating an alternative foopball league, of ninety-two teams whose names were anagrams of the ninety-two teams in the real league.

All the while I was thus happily occupied, every Saturday chaps were kicking a ball around on grass. But what did that matter to me? Oh, I thought it did. But it didn’t.

The Pulsating Joy Of Merrie England

A further snippet from Piers Brendon’s Eminent Edwardians (1979):

Elegant and well-born (“All our family go to Heaven”), Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence became treasurer of the WPSU. Like other Suffragettes she had previously been engaged in a bizarre form of Edwardian philanthropy, the endeavour to restore to the brutalized urban masses their lost sense of the pulsating joy of Merrie England by means of folk songs and Morris dances.

Is it too late to try this again?


On Musca Domestica

Dear Uncle Istvan,

Thank you for sending me a box of flies, Musca domestica. I am sad to report that most of them perished in transit. The few that survived are recuperating, and I have put them on a vitamin-enriched diet. I hope they will soon be hale and hearty enough to serve as proper objects of study as I cram for my forthcoming entomology examinations. The Institute needs new blood.

The dacha is very comfortable, and the surrounding woods are beautiful. The silver birches are silvery and birchy and the spruces have been spruced up by Old Oleg. You remember Old Oleg, the groundsman? Even though he now gets about on one leg and a stick, he still has a spring in his step. I do not know exactly what he did to the spruces to spruce them up, and of course if I asked him I would not understand his reply, for he still talks in that loveable barbaric clickety-clackety language with lots of spitting. I do not think he has washed his hair since the last time you were here, in the twilight years of the Tsar before last.

Thanks again for the flies. I will put the box they came in to good use.

Your loving nephew, Zoltan.


Dear Uncle Istvan,

It was extremely thoughtful of you to send me another box of flies, Musca domestica, but really not necessary. The survivors from the first batch are now almost fully recovered, their vitamin-enriched diet further enriched with anabolic steroids on the advice of Old Ma Kropotkin. You remember Old Ma Kropotkin, the housekeeper? She is now almost totally blind, but still as sharp as a button. It was she who suggested I punch a couple of holes in the box from the first batch of flies and loop a bootlace through them and wear it as a hat. I call it my dacha hat. I will have to ask her what to do with this new box!

Sadly, once again very few of the flies survived the rigours of their journey. I am going to write a stiff letter to the postal authorities. I have now been given the date of my examination, so I hope to be able to study the living flies, from both boxes, before then. Otherwise I shall have to rely on the rather blurred illustrations in the encyclopaedia, if I can find it. Are you sure it is at the dacha? The only book I have spotted is a guide to pursuing and shooting wolves from a helicopter.

The poplars and larches in the woods are looking as spruce as the spruces, thanks to Old Oleg. He is now getting about on two sticks, after a mishap the other day with a bear-trap.

Thanks again for the extra flies.

Your loving nephew, Zoltan.


Dear Uncle Istvan,

Thank you so much for the box of flies you sent. I think that is now three boxes! Unfortunately, this time every single fly was dead on arrival. Clearly my letter to the postal authorities failed to prompt the root and branch reform of Musca domestica package handling I hoped for. Not to worry, however, because the surviving flies from the first two boxes are thriving, to say the least. Old Ma Kropotkin added Strontium 90 to their vitamin- and anabolic steroid-enriched diet, and they have now grown to an unseemly size. And where before they were sunk in lassitude, their energy levels are terrifying.

Almost as terrifying as the energy levels of Old Oleg, who has been sprucing up the yews and sycamores in spite of the fact that he has lost the use of one of his arms. Last week he had a mishap with a chainsaw. Old Ma Kropotkin has been rubbing one of her mysterious unguents into his stump. Oh, by the way, she came up with a splendid use for the second box. It has been cut in half, and the two halves glued to my dacha hat, one on each side, to act as earflaps. I expect she will think of something to do with the third box!

Thanks again for the flies, Musca domestica, although you really need not go out of your way to send any more.

Your loving nephew, Zoltan.


Dear Uncle Istvan

Many thanks for sending me a fourth box of flies, Musca domestica. Thank God they were all dead! I implore you not to send any more. Luckily, just before Old Oleg’s latest mishap he still had the ability to wield hammer and nails and planks, and he kindly barricaded me into the pantry of the dacha. As he drove the last nail home I heard his loveable barbaric clickety-clackety language become a deranged and hideous screaming as he was beset by the flies. They are now enormous and frenzied and radioactive, pumped up by the vitamins and anabolic steroids and Strontium 90 Old Ma Kropotkin has been feeding them. The once beautiful dacha is now splattered with their noxious regurgitations. Old Ma Kropotkin herself has been feeding on the same diet and is half-housekeeper, half-fly, the blind queen of the swarm. Please send help as soon as you receive this letter. I do not know how sturdy the barricades are. I think the flies are massing for an attack. Oh God! They are breaking through! Under the flaps of my dacha hat my ears are assailed by their infernal buzzing! God hel


Darling Istvan

I found the enclosed scribble in the dacha pantry and thought it might be of interest. You will be pleased to note that everything went according to plan.

Passionately yours, Old Ma Kropotkin.

Volleyball, Tar & Shuddering

A couple of snaps of Volleyball, Tar & Shuddering, a 1989 work by Mr Key. It consists of a set of fifteen cards each bearing a colour illustration and a scribbled text (plus two endpapers, or, I suppose, endcards). I cannot recall how many copies were issued, but its rarity value is such that it can fetch as much as 35p at today’s prices.



On The Blindingly Obvious

At an advanced stage, the gunk is scraped off with a tallow-knife, collected in a pot, reduced by steaming and fed to seahorses. After several days the seahorses begin to display intricate and abnormal behaviour patterns. These patterns can be traced on graph paper with propelling-pencils and a ruler. Comparison with earlier graphs, done under a double blind test, have proved immensely illuminating. So lustrous, indeed, that copied out onto onion-skin paper and crumpled up, they can be inserted into glass bulbs and light a long corridor in a large building for upwards of four days. By the fourth day, they are dimming, there is a dying of the light, and sensitive persons mourn, as mourn they might.

Having disposed of the gunk as described, the main bulk is best fed through a sieve. The most effective sieve to use is one with so-called “Swedenborgian angel” holes. These are not generally available in the shops, but can be ordered direct by post from the manufacturers, thus keeping costs surprisingly low. You might want to purchase two or three at one time. The fragile nature of the sieve means that it will not, alas, survive much use. It is easily distressed, especially when you try to force stuff through the holes, as certain boisterous and reckless persons tend to do. If you have such a person on your team, it is a good idea to keep them away from the sieves by telling them to go and keep an eye on the seahorses.

Other pesky or exasperating team members can be usefully employed – and kept out of your hair – by laying the plumb line. This should consist of tent-pegs and butcher’s string and stretch as far as the eye can see. The line should ideally be at the height of an average hollyhock, the calculation being made by consulting the tables at the back of the Annual Hollyhock Height Register. A copy of this ought to be in your local reference library, but will usually not be available for borrowing, so a literate and numerate member of the team, with a valid library ticket, should be delegated to copy out the required details. They can use the back of the graph paper on which the behaviour patterns of the seahorses have earlier been inscribed in majestic sweeping lines and arcs of unsurpassed beauty.

Meanwhile, having fed the main bulk through the sieve into a bucket, the bucket can now be ferried to the platform. This should stand on sturdy props, the sturdier the better. Do not on any account use balsa wood. You are probably familiar with the case of Tarleton, and what transpired with his balsa wood props. If necessary, test the sturdiness using the standard tests of sturdiness which appear as Appendix VII in your pamphlet. Otherwise, proceed directly to the siphon and funnel palaver.

Siphon the stuff out of the bucket, working slowly and methodically and seamlessly. As it passes through the funnel, take snapshots at one-minute intervals from the designated angles. These need not be full colour snapshots, unless they have been explicitly specified in the contract. That is certainly an unusual clause nowadays, and if it does appear, it is worth checking. The contract might, after all, have been drawn up by a halfwit. Try to ensure that no seahorses are visible in the background of the snapshots.

The whole lot, save for the scraped-off gunk, should now have been transferred into beakers, without spillage. Align the beakers along the plumb-line. Once they are in place, and only when they are in place, attach the snap-on, snap-off lids. Using a thick bold black indelible marker pen, draw identifying symbols on the lids. For examples of apt symbols, see Appendix IX. Make sure each one is different. There is often a temptation to repeat the seahorse symbol because it is so fetching. Fight against this temptation with all your might, like Christ in the wilderness.

In case of rainfall, it will be necessary to cover both beakers and plumb-line with tarpaulin(s). The approved colour is an almost transparent light blue. Any other colour is likely to result in fewer points being awarded, without the right of appeal. Again, the case of Tarleton should give you pause if you are thinking of using black or yellow tarpaulin or, God forbid, a particularly opaque one. It was not amusing when Tarleton had to account for himself before the panel.

The seahorses’ tiny brains will by now be utterly ravaged. Scoop them from the tank with a standard angler’s net and deposit them on the slab. One by one, using a very sharp kitchen knife, remove the brain from each seahorse. If you feel pangs of pity in your soul you are pursuing the wrong hobby and would be better off taking up ping pong. Place the brains in a brown paper bag. Twist the top of the bag to seal it and then swing it around your head several times while ululating an incantation. It is important to note that this step is essentially meaningless, so you need not put a great deal of effort into it. But it is always a good idea to show willing. You do not know who is watching.

Holding the bag in your right hand, walk the length of the plumb line, pausing at each beaker. At each pause, gaze mournfully into the middle distance, your lips trembling. Some of the feathers in your headdress may fall to the ground. You should disregard them, while at the same time being very careful not to tread on them as you resume your walk towards the next beaker along the line. That is unless they are sparrow feathers, in which case you should pick them up and put them in your pocket. But that of course should go without saying, as it is blindingly obvious, if you have got this far.

[Extract from The Book Of Significant Tomfoolery by “The Master”.]

On Mephitic Vapours

Dobson had this to say about mephitic vapours:

I can date my fanatical interest in mephitic vapours quite precisely. There was an autumn during my childhood when my parents took to sending me, at the first hint of daylight, on a morning errand to fetch eggs from a distant farm. There had been a falling out with the nearby eggman, for reasons unclear to me. I was sent out of the room on the last occasion he called, and heard muffled, undecipherable shouting, some thumps, and the slamming of the door. The next day I was roused at dawn and told to put on my wellington boots and head off across the fields, following a hand-drawn map pressed into my hands by papa. The map showed our hovel and a dotted line, with compass points, a few notable features such as a badger sanctuary and a Blötzmann mast, and at the end of the dotted line an egg, representing the distant farm. I would have had to be a peculiarly dimwitted child not to be able to make my way there and back by mid-afternoon.

But what papa omitted from the map, deliberately or otherwise, was Loathsome Marsh. This I had to splash through, in my wellingtons, twice a day until, months later, there was a rapprochement with the eggman. In spite of its loathsomeness, I grew to love Loathsome Marsh. I was particularly fond of the mephitic vapours which hung over it, morning and afternoon, a shroud of evil mist in which I fancied sprites and goblins cavorting and cutting capers. The noxious pong did not bother me, for I soon learned to plug my nostrils with cotton wool.

Years later, I had the pleasure of meeting a mephitic vapour scientist who was making a special study of Loathsome Marsh. One day he took me back to his laboratory, where I spent a happy afternoon poring over his baffling array of instruments and equipment while he explained his project to me. He too, it seemed, was convinced that the mephitic vapours of Loathsome Marsh served to half-conceal various sprites and goblins. He was, he said, trying to “isolate” them. He would go down to the marsh at daybreak, as I had done all those years ago, and scan the mephitic vapours with a mephitic vapour scanner of his own design. He then captured a sample of the mephitic vapours in a glass holder, its vent plugged with a simple cork from a wine bottle, and brought it back to the laboratory for analysis. Thus far, he admitted, he had no conclusive results to report, but I could tell from the mad gleam in his eyes that the mephitic vapours of Loathsome Marsh had quite unhinged him, and that his life thereafter would be devoted to them.

I have not been able to trace the out of print pamphlet from which this passage is taken. It appears in an anthology entitled The Bumper Book Of Mephitic Vapours For Boys And Girls, the editrix of which, one Prudence Foxglove, provides no sources for any of the four hundred and thirty-seven texts she cobbled together. There is a distinct possibility that she may have written the whole thing herself and attributed the separate pieces to writers both real and invented. I cannot be bothered to check on the others, but alongside Dobson we have passages on mephitic vapours purportedly by Rudyard Kipling, Ford Madox Ford, Dorothy Parker, and Anthony Burgess. Certain other pieces are credited to unknown authors who are probably figments of Prudence Foxglove’s imagination, such as Tex Beard, Gladiolus Frugmentor, and Jeanette Winterson.

Maddeningly, however, the passage I have quoted above certainly reads like Dobson. I had it analysed by an expert in textual authentication methods at the University of Ick-on-the-Ack, who gave it a rating of 93% on his own scale. He did not explain the scale to me, but there was something very persuasive about the expression on his large flat florid face when he reported his findings. Against that, he ran off at inhuman speed as soon as I handed over the cash payment he demanded.

So the jury is still out. One avenue we might prance along is to attempt to identify the mephitic vapour scientist Dobson (or Prudence Foxglove) mentions. If we can find a trace of him elsewhere in the pamphleteer’s work, this would I think settle the matter. Fortunately, hothead young Dobsonist Ted Cack has embarked upon precisely this approach, so I don’t have to. From his current location in a sink of vice and debauchery somewhere in the hinterland of Tantarabim, Ted Cack writes:

Ahoy there Key! Let me tell you what I have on my desk right now. To my right, a pile of Dobson pamphlets, both originals and illegal photocopies. To my left, the sixteen volumes of the New Standard Biographical Dictionary Of Mephitic Vapour Scientists, Revised Edition. And do you know what I am doing? When I am not canoodling with floozies and glugging vast quantities of 90% Proof Bestial Intoxicant and cheating at all-night games of Spite, I have been diligently cross-referencing the two piles. Sooner or later I am going to be able to match up a name from the Dictionary with a person mentioned in a pamphlet. Then my fame among Dobsonists will be as glorious and eternal as the star on Raymond Roussel’s forehead. The rest of you may as well pack your bags and slink off to wherever pathetic failed Dobsonists slink off to – splashing about helplessly in Loathsome Marsh, most likely. Toodle pip!

If Ted Cack does succeed in his research, I might well go slinking off as he suggests. But in order to do so, I would have to know the location of Loathsome Marsh, and that, too, is a mystery.

Seagulls And Hats

Daily Mail bashers like to trot out the newspaper’s sympathetic line towards the Nazis in the run-up to the Second World War. It seems to me that this is now far too familiar a charge, and that if we are going to delve into history to find sticks with which to beat the paper, some fresh snippet is long overdue. I was pleased, therefore, to find this anecdote about Lord Northcliffe, the founder of the Daily Mail, in Piers Brendon’s Eminent Edwardians (1979):

The campaigner against the use of birds’ feathers to decorate women’s hats once wantonly struck down a seagull with his stick and beat it to death on the sand.

Incidentally, Northcliffe seems to have had a thing about hats. In 1910, he issued a directive to his editorial staff:

It is about time men had a new hat. Why not offer £100 for the best design for a new hat? There is at present only the silk hat, the pot-hat or bowler (what in America is called a Derby), the straw hat, the felt hat of various shapes (usually referred to as the Trilby – I do not know why) and the universal cap. A new-hat-for-men competition would be most amusing . . . Let reference be made to hat monotony.

Northcliffe would probably have been able to answer Peter Blegvad’s questions about hats.

News O’ Goats

It is increasingly apparent that the so-called “real world” edges closer to the even more real world of Hooting Yard with every passing day. On Thursday, I wrote about Ned Mossop, Cow Detective. Granted, this news item concerns goats rather than cows, but nevertheless it seems spookily like the kind of thing that might happen at Hooting Yard . . .


Thanks to Elberry for drawing the clipping to my attention

On The Inspector Of Nuisances

I went for a morning trudge around Nameless Pond and, having completed a circumnavigation, I sat on a bench for a breather. I lit a cigarette and contemplated the ducks. Foolishly, I had left my iDuck at home, so I had no idea whether I was contemplating teal or mergansers, or indeed quite other types of duck. After some minutes, I was joined on the bench by an ancient and withered gent whose approach I had not been aware of. He had an air of the shabby genteel about him, and milky eyes.

“Good morning,” he said, without looking at me.

“Hello,” I replied, hoping that would be the extent of our conversation. But no.

“I see you are contemplating the ducks on the pond,” he went on, “An activity to which I myself have devoted many hours over the years. Many, many hours over many, many years, for as you can see I am ancient and withered. I am almost as old as Methuselah. That is not a name you come across very often nowadays, is it?” He did not pause to allow a response. “In fact I cannot think of a single Methuselah I have ever met, and I have met an enormous number of people. I used to be quite a gadabout before the stiffness and withering slowed me down. I gadded hither and thither and met people from all walks of life, but never a Methuselah. Unless of course that is your name?”

“I’m afraid not,” I said, “I am Mr Key.”

“I am very pleased to meet you, Mr Key. I am Mr Creeke, C. C. Creeke. The funny thing is, my parents never divulged what the Cs stand for, and my birth certificate was rendered illegible in one of those overturned bleach bottle mishaps one occasionally reads about in the popular press. My father was a musician and my mother was a Marxist-Leninist, so I have long suspected that I was named after Cornelius Cardew, the composer of 10,000 Nails In The Coffin Of Imperialism, among other works, or possibly after Chris Cutler, the drummer and percussionist in Henry Cow and roughly six hundred and forty-five other bands and combos and one-off projects. Given my ancientness either may be chronologically dubious, as parental choices, but the world is a very mysterious place, Mr Key, as I am sure you have noticed.”

Again he continued to babble on without awaiting any kind of reply.

“In a world of such mystery and bafflement it is well to have at least one fixed point of clarity and order. I found it at Pang Hill Orphanage, where for many years I was retained as the Inspector of Nuisances. I see you are raising your eyebrows.”

I was not, and in any case he was still not looking at me.

“It surprises you to learn that any of the orphans at Pang Hill could ever have been deemed nuisances. When would they ever have had the time to be mischievous and pesky and scampish?, you wonder. Confined at night to their iron cots, and in the daytime huddled in the cellar labouring away by the dim light of a single Toc H lamp, betweentimes scoffing their gruel and having compulsory singsongs and prostrating themselves before strange voodoo idols and all the other activities of the orphanage day, they would surely have been too exhausted to be nuisances. So you think. But believe me, Mr Key, when I made my weekly visits, clanging my bell, there would be a parade of nuisances whom it was my duty to inspect. And inspect them I did, with magnifying lenses and calipers and measuring tape, and then I wrote my report for the beadle. What became of my reports I never knew, and never asked. I had other things on my plate.

“For Pang Hill Orphanage and its nuisances demanded my attention on only one day of the week. The rest of the time I was engaged on the first ever survey of Pointy Town. I surveyed as many of the pointy bits as a man could reasonably be expected to survey in one working lifetime. But whereas Pang Hill was a fixed point of clarity and order, Pointy Town was quite the opposite. Indeed, surveying all those pointy bits drove me crackers. There was no end to them, nor any sense to them, and it wore me down, slowly but surely. That is why I am now so withered. Oh, look! A pochard!”

And indeed, a pochard had come dabbling close to the bank of the pond, so close I could have leaned forward and grabbed it and wrung its neck, had I been so minded. But I have put my duck-strangling days behind me. It was always a foolish and unpleasant hobby.

While my attention was on the pochard, C. C. Creeke vanished. I cannot put it more plainly than that. Just as he had appeared on the bench without my noticing his advent, so he left it. I looked around, wildly, but there was no trace of him. I was baffled, but the world is indeed a very mysterious place.

It was time to go home. I got up and trudged on my way, and then I spotted, half hidden in the sordid undergrowth beside the pond, a plinth. Brushing the nettles aside, I read:


The foliage was too thickly entangled for me to discover what was atop the plinth. And when I returned, the next day, armed with a pair of secateurs, I was unable to find it again. I searched and searched, but eventually I gave up, and sat on the bench, and smoked, and contemplated the ducks.

[Thanks to Outa_Spaceman for the snap,]